Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Half-Reading Option

A general strategy I've been trying to use in my classes is making things more explicit and transparent so that the assumptions I have about learning which are obvious to me can be more obvious to the students too. The "half-reading option" in both my classes is one of my new experiments along those lines this semester, and I am really happy with the results so far! Because of exams in other classes around this time of the semester, this is a week when I would expect to see lowered participation in my classes, but when I just checked for this week's reading, every single student in both classes had done at least half the reading, so nobody is blocked from the storytelling post this week! I'm really happy to see that, and it prompted me to write about that aspect of my class for today's post.


BRIEF DESCRIPTION. There are two roughly equal reading assignments in each of my classes each week. For students to do the storytelling post, they need to have done at least half of the reading because the story is based on that reading. In addition to the regular reminders I send out about pending assignments, I have a special reminder that alerts people explicitly that they need to do at least half of the reading if they want to do the storytelling blog post for the week.


DETAILS. This works slightly differently in my two classes because of the nature of the reading.

In Myth-Folklore, students choose a new reading unit each week from the UnTextbook. Those reading units are divided in half. Ideally, they start a reading diary post for the first half which they complete on Monday (Tuesday morning grace period), and then they add to that post as they do the second half of the reading on Tuesday (Wednesday morning grace period), followed by a storytelling blog post on Wednesday (Thursday morning grace period), with blog comments starting on Friday. If students miss the first half of the reading, I remind them that they can still make a reading choice and do half the reading; the only limitation is that they should choose a reading unit where the storytelling arc does not require reading the full unit. They can see when they make their choice in the UnTextbook just which units are not suited to half-reading. Here are the specific assignment instructions: Myth-Folklore Reading Diary.

In the Indian Epics class, the reading consists of epics that do carry on from week to week, so students cannot just skip the reading. To fill in the gap if they do miss a portion of the reading, I have Reading Guides for them to use. Those Reading Guides actually serve many purposes, but one important purpose is to cover a missed assignment. Because the reading is more substantial in this class, students complete two Reading Diary posts each week: Reading A due Monday (Tuesday morning grace period) and Reading B due Tuesday (Wednesday morning grace period), following by storytelling and then blog comments, just like in Myth-Folklore You can see the instructions here: Indian Epics Reading Diary. If a student misses the A portion in a given week, I send a special reminder to let them know that they need to read through the Reading Guide for that missed portion so that they can be caught up and ready to read and complete Reading Diary B. Reading the Reading Guides is an assignment that is already part of the class at the end of the week (Reading Review assignment), so the students who do use the Reading Guide for this purpose are making headway on that assignment too!

I am incredibly pleased at how well this working. I was worried that students might find it confusing, but that has not been the case. I've gotten a few emails from students just checking to make sure they have understood the situation correctly, and in every case they have. Sometimes they choose to do half the reading because they are swamped (I know that because they sometimes comment about their choice in their Reading Diary), and in other cases they just run out of time. Either way, the half-option serves its purpose. I would rather have people do half the reading than none at all, especially because they need to do at least some reading to be able to do the storytelling post. That storytelling post is really the most important assignment of the week, providing the basis for the blog comments at the end of the week. It is also, I suspect, the real locus of learning: students probably won't remember much of what they read... but they might indeed remember the part of the reading that they worked with to create their own story!


HISTORY. There is a somewhat different history here for each class.

In Myth-Folklore, I made no half-way mark distinction with regard to the reading. It was all-or-nothing. If students did the reading, they could do the storytelling post; if they did not do the reading, they could not. Every week there were students who were shut out of doing the storytelling posts as a result of the all-or-nothing approach to the reading, and I suspect that there were many students who skimmed the whole reading way too quickly in order to avoid being blocked, so they actually got less out of trying to do the whole thing than they can now get out of concentrating just on half.

In Indian Epics, the readings were always divided into two halves (it's a more substantial amount of reading, so it really needed to be divided up), and I also supplied Reading Guides. But here is what I did not do: I was not explicit about what students should do if they missed part of the reading. I assumed they would realize they could use the Reading Guides to fill in the gaps, but occasional remarks by students in their blogs made me realize that they were not doing that. So, I have now made explicit what was just implicit before: the Reading Guides are an important part of the class; everybody needs to read the Guides and, in particular, people who miss a portion of the reading should use the Reading Guide to fill in the gap before they move on to the next portion of assigned reading.


GOALS. As often, there are several goals at work here:
  • Self-Awareness. I want students to be aware of the choices they are making as they do the work for the class, taking responsibility for their choices.
  • Flexibility. This flexible workload allows students to make choices that accommodate their own interests and priorities.
  • Quality over Quantity. I want students to know that choosing to do half the reading well is, for the purposes of this class, better than skimming through the whole thing in a rush.

GENERAL THOUGHTS

As far as Indian Epics is concerned, this is a change I should have made ages ago, and I am kicking myself for not having seen that earlier. It's actually not even a change at all — rather, it is just making something explicit that I had wrongly expected would be obvious to the students, even when it clearly was not obvious at all.

As far as Myth-Folklore, I am really glad that I had the realization about reading-in-halves in the Indian Epics class so that I was able to take that factor into account as I built the UnTextbook this past summer and designed the reading and writing assignments to go with it, making the two-halves distinction very clear.

This system is working incredibly well and, at least right now in the midst of Week 5, I don't see any reason to change this strategy for next semester. So far, so good! I might tally up some stats at the end of the semester just to see what the patterns of half-reading were like. I'll be curious if I can detect a bump because of midterm season for example, and also how levels of reading participation by a given student might correlate with other aspects of the class. Once again, of course, D2L BS gives me no help in doing that kind of data analysis, but I can gather the data on my own and see what I learn!



Better half an egg than an empty shell.

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