Did You Do the Reading?

If you’ve taught a College Now course, you know that inevitably, teaching in a program designed to give younger students a taste of college involves explicitly targeting a set of life skills in addition to course content.  College Now is a program through which NYC public high school students can take certain CUNY courses for college credit.  After class, I find myself helping students take the plunge into dialing the number of the tech help desk to troubleshoot a computer login problem, or walking students through the various ways they can find my email address if they’ve misplaced the course syllabus.

And although I generally teach the course the same way I do with undergrads, I do end up bulking up my systems of accountability and scaffolding of assignments.  I require students to do a little more to respond to weekly readings, break larger assignments down into smaller steps, etc.  These little changes have me thinking about how these kinds of accountability systems can be perceived as micromanaging or even condescending, but how if done effectively, they can vastly strengthen learning experiences in many educational contexts.

I’ve noticed I’m quick to assume that the idyllic Midwestern liberal arts college experience I had, in which most of my courses followed the model of “read something and come in and talk about it,” is the educational ideal.  And while I took many wonderful classes, some course titles come to mind from which I remember literally nothing.  As a teacher, I’m often mock (sort of) horrified when friends—people I view as successful, smart adults—dismissively reference all of the assigned readings they didn’t do in college.  But then I remember those long-forgotten books for classes outside my own major that I acquired but rarely opened.  What was in them?

In my last semester of graduate school coursework, I took a class outside of my discipline that turned out to have a tiny student enrollment.  I felt out of my element and awkwardly in the spotlight.  Rather than having to post a discussion question or the equivalent in response to each week’s reading, we were assigned to hand in a more thorough weekly summary/response in writing.  This was more accountability than I was used to in graduate school, and it was uncomfortable at first.  But oh how I read, wrote, spoke, and ultimately… remembered.  The same goes for knowledge I acquired while studying for recent comprehensive exams.  These structures of accountability unquestionably compelled me to learn more efficiently and effectively than I often have.

Although being a student (especially a graduate student) means being responsible for one’s own learning, teacher-imposed structures for recording and responding to course content have a huge impact on what kind of learning takes place.  Systems of holding students accountable for learning come in an infinite array of forms. They are obviously not only for College Now students.  This is hardly a new or unusual idea, but it’s an important one—one that I wish even some of my own teachers had chosen to take more seriously.

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  1. […] framework for the discussion to follow (although I relate to the fear of micromanaging mentioned in Julia’s post, and strive to find a balance between keeping students on track and allowing them freedom to […]

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