teaching query

Dear Scatterplotters, if you are not already dispersed for winter break, do you have ideas for me? I’m teaching a course where I want students to actually read the books, but I don’t want to test them on the material. If I could scan their brains and verify they had actually read the books, that would be fine. I’ve been using an ungraded book comment assignment that is often experienced as busywork by those who do it honestly, and has a non-trivial fraction of students who just work on ways to game the assignment without actually reading the books. I tell them to “read lightly, like reading a novel.” I want them to experience the books, histories of ethnic minorities in the US, so they have background for class discussions which are less focused on history. Do folks have suggestions about how to accomplish this goal while minimizing the busywork and faking it aspects?

Edit: To clarify my own problem, my lectures are too big for me to call on people to recite about the book and my educational goal is that they will learn things from the book that we don’t discuss in class.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

13 thoughts on “teaching query”

  1. Like Tina and OW this is something I struggle with and I’d like to hear from anyone who has made it work. It seems impossible to come up with questions/assignments that are (a) time efficient and (b) substantive rather than about trivially nitpicky details.


  2. At the start of class, I ask them a question relevant to the readings. For questions that generate longer responses, I request that each of them write/type a response in their notes* and I give direct eye contact to those who stare blankly off in the distance. I usually allow 2-3 minutes to write a response and then ask the students to share. I encourage discussion — do you agree? What did you think? Is that supported in what you read/what you interpreted from the reading?

    For questions with short responses (i.e., yes/no, agree/disagree, 1/2/3/4), I ask for a show of hands. I ask any that abstain why they didn’t “vote” for one of the given options.

    It only takes a couple of classes to successfully signal that you can’t come to my class without reading in advance.

    *This is a useful exercise even if you’re not using it to get them to do the reading. I find that when you ask questions eliciting a more thoughtful or nuanced response, you need to give them some time to think. And rather than have only the students who are quick on their toes always do the answering (and everyone else doing their best to avoid eye contact), this way everyone participates in the answer, even if not verbally.


  3. I don’t have any teaching experience, so take this with a grain of salt, but a couple of professors who taught courses I took earlier in my undergrad career made it a policy to call on random students to answer certain questions about the reading during each class period. Of course, I doubt that it was truly random, but it was announced as such. I believe they also attached some participation points to these questions, if I remember correctly. It might not be quite as thorough as some other methods, but it’s unlikely that 100 percent of students will read for every single class no matter what measures are taken, and fear of one’s unpreparedness being publicly exposed can still be a powerful motivator. I recall it seeming to be effective, from my perspective as a student. The benefit is that no busy work is involved. It’s something to chew on; like I said, I can’t personally speak to its effectiveness.


  4. This spring I’m experimenting with a new kind of pedagogy called SCALE-UP (which is a long and rather silly acronym). The basic concept is that students sit in 3 groups of 3 at round tables. Periodically each group of three has the opportunity to collaborate on a question/problem, then they report back to their table, and ultimately each table reports back to the class. There are a wide variety of techniques you can try with this format.

    Here’s a video about its use in a science course here at Rice.

    I’m looking forward to it (it will be a medical sociology course), although it’s still very much an experiment for me. I do a lot of small group work in my classes, so it makes sense for me. In Med Soc, we read a lot of books (7 or 8). Participation is 15% of their grade, and I get pretty good compliance (as far as I can tell) with doing the readings. I think partly it’s because we do so much discussion in class – both as a full group and in our small groups. I also employ the in-class writing technique that @dadakim describes – I think it works well. Randomly near the end of class, I will also ask them to answer a short prompt over the readings/discussion and hand it in. This becomes part of their participation grade.

    SCALE-UP practitioners argue that students do not want to be the weak link in their group of 3, so they come to class better-prepared than they otherwise would. We’ll see!


  5. I’ve had great success with book groups in which require a brief reaction from each student ahead of time (credit for turned in/plagiarism scan). I prepare a discussion guide for the groups and designate class-time for them to meet. I’ve played around also with having the groups read different books and work together to prepare a handout/discussion to share key information with the rest of the class.


  6. Thanks for sharing SCALE UP. It looks great – I like the trade off between centralized and decentralized methods. If you don’t have a classroom like this, one way to ease into this would be to open a lecture with a think-pair-share exercise where students are invited to work with someone they are sitting next to.


    You don’t have to call on every group, and 3 people is the max size for a group – accountability moves to their peers, instead of you. I’ve also used an open ended thing-pair-share where I ask students to share anything that caught their attention from the book. It turns out they are just as bored with synthesis as you are, and so they will likely do some analysis in explaining it to their partner. Since no one wants to look bad in front of peers, if you announce that you are doing it and show them the process a few times, it will be a routine after the third class. Plus, it will give you a sense of the topics that were well understood, or need further attention.


  7. Worst-case scenario would be pop quizzes. I know that it is not en vogue to use them, but I think with sufficient warning (i.e., once at the beginning of the semester and again during the semester without reading compliance), then it is fair to use them.

    I know I had a couple of professors that reserved the right to hand out random pop quizzes, and I was terrified enough that I read the material.


  8. I might ask them to select something from the media that has some parallel with an important idea from the book. I’d prefer a video clip I could show in class, but references to movies, TV shows, advertisements, songs, etc. would be OK. I’d also have them write out something explaining the connection they saw between the assigned book and the item they brought for show and tell.


  9. It takes a little preparation, but I really liked the suggestion contained in the instructor’s manual for a social problems textbook. This was used in courses 50-80 students. The prof/instructor brings 4-8 slips of paper to class (depending on class size to get the math to work out). Each slip contains a homework assignment to be completed for the next class period. Some days all the papers are the same, sometimes there are up to 4 different ones. Assignments are no longer then 2 pages and ask the student to complete some task. Then in each class period, the prof asks who did homework and students who did that day’s assignment are asked to take a few minutes to describe the assignment and what they found. You can set a number of times each student must complete assignments, or other rules (i.e. you can’t do all 4 back to back, must do in different books or sections of the course). This encourages student participation, if the questions are “conversation starters” rather than just summary, it can add a lot of participation to the course beyond those required to respond because they get the ball rolling, and it is always someone’s job to be prepared to do so. It won’t guarantee all students read all books, but it may create a more positive classroom environment than pop quizzes or any assignments perceived as “busywork,” especially if at least some of the questions are successful at guiding conversation. It also keeps the grading light, if constant. I have not tried to implement this system myself (my disclaimer), but it seems like a strong starter idea that could be adapted in multiple ways–it could be changed to a group activity, it could be adapted to posting to blogs, it could include respondents (although that might be too complicated)… and I am sure other variants I’ve never thought of. Anyway, food for thought.


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