I live by this rule of thumb: “Any complaint should be followed by two solutions.” And I was hearing frustrated complaining from me about my students' inability to retain course content or synthesize the content for a deeper meaning and broader context. Complaining may be a way to vent frustration, but it doesn't fix the problem, which is why I like the rule. It made clear that I needed to stop complaining about what my students weren't doing and take actions to solve the problem. Maybe I could work on solving it with some different teaching techniques.
But first, let me describe the problem in a bit more detail. When I introduced a new topic in class, I would often refer back to something said or discussed during a previous class period or to a reading assigned for homework. I would attempt to make connections for students so that they could link the new material to content we'd already covered. But my students had a great deal of difficulty remembering what we'd discussed previously. Often they hadn't done the reading, so connections I made to text content were meaningless to them. If I asked them to make connections, they were unable to articulate how the concepts and ideas were connected. I was frustrated, troubled, and ready to try some different approaches.
Essentially, I implemented four strategies that changed how students thought about the information, how they valued it, and how they organized and connected it to other content and contexts. I tried a variety of strategies. I'm sharing those that proved to be the most successful for my students.
The first solution-strategy was to provide greater opportunity for in-depth discussions of the content
. I tried a number of cooperative learning strategies to increase discussion and found that the round-robin approach worked best. This strategy requires that each student adds something to the discussion—it can be added verbally or in writing, depending on how you use the strategy. If you require something in writing (say about an assigned reading), students can bring what they've written to a small group discussion. If they come unprepared, then that is seen by their peers. For my students, that discomfort was highly motivating.
The second solution-strategy was to provide space for students to reflect on the content and integrate new information into their thinking
. I was quick to assume that the uncomfortable silence after I asked a question meant they did not have the answer. While that was true in some cases, often they just needed time
to process the question and think about an answer. I implemented something I called “reflect and connect” during which students make connections with other course topics and materials and a real-world example. They can also pose questions for clarification. I ask some students to share the connections they've made, and then we discuss them as a class. Because this strategy takes time, it's important to make thoughtful decisions about when to use it.
The third solution-strategy was implementing content refreshers and reviews
. Students can become overloaded with information, which makes remembering everything difficult. Regular reviews are helpful. I realized that refreshing does not necessarily mean reteaching. For example, I developed games (word search or matching) to help students remember terms, facts, principles, or concepts. To engage some higher-level thinking, I had students work with a partner or in a small group to solve problems presented in case studies. These refreshers and reviews not only helped them remember the content, but they were able to start making those connections that they hadn't been able to make before.
Finally, creating an end-of-the-course survey to capture constructive feedback
was by far one of the most helpful solution strategies I used. The university-generated course evaluations were not providing me with enough information to truly understand what students were experiencing in the course. I needed to know what was helping them learn! Therefore, I asked for their anonymous responses to very specific questions about the course assignments, the degree to which they learned key concepts, how they thought this information would benefit them post-graduation, and whether their thinking about certain concepts had changed. Their responses provided me with rich information that I could use in future classes. It also gave students an opportunity to reflect and think about the concepts they'd learned and how they might use this information in the future.
In closing, these strategies helped students—they retained more information, we had better discussions, and they were able to see the relevance of the content to their learning and their lives. But I learned from the strategies as well. They forced me to rethink how students learn in the classroom, and they enabled me to pinpoint teaching actions that supported their efforts. It's still not perfect in my classroom, but I am complaining much less and I see evidence that my students are learning more.
Contact Candice Dowd Barnes at CBarnes@uca.edu