Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An Assignment for Fighting Student Isolation

I'm using a new type of assignment in one of my courses this fall and it seems to be working out pretty well, so I thought I would write up a post about it. I'm teaching an upper level course on Social Ethics and my students come from many different disciplines with varying levels of philosophical experience. In the past, I've used electronic discussion forums to bring students together outside the classroom, but I don't have that much time this semester and the students here seem a little more reluctant to use them. In college, I once had a seminar where the professor had us write up questions about the reading to submit to her. I saw the wisdom in it, but it was a little frustrating because I hadn't had enough experience to know what kind of questions to ask.

This semester I'm trying the same thing with a twist to alleviate the frustration. Students have to submit three (we started with four, but three turns out to suffice) questions on the reading for the week. However, once they've submitted them over email, I take all of the emails, concatenate the questions, delete any identifying details, and resubmit all of the questions to the students in the course. Then, in class on Thursday (it's a Tuesday/Thursday course), I spend a considerable amount of time reading and trying to answer the questions and discussion seems to naturally arise about the questions. I'll say a little more about why I think this will work well after the jump.

I don't really have data yet to say that this will work well for the entire semester, but it seems that the assignment has real potential for the following reasons:

  • One has to at least attempt the reading to ask some meaningful questions and it's fairly easy to see if someone didn't do much of the reading. This serves the function of a reading quiz without all the messy grading and time-suckage of doing a quiz in class.

  • It taps directly into the questions that students themselves have while reading rather than having to guess about what their interests might be or what the instructor has typically assumed questions would be. The questions do occasionally surprise me and open up really interesting possibilities I hadn't thought of.

  • It generates better quality questions than one gets in class because students have more time to think about their their questions.

  • In answering the questions in class, I thought I was boring my students to tears, but they didn't see it that way at all. I think this is because they anticipated their questions being answered and enjoyed seeing what others were thinking about.

  • When my professor did the assignment in college, I got frustrated because I didn't know what to be asking questions about. But I anticipate that everyone's questions will get better as the semester goes along because they actually get to see other people's questions and can measure their subjective level of understanding by trying to ask questions that generate more discussion and really clarify the reading. Thus, I hope the assignment actually makes people into better readers.

  • It decreases the anxiety of asking tough questions by anonymizing the questions on the document they get. I'm the only one who actually knows who asked which question and honestly I don't often remember when I start answering questions from the whole list.

  • For a few questions I have to do a little research, but for the most part it's student-centered learning and very little preparation is necessary for the Thursday sessions.

  • If someone has a question, often everyone has the same question. When you get multiple people asking the same question that you hadn't even thought of, there's a lot more opportunity to clear up confusion.

That's just off the top of my head. I imagine the assignment would work much better for smaller classes than for bigger ones. But hey, I think it works and it's much more fun than grading quizzes (which aren't really appropriate for upper-level courses anyway). Feel free to steal, implement, and improve.


  1. This is excellent - I've been using the idea of a discussion board posting pre-class (taken from the excellent article in Teaching Philosophy by J. Lenore-Wright and Anne-Marie Bowery entitled "Creating Community in the Philosophy Classroom: Using Blackboard's Online Journal to Improve Reading, Writing, Thinking, and Speaking", Volume 29, Number 1 - March 2006) on the readings; this idea makes that idea even better. I will use this next semester - thank you!

  2. Thanks for sharing this idea, Adam. I'm teaching an Environmental Ethics course in the spring, with a similar make-up of students. I look forward to implementing this into the course.

  3. Great stuff Adam. I've used similar exercises. I ask all my students to buy a pack of 3x5 notecards and I'll reserve a few minutes at the end of class for them to write down questions (about the lecture or discussion that day, say). I then collect them as the students leave and follow the kind of procedure you describe.

    I'd also add one other benefit that may be too obvious even to mention: It tells students you're listening and that you're invested in their success.


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