Testing One, Two, Three: Are students connecting with the material?

How do your students connect with your writing assignments and lectures? In other words, how do you know that your students are actually paying attention and learning something from the class?

The first indicator of student investment is feedback. Do they turn in papers? Are they on time? Do they follow the instructions, or make a good attempt, even if they miss a few points? Do they talk to you, or send you messages electronically to identify key areas of confusion? If the answer is a solid yes, then bravo! You’re doing the right thing.

But sometimes, when you teach writing, it is like Winston Churchill said about the former Soviet Union as being “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” You know what the department requirements are, so you post and discuss assignments according to those dictates. But the student connection is a little harder to determine.

This is the time to evaluate your methodology in teaching. You may be on the right track, but there could be a faster route to try. So take a look at some of these ideas.

Writing is Key to Success

First of all, how much writing do you have your students do? Student writingWriting is just like learning to play an instrument or rehearsing a part in a play – the more you do it, the better it becomes. So have students write frequently. Writing shouldn’t always be a huge assignment. Think of it like snacks and meals for a full-time athlete. There are several meals in the day (or several large papers in the semester). But athletes, like gymnasts and swimmers, need more than the plain three squares: hence the snacks. Come up with smaller writing assignments to fit in around the large ones. Encourage good writing practices through fun creative writing ‘snacks’.

Then, respond to the writing. Comment on the freewriting students turn in. Keep your comments positive and upbeat. When you care enough to respond to even little assignments (and you leave the high pressure off the small ones), this opens a doorway to student interaction and investment in coursework.

Reading Is Important, Too

But what if your concern is actually about students’ reading habits? Some students read with great discipline and know every answer in class. Others… aren’t able to process the information as well. Or they forget to read it. And you’re left with dead air after questions. So… what can you do?

Do readings in class. Create an activity based on the assigned text. Have students re-read the material in class. Activities like identifying the thesis statement, highlighting examples of concrete evidence, or locating excellent in-text citations all qualify as activities.Student group project

If you have a brick-and-mortar class, then you can break the class into groups and have a spokesperson from each group write examples up on the chalk- or whiteboard. If you are working with an online class, working in groups is a lot harder, so it becomes a case of individual responses – each person records his or her three findings of citations, or whatever your goal was. Have them post their responses to a chat board or the online function available to your course.

Look Outside the Book

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to find non-text examples of your goal. For example, if you’re looking at evaluation arguments (What are they? Who uses them? How are they effective?) look for a television commercial and find an example of someone evaluating a sandwich from a restaurant. Well-known ads elicit responses that trigger that “Oh! I saw that during the Olympics” sort of discussion. This is the lightbulb moment. Did students buy the product? Did they like it? How was it a convincing ad? Write about the experience! Whether an individual absolutely hated it or adored it, there will be something to say about how the argument was set up (See the steam wafting off the burger? And hear about how economical it is?). Once the students understand the draw of the ad, then you can use the textbook reading to explain the reasons for the appeal and how it works.

Get Creative

Getting students to connect with material is an exercise in creativity. Sometimes, it means that you make up a competition. For example, if you’re working on the idea of outlining, then type and print out several outlines. Break the class into several groups. Hand out sections of the outlines and challenge the students to put them back together. Get students up and out of the seats so that they aren’t just yawning away. group projectOr make up a scavenger hunt, if you’re working online. Post a list of things to find to complete an outline (find four things that start with “M” in the kitchen, two things that start with “T” in the garage, and five things that start with “A” in the living room; make up an outline, using the specific room titles as your main headings and the found objects as the subheadings etc. and post it). Students get curious and start checking out what other students are writing or posting.

The “Q” Solution

Finally, there are times when the only way to really grab attention is to have a quiz. So, take the reading. Type out sentences from the reading and delete words or phrases that you think the students should remember. Make it a fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice quiz. Make the quiz worth a small amount of course credit, so that it is meaningful. Students connect with readings better, for some reason, when a quiz is involved.

The Final Goal

At the end of the semester, you want to know that you’ve tried your best. As the instructor, you are the motivator and the encourager. You are enabling these students to learn to write correctly, so that they will have a better time of it in college, and later on in life. Building the student connection between writing, reading and achievement is part of your job.

You’ve probably been in the situation where you thought you knew the ropes – but didn’t. You don’t want that to happen to your students – especially in the writing field. So keep persevering. You never know how far your little impact will send each of those pupils towards a lifetime of success.

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Louisa Danielson
Louisa Danielson, B. A., M. A., teaches English composition at Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne. Articles by Louisa have appeared in a variety of publications, including Dialogue: the Interdisciplinary Journal of Popular Culture and Pedagogy, South Texas English Studies, The Musical Times and several popular publications. When she isn’t writing, teaching, or grading English, Louisa likes to explore classical music.

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