Crib Notes are Your Friends — Shannon Dea, Department of Philosophy

student writing testCan’t get your students to do the readings before class? If your course has exams, here’s a sure-fire method that will have them hitting the books and not only reading but reading strategically.

On the first meeting of the term, give each student a pack of 3X5 cards, one for each class meeting of the term. (Or have them buy their own, depending on your budget and the class size.) Explain to them that each class they will be permitted to turn in one card inscribed with their name, the date, and notes about the day’s reading. Further, they must hand the card in before class so that their notes are drawn entirely from their reading of the text, and not from the lecture or class activities. Further explain that you will return to each student their bundle of cards at the beginning of their midterm/final and that they may use their cards to help answer exam questions.

With this method, you are essentially letting the students write their own customized books for an open-book exam, but stipulating that the material for the book must be drawn from the course readings. It will take very little persuading for students to see the benefits of having a pack of customized notes at their elbow come exam time. What might take a little more effort is training students to make good choices about which parts of the readings they ought to record on their cards.

The great thing is, though, that you’ll be in a better position to support the development of their active reading skills because you’ll be able to go over their cards and see what they’re gleaning from each reading. Indeed, you may wish to start each class by quickly skimming a random selection of the cards for that class and discussing with students the highs and lows of their reportage.

I’ve used this method with a first-year class with about 80 students. The overwhelming majority of students submitted cards in each class, and most of them contained useful content about the readings. The fact that the students had all done the readings meant that lots of students participated in class discussions, and the quality of those discussions improved. Additionally, students become practiced at reading before class and at making reading notes. You as an instructor are better informed about how your students are doing with the readings, and can adapt your teaching in light of this.

And the downsides? Well, you’ll need to make time after each class to skim through the cards to make sure that students have actually written about that day’s reading (rather than sneakily revising their notes about the previous reading). The biggest challenge, though, is sorting all of the cards. I once foolishly left the sorting until the end of term and was forced to spend a back-aching day hunched over piles of cards arrayed on my office floor. Don’t do that.

Overall though, even if sorting the cards is a pain, it’s a small price to pay for starting each class with a room full of students who have done the readings and jotted down some initial notes about them. Now if only you could get them to bring you coffee…

Note: I’ll bet this method was somebody else’s idea. I talk teaching with lots of colleagues and we often trade ideas. Sometimes it’s hard to remember which ideas are mine and which are borrowed. I cannot for the life of me remember who came up with this brilliant method. If it was you, let me know and I’ll adapt this post so that you get credit for the idea. (And if it actually was me, yay me!)

Shannon Dea teaches in the Department of Philosophy, and is a Teaching Fellow for the Faculty of Arts.

Image courtesy of ccarlstead.

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