In Our Students’ Shoes

A few days ago this 2014 article from the Washington Post came across my social media feed, and even though it’s about high school students, much of what the author writes is highly relevant to our students at City Tech as well. To summarize, this educational consultant spent a day shadowing two high school students and found that her experience going through the school day in their shoes had a significant impact on how she viewed her own pedagogy. In a kind of “if I knew then what I know now” moment, she mused on the things she would do differently in her teaching had she known what it was like to be a student.

Her two big takeaways that I find most relevant to college teaching are that 1) students spend much of their day sitting, and 2) students spend much of their class time passively listening to their teachers.

Of course, the first issue is not quite as big of an issue for college students. Unlike high schoolers, our students are not arriving by 8am every day, five days a week, and sitting in class after class into the mid-afternoon. Our students take maybe 3-5 classes depending on their schedules, and these are distributed across the week and throughout the day with longer breaks in between.

Still, our students likely spend much of their day sitting. Whether they’re in class, in the library, or sitting at a table in the atrium with friends or doing work, our students might not be moving around as much as we think. One way we can combat this is to build group work activities into our classes that require students to move around. The simple act of having our students move their desks a little to work in groups can help to break up the otherwise static mode of learning that our students experience just sitting in one place for 75 minutes.

You can use group work to assist in writing activities such as brainstorming, thesis formation, or a close reading of an article. For example, when teaching students about choosing a topic for their papers, I like to give them a form borrowed from The Craft of Research (3rd ed., 2009) by Booth, Colomb, and Williams, which is available as an e-book to all CUNY users. The template is described on pages 46-48 of this edition, and presented with blanks on page 51:

thesis template

I’ll begin by giving students a paper topic and have them fill this out, and then have them start to brainstorm their own topics in groups. To make sure that students are moving around, I will have everyone change seats halfway through, to re-arrange the groups. This can be done with many kinds of quick low-stakes writing exercises intended to get students brainstorming or generating some rough, general ideas or questions. Best of all, students leave the class with a number of viable topics that they can then start to craft into thesis statements.

The second issue the author of this Post article brought up is that students sit passively, and again, writing pedagogy can help us here. Try to incorporate at least one short writing assignment into every class. Many professors will start a class with a quick “free write” or other informal writing activity, but a great way to break up the passive learning is to have an informal writing activity in the middle of class. For example, if you are learning a new skill or topic, lecture about the example from the textbook, and then give students an example they haven’t seen before and a few direct and simple questions to answer in writing. A few minutes in the middle of class like this doesn’t take away from your time devoted to content either, rather, it enhances the understanding and knowledge retention of your students.

Using WAC Techniques to Introduce Discipline-Specific Writing

Through recent discussions with other WAC fellows and CUNY faculty, it has becoming increasing clear that as instructors, we often forget to take a step back and make sure our students have an understanding of what is expected of them for writing in the discipline of which our class is a part (whatever discipline that may be). Early to mid-way into a semester (earlier the better), as simple as it may seem, it is immensely useful to gauge student writing in order to ensure they do in fact understand what is meant by a thesis, for example in whatever field we are in (and what course they are taking). This is just one writing-related term that truly can mean varying things in different fields or at minimum may look different depending upon the discipline.

Take the students’ perspective for a minute. Imagine going from an Introduction to Psychology class, to an English class, followed by a course in Mathematics all in the same day. Each of these disciplines requires different formats and structures in regards to writing. You can see how easy it would be to as a student, assume that writing in the manner that earned you an ‘A’ on an English assignment may surprisingly earn you a ‘B’ or less on a Psychology research proposal (or vice versa) if you were never giving explicit instructions for what qualifies as a ‘good’ paper for a particular type of class. Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) techniques offer some great tools towards improving our students’ writing, even for assisting them on the way of learning the specific writing style we expect in our own courses.

In order to see where our students are in the writing process for our discipline, as instructors we can initially do one of several specific things:

1)      Provide a discipline-specific piece of writing in class, give students time to read it, and then discuss as a class how this writing may be different than that of other types of courses students have taken.

2)      Assign several discipline-specific professional readings (one at the beginning and several others throughout) and provide a template that asks directed questions about the texts, hereby pointing out the important structural aspects of the writing piece.

3)      Give time during class for small groups of students to pick out seemingly important parts of a provided reading, have them define separate sections, and finally openly explaining to students (during class time if at all possible) how your field defines and structures a thesis, evidence, supporting arguments, etc.

4)      Give a take-away handout that clearly and succinctly lists the requirements you have for the content and structure of writing assignments in your course (for which you take a few minutes to explain in person if the class is not online).

Two more helpful tips from evidence-based WAC practices:

  • Of course students mostly learn from doing and redoing or writing and rewriting! Therefore, multiple drafts of the same assignment are always essential to the writing process regardless of discipline.
  • Scaffolding (creating smaller assignments that build up to a larger more complete final paper, lab report, project, or proposal) is incredibly helpful for students to understand complex ideas or information that is new to them (this has been extremely beneficial for my students’ research proposals as many of them never write in this manner before entering my class). This allows them to master important specific aspects of a bigger assignment before the final result which is often worth many more points.