Solving the Reading Problem: The Weekly Critique

One of the most common complaints that instructors have is that students do not complete the readings.  No matter how interesting or unique or provocative they are, many students fail to crack their books at all prior to an exam, and some of those who do fail to retain any of the information or arguments.  For those of us who use those readings as a foundation for a class session, this behavior can lead anywhere from mild irritation to downright aggravation.

One way to solve this problem in an upper level seminar is to turn the reading from a passive exercise to an active one.  Assign the readings by week, rather than by session, and have your students write an analytical response on the readings each week.  Each critique must also pose a discussion question at the end.  Papers are typically two pages, though that depends on the type and number of readings assigned.  They are posted the day before class and shared online in a discussion forum. The discussion questions and different perspectives can then be used as a basis for discussion that week.  Scoring is based on a check plus/check/check minus/pass/fail system (which loosely corresponds to A-F) but no comments are made by the instructor after the first week or two.

I tried this in Spring 2011 in my Environmental and Energy Security class, an upper level seminar with ten students, with great success.  All of my students came prepared to class having completed and thought about all the readings.  In addition, their writing occurred throughout the semester, allowing multiple grading opportunities and a chance to improve their writing.  The papers also made prep for class very easy: I facilitated a conversation and provided context, but the students drove the discussion.  Quiet students could be drawn in to the conversation without fuss, since their perspective was already public.  Finally, grading is minimal.  It only took a few moments to read through the critiques and see what level of effort and insight students brought to their papers.

The downside is that students will whine about having to actually do the readings and write every week. But in a class that is really built around the readings, my students came to appreciate being forced to do the readings and to think about them, and they liked that their work was brought so obviously into the class through the discussions.  It made them feel like their work was driving the course.  I was able to be a true facilitator and participant rather than just their teacher, and the critiques were cited as a positive on my evaluations rather than a negative.

4 thoughts on “Solving the Reading Problem: The Weekly Critique

  1. I’m late to this helpful post, but trying to get ready for my spring 2013 seminar. Are the analytical responses visible to the rest of the students?

    I did something very similar to this last year, but it backfired: students had to post their analytical responses on a blog during the 2-3 days prior to the class meeting. By the time we got to the class session, students felt that the subject was already exhausted. One student actually said: “we’ve already done this online.” Thus the burden repeatedly fell on me to lead the (excruciating) discussion—a task that the appointed discussion leaders could not accomplish, which was to generate a live dialogue on what the students felt was old news.

    It seemed that the students perceived that their having shared responses online was the extent of their obligation—this despite my handouts on conducting productive discussion, and emphasis in the syllabus of the value of classroom dialogue.

    So, my conclusion was that next time, responses should be submitted to me via email, perhaps leaving them more to talk about in class itself.

    Any thoughts about what I may have done wrong?

  2. This won’t be much help, but I’ve had the opposite problem — too little rather than too much discussion online, for tasks that are supposed to supplement what happens in the classroom but that are one step removed from the reading assignment (e.g., “formulate possible exam questions in this online discussion thread”).

    For the kinds of assignments described above, I have students submit them individually to me via the online course management platform, and discussion occurs in class.

  3. To avoid exhaustion prior to class and simplify your own work, you can use social media to check reading completion and comprehension. Set up a Facebook page or group chat and have students post to it about the readings. You can vary the assignment by having students post what they think the ‘take away’ is; the causal chain; a compelling argument; a key fact; a critique; a question for the author; a related article that they found; a contrasting article they found; a relevant current event they found; etc.

    One can have them all post or you can post the day before and assign random groups (ex. all the last names from N to Z post about X topic). It does not guarantee thorough understanding but it does set up expectations for students, encourages engagement with the material and each other, and often encourages further online research on the topic.

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