Get your students to know each other and make them write for each other

by Harry on December 16, 2015

A brief conversation with 2 students crystallized for me why two things I have been doing in my classes for a while work well, and I want to recommend them to other teachers; and also make a recommendation for students.

Background to the conversation. The class is very small, just 14 people (this is unusually small—my normal class sizes are around 25, 80-100, 150-170). R&M live together; G, who is also in the class, lives with them. They have a 4th roommate, MA. Class was once a week on Wednesday nights.


R: “MA might come to class on Wednesday. I mean, it’s like she’s in the class, so she might as well just come along”
Me: “What do you mean?”
M: “Well, we all just argue about class in our apartment for half the week, and she can’t really avoid it”
R: “Yes, as soon as the memos start coming in on Sunday, we start reading them to see what everyone says”
M: “We always look to see what S [a very poised, provocative, freshman] says, because at least one of us will disagree with her”
R: “And even if M and I agree, G always disagrees with us. Our apartment is just full of argument from Sunday through Wednesday”

So what are the two things I do?

1.About 6 years ago I started requiring students in my smaller class to post several memos a semester online. I’ve scaled it up lately: they have to write a memo on the reading every week and respond to someone else’s memo. (The deadline for the memos is always 30-40 hours before class, and the deadline for the comments is the moment class starts). I have recently started requiring this in my larger classes too. The benefits for me are huge: first, everyone has done the reading, and second, I know what they do, and do not, understand, so am in a much better position to organize class time more effectively. The fact that they have done the reading transforms class discussion: they are all able to be fully engaged, and the amount of time spent clarifying the reading is hugely reduced. The fact that they have written about it enables me easily to induce the more reticent students into discussion. Of course, I have to do a lot of reading (I read all of the memos, and all the comments that are in by about 20 hours before class, for my smaller classes. I read more selectively – maybe 1/3 or so of the memos a week for the large classes – with the TAs expected to read them all; and the two large classes in which I have done this I led my own discussion section for which obviously I read the memos, and used them to shape discussion). But the time cost is easily compensated for by the reduction in anxiety that I am going to be wasting people’s time.

2.The other thing I have started doing in my small classes is requiring the students to introduce themselves over and over again. Probably the first 6 or 7 class meetings in a row I make them do this, and then again occasionally, later. My initial purpose was so that I would learn all their names more quickly, and learn something about them, as a kind of aide memoire. (There’s also a bonding effect: after one student said she had visited every state in the Union, another student and I simultaneously said, incredulously, “What?… North Dakota?”) But the more important effect, that I have become increasingly deliberate, and explicit, about, is that they learn one another’s names. A senior said yesterday that after taking many small honors classes, my class was the first in which she knew the name of every student.

When I was in college I would go to the refectory, or a café, with Adrian, and often with others, after every lecture and we would discuss the lecture, or what we had read, over lots of tea. Almost all my learning came from reading, writing, and discussing my classes with him. In her wonderful and depressing book My Freshman Year Rebekah Nathan identifies some of the structural reasons why students in institutions like mine don’t do that. They have to take 4 or 5 (or 6) unrelated classes a semester; they are hardly in any classes with people they know; their schedules do not coincide with those of their friends. At my own institution there are just two 45 minute periods a week when no classes are scheduled, so suppose you wanted to make a weekly formal meeting time – it would be difficult. Space is limited: rarely is there more than 10 minutes between classes, and students often have to have back-to-backs (an additional consequence is that it is hard for groups of students to hang around with the professor after class/lecture because the room is needed, and once anyone starts moving out of the room the group breaks up). Students tell me that there is a fairly fixed norm against making friends in classes. Lots of them want to do it (those who talk to me) but think it will come off weird if they talk to people in class. So they sit one chair away from anyone else, look at their phones until class begins, and make friends in their dorms, or at parties, or in their student organizations – none of whom take classes with them. [1]

The idea behind getting them to know each other’s names is to induce them to spend more time talking to one another outside of class. The hunch is that if they are talking with people they are taking class with, there is a chance that they will talk about what’s going on in class. In my case, because my classes are so intrinsically interesting, and talking about them is fun, the chance is reasonably high. [2]

The memos give them something to talk about. You have to be deliberate about the memo prompts. In the initial weeks I give them prompts which are pretty directive – the trick is for the prompt to require them to do the reading, while simultaneously getting them to express a view about some part of the reading. As things progress, or if I think the reading is easy enough, I more frequently ask them simply to comment on what interested or confused them in the reading. In the large classes, of course, many memos are perfunctory; but many others are not, and even the perfunctory ones reveal that they have read the material (and can reveal helpful misapprehensions). In the smaller classes, though, the online discussion can be intense, and fruitful.

So, my advice to professors is: Make your students get to know each other, and tell them why they are doing it, and tell them to discuss the content outside of class (something which many students genuinely seem to need – and appreciate – being told is a good idea). And make them write regular, and frequent, online memos – and read them yourself.

My advice for students: 1) recruit suitable friends to take your classes with you; 2) make friends in the classes that interest you and talk to them about class.

[1] In my large classes I have been less assiduous about making them get to know each other, but will start next semester.
[2] Another conversation with 2 business students: “When you said on the first day that you wanted us to spend our evenings talking with our roommates and friends about what we discuss in class, we both thought, “huh, some hope, he’s ridiculous”. But now we do it all the time!”
[3] I have to say this: the truth is that R&M went to pre-school together. But their roommates didn’t, and I have similar, if less striking, evidence from plenty of other students.

{ 45 comments }

1

Lynne 12.16.15 at 4:14 pm

Harry, I am not a teacher but I love these ideas. I have been dismayed by the state of higher education now, when my kids have attended university, as compared to back in the Dark Ages when I was there. Back then, classes were smaller, and profs actually engaged with the students. Now the classes are cavernously large, and the amount of money we have hemorrhaged to various institutions is enough to make you faint. We have paid far, far more, for far, far less.

These ideas of yours would seem to be big steps in the right direction. Now if you could do something about tuition….

2

Blain 12.16.15 at 4:45 pm

This is great advice! Thanks for posting this, Harry.

Regarding the ‘memos’, I’ve done something similar with my smaller, more advanced classes in the past, namely, require them to submit a number of ‘discussion questions’ based upon the readings over the course of the term (not every single week, but 10 over the term). I don’t have the students post them online, but I compile them into a handout and have them read them out during our discussion time. Usually others reply to the questions without much prompting from me. This term I started doing a similar thing in my lower-level undergraduate class as well (though I allow them to submit less demanding ‘clarification questions’ in addition to clarification questions). It worked very well in getting more of the students to participate and interact with one another, so I’m going to keep doing it in the future.

I really like you suggestion of how to get the students to know one another, and am going to try it next term!

3

Bloix 12.16.15 at 4:52 pm

Harry, I love your posts on pedagogy and I also despair when I read them – because they show such common-sense, creative thinking, and because you seem to be doing this excellent work all on your own. Universities appear to be set up to ignore even the simplest steps forward in the improvement of education. It’s like you’re the Semmelweis of college teaching.

4

Kevin 12.16.15 at 4:54 pm

I also like these ideas a lot, though my sense is that where I work (McGill U) the norm against friend-making in class is not as strong. But thanks for writing this up, Harry!

A question: Do students in your classes receive any credit in the form of a grade for participating in the memo exchanges?

5

Kevin 12.16.15 at 4:55 pm

I should have said that I also plan to try incorporating some of these ideas in my large (150) class next semester!

6

Marshall Peace 12.16.15 at 4:57 pm

Please sir, can I get into one of those classes??

7

harry b 12.16.15 at 5:52 pm

Bloix and Lynne — I wouldn’t say I’m doing it alone, and lots of my practices are picked up from watching and talking to other people. To be honest, I thought I was late to the table with the online posting (because I am so technophobic) and only realized that this wasn’t standard practice by talking to students and other faculty. I’m sure I picked up the habit of getting them to know each other’s names (and lots of other good habits) from watching my colleague Paula McAvoy, who has sometimes guest taught for me. But… it does seem a bit odd that these close-to-zero-effort things are not more widely promoted/discussed.

Kevin — I don’t give positive credit. I say that these are mandatory. In the smaller classes, that seems to be enough – people don’t fuss about it, and mostly comply, mostly fully. (And I use my judgment — if, as happens sometimes, a student writes essentially a 1500 word essay one week, I’m not going to worry if they miss a post subsequently, though I am going to check whether they are reading). In the large class I have a scale by which their grades will be reduced depending on how non-compliant they are (like half a grade for 4 missing memos).

Notice: I do not require that they read each others memos, except to comment. But most read a good number of memos regularly, esp in the smaller classes. And some students read most memos — and NOT requiring reading helps you to identify students who are more engaged than they seem to be in class (just as requiring the memos helps you identify the — usually but not always female — students who have a lot to say but don’t say it in class)

8

paul 12.16.15 at 6:30 pm

Another suggestion, based on an email exchange with my daughter, who is “in public education.” I sent this link to her during her workday, and, well, best print the emailed exchange (I don’t text). Recognize that after the exchange below, she admitted
– she had not had a chance to read beyond the title
– she did not know where her brain was, but for some reason had Rawls on it at the moment.

SHE: Veil of ignorance? (Haven’t read it yet, but seems like it’d be pertinent.)
ME: Veil of ignorance, huh? What are you referring to?
SHE: Rawls. I don’t love philosophy, but I love Rawls’s theory.
ME: And it is relevant here, how?
SHE: [THE PUNCHLINE] I didn’t read the article, but I was thinking that perhaps you have everyone write an essay and then everyone gets someone else’s grade randomly. But I was just making a lot of inferences from the title.

9

Rakesh Bhandari 12.16.15 at 6:58 pm

In my experience I have found that teachers only learn students’ names when they are too lazy to remember their student ID numbers and refer to the students by those #s.

10

Rakesh Bhandari 12.16.15 at 7:00 pm

High-stakes testing usually solves any problem.

11

JW Mason 12.16.15 at 7:42 pm

This is great. Maybe I’ll try this in the spring.

12

ccc 12.16.15 at 8:41 pm

I like these ideas, very helpful!

“they have to write a memo on the reading every week and respond to someone else’s memo. (The deadline for the memos is always 30-40 hours before class, and the deadline for the comments is the moment class starts)”

Are their submitted memos first visible only to you and then, after the memo submission deadline, they become visible and commentable for all class participants?

13

harry b 12.16.15 at 9:17 pm

No — the memos are visible to all students, as soon as they are submitted. You might think that this creates opportunities for them to copy one another, or, alternatively, inhibits them from saying what someone else has already covered. But in the smaller classes at least the former has not been a problem… and the latter doesn’t seem to have been.

The reason I titled the post “get them to…write for each other” is that what they are used to is writing for professors. I want them to write to and for each other — explaining their ideas, arguing with each other. Partly because its a good discipline, but partly because I know they are quite concerned with their peers thinking highly of them (esp once they have gotten to know each other), so this prompts thoughtfulness that they might not otherwise feel pressured to put in. (Yesterday a very capable freshman who, honestly, I had assumed was a senior because of the maturity of her online posts, told me that at the beginning of the semester the online stuff was very intimidating “especially when Luke wrote that long paper as his post” — but that over time she became much more comfortable).

14

Neville Morley 12.16.15 at 9:23 pm

Technical question: what system are you using for the memo-posting? I’ve tried similar things – advertised to students as blogging, which may have been a mistake – but have found it quite difficult with the university’s very clunky Blackboard OLE.

15

harry b 12.16.15 at 9:28 pm

I’ve no idea what the system is! The address is learn@uw, so if you google that you’ll see something that gives you a clue, but you won’t be able to see the platform in action. I am so technologically challenged that it seems like magic to me, but it definitely isn’t perfect — eg, there’s a fair amount of labor involved in printing out all the posts in order, with replies, without having endless repeats of the posts that have been replied to – -and I have to print it out like that in order to read as lots of posts at once (because my eyes glaze over when reading from the screen).

16

Neville Morley 12.16.15 at 10:15 pm

Thanks. I’m much less bothered about my convenience than the students’, solely because if the system is too awkward then the vast majority won’t do anything – and the joys of UK higher education mean I’m not allowed to deny credit for non-participation, or even deduct a few marks… In an ideal world, they will respond to the positive aspects, but sadly experience tends to support pessimism.

17

harry b 12.16.15 at 10:49 pm

Wow. Well, as I say, I don’t think it is material to the smaller classes, but it matters for the larger classes. But… participation is essential to a whole lot of learning, and they are resources for each other. We are obliged to induce them (by whatever reasonable means are effective) to do what will make them learn the most, no?

From the student end the system is pretty easy to use.

18

Rangdo 12.16.15 at 11:45 pm

I’ve done similar things to your memos with our Virtual Learning Environment. It’s very useful. Even if the comments on the class reading aren’t very good, they then at least serve as a diagnostic tool for me to identify problems I can address in class. What are the requirements for writing a memo? Do you have any specifications for content or length?

19

Harry 12.16.15 at 11:52 pm

No. I just tell them I expect a paragraph or so. With my freshman class, after the second time, I gave them examples. I want it to be a low stakes assignment, and for them to write more, and well, because they want to rather than because I am judging them. In the smaller classes I make it VERY clear that I read everything, and carefully (I often have a better memory of what someone said than they, themselves, do — except after I have revealed that they start remembering better what they said).

20

Markos Valaris 12.17.15 at 12:33 am

In my smaller classes (one around 50-70 students, one around 25-30) I do a similar thing with Moodle’s discussion forums tool. Each student has to post (at least) twice a week, once before class and once after, but many students do way more posting than that. As Harry says, it has proven really useful.

One eye opening result for me has been that some students who are usually very shy about expressing their opinions in real time actually have a lot of really good things to contribute in the slower, less personal, and more deliberate medium of online discussion. This gives them an opportunity to feel part of the group in a way they might otherwise have missed.

Having the online discussion continue *after* class can be really useful for feedback, and also give you a chance to correct any misapprehensions class discussion may have left unresolved.

21

JW Mason 12.17.15 at 3:03 am

I wonder how easy it is to set something like this up with Blackboard. I know people who require their students to join a Facebook group, which solves the technical problems but perhaps has other downsides.

22

Alan White 12.17.15 at 3:49 am

Harry–

I think this is wonderful. Certainly this is an extension of the idea that a professor should actively engage students in connecting their comments during class–the real-time way of getting them to connect. Do you think this is viable with profs like me with a 4/4 schedule? I love it–but feel swamped with what I already do. (Like the Tenure Task Force meeting on the 23rd–2:00 on the 18th floor of Van Hise. Gulp. It’s an open meeting FYI.)

23

magari 12.17.15 at 5:06 am

In my seminars, I require students to upload a memo and two discussion questions 24 hours prior to class. But I had not thought about having them write a reaction to another student’s memo — an interesting idea. Thanks for this post, as this is indeed good pedagogy and should be more widely adopted.

24

TMD 12.17.15 at 5:41 am

I wikis like to try something like this next term, in a history class of 30-40 students. (Mostly not native speakers of English, thus often reluctant to speak up in class.) My options are Moodle vs. a Facebook group. If anyone has experience with either of these, I am sure many CT readers would be interested to read their thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of each.

25

TMD 12.17.15 at 5:44 am

wikis=would… But actually, if there is any wiki-like system that people use, that would be good to know about too!

26

Meredith 12.17.15 at 7:41 am

I feel so out of this. I mean, not the discourse or the goals or H’s insightful gambits (I use “gambit” respectfully), but the effort to get students to connect with one another. Forty years ago, where I teach, none of this was necessary, and certainly not a few years earlier when I was a student. I speak from a “small elite liberal arts” college world but not just from that world. What is happening here?

Students need to connect with one another…. Just a few days ago, I took my seat beside a few students as I waited for my classroom to be cleared. One student was in my class, and we exchanged a few friendly words (actually, she and I are very friendly, so our exchange was routine, and warm); the other two, well, I don’t know. I do know that I am an increasingly invisible old woman, but still, I was obviously a professor. Just a few years ago, the not-mine students would have perked up at my appearance. But now, when I sat down in the loungish area near classrooms, the other two students suddenly burrowed into their cell-phones (which they hadn’t been consulting when I first arrived).

I could have ignored this but felt a burst of energy. I challenged them — I don’t remember how, but it was gentle and friendly, and they got it. The young woman never did meet my eye, but she spoke. The young man (I feel so sorry for young men!) did not (he remained burrowed in his cell phone, except for a few grunts). We all agreed that their cell-phone absorption was a caricature. ( I do have sophisticated students, though they are as immature as any late adolescents.)

I may have entered into an odd moment, but I don’t think so. The effort required to get students to talk with the fellow students before them, with the friendly old-lady professor they don’t know who has appeared in their midst unexpectedly — really, does this effort require rocket-science skills?

Apparently, it does. This is sad.

27

Neville Morley 12.17.15 at 8:25 am

I’d certainly like to hear more about experiences with running Facebook groups (though my impression is that many of my students have moved on to other platforms). Presumably has to be a closed group and students have to ask to be added – which creates another barrier to the engagement of the less engaged ones, if this can’t actually be enforced. Or is there an alternative?

Also wondering about trying to force them all onto Twitter; surely one 140-character comment with appropriate hashtag per week wouldn’t be too much to ask for?

28

Russell Arben Fox 12.17.15 at 9:59 am

Once again, Harry has given me a wonderful teaching idea. Thank you!

29

Markos Valaris 12.17.15 at 10:23 am

Josh, Blackboard has a fairly easy to use system for online discussions, which I’ve used in the past (that was Blackboard 9, I don’t know what they are up to now). It was actually more user friendly than Moodle, which I use now. As I recall it made it easy to review each user’s posts in one place, no matter what threads they had posted them on.

Moodle itself is fine, and provides a number of different formats for online discussion (I use the “blog style” format), but you need to actively hunt each user’s posts across each thread, when it comes time to review/mark them.

I haven’t used Facebook, and I would prefer not to.

30

Eddy Nahmias 12.17.15 at 2:16 pm

Great ideas. I’m going to do the online posts this semester in a class of 35 (on moral psychology with phil grad and undergrad, plus neuro and psych students, so I need them to engage and learn each others’ ways of thinking). For each class, I will have 1/4 do the ‘memo’ style response to reading raising an objection, with 1/4 reading and responding to one student’s ‘memo’, 1/4 doing a summary of reading, and 1/4 asking two questions of clarification. They will begin class by sharing their writing with another student (getting to know each other). And I always have them make a big namecard they display each class to learn each others’ names (and help me!).

31

Chris 12.17.15 at 2:36 pm

Harry —

I’ve been using the first method for the last few years the undergrad courses I teach (as an adjunct) at MIT. We use a private subreddit for the course, which works nicely both functionally (because students can post memos and engage in threaded discussion) and thematically (since I teach courses on social media and the Internet and it’s a popular platform for them).

This year, my coinstructor, who admits to having trouble with matching faces to names, imported something borrowed from our research lab meetings, where we begin each research lab meeting with an introduction and icebreaker question. We spent the first 10-15 minutes of a 3 hour class this fall going around the room with a name and an icebreaker Q&A. I think it added a great dynamic to the course and I’ll be instituting it from now on.

32

Bloix 12.17.15 at 2:46 pm

Meredith – take a look at what Harry accurately calls the “wonderful and depressing book My Freshman Year.”

33

harry b 12.17.15 at 4:35 pm

About 2 years ago I had a German exchange student in a senior level political philosophy class. He was very academically capable, and ahead of most of the rest both in philosophy and had a good background in economics. When he left Madison we had tea together and he said that he was amazed by the class and how much he learned from his peers — and specifically identified the ice breakers and the forcing them to talk to each other a little early on in the course as key to his ability to learn from them. My favourite ice breaker, because on average around half the students in my smaller classes are underage, is to ask them what their favorite drink is or, if they are underage, what they imagine, from just watching other people drink, what their favorite alcoholic drink would be if they were allowed to drink.

34

Philip 12.17.15 at 7:20 pm

That just sounds totally different to my experience of HE in the UK. I did my BA at the turn of the millennium, an MA in 06/07 and am doing an MA to train as a social worker now. I have been lucky to be on small courses but even when classes have been combined with other courses there have been smaller seminar groups for discussion. These were not always great at undergraduate level, I think usually most people had done the reading, but I made good friends from my course and studying with them out of class was key. Now, the group discussion is brilliant, partly because of the range of academic background and experience. The first MA had discussion forums on blackboard which weren’t used that much, now we have set up a facebook group which seems tomorrow be fairly common for other courses too. I really can’t imagine studying for a degree without discussing stuff with classmates. I am surprised this has become a problem and always thought class discussions were a major part of US courses.

35

Gabriek 12.17.15 at 11:19 pm

The second works wonders. I spend five minutes going round the class asking everyone to stand, say their name, and answer some silly question, and give a graded name test around midterms.

Students always stress about the test, which makes them motivated to learn; they also always score perfectly, which is a nice morale boost in the middle of the term. More importantly, it fosters community. There are still online communities that exist stemming from a silly test I gave a decade ago. Discussions occur, in and out of class, between people who know each other.

36

Gareth Wilson 12.17.15 at 11:24 pm

harry b: Weren’t we just talking about discrimination against Muslims?

37

ZM 12.17.15 at 11:41 pm

Neville Morley,

I have found Facebook groups can be good, both for specific subjects/tutorials and group projects, and also for the general discipline for news and discussion. I think it is a better platform to the blackboard discussions due to being able to upload a wider variety of file types and to have discussion threads through comments.

I have also been in classes that used Twitter, I think this is good for students who enjoy making short witty comments on the material. My university also often uses Twitter for public lectures — so people can ask questions to the presenter/s, and also to live tweet the lecture. I prefer just taking notes myself, but other people seem to really like the medium, and I think if you have the live tweets running down the side of a Powerpoint it makes the lecture more interactive both for the presenter/s and the audience. Although the downside is it can be a bit distracting listening to a public lecture and reading tweets.

38

harry b 12.18.15 at 2:54 am

People can say — and indeed one kid did say, this semester — that they can’t imagine what their favorite drink would be because they won’t drink. But, yes, its a good point.

39

Gareth Wilson 12.18.15 at 3:51 am

Fair enough. More broadly, I have to wonder how this encouragement of personal interaction between students works with the current climate on campus. Especially since one of the minority groups you have to great pains not to offend is people who don’t want personal interaction.

40

millicent friendly 12.19.15 at 4:37 am

These are great suggestions, thanks. I did very incompetent versions of both things this past term (using Blackboard for the discussion forum) — but then I found I couldn’t stand to read all the posts…. I’m not sure they ever caught on, and I do think it was very beneficial for them to do it anyway, but I’m not sure I have the nerve to perpetuate the fraud next term.
A surprisingly good icebreaker (at least for my kind of school): what was your commute here?

41

Chris Bertram 12.19.15 at 8:20 am

Glad that Neville has pitched in (we are at the same institution). I can see a number of obstacles to the memo thing at some UK institutions.

1. Changing formal course requirements is actually quite hard and bureaucratic once things are in place, so it would be very difficult to introduce this practice onto an existing course. Since the memos are in their nature not anonymized, I don’t think we could use them in determining the final grade, and without that incentive (ie if if were a purely voluntary exercise) participation rates would fall.

2. Since the UK government introduced the fee regime there is an increasing reluctance by students to participate actively, on the grounds that as “customers” they should be able to sit back and have us provide the content to them. Obviously this is very bad for them and self-defeating, but what the students want gets amplified by managements who are paranoid about scores in the National Student Survey and how these feed into rankings (and potentially into the Teaching Excellence Framework). So I’d expect some resistance on the grounds that “we’ve paid our money, but now you are asking us to do these extra things.” (Parallel issue: students complain they haven’t got the time to do the reading, but demand more “contact hours” for us to tell them what was in it.)

3. Instructors get “workload credit” on the basis of a set of standard assumptions about how long it takes to teach, prepare, mark etc. Any time allocation that exceeded those assumptions would effectively be a bite out of research time (which, given management expectations about the Research Excellence Framework) you wouldn’t want to sacrifice.

Having said those things, I’m going to give some thought about how to introduce this to my teaching. But since it would have to be purely voluntary, I’d anticipate a fall-off in participation once the keen students notice that the slackers aren’t doing (and feel let down, so stop doing it themselves).

42

harry b 12.20.15 at 2:25 pm

Wow, that is depressing, Chris.
Can you tell them that they will learn more and better if they do it? I do feel that the students who care about the learning (because they have been socialized that way) have a kind of unfair advantage over those who simply want the credential (because they have been socialised that way); because the actual learning, though it never shows up on a credential, will benefit them in lots of ways later on. Which is a reason I try to emphasize the importance of learning when I talk with them,

43

oldster 12.20.15 at 7:34 pm

“as “customers” they should be able to sit back and have us provide the content to them.”

A sentiment often heard in the States as well. (In fact, I suspect the virus originated in the US and only later mutated into a UK form).

I once heard a wise person–and I forget who it was–offer the following model, which I have since shared with students. Maybe I read it right here on CT.

The resources of the university–libraries, courses, teachers, etc.–are not like a cafeteria-line where we dole out dollops of product. Instead, they are like a gym. Going to university is like purchasing a gym-membership: it gives you access to a vast array of exercise-machines, basketball courses, free weights, running-tracks, and so on.

You will get out of your gym membership exactly as much as you put into it. If you do not push yourself by using the resources, you will get nothing.

You can’t buy the membership, do nothing, and then complain that we didn’t add muscles onto your frame. And you cannot go to university, do nothing, and then complain that we did not give you “content.” If you think that’s how university works, you have the wrong model.

I probably did read it here on CT, the more I think about it.

44

Val 12.20.15 at 7:35 pm

I taught last semester in a post graduate online course for which 40% of the assessment was for online forums. Students were required to post usually a minimum of two or three short pieces (50-150 words) each week on set questions. On some occasions they were required to respond to another’s (half the group did first posts and half did responses). Often they responded to points others had made anyway.

There wasn’t much opportunity for personal contact between students because there were only two contact days (though that is more than some online courses I guess). On both days the unit coordinator (not me) started with icebreakers (just fun things, like what sort of shoe would you be if you were a shoe).

The online discussions were generally great, although there were always a few students who came in at the end saying ‘I will summarise what the group has said so far … ‘ and not adding anything. My role in the unit was mainly assessing the weekly contributions (everybody got a mark each week – pass, credit, distinction) (I’d also reviewed and updated the online course material prior to semester).

I didn’t give individual feedback unless specifically requested (eg by students whose marks weren’t as good as they expected). I gave general feedback after each week’s tasks were assessed. I originally thought that system would be no good and that there should be fewer tasks and more individual feedback, but in fact the students’ evaluations for the unit were very high, as they have been every year since it started.

The student conversations were very good. Of course they were postgrad students, doing an elective they had chosen, and because the course is a popular professional qualification, most were also working – but conversations were still very good, even allowing for that.

It was an enormous amount of work for me and I never completed it in the allowed time (but the exploitation of postgrads and casuals/adjuncts is a topic for other threads I guess).

The platform is Moodle. I read online so don’t have to print out – I think that would have been pretty impractical.

In our undergraduate face to face classes (which are usually two hour) we get the students to do a lot of small group work, and usually I think most people make the students work in randomly allocated groups quite often so they all have to get to know each other. However I think introducing online requirements like Harry has would be brilliant in ensuring they did the reading.

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Metatone 12.22.15 at 11:12 pm

Great ideas harry. And some great followups from others.
I’ll certainly be doing more introduction activities.

I’d love to do the memo thing, but I think it would increase my resentment at the situation for adjuncts like me at the institution I teach at. I’m already really struggling to justify the time/money balance around the grading of assignments that management is really reluctant to let me change.

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