We sometimes tend to imagine education as a linear, cumulative process. As we learn new knowledge and master new skills, we grow towards our future selves. Our education system reinforces this idea as we move from 1st grade to 2nd grade, sophomore to junior, or undergrad to graduate student via a linear progression. However, new learning always exists in the context of our prior learning. What we learned before is not something passive and fixed that we build upon; instead our new learning is in conversation with old learning. The new selves that learning produces don’t exist separate from our old selves, but because of them.
We can create better learning opportunities for our students, building upon the relationships between past and present learning, if we structure our courses not as linear movement through topics or units, but as a series of feedback loops where prior learning is explicitly invoked and connected to present learning. This iterative work takes the form of embedding every new learning opportunity into a context.
Questions to Connect
For example, some instructors start a course in a sequence with an overview of the key topics of the prior course or some sort of review activity. An interactive approach would then take that review and ask students to explicitly connect it to future learning, with a prompt such as “Looking over the key takeaways of the prior semester, which of those topics do you see coming into play with each of the units outlined on the syllabus?” This can also be done at the individual unit or project level, with prompts such as “What skills or knowledge do you already possess that will be crucial to your success at this task?” Explicitly asking these questions creates new connections between old learning and new, strengthening both in the students’ minds.
Draft and Revision
An iterative approach also provides more opportunities for students to receive feedback. The classic example of this is the semester-long paper, where students hand in pieces (thesis statement, bibliography, conclusion, etc.) and/or drafts prior to the final submission. Each of the earlier submissions receives peer and/or instructor feedback, giving the students the information that they need to improve their approach for the next submission. In this way small mistakes can be pruned away and misunderstandings of the task addressed before the final submission.
The use of recurring examples brings earlier content into later contexts. For instance, a case study introduced early in the semester can be redeployed, either with changes to challenge the students’ new knowledge or as an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned since the case originally appeared. Simple prompts like “How would you handle that old case differently, knowing what you know now?” will help make student’s new learning visible. Students can also be asked to critique earlier, intentionally simpler examples, to reveal the complexities those earlier cases glossed over. You could task students to write a more complete version of the case, one that includes the new nuances the students have learned since the original instruction of the case.
Revisiting Prior Work
Many times our students hand things in to us on a “fire-and-forget” model; the ordeal of the task is over and they would just as soon not think about it again. Painful as it might be, we need to help them do that thinking while showing them that their skills and knowledge are growing. For example, you could ask students to do a short write activity describing how they would do an earlier project differently, knowing what they know now. This can even be formalized into a system where students are given the opportunity to revise earlier submissions for a higher grade, provided that they incorporate one or more new skills and concepts introduced after the original assignment.
There are benefits to iterative work on the instructor as well as the student end. If our classes feature more tasks with built-in continuity, it will be easier for us to see our students in a more comprehensive way. Their growth as thinkers and their individual professional or scholarly identities will become clearer to us. That puts us in a better position to offer feedback that makes sense in the context of the individual learner. It also allows us to see when a student’s thinking or writerly voice suddenly changes. Maybe the student has stepped up to the challenge of the course in a new way. Or maybe the shift is due to some sort of distress and the student needs help (possibly including a referral to the CARE Team). Or perhaps the change in student voice is an indicator that the student is getting unacknowledged assistance. Which of these is true and whether the unacknowledged assistance, if any, rises to the level of cheating requires careful consideration and investigation. But without the record that iterative work provides, these issues are much harder to identify.
Note that iterative work is not offered here only an “anti-cheating” technique. Easier detection of changes in student writing is just one benefit of iterative work. The real gain to be made by this approach is that your students will be less likely to see our syllabi as a series of randomly ordered individual tasks and more likely to see the grand trajectory of their learning. We all too often assume that the students can see all the linkages we made between various content and activities, but those linkages are only readily visible to experts such as ourselves. Iterative work helps the students see how the moving parts of the course fit together and how the various things they have learned form a coherent education.
If you’d like assistance in incorporating more iterative work in your class, you can make an appointment with a CAT staff member to talk through your plan. You can also arrange to have someone from the CAT come to your in-person or virtual class to give you feedback.
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Jeff Rients serves as an Assistant Director at Temple’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.