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Making the Most of In-Class Reading Days

Posted by on Tuesday, December 8, 2020 in News, Resource.

by Derek Bruff, CFT Director

Last week, the university approved four “in-class reading days” for the spring 2021 semester: February 23-24 and April 7-8. These days in the undergraduate and graduate school schedules are meant to encourage students and instructors to practice self-care and avoid burnout during this exceptional academic year. In this blog post, I’ll share some ideas for Vanderbilt instructors for making the most of these in-class reading days. But first, I wanted to share a few thoughts on the rationale for the in-class reading days, as I understand it.

Most of the traditional academic breaks, including fall and spring breaks, haven’t been included in the 2020-21 schedule in order to reduce student travel as part of COVID-19 precautions. However, the lack of academic breaks this fall has been cited by students as a challenge, with students asking for some kind of temporary reduction in workload for the spring to allow students to rest and renew. This was a theme of the student focus groups the Center for Teaching conducted this fall, and so I was glad to see this announcement from the Provost.

We’re familiar with the reading days that precede exams at Vanderbilt, during which classes aren’t held and students have time to review and prepare for finals. The new “in-class” reading days are different, since classes will be held as scheduled. Cancelling classes wouldn’t be practical, given the university’s obligation to provide a minimum number of days of instruction and the complications posed by adding class days at the end of the semester. Class-free days would also likely lead to student travel, which would increase risk. Note that neither pair of reading days is adjacent to a weekend, for the same reason.

However, the in-class reading days will offer something of a break. Per the university’s enrollment bulletin, “instructors are encouraged not to use these days as due dates for major assignments, and no examinations should be given on these days or the day immediately following.” The hope is that by avoiding high-stakes assessments on these days, students will have a break from the pressure of graded work. Certainly this isn’t the only stressor that students will have in the spring, but it is a significant one, and the in-class reading days should provide a bit of relief.

Given this rationale, what kinds of activities might Vanderbilt faculty and other instructors plan for their students for the spring in-class reading days? Holding a typical class session, free of tests or major assignments, is certainly an option. Low-stakes assignments, like a required reading or a discussion forum post, are allowed on in-class reading days. These days also present opportunities for instructors to engage in intentional pedagogical moves.

Review Activities. You might use the in-class reading days to help your students review and synthesize what they’ve learned thus far. This is in keeping with the spirit of reading days, but it’s also good teaching practice. As instructors, we often leave students to their own devices to review and synthesize, but many students benefit from structured opportunities to do so. In particular, we know that students often struggle to see the “big picture” in our courses, and review activities can be designed to help them expand and refine the mental models they have of course material.

Example concept map generated by a student in Kathy Friedman’s genetics course

For instance, you might ask your students to create concept maps illustrating what they’ve learned in your course thus far. Concept maps are simple visualizations in which a number of key terms in a domain are written on a page and pairs of key terms are connected by lines labeled with the relationship between the terms in the pair. The arrangement of the terms and the connections drawn between them represent a student’s understanding of the domain in question. A concept map activity can help students develop that “big picture” understanding as they visualize their own understanding and compare their map to others.

There are lots of ways to organize a concept map activity. You might provide students with a list of key terms and ask them to arrangement them and label their connections, or, as a more challenging task, you could ask students to come up with their own lists of key terms. You could ask each student to draw their own concept map by hand and take a photo with their phone to share with the class, or you could ask students to create concept maps in small groups using technologies like Google Jamboard or Prezi. I know some instructors who have students create their own concept maps, then swap with partners, adding suggestions to their partner’s map in a second color.

For more ideas on using concept maps, see these papers on teaching with concept maps in astronomy, in biology (by our very own Cynthia Brame!), and in the humanities. See also this blog post of mine, in which I share how I use a similar visualization called a debate graph to help my students understand the arguments made by characters in a novel.

Experiential Introductions. If you find the in-class reading days landing just after an exam or major assignment, the days might be a good time to give students an experiential introduction to the next major topic or unit in your course. Just as students benefit from assistance looking back over a period of learning, students can also benefit from a little preparation for learning yet to come. When we help students activate prior knowledge, conjecture solutions to problems, and find something interesting about the topic ahead, we can create “times for telling” (Schwarz and Bransford, 1998) when students are primed to learn.

One simple way to do this is to start the new unit with a problem that the students can understand and see value in, but perhaps aren’t quite ready to solve. For instance, when I teach statistics, I start my unit on probability with a problem: “Your friend calls to say she’s having twins. Knowing that she’s not having identical twins, which of the following is she more likely to have: twin boys, twin girls, one boy and one girl, or are all three of those outcomes equally likely?” I find that many of my students have misconceptions about probability, and this question does an excellent job of surfacing those misconceptions.

Example polling results from the question about twins

I’ll have students answer the question individually, using a polling software like Top Hat, then pair up and discuss the question. When I poll them a second time, often there’s some movement toward the correct answer. Then we run a simulation: each student takes a coin, designates one side as “boy” and one side as “girl,” flips the coin twice, and reports the result via a poll. I acknowledge the simplifying assumptions we’re making in this simulation (only two sexes, 50/50 changes of each), but the results clearly communicate that “all are equally likely” is the wrong answer.

My explanation of the correct response is the last part of the sequence; at that point, I find I’ve usually created a “time for telling” when students are ready, both cognitively and motivationally, to understand the right answer. This whole process usually takes 20 to 25 minutes of class time, since small-group and classwide discussion is embedded throughout the activity. That’s time well spent, however, since the misconception that in probability all outcomes are equally likely is one that students have to overcome in order to succeed in the rest of the unit.

This kind of introductory activity would work well during an in-class reading day, since it inherently requires no pre-class assignment or preparation. Consider what kinds of problems or questions you might give your students at the start of a unit that would challenge their preconceptions and help them appreciate what they might learn during the unit, with or without pre-class work. I talked with a writing instructor once who assigned her students indie computer games to play before class, then used class time to debrief the students’ diverse experiences as a way to engage them in discussions of particular writing and research moves. Experiential introductions can require some creativity, but the student engagement is often worth the effort.

Other Ideas. Thinking through ways to engage students and help them learn—without the pressure of exams or high-stakes assignments—is actually one of my favorite things to do. I could share more examples in detail like the ones above, but instead I’ll share a lot of ideas very briefly, in the hopes that one or two of these will inspire my faculty colleagues.

  • If you have ongoing group projects in your course, you can use in-class reading days to have student groups meet, while being available on Zoom for questions.
  • For writing intensive courses, in-class reading days could be a good time to have students meet individually with you for conferences about their draft papers.
  • More generally, you might hold individual meetings with students to check in with them about past or upcoming assignments or unclear issues with which they are struggling.
  • How about a movie day? Students might watch a film or listen to a podcast, either all together or asynchronously, perhaps liveblogging their thoughts on Teams.
  • A simulation, role-playing exercise, or case study discussion could work well for in-class reading days, either as a review activity or an experiential introduction.
  • Similarly, a class debate can help students do critical, analytical work of understanding issues. Consider different roles for students: pro, con, jury, notetaker.
  • Consider a special topic day, focusing on some topic that students find interesting but isn’t required for syllabus (and may not show up on any graded assignment).
  • If you’re teaching a studio course of some kind, consider having a “free build day” when students are able to use the studio for a project of their choice.
  • If you’re not teaching a studio course, consider what a “free build day” might be in your course. What kinds of productive conversations would your students want to have?

(Thanks to my CFT senior staff colleagues for helping me assemble that list.)

Initial encrypted message and student work seen on chalkboard from a crypto escape room

Finally, I’ll share what I’m planning to do during one of my in-class reading days this spring. Every time I teach my first-year writing seminar on cryptography, I surprise my students at some point with a cryptography-themed escape room. They walk into class to find an encrypted message on the chalkboard and a locked box at the front of the room. Their mission is to work together to crack the code on the chalkboard, which leads them to another clue, which leads them to another clue, and so on until they deduce the combination to the locked box. Inside is a special treat for the students, usually some kind of candy.

I’ll have to adapt this activity to account for COVID-19 precautions, but I’m determined to use it during the in-class reading days in the spring. Not only does it provide students a chance to practice the cryptography skills they’ve been learning thus far in the semester, but it’s also a fun community-building activity for students, since they’re allowed and encouraged to work together as a whole class to solve the crypto challenges. For more on my crypto escape room activity, see this blog post. I think it’s a good match for the spirit of in-class reading days, since it require no prep from students, nor does it lead to any graded work. Instead, it’s a fun day of experiential learning that the students often cite as one of their favorite experiences in the course.

What are you planning for this spring’s in-class reading days?

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  • Perrine

    December 11th, 2020

    Dear Derek,
    Thanks for this article. It made me want to introduce you Stemic, a new concept maps tool:
    You will see, we are a bit different of traditional mindmap tools: we do not use the tree-like form but rather the networked one, we allow to name the relations between the objects as well as to structure the vocabulary used via categories and properties, etc.
    Maybe the tool could interest you!
    I am the app’s designer and your feedbacks would be precious to me. Do not hesitate to try Stemic, it’s free and I’m here if you need more information.

    Many thanks ,

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