Yeah, been meaning to fix that...


A few years ago I began asking students in my 100-level classes to write a reflection paper during the first week.  I called these "What Do You Know"?" papers.   In them they told me what they knew or imagined about the subjects we were about to explore.  If it was a course covering historical material, I asked them to tell me about their experience in past history courses.  If we would be reading poetry, I asked how they felt about that.

This assignment served a couple of aims.  First, it allowed me to get know them better and to get an idea of what they already knew.  Second, it gave me an early heads-up if any of them had serious writing problems.


My third purpose was to change the conversations we would be having at the end of the semester.  In the instructions for these papers, I asked students to set a personal learning goal.  And I had to prime the pump with a few examples or inevitably they would all have chosen "get an A."  Some of my suggested goals were skill-based:
  • To improve my critical reading ability.   
  • To better integrate good textual support into my written work.
  • To improve the overall quality of my writing.
  • To ask better questions in class (or one good question per class).
  • To develop the habit of revising my work for higher grades.
Some were after bigger game:
  • Learn or realize something that completely changes the way I think about a subject, myself or the world.
  • Accomplish something academically that makes me proud and vey satisfied. 
  • Discover a new interest or passion. 
My hope was to inject a new measure of success into the course.  Instead of focusing on an A, I wanted them to think of the course as an opportunity to grow and develop.  The plan was to keep the students' goals right next to my computer and refer to them often when giving feedback.

I'll be honest, though.  Once the semester jumped to light speed, the plan was set aside. I was just too busy keeping the hamster-wheel spinning to focus on each student's goal.  As a result, they forgot their goals and I again found myself having the same dispiriting kinds of conversations during the last two weeks of the semester:
  • "Any chance for extra credit?  I just need four more points to get an A." 
  • "Would you raise this from a 79 to 80 if I corrected the comma errors?  It will raise me to a B."
  • "I know it's finals week, but can I revise all 17 assignments?  I really need a 3.2 GPA."
This is to say nothing of the little syllabus lawyers who show up at semester's end to contest some arcane point or ambiguously worded course policy.  I mean really.  What does a discussion about a 79 versus an 80 have to do with intellectual growth and development?  But it was my damn own fault.  I forgot to follow through.

So this year I decided to really integrate students' personal goals into one class (my Introduction to Humanities course).  Yesterday they handed in their third analysis task, which showed real improvement over earlier efforts.  So I went back through all of their goals and made sure to reference them in all of my feedback.  Here are some examples:
  • By the way, here’s what you wrote to me the first week of class: “If you couldn’t tell from the paper, my writing is weak. It would be easier for me if I had better writing skills.”  Guess what?  You already do.  Really look at your last analysis task.  It's really using textual support much better than your first one.  Yippee!  Progress!

  • You set a goal to pay closer attention in class during week one. How’s it going?  If you really want to work on that, why not try sitting in the front row for two class periods as an experiment.  I know the back row is prime real estate in a college classroom, but it also means everybody in front of you is a distraction.  If you try it for a week and it doesn’t help, just head back to the last row.  Hey, what do you have to lose?  
The next step is to get them reflecting on where they identify growth or development on their goals.  

I don't know if this little experiment will really change the conversations at the end of the semester, but I know I like talking about this kind of stuff more than parsing the qualitative differences between 79 and 80.


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