Marie-Pierre Gosselin

writing time mugI. Introduction

My experience as a WID Fellow has contributed to many aspects of my teaching. At a global level, WID provided me with a framework that made me rethink my role as a psychology teacher. I’ve always been a dedicated to the idea of promoting critical thinking skills in students but realized that I was doing most of the critical thinking for them. WID was a wonderful metacognitive experience where I was able to take some time to think about my teaching process. Concretely, WID gave me the right tools to not only allow students to express and organize their thoughts, but also to revise some of the ways I assessed their progress. As a WID Fellow, I had three areas of focus, including the development of in-class writing activities to promote deep learning and thinking, the enhancement of the quality of literature-review assignments, and the exploration of efficient grading techniques.  Thanks to the WID Fellowship, I said goodbye to many unsatisfactory elements of my teaching and found practical ideas to implement in my classes. Here is a selection of ideas and activities I have developed for my portfolio.  I hope these can be inspiring for other colleagues within and outside psychology.

 

II. Goodbye Fluffy Memorization: Hello Informal Writing to Promote Deep Learning

When teaching psychology, critical thinking is a buzz word we use to suggest that we are engaging students in some meaningful way with the material. However, I always felt critical thinking was used rather loosely, so part of my own journey during WID was to develop activities that would elicit critical thinking skills in some tangible way within and outside the classroom. Frequent informal writing aimed at fostering deeper learning was a great avenue to meet this goal. Most of these informal writing exercises I used were assigned a small value (.5-2%, graded either as done or not done or as done, half-done, not done). Interestingly, I stopped attaching a grade to these exercises toward the end of the semester and noticed that students did them anyways. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but their intrinsic participation suggests that students themselves see the benefits of these exercises.  You can find some examples of the exercises by following the link below.

Informal writing examples

 

III. Goodbye Data-Dumping and Cataloguing: Hello High-Quality Research-Based Assignments

Teaching methods and psychology courses involve grading piles of literature-review assignments. These research-based papers often result in students summarizing articles and putting them back to back in a catalogue-like paper. (e.g., the first article talks about X. Another article, etc.). When I joined the WID community, one of my goals was to find better ways to construct these assignments so they would be of higher quality (and more pleasurable to read). I have applied the backward design to my courses, thinking first about the objectives to be reached, the final assignment that would best achieve these objectives, and then building in scaffolding steps to give lots of feedback to the students throughout the process rather than on the final product (students rarely read the feedback on final papers or projects anyway).

One of the ways I’ve tried to support my students’ writing process is by helping them read through academic articles.  Given that these are usually intended for an advanced academic audience, it is unfair to assume that students can just figure it out on their own.  In my 401 cultural psychology class, I have assigned academic articles rather than textbook readings for that purpose. These readings can be very challenging to students. I start the course by acknowledging how difficult they are, even for me. The point is, reading and understanding academic articles is an important skill they need to write papers and to be successful in university, and practice will help them get better at it. Here is a description of a think-pair-share activity I do at the beginning of the course to get them comfortable with reading difficult material. I also plan to try They say, I say and What it says, what it does exercises.

Another objective I wanted to achieve with assigning readings to students was to experiment with reading questions to make sure that students would do their reading ahead of time, which would allow me to cut down on content and have more time for deep learning activities . The tricky part was to ask questions that could only be answered by doing that particular assigned reading without sounding too “quizzy” or fact-oriented. I also wanted students to reflect on the reading or relate it to their own life and make sure they had the opportunity to ask questions about the reading. Here are a few successful reading questions I developed.  Although I haven’t been very diligent about assigning reading questions in all my courses, I found that not only most students would do the reading when I did assign them (when probably none would have before) and enhanced classroom discussions.

Probably the most powerful way I discovered to boost the quality of  literature-review assignments is careful framing and instructions. What WID taught me is that a “research paper” doesn’t have to be a classic research paper.  I have now fully stepped away from the classic assignment instructions (e.g., write a research paper on any topic related to this class), and instead have used more problem-based instructions to stimulate interest, and make students practice real-life professional writing. I have used the Role-Audience-Format-Task (RAFT, Bean p.98) to design my formal assignments. Students produce much better work, are more engaged with their work,  and actually report liking assignments (and I do too). Here is an example of a scaffolded assignment I have used in my 401 cultural psychology class this semester.

Step 1: Think piece 1 (individual)

Step 2: Proposal (in teams)

Step 3: Content matrix (in teams)

Step 4: Think piece 2 (individual)

Step 5: Poster presentation (in teams)

Step 6: Brochure design (in teams)

 

IV. Goodbye Grumpy Grader: Hello Quick and Efficient Grading

I have always been a fan of rubrics because I feel like when they are well-developed, they remove some grading subjectivity (or at least the impression of it). Distributed to students with the assignment instructions, they also provide clear guidelines about what is expected of them. Despite my use of rubrics, I still found that my pre-WID self spent too much time grading: I would give tons of editing remarks that probably scared and overwhelmed students. Based on WID readings and discussions, I have changed the way I grade in three major ways, beginning with the construction of my rubrics. My old rubrics used to have a format just like the one below: a set of criteria, each with an allocated number of points based on their importance (and quite frankly, how easy it was to grade a given component on that numerical scale).

Before WID  🙁

Wider awareness assignment /12
Written Expression(Grammar/ Punctuation/ Typos) /2
Summary /2
Relevant keywords /1
Pages proper cited /2
Several links to textbook /3
Critical analysis and personal relevance /2

 

Follow this link to see the transformation of this rubric . 🙂 The main differences between my pre- and post-WID rubrics are that I now assign a percentage weight to each assessment criterion rather than a point value so that each assignment’s final grade is on 100 (students like that), and then all criteria are on the same scale (usually between a 3 or 5-point scale, from excellent to needs major improvements). These changes allow me to grade faster and more efficiently: grades are a much better reflection of the quality of the student writing because I can easily assign more weight to what is most important and grade the quality of each component on the same scale. By some unexplained mechanism, I have also noticed that the distribution of grades is much closer to the normal curve than it used to be.

Another big change I made to the way I grade is in the number and type of comments I make to students. I have moved away from nitpicking or editing students’ papers (e.g.,  correcting  misspelled words,  APA formatting) and now focus almost exclusively on revision-based comments. These involve giving comments as a reader (real audience) rather than as a “superior” teacher. Here are a few examples to illustrate:

  • As a reader, I find this passage difficult to understand: do you mean X or Y?
  • From what I understand you discuss X topic, but it’s still unclear to me what evidence there is for this. How can you bring more empirical support to your position?
  • I noticed a few mechanical errors that can be detrimental to the clarity of your writing. Make sure you proofread your paper for the next submission or have someone else edit it for you (we are often blind to our own mistakes). It can also help to read your sentences out loud.

In line with these revision comments in the students’ paper (I use Turnitin.com so I simply insert these comments and save the ones that are recurrent), I also provide students with more general comments about their paper. Because I was used to editing student’s papers, it was easy for me to pinpoint their mistakes, but it was quite another task to find their strengths(!). I therefore had to train myself to become  what I call an “optimistic” grader or seeing the good in what students submit. The mere action of searching and acknowledging the strengths strengths put me in a much better grading mood.  I make a point to give an equal number of strengths and weaknesses for each paper regardless of the quality of the paper. Yes, students can learn from what they struggle with, but they can also learn by knowing what academic skills they excel at.

 

A Final Reflection on my Experience as a WID Fellow

My experience as a WID Fellow will remain a memorable experience in my career. It has transformed the way I see teaching and writing: I now feel strongly that they go hand in hand, regardless of the discipline. One of the things I liked the most about the WID readings, blog and discussion was that every topic lent itself well to some practical applications in the classroom. I have forced myself to experiment with many of these to avoid forgetting about them, and I’m so glad I did.  So I have advice to give to teachers who are interested in exploring what WID can do for their classes: Jump in with both feet! You will not be disappointed.

 

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