Journals: The Key to Small Group Participation

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Heather McCarty, History

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

History 7B: American Experience 1865-1999 is a large undergraduate survey course popular among entering freshmen and known for its “heavy” reading load. When I taught the course in the Fall of 1999, almost all of my students were first semester freshmen. The second week of class I noticed two related problems in my section: first, not of all of the students appeared to be able to pick out the key arguments from the readings, and second, when the students were in small groups not everyone was actively participating. In fact, some students were discussing personal information instead of working on the task at hand.

I realized that there were several potential factors contributing to my section problems. As the majority of the students were reading material for the first time in college, it occurred to me that an exercise that helped to guide and develop their critical reading comprehension skills was in order. If students were having a difficult time understanding the readings, this was most likely leading to the breakdown in small groups. Additionally, there was the chance that they were not completing all of the reading for section. I decided to incorporate guided journals into the class as a way of encouraging both material comprehension and student accountability.

I designed a hand out, “General Guidelines for Course Readings and Weekly Journals,” that posed some critical questions to consider while reading. The handout also encouraged students to fit the readings into the larger historical context of the course. I emphasized the importance of different perspectives, interpretations, and opinions and I invited students to offer their own perspectives on the material. In conjunction with the reading guidelines, I assigned a weekly journal due at the beginning of each class. Students submitted one paragraph outlining the author’s central argument and main evidence, and one paragraph of personal response.

The journals allowed me monitor each student’s progress with the readings. I was able to track which students completed the readings, but more importantly, whether or not students understood the material. The journals provided students with an opportunity to ask questions that they may not have felt comfortable asking in section. I enjoyed commenting on the journals and found that they provided me with yet one more avenue in which to individually engage with students.

By having the journals due at the beginning of section I was able to track which students completed that week’s readings and which did not. When the time came to break down into small groups, I assigned those students who did not turn in a journal the task of group recorder and reporter. This way, even if a student had failed to complete the readings before class, they still had to engage with the material and learn from their group-mates. If there were weeks when every student turned in a journal, then I assigned those students who participated less in section the task of small group recorder and reporter.

The journals also provided a system of accountability that encouraged students to prepare for section. I noticed significantly less off-track discussions and much more debate within the groups. The journals helped the students to articulate their own ideas about the readings, so when it came time to discuss the material they all had a viewpoint to share.

Overall, section participation greatly increased over the semester, and small group discussions remained on target and became much livelier. The journals allowed me to individually track each student’s reading comprehension and established another venue for one on one exchanges.

Even the midterm and final exam scores were higher than the previous semester in which I taught History 7B. I now incorporate guided reading journals in every section I teach and have found that small group participation remains focused and animated.