The Panel Responses
But what do we do about the rest of the students who are "reading" only in the sense that their eyes are moving from word to word over the proscribed text, but are not thinking from one page to the next about the content? Threats and whippings won't work. Oh sure, we can simply flunk them, and let them risk joining the 40% or so of college freshmen (in State-supported institutions) who don't return the following year. Or we can vigorously pursue my second alternative, which is to provide creative and engaging web-based or lab-based activities in which students have to acquire, evaluate, and analyze data that are clearly linked to identifiable problems. Almost any dataset will work; climatic, fluvial discharge, oceanographic, geochemical, geophysical, paleontological, as long as you provide some initial questions to be answered and a clear pathway for getting to them. Once they are hooked you can begin to explore other implications of their data which, if you can see where I'm heading, will invariably lead them back to the literature to get the background information needed to resolve the questions. Now, suddenly, reading has a purpose and the retention rate will take off like the population explosion curve. I'm sure I'm not inventing anything new here. Many folks are doing just that already, and I, for one, would very much enjoy hearing some of the success stories that I am sure are out there.
In an effort to encourage (force) students to read ahead this semester I give a brief (3-4 question) reading quiz when they first enter the classroom. The quizzes provide 10% of the course grade. I introduced the reading quiz concept because I am adding in-class exercises that gobble up time typically devoted to covering content. My thought was that the quizzes will encourage students to read ahead and I can avoid covering some of the more straightforward information in the lecture material. I admit I was initially reluctant to introduce the quizzes until I read of the successful application of this technique by Eric Mazur in his Introductory Physics course at Harvard. He has even written a book about his"peer instruction" methods (Peer Instruction: A user's manual). More on Mazur's education research for large classes is available at his web site:
I try to get at critical thinking through a series of short web-based exercises that are related to, but not the same as, the material we are covering in lecture. I liked WarrenĖs suggestion that students might go to the reading in order get the information necessary to answer questions based upon real-life situations. Examples of web exercises are available near the end of each topic chapter in The Good Earth
Finally, a suggestion. One way to identify the significance of reading would be to find out how many students have a copy of the textbook or other course materials. Perhaps the panelists would be willing to do an anonymous survey of their classes to discover how many students have actually purchased the textbook or have otherwise acquired course materials.
I accompany each week's material with homework exercises, many of which are web-based, although I also require calculations, plotting and analysis of data, and answering questions based on some of the excellent geology videos (which are on reserve in the library). Publishers are developing web sites which accompany some of the introductory textbooks, and some of these have quizzes, critical thinking questions, and other activities. I am glad that we have a lot of options with instructional materials, because our students come to us with a variety of "learning styles". As educators have recognized this, I think they have promoted and supported the development of alternative ways to present the material to reach our diverse (and sometimes poorly prepared) student population. The big problem that I see is getting the student to commit their time outside of class to studying (whichever media are used - textbook, CD-ROM, web, video, etc.). By requiring assignments which will be graded, we can insure that the student must spend at least some time outside of the classroom engaged with the course materials.
What is clear is that directed reading is very important, particularly in introductory courses. The prevailing philosophy when I was a student of "this is the recommended text, go away and read it" no longer works (did it work then?). So in our Introduction to Geology course we ask students to read certain chapters or sections of the text before they attend next week's lecture or lab. We haven't yet quantified to what extent they are doing this, but they are given MCQ tests at 3 points during the course, based on lectures and the textbook sections that support those lectures. However, we consider the lab component of this course to be the most important, and put more emphasis on that.
I also believe that directed 'reading' is important when using the Internet for learning at introductory level. Many of my intro level web pages are simply links to a limited number of relevant resources (see, for example, the Teaching and Learning Materials section of http://www.brookes.ac.uk/geology/8301/8301welc.html). Similarly, when we use the UKESCC courseware http://www.man.ac.uk/Geology/CAL/index.html, we find it is essential to direct students to particular sections of the courseware to support particular lectures or labs. If we simply indicate that, for example, the UKESCC Deformation module is there to support our structural geology course, most students will not use it.
Since about half the students on our Intro Geology course have not studied geology before, we make a conscious effort to keep new terminology to a minimum, and to get students to describe samples in plain English if they do not know the appropriate technical terms. (Do we really need to submerge students at this level in 'adamantine lustre', 'diaphaneity' etc.?). We also encourage them to compile a glossary of new terms, and to use geological dictionaries and encyclopedias.
Students are reminded frequently during all my courses that the end of term exam could include questions from any part of the course: not just lectures and labs, but also textbook, videos, web pages etc. In the end, assessment is the main incentive for students to carry out any academic activity (and there is a reluctance to do work which is not perceived as earning marks).
One major difficulty for an Intro or Physical Geology course is finding a textbook we would actually want our students to use. So many of them are deficient in one way or another. When evaluating new texts, I start by looking how well they explain a few basic ideas, e.g. WHY are acid magmas more viscous than basic ones? Remarkably few intro texts even mention the linking of silica into strings, sheets etc., and yet this is not a difficult concept to grasp, and gives an understanding of why magmas behave as they do. How many intro texts explain adequately how cross bedding forms? A depressingly low number, in my experience.
Another thing that prevents wide use of these is that if the cd-rom is missing, the bookstore will not buy the book back at the end of the semester.
" The setting of the project is as follows. You are a reporter for the Cascading Times, a large daily newspaper published somewhere in the vicinity of the Cascade Mountains. There is a growing concern that a major eruption will take place sometime in the future. Your assignment is to write an opinon piece in which you:
The exercises are not where I want them to be - interactive - but all I need is time!
June 1, 1999