Saturday, February 23, 2008

Liberal Learning Through Peer-Response Journal Writing

Having vented my scorn for the intellectual emptiness of higher education today--particularly, as manifested in auditorium classes and power-point lecturing--I should offer some practical ideas for alternatives.

Over the past 10 years, most of my classes have been organized around peer-response journal writing. I first picked up this pedagogical technique from George Gopen, the "writing-across-the-curriculum" professor at Duke University. This always works for me in elevating the intellectual level of every class I teach.

Here's how it works. For each week of class, there is a reading assignment from some classic text. At the first class of each week, each student must bring to class three copies of a two-typed page journal entry on the reading for that week. This journal entry must show some kind of intellectual struggle with the reading. If a student doesn't understand the reading, he must explain what it is he doesn't understand. One copy of the journal entry is for me. The other two copies are for the other two members of the student journal group. Then, at the second class of the week, each student comes to class with two one-typed page journal responses to the two journal entries that he received earlier in the week. In these responses, he must respond somehow to the writing of the other two members of his journal group. By the end of the semester, each student has written over 60 typed pages of journal writing.

As a result, every student must come to class not only having read the assignment but also having thought enough about the assignment to write something about it. The students must also enter into a written conversation about the readings with other members of their journal groups. This prepares them for class discussion, because they are primed with questions and comments that have already come up in their journal writing.

Students learn how to read classic texts. They learn how to write about those texts and the questions they raise. And they learn how to talk about those texts and questions.

The classroom discussions are so lively that I never have to lecture, which is my objective. Reading the journal entries helps me to prepare for class, because I can see what the students are thinking, and I can come to class with questions for discussion based on the journal writing. Sometimes I will start a class by saying, I see that John and Susie are taking a position directly opposed to the position of Sally and Dan, so what's the debate here?

Of course, some students drop out of my classes immediately when they see this writing requirement in the syllabus. But that's good, because it means that the students who remain are ready to do some serious work. Many of my students say this is the most stimulating experience they have ever had in any college class.

This works best in small classes. But I have regularly done this in classes with enrollments of up to 50 students. To make the reading manageable for me, I don't write many marginal comments on the journals. But my comments will come out in the class discussions.

If this can work at a large state university like Northern Illinois University, it can work anywhere.


Anonymous said...

I like your attitude
and your guts.

Terry Finley

Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,
Thanks for this post. I have been thinking about reworking some of my classes for a while and this is interesting. Your posts are always worthwhile but this is great.

Mark Griffith

Rob Schebel said...

This is an excellent idea. Sometimes students fail to understand that writing brings out their best thinking. I wish more teachers, both in high school and college, would try teaching techniques such as this.

-Rob Schebel