As faculty members, we are always trying to make our teaching as effective as possible by encouraging active student participation and student responsibility for their own learning. However, a number of difficulties prevent our attaining this goal of effective teaching. To put my discussion in perspective, let me give a brief background.
I teach at least two sections of math methods courses for elementary school in-service teachers in the credential course every quarter. The number of students in each section ranges from 25 up to 40 students, and English is not the first language of the vast majority of the students. Coupled with their weak to moderate English language proficiency, most of the students are either math phobic or have a shaky understanding of the math content they are expected to teach. To make matters worse, most of the students hold either part-time or full-time jobs and come for classes in the evenings, from 4 to 8 p.m. Given this situation (moderate language and math proficiency and lack of time), it is not an easy task to get them to read and to understand relevant parts of the required text or articles so as to be able to contribute to class discussions. While all these are difficult problems that need to be addressed more globally and systemically, I decided to concentrate on two specific difficulties that I believed might be solved more readily.
These two difficulties are (a) the lack of student awareness of course requirements and (b) the appropriate evaluation of student attendance and participation. I chose these two difficulties because they were the most frequent ones that I experienced, and they seemed specific enough to be addressed. In this paper, then, I discuss each of these difficulties and suggest the syllabus quiz and the group reflective summary as partial solutions. While the general goal of these innovations was to encourage students to take responsibility for their learning, the specific aims were to increase student awareness of course requirements by using the syllabus quiz and to help me evaluate student attendance and participation more appropriately by using the group reflective summary.
Increasing Student Awareness Of Course Requirements
How many times have we heard responses such as the following from our students?
- I did not know the assignment was due today!
- Was the report supposed to be less than 1500 words?
- I thought we could observe the same teacher for the observation reports!
- Was the presentation limited to 15 minutes each?
- You mean I have to prepare a rubric for the assessment task?
Many of us are surprised (and a little chagrined, perhaps) when our students ask us such questions, especially when we believe we have done a pretty good job of explaining details about our assignments, grading policies, and so forth, in our course syllabi. I am sure all of us have tried to make the syllabus as clear as possible by using bullets and numbers, italicizing and using bold-font items that need to be emphasized, using rubrics, using tables and grids, and using boxes to highlight certain requirements. In addition to following the guidelines of our Charter College of Education (which has a template specifying the headings and even some of the generic content, such as the expectations of access to, and competence, in technology, the mission of the College, policy on student conduct, etc.), I have tried to be as explicit as possible about the specific requirements for my courses (such as the policy on tardiness, rubric for grades A, B, C, etc., deadlines for assignments, lower limit for number of words for certain assignments, and so on), so much so that my syllabi are invariably about 6 to 8 pages long. In spite of all these efforts, either the students would not read the detailed syllabus I had given them and wouldn't plan ahead, or they wouldn't check to see that they were up to date with the requirements laid out in the syllabus. So, what can we do?
Recently, I tried a new strategy to overcome this problem. On the first day of class, I distributed hard copies of the syllabus and went over the requirements, assignments, grading policy, and so forth (not by reading everything, but by calling students' attention to the salient points)--something that all of us do. Then I told the students that I would be giving a quiz on the syllabus the following week. The quiz (mostly matching, true/false questions) would be worth 2% of the course, and they would be allowed to refer to the syllabus during the quiz. In other words, it would be an "open-book" quiz.
The students were surprised when I told that I would be quizzing them on their knowledge of what was in the syllabus.When I administered the quiz the following week, I found that although very few students scored 100%, the average score was about 80%. Those who had missed some of the answers quickly realized their mistakes and were disgusted at making those mistakes. They told me that the quiz was not difficult, but it did force them to read the syllabus more carefully--usually they tended to just skim through the syllabus. Moreover, since they could refer to the syllabus during the quiz, they did not have to memorize anything. They realized that if they had paid a little closer attention to what was in the syllabus, they would have had no difficulty in scoring high in the quiz.
While I cannot say that I never got any more of these frequently asked questions, I can say that this was the first quarter during which such questions were at a minimum. Hence, I would say that giving such a quiz did make them more knowledgeable of the requirements of the syllabus. I realized, too, that because of the requirements of the Charter College of Education (CCOE), directing each of us to follow a template, the first few pages of my syllabus were exactly the same as that of all my colleagues in the CCOE (Technology requirements, Statement of Reasonable Accommodation, Student Conduct, etc.). Coupled with my requirements, the syllabus ran to about 8 pages--something pretty overwhelming for the students. The next time around, I think I am going to use one font for the CCOE (common) requirements, and another font for my course requirements--and I will endeavor to keep down the number of pages by using more "bullets" and less narrative! Also, I believe it would be a good idea to give the students the opportunity to work in groups to come up with two or three questions per group for the syllabus and submit the questions to me. I will edit and compile the syllabus quiz, with most of the questions taken from those prepared by the students themselves, and give it to them the following week to see how they do this time around. I suspect they would do better, as they would have been actively involved in preparing the questions themselves.
Points to note in implementing the syllabus quiz:
- Let students know that they are allowed to consult the syllabus during the quiz. This makes it less a purely "memorization" task and more a task that encourages "looking up information." In other words, a "learning orientation" rather than a "performance orientation" should be encouraged.
- The quiz should be given the very next class meeting. This will help students become more aware of the deadlines and requirements of the course early in the course and plan their assignments accordingly.
- The quiz should not take too long to complete--certainly not more than 10 minutes. As such, the questions should require little writing, perhaps more matching and true/false questions. This will enable a focus on the requirements of the course, especially deadlines and the like.
- The quiz can be graded immediately after it is completed, (preferably by the students themselves exchanging their answer scripts) with the instructor's guidance. This will provide immediate feedback.
Evaluating Attendance and Participation More Appropriately
Many of us set aside a certain amount of points for attendance and participation. While I have not had much difficulty in assigning points for attendance, I have found it difficult to assign appropriate points for participation. Among the many difficulties are knowing each and every student by name; monitoring who has participated actively, and who has not; and the frequency and value of the contributions. For example, while I make it a point to know all my students by name by the 4th meeting, it is still difficult to give different points for those who might contribute comments more frequently and articulately, but with less insight, and those who might make less frequent but more insightful comments. (Although I have looked at a few of my colleagues' rubrics for assessing participation, they have not been too helpful. I will need to look at some more rubrics in the literature, with the possibility of exploring the relationship, if any, between student attitude to courses that have clear rubrics on participation, and those that do not have such clear rubrics.)
To address this difficulty in assigning appropriate grades for participation, I implemented the group reflective summary. I first asked my students to get into groups of four or five at the end of every class meeting and take about 15 to 20 minutes to discuss and write a summary of what was covered in this class meeting, then submit the summary to me before the end of the class. I also told the students that the summary should evidence reflection on the day's lesson, for example, by commenting on something they found surprising or insightful, especially as applied to teaching specific math topics or to the teaching of math in general. I told them to give examples to clarify anything that they wrote down and reminded them that just putting down a few sentences or headings without examples or elaboration would not suffice. Also, every member of the group had to write their own names on the summary paper. As they were discussing and writing the summary, I would go around and monitor their discussion. After I had read the group reflective summaries, I would return them the following week and each member would be given the same number of points (1.5% maximum per class meeting, adding up to 15% for the whole course) for class participation, based on what had been written in the summary. Each member had to take turns being the "writer" of the summary, as I did not want the same person to be the "scribe" every time. Only those who had been present in class for the entire lesson and were also present during the writing of the summary would get any points for attendance and participation.
After implementing this "group reflective summary" the last quarter, I found that not only were there fewer absences, but there was more participation and more reflection and insightful comments from my students. I found that the very first reflective summary was not as substantive as I had expected, so I believe that a "model" summary should be shown first, and I intend to do this the next time around. Hence, rather than expecting a summary at the end of the very first lesson/session (from the students), I would model a summary of the lesson obtained by getting student input to questions such as: "What two things did you learn today about effective math teaching?" "State something that seemed different from the way you learned or were taught math when you were in middle school?" "How could we use a graphic organizer, such as a Venn Diagram, to summarize certain parts of today's discussion?" Then, using the model, students can write their reflective summaries, starting from the second session. Also, although most students had a tendency to write in narrative form, some did use bullets, followed by explanations and elaborations. Those who used mostly the narrative form seemed to run out of time, so I pointed out the advantage of using bullets, and suggested using other forms, such as graphic organizers. Although students have to be skillful in summarizing their lessons/lectures, the tendency was to still use a strict, linear, narrative form, and I believe I will have to spend some time in exposing them to the use of graphic organizers as tools for summarizing. I believe, too, that given the emphasis on teachers becoming reflective practitioners and the lack of time students have to do in-depth reading of the text or articles, it is a good start to emphasize this reflective summary and assign perhaps 20% of the course grades for these summaries, rather than the 15% I assigned. I would also like to see in the near future whether students' performance on the final (which is an open-book final that allows them to refer to all their notes, summaries, etc.) is enhanced by their having done these reflective summaries and also by their having these summaries accessible to them during the exam.
Points to note in implementing the group reflective summary:
- A sample or two of a "model" summary should be shown first. This enables students to see what is expected.
- Suggest bulleted points, followed by examples and elaboration, and graphic organizers, as some ways of writing the summary. This will enable students to explore different ways of writing a summary rather than relying on a strictly linear approach.
- Be consistent in giving about 15 to 20 minutes at the end of every lesson to get the summary ready. This will show that the instructor values the summary, and will also give students the opportunity to reflect at the end of every lesson.
- Make sure that students take turns writing the summary. This will enable everyone to write at least once or twice and prevent overburdening one person.
- Give written feedback on the students' summary, and return the summaries at the very next meeting. This will provide timely feedback to the students, and will also set a good example of promptness by the instructor.
In this paper I discussed two strategies--the syllabus quiz and the group reflective summary--I used to address specific difficulties I experienced in getting my preservice teachers to participate more actively in the lessons and to take more responsibility for their own learning. While the initial results seem encouraging, much more needs to be done, and I would welcome any other suggestions that would enhance my teaching.
Posted January 11, 2005.
All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2005 by Ramakrishnan Menon.