• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you’re going to be asked to leave.

Title

In Search of 'Best Practices'

I'm skeptical there is such a thing, and yet the pursuit matters.

June 22, 2017
 
 

 

I remember the moment I decided drop reading quizzes once and for all.

I’d assigned Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in a gen ed literature class at Clemson. Class had around 45 students, and while the bulk of their grades were based in essays, I used reading quizzes as I always had, as a way to incentivize getting the reading done in time for class so we could have a robust discussion.

Five questions requiring no interpretive skills. Just the facts. Out of 45 students, 25% or so got zeroes, and another 25% or so scored one or two out of five. Even though the class discussion had seemed to go well, as I graded the quizzes, I became peeved in hindsight. Some of those who were participating in the discussion didn’t seem to have actually read the book.

Next class, I opened with my aggrieved face, lamenting how so many of them were “throwing points away” and how some of the questions could be answered even if they “barely skimmed the book.”

I brought myself short in that moment, a cartoon character with a light bulb appearing above his head. I realized that with my reading quizzes, I was incentivizing students not reading for engagement and understanding, but instead to skim and latch onto surface features that may appear on a five minute quiz at the start of class.

Junking what I’d planned, we started talking about the reading quizzes, how the students perceived them, how it impacted if and how they read. I learned some things:

  • 44 of 45 students had been subject to reading quizzes at some point in the past.[1]
  • Many said quizzes did serve as an incentive to at least “open” the book.
  • Many said that even though they’d read the book, they sometimes still struggle with the questions on the quizzes.
  • Some said that they didn’t want to start the book before they had a chance to really read it, a time which hadn’t come prior to the class in which I gave the quiz. They knew that the essay was more important, and to do well on the essay, they couldn’t just skim, so they’d bite the bullet on the quiz grade.

I asked how so many were able to participate in a discussion when they hadn’t read the book. They said that they had plenty to say about issues raised by the book which we were discussing (love, sacrifice, civilization, good/evil, etc…), even though they hadn’t read the book. A decent handful said that the class discussion made them want to hurry up and read the book. One student said they started reading the book during class because they’d gotten curious about what they were missing.

Of the 20 or so who didn’t seem to have read the book by the first class, approximately 15 said they’d completed it by the next class. A couple sheepishly admitted that they didn’t read the book until right before they had to write the essay, but they often liked the discussions as a preview of what they were going to read and even argued (somewhat convincingly) that they thought they did better on the essays because they’d heard all the discussion before reading the book.

By the end of class, I realized I’d been doing it “wrong.” Reading quizzes were not a useful tool when it came to enacting my preferred pedagogical practices. I was incentivizing behavior inconsistent with my goals of thoughtful, deep engagement with literature. I’ve never assigned one since. Clearly they were not a best practice as I understood the concept.

Does this mean I should be advocating for a universal rejection of reading quizzes?

One of the books I’ll be publishing next year requires me to declare – sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly – that other people have been doing something “wrong” when it comes to teaching writing.

Now, when it comes to things like big picture education policy that I think distorts the learning process, such as some initiatives pushed by the Gates Foundation or the Obama Education Department as led by Arne Duncan, I don’t feel a lot of qualms about making these arguments, and by “not a lot” I mean zero qualms. Powerful people imposing bad policy deserve criticism.

But sometimes it is impossible to write about these issues without my argument being a critique of current practices and practitioners.

For example, in the book, I’m advocating “against” the use of rubrics in writing assessment. I used rubrics to communicate grades to students for many years, and over time came to believe that (at least as I was using them), they were good tools for communicating the underlying reasons for a particular grade, but poor tools for the purposes of formative assessment. When it comes time to do the actual writing, we don’t work from rubrics. Writing is too complicated to be reduced to a particular essay’s schematic parts.

As students work on their writing, I want them solving problems, forced to make the kinds of choices rooted in the rhetorical situations that writers face in the world. I believe a rubric distorts that process.

But this stance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is rooted in my particular personal set of values that I bring to teaching. Over time I’ve moved toward a mode that gives students as much room to explore as possible. I don’t want them to only learn how to write a passable college essay. I want them to learn how to think and act as writers.[2]

But these values are not universal. For example, if I were teaching an AP English course in high school where the real-world stakes of a high score on the exam are significant, I would very likely embrace rubrics, since a rubric will be imposed on their exam efforts. Exploration, discovery, originality is punished in those contexts, and students should be appropriately armed to meet the challenge in front of them.

Of course, knowing me, I’d also insist on them understanding the rhetorical context for these choices, that the “rules” of the AP essay form are established for specific reasons and are not meant to substitute for all writing forever.

Whenever I say (or imply) that a particular approach to teaching is “wrong” 10 times out of 10, I’m aiming that judgment at myself. I try not to let this invalidate the work I’ve done, even as I believe I’ve learned to do better over time. I was an effective teacher at Clemson, and have the reviews and evaluations to prove it. I tend to think of the lecture as a non-optimal teaching tool, and yet I'm certain there are lecturers so good at the form that they're highly effective instructors. I happen to not be someone who can stand in front of a class for 50 minutes and profess.

Writing this book has caused me to revisit my past teaching self in ways that aren’t always comfortable. Even though I’ve always done my best, I still have the urge to get in a time machine and apologize to some of my students.

This is why I have little faith in so-called universal “best practices.”[3] There is never a one-size-fits-all technique or assessment. What works well in one context might not in another. Asking students about their experiences with reading quizzes reinforced that for me, teaching must be rooted in a collaborative process.

While there may not be best practices, I have come to believe there is a “best process,” and that process involves always being open to questioning what I’m doing.

As soon as I think I have it all figured out, it will be time for me to stop.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The outlier was a student who had been homeschooled by their mother. This student said their mom just asked when they were done with the book and then started talking about it. This person was an excellent student.

[2] Eliminating rubrics revealed a couple of other things I hadn't previously recognized. For one, students tend to like rubrics because they give them a target to aim for. Or at least it feels that way. I realized, however, that when I was preaching an open/exploratory process rooted in the rhetorical situation, while also providing rubrics, I was giving them mixed messages. Additionally, the rubric seemed to induce students to put more emphasis on the evaluative, rather than the formative part of feedback. As designed, my rubrics were used to justify and explain the grade. Unfortunately, that left less room for feedback that would help the student explore their thinking while they were writing. Getting rid of rubrics has redirected my feedback to more formative comments. Put another way, rubrics had me focusing on "what have you done?" when I wanted students focused on "what should I do next?"

[3] I strongly recommend this essay by instructional designer Sean Morris of Middlebury College on how he thinks of best practices. They’re not techniques so much as orientations or mindsets.

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