Saturday, January 9, 2010

Are Study Guides Extinct?

Are Study Guides extinct? Has it gone the way of the Triceratops? Will the next generation of teachers look at old handouts and think, "Are these the 'Dittos' we learned about in our Educational History Class?" Do kids actually use them to study, or are they just filling in blanks to receive a few points. Here's my journey that ended up with the burial of Study Guide use in class. 

As a bright eyed teacher ready to change the world, I needed a way to ensure that students would read the assigned material and note important facts along the way. A set of questions designed to lead students to answers that will help them later on for the test. Now, I did not invent this concept. My teachers gave us study guides from time to time and I did what many students did, copy what my friends did or grab the answers from the Cliff Notes. As an English teacher now, it's a tad bit embarrassing. Like many English teachers, I was not counting down the days until I could teach To Kill a Mockingbird while cruising through high school. I thought I would outsmart some of my students by creating questions that had answers that could not be found in Cliff Notes or Spark Notes. I was trying so hard to make kids learn, that I was creating an environment in which no learning was happening. A game of Cat and Mouse would be played between students who do not want to read and a teacher that is trying to find ways to get kids to read. What to do?

My next step was to use more analysis based questions. Create longer study guides by having students discuss important aspects of the story and use literary terms they have learned to dissect the story. Well, it seemed like a great idea until I received the first batch of completed questions. Many students were completing the assignment, but they were all spitting out the exact same answers that we were discussing in class. It was nice to know they were paying attention in class, but they needed to start creating their own answers from the material read and the discussion we were having. Again, I was at a loss. I would try to create a balance with some fact based questions and more analysis based questions to split the difference. Last year, the game was about to change.

As time passed, I was still looking at ways for students to demonstrate knowledge of the text and analysis of ideas discovered in the text. Creative projects were used from time to time. I love having students create comics for stories they read because they have to place emphasis on the aspects of the story they decide to keep in and explain why they edited some parts out. It goes over well, but many of my students are not artistically inclined. Other forms of expression were attempted, but nothing seemed to be attractive to all of the students in my class. Two school years back, my school started to use to check for Plagiarism. We already had a nice policy in place for Plagiarism (Read my last post for more info.), but technology had opened up a world of information to students that were starting to use in school, but not cite appropriately. The Plagiarism check is a wonderful program that I suggest to all schools to look into and I will talk about it in a later post, but they also a discussion board. This is what I was looking for.

I have used discussion boards for a few years in my college classes and on various web sites. I never really considered using it with high school students. The main reason was that I did not have the means to set up a Discussion Board for 150 students. However, now that I had the means, all I needed was the will, and I had plenty of that.

I started off slow and started to use the Discussion Board with my Honors students only. I placed a few questions for the students to answer and allowed them a week to answer. One of the requirements for each question I posted was that they answer my question in 5-6 sentences and that they respond to a fellow student in 3-4 sentences. The biggest problem I encountered was that many students waited to the last minute to respond to the question and forced the most proactive students to wait until other responded. To remedy this, I offered extra points to those first two students that would answer the question to encourage those to start early. That solved the problem quickly. The improvement in recall has been amazing. Students are taking the question I post and answering it fully, but the comments they are making on other students' remarks are incredible. The act of synthesis is a tough one for many students. DB's offer students a chance to create their own answers based on the answers of others. No longer to they feel compelled to spit out the same thing I talked about in class. Here is a great example,

Here is a comment from one student on another student's answer to the initial question. Below is a comment on the above comment. The discussion was growing before my eyes!

Not only were kids demonstrating that they were doing the reading, but they were creating their own questions for others to answer or forcing students who might not agree with them to support their counter argument. What more could a teacher want in a discussion. The exchange of ideas was happening outside of the classroom. One of the biggest surprises was still to come.

The thing that I noticed most after implementing DB's was the voice of the quiet student. The kids in class that normally have nothing to say and avoid eye contact when you ask a question were some of the most prolific DB participants. They seemed excited to offer their voice to the discussion. Perhaps the fear of ridicule was preventing them from answering. On the DB, they are free to answer and know they can do it safely from their computer. The middle of the road kids might be hesitant to challenge the "A" student in class, but have no problem taking aim over the computer. Not only that, the positive feedback they receive on their comments has started to translate in the classroom. The feel more confident that their peers will respect their answers. They no longer avoid eye contact, but strive to be in my line of sight. DB's have changed my class culture in a positive way.

One last positive about the use of DB's is the amount of paper that I have saved my school. An average Study Guide would be at least 3-5 pages long depending on the size of the novel. If I had 3 sections of a class reading the same book and an average of 30 students per class (No joke), then I'm looking at over 200 pages per study guide. Times that by the 5-6 novels we read in year and that's 1,200 pages per year for only 3 classes! That doesn't seem like very much, but you add the rest of my department that uses SG's and the other teachers in the school that use them as well, and the number of pages is astronomical. The Green aspect of DB's is another great reason to use them. 

I asked if Study Guides are extinct. Perhaps they are not extinct, but maybe they have evolved. They were great for a time when students needed to rely on the book and the book alone for all of the answers. With a world of information and short cuts available to them, it is important to use this new world to teach and be innovative.  DB's have brought a more complete learning to my students. They are creating new ideas and sharing them with each other outside of the classroom. As a teacher, these are the things you dream about. I have taken many lessons away from the road to the Discussion Board. It was a long journey, but it is not over. I hope the future educators will learn from these relics and create better tools for their students.