by Hayden Shelby, Environmental Design (Home Department: City and Regional Planning)
Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2016
For the first week of class, my students in Environmental Design 100: The City: Theories and Methods of Urban Studies were expected to read three difficult, foundational works of urban theory. When I attempted to initiate a discussion during our first section, I discovered that for most students this reading load was a tall order. A handful reported having spent over twelve hours on the readings, and many more had just given up. Prior to the start of the semester, I had planned out a variety of fun class activities to explore the themes of the course, like debates and content mapping. Based on this initial conversation, though, I realized these activities would not be possible until the students learned the nuts and bolts of efficient, critical reading.
The best way I know to get better at a skill is through discipline, consistent practice, and regular feedback. These were the principles that guided my lessons. To address discipline, I instituted a policy of what I call “low stakes accountability,” where students were required to show written reading notes on their desks to get full credit for attendance. As opposed to a quiz, this strategy does not punish students for not understanding tough material. It merely requires that they put in the necessary work, and it prevents them from getting behind.
Consistent practice involved a ritual that students began once they sat down at the beginning of each class session. Using only their reading notes, they wrote out two to four main points from each reading. The first time we did this exercise it took some students upwards of twenty minutes. Many discovered that their notes were too detailed, and they were missing the forest for the trees. To help them along I asked guiding questions: What is the author’s purpose in writing this piece? Who is the intended audience? Is the piece a response to some other school of thought? These questions aimed at helping them complete the second portion our ritual, which was to write a short paragraph about how the readings were in conversation with each other.
Students received qualitative feedback on their notes and summaries from each other, as well as from me. I would mill about as they were writing, answering their questions and asking probing ones. Then, when everyone had finished the exercise, I had them pair up and compare what they had written. Each pair then wrote a new summary paragraph to reflect the insights of both students. We completed the ritual by having several pairs read their paragraphs aloud to prime the rest of discussion. As the weeks went on, to add variety and additional levels of feedback, I would adjust the activity, having them write their bullet points off their partner’s notes instead of their own. This gave them a chance to see how someone else would interpret the readings based off their notes. It also provided a chance to discuss how they might learn from the note-taking styles of others.
The success of the activity was observable on several levels. In the first two weeks this whole ritual took nearly the entire class. However, after a few weeks their notes and summaries got more cogent, and we were able to breeze through these exercises and spend the bulk of class doing all those fun activities I had planned prior to the semester starting. I also checked in each week to ask how long the readings had taken. For most it was down to four to six hours by mid-semester. When the midterm came, most students were able to discuss the course content as part of a broad, intellectual conversation between different thinkers, providing citations of specific authors from memory.
My students were struggling with a basic problem faced by undergraduates and grad students alike: with so much difficult content, where do you start? My solution to teaching students how to meet this challenge was not especially innovative or high-tech. In fact, it was just the opposite. Our weekly ritual was simply about breaking down an overwhelming task into its constituent pieces and tackling those pieces with persistence — and a fair amount of help. This teaching strategy helped me to create a learning environment with high standards but low pressure.