Tips from the AEJMC Teaching Committee

Using Research to improve Teaching Skills

s200_catherine.cassaraBy Catherine Cassara
AEJMC Standing Committee on Teaching
Associate Professor
School of Media & Communication
Bowling Green State University


(Article courtesy of AEJMC News, November 2014 issue)

Some of the most telling lessons I have learned about teaching have come from the findings of other scholars’ research listening to students.

I am thinking about these studies particularly now because I was reminded how reluctant we are to listen to our students as members of my university faculty learning community were brainstorming topics for the year.

Our community’s focus is learning technologies and I suggested we might get student input. By the time all the topics were listed on the board, mine was not because “we have grad students in the learning community,” the facilitator said. We do have graduate students and they are very nice people who are already in the classroom our side of the student/teacher divide when it comes to discovering how students view what succeeds or fails in the classroom.

Since teaching “assessment measures”—however they are envisioned—can only be operationalized according to our teacherly understandings of how class dynamics work, they cannot measure things if we do not we address things we do not comprehend. We cannot listen to students or find out what’s there unless we are asking if other researchers have already taken it on.

Two particular threads of research have rocked my world. The first showed up as a reading assignment in a faculty learning community I participated in several years ago. Another study showed up when a graduate student brought in an article about grading writing as part of a weekly assignment in a media & communication pedagogy course I teach. I will tackle them in this order.

The Project Information Literacy surveys of undergrads on 200 campuses are always insightful, but the one that had the most impact on me was the 2009 report, where students told researchers they found library research “daunting.” They reported that because they did not understand the assignment and did not know where to start, they put off their work until the night before the paper was due. (In addition to surveying the students, the researchers review the assignments they received, but that’s another story.)

“Many students reported that they often had little or no idea how to choose, define, and limit the scope of a topic found in the library,” the PLI researchers recounted. As a result, students reported that Wikipedia served as a unique and indispensable source because it helped them obtain both the big picture on their topics and the vocabulary they needed just to begin a keyword search.

At first I relaxed, thinking that my students were better off because I always make sure they have a training session with a librarian. But, unfortunately, the students told the PLI researchers that going to the library for research training was helpful, but by the time they needed to use the information they could not remember what they had learned.

In one of the later studies, when researchers met with students in focus groups, the students revealed another reason they delayed completing the assignment until the last minute— something that would never have occurred to me. They delay deliberately in order to increase their own interest in and motivation to complete the work. A looming deadline makes an assignment much more interesting.

The research article the doctoral student shared was Still and Koerber’s 2010 article from the Journal of Business and Technical Communication that studied student reactions to an instructor’s comments on written work. In a state-of-the-art lab, the researchers watched, listened to and recorded their student research subjects as they attempted to follow the corrections on a graded assignment in return for a possible better grade.

The students are frustrated by the comments telling them a section is awkward, or marks and lines on the paper that signify something that is not clear; given their frustration, they move on to work on the easier corrections of spelling, grammar and mechanics where it is easy for them to identify what the problem is and fix it. The students were willing to correct what they understood to be the most serious problems with their work; they just did not understand what the instructor wanted.

I encountered that article several years ago. A friend had already told me that students don’t read comments so she taped comments, but given that I grade writing, that did not seem possible.

When I grade on paper — AP quizzes, etc. — I try to be neat. For stories and papers, however, I do not grade on paper. I have started grading in Word — using comments, etc. — and I have started using simple rubrics that allow me to write individualized comments. I expect that there is still frustration on the other end, but I hope the typing is an improvement on the scrawl my handwriting turns into when I am tired.

Of course, I had to be careful the first few times I used Word’s track changes function, because if I made the changes students had the option of just accepting everything except what I put in comment boxes. But since I always download all the stories or papers just to have them before I start, I knew where they started and what if anything they had done themselves to rewrite which is the point of the rewrite option.

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