Student Preparation for Class: Screencasts, Reading, Questions

Joss Ives left this thought-provoking comment about the differences between assigning reading or screencasts in preparation for upcoming class meetings, and what to do with the questions they generate.  We had been discussing “just-in-time teaching”:

… they advocate agile teaching where you plan your lesson/lecture period based on the things that the students had the most trouble with from the reading.

Joss has students read, then answer “multiple-choice with explain your reasoning” type of questions.  That “seems to get the most coherent answers from them and the least “I have no idea” answers.”

I assign screencasts, and have students complete what I call a “Topic sheet”:

My criteria for goodness here are the same as Joss’s: a completion rate comparable to conventional assignments, and the fewest possible “I have no idea” answers.

I ask students to bring these to the next class, and use them as the agenda. Our process so far: students dictate from their sheets and I write on the board, grouping things into themes.  I don’t answer their questions.  Students can add more questions but there is no answering allowed at this stage (which means they phrase their answers in the form of questions).  Maybe in the future I’ll have groups collate their own comments onto whiteboards?  Anyway, it’s not exactly “just-in-time teaching,” because I haven’t planned a session directly based on students’ questions.  But so far I have been able to predict the general gist of student questions and prepare some relevant exercises.  I set them to work answering a question that I pose — hopefully tweaked so that students will stumble across the answers to their own questions (or better questions) while they work.

In the last 15 minutes, we revisit the questions and answer as many  as possible.  If there’s a central concept, or a tangle of questions that are all related, I’ll make up an “exit ticket” question about it.  The other thing that has worked well so far is to spend the last 5 minutes having each student update their topic sheet.  They can cross things off, add things, answer questions, or elaborate — just update it so it shows the current state of their understanding.  Then I collect them.

At the beginning of the semester, when I removed all homework completion points from the grading scheme, the homework completion rate went way down.  But because of my “write-your-test-twice” system, my students don’t get a copy of their test back from me.  So I think they’re a bit hungry for feedback.  Consequently, they now seem pretty motivated to pass these things in and get them back with comments.  For the last few months I’ve found that I got a better homework completion rate if I picked it up in class instead of asking students to drop it in my mailbox.  But this week I’ve had a couple of good showings where I asked them to finish something by the end of the day.  Incidentally, I also get a better completion rate if I actually hand them a topic sheet than if I ask the students to write the same three prompts on a piece of loose-leaf.  *shrug*  The completion rate is about 75% — roughly what it was when homework was “worth points.”  (Note to self: would be a good idea to track this, rather than estimating). Joss makes a good point about it:

Between personally responding to their submissions and explicitly bringing up their clarification question in class I managed to generate enough buy-in to get a 78% completion rate over the term which is comparable to a regular homework completion rate.

Student buy-in is definitely the key here.  Now that the students are back in the habit of passing in homework, maybe it’s time that I start asking for the homework to be passed in before class.  It would make sense to lesson plan based on their questions.

Then we got into screencasts vs. textbooks.  I can’t help wondering if I’m de-skilling my students by protecting them from the need to read the textbook.  Joss writes:

I agree with your point about, for long-term behaviors, the reading assignment are probably better than the screencasts, but I view the reading assignments as something that is meant to get them familiar with the terminology and lowest-level concepts, anything beyond that is what I want to work on in class. With that in mind, there is really a lot of overhead in a textbook reading and the screencasting will allow me to focus on what I had wanted them to get out of the reading in a way that is a more efficient use of their time, which would hopefully help generate a bit more student buy-in.

I like Joss’s term “textbook overhead” and link to student buy-in.  It’s crazy to expect a single book to be both a reference for the pro and an introduction for the novice.  Screencasts are an answer, but maybe better textbooks are a better answer.  Still, it helped to remind me of my purpose in making screencasts: to introduce low-level concepts.  Maybe screencasts vs. textbooks doesn’t matter as long as the rest of the learning process has a good home.


  1. Hi Mylene,

    Thanks for shattering my “words I used getting used” record previously held by my 5-year-old son!

    Your discussion of a textbook being both an intro to the novice and a reference for the pro (or at least advanced student) is interesting. I would argue that Knight comes the closest to doing this of the intro physics texts that I know. Our department doesn’t actually use Knight, but I use it to make sure I cover the most important points for the novice and it is thorough enough to be used as a reference. It is quite readable for students, but still not ideal to assign for reading before class because it still ends up going much further into the topics than one would want for that initial exposure. To really nail being a “great” reading-before-class book, a lot of effort would have to be put into isolating the low-level concepts, examples and applications from the intermediate and advanced level content.

    The screencasts that I picture making for my own students would cover this exact material and there is no reason that a textbook couldn’t be written so that this material was featured in a way that the student could be directed to read only that material and that they would get a complete and coherent picture of these base-level concepts and be able to answer some reasonable conceptual questions and feel “yeah, I understood that”.

    This could be done by having a very readable introduction in each chapter that introduces the vocabulary and base-level concepts that will be seen in the chapter. Or this same basic material could be found throughout the chapter (as it is now in typical textbooks), but highlighted and written in such a way that the student could be asked to read only the “green passages” and then it would feel like the non “green passages” were more like appendices to be read when more detail is needed/desired.

    As it stands, I have found that it is both tedious (to me and to the reader) and the reading becomes too confusing (for the reader) when I tell them to skip certain paragraphs or portions of sections in their reading, so I always tell them to let the questions that I ask guide their reading so that if something seems confusing and isn’t related to the questions I am asking, to simply not worry about it.

  2. *lol* That’s me, more insistent than a 1st grader 😉 (hey, imitation is the sincerest form…)

    “Let the question guide the reading” is definitely the take-away lesson. Things I’m working on: helping my students learn to do that (many have trouble persisting past the initial discomfort of reading about something unfamiliar). Helping my students develop their own questions (at an appropriate level of difficulty) or revise their own questions (which means detecting that the initial question is too involved for their skill level or possibly unanswerable).

    I realized after I wrote this post that the textbook issue may be exacerbated in vocational education; some of these textbooks really are intended to be references for people working in the field.

    Thanks for the reference to Knight; I will check it out for ideas.

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