Teaching study skills might not seem, on the surface at least, to be the responsibility of a college professor. Many of our students, however, arrive in college with a skill set acquired from their high school education that is not necessarily sufficient for succeeding in college. Many students arrive in college with the notion that learning is memorizing facts and details, and while this is undeniably part of learning in our college classrooms, we also expect our students to work independently, think critically, participate verbally, and write carefully. Below are some ideas and strategies that might engage students more in class and while working alone.
- Collaboration in and out of class. Many students in the CUNY system are busy juggling a host of responsibilities that are not always conducive to participating in activities outside of the classroom. However, students learn more if they are asked to participate in peer work in and outside of class. Such work does not necessarily demand that students meet in person, but can consist of exchanging questions or short responses to the reading electronically prior to attending class. Some professors have found it helpful to have students engage in group-conversations at the beginning of each class to decide on the parameters for the ensuing class discussion or lecture. These conversations tend to function best when they are guided by a set of open questions from the professor pertaining to what the following lecture will be about. Asking students to write down their reflections and hand them in furthermore creates a certain accountability that usually improves student preparation.
- Feedback on lectures in the form or oral presentations, journals, e-mail reflections. Often it can be difficult for professors to gage exactly how much our students gain from our carefully prepared lectures. Quizzing students constantly on the last lecture will do part of this job, but if our goal is to improve our students’ ability to think critically and not “just” learn facts, it might be more helpful to have them reflect on the lecture in form of oral presentations, journal entries, or in e-mail reflections. Through the semester each student in a class can be asked to give a short reflection on the last lecture at the beginning of the next class. What did they learn? What were the main points of the last class? These presentations need not be long, but should be to the point and serve as a reminder of what the main points were and, hopefully, point to a continued discussion in the present lecture. If students are asked to write journal entries about each lecture, they will be forced to reflect on what was said and make the necessary choices of what the most important points are. These journal entries need not be graded, but can be considered part of participation and should be collected. Meeting a similar goal, some professors have found it helpful to have students write short e-mails about that day’s lecture, reflecting on what they learned, asking questions, or clarifying their thoughts on the subject. These need not be long, but they supply the professor with a precise idea of what is happening in the minds of the students.
- Ask students to paraphrase the three most important points in an assigned reading. This idea asks students to work critically with the assigned readings by having them prioritize the reading and paraphrase the main points. Besides forcing the students to work actively with the reading and its content, this exercise also provides an opportunity for the student to practice paraphrasing, which is something many students have problems doing in their final papers. At the beginning of class any number of students can be asked to share their main points and a class discussion can ensue from these points. Often students will disagree on what the main points are, which provides an excellent opportunity for discussing reading strategies along with the content of any given reading.
- Reflect on learning. If students are asked to keep journals, part of the weekly assignment can be to reflect on what they learned this week, what they do not understand, what questions they might have about the topic, what their analysis of a given text is, how they see the class progressing, and what ideas are floating around in their head for a final paper. This writing should not be graded (though it should be collected) and will simply serve as a formalized way for students to think about the class on a weekly basis. In this form of communication between students and instructor comments tend to work best if they are kept positive and serve to point ahead in terms of suggesting where the student can go next.
- Ask students to provide a letter with every paper they hand in. This is a simple way to achieve the same goals as the ongoing exercise described above. When students hand in papers (mid-terms and finals, for example) ask them to hand in a one page letter to the professor about the paper describing what they think works well, what does not work so well, where they had problems, and how they would like the professor to read the paper, and finally what sort of feedback they would like to receive. This asks the student to take responsibility for their own learning and identify the areas in which they need help.