Tips had another question I thought was interesting.

How about those problems with unfamiliar twists that supposedly show whether the students can think independently? The logic here is questionable, to say the least. Figuring out a new way to tackle a quantitative problem on a time-limited test reflects puzzle-solving ability as much as anything else. If tricky problems count for more than about 10–15% of a test, the good puzzle-solvers will get high grades and the poor ones will get low grades, even if they understand the course content quite well. This outcome is unfair.

The real reason I thought this was interesting is I was reading in one of the Chicken Soup books and there was a single story that caught my attention. I read it in July and I still remember it.

A faculty member was asked to look at a physics test and say whether the student should pass or not. The student was supposed to have explained how to find out how tall a building was. The student wrote, “Stand on the roof; let a string down; measure how long it was when it hit the bottom.” The physics prof was distressed by the answer. But the student, understandably, said that it was an adequate answer.

So the judging faculty member asked the prof if the student could take the test again. He did. He came up with three other ways to measure the building’s height. None of them were what the physics prof wanted.

Finally the faculty guy asked the student if he knew what the prof wanted. “Yes.” Then why, the guy asked, didn’t you give it to him? “Everyone is always telling us we need to think. Then when we do, they don’t like it.”

So… Be warned. If you are teaching, you might get someone who knows the “right” answer or the “correct” way to derive something and yet they won’t answer the question that way. (See Snopes for origins of the story.)

It also reminds me of the Physics Nobel Prize winner who was asked to take the SAT. He flunked it. He answered every question correctly, but not the way the SAT wanted it. (Couldn’t find that on Snopes.)


Learned something new

from Tips on Quantitative Tests. I learned the difference between sensors and intuitors in test-taking.

One problem with long tests is that students have different learning and test-taking styles. Some (“intuitors”) tend to work quickly and are not inclined to check their calculations, even if they have enough time. Fortunately for them, their style doesn’t hurt them too badly on tests: they are usually fast enough to finish and their careless mistakes only lead to minor point deductions. Others (“sensors”) are characteristically methodical and tend to go over their calculations exhaustively. They may understand the material just as well as the intuitors do, but their painstaking way of working often leads to their failing exams they could have passed with flying colors if they had more time.

This makes me wonder if E is a sensor. He takes a long time on his math tests, doing questions over and over in various ways trying to make sure he got them right.

(Note: He never did this for me in homeschooling, but we also didn’t test much.)

Degrees of learning

is a second section in Elbow’s article on writing.

It’s a bit more thought provoking for me.

The students write for themselves. I don’t see it. I don’t grade it. I don’t read it. … I wonder how I could incorporate this in my classroom and if it’s really a good idea.

Sharing, but no feedback. That is that others read it. I read it. But there’s no grade, except perhaps participation.

Under sharing he includes “publication.” That is that the students bring some of their work, with copies, and you staple them together and use them as part of the course. I am not sure how you would use them and he doesn’t discuss it. Something else to think about.

Student response groups. I never learned how to use these well. E has them in his class and they seem to be useful. I would like to use this tomorrow… Maybe I can copy the students’ papers and pass a copy to someone else to read and comment on. I really like that idea. (Must remember to get copy code.)

Here’s an interesting take on some teacher commenting:

There’s a quick and easy form of “proto-commenting” that is remarkably effective–especially appropriate perhaps for think pieces: putting straight lines alongside or underneath strong passages, wavy lines alongside or underneath problem passages, and X’s next to things that seem plainly wrong. I can do this almost as fast as I can read, and it gives remarkably useful feedback to students: it conveys the presence and reactions of a reader.

(He’s talking to more than just English teachers.)

I thought this was funny/true:

It’s best to comment in everyday terms or in whatever language people in your field might use (e.g., “This is wordy / roundabout / awkward / naive”). Plain talk by non-English teachers is often more effective with students. That is, it’s better to say, “Don’t sound so pompous” than to say, “Don’t use so many passives and nominalized constructions.” Most of all, you have a great advantage over us English teachers: when you say, “This is unacceptable writing in our field,” students tend to believe you; when we English teachers complain about style or clarity, students tend to dismiss it as just our occupational hang-up.

Then there is this idea, which I wouldn’t want to do early on, but which might work well in the later writings… Especially right before we do our final on the journals that are about the final.

Two-fers: I sometimes wait till I have two pieces by each student before reading and commenting. For example, I might comment on two think pieces (and perhaps even ask for an essay on a subsequent week that builds on the better of the two). With this approach I make just one comment that’s not much longer than a comment on only one paper– but it applies to both papers. It’s easier to say, “This one is stronger than that one for the following reasons,” than to figure out what to say about just one paper–especially if it is problematic or bland. These comparative comments are usually better at helping students improve because I can point to what worked rather than what didn’t.

Just the thing to make students sure we are crazy:

Since lots of casual ungraded writing can give students a sense that we are not interested in high quality work, there is something to be said for having a graded essay relatively early in the term and grading it with demanding standards–so that they can feel the true dialectic or schizophrenic relationship between writing to learn and writing to demonstrate learning.

I like it, though.

I don’t think that all of his suggestions for avoiding plagiarism will work, especially not in a freshman comp class, but I do agree with and use this one: “Collect lots of informal writing so students know that you know their style or voice.”

I also do this well. “Students won’t write enough unless we assign more writing than we can comment on–or even read. There is no law against not reading what we make them write.”

I don’t do this, though. And maybe I should think about doing it. “Writing can have a powerful communal or social dimension; it doesn’t have to feel solitary.” I do it with my poetry classes at the coop, but not at the college.

I really do need to think about that.

I LOVE being challenged to think. I thought this class was going to be pretty wussy, and it can be, but I’m not going the wuss route.


Writing for Learning has some interesting points. (Of course it ought to. It’s by Peter Elbow, big name important rhetorician.)

1. In class writing. I have some of this that I don’t count as my 18 pieces of writing required for my course. They write to answer questions, to show that they get it, to tell me what they are doing.

2. Journal writing. In 1990 I required 5 journal writings. In this semester’s syllabus I have 11. Some are responsive, to a reading. One is “tell me what you think is going on” with the research paper.

3. Think pieces. I think that some of these, at least, are in my journal writing. I know I don’t require any other than those.

4. Essays that count. I have four of those. I used to have seven in the semester. (Like last spring.) But then I didn’t have the journal writing.

5. Term papers. Now Elbow doesn’t like these. He calls them “terminal.” He says they’re not picked up, because they’re at the end of the course and the students don’t learn from them. I have a couple of things that I do to avoid this. First of all, the research papers aren’t the last paper in the class. They’re due at least before Thanksgiving. (This semester the first is due next week.) Second, I let the students rewrite them, fixing the problems in each. Then I grade the rewrite and give them the average of the two grades. I carefully explain to them that the better the first paper is the better the average. … This usually motivates them.

Of course, it motivates the students who stay in the class. This last week, the second week of preparing for the paper, I had 35 of 65 students in class. Does this mean they are dropping? A lot of them probably are. Of course some of them haven’t done any of the work yet. Some people would say that I should do the research paper later, when they have more grades and are more committed to the class through their time investment. (That’s certainly the way I have usually done it.) But, then again, if they’re going to drop anyway, maybe I should have it earlier so I have to do less grading?

6. Portfolios. I’m not sure how I would grade these, but I like the idea.

Students usually get much more out of a course when they are asked to go through all their writing and other projects and make a portfolio out of the best and most interesting pieces. (I always ask for a few selections from private or journal writing, some think pieces, and some essays. I want a range of types. I always ask for an “interesting failure.”) The most important part of the portfolio is an essay that introduces, explores, and explains the pieces in the portfolio and talks about what the student has learned from these pieces of work. This self-reflexive writing provides a kind of meta- discourse that leads to new understanding and enriches fragile, incipient insights.

If I don’t have this in the syllabus, how would I include it? Could I make it a substantial extra credit project? Or could I let them do it to replace a low grade? Or maybe I can change one of the later journal assignments to this? I’ll have to think about it. Yes. I could have it in place of Journal 11. But I like the idea of Journal 11. Maybe I could give them a choice? Or maybe I could skip one of the other journals? No, I think the others are necessary.

Hmm. That’s probably why I came up with them as assignments.

Collaborative Learning

This comes from “Reaching the Second Tier.” The author says to encourage or mandate team-based learning experiences.

I have never assigned grades to groups, even when we’ve worked in groups, because when I was assigned a group in school, the others in the group did squat and I did all the work. Then they got my grade.

I know that some teachers have tried to work this out better for the students and have assigned sections… but even when this has been done, some people don’t do their section. And the whole group got the grade.

I am not saying I don’t assign group work in my classes. I find that the students enjoy talking to each other and working with each other. So at least every two weeks we have small group work. I have the students do something together and then I either have them turn it in, for a participation grade, or they talk about it to the class, for a discussion grade.

When students have worked together on papers and homework, though, I have found that they end up plagiarizing a lot. I don’t know who the original learner is, but the answers will come back in identical formats or with one single change between them. Maybe one student will give less information while the others all give the same amount.

I want students to talk to each other and learn from each other. When I was having trouble learning a topic, I would find someone else who didn’t get it and study to teach them. It helped me a lot.
But I don’t like giving group grades on a large assignment because I know that all too often the work belongs to a single person but the group gets the grade.

I have even seen some teachers count off if the work is done by a single person. So, for instance, my mother was in a group. Four people were supposed to do something. Two did nothing. One did some. One did a lot. The total grade was based on the a lot + some – nothing. So the person who did some probably got a fair grade, but the people who did a lot or nothing were under or over rewarded.

I HATE that; even though my eldest says, “It’s how the world works.” Maybe it does, but it doesn’t have to work that way in my classroom.

Has anyone ever had a group grade that went well?

Learning styles

In “Reaching the Second Tier,”an assigned reading for my online class at college on how to teach better, I liked the questions for a student’s learning style much better than the Barsch Learning Styles test.

Barsch said that I was 26 in visual, 22 in verbal, and 16 in kinetic. I don’t do squat in kinetic. And I only got a high visual score because they included reading as visual rather than verbal.

In Felder’s learning styles, sensory v. intuitive is a category I know already from Myers-Briggs. I have found it makes a huge difference in my life. If someone is intuitive, I have a much easier time talking to them, understanding them, and getting along with them.

I wonder if that means that sensers have a hard time in my classes. Maybe. Although my students have to do a lot of writing, which is definitely sensory.

Then these questions seemed to include writing and reading in verbal (or auditory) rather than visual. I am not a visual learner. I know that, because my husband is a visual learner. He can see something and understand it. I have to read about it or discuss it to get it.

I also liked the question of deductive and inductive learning. I am definitely an inductive person and had a lot of trouble with my PhD work because it was deductive, or theory driven. They discussed the theories and then left you to figure out how it would work out. I hated that because half the time I thought the theories couldn’t work out because they began with a faulty premise.

I also liked the actively or reflectively learning question. I am not as sure on that one where I stand. I know that I do get a lot out of discussions, but I also like time to think. Maybe that is because I am not always a quick thinker. I can’t see the holes without thinking about it for a while. I’ll know there is something “off” in a discussion, but not be able to identify it.

I guess that’s why I like continuity in discussions.

This was an interesting paper, which is found on NCSU’s site.

Sequential versus Global Learning

In “Reaching the Second Tier” the author talks about sequential and global learning.

Sequential learning goes in little chunks that build on other chunks, sometimes in those spirals of public school- where you get more information on the same topics each year. It is definitely how the public school is scheduled.

Global learning, however, appears to show less well in our school systems. Global learners “need to understand how the material being presented relates to their prior knowledge and experience.”

What would that mean in execution? Maybe I am just not understanding this. Or maybe it works especially well in science education (the focus of the paper) and less well in English.

I do talk to them about narratives being the most common papers in high school when they write a narrative paper, their second journal essay.

I also, very carefully, discuss which types of papers are most likely to be used in which class as I assign them. For instance, I discuss the descriptive paper for an art class. And, I tell them, research will be done for almost any discipline.

Is that helping the global learners? I don’t know. I kind of saw it as explaining why it was important that they get it, since it’s not just useful for my class, but also for other classes.

Concrete v. conceptual information

Again in “Reaching the Second Tier,” the author recommends balancing concrete information with conceptual information (theories).

I used to do this in English class much more than I do now. I didn’t see that it added anything to the class and I didn’t see the students wanting it.

Am I mistaken? Are people using a lot of theory introduction in practical, as opposed to theoretical, courses? (Freshman composition is inherentally practical, I think.)

I never had any theory discussed until I got into my PhD work. That may have been a function of the schools I went to, but I don’t really see how. It may be that folks didn’t think theory was important until they got into the doctoral level.

Do the students find it useful to know that there is a triangle or square for theories of writing/speaking? I do a short (one day) introduction to many theoretical aspects of writing, but I fly through it. And I don’t really come back to it in any concrete way later on.

Educating the Educator

I’m taking a “class” this semester. Usually I would think that was a great thing, but I am not quite as sure this time. It seems very basic.

That might be because we have only begun. I’m not sure. It might be because I don’t really understand what is going to happen later on.

Basically, apparently, it is on “learning-centered” teaching. This means you have the student “do” stuff. Of course, in a writing class, the student is doing all the time. Maybe the problem is that my discipline is so much about this already. Or maybe it is that I already do the things recommended.

In the first week there are three research papers for us to read on learning-centered learning and the first day of class. We’re talking about getting the student involved. There are 7 ice breaker suggestions. I have used 5 of them. They suggest you introduce yourself to your students, particularly emphasizing your enthusiasm. I do that. They tell you to write your name and the class name on the board on the first day. I do that. I did get two ideas of things for ice breakers… One of which I remember.

Then they asked us “what is important?” Was the question what is important about the story they were telling us? Or about our class? Some answered one way, some another. I wrote a tome in that first email, and that was after I deleted parts.

I think that instead of hoping this will help me teach better, which it may or may not, I should be hoping it lets me get to know other adjuncts. I think that will keep me from getting too frustrated.

Being Brilliant: Not Enough

My students get more than a literature education in my class, though we do focus on that primarily. This week, twice, in the discussions before school started, being brilliant, being in a well-paid field, and doing well were discussed.

This discussion of a cartoon from Common Room is exactly what we discussed.

My students were discussing the fact that they should get a CPA since one friend with a great internship made $15,000 one summer. I told them my aunt had a CPA and, though she was a hard worker, she never made more than $30,000 a year. Now she lives in a trailer on the river in San Angelo. She came to her degree late and worked for different universities around the country. But they never hired her full-time, so she was always working a while and then moving on.

My brother has a law degree and his wife has a veterinary degree and they live in a rented trailer house out in the country. They’re both brilliant but my brother didn’t do well in school and is working a low paying real estate law job that barely pays. And my sister-in-law has finished her PhD and is now doing a post doc which pays about the same. They make a bit more than minimum wage for high and difficult education.

Being brilliant is not enough.