Helping students read and write better

At the end of the semester it is worth reflecting on what has passed and what one would do differently.  Fall 2010 was less than smooth for me–some of it was very much in my control and other aspects were simply not.  (Friday, I will write about the glamorous life of the adjunct.)  One of the things I introduced this past semester were workshops associated with the midterm specifically intended to improve reading, writing and understanding of the historical method.

Studies have concluded that the social sciences and hard sciences are better mediums to teach reading because students have to grapple with the content.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already created a bit of confusion in my design.  I refer to the first class of the week, or the first part of class depending on the weekly structure, as a “workshop” which is a carry-over from my Close Up days.  In this formula, a workshop is used to examine important concepts centered around questions pertaining to the subject.  At Close Up, these were questions about democratic governance; in my history classes, these are questions about historical method or challenges with those methods.  This is separate from the workshops I assigned this semester with the midterms which were intended to help improve students’ reading and writing skills.

In the case of the midterms, I assigned three questions that required two-page essay responses with two options for each question.  The first question asked the students to analyze an anonymous passage, to find the clues that would place the text in our course chronology and make an argument for their conclusions.  The second question asked students to make a historian’s argument dependent on four primary sources provided with the exam.  For both of these questions, the students were allowed to use any primary sources handed out in class and their textbook to supplement their answers and the provided material.  The final questions were based specifically on methodology: either they answered a how-to about specific a question we touched on during the first half of the semester or they made an argument about whether or not they believed there was such a thing as historical fact.

Notice that they are asked in each instance to make an argument and that in at least two of those instances these arguments are dependent on their ability to read and extrapolate the content for their argument.  While we have worked on these skills in class, this is the first time where I do not hold their hand through the process.  I graded the midterm with a firm hand and then assigned the Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop assignments when I handed back the midterms.  These were designed to force the students to revisit their work and improve upon it.  The major drawback with the system was the time it took for me to tailor assignments to each student and each student’s work.  Now that I have done it once, it would be easier for me to reproduce it a second time because of the experience granting me some anticipation for the sort of problems I can correct.  Once graded, the students earned back points on their midterm–in some cases, extra credit–but the workshops were also counted as separate assignments to insure that students took it seriously.  The earned back points made a big difference for many of students’ midterm grades; it is my hope that the workshops made a difference for their reading and writing.

For the Reading Workshops, I assigned tasks meant to get the students to reread the sources and find what they needed.  The amount of work varied depending on the quality or strength of the original submission.  For example:

Workshop assignment.

For the assignment, I want you to compile a list of quotes from the text that show it is a) from the Queen, b) English and c) Reformation-era.  This should be literally a list under the appropriate heading (i.e.: “From the Queen”) made with each quote getting a bullet point.

The intent was to go back and find the clues that they missed and or that they mis-attributed and correct their mistakes.  In each instance there are many clues that provide a direct link to the time period and the culture that produced the text.  In the above exercise, for example, there is little difficulty in going back and recognizing that the piece is English because of references to Parliament and to the decree that all prayers and preaching be done in English.  In the case of each answer, students had to demonstrate the skills they had learned as well as their acquired knowledge about the era in question.  With Queen Elizabeth’s edict, referred to in the above example, one had to be able to take the clues provided (the queen, the language of the Reformation, the reference to Parliament, etc.) and recognize it as a document from the English Reformation during Elizabeth’s reign.  So, it is not as though they are only being tested on historical method.  They are demonstrating their knowledge through their use of the methodology that we have also addressed in coursework.

In the second question, the texts were meant to work in harmony and provide evidence for a larger case.  So, reading the texts as being in dialogue with each other was essential.  In most cases, the students simply did not deal with each of the provided sources which often produced a one-sided perspective.  For example, one option asked students to evaluate the changes in English culture as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but many ignored the document provided by the manufacturers who owned the factories with the new machines and limited their focus to either child labor (from primary sources referenced in class) or hand-workers who had lost their profession to the cheaper machines.  So, in this instance I needed students do grapple with the content of each provided source as with the following assignment:

Workshop Assignment.

Being sure to cite the sources as you use them—even where you don’t directly quote, but nonetheless paraphrase—write four paragraphs that follow the provided outline.  This is in essence the body of the essay without an introduction or a conclusion, but also tightly focused on the provided sources.

I.  First piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the William Radcliffe text, what type of document he writes and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what it was like before the development of the textile machines
  3. Point #2 about what it was like after the development of the textile machines

II.  Second piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about why the workers say they have written the document
  3. Point #2 about what they say about the impact of textile machines on their lives and livelihoods

III.  Third piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about what the merchants say has changed (you can note that they have a different take than the authors of the petition above)
  3. Point #2 about what change the merchants propose to enable in the future

IV.  Fourth piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the final text, “Observations”, what type of document it is and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what change the author observes (first point)
  3. Point #2 about what change the author observes (second point)

(Note: Roman numeral = a paragraph; number = 1-3 sentences.)

In this example, the point was to ask the students to provide evidence from each source–not necessarily to change their conclusion.  In some cases, this meant simply rereading the sources with the benefit of my notes on their exams.  The outline is set up so that they now know what each source is supposed to provide them, even if they could not figure it out when they read through the texts on their own the first go ’round.

For the Writer’s Workshop, I was often asking students to address organization or their argument’s structure.  Sometimes this meant refining the above structure to include an introduction and conclusion.  Often, students skip introductions and conclusions to simply “answer the questions” without realizing how an introduction and conclusion benefits the clarity of their answers.  In some cases, students provided good information, but understanding it required extra work because there was no logical order to their answer.  This was also when they frequently would contradict themselves.  So, in some cases the assignment was to produce a refined outline of their content and to make sure they were really answering the question as in the following sample:

Workshop Assignment:

Write an outline for a new essay answering the question showing steps a historian would take to answer one of the provided questions.  Consider the things you have been asked to do previously in the exam and review the material from our first week if classes to help you think about what it is a historian does and how one uses the historical method to answer questions about the past.

The outline should show consideration for the following points:

  • What types of sources are available for the era and the people involved?
  • What are the limitations of these sources?
  • How can answers be found with the sources we have?
  • How does the historian make an argument to answer this question [you selected]?

Getting students to approach the material in a more organized way helped them to better understand their own arguments and the material in general.  In the best-case scenario they make new connections that they had not realized before–in other words, the exam itself is a learning tool.  In assessing the success of the workshops, I am inclined to be optimistic.  While some students were still not able to make some of the connections I hoped, their was improvement in every instance.  For some students, the improvement was significant (indicating either that they better understood on the second attempt or that they put more time and effort into the second attempt).

The Readers' and Writers' Workshops helped bump up Midterm grades--but they had to work for it!

For the final, I assigned less work, dropped the third question regarding methodology and asked them to answer more guided questions for the first anonymous passage.  It was also worth more than the midterm to hopefully reward them for having taken some risks in the first attempt and to have refined their approach by the second attempt.  In order to make use of this method in the future, I need to plan it out better so it is not such a time-consuming process on my end, otherwise it is not worth it for the students.  Still, once I saw the results it was hard to argue against doing it.

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2 Comments

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

2 responses to “Helping students read and write better

  1. Emily

    This looks like an amazing assignment, but also a lot of work for a busy prof. How long did it take you to craft each of the individualized assignment? Were you able to use some of the same assignments for students who all had the same problem (like you all need to rewrite your thesis statement as an example?) Do you think both your reading and writing workshops had the same measurable effect?

    • It is a very time-consuming task, particularly at the outset. Once I got going it did go more quickly and, yes, I absolutely recycled assignments! The examples I used in the blog, or variations of them, were especially common. Filling out the grading rubric is also time-consuming and arguably more personalized. With a set of common assignments now established, however, I can build this into my lessonplanning at the beginning of the semester. In fact, it may help me with lessonplanning during the semester targeting some of these reading and writing skills in class activities and discussions.

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