In-Class Reading: The Round-Robin

Ok, so this is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I'm strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

 This is a Moorhen and not a Robin, but I’m strangely obsessed with the weirdness of these birds

Ok, so I promised to talk about my favourite variation on in-class reading. Here it is: the Round-Robin. I’ve done this with a class of 150 (although there were probably only 130 or so in attendance that day), and classes of 35. In both cases it worked really well, so I’m pretty sure that you can adapt it to whatever class size you’re working with. The trick is to make sure that your groups are no larger than 8 or 9 people each… and, of course, that you have the photocopy budget for all the copies.

So, here’s what to do. Take 4 different documents, each of which approaches the theme for that day’s class in a completely different way. I usually try to create a mix of primary and secondary sources and I choose excerpts that do not exceed about 1.5 pages. Students then get broken into their groups at random. In the small classes, I only create 1 group per document. But in bigger classes, it’s sometimes necessary to double or triple the groups – that is, to have 2 or 3 groups reading the same document. Make sure there is at least 1 strong student in each group, but otherwise, a random distribution of butts in seats seems to work just fine.

Once everyone is in their groups, hand out the readings. I give students 15 minutes to read, and faster readers often start talking amongst themselves as they finish. Students who take longer to read can either finish reading once we enter the discussion period, or stop where they are and try to glean more information from the discussion. After the reading period is finished, students get another 15 minutes to talk the document out in their groups. At this point, depending on how advanced your students are, you might want to give them some guiding questions. For example, when I did this in my History of the British Empire course, I asked them how each document “characterized the east.” When my Media Ethics class did the same exercise as part of our discussion about privacy on the Internet, we looked at a series of documents and asked: “what does it mean to be seen?”

Once everyone seems comfortable with their document, having become an “expert” on the literature they were assigned, mix up the groups – hence why I call it a Round-Robin. If you want, you can try to create some sort of elaborate rules about how people should circulate around the room. Since, however, this exercise is as much about team work and peer-to-peer learning as it is a lesson about the subject matter at hand, I actually don’t give them instructions. Instead, I tell my students that the new groups must be roughly the same size and contain at least one person who knows about each document. This creates temporary chaos, but within 5 minutes they have usually – and quite impressively – sorted themselves in the appropriate manner. Sometimes there will be a group here or there that is missing an “expert” on 1 of the 4 documents, but that’s easily fixed by asking a group that has multiples to send someone over to the group in need.

At this point, the new groups get another 15 minutes to talk through the same question. Again, depending on how long you’ve been working with these students, you might want to give them instructions about how to proceed, or you might not. When I did it with the large group I explained that “experts” should present their document to the group before they began informal discussion, so that everyone was on the same page. This was because a class of 150 students, by its very nature, won’t have much experience with group work and will need some extra direction. In my smaller classes, my students intuitively knew what to do since they’d had a lot of practice, and they began explaining what they had read to one another without any prompting.

It's probably best not to give them anything in original format -- for example, this -- but otherwise, you're pretty free

It’s probably best not to give them anything in original format — for example, this — but otherwise, you’re pretty free

But it’s this last phase where things really get interesting! If you’ve chosen your documents well, and asked interesting questions, students are often keen to compare notes. They ask questions of one another, and some groups end up Googling things in order to find more information. Some settle into consensus fairly quickly, and others fight it out (in my experience, such disagreements have always been respectful, but that does not mean that they haven’t also been heated). At this point, it’s essential that you circulate through the room. I tend to do this for the duration of the class, but at this point it’s even more important because some groups will require a little prodding, while you might want to throw some cold water on the more aggressive ones.

When the majority of the groups have finished their discussion – don’t feel bad about cutting some discussions short, because some of these debates could go on forever – call the class back together and go over the topic one last time. This might seem repetitive but it’s actually quite useful because it evens out the overall experience and ensures that your students have at least some common information despite all the simultaneous (and not necessarily parallel) discussions going on in the room up to this point. It also allows students to fill in their notes. Because the exercise itself is very “hands-on,” almost none of your students will have had the time or the forethought to jot down more than a few cursory thoughts while they are chatting with their peers, and they will appreciate the time to get this information down in an orderly fashion.

There will always be a range in the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of the group discussions; however, I guarantee you that working with the documents in this way will make the material much more memorable than a traditional lecture or reading a set of texts at home ever could. Moreover, if you choose the documents well and your students are excited about the topic, more than a few will want copies of the other 3 documents that they didn’t read. This is why I always make everything available on the online forum right after the class.

My one word of caution about this exercise is that, much like when you plan a seminar, you really do have to choose your readings wisely and this takes time. The in-class period will be less labour-intensive for you as an instructor than a lecture, but the preparatory time will be roughly the same. That having been said, even though it won’t save you much work time, the change of pace is often a welcome one and in-class reading exercises like this have saved my sanity on more than a few occasions. Both my students and I sometimes need of change of pace, and this is an effective way of breaking the monotony while still making sure that students are actively engaged in the learning process.

Things My Students Have Reminded Me Of

Term is finished and I had my students fill in another anonymous (and voluntary) survey. Therefore, I’ve decided to talk about that, and come back to in-class reading assignments next time. Don’t worry, this will be short and sweet, I promise.

So what did my students have to say? The results of the survey weren’t surprising, but they did remind me of a few important things. In no particular order:

  1. The things which show up under “things I liked best” are often the same things that show up under “things I liked least.” This year, it was the lecture of the public sphere and our discussion of sports media that peppered both the best and worst lists.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning and well-conceived group work are always popular.
  3. No matter how much or how little reading you assign, it is always “too much.”
  4. I still speak too fast.
  5. How much information one does or does not put on the PowerPoint slides is constantly in need of negotiation.
  6. Students appreciate being treated like adults, even when that means you ask more of them.
  7. You can actually convince students to read and think about something that is bloody hard to understand, but they will not enjoy it. Sometimes learning is a lot like Buckley’s: it tastes awful, but it works.
  8. Enthusiasm matters in a classroom, and students will be more tolerant of your occasional errors when they can tell you’re really trying and that you really care.
  9. People like it when you’re topical (this was easy to do when teaching media ethics, but is slightly more challenging when teaching Tudor/Stuart Britain).
  10. Sometimes, you need to leave space for silence. Real learning requires space and time to digest information and, occasionally,  it’s helpful to pause.

That’s all for now. But next time, I really will talk about my favourite in-class reading assignment.

In-Class Reading

Some of you will recall my piece on the need to teach critical reading alongside analytic writing. There is a difference between reading something literally and reading that same piece critically. It often takes students a very long time to understand what the difference is and how to become a critical reader. Although critical reading is a hard skill to teach, there is a general sense that practice is a must. That having been said, we all know that getting students to actually do their readings is a hard, even at the best of times. So how do you make sure they’re getting the practice they need, especially when it comes to the really dense or difficult texts? You know the readings I mean. Anything post-colonial is a good example.

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

Things you might want to make sure you read literally

It’s true, giving students a reason to do the readings is a great way to ensure that they do their work. I have colleagues at the CEGEP level who give pop quizzes on reading material for this reason. My personal strategy is to choose my readings carefully – that is to try to pick enough material that is written in an engaging and accessible manner and place it alongside the things which are really hard. I also vary my approach to discussing those readings when it comes time for class, and my students do all sorts of different group work, engineering questions about the readings which they can then ask their peers, doing think-pair-share exercises, and sometimes even having a formal debate.

But I’m a realist, and even my most heroic efforts to make the learning process exciting and genuinely appealing sometimes just aren’t enough. This is particularly true at the start of the semester – when students are still deciding whether I’m good crazy or bad crazy – and at the end of term – when they are flat-out exhausted and over-burdened with other work. And so, I’ve started doing more in-class reading.

In-class reading has several advantages. First of all, if you want to introduce students to a really difficult text and make sure that they actually try to get all the way through it – instead of just giving up and waiting for the “answer” to come in class – this is pretty much the only way to ensure the work gets done. By setting aside time in class, you remove the temptation to give up and watch TV. Moreover, you create a built-in support system. Students see that everyone is struggling, and they are given the space and time to commiserate with their peers. But after some initial venting, they are also able to work with their fellow students to try to put things together and recreate the argument in laymen’s terms. In most cases, different students will be able to decipher different bits of the text, and they can then work together to recreate the argument in the same way that a group of friends might assemble a jigsaw puzzle together.

Even though everyone reads at a different pace, students who finish early can begin to speak quietly while their peers finish the text. As more and more people complete the reading, groups of 5-8 students can be formed. This brings me to the second advantage of in-class reading: it makes each student’s initial reaction to the text useful, and builds on gut reactions instead of letting those first impressions fizzle and die, breeding complacency and disinterest. Conversation about in-class readings usually starts with students asking one another what they thought about the text. The result is that different opinions about the same text can then be used as an entry point to discuss things like significance or methodology, which might otherwise seem too difficult or abstract. The process encourages the students to think about how the texts work and not just what they say.

Finally, even if your class ends up universally hating the reading in question, they will likely resent the process less than if they had been asked to do the reading at home. At least this way, the offending literature hasn’t taken up any of their flex time. At the same time, doing a reading in the classroom – no matter how hard the text might be – allows you to break away from a lecture format, and vary the presentation of course material. The change of pace is often welcome to both teacher and students alike.

I have tried projecting smaller excerpts on my PowerPoint and reading them aloud (or having a student volunteer do so). In these scenarios, I usually follow the excerpt with a brief think-pair-share exercise, wherein students have a moment to think on their own and then discuss with their neighbor. When that is done, we discuss the excerpt in greater detail as a class. This has been successful, especially in the really big classes; however, it is very limited in terms of what it can accomplish. Thus, I tend only to take this approach when trying to illustrate the mood of a historical period, or a single concept.

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

Things that perhaps the marketing team should have read more critically

If you want to actually get into critical reading, you have to give them photocopies, although it is important to stick to relatively short excerpts here as well. Remember, your students have not been to grad school, and they haven’t yet mastered the art of either speed reading or skimming. And many of them aren’t accustomed to reading anything longer than your average blog. Even a lengthy op-ed can be too much for them, and I never give more than 1-2 pages at a time. Even then, students still need roughly 15 minutes to be able to do it, and some of them will really struggle to make it to the end.

Regardless of what reading you choose, students will need some guiding questions. When I’ve done this in history courses, I’ve assigned things like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, and asked students what Fukuyama thinks the end of history looks like. From there, we move into bigger questions, such as “is it possible for history to end,” and “what types of categories should we use to think about how history progresses?” In this particular case, I was using the reading to introduce 150 students to the content of my modern European History course – and we circled back to the same material at the very end of the course – but I have also used in-class readings in my ethics classes, which are much smaller.

In ethics, we read Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill on two separate occasions. Ultimately, the goal was to compare their moral philosophies. Later in the course, we also read about Ubuntuism, which I’m pleased to report was shockingly successful. In each case, students were asked what defines right versus wrong – according to the author in question – and then how the reading compared to other thinkers that we had examined. They were also asked whether or not they felt like the text in question was useful when discussing the modern media, since ultimately the course is an applied ethics course that focusses on the media and the public sphere.

I won’t lie, the first few minutes the first time I do this exercise in any given class tends to result in palpable annoyance and some very loud grumbling. But as students ease into it, on the whole, they seem to enjoy the exercise. What’s even better, their ability to dissect a text is notably improved by the second time we go through the process. And while they might still all complain about the difficulty of some of the readings when we get to the end of the course, I feel like they understand things like Fukuyama or Kant in a way that they wouldn’t have if I had simply lectured on the topic or told them to read it at home.

That’s it for now, but next week I want to continue this discussion by writing about one of my favourite ways of adapting this exercise. Until next time!