Choosing Between Electronic and Paper Texts

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by Rose O’Malley

With this semester already winding down, and thoughts naturally turning to designing next spring’s courses, many professors will be faced with a dilemma: should electronic texts be allowed in the classroom or is it better to stick with paper?

For those teaching texts not yet available in electronic formats, this will be an easily-answered question. Many professors, however, will find themselves wondering about the impact of allowing their increasingly-wired students to use electronic versions of course texts. Insisting on paper may seem old-fashioned, while going entirely digital runs the risk of leaving students behind.

Thankfully, there has been a lot of research and discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of each text format, and it is possible for every professor to choose the medium that is right for her class and her students. There are four major topics to consider in this debate:

1. Access

The first step in ensuring that students are able to learn something from their course texts is making sure that they are able to obtain those texts in the first place. There are two major aspects to text access: cost and ease.

If a text is “too expensive,” the student is less likely to purchase it and therefore less likely to be prepared for class. Electronic texts may seem like they have a higher financial barrier to entry because they require an electronic device to access. Even though their prices are dropping, Kindles, laptops, and tablets are still fairly expensive pieces of technology, especially when compared to printed books. What professors should realize, however, is that this is an up-front cost that the majority of students have already decided to pay: 52 percent of college students own tablets, and 88 percent own laptops. Even those students who don’t have one of these devices have access to CSI’s many computers in the library or labs. And for those who prefer to read on the go, mobile devices (which 85 percent of college students own) provide continuous access to electronic texts in the palms of the students’ hands.

Given that most of our students have the necessary devices, therefore, financial ease of access shifts in favor of electronic texts. E-books can be around the same cost or less expensive than their print counterparts. Works in the public domain (like, for example Pride and Prejudice) are easily accessible at no cost to the student through online services like Amazon or Project Gutenberg. Public and university libraries are also beginning to provide a large amount of their catalog as downloadable e-books, which, like typical library loans, are completely free. Many professors can also choose to provide appropriate course readings on Blackboard, to which, of course, all students have free access.

The financial cost of text should be considered alongside the difficulty of accessing it. If the text is difficult to obtain in a timely manner, perhaps because you require a specific, harder to find edition, or because it is backordered, it follows that the student is less likely to have it in time for class.

It is important to recognize that, like cost, your version of “difficult” may be different than your students’. Even though it would be advisable for all students to purchase all class texts at the beginning of the semester, not all students do this. Some of this is because of cost – they are trying to space out their spending, and so only buy the books they need right away, intending to purchase the rest later, but still before they are needed – and some is due to uncertainty. Students may want to spend some time in class first to determine if they will continue with the course or drop it for something else. Your more cynical students will also want to see if the professor requires them to regularly demonstrate that they have done the reading. If you do not, they may not see the point in spending money and effort obtaining texts that they will not need to prove they have read. (Many of you may be nodding your heads, but for the skeptical, I would suggest remembering that a major category on Rate My Professor is “Textbook use.” Students can choose “Essential to passing,” “It’s a must have,” “You need it sometimes,” “Barely cracked it open,” or “What textbook?” Presumably this is to warn students that in some classes they will really need to obtain the texts.)

With all of this in mind, it is obvious that electronic texts offer greater immediacy of access than paper texts. Students can purchase e-books or access online versions of texts on Blackboard or other internet sources with no wait for shipping or library returns. In a perfect world, immediate access would not be necessary, but in the actual world, students having the option to instantly open a text even hours before class increases their likelihood of completing the reading.

Verdict: With campus-wide online tools like Blackboard allowing for easy posting of open source readings, and more and more students having tablets, e-readers, and laptops, electronic texts edge out traditional texts in terms of access.

2. Reader Experience

Whether or not a student enjoys the class reading may seem like it hinges entirely on his or her interest level in the material – if the subject is exciting to the student, she will engage with the text more actively than if it is too difficult or dull. The manner in which the text is presented, however, influences the student’s enjoyment of the reading experience more than you might think.

Start by considering this: Studies have shown that students who read a text electronically are more likely to experience eye-strain and headaches than those who read the same text on paper. This may seem like a small matter, but if your assigned electronic text is lengthy, you may have students giving up in the middle because the physical act of reading is uncomfortable and even painful. (It would be nice to be able to assume that students leave enough time before class to read even the longest texts with frequent enough breaks to avoid this problem, but we know that this would be overly optimistic. Students who procrastinate may be more likely to finish a print text than they are to finish the same text in an electronic format.)

Then, of course, there is the issue of student distraction while reading; we are all aware that a student who reads on a laptop has the option of clicking quickly from the assignment to Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and that many students indulge in those options. For example, a recent study shows that students on electronic devices who were given a 15-minute study break switched tasks an average of three times during that period – and one can assume that the rate would have been higher in a less formal study environment. This behavior leads to students’ reading the required text in small, distracted bursts over a longer period of time, rather than giving the assignment their full concentration

What may be surprising to professors, however, is that even those students who frequently attempt to “multitask” their way through a reading assignment find the distractions of their devices frustrating, rather than purely enjoyable. They are aware that it takes longer to complete an assignment when they move between screens or allow themselves to be distracted by texts and Twitter. One student interviewed for an article in the Washington Post about reading preferences noted that, “You just get so distracted…It’s like if I finish a paragraph, I’ll go on Tumblr, and then three hours later you’re still not done with reading.”

This self-awareness means that more students prefer paper reading over electronic. A survey of college students in Germany, Japan and the US by Naomi Baron found that, “if cost were the same, about 90 percent (at least in my sample) prefer hard copy for schoolwork. If a text is long, 92 percent would choose hard copy. For shorter texts, it’s a toss-up.” The same study revealed that, “Among American and Japanese subjects, 92 percent reported it was easiest to concentrate when reading in hard copy. (The figure for Germany was 98 percent.) In this country, 26 percent indicated they were likely to multitask while reading in print, compared with 85 percent when reading on-screen.”

As these numbers show, requiring that a given text be obtained only in print format will not, of course, remove all of these potential distractions – cell phones are almost always within arm’s reach, after all. But making it just a little bit easier for students to unplug while completing their assignments may end up helping them fully engage in the material and even enjoy themselves as they do so.

Verdict: As counter-intuitive as it may seem, even the most wired students prefer the experience of reading paper texts over electronic texts.

3. Reading Comprehension

Since the invention of e-readers and tablets, along with the rising number of texts available in electronic formats, many studies have attempted to assess whether actual reading comprehension changes with reading formats. Not all of these studies agree with one another (likely due to factors like inconsistencies in methodology and rapid changes in both technology and the comfort with which students approach new technology), but some useful patterns can still be gleaned by examining their conclusions.

The first thing to note is that students read differently (if not necessarily better or worse) depending on the format of the text. Reading on a screen rather than a page encourages skimming for key words or scanning for general ideas rather than deep, attentive reading. Students are also more likely to read an electronic text only once and will spend less time in deep reading than those who read a paper text. Even the small act of scrolling through an electronic text – as one does through the open-source texts at Project Gutenberg for example –has an impact on reading. That small gesture results in paying less attention to the content of the text because of the attention needed to continuously “relocate” without the physical markers of page turning.

These different practices lead to different performances on tests of recall and comprehension. A 2014 study found that readers were significantly better at remembering the order of events of a mystery when they read the text on paper than when they read it on a Kindle. The lead researcher on the study, Anne Mangen of Stavanger University in Norway, attributes this difference to the lack of physicality in the e-reading experience, saying, “the haptic and tactile feedback of a Kindle does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print pocket book does.” In other words, students will remember details from a story in part by remembering the physical page of the book. Without actual pages, a text on a Kindle can blend together, making it more difficult for students to access their memories of plot details.

Similar conclusions have been drawn from other studies and recent cognition research. Rakafet Ackerman, for example, found that students absorbed more on paper, but, interestingly, felt that they absorbed more when reading on a screen. Cognitive scientist Jenny Thomson believes that physical pages serve as “anchors for deep comprehension” and are necessary for a full, structural understanding of a text.

It is important to note, however, that other recent studies led to different conclusions. A study that focused on dyslexic students encountering shorter pieces of text found digital versions to be superior to paper. Others have found no differences in reading comprehension across the board, concluding that individual preferences rather than text format determine a reader’s ability to absorb and comprehend. These are important studies to keep in mind, especially as reader preferences may shift toward e-texts in the future. For those considering a large classroom population, however, rather than each individual student, they may be less relevant to course design – remember, as mentioned above, most students still prefer paper texts.

Verdict: Even though the research is new and somewhat divided, most studies suggest that students do better on most metrics of reading comprehension with paper, rather than electronic texts.

4. Interactivity

One of the major strengths of electronic texts is that they offer the reader the opportunity to interact more fully with the material. Traditional paper may allow for highlighting and note-taking (both very important practices that are increasingly offered on e-readers), but that seems simplistic compared with e-textbooks that offer practice problems and demonstrations as a part of the “text.” In fact, even though, according to the aforementioned Washington Post article, most students prefer reading paper texts over electronic texts, the only exception to this rule is with those math and science e-textbooks that offer “access to online portals that help walk them through study problems and monitor their learning.”

E-textbooks are not the only books that offer increased interactivity, however. For example, there are free online versions of Shakespeare plays that offer word definitions and historical context via hyperlinks. This may not seem terribly different than the endnotes and footnotes that are in every good edition of Shakespeare’s plays, but students may be more likely to click than to flip. Even outside of these pre-linked texts, students who read on a connected device have closer access to sources like dictionaries or Google. Rather than turning to another source to access information, they can simply open a browser tab. This practice has its downsides, of course, as any professor who has encountered students’ parroting back the pre-packaged Wikipedia definition of a term or event can tell you. Still, the ability to quickly and easily access information will make the student more likely to possess that information before class.

Verdict: This one is simple: electronic texts offer the reader an interactive experience that paper texts do not.

The Bottom Line: Should you allow students to use electronic texts or stick to traditional paper? The answer is not simple. Instead of making one hard and fast rule, consider how each text will be used in your class, and what you hope your students will get out of it.

If you have a short piece that, for example, gives some key definitions or a brief historical overview that you will be discussing in greater depth in class, putting it up on Blackboard or providing a link to an online version may be ideal. You can feel certain that all of your students will have immediate access to the reading, it is not so long as to require a great deal of concentration or time, and you will provide much of the deeper comprehension framework during class time.

If, however, you are assigning a longer piece that will be dealt with over several classes, or even several weeks, and you expect students to do their own processing of the material before they attend the next class, you may want to stick to print, especially if future writing assignments will be centered around this text. Students will be better prepared to delve deeper into a text that they have encountered on paper.

These are only two examples, of course, but in any case, you will need to balance your priorities and consider what is the most important part of the reading experience for each text in your individual class.

Looking Ahead: Technology is changing constantly, and e-texts are no exception. As e-readers develop and perhaps address their current shortcomings, this debate may need to be revisited. Perhaps the ability to customize the appearance of each text to the student’s individual preferences will eventually override the ability to take physical notes. Perhaps the recent dip in e-book sales is the harbinger of a resurgence in paper texts. In any case, this is a debate that we will all be participating in for years to come.

Workshop Recap: The World of the Text: Using Wiki Platforms to Navigate Difficult Readings

by Marissa Brostoff

View the PowerPoint from the workshop here.

Every semester for a long time I encountered the same problem: some text on my syllabus—a novel, a work of literary theory, whatever—was just too difficult to teach in the time I had allotted for it. You might know the feeling. But what is to be done? There’s other material to get to, and there’s no way of making Bleak House shorter or an excerpt from Orientalism less dense.

And yet, I’ve discovered, while some course content may be irreducibly long or difficult, students’ experiences of it can alter dramatically if we change the structure of the class assignments that address it. The default class assignment for many of us is the short paper. But asking students to write four to six pages making an argument about some aspect of Madame Bovary, as I had done in the past, may be an inherently lost cause. Students typically overreach and make a vague argument about the whole text instead of a focused one that concentrates on one thorny element of it. You can try and persuade them to narrow their focus, but I think some of the resistance this meets comes from an understandable sense of indignation—“We read a 400-page novel and you want me to ‘unpack’ two lines?” When grasping the whole text, even at the most basic level of comprehension, is a major challenge already, choosing one revealing element of it may be a baffling task.

I want to propose an alternative kind of assignment: ask your students to create a Wiki about the challenging material. (I’ve been using literary texts as an example of what this material looks like, but it might alternately be a unit in the course, like “Theories of Child Development,” or even the topic of the course itself, like “Organic Chemistry.”) So: what is a Wiki? And what can it do for us here?

Wikipedia, the world’s largest Wiki site, defines a Wiki as “a type of website that allows users to add, remove, or otherwise edit and change most content very quickly and easily.” There are dozens of Wiki platforms available on the internet and free to the public, or at least to educators, including Wikia, PBWorks, and Wikispaces. (Blackboard has a Wiki-building tool as well.) Many college instructors use these platforms to build class Wikis for a range of purposes: posting syllabi, hosting a class blog that students can post to, hosting portfolios of student work, creating a space for students to collaborate on group projects, and so on. Here’s a great example from a specialized writing course at City College that does several of these things.

Because Wikis, unlike most websites, are designed to be collaboratively edited, they are particularly useful for collective knowledge-gathering. Wikipedia’s scope, like that of a traditional encyclopedia, is almost limitless in breadth, but there are tons of Wikis out there devoted to smaller but still complex worlds, from Gravity’s Rainbow to Game of Thrones.

Wikis are therefore ideal as a platform for students to construct a world of knowledge around any complicated text or topic. Each student or group of students only has to be responsible for one small piece of the site, but together these add up to something more comprehensive. This is especially true if students are asked to explore each other’s Wiki pages and create links between them (i.e., in a Wiki about the world of Jane Eyre, the student writing a page on Mr. Rochester might link to a classmate’s page on Bertha Mason when Bertha’s name appears, and vice-versa).

Here are two beautiful examples of what this kind of content-based class Wiki can look like: one from a humanities course at the University of New South Wales called “Censorship and Responsibility” that students used to map philosophical perspectives on freedom and liberty, and one from a chemistry course at the University of Illinois in which students were asked (brilliantly) to create entries about phenomena like the greenhouse effect in a way that would be legible to middle schoolers. If you’re worried that you and your class won’t be able to build such a professional-looking site on your first try—that’s okay too! There are plenty of more amateur-looking class Wikis out there, and they get the job done just as well.

If you’re ready to get started, here are some things to think about:

-What Wiki platform will you use? I think PBWorks is particularly user-friendly; a video tutorial for it is here. But you might want to check out a couple of platforms to see what works best for you.

-What are the parameters of your classroom Wiki? Do you want to create a Wiki that will carry you throughout the semester, from posting your syllabus to having students turn in final work, or a dedicated student space for the kind of project discussed above?

-Do you want students to create their own pages and link them together at the end of the process, or do you want them to work in groups throughout the project?

-Do you have a Smart Board to demonstrate to your students how the Wiki platform works, or (ideally) access to a computer lab where everyone can experiment and troubleshoot together?

-What do you want each student-authored Wiki page to include? If students are required to cite their sources, what format should they use? Should each page include links? An analysis section? Wikipedia may be a good model for questions like these.

-What criteria will you use to evaluate students, or groups, on their contributions? One thing to consider here is that you might use the Wiki project as a jumping-off point for a writing assignment where students are asked to write a more traditional argumentative paper that draws on the knowledge they’ve curated on their Wiki page.

One final word for using Wikis this way: a student-authored Wiki does not need to be put to bed forever just because the semester has ended. If you are the site’s administrator and you teach the same material in a later semester, your new students can further develop the Wiki that your former students began. Unlike a paper, a Wiki has no ending, and if the material it covers is sufficiently complex, it can just keep growing. This is a unique opportunity for your students to create knowledge that will have an audience beyond you and beyond their classmates.

Happy Wikiing!

Writing Across the Curriculum Spring Workshop Series

We’re excited to announce our Spring Faculty Development Workshops. Developed by the Writing Across the Curriculum Program Writing Fellows, in collaboration with the Program Coordinators, these workshops aim to assist faculty in exploring new ways to approach formal and informal writing assignments.

All workshops will be held at the Faculty Center for Professional Development, 1L, 203. We hope you can join us!

Monday, March 23, 1:00-2:30
Words and Images: Approaches to Visual Texts in the Classroom
Led by Writing Fellow Yair Solan, this workshop considers  current research on visual literacy and its implications for pedagogy. We will also cover several approaches to visual images, from close reading strategies and rhetorical analyses to possibilities for integrating visual material into course content.

Monday, March 30, 1:00-2:30
Before and After the Library Session: Navigating the Research Process
Designed by Writing Fellow Christopher Eng, this workshop will help faculty structure research papers and help students to get the most out of library information sessions.

Tuesday, April 14, 1:00-2:30
The World of the Text: Using Wiki Platforms to Navigate Difficult Readings
Writing Fellow Marissa Brostoff will lead this workshop on using wiki tools to help students annotate difficult texts and build a “critical edition.”

Monday, April 27, 1:00-2:30
Group Projects Done Right
This workshop, led by Josh Keton, will provide strategies to create a more democratic classroom through collaborative group projects.

Public Speaking and Writing

by Christen Madsen

For all the emphasis that writing is given in the the academy as a way of honing critical thinking skills, the other modes of communication can easily be overlooked. Speaking, visual, and electronic communication round out the list of equally effective and necessary modes of communication of which writing is just one.

Public speaking is not limited just to attorneys, politicians and academics presenting a paper. While many of our students will not give a formal speech to an audience of hundreds, effective and fluent public speaking is required in common settings like weddings, funerals, business presentations and even telling a story at a party.

Unfortunately a public speaking class is not required at CSI. Many classes already include group presentation or informal speaking opportunities but this is often to compliment a written paper or project. Next semester consider replacing your term paper or other writing assignments with a speech.

Speeches and Critical Thinking

A core principle of WAC/WID programs in many universities is “writing to learn” whereby one uses writing activities “. . . to promote deep learning of the course’s ideas, concepts, and skills” (1). We can extend this to the other modes of communication so that one can incorporate “speaking to learn” by using public speaking activities to encourage engagement of the course material, mastery of the course concepts, organization of one’s own ideas, and development of essential critical thinking skills.

The aims of many courses at CSI is not memorization of facts and details (although there are courses in which this is central), but an engagement with the ideas and concepts. The students often have to evaluate arguments, and create their own logically structured argument in response to those they read.

These same critical thinking skills can be developed, fostered, and evaluated by not only writing assignments like term papers but also by public speaking assignments like persuasive speeches and informative speeches. Speeches, like a term paper, require the effective communication of an argument/thesis supported by clear main points with transitions and a concise conclusion delivered in a coherent, logically organized fashion.

Speeches instead of term papers

Where speeches differ from traditional written assignments is that they are given in a medium and using a form of language that is fundamental. Most people begin speaking/signing at a very young age and have mastered oral communication. People are masters as responding to a listener, incorporating overt and subtle feedback from listeners, controlling and manipulating register, and conveying information in an interesting and engaging way. Writing is something that is laboriously learned relatively much later in life. Writing in an academic setting is also burdened by a large number of arbitrary, prescriptive rules whose violation can impede focus on the content of a student’s work. Spoken language has less of these “rules” and as listeners we naturally focus on communication and meaning and subconsciously correct both real and prescriptive errors. A student’s split infinitive is unnoticed in a speech and a student can be almost only evaluated on effective and logical argumentation. This can be a benefit to an instructor who is often exercising
considerable restraint to not over-correct or over-markup a term paper. Another benefit is that speeches can provide a obvious audience for a student’s work in a way that writing a term paper or homework assignment doesn’t. (1) The student is giving the speech directly to their audience; An audience that is not only being addressed but actively listening. The student responds and adapts to their audience’s cues to create an authentic exchange that focuses on conveying a message successfully. This kind of real-time adaptation is impossible with a written text which is evaluated weeks after it was created. The student often doesn’t have an opportunity to correct or clarify in response to feedback.

Speeches Help Writing

One might worry that a focus on public speaking and a de-emphasis on graded, carefully edited terms papers could result in a decline in writing skills, or at the very least an absence of improvement. This is not the case as students’ writing skills are improved by the inclusion of public speaking. Speeches in a class improve not only a student’s confidence in expressing their opinion, but also improves their writing skills in the use of following formal and informal conventions of writing as well as use of clear language. (2)

Selling Public Speaking to Students

Public speaking can be a daunting task for students, and even us as teachers. In fact is it terrifying for many and more people agree that it is a fear of theirs, more than even death or financial problems. Men cite speaking before a group to be their number one fear and for women fear of public speaking is only outranked by death. (3). It is so stressful that simulated public speaking is used to study fear (4) and anxiety. (5)

This anxiety can be reduced by proper scaffolding, preparation, practice, and learning and practicing public speaking techniques, relaxation, and visualization. (6) You should remind students that while public speaking can be terrifying, and may always be, the more they practice the better they will get at it. They may not become less terrified of public speaking but they will become better at it. If they practice enough they can look natural and sound natural but may not feel natural.

Implementing Speeches

You can very easily try out speeches in your next course with very minor tweaking of your existing materials. All the scaffolded exercises you have already developed for your term paper can be adapted for use with a speech as the final product. You can still require drafts of the speech for you to provide feedback on. Practice talks with a partner or a small group takes the place of peer editing of drafts.

A final class session of 2–5 minute talks for a class of 35 students will take less than 3 hours. You can make this into a mini-conference and have the other student ask questions, critique each other, and even vote on a “best speech award.”

The best part of speeches is that your grading of the final projects is done immediately. The students can get their grade as soon as they are done. You don’t have a stack of final papers to grade over the holidays and actually get the feedback from the assignments that they work very hard on. Next semester consider incorporating other modes of communication in your classes. Term papers and writing are not the only way of teaching and evaluating learning and critical thinking in the classroom. Public speaking is an important skill that every student can benefit from regardless of their major or future career goals.

Online Resources for Public Speaking
References

[1] Bean, J.C. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2nd edition. Jossey-Bass: San Fransisco.

[2] Ah Yun, K., Costantini, C., & Billingsley, S. (2012). The e↵ect of taking
a public speaking class on one’s writing ability. Communication Research Reports. 29(4): 285–291.

[3] Dwyer, K.K., & Davidson, M.M. (2012). Communication Research Reports. 29(2): 99–107.

[4] Garcia-Leal, C., Graeff, F.G., & Del-Ben, C.M. (2014). Experimental public speaking: Contributions to the understanding of the serotonergic modulation of fear. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.

[5] de Oliveira, D.C.G., Zuardi, A.W., Grae↵, F.G., Queiroz, R.H.C., & Crippa, J.A.S. (2011). Anxiolytic-like effect of oxytocin in the simulated public speaking test. Journal of Psychoparmacology. 26(4): 497–504.

[6] Docan-Morgan, T., & Schmidt, T. (2012). Reducing public speaking anxiety for native and non-native English speakers: The value of systematic desensitization, cognitive restructuring, and skills training. Cross-Cultural Communication. 8(5): 16–19.

A Guide to Quickly and Effectively Gathering Comprehensive Student Feedback

by Joshua Keaton

Now that our courses are over—or mostly over—it is time to reflect on what went well and what went poorly, and wait anxiously for those student evaluations that might give you some insight. If you are like us, then you often have a vague notion that some sessions went well, some not so well, and some were average. If you are even more like us, you probably aren’t sure exactly what features of particular sessions account for the three different outcomes. And those evaluations you are waiting for? While some feedback is better than no feedback, we all know those student evaluations aren’t that helpful. Student evaluations are pitched at too general a level to tell us precisely what works and what doesn’t, and they always come too late to help us teach better in the classes we are in. For these reasons, we suggest the possibility of incorporating the Critical Incidence Questionnaire into your course. Using such questionnaires provides you with anonymized feedback throughout the term that will allow you to focus in particular sessions, assignments, reading, lectures, etc.

Brookfield and Presskill’s questionnaire consists of the following five questions:

  1. At what moment in the class this week were you most engaged as a learner?
  2. At what moment in class this week were you most distanced as a learner?
  3. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find the most affirming or helpful?
  4. What action that anyone in the room took this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  5. What surprised you most this week?

By inviting student responses to these questions you will be provided with data that is specific to the sessions you have recently taught. You can tell students to prepare them before class and turn them in once a week, or provide a few minutes of class time each week to the task. Not only do you receive feedback on your most recent teaching efforts, but students gain by being able to reflect on the course and their role in the course. All too often the rush to disseminate or assimilate course content pushes out all other concerns both in the mind of the instructor and the student. The CIQ can facilitate the process of learning by focusing both students and instructors on their roles in the classroom, and call their attention to the substance of the course, by highlighting the most noteworthy, interesting, and difficult moments in the course.

Of course, one need not stick with precisely these questions. The questions can be modified to focus on discipline- or instructor-specific concerns, such as: lectures, group-work, readings, labs, or assignments. Like any other assignment a more tailored, critically engaged question is more likely to provoke specific, critically engaged answers.

If you find yourself wondering what made one class, lecture, assignment, group project, etc. better or worse than another, consider doing the obvious—but strangely unintuitive—thing; just ask your students!

Brookfield, S.D., and Preskill, S. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. (2nd ed.) San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 2005.

Freewriting Tips and Techniques

writingby Yair Solan

Instructors, have you noticed your students zoning out during lectures? Has it been difficult to get them to participate in class or to maintain discussions? Are they having a hard time with the course material? If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, then freewriting can help!

Freewriting is ungraded in-class writing that is designed to help students understand and reflect upon course content, prepare for class discussions, and develop their ideas prior to more formal writing assignments. These relatively unedited yet focused writing activities can be useful at any part of a class session or semester. Freewriting assignments may be completed at the beginning of class as a warm up exercise for students or to revive a discussion in the middle of the period.

The following post includes several ways in which one might integrate simple freewriting activities in courses across a wide range of academic disciplines.

Please note: It is always a good idea to remind students to write continuously during freewriting sessions and to alert them in advance when their work will be collected, or if volunteers will be solicited to share their responses with the class.

  • Open Class with Freewriting on a Relevant Topic:
    • When? At the very start of class.
    • How? Pose a question or raise an issue central to that day’s class. This can also be done by assigning the freewrite for homework and then discussing it at the beginning of class.
    • Why? To prepare students for the day’s lecture or for discussion. Such an exercise asks students to explore and think about the course material, promoting active learning during lectures and readying students for a lively discussion.
  • Ask Students to Write a Summary of a Lecture:
    • When? Immediately following a class lecture.
    • How? Ask students to write a concentrated summary of the material. This can be one page long or as short as a concise paragraph. You might consider collecting and reading these summaries, giving credit to those students who turned in this assignment.
    • Why? Writing a synopsis of a class lecture may not only compel students to become more deeply involved with the subject matter, but also allows instructors to make changes to the way in which they present course content based on what they have learned from the students’ summaries.
  • Have Students Generate Questions:
    • When? After students have completed a particularly difficult reading.
    • How? Ask students to generate lists of questions raised by the text for homework; this activity can also be continued at the beginning of class. The freewrite may be collected, or volunteers can share their questions with the class. This can also be done in small groups, where each group has to reach a consensus on one or two central questions that its members would like to discuss with the class as a whole.
    • Why? This activity encourages students’ critical engagement with the course content while suggesting areas which may require clarification by the instructor.
  • Assign “Minute Papers”:
    • When? In the middle of class, following the discussion of especially important course concepts.
    • How? Ask students to freewrite a very brief paper in response to a question which assesses their understanding of the course material. Possible questions may include: “what key term(s) are important for understanding this concept and how are they defined?”, “what is puzzling you after listening to this lecture?”, or “how is the topic introduced in today’s class related to our previous discussion?”
    • Why? Aside from offering valuable feedback for the instructor and prompting students to pause and think about the concepts discussed, this freewrite also helps students refocus their attention in the second half of the class period.
  • Freewrite to Stimulate Class Discussion:
    • When? At a moment when students are not readily participating in a discussion.
    • How? Ask students to freewrite for several minutes in response to a particularly important query. Following this, volunteers can read their freewrites to the class and elicit their peers’ reactions. Alternately, it may be productive to have students share their ideas with each other in groups before discussing with the entire class.
    • Why? This exercise gives students some time to reflect upon the issues raised in class and to formulate their responses or questions. Also, for those students who are nervous about speaking in front of the whole class, discussing their reactions in small groups first might help them build confidence in their own ideas.
  • If Class Discussion is Intense, Ask Students to Freewrite Their Contributions:
    • When? Following particularly heated discussions.
    • How? Ask students to stop for a few minutes and have them individually freewrite the contribution they wish to make to the class’s conversation. After this freewriting session, volunteers can be invited to summarize their responses for the class. If discussion continues until the end of the class, it may be beneficial to keep this conversation going by asking students to post their responses to the course’s online discussion board or blog.
    • Why? This freewriting activity gives students the time and space to clarify their arguments and to develop their reactions without being interrupted. It also allows students to see the connection between their verbal participation in the classroom and their written work in the course.

Adapted from John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom

The Believing Game: The Art of Summarizing Arguments

by Marissa Brostoff

One of the most deceptively tricky writing skills to teach college students is the art of summarizing arguments. In our rush to insist that the heart of the academic paper is the student’s own argument—and, therefore, to steer them away from the habits of “regurgitation” they may have learned in high school—it’s easy to forget that summing up the arguments of others is itself a creative, vital, and difficult part of the writing process. So how can we reframe this humble art to give it the respect it deserves?

Composition and rhetoric theorist Peter Elbow has been working on this problem for decades. In Elbow’s reframing of the problem, there are two ways to approach an argument. The first is what we commonly describe as critique or “critical thinking.” Elbow calls this approach a “doubting game” that “teaches us to extricate or detach ourselves from ideas” in order to call them into question. The second is a version of what literary theorists sometimes call reparative or surface reading: a strategy that “teaches us to enter into ideas—to invest or insert ourselves.” Elbow calls this “the believing game” (8).

We play the believing game, then, whenever we test out an idea by trying it on for size. But Elbow has also developed a way of playing the believing game as a literal game. Here’s how students can play:

“Write a summary of some belief that you strongly disagree with. Then write a summary of the position you actually hold on the topic. Give both summaries to a classmate or two, and see if they can tell which position you endorse. If you’ve succeeded, they won’t be able to tell” (Graff and Birkenstein 38).

In our experience, everyone loves this game (this also makes it a good icebreaker at the start of the semester). In the original version, students are asked to come up with their own topics individually (they will likely run the gamut from “cats vs. dogs” to “the death penalty”). This approach works well in writing classrooms, where learning to argue a position is an end in and of itself. In content-based courses, you can adapt the game so that students are asked to come up with arguments that take opposing positions on something you’ve been discussing in class. For instance, in an ethics class, you might ask students to take different positions on a single ethical dilemma; in a structural engineering course, you might ask them to come up with opposing conclusions drawn from the same data set about where to build a bridge.

Either way, give everyone a few minutes to write their two summaries; ask them to pair up, switch off, and guess which argument represented the writer’s actual position; and then discuss the results as a group.

The fun of the game lies in the fact that it’s genuinely hard to win, or at least to know in advance that you’ll win—either as a writer or as a guesser. If you ask for a show of hands—Who successfully duped their partner? Who successfully guessed their partner’s true opinion?—you’ll most likely get a mixed bag. And that raises important questions about argumentation that the class can discuss together:

Was it easier to argue for or against your own position, and why?

Did your rhetorical approach change as you moved from one to the other?

As a guesser, were you able to figure out the writer’s “tell”?

Did your guess rely on assumptions about authorship—i.e., an extra-textual hunch about your partner’s opinions?

Did you project your own views onto your partner?

This is one of these exercises that reminds you that everyone would be a good academic writer—and reader—if they could just channel their everyday rhetorical and epistemological skill set into the work of the classroom. Let the games begin!

Works Cited:

Graff, Gerald and Cathy Birkenstein. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing, 3rd edition. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014.

Elbow, Peter. “The Believing Game—Methodological Believing.” The Selected Works of Peter Elbow, 2008. http://works.bepress.com/peter_elbow/20.