I’ve never been a fan of policing student behavior in my classes. I don’t take attendance, I’m pretty generous when it comes to late work and making up assignments, and I try to make participation in class something that’s organic rather than something structured and forced. In recent years, this hasn’t necessarily gone well. For example, the undergrad class I’m currently teaching has lousy attendance, and I struggle to get anyone except the 3-4 same voices to contribute to class discussions. Last semester, my attempts to “ungrade” one of my other undergrad classes have just not provoked the organic excitement and intrinsic motivation that I was hoping would come out of the experiment. As much as I believe in not policing my students, I’ve had to think about walking back some of my idealism and doing a little bit more policing to make sure that my students are engaged.
All of that has been frustrating, so reading over some mid-semester feedback from my graduate class this semester gave me a little bit of hope. Granted, these aren’t strictly comparable, given that it’s a difference between a synchronous, face-to-face, undergraduate class and an asynchronous, online, graduate classes, but it’s nice to have a small victory. To provide some context, one of my go-to strategies for turning away from policing toward organic engagement is by using the social annotation software Hypothesis. I have never liked “post once, response twice” discussion board assignments in online classes, so the assignment that accompanies each of my course readings is to drop at least one annotation into each reading. That’s it. I don’t care what the annotation is, whether they respond to their classmates, or how they respond to the reading. So long as they leave one kind of comment in there, they get credit for it.
Despite my relatively hands-off approach, this almost universally (in my graduate classes) goes well. As a small, silly example, I was ecstatic that one or two students started embedding GIFs in their annotations this semester; it’s one of the best uses of Hypothesis that consistently gets overlooked. That said, there are also bigger, more pedagogically sound reasons to think that this alternative to discussion boards go well. Here are some excerpts from my students’ anonymous mid-semester feedback that describe how they see it:
I love the use of Hypthesis for annotations to converse about the articles we read. This is far superior to discussion posts, in my opinion. I have been more engaged in the readings, and find it interesting to see what classmates find notable about an article. I also appreciate the wrap-up each week going over the readings and our thoughts on the readings.
I love annotations for the readings! I feel like I really get a sense of what I’m reading and what my classmates think of it, which sometimes helps me understand even better.
This is the first semester i’ve had to use Hypothesis and I feel like it really helps me engage with the readings better. I might even say that this is more useful to me than a regular discussion board format for discussing the readings. Its great to have other students’ insights in real time while I’m engaging with the readings.
I am SO appreciative of how well the class is organized. In particular, working through readings with the Hypothesis extension has been really wonderful. It’s been great to get to have some conversation with my classmates about the material. In some cases, it’s really been the difference in helping me understand the material. Ultimately, I feel like this approach to annotation has helped me read more deliberately and take away more from the readings. I truly wish Hypothesis was used in all of my classes!
I was not sure of this class at first but I do like the Hypothesis annotation of articles. I get to see what other students think of the article and it is more conversational than a traditional discussion board.
I actually really like using hypothesis to annotate and see other people’s annotations.
These are all responses from just this semester’s mid-semester feedback, but if I could go over the past five years of teaching with Hypothesis, I’d have a lot of similar comments (though, again, mostly from grad students). What really made my day today, though, was this comment from one student:
The fact that there’s so much flexibility honestly makes me more likely to do the work and more likely to participate to a greater extent because the requirements are looser than other courses. I think having less rigid requirements for thing like discussions and annotations helps me want to participate more. It feels less like a requirement and more like a conversation.
My hands-off approach doesn’t always work, and in my undergrad classes, I’m starting to have to face the difficult decision of how much more arbitrary structure and forced participation I’m going to have to build into them. This one comment, though, is everything that I aim for in trying not to police students. It doesn’t always work out, but I really do believe that giving space for organic learning (rather than forcing certain kinds of activities) can lead to better outcomes. This was exactly what I needed to read today.
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