Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Day 39 "In the trenches" (Peer-Review edition)

Interesting time in the semester's biorhythm right now. The kids are back from the various tours and professional (and recruiting) obligations, but we've got one more week of school before Spring Break, and their focus is--surprisingly--pretty good. Elsewhere on campus, the Greek-system kids are working on their abs, scheduling haircuts, choosing package - and - punani - flaunting swimwear, and blowing off every last bit of schoolwork they think they can get away with. We get bits of that with the music kids, but mostly they're not as spoiled and self-engrossed as the general population. So the focus is relatively good.

May also have been better in sophomore class today because we changed-up the presentational dynamic again. Today was the deadline for Topic Proposals as part of the full-semester research project. We deliver and assess this project in six incremental stages, spread over the full semester. We do this for two reasons: first, because they're much more likely to write the final paper with some attention (as opposed to one Red Bull-fueled burst at 3am the day it's due) if they've had the previous stages chunked-out and deadlined in advance; second, because the course fulfills a legal writing-intensive requirement, which mandates that we employ multiple stages of writing, teaching critique, and re-writing, we're obligated to. For once, assessment requirements jibe with pedagogical efficacy.

So today was deadline day for the topic proposal (full sequence is "Topic idea," "Thesis statement," "Three-item [book-article-dissertation] annotated bibliography," "Topic Proposal," "15-item bibliography," "Background paper [3pp factual summary of relevant hard-data: we assign it so as to get the inevitable cutting/pasting/blatant paraphrasing out of their systems]," "Final paper"). We use WebCT for upload of all stages, mostly because it facilitates reading/commenting, cuts down on dead trees, makes checking for plagiarism dead-easy, and generally opens the print-submit-handwrite-return bottleneck again. In the case of this stage, WebCT upload also facilitates enforcing the "due 10 minutes before class time" deadline--otherwise, we'd have the procrastinators writing through the first 25 or 35 minutes, and then sprinting in to the classroom "in time" to submit hard-copy. This way, they know that, come hell or high water, the damned thing has to be done and turned-in 10 minutes before class.

That's all stuff we've developed over the past several years. This year, we add a new twist, largely enabled by even more expanded use of online technology. Students have been required to maintain a research home page on the course wiki, on which they post not only assignments as staged above ("topic idea", etc), but also notes, links, and raw prose. Students are instructed to maintain this material, and to request reading/feedback from teaching staff when/as they want it. This way, we don't have to read dead-tree material from those kids who are reasonably confident of their direction and pace (what, you're going to put 100 checks on each line of a document that's fundamentally sound?), while we can be responsive, with remarkable facility and swiftness via wiki comments, to those kids who ask for help (acknowledged that there is that third group of kids who both are having problems and don't ask for help--but this is the 4th and final semester in the history sequence, and by spring semester of sophomore year, we're supposed to be able to presume more personal responsibility--if they can't even ask for help, they will completely crash when it comes to their student teaching). With our departmental "email office hours" (e.g., "students: faculty members read and respond to emails during regular departmental business hours: 9am-4pm M-Th, 9am-2pm F, only"), it massively cuts down on needless busy work, it gives us a quick & effective method of checking on any kid or kids' current progress, it enforces personal responsibility from them, and so on. We also set up separate "group response" wiki pages for the weekly Friday discussion groups, where a question or task is posed to each section and, with the TA's facilitation, they formulate and post a group response, including not only prose, but also links, images, and multimedia files.

Today showed another benefit. I've posted before about our "SHMRG worksheets", a system of prompts through which students develop consistent approaches to critical listening, and a notebook full of piece-by-piece comparative listening analyses. Reading various edubloggers has persuaded me to try to adapt writing-oriented peer-review to our music-history purposes, and we've done some of that in class (students bring in a printout, trade papers, are guided through critical responses to one another's work). This time, we thought of merging the worksheet template with the peer-review goal. So I designed "Peer Review worksheet", and we required the kids to note only upload a copy of the Topic Proposal but also to bring in a printout of same, and we used today's class for a "live-review" session.

Inevitably, about a half-dozen of the Usual Suspects had forgotten (or blithely decided to ignore) the instruction to bring hard-copy, and they were hit with "you have to turn in a marked-up printout, and you have to have completed a Peer Review worksheet for a partner, at the end of today's session; you better run for the Print Center!"--which they did. Meanwhile, we had the printout-armed ones partner-up--telling them to "pick your partner carefully, because your partner's work will impact your own grade"--and got them started on the following:

And it was really rather remarkable. We told them "read through the entire Topic Proposal, while following on the worksheet. If/as you establish that an element is present and correct, put a check-mark in the left column. If you can't find the element, or if you see problems with it, mark an X, and write a comment explaining what you see as the problem. As you're working, absolutely question each other, ask for clarifications, explain what you're trying to do or the problems you're having."

They were remarkably animated, and attentive, and engaged with one another, pretty much across the board: Type-A's, Teacher's Pets, Scared & Silent Types, Lazy Criminals, and all. This may have been partly a response to the statement "You'll receive two grades for today's work: the first for your own Topic Proposal, but the second for your work as Peer Reviewer." They really seemed to get it: concentrating, communicating with each, requiring almost no prompting, and scribbling furiously right up until Time-Out.

Then we collected them, in alphabetical chunks by surname, and sent the TA's out to make a quick xerox set of the Peer Reviews (we didn't need to copy the TP's, as they'd already been uploaded). While the TA's were xeroxing, I ran through a quick review of the previous lecture's materials (because a whole week off from the material Monday-to-Monday, without an intervening Wednesday review, is one of the surest ways to invoke the "retrain 'em after the coffee break" syndrome). Then, when the TA's returned with the copies, we could pass the marked-up original TP's and Peer Reviews back to the authors, and they could walk out the door with immediate recollection of the whole set of critical responses, and the paper documentation attached to it, and get right back to work on the project. To say nothing of the fact that the new & improved process largely obviates the necessity of us reading them.

Ordinarily, I'd think that second-last sentence was hopelessly, naively optimistic. What tipped the balance for me, making me think that this new procedure might actually work, not only more efficiently, but actually with more efficacy, is how awake, engaged, conversational and participatory they were in that 10 minutes after we'd finished the TP's. In that short 10 minutes, we got more effective review, more good questions for later followup, and wider participation than we've had maybe the whole semester. A week before Spring Break.

After eight years, we keep learning things. Gotta remember this one.

Below the jump: dawn on a cold morning on the South Plains.

No comments: