Friday, October 25, 2013

Does hand-writing their notes help students learn better?

Handwritten excerpt from Tennyson's "Mariana"
At today's Pedagogy Discussion Group (hosted by the TennTLC), amid the discussion of testing as a learning activity, someone brought up the claim that hand-writing one's notes aids in memory retention. I have found this personally to be true. When I studied for tests, I hand-wrote my notes. I made copies of notes by hand. I created a huge chalkboard in my head and imagined myself carving formulae into it with a glowing gold pen. When it came time to take the test, I knew where on the board to "look." I could remember writing out the poems and definitions. I could mentally envision my writing and the papers. I always thought that the benefit was primarily spatial or visual. But the very act of hand-writing may be responsible.

A study by Jean-Luc Velay at the University of Versailles found "that different parts of the brain are activated when we read letters we have learned by handwriting" (Science Daily). In an article co-written with Velay (discussed in the same Science Daily article), the University of Stavenger's Anne Mangen suggests that something is lost when students type instead of hand-write. However, the full connections between sensory motor skills and cognition are not yet understood.

Many of my students type their notes during class. There's good reason: typing is faster, and many of them can't write legibly in cursive. The notes can be saved to the cloud and opened on a variety of devices, making studying much more convenient. I've been encouraging this practice because of the convenience and the environmental benefits of the "paperless classroom." But have I been doing them a disservice?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Instructions Activity for Technical Writing Class

The “you” attitude is an essential element in writing definitions, descriptions, and instructions. The writer must guess what information the audience already has and balance that against what is needed to accomplish the document’s purpose. Although writing instructions is the most advanced of these tasks, there is a secret weapon: usability testing. In this exercise, students write a set of instructions then exchange them with another group for testing.

  1. Examine the contents of the bag given to you. Spend approximately 10 minutes designing a structure of 20-40 pieces. Give this structure a name and take a picture of it.
  2. Write verbal instructions so that someone else can copy your design. Use words only, no graphics.
  3. Review your instructions according to the checklist in Markel, pp. 388-89.
  4. Dismantle your creation. Trade instructions and materials with another group.
  5. Each group recreates the original structure. Compare the finished project to the picture.
  6. Compare notes with the other group. Where were you confused? Was any information extraneous?
  7. Revise your instructions, then post them to the Discussion Board along with the picture, if possible.
From this activity, students said they learned that what's clear to one person is confusing to another; to watch for ambiguity; and to take nothing for granted.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Student Construction of Private Spaces in the Classroom

The topical focus of my Composition I course is currently privacy. Inspired by Edward Snowden, we've been discussing the right to privacy and the relationship between the individual and the government. In the second unit, we have shifted to teen privacy, primarily on the internet.

Yesterday's reading was “Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies" by danah boyd and Alice Marwick. The authors' project was to determine from interviews with teens how they establish and maintain privacy both irl and online. The teens often didn't feel they had privacy at home because of their parents, but they could construct privacy at places like Panera through a process Erving Goffman calls "civil inattention." This is something you have probably experienced yourself at your local coffee shop, where you ignore the presence of others and expect them to ignore you. It's a quiet sort of privacy, and it's part of the way that everyone, teen and adult, constructs boundaries between the public and private.
Image courtesy of Sura Nualpradid,

In class yesterday, I had to reprimand a student who was assiduously applying lip gloss. This is the sort of behavior that has always been a mystery to me. Students will try to read for other classes, check their phones, check their wallets, check their reflections in their phones, etc. I often ask myself and other teachers, "don't they know I can see them?" 

Last night it occurred to me that they are establishing a private space in the classroom. To them, the norms of civil inattention require that I not see them. They have mistaken the nature and function of the classroom. Instead of a work-focused, active public space, they confuse it with a public in which they can retreat and establish privacy. 

I remember I used to engage in private behavior in class, too. How did I grow out of it? Do you have students who similarly establish private spaces? Have you found ways to enlighten students aside from reprimanding them in class?

Piloting Changes in English Composition I

My institution is making some much-needed curricular changes to English 101, and I am participating in the pilot program. I use handouts and activities that the program has designed and choose my own thematic readings on the subject of privacy to accompany them. The schedule includes much less reading than I am used to, but I am finding that it is quite a relief. We can take our time with shorter articles and really work with them.

Something I liked most in the first unit was the Rhetorical Analysis Worksheet. I checked these online and was able to catch misreadings or superficial approaches before they write their actual analysis papers. On the other hand, this handout made me struggle with terms that I don't normally incorporate. I had to figure out the difference between a discourse community and an audience. I still think this distinction is too subtle for first-year composition. Questions about genre were also difficult for the students to answer because they are reading in genres (blog posts and political columns) that they are unaccustomed to.

The second unit will be more of a test, since it includes a new assignment: the literature review.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Fishbowl, an Active Learning Technique

The “fishbowl” is an active learning technique appropriate for any class with a discussion or critical-thinking component. In this activity, an inner ring of students form the fishbowl, with an outer ring observing them.

The inner ring’s discussion might revolve around problem-solving—such as choosing the best contractor to dispose of waste or the best way to organize a paragraph— or around a debate, such as whether Victor Frankenstein has treated his creation fairly or whether airport scanners are an invasion of privacy. Any discussion topic that might be assigned to multiple small groups in a class can be used here.

The outer ring of spectators evaluate the inner ring’s performance. This works best if students are given particular roles, such as reporters, silent contributors (who will report on what they might have said), and shadowers who are assigned to a specific contributor. Students might consider questions such as:

  • Did the discussants use the text to support their arguments?
  • Did they use analytical language?
  • Did they use reasons and evidence?
  • Did they make connections to what someone else was saying?
  • Did they agree or disagree with someone else?
Other options include tap-ins, in which someone in the outer ring takes the place of a discussant, and reversals in which the outer ring has to continue the conversation of the inner ring.

This activity emphasizes self-reflection, which has been shown to be vital for critical thinking and transfer across courses.

For more on the fishbowl:
            How KIPP Teachers Learn to Teach Critical Thinking (YouTube)
            “Fishbowl” on Facing History and Ourselves

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Ruskin on Education

And this is what we have to do with all our laborers; to look for the thoughtful part of them, and get that out of them, whatever we lose for it, whatever faults and errors we are obliged to take with it. For the best that is in them cannot manifest itself, but in company with much error. Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.  And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either made a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. --John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice

I came across this passage from Ruskin yesterday and it immediately reminded me of teaching general education courses. From both the students and the administrators there is pressure to create perfection, skill, to form animated tools. Administrators want something measurable, which by definition is the same for every student. The students just seem to want to know the "right" answer. "What do you want me to write?" "How can I get an A?" When the students take their first steps toward more complex thinking, the result is often a mess. Then, they're frustrated. But this is a necessary step in the creative process. To make "men" (which I interpret as 'citizens') of students, some imperfection must be accepted as part of the process of discovery. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Creative Questioning

The topic of the most recent Humanities Pedagogy Group was Creative Questioning. My typical pedagogy is to ask lots of questions as part of a large-group discussion, but I’ve often felt that my questions weren’t getting me where I really wanted to go. It seems like we don’t really delve enough in class. We’re more likely to get to more critical perspectives when I review what other experts have said. What am I missing?

Our readings were “The Role of Questions in Teaching, Thinking, and Learning” and “Socratic Questioning.”  The former site argues that “Thinking is not driven by answers but by questions,” and that students have not learned how to ask the good questions. This brings up an important point: if I’m asking all the questions, how will they learn to question for themselves? I think it’s true that “only students who have questions are really thinking and learning.” So perhaps the problem is not the questions I’m asking, but that I'm not teaching students how to ask the right questions.

Here are some things I would like to try:

  • Teach students about different types of questions: of interpretation, of assumption, of implication, of point of view, of relevance, of accuracy, of precision, of consistency, of logic. 
  • Give students more practice coming up with questions in class in small groups, then discuss the questions as a class. Have them look especially for questions that the text didn’t answer for them. 
  • Ask questions as a step to writing a paper.
  • On an exam, have a question that asks them to list questions about the text and explain the significance of the questions they have chosen.