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Introducing Change Workshop, Part II: How can we support first-year students as critical thinkers?

This weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the second meeting for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) "Introducing Change" program.  (I wrote about the opening meeting a year ago here on HASTAC).  This time, groups reported back on their projects, which were all geared towards integrating critical thinking (and assessing that critical thinking) in first-year coursework.

The morning started with a conversation about the Scholarship of Teaching, and the value of making our teaching public.  Dan Bernstein (U Kansas) argued that since the scholarship of teaching is about inquiry rather than delivery, making our teaching public is valuable because it: 1. allows other people to use it, 2. allows us to learn from it and build on it, and 3. provides occasion for discussion and respectful critique. (As a side note: he recommended reading Scholarship Assessed, which is a cultural anthropologist's investigation of the characteristics of scholarship, and which argues that the public dimension of scholarship is essential. I agree!)

Next, we worked in small groups to discuss our progress reports.  My group included really exciting projects from Luther College (Iowa) and Lawrence University (Wisconsin), from their Religious Studies and Foreign Languages departments, respectively.  We talked about strategies for helping students read critically, both inside and outside the classroom.

We came up with some great ideas, including:

  • asking students what genres of writing they find engaging/convincing, and why?
  • asking students to read a hard copy and electronic copy of a text, and compare their processes of reading and annotating the texts, and the pros/cons of each.
  • assigning students, in small groups, to analyze a shared text from multiple points of view, disciplinary perspectives, or methodological approaches; then, compare the groups’ different ways of reading.
  • asking students to reflect on their reading processes, evaluate them based on their performance in class and on assignments, set goals for improvement, and report on their progress over the course of the term.
  • de-familiarizing texts by addressing our pre-suppositions directly, listing what they "know" or looking at alternative narratives
  • modeling our own close reading process in class, by reading out loud, then pausing to think about, question, and respond to the text. (Bonus: this strategy also appeals to audio learners!)
  • being explicit with students about how “basic skills" they are learning (reading, writing, etc.) are drawing on more complex thinking processes (like analysis, synthesis, meta-cognition, etc.).
  • flipping the classroom to teach content in a narrated PowerPoint before class, so that class time can be spent either modeling or practicing close reading skills. (Voice Thread or Soft Chalk, both new to me, came up as ways to share multimedia presentations with students outside of class, along with the build-in audio recording within PowerPoint itself).
  • articulating different categories of analysis with students, so they can parse out the different ways of analyzing a text (comparative analysis, rhetorical analysis, literary analysis, ideological analysis).
  • using rubrics in which first-year students’ proficiency falls in the middle, rather than the top, of the rubric, to show students the room left to grow. Shared rubrics can also emphasize shared expectations across the faculty on standards of quality thinking and writing, and support knowledge transference between disciplines.
  • completing all the work we assigns with our students, talking them through our process of writing the paper, studying for the test, or planning the project along the way.

One theme of the conversation was the value of being explicit with students about our teaching strategies. Successful projects opened the “black box” of teaching processes/philosophies for students to be more aware of our goals and methods, and more reflective about their own learning process.

Then, we reconvened as a group and shared some of the best ideas that came from each of our small-group conversations:

  • Macalester's new Supplementary Writers’ Workshop program engages students in weekly writing workshops in an optional one-credit, one hour per week course.  The goal is to help students perform better on their existing assignments, rather than introducing new ones—so, students in the class get together to peer-review papers from other courses, especially their FYC (first year courses).
  • Macalester also has an excellent series of “Write Well” videos, which support student writing through short faculty-led tutorials.
  • Beloit’s students have a “liberal arts in practice” requirement, which can be fulfilled through participating in service learning classes, reading groups about non-profits, public debates about important issues,  or independent projects that synthesize elements of their education (study abroad and their major, for instance).

This conversation also raised a number of interesting questions, such as:

  • How are the goals of creativity and the goals of creative thinking in tension with one another, and how can we build more reciprocity between them?
  • How can we improve critical reading both inside and outside the classroom? What strategies work best in each space?
  • How does scaffolding help students read and write critically, how much scaffolding is too much, and how can we wean students off of it?
  • Rubrics can provide guidance for students as they write, but introducing them too early might lead to a “paint by number” approach to the assignment. When in the writing process do you expose students to rubrics, if at all?
  • Self-reported feedback can provide assessment information and facilitate meta-cognition, but direct assessment is more reliable. How do you decide which assessment strategy to use?
  • How well do our course assignments reflect our course goals, and how can we ask students to help us see how closely these are aligned?
  • We can only point students forward and backward in the curriculum if we know what our colleagues are teaching and how.  How can we carve out time to share this information, and how do we incentivize this kind of exchange?
  • How do we help students to both recognize that they have authority in their own learning, but also to learn to recognize what they don't know?
  • How can we manage a bifurcated classroom, where half the students understood the reading and half didn’t? How can we help stronger readers support struggling readers in our classrooms?
  • How are first-year courses a space for un-learning as much as learning? How can we teach both productively?

One of my favorite parts of the day was the series of lightning presentations from faculty visitors on innovative classroom practices:

  • Kate Kauper (Cornell College) shared a creative use of the arts to teach critical thinking. The documentary project she assigns her students, for instance, help education majors to use art to make an argument, to appeal to multiple modes of learning, and to explore multiple points of view. Metaphor, analogy, and juxtaposition, she said, are strategies in the arts that demonstrate critical thinking and support argumentation.  This project also emphasizes the editorial process over the final product itself, as students reflect on their purpose, and how their decisions about narration, music, etc., can contribute to their argument.
  • Kate also asks students to create sculptures to express their educational philosophy. Beginning with an educational ideology (rational humanistic, multicultural, progressive, etc.), students sculpt a metaphorical representation of what this philosophy means, then re-translate the abstract concept from its physical expression by writing about how the sculpture represents the concept they chose. Through this double translation, students understand these philosophies (and their own points of view) more fully.
  • Similarly, Lynne Ikach (Cornell College) asks students to use art as a form of biography.  In a unit on constructivism and the avant garde in her Russian literature class, her students use a combination of text and images to make an argument about a Russian writer. Like Kate’s documentary project, Lynne’s assignment focuses on the process and the meta-cognition over the final product.
  • Brandon Polite (Knox College) shared an assignment, in which he asked students to reflect on and evaluate their study habits. In future iterations, he hopes to ask students to follow-through on their goals for improvement, by building in biweekly journals or blogs to talk about their progress.

As always, it was a jam-packed day full of inspiring ideas, with time thoughtfully set aside to think and reflect. Many thanks to Liz Ciner, Cara Pickett, and everyone at the ACM who made this event possible!

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