Student Control of the Classroom

This is a preliminary retrospective on my British literature course.

group of students smilingThis semester, just before school started, I talked to a long-time instructor at the university about what she was doing in her early British literature survey course. After having that discussion, the very first day of class I presented three different formats for the classroom that the students could vote on. (That book on designing for how students learn said the more student control, the more engaged and motivated they are, so I thought it was worth a try.)

I presented three different models for the classroom that semester.

The first is what I was told (though I no longer recall by whom) the course should have:
regular reading quizzes
a sixteen-page research paper with 10 scholarly sources
a mid-term
a final

The second is what I have previously taught the course with:
regular reading quizzes
reading questions for homework
an eight-page research paper with 5 scholarly sources
two four-page papers (based on the readings but without research requirements)
two exams (one was a cumulative final)

The third is what I came up with based on SR’s course plan:
regular reading quizzes
a literature analysis for each major reading (All but the Renaissance poetry and the King James Bible readings)
three exams (Old English, Middle English, Renaissance and Neoclassical)

I included a digital presentation, adapted from an assignment called Hrothgar’s Playlist created by another colleague (KD), in each iteration of the choices.

The students voted overwhelmingly for the third option.

What I liked about the third option was:
The students told me what issues they had with each reading, what they thought about it, and made a claim/thesis about the work that they supported with quotes and textual analysis.

Multiple exams made it easier for students to study for the tests, because basically (except for the last exam–as scheduled) they were given every month.

Even if the students could find help for the LAs online, the quizzes meant they had to at least know what the readings were about.

The students wrote about every piece of literature, not just the longest ones.

students reading in libraryWhat was more difficult than I expected about the third option was:
The first LA, which I gave LOTS of feedback on, was due on a Tuesday. I needed to mark it and comment on it at length, and still return it to the students by Thursday–because the next LA was due the following Tuesday. That took a long time. I have 50 students in those two classes and I spent about 16 hours on Tuesday evening and Wednesday grading the LAs.

Having an LA due every Tuesday meant I regularly had a lot of grading. (By the end of the semester, though, I could grade them all very quickly because the format was so strict and the grading rubric was so specific.)

I missed having the students compare the sonnets to the poetry of the music they listen to (one of option two’s 4-page papers). In fact, I figured out I was going to miss it, so I added it as an extra credit assignment. I think only five people took advantage of the opportunity, but that was enough for me to not be sad that the paper wasn’t a requirement.

What didn’t happen like I expected it to:
Quizzes
The students overall did not do as well as my spring class did on their quizzes. Partially this is because I did not require the reading questions (which act as a guide for ensuring the students understand the reading) and partially it is because my spring students taking the survey course were almost all advanced freshmen, who were taking a sophomore course their second semester at school.

Reading Questions
I ended up giving out the reading questions as study guides for the exams. The first time I gave them out just before the exam. Most folks didn’t use them. The best students, of course, did. The second time, I put them in the folders to start with. Some of the good students used them as study guides and did better on the next exam. For the last section (Neoclassical), I actually pulled questions off the reading questions to use as quiz questions. And I told the students I was going to do that. More students (though nowhere near half) did the questions after that.

I will change my questions up next time I teach the course to make sure I use the reading questions on the quizzes.

Exams
Finally, the students as a whole were concerned about their exam grades and the timing of the final. One of my classes has their final on Friday–which is not a popular day for finals. We discussed different options and I took the writing day off the calendar and scheduled the third exam for that day.

Having the third exam early did two things that the students considered helpful:
1. If they are happy with their grades, they will not have to attend the final exam.
2. If they are not happy with their grades, they can take a cumulative final that will replace the lowest exam grade.

Having the third exam early did two things that I consider helpful:
1. It allowed for a cumulative final, which increases the level of learning students have within the classroom, based on significant research studies.
2. It gives students a clear understanding of their grades as well as a way to “make up” some of the shortfall, should they experience that.

One thing I scheduled that was a good idea:
The last readings were of Gulliver’s Travels books 1 and 2. For these readings I did not have assigned LAs but, instead, offered a single extra credit LA.

The extra credit LA meant that students who had really blown an LA (at least 5 students) or those who had skipped an LA (probably 10 students) or those who had really good grades and wanted to insure they didn’t have to take the cumulative final (about 5 students) wrote the LA.

Note on extra credit:
While some professors do not approve of extra credit assignments, both of the EC mentioned in this blog post required MORE work than any of the assignments they might be replacing or making up for. A single LA for 160 pages of reading meant a lot of work to synthesize. The other paper, a 4-page essay, was the only out-of-class essay I required the students to write.

I will write on the LA assignments and the rubric I borrowed as well as the rubric I actually used soon.

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