Back to Basics: WAC Philosophy and Course Design

In order to be engaged in the classroom, students at City Tech must have the basic skills required for college learning. As any student knows, being engaged takes constant work, practice, and motivation. The etymology of the word engaged is tied to risk-taking, to “have promised one’s presence,” “to undertake to perform,” to be entangled or ensnared. (“engaged, v.” OED Online). The exhaustion many of our City Tech students bring to the classroom (speaking from the experience of teaching Thursday evening and Saturday morning sections of College Writing) makes being engaged at all difficult enough. To ask our City Tech students to engage with us and with course material over and over again is asking a lot. How can we, as instructors, support them in this endeavor?

Without a space to practice the basic skills academic engagement requires, our students are swimming upstream. Alternatively, building time into each of our courses to review skills such as effective note taking, skillful / critical reading, and being a part of generative class discussions will help our students manage the task of being motivated and present in the classroom each day.

Writing Across the Curriculum just gave a student-workshop on notetaking and reading strategies (materials are available here), and will be giving this workshop again on March 29th at 4PM. By teaching students how to take good notes—notes in which they are processing information instead of simply storing it externally—instructors can nourish and inspire a consistent practice of in-class writing that promotes critical thinking and reflection from the get-go, changing how students understand what it means to engage with the information and concepts presented in their courses.

This workshop was given in collaboration with READ, as good reading skills are tied to note-taking. This is not self-evident to our students, who are often just trying to complete as much out-of-class reading as possible. In addition to reading difficult texts in class with my students, modeling how to write marginal comments and look up confusing words or references, I always have a discussion with them about how to skim readings effectively. If students believe that the only way to successfully read for college is to complete and understand every single assigned reading in its entirety, they will consistently feel like failures—and be more likely to give up on a reading a few pages in. In my classroom, students and I talk very seriously about discerning what the most important sections of a reading are; reading “the outline” of an article (the introduction, conclusion, and first and last sentences of each paragraph); and coming in with two, specific questions about readings, as well as pieces of information they find interesting. In reading selectively and purposefully, students begin to learn the shape academic writing takes, as well as how to manage heavy reading loads without giving up. When designing our courses as instructors at NYCCT, we should be mindful and realistic about how much out-of-class reading our students can complete, and how our in-class lessons might support them in this endeavor.

Finally, it’s not news that good class discussion helps students stay engaged, but most students have a simplistic view of classroom participation that is never challenged. In my experience, students believe that speaking as much as possible and showing instructors that they “know” the answer to a question counts as “good” participation, and staying silent is “bad” participation. Good classroom discussion often looks the exact opposite of this: students learn when they step back and listen to others speak; ask questions about the readings; articulate confusion and discontent—the list goes on. But we rarely, as instructors, take the time to talk about how to have, to practice, these kinds of generative discussions, or reflect on what a good class discussion looks like to start with.

An exercise I use in my classroom to “teach” students how to talk to one another in an academic context is called “Socratic Roles.” I divide the class into two sections (I tend to put the more talkative students in one and the less talkative students in the other). Then, I project some discussion questions on the board and tell one group to lead their own discussion while the other group takes notes based on these prompts. I do not speak or intervene in the students’ discussion for 5-10 minutes, taking notes on what my students say. After the allotted time, the groups switch, and the speakers become the note-takers while the note-takers pick up the discussion. Afterwards, we have a discussion about what makes a good class discussion, and students report back on their observations and tasks. In my experience, a large part of this debrief is the realization that a good discussion means actively making space for many different voices, and that different students have different relationships to class participation—some taking longer to formulate their thoughts, some preferring to listen, some who work out what they think out loud, etc.

The prompts in the handout can be adapted and changed based on what you, the instructor, would like students to pay attention to. My personal favorite is “list 2 important comments that are made” because when more than one student does this, the class realizes that different people learn from different pieces of information. I like doing this exercise in my classes, also, because if I organize the groups so the more introverted students have to talk, the extrovert students realize that they aren’t the only ones who can fill the silence / are doing the readings, which tends to be the assumption—and we talk about stepping back to allow for the presence of different voices in the classroom.

These skills—effective note taking, active reading, and being a part of generative class discussions—are skills that are tied to writing, to self-expression and communication. Our students too often assume that being a good student means parroting back information, giving the “right” answer, and powering through any given assignment. As instructors, we must actively fight these assumptions at the foundation of what it means to learn. Building time into a course so that students can practice these skills lets them know that you, the instructor, are serious about their engagement, and that college learning isn’t a one-way street. Student engagement begins with active efforts on the part of the instructor. Taking some time to go “back to basics” with your students doesn’t take time away from course content—it empowers them, lets them know you’re serious about their engagement, and creates a space in which they have the tools to truly learn.

“engage, v.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, January 2018, Accessed 20 February 2018.