What Am I Teaching? Initial Thoughts

I think I am teaching critical thinking. The department thinks I am teaching writing skills.

I also think I am teaching “good” student behavior. Ninety percent of my Composition 103 students are first semester, first year students. Many of my students struggle with the vast divide between responsibilities in high school and those in college. By modeling good behavior for them and lecturing on study, test-taking, and homework habits I aim to show students a straightforward way to integrate into college life.

Teaching all three at once is challenging, but my primary struggle this year is with critical thinking and writing skills.

I often receive difficult to read papers that, nonetheless, show valuable critical thinking skills. Many students learn to dig deeper and search for answers to complex questions (such as gun control) in Composition 103, but grasping the finer points of essay construction, sentence structure, and grammar proves elusive.

On the opposite end I find students who write elegantly, but cannot read between the lines in another author’s work (or their own for that matter). The idea that written or spoken words can influence their thoughts, feelings, and values is alien to them. Some students are downright aggressive to the concept.

I tend to grade on critical thinking skills, but I am concerned that students will confuse a bad grade with their writing skills, rather than their thinking and research skills.

The simplest solution would be to choose a reasonable percentage (65% critical, 35% writing) and attempt to grade on both qualities. Research would then fall into the critical thinking category.

But an even simpler solution would be explaining to each student during one-on-one conferences their strengths and weaknesses. Of course, I should remember to take notes (note-taking being an important study skill).

Teaching writing skills often bores me, which likely means my students are disinterested as well. To cut down on the monotony I limit writing lectures to ten minutes and usually give them at the beginning of class. The time limit helps, but I do not know if the beginning, middle, or end of class would be better or the same.

My next strategy for giving time to writing skills would be handouts. The typical “the difference between their, they’re, and there” sheets to lists of rhetorical strategies. When we have time I work through them in class, but otherwise they will end up on Black Board for the students to peruse at their leisure (or for me to assign to students with particular troubles).

Now I just need the time to build a repertoire of handouts to offer to my students. Whether or not students make use of the handouts is up to them, but by offering alternative resources I hope to show my students that college level learning requires personal engagement with the resources offered.

Perhaps I should create a Power Point of  all the ways I take advantage of NIU’s resources to further my learning.


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