Wednesday, July 28, 2010


In my teaching, I've come to despise answering a certain type of question.  Not the type that seeks understanding or knowledge or a clarifying idea or a helpful framework.  The kind that inquires about the logistics of a class activity or assignment.

I don't like answering those kind of questions because (a) it's inefficient, and (b) it's a back-end scramble to cover a front-end failure.  When students ask about logistics, the answer -- delivered orally -- is inevitably less structured and comprehensive than good instructions should be.  It's also heard differentially by the class; even if the person who asked the question gets what he wants, others might not be engaged, not needing the information right at that moment -- meaning they won't have it when they do need it.  And of course, the answer's not integrated into the point-of-need instructions that are posted where students can access them when they're actually working on the assignment. This leads to a lot of duplicate questions, which is not only wasted time but the potential for telling the various questioners slightly different things.

Instead, I tend to write extraordinarily detailed assignments.  And I've been gravitating toward a question-and-answer format that reduces the need for students to have to intuit my structural logic.  Students what to know what they're being asked to do, how they're supposed to do it, where to find the tools they'll need, how they'll be evaluated, in what form to turn it in, when it's due.  So I'm writing assignments with sections headed by those very questions.  I wrote a blog assignment and a podcasting assignment this morning in about two and a half intense hours of work.  Here are some of the headings:
  • Where's the blog?
  • When do I write?
  • Can I write when it's not my turn?
  • What should I write about?
  • Halp halp, I can't post/edit/upload a picture/etc!
  • How do we make a podcast?
  • How long should our podcast be?
  • What should we talk about?
  • We've recorded.  What do we do now?
  • When is our podcast due?
Communicating with students is an underappreciated art.  Many instructors feel like the students should just be able to get it -- that it's their responsibility to extract the relevant information however the instructor chooses to present it.  I sometimes think we could all use a good technical writing short course.  If we put in enough effort and thought on the front end, delivering what students need know in a format where they can find and utilize it, then we save ourselves (and our students) a lot of frustration on the back end when we don't have to clarify our vagaries piecemeal, incompletely, and repeatedly.

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