by Alexander Roehrkasse, Sociology
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017
Challenge: The volume and difficulty course readings can sometimes intimidate and discourage students. Such was the case in a course on the history of sociological theory. Facing dense and sprawling texts, students were discomfited by their unexpectedly low levels of comprehension. They focused unduly on opaque but inconsequential passages, without identifying important ones or grasping overarching themes. As a result, students often failed to complete reading assignments and came to section meetings unprepared or embarrassed to ask basic questions. How could students overcome their fear of difficult texts?
Solution: Upon realizing this trend, I began to assign reading response questions corresponding to the readings assigned for each section meeting. Each assignment was circulated a week in advance and contained two to four questions each requiring responses two to four sentences long. I collected all reading responses and graded them for completeness, evaluating them for quality only on three randomly selected dates. The graded component made more tangible the incentives for regular reading completion. The advance circulation of questions guided reading to facilitate comprehension. Adjusting questions allowed me to address specific reading-related challenges on a flexible and targeted basis. For example, for particularly difficult readings easier questions offered encouragement. Some questions aided strategic reading by pointing to key passages and asking students to interpret them or explain their significance to the whole text. Other questions asked students to apply knowledge gained from previous readings to current ones, or to give everyday examples of abstract concepts. Every set of reading response questions included a final, reflective question: “What idea or passage from the readings was either your favorite or the most challenging, and why?” I required students to bring hard copies of their reading responses to every section meeting. Having reading responses in hand enhanced student participation in in-class discussions. Socratic methods became more productive and compassionate because students always had deliberate insights to share. They also helped structure in-class activities. For example, pairs of students often compared and synthesized their interpretations of passages and groups of students often brainstormed key themes.
Assessment: Weekly evaluations of in-class participation revealed that after the introduction of regular reading response questions the volume and quality of active in-class participation increased and equalized. Because students shared a basis for discussion, the frequency and caliber of inter-student interactions also improved. I conducted a mid-semester evaluation that included the question: “What section activities are helping you learn, and why?” Regular reading responses were most frequently cited. Students reported that the activity provided an added incentive to read, a guide to reading, a resource for in-class discussion, and, when compiled, a personalized study guide for exam preparation. Finally, the reading responses themselves opened a more dynamic line of communication with students. Reviewing students’ reading responses allowed me to identify and reach out more promptly to students falling behind, to identify topics that piqued student interest or required additional review, and to adjust question design to further the efficacy of the solution.