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Evaluating Progress at Mid-Term: Teaching Students How to Learn

Mid-term exams, papers, and evaluations offer various ways to gauge student learning. We tend to view grades as indicators of how well students have grasped course content, but often process-related factors are responsible for student learning challenges.

Research shows that students have a rather different idea of what “doing the work for the course” amounts to, and what’s obvious to you may be opaque to them. As you consider and address student-learning challenges after mid-term, then, you might try the following:

  • Get students thinking about their own thinking. Ask students explicitly how they approach a reading or assignment. What’s the first thing they do when reading a chapter or scene or when solving a problem? Do they know how to locate an argument in a complex reading? How to contrast two passages or theories? Do they analyze and visualize a problem before plugging numbers into an equation?
  • Pay attention to how you approach a reading or a bit of writing. What’s the first thing you do when you read a scholarly article, a play, or a problem? How do you discern the argument in the text? How do you arrive at an interpretation or reading of a source?
  • Model in class the primary skills you want your students to use in the course, such as close reading of a passage of fiction or interpreting a set of data.  Students often don’t have a firm grasp on how, for example, analytically reading novels differs from reading literary criticism or how much strategizing goes into problem-solving.
  • Use the in-class model to meta-teach by explicitly walking back through the exercise.  After a bit of close reading, for example, take a moment to point out the steps involved in doing what you just did.  Occasionally show students the various pathways you try in solving a new problem, perhaps by annotating those steps verbally or in a handout.
  • Spark a conversation with your colleagues about the fundamentals of your discipline and how its conventions inform the courses you teach, such as how to best approach problems and texts to produce the level of work you expect from your students in class and on assignments.  Dedicate a little class time to sharing the insights of such a conversation with your students, perhaps via a handout or website that outlines skills and concepts you expect students to master for the course.

Not all students want to be experts in the disciplines fielding their courses, but bringing discipline-based skills to their attention can only increase the likelihood that they will succeed in the course. In the end, they will more likely produce the kind of work that they—and you—can be proud of.