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Reading Reflections as a Teaching Technique

April 30, 2014 9 comments

A student once said to me, “I LOVE the reading for your class!  I wish I had time to do more of it!”  He was taking my graduate class, Design of Online Communities. Probing a bit more, I learned that since my class didn’t have a final exam, he often simply was unable to make time to do the reading.   This was March 1999, the second time the course had been offered.  From then on, I gave a final exam. 

I rarely if ever had to take final exams when I was in grad school. In a course with a huge project, giving a final exam seems like overkill.  But I understood the student’s point of view–students are busy, and obligations drive their time allocation decisions.  So I started giving an exam. But having a final exam didn’t really solve the problem–students still often came to class not having done the reading, and then caught up on it all before the exam.  I want students to come to class having done the reading and thought about it, so we can have a real discussion about it.

I kept having a final until 2012 when Betsy DiSalvo gave me a better idea–having students write a one-to-two page reading reflection before class. The reflections are a substantial part of their grade–25% or more.  However, they are allowed to skip two or three reflections over the course of the term and still get full credit.  And it works: students come to class prepared! 

The Details: Grading

After using this technique for a few years, I’ve changed a few details that I think are important.  Until this term, I’ve been grading reflections on a check minus/check/check plus scale, where everyone should expect to get a check most of the time. A check means, “you satisfied the assignment.” A plus means “you impressed me.”  A minus means I’m not entirely convinced you did the reading or thought about it clearly.  I was giving 2 points for a check, 1 for a minus, and 3 for a plus.

Last term one comment I got on my course evaluation was, “I’m not sure what it takes to get a plus.”  And I think that’s a fair point.  So this term I experimented with simply using a scale of check (full credit) or minus (less than full credit).  I might some time still give someone a plus, but I’m not going to advertise that fact.  That’s more in the spirit of how I grade them–a plus is “oh wow,” and unusual.

This term I also changed the grading scale. Now a check is 5 points, and a minus is something less than 5 depending on how bad it was.  1/2/3 was too extreme. The new scale works better. 

Reflections Versus Critiques

The instructions for what you are asking students to do matter. Is this a “reflection,” which implies your thoughts on the reading and how it relates to your work? Or is it a “critique” of the reading?  I’m undecided on this front. I was taught in grad school to not waste too much time criticizing readings.  You can shred anything.  It’s important to be aware of the weaknesses of work, but it’s a better use of everyone’s time to focus on its strengths–what can I take from this that is valuable?  At the same time, it’s NOT supposed to be a simple summary of the work.  Getting the instructions right is tricky.

Writing on One Reading Versus All, and Cheating

There is always more than one reading assigned for class, and I let students write about just one of the readings if they wish. Or they can compare and contrast them. I wonder how many students don’t read the paper(s) they don’t write about. Am I being too lenient?

I did catch a student writing about a paper he hadn’t read this term. It was easy in this particular case because the paper–Fit4Life–is a parody, and he didn’t read far enough to realize it! I’m sure other students pulled one over on me and got away with writing up something they didn’t fully read. I’m not sure what to do about that.

Online Versus Paper?

In the past I’ve always required paper submissions of reflections. This serves the function of taking attendance–you’ve got to be there to hand it in. (And I don’t accept a reflection from someone who strolls in when class is half over, or tries to drop it off and sneak out.)  It’s also easy to correct grammar on a paper copy.

This term I tried having the students post on a private WordPress site that I set up for the class. This is much easier for the instructor and TA.  In theory, the students could read one another’s reflections and have a conversation in the comments–but that never happened.  And the weird side effect was that I stopped correcting people’s grammar. It’s too hard to do on the blog.  Also, I didn’t stop people from doing a reflection but not coming to class. (I could have taken attendance–maybe I should have.) So I’m thinking of going back to paper for next year.

Try it with Undergrads??

So am I brave enough to try this with my undergrads in the fall?  I’m teaching “Computers, Society, and Professionalism,” our required class on ethics and social implications of technology.  Will they love it or hate it?  Writing for every class terrifies some students, but it’s great practice.  And if it gets more students to come to class prepared for a real discussion, that’s a win.

Any Pointers?

Do you use reading reflections?  How do you do it?  Leave me a comment!

Categories: Uncategorized

Smart Phones and Parenting

April 1, 2014 1 comment

“Don’t bother Daddy while he’s reading the newspaper” is a cultural cliché with a certain truth to it. For some parents, a few minutes of quiet are a healthy break. For others, the excuses are more continual—they would avoid their kids entirely if they could. My grandfather was in that second category. I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house as a child, and my grandfather was always kind and fun to be with—when I saw him. But my dominant memory is of standing in the door of his art studio and asking if I could see him—if I could come in, or he would come out—and being told, “no, Grandpa is making his art now. “ Grandpa was always making his art. He worked as an architect during the week, and weekends were for working on his abstract painting and sculpture. Recently I shared this memory with my father, and he looked startled and sad—his memories of his father were identical.

Adults ignoring kids is not a new phenomenon. These days they are less often hiding behind the newspaper and more often hiding behind their smartphone. It’s the same phenomenon, but worse, because the phone is always there. Grandpa did sometimes leave his workshop (like for meals), and the newspaper is not with you at all times. As Sherry Turkle observed in her book Alone Together, the phone is a constant temptation. It doesn’t cause adults to ignore kids. But if an adult is of a hide-in the-art-studio inclination, it aids and abets bad behavior.

On the other hand, there are some absolutely wonderful things about smart-phone-enabled parenting. When our kids (ages 8 and 10) ask questions, we look up answers. “Mom, which countries drive on the left side of the road?” “What was the biggest earthquake?” “How much sugar is in Sprite compared to fruit juice?” These are all in my recent browser history. We also look up word definitions. Recently they asked, what does “lavish” mean? How is it different from “extravagant”? Of course I know those words, but dictionary definitions make it much easier to explain. And in the process, I think about nuances I hadn’t focused on before—I learn as much from these conversations as they do. My kids and I also regularly ask both serious and silly questions of the Siri program. (Try asking the air velocity of a swallow.) If they develop an interest in artificial intelligence, you’ll know where it came from. When the story this blog is named for took place, I looked up what a bison sounds like when we got home. Today, I would play it at the table. This is not a distraction from a family meal—quite the opposite. We have lively conversations and information we look up on our phones makes it more interesting for everyone.

Danah boyd astutely points out that much of what we see families doing with technology is not new. There have always been parents who ignore their kids to varying degrees, and use media as an excuse. There have always been parents who excitedly look things up to discuss with their kids. But in both cases, phones make it much easier, and it ends up happening more often.

The challenge for the future is finding ways to enhance the upsides and minimize the down. This will predominantly involve people learning to be more mindful in their use. However, there’s an intriguing question about whether mobile technology designers can play any meaningful role in accentuating the positive.

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