One persistent problem teachers report experiencing is keeping students accountable for doing the weekly readings. Such readings are important for providing a foundation on which students can build as they develop their understandings of core course concepts. Actively responding to readings – whether the content is explicitly discussed in class or not – provides students with opportunities to rehearse new ideas, to connect readings to in class activities, to course-related experiences, to other students’ insights, to applications of ideas beyond the classroom.
And, as Peter Elbow points out in Specific Uses and Benefits of Low Stakes Writing, these approaches can be applied in classrooms of all sizes, and with the aid of 3×5 index cards or via a closed blog with prompts to which students reply ahead of class.
Writing in response to readings can serve as a midterm change-up – sparking new ways for us to frame course readings and the place of reading in learning; and sparking new ways for students (based on how we frame and model responding to reading) to rehearse skills of thinking, responding and communicating in a particular field of study.
Online Informal Writing
I’ve taken some time since my last course wrapped up to reflect on the teaching strategies I used and their success in engaging students and creating community. I’d like to share some of that with you, particularly my experience with an online informal writing strategy that I tried this semester and how it compares to similar strategies I’ve used in the past. By doing my reflecting “out loud,” I hope to spark your thinking about how you might use online writing in your own classes.
The course I taught was a graduate-level pedagogy course titled “Teaching in Higher Education,” offered through the Preparing Future Faculty program. Because the course focuses on the theory and practice of instruction, we were in a unique position to model and discuss the very teaching strategies used in class. Students were receptive to trying new things, to taking risks, and this “laboratory-like setting” made possible the kinds of activities we were able to employ and the frank, open nature of our discussions.
I’ve taught the course many times over the years and have always been impressed by the dynamic, collaborative classroom community that evolves. One persistent problem I experienced, though, was keeping students accountable for doing the weekly readings. These readings are important for providing a foundation on which students can build as they develop their identities as teachers, but since I rarely discuss the content of the readings in class – we have too many other important things to spend our time on—most students didn’t complete them. Students’ failure to process the readings appropriately was a missed opportunity, for them and for me.
This semester I decided to address that problem by adding weekly “informal” writing assignments to be completed in our Moodle course site. I wasn’t quite sure how this would work. I had used online reflective writing activities in the past, and students had been less than enthusiastic about them. With that in mind, I made several changes for this go-round that I believe were responsible for the success of the strategy:
- making the weekly writings a formal requirement of the course, rather than an optional assignment;
- creating writing activities that were purely developmental – that is, intended to be informal and low stakes;
- writing specific and compelling prompts for the weekly writing, with clear posting requirements and firm deadlines;
- using students’ online comments and ideas as the starting point for in-class activities.
I’d like to discuss each of these points in the following paragraphs, sharing my impressions of how they worked and ideas for implementation.
Informal Writing: As Low Stakes & Required
For online writing activities to be successful, you need the full participation of every member of the class. In my experience, this will only happen if two criteria are met:
- you make the informal writing assignments required, and
- you integrate them seamlessly into the context of the course, making them an ongoing part of students’ week-to-week work.
Our informal writing came under the category of “general course requirements,” which included aspects such as participation in discussions, in-class group work. All general requirements had to be completed for students to receive course credit.
As a graduate-level course I didn’t feel a need to attach a grade to these informal writings; however, you may want to do so for undergraduates. Ten percent of the course total would be appropriate—enough to make students accountable for completing the activity but not enough to encourage grade grubbing. Some of my colleagues who grade informal writing also adopt a policy whereby students can eliminate two or three posts from their final grade, allowing breathing room for those students who miss a post while reducing the tendency of others to obsess about their grades.
One of the key factors for successful informal writing assignments is that they be opportunities for students to process course material actively, to make sense of it for themselves; anything that gets in the way of that – namely worrying about “perfect” writing and grades – is counterproductive and should be discouraged.
The low stakes nature of the assignment, then, was an important part of its success as a strategy. It freed students to write comfortably without worrying about the “editor” in their heads. And it freed me from having to provide the kind of written developmental feedback I give on higher stakes pieces of writing, such as essays of teaching philosophy and writing of course syllabi.
As an instructor, it is crucial to demonstrate your presence in the discussion forums. Students need to know that you’re reading their posts, and they do need feedback on whether they’re performing to your expectations. The kind of feedback you provide can come in various forms. I read every post prior to class, but I did not write responses to them in the forums; instead, I noted interesting observations and used those as a way of opening our face-to-face class sessions, acknowledging students by name for their contributions. I made an effort to refer back to the informal writing throughout our sessions, using them to sharpen (and sometimes guide) our activities.
Students had no doubt that I was reading their posts carefully, and they were receiving feedback on their ideas from me verbally. The benefit for me with this method was time and efficiency: I was able to read a full week’s posts in one to two hours, whereas providing written comments on them would have taken perhaps three times as long.
With any teaching strategy, it is important to consider your audience. For undergraduates, you may have to adjust your methods for providing feedback, just as you might have to adjust your grading practices. One feedback strategy might be to comment in writing on one or two different posts each session so that students see your presence, and then follow up on those comments verbally in class as I did. You might also keep undergraduate students accountable for completing the work by marking their posts with a “plus,” “check,” or “minus” (grading them, as I mentioned above). This grading format is easier for the instructor and less daunting for students than awarding an A, B, or C. It also obviates the need for instructors to justify their grades in the way they might if they assign a letter: the post either exceeds, meets, or fails to meet a set of criteria. No comments are required. Colleagues I’ve talked to have used this strategy to good effect. With some practice, concentration, and a rubric, they can work through nearly 100 posts in about an hour.
Clear Guidelines & Specific Questions
It’s important to let students know what you expect of them. I set clear guidelines for the length of posts (generally 250 words), their deadlines (the day before class), and whether they were to post to a small group of peers to or the whole class. I set clear expectations for writing focuses in the prompt as well; here’s a typical prompt:
Teaching philosophies are expressions of your beliefs about teaching and learning. To help you reflect on your values, attitudes, and beliefs about teaching, visit the Teaching Perspectives Inventory web site: http://teachingperspectives.com/html/tpi_frames.htm.
Take the Teaching Perspectives Inventory. When you’re finished, review the summaries about the five perspectives and present your results to the class in the Week Three forum. In addition, discuss the following:
* Review how your preferred “styles of teaching” (preferences) are reflected in your teaching practice (what you actually do in and out of class).
* Have you learned anything new about yourself as a teacher by completing the Teaching Perspectives Inventory? Explain what you’ve learned. If you haven’t had an “Aha” moment, explain how the inventory confirmed what you already knew about your teaching values and beliefs.
You will have a chance to follow up on this discussion in class on Tuesday.
And here is an excerpt from one student’s response:
How are my results reflected by what I do in the classroom? As [a future professor of music], my teaching context usually involves choosing music that my orchestra will later perform, memorizing the piece in its entirety before the first rehearsal, and developing a rehearsal strategy that will prepare the students to perform the piece well and grow musically in the process. It is my job to lead, listen, and make adjustments during rehearsals. I “bridge” the learning for the group . . . from rehearsal to rehearsal, so that every person is able to be successful at contributing their own voice when it comes time to perform. It’s a fascinating process of dynamic group learning under the facilitation of an individual leader!
What have I learned about myself from the TPI results? After reviewing my results in the five areas of teaching, I was surprised that my score in the Nurturing category was not higher. The description in the category summary of Nurturing resonates with my philosophy of teaching and I would have anticipated a higher score. I believe that in arts education, students must feel confident that their learning environment is a safe place to take risks, that they are supported by their peers and teacher, and that their hard work will result in progress. I am inspired by this inventory to reexamine how I go about achieving this in my own teaching situation, and whether or not I am succeeding.
Bring Online Writing into Class Sessions
As the writing prompt above suggests, I used online writing activities to set up in-class activities. I further used informal writing to scaffold to higher stakes writing assignments such as a course syllabus and teaching philosophy. I found that in-class discussion was richer and students were generally better prepared after having rehearsed their ideas in the online forums. So, the online writing made the in-person classes better, while the in-person classes provided a compelling reason – the purpose – for doing the writings in the first place. This synergy was one of the most constructive outcomes of the informal writing activity and a big reason why students took the online assignments so seriously and benefited from them as much as they did.
So, what did my students think of the informal writing? They were enthusiastically positive about it. As one student mentioned, “This is one of the few classes that I’ve done all the reading for. Without the reflective writing in Moodle, I know I would have skipped it. I’m so glad that I didn’t because I really liked the readings and gained a lot from them.”
This reaction was common—and strikingly different from the ones I’ve gotten in the past to other attempts to incorporate informal writing in the same course. I’m convinced the reasons for the success of this strategy are the ones I noted above:
- requiring the assignment,
- stressing its low stakes nature,
- using it every week,
- choosing clear and compelling questions that scaffold class assignments, and
- using student writing as an entry point for in-class activities.
Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo
DeAngelis, Kristin and J. Garvey Pyke. “Facilitating Discussion: Online Learning: Facilitating Discussion.” http://teaching.uncc.edu/articles-books/tip-sheets/facilitating-discussion.
Elbow, Peter. (n.d.) “Specific Uses and Benefits of Low Stakes Writing.” Retrieved 11 February 2013 from
Feenberg, A., Xin, C., and Glass, G. (n.d.) A Teacher’s Guide to Moderating Online Discussion Forums: From Theory to Practice.
Words Image from – http://www.linkedmediagroup.com/
Bill Rozaitis is an Education Specialist at the Center for Teaching and Learning