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In an article I had written on interteaching (2015), I wrote,
I was working harder on the course than they appeared to be. I was reading the textbook; my students were not. I was trying to find good examples of concepts covered in the textbook; my students were not. I was scoring perfectly on the exams; my students were not.
The basic premise of interteaching is that students answer instructor-prepared questions before they come to class, discuss in pairs or small groups while in class, tell the instructor where they’d like some clarification, and then the instructor only lectures on that material. The students are doing the work of learning. The instructor is there to help the students.
I moved to this model in 2014, modified it to fit my pedagogical goals, and now I can’t imagine teaching any other way.
Setting the context
I teach primarily Intro Psych at a community college near Seattle with a student population approaching 80% ethnic minority. Many of my students are immigrants and refugees. Many of my U.S.-born students have had a lifetime of struggle.
My face-to-face classes cap at 38 and meet twice a week in 2.5-hour blocks. The interteaching format has also been used successfully in 50-minute class sessions. With the right resources, it could be used in larger classes. I use this same format in my online courses; the primary difference is that the discussions are more prescribed.
We are on the quarter system, so students are expected to spend 15 hours each week working on a typical course. The coursework is designed with that time commitment in mind. (Calculate how much work is in your course.) I am explicit with students about this expectation.
How I do it
By Sunday night, in preparation for a week of class starting on Monday, students answer 12 to 15 essay/short answer questions. The questions encourage students to apply what they have learned in the chapter to new situations. Responses are submitted via the course management system.
When students come to class, I assign them to small groups or no more than four per group. Students spend 40 minutes or so in their groups discussing their responses to the questions. Some students bring printed copies of their answers. Other students access digital versions. During this time, students are sorting out what content they know and what content they don’t know. What they don’t know, their fellow group members may be able to explain it to them. If they can’t, or if no one in the group knows either, the students in the group make a note of it. When the group is done discussing, a volunteer from their group goes to the board and writes down the content—not just the question number—that they would like me to cover in lecture.
Following discussion, we take a 10-minute break. During that time, I read what each group would like me to cover and formulate a plan.
You may be wondering, “You don’t know what you’re going to cover?!” Sort of. Remember, I’m the one who chose the questions in the first place. I am prepared to cover all of them with relevant and illustrative demonstrations at the ready. If you are teaching in 50-minute sessions, you could do discussion one day, then give a short lecture at the beginning of the next class session.
Students earn five points per class session for completing an “exit ticket.” The half sheet submitted at the end of each class session asks students for the most interesting thing they learned in class and for what questions they still have.
The next class session later that week, students get into their same groups for a short discussion. Were there things that were still unclear after the last class? Is there content that they decided I didn’t need to cover but have since changed their minds? In this class lecture, I address those concerns as well as cover whatever I didn’t get to last class session.
Using what they learned in class that week, students have until the following Sunday night to revise any or all of their assignment responses. I do not read drafts and provide feedback. Students are responsible for comparing their written responses with what others in their group are saying and with the lecture. At the end of the week, if students have any lingering questions, they are encouraged to ask me.
At the same time students are working on their revisions, they are preparing their initial draft responses to the next set of questions.
I change at least one question in each write-to-learn assignment each term. While a rare occurrence, I have had students submit assignments written by other students in previous terms. Students who handed over their files are often shocked to learn that their work was used in this way. It is an important lesson for them to learn. Changing one question doesn’t stop this kind of cheating, but it does make it easier for me to detect since the person submitting the file doesn’t bother to make sure that all of the questions are the same. By seeing the wrong question in the submitted file, I can narrow down the term based on when that question was used. And then it’s just a matter of flipping through the submissions for that assignment.
Here are some examples of assignment questions. Again, there are 12 to 15 of these for each week’s assignment.
Hypothesis: If people are frequently interrupted by messages on their cell phones while studying, then they will do worse on a test. Design an experiment that would test this hypothesis. In your description, identify the independent variable (including the experimental and control conditions) and the dependent variable. Be sure to include operational definitions of both the independent and dependent variables.
A friend says that she keeps falling asleep during the day. She wonders if she has a sleep disorder. What questions would you ask your friend to sort out if she might have insomnia, narcolepsy, or sleep apnea? Explain how each question would point toward a particular disorder or eliminate a particular disorder.
Sensation and perception
You and your friend Abdul are standing side by side. When you start to hear a low hum, you ask Abdul, "Did you hear that?" Abdul says, "No." As you hear the sound getting louder, Abdul says, "Now I hear it!" As the hum stays at a steady volume, neither of you can hear it any more.
First, explain the difference between absolute threshold and difference threshold. Next, explain how absolute threshold, difference threshold, and sensory adaptation apply to this example.
Every time Cato talks to the woman he has recently fallen in love with, Julita, he feels all warm and fuzzy. He just created a ring tone just for her calls, an excerpt from Sam Smith's song Stay with Me. It won't take very many phone calls for that song to be enough to make him feel warm and fuzzy.
- In this example, identify the unconditioned stimulus, unconditioned response, conditioned stimulus, and conditioned response.
- Use this example to explain generalization and discrimination.
- What would need to happen in order to bring about extinction? What would spontaneous recovery look like?
It's been a week since you last saw your chemistry textbook. The last place you remember having it was in class the day you learned that got a perfect score on your biology exam. How could you use what is known about context-dependent memory and state-dependent memory to help you find it?
Read this article. Describe the different groups represented in this article. What superordinate goal has brought them together? Explain.
Assignments are worth 60 points each and are not scored until the final revision is submitted.
I look at the first draft, and award up to twenty points for effort. To “exceed expectations” (20/20) students need to make a good faith effort to answer all parts of all questions. The responses do not need to be correct. Remember, students wrote this first draft using the assigned readings, including the textbook chapter, and any additional research students chose to do. At this point, we haven’t yet covered this content in class. To “meet expectations” (15/20) most of the questions need to be addressed. For a 10-point “needs improvement” score, students answered about half of the questions. Answering at least one question but less than half yields a 5-point “inadequate” score. Not submitting the assignment by the deadline results in a zero for the effort score. I take deadlines very seriously. Students need to have completed the initial draft to be active group participants who provide useful feedback to their group members and useful information to me on what content I need to cover.
Next, I choose two questions to score for correctness, each worth twenty points. I create a rubric specific to those two questions. No, students do not know what questions I am going to choose. In fact, I don’t know which two questions I am going to score until after the final revision deadline has passed, and I am ready to grade. Students are expected to have solid answers to each question, and there is no reason they can’t.
Some students struggle with the idea that they have written all of this stuff, but only two questions will be graded. I explain in the first week of class that this course is structured not unlike some work environments.
You have a task. To complete that task, you have at your disposable the resources I’ve given you, the assistance of your fellow workers (classmates), your ready-to-answer-any-questions boss (me), and whatever else you’d like to use, including phone-a-friend and the Internet. As your boss, I am going to spot-check your work. I am not going to listen in on every interaction you have with customers. I am not going to review each database entry you input. As your instructor, I am not going to score everything you write. In fact, in-class exams work the same way. You study everything in the assigned chapters, but only some of what you studied will be on the exam. The difference is that I’m telling you exactly what will be on the exam, and I’m giving you a couple weeks to work on it.
While you may choose to skip a question because it feels too difficult to figure out, the danger is that question may be one of the ones chosen. In this course, with everything that you have at your disposal, the expectation is that you can understand and apply all of what you are learning.
What about exams?
I no longer have exams. If that makes you nervous, you can call these assignments take home exams. When I moved to this format, I still gave in-class multiple-choice/short answer exams. Students who did well on the assignments, did well on the exams. The students who didn’t, didn’t. The in-class exams weren’t adding anything, so I removed them. We now have more in-class time to spend learning course content, and students can spend their time practicing important job and life skills, like reading, discussing, and writing, and less time working on their multiple-choice test-taking skills.
Not even a final exam?
Not even a final exam. Instead, I ask students to identify and rank order the ten most important things they learned in the course, describe what each thing is, and why each made their top ten list. “Important things” is intentionally ambiguous. A thing could be a particular concept, like operant conditioning. It could be a big content-related take-away, like the importance of sleep. Or it could be a more general lesson learned in the course, like “I learned how much I can get done when my phone is off.” In these examples, "important" was interpreted to mean what was important to this student personally. Some students interpret “important” to mean what is good for humanity to know, like “Everyone should know about false memories.”
During our final exam time, I ask a volunteer to share their number 1 thing learned and why they chose it. I write the item on the board, and then I ask if anyone else had it on their list. If so, I ask why they chose it. Then I pick another person to share their number one, and so on. This provides a wonderfully fascinating review of the entire course.
Why I like it
This course format turns the responsibility for learning back to the students. Students are working with the assigned readings, figuring out what they know and don’t know. They learn from their group members, and what they don’t get there, I am ready to support them. Our class time is spent focused on where students are struggling, and not on course content they understand.
Students are working with the course content and applying it to new situations. By writing the questions, I am directing students to the content that I think is most useful for them to know. This format makes it easy to bring in current events. Questions can direct students to read, say, a New York Times article, and then apply relevant course concepts to what they’ve read.
For the students who take the time to reflect on where they missed points and why, their writing improves. I recommend a reflections assignment such as an assignment wrapper. (Here I describe the one I use.) I explain to students that writing skills are ridiculously important. In whatever job they go into, if they write well, they will stand out, and that can lead to opportunities that can lead to promotions.
Frantz, S. (2015). Shifting responsibility. Psychology Teacher Network, 25(1).
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