HELPING STUDENTS, BEFORE THE FIRST CLASS AND AFTER THE FIRST CLASS




Yesterday was my first class of the new semester.  After 47.5 years at this job, walking back into a classroom felt a little bit like returning home.  If you are teaching this semester, I hope you enjoyed the first day experience as much I did.  
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As I get older, I become ever more convinced that teachers need to guide each student on how to approach their particular style of teaching.  My students here at the University of Richmond have probably had 30-40 teachers since they entered kindergarten, each with a unique approach to education.  It is unfair of me to expect new students to immediately catch on to what I want from them and why.  Therefore, this semester I am focusing more on introducing my students to the learning strategies that I believe work best in my class.  So, even after 47.5 years on the job, I did two things relatively new in hopes of showing my students how to be successful.

If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I put a lot of stress on (a) what students should do to prepare before each new class session and (b) what students should do soon after class to get the material organized in their brains.  Here is advice I gave (by email) three days prior to the first class and additional advice that I gave (by email) three hours after our first class.  I want every student to get off to a great start.  If a student falls behind at the beginning, it often becomes a semester of playing “catch up.”

EMAIL -- THREE DAYS BEFORE CLASS

As many of you likely know, I teach using a rather intense version of the Socratic Method based on presenting odd and unusual puzzles to the students that I then help them solve.  It is a method that I enjoy and seems to work well for my style of teaching.  However, that approach is different from what many of my students have previously encountered.  They occasionally experience problems learning how to prepare for my class.  When I begin to question them in class, I am frequently amazed by how poorly they are ready to answer questions they have had for 48 hours. 

In my email (which went out 72 hours before they even met me for the first time), I explained, “Let me help you get ready in an efficient manner.  For each question, you should consider following four basic steps.

“(1) – Go through the problem/puzzle and write down the actual facts.  Most class puzzles have 4-5 basic facts and then a lot of fluff.   For example, a puzzle might provide a cost, an expected life, some time periods, and the like.  Don’t circle those.  Physically write them down.  Writing down the facts of a question will not take long and the act of writing helps them stay in your mind. 

“(2) – Identify the basic question.  What are we trying to address?  Ultimately, in even the most complex puzzle, there has to be a question that we must answer.  You need to know that.  Write down the question just to make sure you are clear on what is being asked.

“(3) – Assume that I am going to look you in the eye and ask you to start answering the question.  Write down the first sentence of your response.  Do not abbreviate it or use short hand.  You do not have to write down the entire answer but I think writing down the first sentence will force you to think about the facts and think about the direction of your answer.  The first sentence establishes where you are going with an answer.  I actually believe writing down the first sentence of your answer might be the most important thing you can do to be well prepared for my class.  For one thing, having that sentence in front of you will give you confidence in class.  I don’t want you sitting there in fear.

“(4) – Outline the rest of your answer.  I don’t need for you to write out a long answer.  By writing out the opening sentence and then outlining the rest of your answer, I think you will be prepared for our conversation and ready to learn.

“I think that is a reasonable amount of work.
---Write down the facts.
---Write out the question.
---Write out the first sentence of your answer.
---Outline the rest of the answer.

“In my class, I think that is good guidance for being ready to be engaged in a genuine Socratic method conversation.”


EMAIL THREE HOURS AFTER CLASS. 

I have written often about Swiss cheese knowledge.  Students leave the classroom thinking their understanding is solid when it is actually full of holes.  Their knowledge is weak at places, disorganized at others.  Students need to take almost immediate action to organize and solidify what they have learned.  

Students often have developed no learning tactics at that point other than recopying their notes.  That is nice but it is hardly an essential key to in-depth learning.  From my experience, immediately after class is a point when students need some serious guidance before the knowledge seems to seep away.

In my mind, students often look at learning new material as if they are attacking a gigantic block of concrete.  Because the material is new to them, it initially looks huge.  Getting their brains wrapped around that new block of concrete knowledge must seem overwhelming and, thus, impossible.  Many lack any type of strategy for filling in the holes in their Swiss cheese knowledge so they can get a handle on complex, new material.

I prefer to look at new material as a vast bowl of marbles.  Each marble represents a tiny piece of information that is relatively easy to absorb.   Once students start to grasp a sufficient number of those marbles, they begin to develop a logical understanding of even the most esoteric subject.

For that reason, three hours after my first class yesterday, I emailed them the following suggestion.

“We covered a lot of material today that you need to absorb.  Here is a hint.  Take your notes and break the coverage down into what I call, ‘Three-second questions.’  These are questions that you should already know so well that if I asked you in class, you could quietly count to three and then rattle off the answer without further thinking.  For a 50-minute class, you can probably write out 20-50 questions.  Break the subject down into very small parts.  If you can learn enough three-second questions for each class, you can make a triple A plus in this class.”  

If students break down the material into small enough pieces, they will come up with a string of questions that they know or can learn.  Holes in their knowledge are spotlighted.  I want them to be able to read those questions, count to three, and then give the answer.  The questions organize the material and provide a method for review.

Writing the questions takes a bit of practice so I wrote them for yesterday’s class.  I just took the class notes and wrote out a simple question for each small “marble” of information.  I do it sequentially so that one question will almost always lead to the next question.  In most subjects, learning seems to improve if the material can be arranged sequentially.

Once the student has a list of three-second questions for a class, review and practice becomes simple.  Heck, they can carry the questions around with them and review them as they eat their lunch.

MY POINT

My point is that I am starting the semester giving my students two techniques that I think work well in my class.  I do not know if they would work in any other class but I believe they work for my students.  Why hide that knowledge?  Why wait until they are lost before offering advice.   I want them to learn how to do well for me right from the very beginning.

For my students, before class, I think they should
---Write out the facts
---Write out the question
---Write out the first sentence of the answer
---Write out an outline of the rest of the answer

For my students, after class, I think they should
---Go through their notes and write out a sequential series of three-second questions to cover every piece of information that we covered.  The three-second questions mean that they can read each question, count slowly to three, and then provide the answer.  If they have that level of knowledge, the understanding of even the most complex material will start to develop rather quickly.




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