Getting Students to Stay With Me

Keeping students motivated to come to class and do their work is one of the most challenging aspects of online teaching. Since I’m teaching a course that requires reading, encouraging them to read is yet another challenge. This semester I’ve tried a new teaching method and a different way of reading and writing with them that has seemed so far to work well.

Basically, I’ve used the “scaffolding” approach that education scholars have written so much about, where one assignment leads to the next, each building on skills and ideas that have come earlier. I noted in an earlier post that I had decided to read a lot few pages than usual, focusing on short texts that don’t require multiple meetings to discuss, though I do go back to review things we’ve picked up in the past, especially after I read the student essays, which give me a chance to see how they’re doing, what they’re responding to, and what they might be missing.

This class meets twice a week, and thirty minutes after every class they have a reflection piece due. These are short, no more than a page (300 words), and I’ve generally been asking them pretty narrowly focused questions (e.g., about the rain in “Gooseberries” or the personality of Gogol’s storyteller in “The Nose”) because I don’t want them to recount the plot for me or tackle the MEANING of the story. I have also asked them very simple things like which of these four stories that we just finished did you like the best and why, and which did you like the least and why. The why is of course the crucial part.

There are three other parts to this exercise that are essential–I’ve been adjusting as I go. First is that they don’t know exactly what the writing assignment will be until we are in class that day. I have it prepared already, but they just can’t see it yet. The topic and the “criteria for success” become available about 10-15 minutes into our class. In the meantime, however, we have already been discussing one or more aspects of the writing assignment without their knowing that it will be the writing assignment. And most often, we actually take time in class to write. For instance, I will ask them to put on their comparison caps and write for ten minutes on the similarities between this story and the one we just read, then they come back, and we play a little “tag,” with three or four of them offering their thoughts and passing the baton on to someone else.

We might do this two or three times in class on a given day, with writing time followed by discussion time. This is the second of the three essential parts–writing time in class. At some point, I actually say, “and this is what I want you to reflect on in your writing today.” They should be able to see the assignment by now on our Canvas site, and I also copy and paste the writing prompt in the chat. Then I give them some additional time to write and we come back to discuss. Sometimes I throw in an additional piece to it–I have warned them that I will do this, and this also helps to keep them coming and alert.

I don’t really care that we tend to get the same volunteers (though I’ve been happy that it seems to be a variety of about 10 students out of the 30 or so) because I want the students who might not have any ideas to hear the students who do. If they borrow each others’ ideas for reflection pieces, that’s great. By-products of these writing periods are that (a) we don’t need to take any scheduled breaks; and (b) class time goes by strangely fast. This last was a surprise to me, and some of the students have remarked on it as well. Filling 2.5 hours of class time is not a struggle. In fact, I sometimes feel that we don’t quite have enough time–just like a face-to-face class…

The third of the three parts to this that seems to me essential is that these short reflection pieces are due (again through the online system) 30 minutes after class is over. I do this for several reasons. First is that I don’t want them putting them off and then trying to remember what we discussed and then staying up all night to finish them. Second is that we have the class time, so why not use it? Third is that we are doing a lot of these, one for every meeting, which means I need to read them and give them back some comments and a score (out of 10, which is based primarily on their answering the question, using examples from the text, and demonstrating that they’ve thought). Then I post their grades ASAP. Those who might be inclined to skip see what happens to their score in the class very quickly when they get a 0, and while there were a few at the beginning who weren’t showing up or turning in their papers, most of them have shaped up. It is not hard, but they have to stick with me, which might in fact be the main benefit that I’ve seen.

The scaffolding for this comes partly from the fact that once I’ve asked the same question a couple of times, they start to get the hang of it, and I can ask slightly harder questions. And then partly it’s because at the end of class, I want them to take two of these reflection pieces and polish them as basically mini-essays of 500 words each. We’ll see how that goes.

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