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Students as Resources

posted: 1.26.11 by Nedra Reynolds

In my last post I wrote about what bibliographies are for and how they can serve the needs of writing teachers.  Similarly, of course, textbooks, articles, Web sites, and an increasingly vast array of technologies provide resources, too, as well as blog conversations like these on Bits.

Colleagues, in particular, have long been an important resource for me. In addition to the informal contact (quick conversations in the hallway!), I’ve also participated in a Teaching Fellows program on my campus, which gives me a fix of teacher talk—something I miss from graduate school, where my friends and I, none of us veterans, spent hours talking about teaching. Now that I am a veteran, I still love sharing syllabi or assignments and comparing notes about students we have in common. But these days, rather than just talking about students with other teachers, I’m going straight to the source and am talking directly with students about teaching practices, ideas that I have, or what we should try next. I’ve come to trust students more than I used to; I am more likely to ask for their feedback or advice, to let them write the questions or preview the assignment or coach each other.  Generally, they have not let me down, and as another spring semester begins, I will continue to use students as a resource for my teaching, as much as they will let me.

On one level, it’s relatively easy or risk-free to listen to students or to ask for their input. I’ve long let students choose which of their written products will be graded or to vote on reading selections or to choose their own groups. But now I’m trying to put more faith in students’ desire to learn and their ability to be responsible participants in the teaching and learning relationship. I’m trying to be completely transparent, for one thing, by sharing why I’ve made certain choices or decisions in the syllabus or what skills a specific activity is targeting.

Most recently, I have ramped up the peer review element of my courses, and I see that I’m not the only one on Bits thinking about collaboration. Asking students to be thoughtful respondents to others’ writing is a clear indication that I trust their judgment, and with plenty of structure, guidelines, and clear expectations—and a couple of ungraded practice sessions—I rely on them to help each other produce better writing. (It doesn’t hurt that I grade the second half of the peer review sessions for a substantial portion of their final grade!) Facilitating and evaluating peer review is much easier these days with course management systems like Bedford St. Martin’s CompClass, and students seem to appreciate having more time outside of class to prepare their remarks. Overall, raising the bar has resulted in excellent peer responses.

My next step will be to ask students to participate in focus groups designed to elicit their experiences with and concerns about the undergraduate courses in our program. This initiative will be part of a larger assessment project, but its success depends on turning to students as resources—and compensating them, in some small way, for their time and expertise.

While I was trained to teach writing when many faculty were beginning to embrace “student-centered” teaching, it was an intimidating prospect. It seemed to me that new or untested teachers had to embrace their own authority—and understand their relationship to the institution—before they could share authority with students and then, together, move away from the prevailing model. I now find it more comfortable to rely on students as a valued resource for my teaching.

What about you? Would you be willing to share with Bits readers the ways you turn to students as a resource for your teaching . . . or your doubts about doing so?

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Categories: Collaboration, Peer Review
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