Yakking at Power Points

Sometimes when I am teaching at night I'll give the class a five minute break to split up the evening. I’ll walk down the hall toward the water fountain and pass classroom after classroom with a professor up front yakking away before a Power Point slide. I made a promise to myself not to fall into this practice when I began teaching nights, but it has not always been easy.

It's taken me a while, but over the past year I have slowly developed a system that seems to work a bit better. Students are assigned reading before class, but we do not discuss the reading until they complete an in-class analysis task. I write four or five key questions about important passages in the reading before each class. I distribute the questions at the beginning of the period and assign each student the task of answering question one, two, or three, etc.. Answering the questions requires students to re-analyze the material with a highly specific aim. They must identify patterns, look for connections or distinctions and make judgments about evidence. In short, I’m trying to teach critical reading skills as much as the material itself. After they have done this, they write an answer that uses evidence in the text to support their view.

The students have 20 minutes to half an hour to write their responses, which may be anywhere in length from a few paragraphs to two hand-written pages. Then I break the class into groups of four. Each person in the group has wrestled with the same question. The students explain their response and the evidence that supports it to the others members of the group, and then they collectively summarize their findings, noting any disagreements or the points of consensus. I give them 15-20 minutes for this discussion, and I flit around the room listening in or prompting any of the groups that seem stuck or getting off task. When the group work is complete, I lead a discussion of the four questions, using the groups who have discussed a particular question as “experts” on that subject. Others can chime in, but I mostly address the questions toward the experts. The last part of the method is the best. The students are assigned to revise and polish their written response and hand it in next time.

Here’s what I like about this method. It's active learning because students are doing something in class rather than just sitting there listening to me. It's interactive and collaborative because students have to share ideas and build group consensus. Best of all, it is reiterative. The students read the material once, and then re-read it again with a specific analytical aim. A further iteration occurs when they wrestle their understanding into language, and still another when they do it again in small group and large-group discussion. Lastly, they get one more iteration when they revise their in-class responses, which often change as a result of issues raised during class discussion. That’s five engagements with the material using different modes for communicating their understanding. Moreover, it makes them responsible to each other and not just me for producing an answer.

The method has certain advantages for adult night students as well. It makes efficient use of their time in class. And it gives them the most precious commodity for a working adult: thirty-minutes of undistracted attention on their coursework (in other words, they are not trying to do course work over their lunch hour or when the kids need attention). Sometimes I say to them that their homework is 85 percent completed when they leave class. They really like that. Plus, it emphasizes a process approach to writing, which I further stress with an infinite revision policy. If they don’t like how I score their response, they can revise it as many times as they wish. They really like that too.

Best of all, the in-class discussions are far richer than they used to be because I’m not dealing with people who have skimmed or perhaps skipped the reading. Everyone has something to contribute because everyone has already said it on paper and aloud. Moreover, the students don't have to worry about nailing the "right" answer after a single reading because the process allows for (indeed, encourages) a lot of revision of one's views.

It’s not a panacea (nothing in teaching is), but it seems to work better yakking at Power Points.


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