Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Reading Diary Blogs... and the End of Myth-Folklore Quizzes

Well, I have been having such a great time working on new blog-based content for my Myth-Folklore class, so much so that I've decided to see if I can roll out the new course design already this coming fall. The big breakthrough was realizing that I could ask the students to use their blogs (no more Ning - real blogs with Blogger) to create Reading Diaries and these diaries could actually be much more helpful in improving their reading experience than the reading comprehension quizzes I use now. So... it looks like next fall is going to be even bigger than I realized - but I'm so excited about it! There are so many different things going on right now that it's a bit hard to discuss them separately, but in this post I will say something about the Reading Diary plan and why I think it is going to work so much better than the reading comprehension quizzes I am now using.

My Reading Diary. I got the idea for the Reading Diary when I realized that as a natural part of my reading process in building the new content units for the course I was keeping a Reading Diary myself. Well, why shouldn't the students do the same thing? Even better, I can use my Reading Diary as a kind of model to guide/inspire them. Here are the two Reading Diaries I've created for the units I've finished so far.

Required Notetaking. I know that most of my students do not take notes as they read, no matter how much I implore them to do so. Why? Because taking notes is not required for the grade. Sad to say, almost all students focus their attention on exactly what is required for a course, and no more than that. This is understandable since everything about college urges students to overcommit themselves, with the result that there is simply no way to get done every week all the things they want/need to do. If I really think taking notes is important for the reading process (and I do), then I need to require it.

Quizzes: Ideal v. Reality. Ideally, the quizzes could be providing valuable formative feedback for the students. I set the quizzes up for multiple attempts so that students who did not do well on a quiz could go back and review their notes (but, uh, what if they don't have notes to review?) and/or re-read the material so that they could take the quiz again and get a better score. But after years of watching what happens with the quizzes, I know I am just kidding myself: students who get a poor score on the quiz are in a hurry; that's why they get the poor score to begin with. They are not interested in formative feedback; they are just trying to finish as quickly as possible. In almost every case where I have looked to see what goes on with poor quiz scores, the students immediately retake the quiz, with just a pause of a minute or two in-between attempts - clearly, they are guessing and hoping for the best. Instead of reviewing their (non-existent) notes or spending more (non-existent) time to do the reading again, they are just pounding away at the quiz and assuming they might improve their score with some strategic guessing. That's not getting them any closer to the real goal here: improved reading comprehension. By using quizzes to try to guide students' reading experience, I am not having the impact I would like to have, and the students who are being worst served by the quizzes are the students most in need of help.

Externalizing the Reading Experience. A reading diary will externalize the reading experience, creating a lasting artifact that can be useful both to the student and to me. Having students externalize their reading experience in the form of notes in  a diary should be helpful to them as they do the assignments based on the reading (and I have some ideas about how to make specific use of the diary posts for future assignments too). The diaries will also be helpful to me as I attempt to learn more about what really goes on as they read. For example, by spot-checking some of the diaries, esp. of students I know are struggling, I might get some clues about useful information to include in the prefatory notes to each story that will help them focus and not get distracted or confused.

Practical Matters. Here are some of the practical matters I need to organize to make this happen in time for fall with a smooth transition:

Create diary post templates for each new reading unit: I'm doing that with a GoogleDocs files right now (see the Reading Diary info for the Welsh unit for example), along with notes I wrote up for how to use the template.

Change the workflow: Instead of background reading quiz on Tuesday and reading quiz on Wednesday with blog posts on Thursday, students will do a Tuesday declaration about having created and started their reading diary post for the unit (probably require notes on five stories minimum?), and then a Wednesday declaration about having finished their diary post, with the creative writing / essay posts due on Thursday as usual.

Reading units: Obviously this means getting enough reading units ready to go for fall, but I am feeling confident about that. Worst case scenario: I need just 12 units really (because I'm going to borrow the two review weeks pattern that happens in Indian Epics for MythFolklore), although 24 would be ideal. But I can certainly get 12 units done, no problem at all. And of course I can keep adding units; this modular system means content can come and go easily all the time.

Review weeks: As mentioned above, I decided to take a lesson from my Indian Epics class and build two review weeks into the MythFolklore class in Week 8 and Week 15. The Reading Diary will be a great way to make those review weeks productive; before, I did not really have a solid basis on which to build review weeks in MythFolklore like I naturally do in Indian Epics, so I think students will really like that, and it will definitely improve their overall content retention and synthesis. It will be fun writing up the writing assignments for the review week, drawing on their reading diaries and other blog posts.

NB: Quizzes in Indian Epics. I should add that I will carry on using the reading comprehension quizzes in Indian Epics, and I am actually pretty happy with the way those are working, but the reading situation is entirely different in that class. In Indian Epics, the reading is cumulative from week to week, and it is also more substantial than in the Myth-Folklore class (about twice as much reading). Students have actual physical books for that class, rather than online readings (so the default mode for notetaking is highlighting in the book and writing marginalia, which is actually fine with me), and I have prepared detailed reading guides for them already so they actually do not need to write out detailed notes of their own — their time is actually probably better spent in other ways. The quizzes thus serve as a check to make sure the students are using the reading guides and making good use of the physical books (highlighting or some other form of notetaking as they prefer). So, the quizzes will remain as they are in Indian Epics, and that seems right: I can tell exactly how poorly the quizzes are working in Myth-Folklore in part because I can see how effective they appear to be in the Epics class by comparison in terms of really helping me help the students to manage their reading experience.

Meanwhile, I'm continuing to label posts on this topic as Course Content Redesign for anyone who wants to watch how this unfolds!


  1. Okay . . . what about tags? Since you'll be using blogger, why not encourage the students to use tags for their diary posts AND notes they take? This way, let's say I post a diary and my notes for a story and someone else posts some things as well. When I go and look at their notes, I may see something mentioned about theme or a particular use of symbolism I didn't have in my notes. I could then copy what that person wrote, paste it into my own notes, and link to their notes post, thus giving credit where credit is due (and surely there's a lesson on plagiarism in this alone?) while fleshing out my own understanding and appreciation of the texts being read.

    The use of tags should also make it easier for you to find/track everyone's work as you go along. You could even make unique hashtags for each assignment to be used in twitter and elsewhere. For instance, Arthur in the Cave is the first story in the Welsh Fairy Book you assign so notes and diary entries could be something like #WFB1Notes or #WFB1Diary. This would be another way the students could share their posts cooperatively.

    (I am disenchanted with twitter so if you don't see much use for such an idea, I can't really say I blame you.)

    Oops, I have to start dinner. But there you go--some thoughts off the top of my head.

  2. YES, exactly - tags are essential... and it will also be really useful for me because if they can use the tags consistently, and I have the root name for their address, I can make it possible to quickly access the tagged posts in their blogs. Now, I am not sure how successful I will be in getting them to use tags since they are, unfortunately, case sensitive, so I am not sure how much I can rely on them for my own purposes, but keeping an organized blog is definitely something I want to get the students to learn how to do - something that was not really possible when blogging with Ning.

    Have a nice dinner!!!

    P.S. I have all kinds of Twitter and Pinterest plans brewing too! :-)


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