This seems kind of odd to admit, but I run a “coercive classroom.” And there is nothing more coercive in my mind than having my students write daily reflections on assigned readings. I have little reason to think they (or anyone, really) would keep up with the readings without a regular assessment of some sort. Of course, open class discussion on the day’s readings can “peer pressure” some into regular reading habits. I’ve found, however, only a select few are consistently willing to offers their insights, while others are more content to simply listen. (Cold-calling students is a craft I have not yet mastered, but will be attempting next semester. I plan to write about it here for another post.)
There are several ways to gauge if a student has read, but many require a lot of additional effort of the instructor. One may prepare a series of comprehension questions that are handed out just previous to the assignment. These have the benefit of focusing the student’s attention, but I would argue also have the same drawback (to tell the student what they should find interesting or important). It also takes time to craft thoughtful questions that genuinely move beyond basic fact-finding. I personally tend to save good questions like this for class discussion.
Daily (or surprise) reading quizzes are another means of coercion. I’m not convinced of the value of these either, mainly because the questions have to be “easy,” allowing for the student to signal to the instructor that the reading was done even though it may not have been fully comprehended. And grading these can be surprisingly difficult, especially if the question is too easy.
So I’ve veered in another direction, pulling an idea from my time in the Writing Program. I ask my students to respond to every reading by asking the three same questions.
What is New? What is old? What is odd?
New, Old, Odd, that’s it. I sometimes joking call this my N-O-O assignment. The first covers an idea they find interesting. Something they can be motivated to explore in more depth if need be. The second idea covers finding a topic they’ve seen elsewhere, or at least can create a parallel for. This allow students to build on top of old knowledge. The last concept requires them to critique an author’s point or to ask an clarifying question about a topic.
Currently I have my students post these responses on a Forum in GauchoSpace. After posting they can read other student’s posts, though I have not required them to post comments this time. My practice is to go through them shortly before class, and when I have time, to post a brief comment. Typically I will respond to their questions, but will also encourage their curiosities. Even if I do not have time to write responses, just browsing the posts will give me ample ideas of where to take my lecture and what to go over in more detail. I have hesitated to call out students by name about their (insightful) comments, but hope to make this a more common part of my practice.
I grade the reflections based on a simple “did it” or “didn’t do it” scale, though I’ve contemplated a three point scale of “outstanding,” satisfactory,” and “unsatisfactory” (plus “did’t do it”). I typically give my students a few “days off” as well.
Below are the directions I’ve used this summer (I tweak them for each class I teach).
When approaching the reading assignments for this course, I want you to pay attention to three critical aspects: what is New to you, what is Old to you, and what is Odd to you. Your written reflection for each one of these critical aspects should be at least a few sentences in length. Provide page numbers from the readings as necessary.
Below are some of the types of questions you can ask yourself for each aspect.
1. New – What was something new and interesting? What was particularly useful or insightful? What quote or passage was able to reveal something interesting and/or helpful for you? Why was it so? If anything, clearly locating these sections will make the time you spent reading seem worthwhile.
2. Old – What was familiar? What quote or passage claimed something that you already knew? Was there something that seemed familiar or had a potential parallel to another religious tradition you know? Locating these sections will give you a clear foundation should you encounter other sections that are not as clear to you.
3. Odd – What was confusing or unexpected? What quote or passage did not make sense or were you critical of? What problem did you have with it? Locating these sections will help you keep a healthy and critical attitude towards the readings and suggest areas that require further exploration.
Your response will have to be posted before class for you to receive credit.