Just-in-Time Handouts

After looking at my teaching evals from last term and talking with the boss, I can see I need to spend more time discussing my assignment expectations. I’m teaching mostly freshmen, which means they are perhaps more needy than the students in the upper-level tech writing classes I used to teach every term. But I’m a freshman too.

I rarely create paper handouts; if I’m going to design instructional material, I’d rather do something that can go right on my curricular website. The world at large simply doesn’t need to know what I expect my students to do in Exercise 3, but my students do. I usually first show them the skeletal description of the assignment on the course web page, perhaps clicking them through one or two of the online handouts describing the assignment genre or major issues that are part of the assignment. I might write a refresher on the board the week before the assignment is due, and invite questions. If I get any e-mailed requests for help, I’ll reply to the whole class.

My teaching strategy typically invites students to try to solve certain problems on their own first, after which they submit an ungraded draft for peer-review and/or my own review. I will then hold a more detailed workshop, focusing on a handful of issues arising from my examination of their rough drafts. Now that I have a better idea what parts of journalism, blogging, web authorship, or literary study SHU students find the most challenging, I think I’ll be able to be more pro-active next time around. But for now, some students protest that, if they had known what I wanted in advance, they would have given it to me in the first place, and then they wouldn’t need to revise it so much.

I do try to emphasize that as a writing teacher I am not so much interested in the efficient generation of perfect product, but rather my job is the much harder task of training them to develop a good process — which includes the revision of multiple drafts (even if the original draft was pretty good).

Still, students want more guidance. I believe I’ve noticed that SHU students may have a little more trouble following oral instructions than I’m used to facing in the classroom, but perhaps that’s simply because I’m teaching mostly freshmen, upon whom study guides and worksheets and checklists were lavished in high school.

A few times in the past few weeks, I’ve noticed that the students were hungering for a handout that I hadn’t yet written, and that I wouldn’t have the time to write in order to get it to them early enough to help them meet the deadline. Since I’ve given three talks in the past three weeks, I’m feeling a little more frazzled than usual, but I tend to overprepare my handouts because I’m alway trying to add to my collection of online instructional tools.

The world at large doesn’t really need to learn how Jerz wants his EL150 students to complete Exercise 4…

Here’s where the “just-in-time handout” comes in.

It’s not pretty, but it’s the process, not the product, that counts.

When students seem to have more than the usual amount of questions about a topic or assignment, I’ve started opening a blank word processor at the teacher’s station in the front of the room, typing subject headings, and then asking the class to help me fill in the details. When the class period is over, we’ve collaborated on the rubric (see the “presubmission
report handout
” (for Intro to Lit Stud). It’s far from my best handout — it probably won’t make much sense if you weren’t there in the class as we were constructing it — which only shows just how much effort goes into preparing an instructional resource
for the Internet. I tell myself that it’s OK for me, once in a great while, to create a handout that’s just for the students of one class, and that it’s OK for me to use the Internet like a photocopier, simply to distribute that handout without turning it into a respectable online document.

As I lead the class discussion and insert student comments in the proper spaces in the outline, I wonder if perhaps more students are doodling instead of taking notes. Further, sometimes I wonder whether that typing student contributions into a word processor is fundamentally different from doing the same thing with marker on the whiteboard. And if I already knew what parts of which assignments my students would find challenging and which they would find easy, maybe I wouldn’t need to spend class time fielding so many questions and tweaking assignment parameters.

The wisdom born of experience is something I’m lacking in my first year teaching in a brand new program. Fortunately, I’ll see many of these students again, and I’ll get to the same courses again with new students. I’ll learn what works.

Update, 05 Apr: This entry has generated some discussion on Pedablogue, Mister B.S., and CultureCat. Thanks for the great conversation, everybody.