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