INTRODUCTION: A premise I have
accepted in my three decades of teaching is that we learn and retain material
most effectively by preparing to teach it to others. For example, when I ask my
fellow writing instructors, “When, exactly, did you learn the rules of
punctuation and grammar?” they all answer, “When I had to start teaching the
rules to students.” Isn’t this true of your own experience? Didn’t
you learn your discipline most deeply when you began teaching it to others?
1. Decide what content you would like
students to master. In my writing class, for example, I want students to become
experts in editing their writing. Thus, during my reading of their first few
writing assignments, I keep track of the types of errors that each student
2. Assign each student to a group of
three or four members. For instance, in my writing class, if a student's writing
shows little knowledge of sentence boundaries, I assign her to a group that
researches sentence fragments and run-ons.
3. On the first day of the fourth week
of classes, provide students with Handout #1 and instruct them to begin their
research in class from available textbooks and handbooks, and from the Internet
if the class meets in a computer-networked classroom. (75
4. As homework for the next class,
assign students to complete the research they started in class, becoming fully
familiar with the information that they will teach to their classmates starting
in the following week.
5. At the start of the next class
distribute Handout #2 describing how to develop a teaching presentation on their
topics, which they will teach to their classmates as a graded group project.
6. Give the following homework
assignment for the next meeting of the class:
“Outside of class, each member of your
team of experts will compose a works cited entry for each resource you used to
develop your presentation. You will discuss these with the other members of your
team and will add them to your team's presentation supplement to document your
sources according to academic conventions.”
7. At the start of the third class in
which the presentations are developed, instruct students to add the works cited
entries (assigned as homework) to their teaching supplements, and to make
last-minute arrangements for the presentations (who will speak, what each
person’s role is, etc.). (30 minutes)
8. In the remaining 45 minutes, have
two or three groups (depending on how long their presentations take) make their
teaching presentations. In my composition classes, groups teach their
classmates how to recognize, avoid, and fix the editing convention they have
researched. Finish the teaching presentations at the next class or two.
(45 – 60 minutes)
9. After each presentation, require
each student to ask a question of the group that presents.
10. During the presentations, model
constructive feedback by asking presenters to fix typos or obvious misstatements
in their teaching supplements (PowerPoint slide shows, printed document
handouts, or web pages). Additionally, clarify where questions have not been
satisfactorily answered by the presenters.
11. Require the experts to revise
their teaching supplements until all are worthy of a grade of A. Since the
supplements will be used throughout the remainder of the term, they must be
accurate, and they must exhibit mastery of standard editing conventions. Links
to sample teaching supplements are appended in the “Support Materials”
12. Throughout the rest of the
semester, have each group advertise its experts’ consulting service in some
way during workshop days. They may tape a note card to their desks, sit
together in a group with a printed handbill above them on the wall, make a
poster with their names and photos on them advertising their group’s
expertise, or even make an email link to their web pages. Their ongoing role is
to answer questions from their classmates both during class and outside of
I experience the power of this activity
mostly after students have made their presentations and offered themselves as
expert consultants to their classmates. With consultants all around the room,
workshop days are busy and active. Students adapt to multi-tasking,
shifting between editing their own work, answering questions from classmates
about their own area of expertise, and seeking out the other consultants to
answer questions. Denise, whose experts group made a very funny poster
about how to avoid plagiarism (and the consequences of not avoiding it,
including a picture of a “student” behind bars), said, “I liked [the
experts project] because it got everybody to work together and it was easier to
get help outside of class too. We knew exactly who had found information
that would be useful and could even meet or call each other outside of class.
It was a lot easier to learn that way. Being experts made us a lot more
thorough in doing our research: it wasn’t just looking for what we needed to
know, but we were looking for what others needed to know as well and figuring
out how to teach it.” Their poster still hangs in the classroom.
On workshop days, when experts are asked
questions on their topic which they cannot immediately answer, they now know
where to find it. For example, if a quotation marks consultant cannot answer the
somewhat confusing question about which punctuation marks go INSIDE the close
quote mark, s/he will know where to find the answer in a grammar book or an
online site. Likewise, when consultants ask me a question about their own area
of expertise, I direct them to the sources they need so they are empowered to
find answers for themselves.
Previously, my role on workshop days was
answering questions about editing skills rather than the higher-order content
processes that I wanted to focus on in face-to-face consultations with the
student writers. With the establishment of teams of experts, that
responsibility has shifted from my shoulders to theirs, freeing me to focus on
issues of greater concern to me. Now during workshops, I have mini-conferences
with students on the content and support in their essays, development
strategies, and resources used for the papers they are writing. I am free to
dive deep with the writers on their projects without being interrupted to answer
questions about editing.
As a result of expert groups, students’
retention of learning is high. By mid-semester the experts have made their
presentations and have become knowledgeable about a major editing error that had
been problematic for them earlier. In the course of a semester, they go
from uncertain novice to polished expert on at least one aspect of editing, and
I spend very little time explaining editing corrections during workshop days.
One of my students, Orana, came to talk me two semesters after she had taken my
class to say that what she learned in English was helping her to do well in
biology. She said, “The experts project made me realize that hands-on is a
better way for me to learn, and that when I learn something well enough to teach
it, I really know it.”
Additionally, this strategy helps students
develop interdependence since they are relying on the expertise of their
classroom colleagues, and they freely and willingly share their information with
others, both in class and outside of class. Some have even included email
information in their teaching supplements for contacting them outside of class.
Because they keep working at their teaching
presentations and supplements until their projects are worthy of an A grade,
each student achieves a measure of success in the course, which enhances
self-esteem. For example, Christopher, a second-language student who lived most
of his life in the Philippines, volunteered to be the spokesman for his group
when they presented. He had been in a class I taught in the previous semester
and, lacking confidence in his fluency in English, could rarely be coaxed into
even joining classroom discussions. Another student said the project was,
“fun and creative and gave me more confidence. Being able to do
something, and being able to answer other people’s questions about it are two
very different things.”
This project makes students responsible for their own learning. Each student learns that an academic difficulty can be overcome by research and collaboration. Although the presentation supplements (links to samples appended below) are imperfect, they do display a level of competence and care that is not always evident in projects written just for “the professor” to read and evaluate.
An ancillary benefit to this project is that
it can be used as an assessment method. Since the presentations
supplements are permanent (Power Point shows, web pages, or document handouts
can all be saved on the college’s Internet server for use throughout the
semester and beyond), post-semester demonstration of learning outcomes is easy
to show, and it is not based on attitudinal surveys or subjective criteria: The
students’ actual work is accessible.
This is a challenging project for students; however, I’ve learned that if I consistently communicate my expectations of their success, and then reward them for achieving it, they rise to the challenge.
The two handouts below are designed for my writing class. For your students, simply adapt these handouts to reflect the content you want them to master and teach others.
In-class assignment: Based on the editing problems I have seen in your writing, I will place you into teams of experts, wherein you will research a specific punctuation or grammar convention, making yourselves, hereafter, the class experts and consultants on that aspect of editing throughout the rest of the semester. Today you will begin your research from on-line and print resources (at least one of each), and you will plan how your group will present your topic in class and supplement it with a permanent resource. You may supplement your oral presentation by developing a PowerPoint slide show (which can then be posted on the Internet for future reference), a web page or web site, or simply as an MS Word hard copy handout, which also can be posted on the Internet. Each team of experts will consist of three or four members and will focus on the punctuation or grammar convention that I assign.
In-class assignment: Develop your team’s classroom presentation on your topic. Plan effective teaching supplements (PowerPoint slide shows, printed document handouts, or web pages) to support your presentation, which should be approximately 15 minutes in length. You may elect a spokesperson, or you may take turns with each group member making part of your presentation. You will be called on to make your presentation as your topic comes up during the next three weeks of class; we won't present them all at one time. Throughout the rest of the semester, as we are doing peer review and editing workshops, your team will be the consultants on your assigned punctuation or grammar convention whenever there are questions or problems related to that editing topic.
Sample of Students’ Teaching
Christopher’s group’s web page: http://www.geocities.com/ninjadavid/colons.html
Orana’s group’s PowerPoint presentation: http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/WC_alan_orana_richard.ppt
The Comma Police: http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/commapolice.ppt
Sentence Boundaries and Run-On Sentences: http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/sentenceboundaries1.ppt
The 18-Bs (refers to the "run-ons" section of their handbook): http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/CS_and_ro_summer06.ppt
Josh, the Hyphen King (an independent
project because Josh had a series of excused absences): http://community.tncc.edu/faculty/dollieslager/hyphens_josh.doc
--Rick Dollieslager, Faculty, English,
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