Blog
Mrigankasekhar Meenakshisundaram
English teacher

Nine Benefits Of Student-generated Discussion And Exam Questions

Nine Benefits of Student-Generated Discussion and Exam Questions As someone who mostly teaches composition and the occasional literature or creative writing class, I use quizzes most semesters, and occasional midterms and final exams. Over time, I have come to appreciate the value of short quizzes, in particular for reinforcing topics we’ve studied. I also use discussion questions for exploring my university’s annual common book, a required reading for all incoming freshmen. But writing these quizzes, exams, and discussion questions can be quite time consuming. So, several years ago, I decided to outsource these tasks to my students—or at least the first drafts of them. The results were far more useful than I’d expected. Admittedly, students are often not great at writing these kinds of questions—and why should they be? The truth is, most faculty aren’t great at writing exam questions either. In fact, there is both art and science to writing exam questions that are well formed, perform well, and ask for substantive information or analysis rather than trivia. But nevertheless, if you ask your students to write exam questions, the results can be incredibly beneficial, both for students and for faculty. These are nine of the benefits I have seen in my own classes: Benefits of Student-Generated Questions Having students prepare exam questions is a great way to test that students have read the text and to encourage them to put time into doing so. The time they spend writing questions is time spent considering the text or subject, where they decide what is important or worthy of further discussion and where they think about what questions the text left them with. All of this is time well spent that should further their understanding of the content. As an additional benefit, they should also learn about developing good questions, which is something any composition class  should ask of them. It’s a fairly easy assignment for students to do well on if they’ve done the work, and for faculty to grade, which makes for a win-win situation. It’s a great way to identify trends or problems in student thought about a text. This was tremendously valuable for me one semester when the discussion questions students wrote showed me that they had some very inaccurate and stereotypical notions about immigration and immigrants. I was able to take a couple extra class sessions to have students research and report on those misconceptions before moving on. Though it was time consuming, valuable discussion of the text itself would have been next to impossible without first addressing their inaccurate beliefs. Similarly, student-authored discussion or test questions can surface a variety of misunderstandings about a novel, cultural, or linguistic confusion, and uncertainty about how to perform experiments or calculations.While the questions may not be great as written, I’ve always been able to use them to help me develop fruitful discussion questions, or to act as a starting place for about half of the questions on midterms and finals. While there’s often a fair bit of editing involved, it’s still a very meaningful jump start on what can be a time-consuming part of course development. Another benefit is that students like having their ideas and writing direct the flow of their classes or exams. It gives them the sense that they are helping create the class by making them feel more engaged and their ideas more valued. This is especially useful because it can be the quietest students who write the best, most insightful questions. Getting their voices into the open is another win. If you like, and you use an open system for submitting questions (like Blackboard discussions), you can also encourage students to read other students’ submitted questions to help them study or think about a topic, while warning them that the questions and the proposed answers might have errors in them. As a final point, I also find it rewarding to read these clever and interesting questions. I have been positively stunned by the depth and insight some of them express. How much of this is the case for you will depend on your students—but I bet they will surprise you.  Student Instructions To help make the questions students write more useful, I provide instructions asking them to write open-ended discussion questions where the answer is complex rather than just a yes or no. For exam questions, I often ask for two multiple choice and a short answer or essay question. I generally use graded discussion boards in Blackboard for these assignments, though other technologies work fine, too. I recommend grading gently based on the question’s thoughtfulness rather than its suitability as a question. And I don’t lower their grade for misunderstanding or for holding misconceptions, unless it’s something they should clearly understand from their reading or studies.  This approach has worked well for me every time I’ve used it, and I find myself looking forward to reading and grading the results. Even better, students don’t complain about the work and they typically get it done on time, or nearly so. Note, that it’s important to get discussion questions submitted early enough to allow you to think about and revise them to suit your needs.

Divya Mathew

Good Questions For Better Essay Prompts (and Papers)

Good Questions for Better Essay Prompts (and Papers) Most professors would admit that they’ve found themselves frustrated when grading papers. Yes, sometimes those frustrations might stem from students ignoring your clear, strategic, and explicit instructions, but more often, I’d argue, “bad” papers are a result of how and what we’re asking of students, and how well we really understand our goals for them. Further, we often struggle to strike a balance between providing too much information and too little, and placing ourselves in a novice’s shoes is difficult. In an effort to combat these challenges, I present a series of questions to ask yourself as you begin developing or revising prompts. 1. What do you want your students to learn or demonstrate through this writing assignment? Is an essay the best way reach these goals? If so, do they understand those learning goals? Assigning an essay is, for many instructors, our go-to. But paper writing isn’t always the best assessment tool. Think hard about what it is you’re hoping for your students to take away from an assignment. Are there other, better forms the assignment might take? And if the answer is a resounding, “This paper is the right venue!” you should consider whether you are explicitly conveying to your students why you’re asking them to do certain work. Transparency benefits them tremendously. Transparent assignment design—being explicit about how and why you are facilitating their learning in the ways that you are—helps all students, but it particularly helps those students who may not have the experience, networks, or models in college that other students have, such as first-generation college students, minorities, or students with disabilities. Whether in class discussion or in the written prompt itself, strive to follow these transparent assignment design principles.       2. Who is the audience (real or imagined) for the assignment, and what is the purpose of the text?For most writing assignments, the “audience” is, of course, the instructor, and students strive to meet that instructor’s expectations, even if they’re guessing about what this instructor knows, wants, and expects.Even assignments as specific as “Write a letter to the Editor on X topic” beg for more detail. (Is this for my hometown paper or the New York Times? Those letters will of course read very differently.) And when it comes to purpose or goals, while it might seem obvious to you what the purpose of this paper is, it might not be to your students. Work to be as explicit as possible as you can in what you’d like them to achieve in their paper. You might use language such as, “In this paper you are writing to an audience of scholars in X field, who are/are not familiar with your topic,” or “Your overarching purpose in this paper is to persuade your reader towards a specific, implementable solution to the problem at hand, and support your argument with scholarship in the field.” 3. Do you want to read their papers? This question may seem silly, but it’s not. In every field, professors have the capacity to set students up for authentic, engaging assignments. If you don’t feel excited to read the paper, you can likely imagine how difficult it will be for students to engage in the much more substantial process of writing it. So, consider retooling the assignment into something you look forward to spending time reading. Might you consider new genres, audiences, or purposes for their writing? Develop a traditional essay into a problem-solving task? 4. What does good writing look like in your field? How can you convey this to students? We all know what good writing looks like in our fields, but students sometimes don’t even understand that writing forms, expectations, and conventions vary from discipline to discipline. Whether we like it or not, and whether we think we have time for it or not, it is our job to teach students about texts in our specific disciplines. Maybe that includes offering them annotated sample papers. Maybe this happens over a series of beginning-of-class conversations as they’re drafting. Maybe it’s showing them some of your own work or looking closely at the writing in a flagship journal. Regardless of how you do it, be sure that a part of the writing process for your students includes exposure and at least an introductory understanding to what “good” writing is to you and your field. 5. Are your grading criteria clear—and thoughtful and reasonable?We know that clear grading criteria—whether in the form of a rubric or a narrative—is key to student writer success, but it’s not as simple as assignment weights to columns such as “Grammar” and “Thesis.” In order to think deeply about how we’re grading, we also have to interrogate what assumptions we have about our student writers? What do we think they already know? Why do we think this? What do we prioritize in an essay, and more importantly, why is that the priority? Do our priorities align with our learning goals for students? These answers to these questions too should be transparent to students as they embark on your writing assignments. 6. What support and structure are you able to provide?Traci Gardner’s Designing Writing Assignments illustrates that the kinds of prompts that allow students to write strong papers share certain characteristics, and among the most important is providing support, both materially and in their process (35). How are you going to facilitate the writing that you want to see your students develop and showcase it in your prompt? Can the assignment be broken down into smaller, scaffolded steps? Or, if you want the students to practice managing projects and figure this out themselves, how can you serve as a guide as they work through time and resource management in order to do so? As scholars, we are not expected to create excellent work without feedback, and we shouldn’t expect it of our students either. We’re not only teaching content and, as noted above, what writing looks like in our discipline, but we’re also working to instill a writing process. Before assigning a paper, be clear about how you’ll build in steps, support, and this process of feedback and revision into your assignment. 7. Does it make sense for this particular assignment and your particular class to include a reflective element? Research shows that metacognition and reflection aid in the transfer of knowledge and skills, so building in some way for students to reflect on the writing and learning they’ve done through your assignment is a valuable way to help them take that knowledge forward, into other classrooms and, later, the workplace. 8. How can you go through the writing process yourself to create the most productive possible prompt? Ask for feedback from colleagues—or your students! There’s no shame in showing students a prompt and revising it based on their questions, perceptions, and, after the semester ends to benefit your next class, their writing.

Umaprasad Venktesh
Chemistry Teacher

Four Beginner Teaching Mistakes And How To Avoid Them

Four Beginner Teaching Mistakes and How to Avoid Them Having taught college for five years now, I sometimes take for granted that teaching methods that seem obvious now were once foreign to me. So, to prevent other first-time teachers from making the same mistakes I did, I want to share four of the biggest teaching mistakes I made and how learning from them has improved my class. Mistake #1: Too much course work Within 14 weeks, my poor students had to complete 11 projects, seven in-class exercises that often spilled over into homework, six lecture research tasks, and ongoing assigned reading. This meant that at various points in the semester, students had multiple overlapping assignments due at different times. There was not enough time for students to give their best effort, so I did not get a true sense of their abilities. This also meant the class schedule was so tight that there was no room for unforeseen class cancellations, causing anguish whenever a snow day forced me to move lectures and due dates around the calendar. Fix #1: Give assignments time to breathe After some research on course design, I took a hard look at my syllabus, evaluating how well each assignment aligned with my desired learning outcomes. Because of this, I ended up cutting the assignments in half. By eliminating redundancies and projects with vague goals, my new class structure gave students space to explore options where they could fail and learn without feeling pressured to hit tight deadlines. It also encouraged more work sessions, where students could work on long-term projects in class, and I could supervise and give personalized input before the critique. Mistake #2: No reinforcement Having such a tightly packed class schedule meant I left no opportunity to go over any technical information that was covered in the lectures more than once. I expected that a single lecture would suffice, and was somehow surprised at the abysmal test results. Fix #2: Repeat, over and over again Now, I end each lecture with some form of classroom assessment technique (CAT), like the muddiest point, to quickly gauge how well the students understand that day’s information. Then, I begin the next class by going over their questions from the class before to clear up any confusion. Eventually, these assessments become cumulative, so students can ask for clarification on anything we’ve covered so far. This kind of repetition not only helps me discover gaps in my explanation abilities, it gives me a chance to enlist other students in the clarification process, reinforcing the information for them as well. This, in addition to retrieval practice activities scattered throughout the semester, means that students are encountering the same topics multiple times.  Mistake #3: Unclear relevance  A particular challenge I face is that even though my class is required, the class’s relevance to the students isn’t immediately clear to them. I designed the class assuming they already knew the answer to the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” But after a few semester’s worth of student evaluations, it became clear this was not a safe assumption. Even among the positive reviews, “I don’t see the relevance of the course” was a consistent complaint. Fix #3: Start and continue with why I added a brief “Why should you take this course?” paragraph to the first page of my revamped syllabus. There, I outlined the benefits of my class and then reiterated those points in my introductory lecture. This put the students in a more receptive frame of mind by answering their most important question first. Each subsequent lecture and assignment was also similarly introduced with a clear statement about how that particular activity related to the overall course goals.  Mistake #4: Teaching in the dark Students often had to wait until the end of the semester before getting an opportunity to offer feedback about the class. While that might help the administration, it did nothing for the students in the class. I had no idea which topics were proving hard to grasp or how effective my teaching methods were. Fix #4: Multiple feedback channels In addition to the CATs geared towards reinforcing the content of the lectures, I also offer quick three-question Poll Everywhere surveys that query students about the format. These give me an up-to-date picture of how the class is going and allows me to make any necessary course corrections. Anonymous, on-the-spot surveys might not be enough to get a full sense of students’ opinions. That’s why I also request a more thorough midterm evaluation from my school’s Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence. This focus-group style survey is done while I’m not in the room so the students can speak freely. After a session like this, it’s important to let students know what changes were made as a result of their feedback so they feel heard and share ownership of the class. Although it’s embarrassing to think back on how many mistakes I made starting out, I now know my students can enjoy a more humanely paced course, where the material is covered several times, and there’s a clear picture as to why they should care. Plus, whenever things aren’t working for them, they have plenty of opportunities to let their professor know.

Divya Mathew

To Be A Truly Effective Teacher: Learn Something That Is Difficult For You

To Be a Truly Effective Teacher: Learn Something that is Difficult for You I have been teaching various levels of reading skills and composition to native and non-native speakers, to immigrants and U.S. citizens, to people with talent and interest, and I have one thing to say: In order to teach well, you need to learn something that does not come easy. We need to be able to teach all of our students. Our students come to us with various levels of interest in actually attending our class. Some are confident about their fluency and ability in the subject matter and are ready to jump in. Usually, I find those that are eager to engage are easiest and most enjoyable to teach. However, some of my students are not in that space of confident curiosity, and even sitting in my class arms folded, head down, is an exercise in vulnerability. What must that feel like? Do you remember? Many of us can understand that level of vulnerability intellectually by reading about teaching. We have read many articles on how to engage both students who are labeled, either by us or others, as “successful” students and “at-risk” students. However, in order to truly understand it, we need to experience it. In our undergraduate experience, most of us took a class or two that was not part of our skill set. Maybe we remember those moments, and maybe we don’t. Maybe those moments were years ago. To continue to be effective teachers, in addition to reading, writing, and researching about teaching, we also need to put ourselves in learning situations where we are not sure if we will be successful. Continually, coming in contact with our own vulnerability and failure will shape our teaching with empathy and other communication skills that we can use to reach students that are harder to engage with. For many of us, in our classrooms, we teach a subject that comes easy to us, or at least a subject matter with which we are now some level of expert as we read, write, and research that area. How would it be to sit in a classroom where you are not known as a teacher, an “intellectual,” or a “good student” and try to learn something that you are not sure you can? How would that experience impact you? Your teaching? For me, it impacts me dramatically. Because many of my students are non-native speakers of English and are learning, speaking, and communicating at a college level in a language that is not their mother tongue, I decided that I, too, would work at learning languages. I chose Spanish for its beauty and practicality—for many of my students their first language is Spanish—and Russian because it, for me anyways, is truly difficult with its Cyrillic alphabet and culture that for many reasons has been mystified and at times vilified by American culture. Sitting in a classroom in another country has taught me so much about the “fish out of water” feeling that I know my students must routinely have. I had the nervousness of finding the school—is this the right corner to turn left? Is this the correct bus? I experienced being hungry but nothing that was offered tasted right, and nothing really fed me in a way that food from home did. I sat in a class and was completely mystified by what the teacher was saying and what I was supposed to do with what appeared to be instructions. I looked around and saw other students seemingly understand. What did this mean? What was I doing here? I worked for hours on homework only to be told what I did wasn’t quite the assignment. I got so hungry in the middle of a lesson that I thought I was going to faint. I couldn’t find the bathroom and was too shy to ask. I wore the wrong shoes and had blisters on my feet that made it hard to do anything but sit. I just wanted to hide. What I learned: Things that I think are intuitive probably aren’t for some of my students. To accommodate this, I try to over explain and explain using as many mediums as possible. I try to be approachable. It’s scary not to know, and it’s scary to ask for help. Those two facts of living make it hard for our most vulnerable students to ask questions. I walk students to the bathroom, to the library, to the academic success center, to the water fountain. Students have probably been shown these things once and feel “dumb” because they have forgotten. However, being in a new situation where everything is new means you don’t retain everything because your brain is on overdrive. Yes, my hosts told me which numbered busses would get me to school, but do you think I remembered them all? No. Probably because they also showed me the grocery store, the market, and which corner to turn on to get to the school all at once. Something was going to give. This is also true for our students, and although I knew this in my head before experiencing it; I had read the brain research that talked about retention, nerves, and new things. But after experiencing it, there is a way I walk with my students. I understand in my bones what it is like to board a bus in an unfamiliar city, hope you are on the right one, and be too tired to form the question to ask in a new language. I know what it’s like to walk across the threshold to a classroom and be unsure if you belong, or even if you even want to be there. From these experiences, there is now a kinder way that I tell my students something I have already told them three times. I realize that they don’t remember, not because they weren’t listening the first three times, but because even when they were listening, it didn’t stick. There is a way I talk to the student whose project is completely different from the expectations of the assignment. This student isn’t trying to get away with something, and they were probably listening when I explained it. In other words: everyone was doing everything “right” and still here we are. There’s a quality of gentleness and respect one uses with someone who you think has been doing something right and still ends up with more work to do. And yes, I have read what new students need and what students who come from different languages and cultures need in order to be successful in a different classroom, but when I was the new student, and was the one who was scared, the one who still didn’t quite understand after the third explanation, it lands not only in my head, but in my heart. And truly, that’s where the best teaching happens, isn’t it? When the head and heart are married, and we push through our exhaustion to explain something one more time to another human being.

Divya Mathew

Emergency Takeover: 4 Tips For Taking Over A Course Midway

Emergency Takeover: 4 Tips for Taking Over a Course Midway Unexpected circumstances can strike at any time, taking faculty away from their teaching duties before the end of a semester. Often, other faculty to have to step in to finish the course with little to no preparation.  When this occurred this past summer with just 10 days left in the semester, there was very little time to prepare.  Internet searches for guidance on how to successfully navigate this type of situation were unfruitful.  Surely these situations occur with some frequency, but little has been written about it.  This is probably because those of us who have had this experience are so busy trying to get students to the finish line that we don’t have time to reflect on how we were able to do it.   This past summer, I stepped in to take over a fully online graduate course in psychopharmacology, a keystone course and prerequisite for clinical internships.  After the course ended, I met with our senior institutional instructional designer to process the experience.  In an effort to help others who may find themselves in a similar situation, we decided to put together some tips that we can share on how to approach taking over a course midway. Tip #1: Put the students first Take a step back and think about the impact this has on the students. Depending on the circumstances, students may be very anxious about the sudden change and it is important to keep this in mind.  Listen to student concerns and consider these concerns as you make decisions to change pieces of the course. In our case, many students indicated they had been under tremendous pressure and felt lost and confused within the course. These students needed the knowledge from this course to ensure success in their clinical experiences that they were to start in the next semester. Tip #2: Provide clear communication Clearly communicate the next steps to the students.  Explain how you plan to help them to meet the course objectives within the remaining time together.  Convey that this is a partnership between you and them and that you’re here to help. In our case, the professor taking over the course developed an ‘action plan’ to share with students and stated clearly that the goal was to work together to meet course objectives, and to evaluate each student’s work so that they could earn the grade that was congruent with their knowledge.  Students deserve to know that, despite limited time, the professor is there to ensure they understand the material and are evaluated fairly. Tip #3: Be present These students are going to need some extra support. Be clear on how students should communicate with you and welcome them to do so. Do your best to reply within 24 hours if at all possible.  In our case, students could expect to receive a reply within 24 hours/7 days per week. This required an intensive investment of time to be present in the course every day, including weekends, but this decision yielded very strong positive working relationships with the students.  Students shared that they felt ‘relieved’ and ‘supported’ to have this level of responsiveness at such a stressful time.  The students worked hard and knew the professor was also working hard alongside them. Tip #4: Stick to the objectives, but be flexible With the little time you have, this is not the time to be rethinking the entire design of the course. Hopefully, you are walking into a course that was thoughtfully designed with clear learning objectives. Use those objectives as your guide and work with students in whatever ways you can to help them to meet those objectives in the time you have together.  Sticking with the objectives allows you to clearly communicate the rationale for any changes that you do make. In our case, the following changes were made to adapt to the timeline and earlier issues: One assignment was adapted to provide students two choices to demonstrate their ability to critique industry-sponsored educational content: they could write a paper on content they found or answer a set of questions about a consumer education video the professor provided.Two assignments were eliminated, and the content was assessed on the final exam by maintaining alignment with module learning objectives.  If students had ‘worked ahead’ and already done one or both of the assignments, they were instructed to send this work to the professor for evaluation, and they were offered credit for the corresponding question(s) on the final exam.  The final exam was originally entirely multiple choice but was converted to multiple choice and five short answer case study-based questions that aligned with course objectives.  The short answer questions were posted by the end of day one so that students could start to plan their work and self-assess areas that needed extra attention. Learning objectives can help you make thoughtful and successful course changes.  However, it is equally important to be flexible.  Do not be afraid to make changes when necessary.  Give choices where possible. In summary, all faculty members should be prepared for the possibility of taking over a course midway.  Based on our success, we recommend a written and transparent ‘action plan’ shared with students on day one, with the focus on partnering with students to help them meet the learning objectives.