When students are unprepared for class

In line with Simon’s musings on whether or not he matters, I’ve been wrestling with whether all of my ideas about how to structure classes to get particular results actually work.  Do they matter?  

In one of my classes, only a handful of students were able to answer a pretty basic question: what is the main claim in this reading?  I’m sure many of us have experienced this before, but in line with my strategies on ensuring students do the reading, I thought I was well inoculated against the steady silence of puzzlement, for two reasons:

  1. Students have to write on all the readings each week.  Those papers include an annotated bibliographic entry for each reading, where in 1-2 sentences they must state the main claim of each reading.  Since about half the students wrote last week, they should know this.
  2. In this particular case I was asking about last week’s readings, which we had already discussed.  This was review!  I had mentioned these main points at least once before during our previous classes.

And yet, silence.

That’s not strictly fair.  A handful of students were able to answer my question for each of the readings.  But the bulk of the students just sat there, staring at me. First, let’s review Simon’s thoughts on getting students to talk, and then let’s consider the possible reasons for this, and how to solve them:

  1. They had not done the reading.  Since they only have to write 8 of the 12 papers, these students may have chosen not to write last week–and therefore didn’t bother to read.  
    • Solutions: require more papers. 8/12 was probably too generous, and it is clear that when students do not have to write, they don’t always do the readings very closely (often due to other legitimate commitments, such as work).
  2. They did the reading, but couldn’t remember it. Students may not take good notes when they read, and therefore can struggle with details.  They may also need training in how to identify key points so that they don’t miss the forest for the trees.
    • Solutions: teach students how to take notes on the reading.  Its an important skill, and we should not assume they already have it.
    • Continue to require the annotated bibliographies of the weekly readings so they build this skill over the course of the term.
  3. They did the readings, but were confused.  The readings I am assigning are a mix, but many of them are scholarly in nature.  Not all students in the class are majoring in the social sciences, and therefore may struggle with key terms. It was also a lot of reading–about 100 pages–and some of the chapters could have been split in two because they covered two widely different topics.  
    • Solutions: Review the syllabus to make sure that the mix of readings is appropriate in terms of amount and difficult.  
    • Take note of key terms and review them in class so that non-majors don’t feel lost.  
    • Continue to review the key point of each reading in class prior to discussion so that everyone is on the same page.  
  4. They may or may not have done the reading, but they did not make the connection between our discussions last week and the question of this week.  While I had mentioned the key points of the readings last week in passing, I didn’t make a point of it–I did not write them on the board, or encourage students to take notes of what I had said.  Often students don’t know how to recognize a key point that is made solely verbally.
    • Solution: anytime I mention a key point, make sure I put it on the whiteboard to signal to students that it is important.
  5. They may have known the answer, but chose not to speak up.  Even though I’ve encouraged my students to ‘fail’ in line with previous discussions on ALPS, many of them are afraid to say something wrong.
    • Solutions: whenever possible, use small groups to discuss the question first.  This allows students to check their answers with a small group of peers first, and then share them with the rest of the class if encouraged.  
    • Minute papers–where students take a minute to write down their thoughts–might also give them the time they need to choose the right wording for their responses.
    • Note who in their papers got the answer correct, and then cold call on those students to read their responses.  
    • Using encouraging language and thanking students for offering their response may also encourage quieter students to share their ideas in the future.  
    • Track and increase wait time.  What feels like an eternity to us in the silence is often mere moments, which might not be enough time to process the question and generate a response. There are plenty of strategies out there to do this effectively.

My takeaway: the students failure to answer my basic question is as much my failing as theirs.  We need to recognize the reasons WHY students can’t identify the key point of a reading, and exhaust all the structural and instructional tools and methods we have to get them to a point where they do the readings and are willing and able to talk about them.  Our job is provide the tools and training they need to succeed, and we should always make sure that any issues on the part of our students aren’t caused by a failing on ours.