Motivation for pre-reading assignments

Image: chain by pratani on flicker (CC)

For the next 4 months, I’ll be working with an instructor in an 4th-year electromagnetism course. If you’ve taught or taken a course like this, let me just say, “Griffiths”. If you haven’t, this is the capstone course in E&M. It’s the big, final synthesis of all the electricity and magnetism and math and math and math the students have been accumulating for the previous 3-1/2 years. This is where it all comes together and the wonders of physics are, at last, revealed. It’s the course all the previous instructors have been talking about when they say, “Just learn it. Trust me, it will be really important in your future courses…” That’s the promise, anyway.

The instructor came to us (“us” being the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative) because he wasn’t happy with the lecture-style he’s been using. Students are not engaging, if they even bother to come to class. He’s trying to use peer instruction with clickers but it’s not very successful. He wants to engage the students by giving them worksheets in class but he’s not sure how.

So much enthusiasm! So much potential! Yes, let’s totally transform this course, flipping it from instructor- to student-centered! Yes, and I purposely using the word “flipping” with all its baggage!

Hold on there, Buckaroo! One thing at a time. Changing everything at once rarely works. It takes time for the instructor to make the changes and learn how to incorporate each one into his or her teaching.

So, we’re tackling just a few things this term. The first is to create learning goals (or objectives) so we can figure out how to target our effort. In talking with the instructor, I learned there are very few new, mathematical techniques introduced in the course. Instead, the course is about selecting the right sequence of mathematical tools to distill fundamental physics out of the math describing E&M. That led us to this draft of one of the course-level, big-picture goals:

While you are expected to remember basic relationships from physics like F=dp/dt and λ=c/ν, you do not have to memorize complicated formulas we derive in class because a list of formulas will be given. Instead, you will be able to select the applicable formula from the list and know how to apply it to the task you’re working on.

The biggest change we’re making is the introducing effective pre-reading assignments. Oh sure, the instructor always said things like “Pre-reading for Lecture 1: Sections 12.1.1 – 12.1.3” but that’s not doing the trick. More and more of my colleagues are having success with detailed, targeted reading assignments. Rather than the “read the whole thing and learn it all” approach, we’re going to help the students learn (ha! Imagine that!):

Reading assignment (prior to L1 on Thu, Jan 10)

Read Section 12.1.1. Be sure you can define an "inertial reference frame"
and state the 2 postulates of special relativity.

Review Section 12.1.2 (these concepts were covered in previous courses)
especially the Lorentz contraction (iii) and write out the missing steps
of algebra at the top of p. 490 that let Griffiths "conclude" Eqn (12.9).
Be sure you can explain why dimensions perpendicular to the velocity are
not contracted.

Read Section 12.1.3. Look carefully at Figure 12.16 so you're familiar
with the notation for inertial frames at rest (S) and inertial frames in
motion ( S with an overbar )

Now comes the hard part: getting the students to actually do it. It’ll take effort on their part so they should be rewarded for that effort. A reading quiz, probably in-class using clickers, worth marks could be that reward. (An online quiz we can use for just-in-time teaching might be even better but one thing at a time.) A straightforward quiz-for-marks promotes sharing answers (that is, cheating) and clicking for students not there (that is, cheating). I don’t want them to participate for that sole reason that they’ll be punished for not participating. I’d rather use a carrot than of a stick.

How do we present the pre-reading assignment as something the students WANT to do? Here’s a chain of reasoning, developed through conversations with my more-experienced colleagues. It’s addressed to the students, so “you” means “you, the student sitting there in class today. Yes, you.”

link 1: Efficient. You have a very busy schedule full of challenging courses. You want to use your E&M time efficiently.

link 2: Effective. We want the time you have allocated to E&M to be effective, a good return on your investment.

link 3: Learning. We recognize that many of the concepts will be learned when you do the homework. But rather than using class time to simply gather information for future learning, what if you could actually learn in class? Then you’d better follow along in class and you’d already be (partially, at least) prepared to tackle the homework.

link 4: Engagement. We’re going to create opportunities for you to learn in class through engaging, student-centered instructional strategies. But you need to be prepared to participate in those activities.

link 5: Preparation. To try to ensure everyone has neighbours prepared to collaborate and peer-instruct, we’re asking you to complete the pre-reading assignment. It will also save us from wasting valuable class time reviewing material that some (most?) of you already know.

link 6: Reward. This takes some effort so we’re going to reward that effort. If you do the readings as we suggest, the reading quiz questions we ask will be simple, a 5-mark gimme towards your final grade. Oh sure, you’ll be allowed to miss X of the quizzes and still get the 5%. Those marks are for getting into the habit of preparing for class, not a penalty for being sick or not being able to come class. The quizzes are also continuous feedback for you: if you’re not getting 80% or more on the reading quizzes, you’re not properly preparing for class. Which means you’re not link 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

The big message should be, your effort in the pre-reading assignments will help you succeed in this course, not just with a higher grade but with better grasp of the concepts and fewer all-nighters struggling with homework.

Is it all just a house of cards? I don’t think so. And I’ll find out in the next few weeks.

About Peter Newbury

Find me on Twitter @polarisdotca

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10 Responses to Motivation for pre-reading assignments

  1. Pingback: Learning Before Class Strategies – Quick Update « Science Learnification

  2. Becca says:

    As a student, I would really like getting pre-reading assignments like the example one you show, provided that in-class time was then spent on something different. I never do book-reading ahead of class any more, mainly because when I do, it just results in being bored during class, as the teacher proceeds to explain the same material I just taught myself, at a level no different than what I already got out of the book.

    I think the Efficient and Effective arguments for why students should do the reading are the most compelling to me, though they’re all good. I think the real key is in how class time gets spent, particularly on days when maybe many students haven’t done the reading. If the teacher resorts back to pure lecture on the material, the students will quickly stop ever doing the reading (at least, I know I would).

    • I’m really happy to hear from a student, someone on the receiving end of these strategies, so thanks very much for the comment, Becca.

      Just so I can give the instructor the best advice, are you saying that if many students do NOT do the reading, you want the instructor to move ahead and not back-track to cover the material? That’s, well, gutsy but it will send the message he’s serious about the pre-reading. Hopefully, it won’t happen more than once or twice. Certainly if he continually “bails out” the students who don’t do the reading, those that do will get frustrated with the time spent on material they already know. And everyone will see that you don’t really have to do the readings.

      Thanks again for the feedback. It made me stop and think…

  3. Becca says:

    Yes, that is what I’m saying. My reasoning is that I think students are likely to be resistant to any way of teaching that they’re not used to, and also at first probably won’t know what to expect, or won’t necessarily believe the teacher if he says that the pre-reading is important (after all, I doubt it will be the first time a teacher has told them that). So, if the teacher says “Do the reading – it’s important”, but then backtracks and spends class time just covering the same material the way he usually does, the students will probably think “oh, he’s just saying that, but it’s not really true” and then never get in the habit of reading. If instead students come to class unprepared a few times and realize that they’re lost because they didn’t do the reading, they’ll probably catch on and start taking it seriously.

    Slight disclaimer though: that’s all just my prediction. I don’t have any experience of my own with a class assigning that kind of pre-reading. Also, I’m happy to provide a student’s perspective, but you should know that as a future teacher myself, I’m probably not the most representative person to ask.

    • You may be only one voice from the other side of the classroom podium (although, my colleagues and I shouldn’t be behind the podium either, anymore) but your insight and feedback in really valuable! Have you ever thought about talking to your current instructors about how they teach, in addition to the content being covered. If the instructor is trying to improve, I bet s/he would appreciate your observations. If you’re uncomfortable with speaking with your instructors during the term — you’re initiating a different kind of relationship — once the term is over (and all the marks have be recorded), I bet the instructor would love to chat.

      Thanks again for feedback and honesty, Becca!

      • Becca says:

        Luckily, I’m at a school where most of my professors are continually trying to improve, and are generally quite receptive to feedback. Unfortunately, I’m really not as good as I wish I were about voicing my opinions during the semester. I do it sometimes, but not consistently. I do consistently write significant amounts of feedback in the end-of-semester course evaluations I fill out for every class, so that’s something at least. I’ll take your comment as a reminder to try to do better about that during the semester as well. Thanks!

        I’m really interested in how the E&M course goes – will you post some follow-ups during the semester?

        • Thinking about how your instructors teach and about you learn are excellent habits. That kind of “metacognition” is one of the markers of an “expert,” along with a huge inventory of content knowledge and a system for storing and retrieving that knowledge — read more about expertise in this interesting paper about Sherlock Holmes.

          Hey, are you on twitter? I have a bunch of physics friends who’d also be interested in hearing a student’s take on physics instruction!

          • Becca says:

            No, I’m not on twitter (yet). I might get one soon – I’ll let you know if I do. In the meantime, I read lots of physics teachers blogs, and I comment every once in a while. Feel free to let me know if there’s are any specific blogs you think I should read.

  4. Kaleberg says:

    What exactly is the goal of pre-reading?

    I’ve taken courses completely from the textbook, E&M for one. I’ve taken courses in which I never looked at the textbook. I still remember some of the great lectures from some of the latter. I never noticed any difference in grades or retention. They were just different teaching styles.

    So I ask again, what are trying to achieve? Cramming more into a course is an interesting goal, but can probably be better achieved by pushing to a higher level of abstraction up front and then presenting the applications.

    P.S. Enforced class interaction with beepers and having to vote on whether light is a wave versus particle sounds like a nightmare. Honestly, none of the great lectures I’ve attended had any of that crap.

    P.P.S. One thing you might attempt is to have each problem set end with problems just beyond the student’s reach, given the material presented already, but be ready to present the new set of ideas of techniques presently while they’re still motivated. I had a few courses with that technique, and really enjoyed them.

    • Thanks for the comment. Instructors and educators tend to “talk amongst themselves” a lot so it’s always valuable to get feedback and criticism from those on the receiving end of our practices.

      I think there are lots of goals of pre-reading assignments. At the surface, students arrive prepared to dive into the deeper, and usually more interesting concepts, without wasting valuable class time on simpler material that can easily be learned from the textbook. Definitions, notation, architecture of the graphs that will be used, and so on. I think pre-reading assignments allow the instructor and students to explore the concepts to a deeper level, not just “a mile wide but an inch deep.” And in classes which use peer instruction, which this one does, pre-reading assignments ensure that each student is able to have good, useful conversations with their peers about the concepts. I certainly wouldn’t want to share my ideas and spend my time talking with a guy who doesn’t even know the notation – that’d be a waste of my time and I wouldn’t get much out of peer instruction.

      On a deeper level, as this post outlines, I feel pre-reading assignments are the last link in a motivational chain that starts with students wanting to use their limited time as efficiently as possible.

      As for “beepers”, or clickers as we usually call them, I believe they are a powerful tool for learning — when used effectively. If you’ve been unlucky enough to have bad clicker experiences, that’s too bad. I’ve written lots on this blog about clickers enhance learning, like here and here.

      Finally, I totally agree with you about asking challenging questions, just beyond the students’ reach. There is a lot of excellent education research into “a time for telling.” Instructors pose a problem which forces the students to struggle, bang their heads against a wall. The instructor is not looking for full solutions — the goals is to allow the students to discover for themselves the important parameters and behaviours of the phenomenon. After this period of “invention”, students are more aware and appreciative (not oh-gee-thanks appreciative but oh-I-get-it-now appreciative) of the instructor’s mini-lecture. The pre-lecture struggle properly prepares the students for the explanation. Hmm, kind of like an effective pre-reading assignment can do…

      Thanks again for the skepticism. My friend Joss Ives is writing a series of posts about pre-class assignments. You might find them interesting.

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