A couple of semesters ago I taught a methods course, with the end goal a massive research paper. I used reading responses in that class rather than exams. I became enamored of the reading response. It seemed like they were engaging the materials in a more nuanced way than if I just expected them to read for class, without any kind of evaluation.
Now that I’ve employed reading responses for a couple of semesters, I am rethinking them for next semester, in two diametrically opposed ways. I don’t like how students can fixate on a small section of the text and then it is totally unclear whether or not they read the whole text or just opened the book and read one page and wrote about that. Or else, the good students, to avoid this problem, end up writing many pages of text, which is not really the point either. I also worry that I am not giving sufficient amount of feedback on their responses. That said, I do think it is easier to deal with ideas and larger issues in writing than in multiple-choice tests. (I am teaching a 300 level history course and a 100 level course next semester). So here are my ideas:
1. There is George Gopen’s idea in his article “Why So Many Bright Students and So Many Dull Papers?” where students write two page reading responses and then write one page responses to each other. I read the material, but do not grade it other than keeping track that they did it. Their reading journals are a big chunk of their end grade, but they only get that end grade. They can come in and talk to me if they are concerned about where their grade is headed, but otherwise I don’t give any feedback. All of their feedback comes from their peers. This means they get real feedback every week, even when I am swamped and can’t provide much more than a “good” or “this needs work.” It also means they have a real audience and their ideas have consequences.
I am intrigued by this idea (mostly for my 300 level class), but there are a few things I am concerned about:
- Students will not call each other on problematic statements b/c they are all at the same basic level of development. For example, when a student came into class last week and said something along the lines of “Du Bois converted to communism, and communism is bad, so is Du Bois a bad guy?” most people agreed with the underlying assumption, with only one lone voice suggesting that maybe we shouldn’t automatically dismiss communism in that fashion.
- Students will be overwhelmed by the amount of writing required.
- Students have a research paper due at the end of the semester, and I was planning to have some of the weekly assignments be proposals, outlines, annotated bibliographies, etc. That means that the fundamental work of getting students to read won’t be there. And they probably need my feedback on those assignments in order to prepare their papers.
2. The other option I’m playing with is to dump reading responses and do surprise reading quizzes once a week or so. We give out common multiple choice quizzes in Paideia and the grades are all over the place. But it is a pretty clear evaluation of if students have comprehended the material. Or they could be short answer/id questions. But this gets back to my time in evaluating and responding.
Thoughts? How do you evaluate whether students do the reading? Is vibrant discussion (and/or socratic questioning) enough?
Do you do midterm/final/paper in 300 level classes? Or analytical papers/midterm/final in 100 level classes? Or analytical papers/reading responses/final?