incremental learning (on all sides)

Now that the term is over, I’m doing my usual review of the previous semester, and a question came up in my mind: why is it so much easier to improve your teaching incrementally rather than all at once? Why do the attempted, full-scale reinventions fall flat, when longer-term, more piecemeal improvements seem to work better initially and have more lasting results?

There are trade-offs both ways. Doing it all at once gives you the opportunity to start with a clear conception and see it all the way through.  Tweaking is less risky, because you’re usually beginning with something that you’ve inherited or established that feels at least functional, but often you feel like you could be doing things without really understanding the rationale.  The initial impetus has gone away.  But I can say that my most successful teaching has always been in the long-running courses that I’ve had the opportunities to rework year after year.

This semester in my Swift and Literary studies course, which I’ve previously blogged about, I had some small assignments that seemed to help my students in significant ways.  I created these largely because I was concerned about the reading skills of students coming into this course, the gateway for the English major. Here they are:

1. “Representative Passage” assignment for Gulliver’s Travels. I developed this because I felt that students were reading so much criticism and theory that they tended to focus on very obvious passages or episodes from GT for their final assignments.  This assignment was based on some exercises I found in Kathleen Blake Yancey’s Teaching Literature as Reflective Practice and Blau’s Literature Workshop (discussed earlier on this blog).

The idea was to get students (most of whom had never read Swift or GT or studied much prose besides short stories) to record some key information for each part of GT, then select a passage related to some question for that week’s discussion. Each week, students individually filled out a worksheet describing their choice of passages, then discussed their selections in groups, with the groups choosing one passage then reporting their choices out to the class as a whole. Afterwards, I’d look at the worksheets and recorded discussions, give them a check, check minus, or check plus credit, and return them. I repeated this exercise four times, once for each part of GT. At the end of term, a number of students mentioned how helpful this exercise was for them to hear about other students’ thinking about the selections. And the final papers did feature a wider than usual range of GT passages than I’d seen before.

2. In-class essays. I originally assigned short response essays on topics in critical theory, but I eventually realized that they wrote better timed in-class essays than response essays on these topics.  Then I started collecting their questions on the theorists to create the in-class exam, adapting them as necessary but still leaving them options so they could choose their questions.  Finally, rather than doing these simply as open book or open notes, I allowed students to create a single typed or printed page of notes to bring to class, on the condition that these were handed in along with the completed in-class essays. These note sheets helped me assess students’ understanding and synthesis of the material on the essay, and like their essays, when handed back with feedback, these sheets became another source of ideas for their final research projects. They repeated this cycle twice, just before embarking on the final projects. I think this kind of cycle (questions, note-sheet, in-class essays, feedback) is a good way to teach theoretical topics that ordinarily only the most self-assured students feel comfortable enough to discuss.

What I’ve learned from this is that incremental, recursive cycles during the semester really help them develop the confidence to learn and discuss what they’re learning, but that this is in effect my cycle, too, as I teach the course from term to term.



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