In my 20 years of teaching in the Psychology Department, I have had the opportunity to teach many groups of students with widely ranging interests, motivation, and ambitions. It has both intrigued me and frustrated me how the same material lights up one group of students with brilliant, insightful questions and discussions, while another group seems to barely respond. Thus, one of my main goals as I began my WID journey was to implement strategies that would encourage interest, engagement, and participation in all of my students. This compelled me to examine my teaching strategies, as well as the assignments that I was using in my courses. I focused on redesigning my course assignments (both formal and informal) in hopes of increasing student engagement and participation. In redesigning my assignments, I implemented 4 WID-inspired strategies, including: 1. Giving students a specific task and role in their assignments by writing to a specific audience. 2. asking “beautiful questions” (Bean, 2011, 3) during in-class activities and formal assignments that not only challenge the student’s current way of thinking, but that also can be directly applied to the students’ own lives. 3. Effectively scaffolding and structuring in-class activities and formal assignments so as to gradually teach the skills necessary for the successful completion of the course, while also identifying problems early on so as to provide corrective feedback. 4. Providing feedback effectively to encourage students’ engagement and learning.
The Power of Audience and “Beautiful Questions”
One important problem that I detected in many of my courses has to do with the students’ engagement with course assignments. Oftentimes, when students are asked to write an essay or a research paper, they often write to the teacher, with the mindset that the teacher will be the only person reading this paper (Bean, 2011). In the past, when writing assignment instructions, I have rarely given any emphasis to the audience. My instructions have merely told the students to assume that the audience is naïve and that their job is to inform the reader regarding their research question. However, because I have not really framed the audience, they write with the mindset that they are only writing for me. This likely leads to several problems. Firstly, this creates an important power differential, as their focus will be solely to show me, their professor, how smart they are, placing undue pressure of them. This may lead some students to use oftentimes unexplained, heavily plagiarized, or inappropriate jargon, all of which illustrates their lack of comprehension of the material. At the other end of the spectrum, students may feel that there is nothing they can really do to be as smart as the professor and so they just make very general statements that lack any real focus. I often catch myself telling students while reviewing their papers with them hat they start discussing an idea and then they stop before they have discussed the issue fully. The response I often get from these students is that they know that I already know this material, so they feel they don’t have to say it in their papers. This points to the importance of thinking about the audience when formulating instructions for an assignment. Assigning an audience provides the student with a purpose for writing the paper (Bean, 2011). Articulating an audience in the instructions tells the student why they are writing and gives the assignment a meaning, and propels the student towards the type of information they will have to provide in order to educate or change the audience’s point of view.
Assigning an audience also helps to formulate a problem that is more meaningful and truer to the issues that students may face in their real life, thus making it more likely that the students will find the assignment interesting and a worthwhile endeavor to focus on. Bean (2011) highlights the importance of creating “meaning-constructing” tasks. These are tasks or assignments that “present students with an authentic problem requiring their own critical thinking….and it presents the problem withing a rhetorical context that gives students a role or purpose, a targeted audience, and a genre” (Bean, 2011, 98). A meaning-constructing task has 4 essential elements (RAFT): 1. Task: proposing an intriguing problem that is relevant to the discipline that the students will address in their assignment. 2. Role or purpose: this sets a rhetorical context whereby the student understands the kind of change they hope to bring in the audience’s understanding of the problem or point of view. 3. Audience: assigning an audience helps to clarify to the student the initial point of view of the reader that the students hope to change. 4. Genre: This helps to specify the specific format that the paper will take, whether it be a research paper, proposal, case report etc.
In light of the issues discussed above, I felt that it was important to restructure my assignments so that they become meaning-constructing tasks. The assignments that were restructured were those for my Brain and Behaviors class. I applied the RAFT in constructing my assignments. For example, I started by providing the student with a problem that is experienced by a large proportion of the population so that the student could relate to the problem either directly or indirectly, and the student was provided with a short case study of a patient, who, in this case, suffered from PTSD.
The problem was stated using the “they say – I say” strategy, which set the rhetorical context or purpose of the assignment, in this case to show that previous treatments for PTSD have not taken into consideration newer research in the roots and development of PTSD, perhaps explaining the patient’s lack of improvement despite therapy. The audience in this example is a group of neuropsychologists who are eager to find out more about these new findings, thus the student was expected to take a professional tone as they offered a case analysis report. The student was also asked to consider specific questions that I had formulated as they wrote their analysis. I structured all my major assignments for this course in a similar fashion. In structuring my assignments with a specific goal and audience in mind, I found that many of my students were more invested in explaining the concepts, and offered clearer, more thorough, and better thought-out analyses than I had seen in previous semesters.
The Importance of Scaffolding
In designing my assignments, I also used the strategy of planning my course backwards, whereby I designed my very last assignment before designing other assignments for the course (Bean, 2011). This strategy allows teachers to assess the kinds of difficulties the students might have as they complete the assignment, and so they can plan other smaller assignments over the semester that will teach them the skills that they will need in order to complete the final assignment successfully (Bean, 2011). The assignment described in the previous paragraph represented the summative assessment for my Brain and Behavior course, and so incorporated the majority of the concepts that were discussed during the semester. The goal for this final assignment was for the student to analyze a case study by integrating the various concepts learned during the semester in order to offer a comprehensive explanation of the behavior of the patient from a biopsychological perspective. In order to scaffold the skills needed to successfully complete this final assignment, I designed similar in class activities and smaller assignments that each addressed a specific part of the course.
Each of these assignments was designed using the RAFT strategy, so that a specific problem, audience, and rhetorical context was assigned. Furthermore, while the final assignment was to be completed by the student individually, the scaffolding assignments started by having students discuss the problem in groups of 4, then in groups of 2, and then individually. Allowing for discussion groups in the initial stages allowed students to brainstorm ideas, ask each other questions, and explain the concepts to each other. This strategy helped them to understand the concepts more clearly, which again led to higher quality responses in their assignments. It also helped them to understand how to address the types of questions that would be asked in future assignments. In addition to students providing each other with feedback, scaffolding these smaller, focussed assignments allowed me to provide constructive feedback right from the beginning of the course. Thus, as the semester progressed, I noticed that the depth and quality of the students’ responses increased. Instead of merely providing surface-level responses to the questions I asked, many of the students started providing deeper levels of analysis of the material by integrating several facets of the material at once instead of a considering only a single element at a time.
Scaffolding these smaller assignments also allowed me to identify students who were struggling with core concepts early on in the course and to address these issues with the students. Once I identified a student who was having difficulty with a core concept, I contacted the student and arranged to meet the student to discuss the difficulty one-on-one. I then offered these students more exercises to practice the skill, providing more feedback along the way, until the skill was achieved. This strategy was particularly beneficial to the students, as it increased the quality of their reports as compared to previous semesters. Several students also expressed that they appreciated the individualized attention and that they felt more comfortable asking for help later on in the course.
Providing Constructive Feedback
Furthermore, a critical element in scaffolding the assignments came in the kind of feedback that I provided to my students as they completed each of their assignments. In the past, although I have mainly used rubrics to provide feedback to my students, these rubrics were quite vague, and did not really explain what was required of the student for each of the elements and left much to the student’s interpretation. Therefore, I modified my rubrics in all of my courses so that they could be more informative both to myself and to the student. I designed an analytical rubric where I list each of the criteria in the left column, along with detailed information about what each criterion involves (Bean, 2011). I also indicate the weight attributed to each criterion. Each column to the right provides a score ranging from 10-0 to indicate the level of competence achieved in the criterion.
Using this type of rubric provides a great deal of information to the student in terms of what I am expecting from them, and informs them as to their level of achievement. However, such a rubric does not allow for the student to really know which parts of their assignments they did well or poorly and why they were so. For this reason, it is also important to offer evaluative comments in addition to numerical grades (Elbow, 1994). This allows me to provide substantive feedback to the student, which is so essential to the learning process. In fact, on written assignments and tests, I make sure to provide as much feedback as possible, particularly on work that is presented early in the semester, as my goal is to have my students improve their work. According to Elbow (1994), the purpose of providing evaluative comments is not just to inform the student of what they have done poorly or well, but also to explain why it is so and how to get better. Thus, designing scaffolding types of assignments over the course of the semester allowed me to provide such substantive feedback.
One of the things that has stood out to me the most during my WID journey is the importance of looking for the good in my students’ assignments. According to Elbow (1994), a tendency that many teachers have is to mainly focus on commenting on the things that aren’t done well and that need improvement, which can be quite discouraging for the student. This is something that I can honestly say I have been guilty of in the past. I have always provided my students with substantive feedback, but my focus has mainly been on correcting whatever needed to be fixed instead of commenting on what has been done well. However, it is not sufficient to focus on the things that need improvement. It is also important to focus on the things that we like, in order to encourage the student to do more of it (Elbow, 1994). During this semester, one of the things that I changed in the way I read my student papers was to focus more on the things that the students were doing well. That’s not to say that I didn’t point out the things that they needed to work on, but in my comments, I started pointing out both their strengths and their weaknesses. In doing so, my mindset while reading assignments became more positive and optimistic. I believe that by being more positive and constructive in my feedback, and also by contacting students who were experiencing difficulties instead of waiting for them to approach me, helped them feel that they could approach me more easily. I saw this effect quite plainly with a student that I thought was a bit standoffish and perhaps unmotivated in my course. The assignment that she submitted really was devoid of any real ideas, and I felt annoyed by her. I really misjudged her, however. Once she received my feedback on her assignment, she contacted me immediately to ask for help. She wanted to learn. She became engaged in the course. In my initial annoyance, I could have lost my chance to really make an impact. I think though, that maybe part of the reason she did approach me was that in my comments, I did point out the things that I liked and told her why I liked them. Despite my annoyance at the time, changing the way I responded to my students changed the way they responded to me, and they were more eager to learn.
Participating in the WID fellowship provided me with a great opportunity to critically evaluate and improve my own teaching practices. The weekly readings and discussions provided me with concrete tools to increase student engagement and learning through better design of course assignments. However, what I found most valuable in this experience is that I also became far more invested in communicating effectively with my students, through careful scaffolding and constructive feedback that capitalized on students’ strengths. What I found was that this was probably the most important ingredient to improving my students’ engagement and learning.
Bean, J. (2011). Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and
Active Learning in the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Elbow, P. (1994). Ranking, Evaluating, Liking: Sorting out three forms of judgment. College English, 12,