Less as More

Less as More

I read with interest [this article] from Vox on the efficacy of homework in K-12 settings. It’s a great piece, offering no easy answers as to whether homework is a boon or a bust as a pedagogical strategy. But it made me reflect on some changes in my own teaching of late.

Last fall, the students in my upper-level seminar (15 students; a Tu/Th class; a 105-minute period) quickly showed signs of struggling to find time for research necessary to complete their end-of-term projects. There were a dozen different reasons for this – athletic commitments; extra-curriculars; mental health problems; physical health problems; the hours they needed to devote to paying work; finding focus and motivation as the pandemic ground on.

A group of fifteen-or-so students gather to talk about their work. They're sitting on benches and on the floor, and most have their laptops open.
Students in an upper-level seminar at Knox. Photo credit: Peter Bailey

It struck me about half way through the term that I could fight these circumstances or I could accommodate them. Trying to find solutions for the intractable problems of time, energy, and motivation – which showed up differently for each student – were immensely time-consuming and only partially effective. It proved a terrible game of whack-a-mole, where as soon as a student and I had found a way to navigate the demands upon their time in an equitable manner, two more students had difficulties.

So I threw out the syllabus. Instead of requiring students to read shared texts (in this instance about reproductive justice) I transformed each class into a structured workshop. We began every class checking in on people’s general state of being, through lightweight questions like “if your mood today was a weather system, what would it be?” or “What fruit or vegetable sums up how you’re feeling today?” Every student would then articulate a goal for the workshop: reading, finding sources, analyzing sources, working on outlines, or drafting their final paper. Everyone worked quietly together – students who worked better with background noise were welcome to bring headphones so that they could listen to music or podcasts  – and at the end of the class period we’d check in on how everyone had done and what they wanted to do next. I supplied snacks, and was available through the whole period to answer questions, provide direction, help solve conundrums, and read work. I also spent two class periods, a couple of weeks apart, meeting with each student in turn about their project.

There was structure for everyone. I had an excellent sense of where each student was in their process, and could encourage students to move from research to reading, from reading to analysis, from analysis to brainstorming, etc. As everyone reported in each day, I’d offer particular services – if you’re starting to analyze your primary sources, [here’s a handout] that will help you structure that process; if you’re at the drafting stage, let’s go into another classroom and I’ll explain reverse outlining. People could show me their notes, or a paragraph here and there; we could work on topic sentences, or wrestle with citations. Above and beyond all of this, we were bodies in a room together. There was accountability–you showed up not only for yourself but for everyone else, and you got work done at your own pace on your own project.

Doing this meant we didn’t get through all the shared readings I’d anticipated we would. But this was more than off set by the fact that the student projects were some of the best I’d ever seen. Thanks to a [structured library exercise] before the workshops began, everyone had a thorough set of sources to work on and through, pulling in books (where the use of books had been on decline in my other courses) and a greater range of secondary articles. There was time for students to write as they read, and to engage in the iterative process of moving back and forth between using writing to think through their ideas and then identifying more resources that would help fill in blanks in their understanding. There was more time to draft and redraft papers, so the finished essays were exceptional. And my students gained an understanding of how historians work that I’m not sure we ever fully managed before.

This term, I’m teaching two mid-level classes that are not as small, nor as research intensive. But I’ve built in workshop time again – one class period a week for four weks (70 minutes on a MWF schedule) where everyone brings their work to class, sets a goal, and I’m there as a resource. Again, the quality of the resulting work has risen significantly, and my students are drawing connections between earlier class work and their own research more easily.

As with the upper-level seminar, what I gave up was content – some shared readings; some shared discussions. But I have not found that the experience of the class has been poorer – in fact students have been able to contribute observations and insights from their own research, enriching the discussions we’re having. And providing students with the opportunity to go down rabbit holes that are profoundly interesting to them has meant that they’ve stayed motivated and engaged throughout the term.

There is no doubt more I can do to fine-tune these changes, but the substantive shift – toward offering in-class time for students to do work I would once have expected them to do on their own – has a permanent place in my teaching now. Not only does it take pressure off my students and offer them more support in pursuing their interests, it has resulted in my students polishing their historical thinking, researching, and writing skills to a degree I couldn’t have anticipated.

All by way of saying . . . perhaps sometimes less is more.


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2 thoughts on “Less as More

  1. Cate!!
    I love this. Again I really appreciate you sharing on your platform the kinds of things you’re doing. I just did something very like this with my MAT student capstone writers. We had a 3 hour session two weeks ago. Everyone was at a different place. Several had had unusually high paid-work pressures in the prior month, some had family issues, one was recently bereaved, one had been quite ill over break. Instead of pushing along with what had been the plan, I had everyone check in and say where they were, which parts of the project they had drafts ready for a peer to read – we matched people up according to this information. I also brought coffee and snacks. Everyone dug in to work, coffee, and snacks with good spirits.

  2. Thank you for reading, Wendy! I love the sound of your workshop – what a great space to move projects forward!

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