The Minute Paper: where you've been and where you're going

The Minute Paper is a flexible technique designed to get students to reflect and think critically about their learning, while giving teachers an easy way to assess how their students perceive their experience in class. It was first formulated, at least in a published form, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their 1993 book, Classroom Assessment Techniques. It’s simple: ask students to briefly reflect on a learning experience and ask them to respond, in writing, to the following two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned?” and “What question or questions remain unanswered?”.

Angelo and Cross suggest using this technique in the last five minutes of class, to get students to reflect on that day’s content. This works to help solidify the day’s discussion in the students’ minds, but also allows the teacher, after collecting the papers, to see how the students experienced the class and what they still might not get.

Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones suggest that the Minute Paper could be used in any number of situations: at the beginning of class to review a homework assignment, or the previous class’s discussion; in the middle of class to reinforce what’s come before and point the way forward; or at any time to gauge students’ learning experiences that took place outside of the classroom (in previous courses, for instance).

It’s an easy way to focus students and teacher alike on the ground that has been covered and the distance left to run.  -DG

Sources: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques : A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 148-53. Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones. Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. 147-48.

Interview important people in your field, even if they are dead

 One way to supplement course readings and lectures is to have students reach out to significant people in the field that the course covers. Science students can get in touch with working scientists, (or with officials who set policy for public research), political science students can contact politicians, art students can reach out to artists, etc. You can introduce your students to a prominent figure, and have them come up with questions for that person. The project can be a great way to demonstrate that the course’s subject is a living one, as well as bringing in contrasting perspectives to complement your own.

But what do you do if your subject is ancient history, or the literature of the nineteenth century? Well, you could contact another historian, or a literary scholar. But another possibility is contacting the very people that you are studying. Have students research a historical figure, say, or one of the authors on your syllabus, and prepare a slate of questions for him or her. You may want to play the role of the interview subject yourself—doing your best to answer the students’ questions—or you could assign one or more students to play the part. This project could easily be expanded to a more complex assignment, with students taking a number of weeks to research and write an essay, answering the peer-generated questions in the voice of the designated figure. Encouraging your students to take this fictional interview seriously will help them see your subject from a new angle.  -DG

Source: "84. Contact the Players." and "85. Travel Through Time and Space." Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 35-36. 

Use quotations to prompt discussion and/or writing

Here’s a class activity that’s easily adaptable to a variety of classrooms and disciplines. It’s a good way to spur discussion and encourage evidence-supported argument. The activity, which comes from Constance Staley’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, begins with the teacher distributing a number of quotations, each typed onto a strip of paper, to the students.

Staley gives a number of possible quotations to use, on such topics as education, self-understanding, and the definition of success:

  • “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Martin Buber
  • “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.” Perelman
  • “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Derek Bok, president Harvard University

…and so on. I can see the exercise working just as well, if not better, with quotations that directly apply to the course’s subject.

In Staley’s version, after handing out the quotations, the teacher goes around the room, calling on students one by one. Each student, when called on, must read her quotation aloud, say whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement, and then “identify two pieces of support from personal experience, course material, or other relevant information sources.” This can easily be modified for larger classes, either by breaking the students up and having the discussion take place among groups, or by turning the exercise into a writing prompt—each student must write a paragraph or two explaining why she agrees or disagrees with the quotation, and must support her position with evidence. In all versions, particularly if the teacher uses quotations tailored to course content, the exercise offers a straightforward way to allow students to take an active role in the learning process, and encourage them to construct arguments with proper support.  -DG

Source: Constance Staley, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. 120-24.

Gauge student expectations with first day questions

Sarah Neville, West Virginia University 

On the first day of class, ask students to submit (in writing) answers to the following questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?

2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?

3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? 

Students' responses to question 2 typically vary from the reasonable ("go to the professor's office hours and ask for feedback", "visit the writing center", "complete extra-credit assignments, if there are any") to the deliberately silly ("beg, or possibly cry"). Other students use this as an opportunity to recognize that they may need to cut back on hours at their job if their schoolwork suffers, or that a failure to meet personal expectations might be signalling that they should get more sleep. 

The point of the exercise is to force students to consider their goals for the course at the outset, along with their new plan-of-attack should things not work out as they intended. I hang onto these writing assignments and bring them out when students visit my office hours; students get them back at the end of the term so they can consider how/whether they met their stated aim.