On the old saw, “Thank you for proving my point completely.”

As some of you may have noticed, Inside Higher Ed published a version of my post on pedagogy from a couple weeks ago. In the article as in the post, I claim that while a good discussion is an ideal, it often runs aground when it turns out students don’t have strong baseline reading skills; I then suggest that if we rethink the purpose of the lecture, shifting from information delivery to preparing them for the reading, we might get better results. Naturally, in the comments, several readers were apparently responding to some other article, where I claimed that discussions are always bad and only a return to the traditional lecture can save us.

I made the mistake of joining in the conversation, which I think should prove my dedication to discussion beyond any reasonable doubt. I’ve provided an opening for commenters to suggest further active-learning exercises that could help prepare students in advance of their reading assignments so that they get more out of them. Perhaps we could also talk about that here. For example, I shared an instance where I literally just went through the first few paragraphs of the reading with them, in an interactive way, an approach that seemed to be successful but might not be sustainable for an entire term. Ideas such as providing discussion questions, etc., sound good, too, but I am primarily interested in something that you could do immediately in class, after I’d given a preview of the reading but before they had a chance to read it on their own.

I’ll admit that my article did contain some phrases that, when read through the classical “lecture vs. discussion” dichotomy, might lead one to believe that I was setting up a straw man version of discussion to fight against the best version of lecture. Yet I still maintain that if one was able to grasp my main point, namely, that lectures that are consciously formulated to guide students’ reading in advance could help serve better discussion, such a conclusion would make absolutely no sense — since why on earth would I be trashing discussion in favor of lectures at the same time that I’m arguing we need to totally rethink lectures to put them in service of discussion?!

This brings me to another pedagogical tool: using a course packet instead of making PDFs available online, to make absolutely sure that they are reading a printed text instead of off the computer screen, because my experience is that people read more attentively on the page than the screen and the technology is still not quite “there” for writing marginal notes and doing highlighting in a non-cumbersome way — though it’d be great if there was a good tool like that… and what if said tool could have a feature that would maybe block out your ability to use other applications for a set amount of time so that you would be forced to use the computer solely as a book instead of constantly alt-tabbing your way to incomprehension? Maybe I can write an article about that, and then get a half-dozen responses in the vein of: “Oh, here we go again with another curmudgeon trashing on the use of technology in the classroom. Guess what, asshole, people read poorly before Twitter even existed. I’m tired of the current generation being trashed just because you’re not comfortable with technology, etc., etc.”

10 thoughts on “On the old saw, “Thank you for proving my point completely.”

  1. Copyright law in Canada is organized in such a way that it would be completely stupid for someone who knows how to use a scanner to make PDFs and how to distribute them electornically to not do so; by that I mean the paperwork on the instructor’s side is ridiculous and cost on the student’s side is prohibitive. I have not considered the pedagogical implications, however. I fear that it might be too late to do one of my courses with a coursepack next semester just to see if it is any different.

  2. I like your idea of reading through and explaining a few paragraphs with the students in preparation for reading. You might build on that technique and try things like assigning small chunks of a reading assignment to a certain group (maybe a page or two), organize the students into groups of three or four, give them a 10-20 minutes to read and discuss the text among themselves and present 1-2 minute summaries and commentary to the class. You could probably have your whole class effectively read through, digest, and discuss a 10-page paper in 45 minutes this way.

    Just an idea.

  3. I particularly like the comments that take you to task for not referencing relevant scholarship, which then go on to make vague claims about what this scholarship supposedly says, without giving any references.

  4. I’ve found that, since current classes in my program have shifted from course packets to PDFs online, students’ reading is even more sparse and unengaged. I realize it’s more costly to “make” students pay for the packets, and anyone can print off the PDFs if they so choose, but speaking pedagogically, I think you’re right on the mark there.

  5. “…and what if said tool could have a feature that would maybe block out your ability to use other applications for a set amount of time so that you would be forced to use the computer solely as a book instead of constantly alt-tabbing your way to incomprehension?”

    I’m willing to bet something like this exists and it’s worth looking into either way. I think one of the single biggest problems students (esp. college students) face in regard to doing their coursework is the fact that their primary tool for text composition, research, student-professor correspondence and, in many cases, reading, is also both the primary locus of their casual social interaction and a high powered multimedia entertainment machine. I rarely walk through a college library without seeing several students who, although surrounded by open books and course materials, are deeply absorbed surfing facebook.

  6. Adam,
    I thought your original post was spot on. I’ve found exactly the same with my students in the UK. Most of them waited until after the lecture to read the material, even though I asked them to read it beforehand so we could discuss it.
    your idea is a good one. I do something similar with trying to get students to think critically, but it’s difficult to keep them focused.

  7. Andrew,

    I agree that focus can be a challenge. Two things that might alleviate that problem: make students accountable for the brief presentation of their assigned portion, and try to drop in and out of the various groups to check on them, maybe offer some of your own commentary.

    A big part of focus depends on student zeal, and that’s something that a instructor can stir a bit -but ultimately it’s not in your control. You get what’s handed to you.

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