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? 

PURPOSE:

  • Increase learning retention
  • Develop interdependence
  • Enhance self-esteem
  • Make students responsible for their own learning

SUPPLIES/SETUP: 

  • Published resources in the course content (In my case, college writing handbooks)
  • Access to on-line resources in the course content (optional)
  • Handouts #1 and #2 (appended below)
  • Classroom arranged so that students can work in groups of 3 or 4

DIRECTIONS:

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 makes.

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 minutes)

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.  (75 minutes)

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” section below.

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 class.

EXPERIENCES:

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. 

OUTCOMES:

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.

LESSONS LEARNED:

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.

SUPPORT MATERIALS:  

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.

Handout #1

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.

Handout #2

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 Presentation Supplements

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

–Rick Dollieslager, Faculty, English, Thomas Nelson Community College, VA

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