Thoughts from “Rome”

This semester I am teaching Roman Art and Architecture. Partly inspired by the “Teach Naked” article, but more so my experience teaching with “Reacting to the Past,” I am not basing my classes on lectures. Instead, I am creating interactive and collaborative in-class assignments that will have students learn from each other and me. In order to achieve this, I am requiring my students to read assigned chapters before they come to class. Is there fear here? Sure, they might not read! At least that is what I worried about and, truthfully, continue to worry about.

But we’ve had two weeks so far. And guess what? They are reading!

Day 2 they were Archaeologists and had to give a “press conference” at the end of class on the most important finds in the city of Rome. In the next class they were Engineers who had to propose to the cash-strapped Senate the top three infrastructure projects and justify them as funds would allow. (The big winners in my class, by the way, were aqueducts and sewers. My students were very worried about water!)

I’ll be letting you all know the ups and downs of this class as the semester goes on. So far, I’ve been very pleased with their work. I am benefitting from the many conversations I have had with colleagues at McDaniel. Over the summer I attended the Writing Institute led by Suzanne Seibert and Julia Jasken. Learning about “low-stakes writing” has afforded me the chance to “quiz” them on the reading without having to make up an actual quiz. And Steve Kerby and I spoke much during the summer during my “Tech Week” about collaborative assignments inside and outside the classroom.

One thing I have learned is that our students will do more if we require it. But they have to know why it’s important. And you can’t relent. While I do lecture for about 20-30 minutes per 90 minute class to emphasize important points, it’s become less the focus of class. They know that they have to come to class prepared to work. I don’t have many art majors in the class. I have a great group with majors ranging from Physics to English and many undecided first-year students.

The big trick will be coming up with interactive and collaborative projects for the next 13 weeks! But I’ve got a few creative tricks up my sleeve. Stay tuned!


6 Responses to Thoughts from “Rome”

  1. rarmstrong says:

    Gretchen- you are more creative than I with your class discussions; must be the reacting to the past impact. I really like the idea that you have them ‘be’ different people and take different roles.

    I have been working to free my classes from constant lecture over the last ten years or so, and while it has been a very worthwhile transition, its been slow coming. I do a lot of small group discussion before big group discussion because they talk more in small groups and it helps prepare them for the big groups talk. Sometimes they have ‘worksheets’ or specific written exercises to do in the groups, but I always focus it in such a way that they are required to add their individual input into a group response – like you say, learning from each other.

    We break this up with small low stakes writing – sometimes they turn it in, some times they just use it as a basis for their discussion (so they have something to say already prepared.). I try to vary it from day to day. Now all i need to do is to give them all roles and characters… hmmm

  2. Bob Trader says:

    Hi Gretchen and Robin,

    I taught a class last year in which students did low stakes writing with peer feedback and review. Students HATED it!

    First, they wanted to earn “points” for any work that they did regardless of the quality of that work (including the giving of feedback).

    Second, the peer feedback wasn’t very helpful and seemed to reinforce mistakes and encourage lack of deep thinking. And since students weren’t awarded points for their feedback, they didn’t really worry about it all that much.

    Third, students were not critical of each others’ work, and the “this is wonderful” comments from peers gave a false sense of security.

    Basically, each student was working on a major literature (minimum 20 research articles) review on a topic related to the topics of the course, but which couldn’t be covered in great detail (so students were able to dig deeper into some topic of the course that interested them). The paper was staged: information seeking proposal, annotated bibliography (5 articles per week for 4 weeks), rough drafts of the paper, final version, several presentations on the topic and on the progress on the paper.

    Students were given criteria to critique: 1) use of correct formatting/citations, 2) clarity of writing, 3) amount of support for claims (people didn’t just editorialize, but supported claims by citing relevant research), 4) grammatical mistakes, and 5) flow and structuring of ideas. Each stage was discussed in class. Each criterion was discussed in class.

    The final products were actually rather good! However, students found the peer feedback useless (and I also realized how competitive students are with each other). People considered the discussions with other students about their work “busy work” and said that while my feedback was helpful, peers didn’t have deep enough knowledge of the topic to provide any meaningful insight (“the blind leading the blind” is how one person described it). Comments from other students were described as banal, obvious, unhelpful, and demeaning (“how stupid do they think I am?”).

    Have you encountered these objections to peer based learning? Do you agree with them? How do you deal with these objections? Do students question whether there is something to learn from other students? Do a few students feel like they are always carrying the ball and the rest of the students just seem to depend on them for everything? Is it fair to put this kind of pressure on students who are still learning the process themselves? Is this something we should leave to graduate education?

    Thanks for any feedback. 🙂


  3. Kathy Mangan says:

    Robin & Bob,

    I’ve long used formal peer review (written and oral critiques) in my poetry and fiction writing workshops. I agree with Bob (and some of his students) that the critiques are often only as good as the students engaging in creating them, and even a dedicated student may not have much to say about a minimally adequate piece of writing.

    But I distinguish those peer critiques from the more recent low stakes writing exercises I have employed with significant success in both upper-level literature courses and in my FYS class this semester. I’ve found low stakes writing responses to be very useful…and often fun. Imagine my surprise–and delight–when students eagerly inquire in a 3000-level lit. class, “Dr. Mangan, are we doing low stakes writing today?”

    Suzanne Seibert, via writing expert Chris Anson, has lots of low stakes writing ideas and suggestions to share. They’ve helped me to create more focused and beneficial class discussions in lit. and writing courses.

  4. gretchenmckay says:

    Hi Bob,

    So far I have not had the same experience as you. In fact, my students are taking to this quite well. That said, I don’t really have them doing peer review right now. They have mostly done some low-stakes writing assignments in my class, but I am the only one who looks at them. I see those writing assignments as a way to get their thoughts flowing. I don’t check for grammar or expect much in the way of well-constructed anything. I just want to see process of thought. They have other assignments where I am checking to see if they can write coherently and with a focus. And with correct grammar. So, I have them balanced.

    Soon I will post some reflections on this week’s projects.

    By the way, Suzanne Seibert is going to be offering a workshop about Peer Review in writing assignments in the spring semester. You could talk to her as well about some of your concerns.


  5. Bob Trader says:

    Hi Kathy and Gretchen,

    Thanks for the feedback. 🙂

    I will ask Suzanne during that workshop about Peer Review. I have paired students up using random assignment rather than any kind of strategic arrangement (such as pairing up good writers with the less so capable people). I wonder if that could be the reason for the lack of success? Or maybe it requires more direct intervention on my part? Yet, if I intervene too much, then it is no longer “peer” review.

    I have students do other types of group work that are successful (such as group presentations and group projects). I’ve just never had much luck with peer review for either low stakes or high stakes writing.

    Enjoy the weekend. 🙂


  6. rarmstrong says:

    Hi folks,

    Regarding peer review – Suzanne just came into my Junior writing class (first time taught) and taught us how to do peer review, and the students (three majors) thought this was awesome and helpful. My only prior experience with peer review in other classes, I never took the time to walk them through how to do it, and i invariably had unfortunate experiences with it. From now when I try this in classes, i’ll do it only if i judge i have time to properly teach them how to do a peer review.

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