wasted opportunities?

Chris Vilmar’s  new 18c blog, Perplexed by Narrow Passages (which I’ve just installed on our blogroll), has a good end-of-term piece on the melancholy produced by grading season.  Somehow, the process of totting up students’ final grades, which reveals exactly how much (or how little) progress they’ve made, makes their failures seem like our own.  (by this point in the semester, students can only be measured by their accomplishments, not for what we hope they might accomplish)  And the final round of insights gained by writing and reading exams stays with us alone, in the form of regrets, a nagging sense of wasted opportunities.  Chris writes:

Writing an exam always forces me to reexamine the books I’ve taught. Not only do I always make some connections that I hadn’t made before–that macro-view of the book can be illuminating–but I always regret something about the way I’ve handled the class. I find myself wishing I’d made things more explicit, or asked a better question, or led the discussion this way rather than that. I always end up writing imperious little notes to myself while I’m writing an exam: “Do this next time! Don’t forget this!”

I’ve had similar thoughts about the end of term for some time, but what I’ve begun doing is putting this kind of material onto the class blog that I run, and not just at the end of the semester, but all throughout the term.  I’ve started calling these my “What I’ve learned” posts, and these are as much for my benefit as theirs.  Since I tend to cannibalize one semester’s blog to develop the one for the following semester, I hope that this kind of accumulation will benefit future classes, and give my students one last opportunity to see what I learned from a semester’s worth of discussion.  (One internal debate I always have with myself is whether it’s better to let a class’s discussion take its own shape every semester, or to try to transfer the insights of one semester to the next)  Assuming that Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” really does exist, these moments of shared reflection are one of the ways that I benefit from teaching others how to do research.


UPDATE: For a bonus, I’m throwing in a link to an old Perverse Egalitarianism piece on the history of testing, which I’ve wanted to blog about, but hadn’t found the time, since I was grading nonstop.  Don’t miss the link to Wilbrink’s history of assessment, which I found particularly good on the varied uses of tests in education.


2 responses to “wasted opportunities?

  1. Dave–

    I’ve been working on my syllabuses and I’m definitely taking a cue from this post and adding more chances to reflect on previous classes and previous failures into this semester.

    How did your students respond to these kinds of feedback? I’m curious.

    (Also: the Vygotsky is dense, at least in terms of my thinking through its implications for teaching. I haven’t yet gotten to that history of testing, sadly, but my interest is piqued! You’ve given me a lot to think about here.)

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hi Chris,

    I’ll send you a link to the courseblog offline by email, and you can see what the posts, prompts, etc. looked like. Use what you can, but let me know what works and what doesn’t.

    The class’s response was pretty good, because the students are usually pretty honest, and often feel that “official” writing assignments do not represent them very well. So portfolio-style assignments, where they are asked to examine and assess their own performance, in detail, work pretty well, as long as it’s done at the end of a sequence where they really have learned something substantial. So the end of the semester is a logical point for self-reflection. There is a certain amount of telling the teacher what he wants, but I ask them to describe their difficulties, and they’re usually happy to do that.

    Take a look at Dalke’s course in the next post and you’ll see how thoroughly she’s integrated these kinds of feedback into her coursework.

    As for Vygotsky, I got into him via Jerome Bruner, who was recommended to me by a comp/rhet person here who has been discussing inquiry approaches with me since he arrived. I’m working on a cultural studies/information literacy piece for a library journal, and this was one of the pieces of the puzzle.

    The key to the Vygotsky is the proximal zone of development concept, the notion that groups allow students to accomplish things they are not yet able to do on their own.