Engaging Students, Part 1: Quotes

Hello ALPS world!  I’ve been letting Chad and Simon do all the talking lately, and we can’t have that!  I’m back with the new year and ready to share more ideas on how to make our classes more active.  My focus is going to be on techniques, large and small, aimed at engaging students and improving learning, all which you can apply in your classes without a lot of extensive planning.  Many of these ideas are published, but that doesn’t mean they are widely known, so my plan is to feature some of them on this blog.  Try those that appeal and let us know how they work!

This week’s technique comes from Elizabeth Barkley’s (2010) book, the aptly named ‘Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty’.  What I like about this book is that it talks about general tips and strategies for improving engagement as well as specific techniques.  Each of the techniques is explained and categorized, has step by step directions, examples, and ways to vary the technique or apply it in an online environment.  It is a great resource for promoting active learning in your classes. Today’s technique is the fourth in her book, called ‘Quotes’.

Quotes is interesting because it is an activity that aims to strongly connect the class session to the assigned reading.  The instructor picks several quotes from the text and puts them on slips of paper.  You can either have each student choose a paper, or have them pre-assigned to groups and each group picks a quote.  Students are then given some time in class to answer a set of questions or prepare to discuss certain themes regarding the quote.  Then the quote is read aloud, with each student who studied that quote having to add something to the discussion–whether that is information about where it comes from, the author, work, or context, or analysis of the quote itself.  You might, for example, provide several quotes from different Realist scholars and have students identify which author the quote is from, what their main contribution was to Realism, and how the quote illustrates it.  Students can either work in groups from the beginning, or they can work individually, and it would be up to the instructor whether every student had to participate or not.

I like this technique.  Getting students to do the reading and discuss it in class is a frequent challenge we face.  Telling students ahead of the time about the activity might encourage them to be more diligent about the reading, knowing that it will actually be directly used in the class session.  It creates a clear connection between the reading and what is done in the class.  I know that I am not always explicit about how the reading relates to the class–I don’t cite page numbers or remind them that this was ‘in the reading’–and so using segments of the reading in class like this creates that connection.  It also makes the discussion of various authors and ideas more interactive, putting the burden on the students to point out the relevancy of the quote and the connection between it and other quotes.

Some more thoughts:

  • Very low prep: This would work well as a last minute change up to lecture–instead of putting quotes up on a powerpoint slide, put them on paper, hand them out, and have the students puzzle them out. With some more time, you can easily adapt a lesson to follow this model.  Perhaps you could pair of up quotes, one each from competing authors, and then use that as a springboard to compare their ideas.
  • Try it online: Barkley suggests in an online environment that you can create a discussion forum for each individual quote and let students discuss there; this would also work well in a hybrid model.
  • Large classes: Put students into small groups of 4-5, and circulate say 5-6 quotes. You might ask each group to answer 4-5 questions about the quote, with each student having responsibility for one question.  Then you can compare group responses on the same quotes.

I am going to try this out the next time I teach the Declaration of Independence. I usually go through it, line by line, with my students with me explaining it to them, but now I’m going to break it up into sections, hand those out, and have them explain the meaning of different passages to each other.  Instant transition from passive to active!