How Twitter Saved my Literature Class, 2

Welcome to installment 2/10 of “How Twitter Saved my Literature Class: A Case Study with Discussion.” For more on teaching with twitter, read the full text.

Perhaps recent research in industrial psychology could help us understand what motivates our students. In 2009, in his book Drive, Daniel Pink posits three primary motivations of all employees: the need for autonomy, the search for mastery, and the quest for a shared purpose. If we apply Pink’s theories to the classroom for a moment, we can see why a typical lecture-dependent course may quickly sap the attention, motivation, and drive of our students. Before encountering Daniel Pink, I learned similar lessons from conversations with UC Davis professor emeritus Dick Walters (personal communication, 1997). Walters argues that the most successful university classes are student centered, activity driven, and informed by frequent and casual instances of instructor feedback. And indeed recent research into best practices of teaching the 21st-century learner confirms Walters’ thinking in the field of college instruction, emphasizing that the classroom leader should focus on the facilitation of learning, rather than on lecturing. Consider especially the work of Marc Prensky, coiner of the term “digital native,” and his 2010 book, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Reflecting on these principles, we might admit that a lecture-format course would satisfy neither Pink nor Walters nor Prensky, for such a course is typically instructor centered, it depends upon silent note-taking by students, and it often neither requires nor rewards input from the participants. In the context of Pink’s thoughts about motivation, we might say that the lecture-style class places all the autonomy with the single lecturer, gives students no opportunities to practice intellectual tasks in the classroom, and forsakes casual feedback in the name of coverage. How, then, might we shift the format and function of a large-enrollment class, and its activities, so that it allows students to participate more actively in their own learning process?

I had this question in mind as I was preparing for a short fiction class for 30 undergraduates that I taught during the summer of 2009 at the University of California, Davis. This intense six-week review of mostly 20th-century American, British, and continental short stories required significant reading, fast-paced analysis of the stories, and multiple writing assignments. I surmised from my students’ bleary eyes and crossed arms on the first day of class that they were unenthused about the 8 a.m. start time, skeptical that I could hold their attention for the full two hours of our class meetings, and concerned that the syllabus was too ambitious. When on the second day of class some students said that they hoped I would “tell them what that last story means,” I explained to the class that my goal was to provide students the tools and approaches to make independent and meaningful discoveries about the stories we would read; even if a particular story had “a meaning,” it wouldn’t be my job to present that meaning to them. As we were talking about approaches to literary analysis, I became increasingly convinced that the lecture approach students were expecting would not provide them adequate opportunities to participate in class. I also knew that, in order for the class to succeed, in order for our class meetings and class discussions to be meaningful and engaging for all the participants, I would need to motivate my students to complete and digest the readings before we met three times a week at 8 a.m.

In effect, I decided to run my literature class like the student-centered writing classes that I teach in computer classrooms. To this end, I learned my students’ names on the first day of class, gave mini reflection-essay pop quizzes in the first five minutes of our meetings, and called on students to share their interpretations and ideas about assigned texts. We also completed impromptu in-class writing assignments, divided into groups when wrestling with different elements – characterization, themes, the function of plot choices, etc. – and responded to interactive PowerPoint presentations that functioned more like quiz shows than backdrops of lectures my students might be accustomed to in other disciplines. But my greatest ally in this summer class was an unexpected one: Twitter. By inviting students to discuss class texts outside the classroom, by requiring students to show evidence of their having taken responsibility for their own learning as college students, and by incentivizing absolute readiness for participation in class discussions, I found that Twitter could save my English class.

Jones, A. “How Twitter Saved my Literature Class: A Case Study with Discussion.” (2011). Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media. A collection edited by Charles Wankel. United Kingdom: Emerald Group Publishing Limited, 91-106.

Post Author: Andy Jones

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