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.

Playing with Blocks: Teaching Research Methods through Games like Zendo

I love games.  Card games, role playing games, board games, video games, computer games, online games, etc.  When I first started teaching, it was only natural to start scheming on how to bring games into the classroom and share them with my students.  What originally started as simply a way to enliven the classroom has developed into a scholarly interest in the role of games in the classroom.  Now every time I sit down to play a game I find myself considering the possible classroom applications.  I will be sharing my discoveries in this blog.

My current favorite is a game called Zendo by Looney Labs.  In this game, a designated ‘Master’ chooses a rule of some kind and then creates two arrangements of plastic pyramid shaped pieces (called Icehouse pieces) that come in four colors and three sizes.  One arrangement, or ‘koan’, follows the rule, and is marked with a white stone by the Master.  The second koan violates the rule, and is marked with a black stone.  Play proceeds with each player (fittingly referred to as ‘Students’) building a koan in an attempt to figure out the Master’s unspoken rule.  After building a koan, the Master will judge the koan (marking it with a white or black stone to indicate if the arrangement follows or violates the rule) .  Students can earn ‘guessing stones’ in the judging process, and can spend the stones on their turn to guess the rule.  An incorrect rule is countered with a new koan from the Master, and play proceeds until a student correctly guesses the rule.

The game has a host of applications for the classroom.  It can be used to develop critical thinking skills (as students must puzzle out what the rule is) in any class.  Students must also develop their ability to reason inductively and use evidence to support their claims (as they must analyze the existing koans to determine what rules are possible).  The game can also teach the importance of understanding culture: one student may look at a series of koans and suspect the rule has something to do with color; another student may not notice color differences but instead focuses on how many pieces are touching the table in the koan.  Finally, the crucial role played by the types of koans the master builds can illustrate the importance of experimental design.  The same rule can be guessed in one turn or ten, depending on the way the Master presents and builds the koans.

The game is therefore abstract enough to work in a variety of classes but still teaches a number of important skills.  It scales well in terms of number of players and difficulty, and the Icehouse pieces are easily acquired in bulk for larger classes.  I plan to use it in my Research Methods course next spring. While students eventually can take over the Master role, I highly recommend that any Master play through the game a couple of times first as a student.  I can tell you from personal experience that it is rather humiliating to have your rule guessed on the very first student’s turn.

Zendo is currently out of print, but you can easily make your own set, as I did.  Looneylabs.com as well as many retail game stores sell the Icehouse Pyramids/Icedice, and you can purchase stones at a craft store (or just use poker chips or some other two color marking device).