Last semester I taught my favorite book, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. With nightly reading assignments that take three to four hours, I expect students to fall behind. So I wasn’t surprised when, a few days in, I asked if everyone had done all the reading and the majority of the class avoided looking at me. Such are the occupational hazards of teaching.
We’re only a few weeks into the semester, but experience shows that it’s never too early for students to get behind in their reading—even if you’re not teaching amazing post-print fiction. While students clearly have the right to choose what they will and will not read, when a significant portion of the class falls behind it can make it very difficult to lead a class discussion.
Last semester, I heard a strategy from my friend and colleague Alyssa Stalsberg-Canelli for dealing with exactly this problem: have the students write down the page number they’ve reached in their reading on a scrap of paper and pass it up to the front. Students can then tell you, more or less anonymously, how far they’ve come in their reading. Taking the class’s temperature in this manner allows you to adjust your strategy for leading the class and saves you from asking questions that no one will be able to answer, resulting in the not-so-golden silence.
For just one more turn of the screw, I decided to forego the pieces of paper and instead used Google Docs. (You want posts about Google Docs? We got ‘em!) First, I created a spreadsheet. As I’ve said before, I use spreadsheets for everything! Then I clicked the “Share” button in the upper right corner.
I changed the settings for who could see the spreadsheet...
...and gave anyone with the link to the spreadsheet the ability to make edits to it.
I then shared the link to the spreadsheet to the class using a link shortener, although I didn’t create my own short domain, despite how easy it is to do. The students then typed in the page number that they had read to, each in a separate cell of the spreadsheet. Within 30 seconds, we could see how far everyone in the class had come—including the one student who had read 200 pages further than he or she had to. I even had had the spreadsheet do an average of the students’ entries, so we knew exactly where we were as a class. You can see the final result for yourselves.
I really liked this quick hack, one that could easily join the other ProfHacker posts about classroom discussion.
Do you have any different strategies for seeing how far your class is on their reading? If so, please share with us in the comments! Let’s keep the conversation positive; no need to complain about our students here.