Friday, September 11, 2015

Teaching Before/After Trying?

I have a habit of giving low stakes assignments in many of my courses, assignments where, for example, students write 10 journals over the course of the semester, and together the journals count for 10 or 15 percent of the final grade, so that each journal is about 1-2 percent of the final grade.

This year, in my lit courses, I've been very consciously spending a day modeling and discussing how to do these sorts of assignments successfully.

But I realized today that in my intro to writing course, I tend to ask students to try something out for their journal before we have an in depth discussion of that thing.  (These aren't really difficult things, but not easy for first year students, either.)

So, for example, if I ask them to write a journal in which they summarize an article, that journal will be due the day we discuss the article in class.  And that day, we're also likely to work on building  summarizing skills further.  (There are maybe four journals on summarizing, as we work on developing their skills for the bigger assignment.)

I'm not sure I'm happy with the way I arranged these first journals.  Maybe I should have had at least the discussion of summary before they had to start trying to summarize?

On the other hand, teaching summary is hard because until they've tried to summarize some more difficult arguments, they think it's easy-peasy, and some of them really tune out in class.  But once they try their hand at it, then I think they're more attentive because they've begun to realize that it really is hard.

I'm conflicted.  I don't want to expect them to know how to do stuff that I'm not yet teaching them, but I do want them to have tried stuff so they know it's important and actually difficult.

I guess the equivalent would be having math students do some type of homework exercise (to turn in) after reading about that sort of math problem, but before discussing the type of math problem in class.  (Yes, they could go to the math help center or writing help center, but they don't, at least not this early in the semester.)


  1. In science I tell students that they don't really begin to understand the material until the second time they encounter it. Coming to class, reading the book, and doing homework are all possible ways. Usually I cover material in class before the homework but once in a while I make them do homework first because then what I cover in class makes more sense to them and they are more ready to learn and understand what they are learning. I don't think it is bad as long as it isn't for every assignment.

  2. Dana, that's a good point. Not for bigger assignments, for sure.

    But I think a lot of folks who assign essays or research papers have had a practice of assigning them thinking that students know what they're asked for, and students don't always.