Students showing their work

What happens when you have students show their work…to each other?

I’d like to follow up on Brian’s recent post praising Mark Sample for explaining how and why one might share a Zotero library with anyone and everyone. Brian argues,

“The more academics show their work—while they’re still working on it—the more we can learn, borrow, and remix from one another.”

Show your work: sticky notes on a classroom white board I’ve long been an advocate of opening up the work we do as teachers and scholars to a public audience, provided we’re the ones who decide when and what to share and under what conditions.

However, when it comes to what my students do in the classroom, I’ve been a little slow to embrace this philosophy. Only recently have I taken seriously the value of encouraging—and sometimes requiring—students to show their work to each other “while they’re still working on it.”

Granted, as an English professor, I’ve almost always provided time for draft workshops in which students review each others’ essays, but I adopted a new strategy last year that works extremely well.

Sticky notes! So far—knock on wood—I’ve had nothing but success with this method. Let’s say you want your students to answer a particular question and to be able to support their answer by, yes, showing their work. Here’s one way of doing that collaboratively, openly, and for the most part with affordable, low-tech tools.

The required materials:

  • A whiteboard or chalkboard
  • Markers or chalk
  • A few pads of sticky notes
  • Students
  • Optional: Digital camera & online venue through which to share photos

The process:

  1. At the very top of the board, in big letters, write the question under consideration.
  2. Draw a grid with open spaces into which the different possible answers will be placed.
  3. Make sure each student has a few sticky notes.
  4. On each sticky note, the student must write the following:
    • Name,
    • Answer,
    • Supporting reasons for answer.
  5. Each student then places their sticky notes on the board in the right locations.
  6. The class discusses the results.
  7. Optional: The instructor and/or students take digital pictures of the board and uploads them to a photo sharing site online.
  8. Optional: The instructor and/or students annotate the online digital pictures.
  9. Optional: The instructor and/or students return to the pictures to prepare for tests, for required essays, for subsequent discussions, or for any number of purposes.

Some examples:

As these examples suggest, this exercise works very well with “yes” or “no” questions where the two answers correspond to two different colors of sticky note. However, you could also use this method for more open-ended questions and for general group brainstorming. Note that this is not a method to use—I think—where there is a right answer to be distinguished from wrong answers.

What I like about this method:

  1. Students get it. Period. I always see light bulbs going off where before there had been none.
  2. It requires using the correct method for making an argument. You provide your opinion, but you also have to provide evidence that supports your opinion. If a student only has one of the 2 required elements, the sticky doesn’t get to stay on the board. Period. Everyone understands this by the end of the exercise, and so there’s no excuse for subsequently writing an essay that fails to use this method.
  3. It reveals understanding or lack thereof. The degree to which a student has–or hasn’t–processed what they should be learning is easy to assess with this method. You can’t hide that you’re not following what’s going on or that you’re not contributing to the discussion. If your sticky note is not up on the board, you’re intellectually absent. Maybe you need further explanation (perhaps during office hours), or maybe you just need to start taking the class more seriously.
  4. It requires concision. The sticky note is not big enough for beating around the bush or for flowery language intended to hide a lack of substantive comment.
  5. Even shy students who don’t like to speak up in class can participate.
  6. And finally, it enables peer modeling. When student A sees what students B, C, & D are capable of doing, the intellectual tasks required by the class suddenly seem a lot more manageable. And herein lies the value of sharing student work in the classroom.

What I need to improve:

  1. Sticky notes aren’t good for the environment, are they? I’d like a greener way to accomplish this. Perhaps notecards and a corkboard. I do love the whiteboard, though.
  2. Understandably, some students have difficulty fitting the required information into the space provided by the sticky note, which makes the resulting pix tough to read sometimes. I could always start using bigger notes.
  3. The lighting in my classrooms is not great for taking pix of the whiteboard. Maybe I could d.i.y. some better lighting to illuminate the board.
  4. I need to require more often a followup assignment from this in-class exercise: for example, students wrote an essay based on our discussion of the two OpEd pieces (see link above). More of that sort of thing would be good.

To remix—sorry, couldn’t resist—what Brian originally wrote:

“The more students show their work—while they’re still working on it—the more they can learn, borrow, and remix from one another.”

Expect to read more from me in the future on collaborative pedagogy like this.

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