Editor’s note: The following article is part of an ongoing resource collection called Assignments of Note, in which we showcase innovative assignments featured in scholarly articles.
Bhavsar, V. M. (2020). A transparent assignment to encourage reading for a flipped course. College Teaching, 68(1), 33–44. https://doi.org/10.1080/87567555.2019.1696740
Students take notes on an assigned chapter—one page front and back. In addition to these notes that preview the content, students prepare reflective notes that connect the current reading with other content and generate questions about it. Both sets of notes are turned in and graded. There’s an added incentive: the individual content preview notes are returned to the student on the day of the exam and may be used during it.
This particular assignment grew out of an interest in making assignments transparent: “Students learn better when they clearly understand what they are supposed to learn and why their professors ask them to do things, and to do those things in a certain way” (p. 34). The assignment, used in a basic soil science course taken mostly by juniors and seniors majoring in plant science and environmental biology, involves 60–70 pages of reading per week. The objective, shared with students, is not a deep, detailed read but reading to acquire a basic understanding of key terms and major concepts. There’s a second goal—getting students to recognize that the text contains more information than can be covered during class sessions. Students are given a sample set of notes that illustrate the kind of information they should be extracting from their reading.
The reading notes assignment are part of a “participation” grade that also includes all the in-class activities and other homework assignments. Depending on the semester, this participation grade counts for between 35–45 percent of the course grade. To avoid a lot of extra of grading, the teacher assesses students’ notes primarily on their completeness: excellent (eight points), fine (four), and full of holes (two). If students do not submit the reflective notes portion of the assignment, they receive two points. To earn any points and to use the content preview notes during the exam, both sets of notes have to be submitted on the due date.
Two methods were used to assess the impact of the assignment on student learning. An empirical analysis revealed that “achievement in final exams was positively correlated with achievement in midterm exams with reading assignment completion and with reading assignment quality” (p. 39). In responses to a survey, nearly 100 percent of the students reported that the notes helped them perform well on the midterm, and 84 percent said they aided learning efforts aside from test performance. But most persuasively, the assignment resulted in between 80 and 90 percent of students (depending on the semester) completing the assigned reading before coming to class.
The actual assignment is included in the article. In addition to explaining what students are to do, the assignment contains content that answers the following questions: Why are we doing this, and what will you as a student get out of it? The article merits consulting because it recounts the process of improving the assignment based on student survey results. Finally, it’s a well-referenced piece.
I used this assignment again in my fall 2019 soils class, in the same format, and it had the same results, with most students diligently doing the reading and turning in good content and reflective notes. One change I made was to allow students to hang onto their notes during the class period when we discussed the chapter and turn them in at the end. They could amplify their notes as we went, although they still had to be one page, front and back, so they had to be selective in what they wrote. They really appreciated that! I reminded them to take a picture of their notes before turning them in, so they had their updates to reference while studying.
I did manage to get myself organized enough to alphabetize and batch the notes each class period, so I didn’t have a big sorting job the morning of each exam. Highly recommended.
It’s still a struggle to get students to calm down and realize that they shouldn’t spend hours and hours reading ahead of time. I had wanted to have a “reading workshop” during our first lab period but did not manage that. (I can’t remember why!) Students with perfectionist tendencies cannot stand to let go and live with less than absolutely detailed notes. It’s ironic because that level of detail doesn’t help on the exams, which are conceptual and emphasize problem-solving.
The assignment also still takes a lot of explaining in class, possibly because it’s so unusual. Students can’t quite believe their ears. “Really? We get to use the notes on tests? We can write anything? Wow! How many pages? How big can we write? What’s the difference between content notes and reflective notes again?” If you use this assignment, be ready for a big round of Q&A when you introduce it.
Be firm about your boundaries because this assignment is frankly a pretty generous offer in an upper divisions course for ag majors. Generosity is not an invitation to take advantage. Set boundaries with your learning outcomes in mind. My learning outcomes include professionalism, part of which involves being prepared before you start on a task. You want to be prepared when you walk into a meeting with your boss, so this class is a good way to practice that habit. To that end, I do not accept late notes, allow late notes to be used on the test, or allow do-overs beyond the in-class revisions.
I’m pondering how to use this assignment in a remote class since at my university we’ll all be teaching remotely this fall. At this point, my plan is to do it the same way but with notes turned in via our LMS. I’m planning to have written, open book and notes exams with severe time-constraints and to follow the written exam with a brief oral exam for every student. I will ask them to explain further some of their written answers. I’m lucky this class is small. I couldn’t use this exam strategy with lots of students.
I want to emphasize that transparent assignments are neither easy assignments nor equivalent to spoon-feeding students. It means carefully thinking through and clearly articulating our expectations and purposes so that students can meet our challenges without the cognitive and emotional burden of trying to figure us out! Clear thinking, clear communication, clear expectations, and sound rationale—what could be more academically satisfying than that?
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