On my prior post I mentioned that I’m going to experiment with having my American Government students write posts for, and participate in discussion on, a class blog. In response, Pinky asked a good question:
I would like to see some quality reasoning on the value and purposes of discussion. How does it give support to individual and group development?
I can’t promise quality reasoning, but here’s what I’m thinking. If this is a bit lengthy for an answer, it’s because I’ve been pondering this issue for the last couple of years, as the effects of No Child Left
Unharmed Behind type educational reform has become evident in college classrooms.
To tell the truth I’m not too interested in the group development part since a class like this–that fulfills a distributional requirement for students from a variety of disciplines, who may rarely see each other after this term–is inherently temporary and not really geared toward a common, collective goal. If it does promote group development, that would be neat, but it’s not really my goal.
The goal is the individual development, and my purpose is two-fold, targeted toward the all-too-common deficiencies in writing and reasoning skills found in college frosh (most of the class will be frosh, with some sophomores, and a very few juniors and seniors).
Let me illustrate the problem with an experience my high-school sophomore daughter has had. There is an amazing emphasis on preparation for standardized tests in schools these days, because schools are evaluated based on student performance on those tests. In one way this is good–my daughter has already taken 3 or 4 ACT prep tests, so when she takes the real thing, it will be very familiar, and she’ll have learned the strategies for doing well. But this also applies to preparing students for the state-mandated standardized tests. This has two very negative affects: 1) students are predominantly faced with multiple choice questions; 2) they are told “don’t think” (truly, those are the words my daughter said she is told by teachers), because if they take time to think their score will suffer.
Together, multiple choice questions and not taking time to think mean students are not developing their writing and reasoning skills. In this class last term I tried to get students to read prior to class by having on-line multiple choice quizzes that closed before class started, but on the exams I found that they could not transfer their knowledge over to answering short-answer questions that were drawn directly from the multiple choice questions.
So this term I am giving them a set of short answer/essay questions up front (all listed in the syllabus beside the relevant reading assignments). I’m still trying to get them to read before class, by choosing one of the questions as a start-of-class quiz each day, but even more I am trying to get them to lean to think about and write out good answers. And all exam questions will be drawn from those questions; no multiple choice even though this is going to increase my grading time somewhat. I expect very poor performance early on, but hope that repeated practice will lead to development (and I am tossing out the lowest 1/4 of their quiz scores, to reward them for developing the skill and not punish them for not having mastered the skill prior to taking my class).
But I’m trying to figure out other ways to get them to think and write that don’t require too much grading effort on my part,* hence the blog. The required post more obviously works toward that end, but that’s just one item in the term for each student, so requiring participation in discussion is designed to get them thinking and writing on a more regular basis. I have a vague theory that to some extent it’s just a matter of practice, repetition, like most other skills. I don’t expect them all to excel, but I hope that most of them will improve those skills throughout my course more than most students have in the past few years.
I’m not arguing that there was some golden era in the past when all students were bright, eager, well-read, deeply analytical, invariably polite and always well-scrubbed. But in my American Government class (the only class in which I have frosh), I’ve observed a decline over the past several years in these particular skills.** It’s far less pronounced in my upper-division classes, which suggests students can recover. But I think we need to put more emphasis on reasoning skills anyway.
In fact even in the absence of No Child Left Behind, I think we would need to put more emphasis on these skills. Part of that comes from a growing recognition of how few facts we really remember learning in college. I don’t doubt that lots of them are still stuck in our heads years later, and we’ve just forgotten where we learned them, but I’m pretty sure that people who are taught to be on-going learners will pick up more than enough of those facts anyway. And asking students to write short answer/essay questions about, say, the differences between the House and the Senate will require students to pay attention to pure facts such as the different length of Representatives’ and Senators’ terms of office (and some facts, like the minimum ages to serve in Congress, are so functionally irrelevant that it doesn’t matter if they miss them).
This dropping of emphasis on “bits” of education is a little discomforting for me, as in the past I’ve focused on having my American Government students know lots of “stuff.” More discomforting is that the approach I’m taking consumes more class time, so I’ve had to stretch out the time given to certain topics and really constrain or even drop some other topics completely. That’s a hard adjustment, and it can make for uncomfortable moments when your students don’t know what others think they should have learned (I once had a guest speaker in my Presidency class who was really surprised I hadn’t taught the students about Watergate). But I keep reminding myself that there’s less value in teaching them more readily-forgettable information about a larger number of topics than there is in leading them toward competence in thinking and reasoning.
Let me make that clear: I am not talking about the value of giving more in-depth attention to fewer subjects, but about really decreasing the emphasis on subject mastery and shifting the emphasis toward using the course for skill development. That wouldn’t be appropriate for every class, but American Government may be ideal since for the overwhelming majority of my students the federal government will be a continual presence in their lives–they will never cease being aware of it, and all of the factual bits of data they don’t get in my class are readily found on the internet. What I really should be doing is teaching them to reason about what they hear and read about the government, and an awareness that when something doesn’t sound right, or they just don’t understand, that they should, and that they can, find the relevant information and think it through until they can make sense of it.
The other part of that comes from reading discussion like this one by former Treasury Secretary and Harvard President, Larry Summers. Among his arguments is that “Education [should] be more about how to process and use information and less about imparting it.” Other than being a contestant on Jeopardy, just reciting memorized facts doesn’t pay off too well out in the real world. As I tell my Research Methods students, “I know probably none of you will become professional academics making use of these methods, but there’s a good chance that someday the organization you work for will be struggling with a problem that fundamentally is about a lack of data, and I want you to be the person who says, ‘I don’t know the answer, either, but I know how to find the answer.'”
I think there’s been a real shift over the past several years in my understanding of what my real job as a teacher is, and now I’m in the process of trying to figure out what works, particularly within the constraints of my particular discipline. It’s a process of trial and error. Think up an idea, try it. Read about a technique someone else claims to have used with success*** and try it. Or in the case of this blog, pick up on a random comment by my wife and give it a whirl.
So, to come back around to Pinky’s question, I hope–dare say hypothesize–that participating in the blog discussions on an on-going basis–under the constraints that this is an academic exercise on which they will be evaluated–will promote the development of their reasoning skills. I think a key factor will be whether the exercise really captures their interest, and of course that will vary among the students. There is always a set that is surprisingly resistant to getting interested in the subject, even though it’s clear that their response is detrimental to their grades, and that can’t be helped. What I hope to see is a good number who do get interested, and improvement in the quality of discussion over time. The clearest sign of failure of this experiment will be if participation is very low and discussion remains very desultory.
I’ve used a variant of this technique in my on-line course, posing a discussion question for them to respond to. Some students rarely participate, others do so regularly; some post perfunctory responses, others sometimes engage in long debates. But getting active participation in on-line classes is fairly difficult as a rule, and I think that’s because of both the nature of the type of students who take on-line classes (that portion who do so because they don’t want to be in the classroom itself, with all those other people), and because of the distance–the anonymity–between the student and the professor. So in a face-to-face course I expect a higher level of participation, both because it’s all less impersonal and because I can talk to them directly, whether to say “you’re not commenting,” or “here’s why I deleted your comment,” or “that was an excellent comment.” If time and attention is available, I can join in the conversations to praise good comments or to suggest how a comment could be improved. That would be the best method, but time and attention is always a precious commodity.
And to be clear, I don’t see participation in blog discussions as a magic bullet, but as an additional tool, operating at the margin rather than as the central technique.
I hope this over-long answer is somewhat satisfying to Pinky, even though it was so much background on my developing thoughts about the education of college frosh.
* Grading 30 short answer quizzes twice a week could potentially be a lot of work, but I am going to use a technique I learned from my friend PJ, which is just to grade on the GPA scale; a 4=A, 3=B, etc. It takes surprisingly less time than working with, say, a 10 point scale where there are finer gradations, or a 5 point scale in which nice round numbers don’t match up with grades very well (for example, a B+ (85%) is 4.25 points). He sticks strictly to the whole numbers, but I often drop in a .5, splitting the difference between, say, a C+ and a B-. While no items are graded as finely (this student’s B actually reflects better work than that student’s B), across multiple items it all averages out, because sometimes work that is approximately a B- will get a B and other times it will get a C. With this approach, and a clear conception of what you’re looking for in each short-answer question–mostly keywords, whole sentences, and addressing each part of the question–30 short answers can be graded in under a half hour.
**This is a casual observation. I don’t have data. But this is an observation shared by a really large number of my colleagues, both at my school and those I’ve talked to at other schools. The language they all use is very different from the “back in my day” complaints of grumpy old profs. It’s about a sudden noticeable decline, observable even in a lot of pretty intelligent students, that seems correlated in time with the point at which we started getting students who’d spent most of their school years under the new standardized testing regimens. There is a lot of talk about this issue these days. Notably, one person quoted in that last article linked says, “Many students are even less ready for college than they were six years ago.” 6 years ago was 2006, and NCLB was enacted in 2001, meaning the students he’s talking about had at least 4-5 years–their whole high school careers–under NCLB’s standardized testing regime.
***These ideas are almost never backed by data, of course, and some of them are probably idiosyncratically effective as a function of the particular prof’s style/strengths or the particular discipline in which they’re used. Pedagogy is, unfortunately, a field that suffers badly from a really severe lack of adequate hypothesis testing, in part, I think, from the instincts of those who go into it (far more touchy-feely types than methodological types) and in part because it’s damned hard to study rigorously given the difficulty of controlling the experimental setting.