Home > Uncategorized > Reading Reflections as a Teaching Technique

Reading Reflections as a Teaching Technique

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
  1. Colin Potts
    April 30, 2014 at 12:07 pm

    You should definitely try this for 4001. After all, if you’re asking for fairly raw reflections (and resist the temptation to correct grammar) it’s not onerous for undergrads. Give students a target ratio of the time they should be spending reading vs. writing, with more given to reading. After all, it’s the reading and prep you’re aiming at, isn’t it? Since you’d like to get to a state where everyone should get a check, writing is largely a proxy for demonstrating that they’re prepared for the class discussion.

    • April 30, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      Thanks for the 2 cents! I’m leaning that way.

  2. April 30, 2014 at 12:41 pm

    This post reflects my experience exactly. Students are busy; if you don’t give them a reasonable incentive to work on your class, other things will take priority. I too have used written reflections to provide such an incentive. One technique that I’ve found to work particularly well with written reflections is norming: regularly providing concrete examples of what you are looking for. You might send out a brief email to the class letting them know three things that you really liked, briefly stating why. For instance:

    Person A wrote: “Turkle makes the claim that online communities (MUDs) resonate with a postmodern sense of self (or self epistemology).”
    I like how A briefly summarizes the main thrust of the author before reflecting on it.

    The next week you will find that students pick up on these practices, hoping to move from a “check” to a “check plus”. This norming technique works well in a collaborative forum (e.g., a wiki) as students can really see what work gets praised and why. Once students see examples of good work, they can usually match it. As a result, student answers improve weekly.

  3. April 30, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    I’ve done versions of this my entire career, with the key part being having it due before class. I also allow them to skip some. I have them post where they can read one another’s — and we often discuss them in class – I now think of this as a flipped classroom technique. One thing that works for grading is to make a very specific point system – say 5 points with 1 point each for each element you want to encourage. If you do this and give them very specific feedback on the first few batches, and discuss a few exemplary ones in class early in the semester the general performance improves. With undergrads in particular, or with grad students from mixed disciplines, it helps to give them specific questions to reflect on as defaults, and make them something you want to know the answer to. I like the strategies you’ve been using and I semi-agree with Colin about writing regularly being more important than grammar – but you can always send them to writing center if they need extra coaching and I think it is reasonable to expect them to run a spell-check and take off points if they are too sloppy.

  4. April 30, 2014 at 7:56 pm

    I agree you can do this with undergrads. And that it will be good for them and they may even like it. Thanks for sharing Amy

  5. May 2, 2014 at 11:26 pm

    CS 376 (Research Topics in HCI) is very similar, except the students grade each others’ critiques. A team of students is in charge of each day and grades all their peers’ critiques for that day. The same team leads discussion for that day, and we ask them to integrate their peers’ critiques into the presentation they give. http://hci.stanford.edu/courses/cs376/2014/

  6. May 3, 2014 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for all the great comments! Really interesting. Lots of ways to do this, and the details matter.

  7. Mor
    December 22, 2014 at 11:18 am

    Hey it’s snowing again at the NextBison! It’s that time of year. I’m checking back to leave a note after experimenting with these ideas this past semester in my graduate class. Overall, it worked great! I asked students to answer 2-3 specific questions about each reading (two readings a week). They could skip up to 3 readings over the entire semester. The questions were neither “reflection” nor “critique” but instead asked the students to reason about/apply some key ideas from the readings. For example, reading about Warranting, I asked “According to Warranting theory, is it harder to lie on our Facebook profile than it is to lie on our Twitter profile?”. Or, after reading Wellman, “Do you think of your self as living as a “networked individual” or as someone who’s identity and activities are defined by the groups they belong to, and Why?” (and reported on the results in 140 characters here). Or, after reading the Facebook “Newcomer” paper, “Describe social learning as an experience you had on a different service.”

    I thought that worked quite well. I am guessing that a minority of students skimmed the readings until they found the relevant sections, and did not engage with the rest of the material. But even then, given that my questions covered 2-3 ideas, and these were the key ideas I wanted to highlight from the readings, I think that’s fine. Most responses were thoughtful and interesting and indicated they read more than just what was needed. I always had one extra questions for “additional thoughts/comments” which students sometimes used to say what they liked or didn’t like about the work. Also, we used some of the questions as starting points for discussion in class which worked out great because they already thought about the topic and had concrete ideas and opinions.

    • December 22, 2014 at 11:50 am

      So glad it worked! Would love to see your syllabus!

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