Critical Reading Strategy to Engage Online Students

Nov 22, 2023, 10:54 AM

Yvaine Neyhard

Pictured: Yvaine Neyhard

Engaging online students poses distinct challenges, especially with the emergence of GenAI. Traditionally, discussion boards have been the go-to for summarizing readings and starting peer conversations, but these learning experiences can be compromised by GenAI. It is even trickier when teaching an advanced composition class asynchronously online. Yvaine Neyhard, a graduate teaching assistant at the Department of English, embraced this challenge head-on. She successfully converted a 16-week in-person class into an engaging 8-week online experience. Through the innovative use of document annotation on Canvas, she crafted a safe and personalized learning space for students to critically engage with readings and the instructor. In this interview with Yvaine, we'll dive into the details of her course revamping journey and discover the strategies she used in navigating the dynamic shift from teaching in person to teaching online.

CITL: What's the course that you're teaching?

YVAINE: So the course I'm talking about today is — we call it WAM lovingly, which stands for Writing Across Media. It is cross listed as Informatics and Writing Studies 303. It's an advanced composition course and the recommended choice for information sciences majors. So, what's interesting about this course is that I think a lot of students at first find it challenging and surprising. They're surprised because they're expecting advanced composition means a lot of essays and writing long papers. Instead, the focus of this class is thinking about composition that isn't necessarily text. So we make podcasts. We make videos. People sculpt things. People create zines. They create events that are sort of like physical compositions. And so we think about composition theory in ways that don't necessarily center text, but apply a lot of the same principles like rhetoric, audience, purpose, context, setting, all that kind of stuff. So if students come in expecting to write a lot of essays and then they have the opportunity to create like TikToks, they're a little surprised. But usually pleased.

CITL: What prompted the change? Why did you feel the need to change the course?

YVAINE: Yeah, there were a lot of things. The main thing that sort of catalyzed everything was that I had taught this class several times. But it was always in-person, synchronous, sixteen weeks, pretty discussion-heavy, in-class activities. I have kind of an improvisational teaching style where of course I have a plan for the day. But in class, if I see that people are just really kind of lost or disengaged or there are things that are kind of sticking, I'll respond to that, like flex in the moment. So that's how I normally teach. But then for the first time I was teaching an online version of this course. That was going to be eight weeks, online, and largely asynchronous.. So I had to completely revamp everything from the ground up. So that was sort of the initial catalyst for starting to work with CITL and substantially revising this course.

And then this past spring I did have a student who used ChatGPT in ways that I did not approve of. They did not check in with me ahead of time. I was absolutely certain that they used ChatGPT because they left the fingerprint like “As a large language model I am always learning” which was a real bummer. Kind of funny, but mostly a bummer. And they used it in ways that I hadn't expected people to use ChatGPT, specifically for things like peer review and discussion boards. I realized once I was able to track back their work in the class that, you know, if I gave a PDF that was a chapter, which was an excerpt from a book, they didn't even have to upload the PDF to ChatGPT as long as it had that text in its corpus. It could pull from it or it could pull from other texts that had used similar language to talk about it. So yeah, I realize it's much more powerful than I thought. I wasn't afraid of it per se, but I wanted to make sure the assignments I had built were meant for students to learn things and to critically and productively engage with ideas. They couldn't bypass that intellectual labor by using this quick tool, especially being asynchronous and online, where I'm not able to check in with people and pay a little closer attention to what's going on at an individual level. I needed an assignment that did a lot of work pedagogically. And in terms of working around this new tool, that was really challenging. Sort of pedagogical style work applications like discussion boards.

CITL: Can you dig in on that a little bit? Because you mentioned the discussion board. So like what sort of questions were you asking there? And, I guess two things. What were you hoping students were going to do as far as intellectual labor? Hence why was the use of ChatGPT not helpful?

YVAINE: Yeah. So a lot of times I'll assign more than one thing per class and I let students know they don't have to read all of them. They can do some critical skimming. Pick the things that they're interested in. Because I'd rather they read less more thoughtfully than read all of it and like, skim it and not retain anything.

So I'll give a couple of readings. And then on the discussion board, it might be a question like what themes you notice across all three of the readings related to whatever topic we're talking about. Or think about, you know in this context of multimodal composing, think of a multimodal composition you've encountered this week, where do you see ideas from this text or this video coming up in your experience with multi-modality this week?

So asking people to kind of engage with it in ways where they have to take those ideas and put them into their own language. Try to like, identify them in the wild, find themes across ideas and text, things like that. And so that's what I hope happens with discussion boards. And to some extent it does. But also discussion boards are awful. They're boring to write. They are boring to read. We call them discussion boards, but they're really just people monologuing into the void. So it's this weird, contrived, somewhat performative genre that just nobody likes. But it does serve that pedagogical function of here is the text, write something about it. And making it public where all of their peers can see it. I think it adds some kind of feeling of stakes that I think some instructors respond well to.

But I don't know. I think it really limits people. Because they're not always willing to try out new weird ideas in these responses because everybody can see it. And it's scary to fail or look silly in front of your peers. So, yeah, I just don't love discussion boards. I know the function they serve, but I don't think they serve that function well. And I wanted to create something different.

CITL: Tell us about the change.

YVAINE: What I did instead was I still had all the readings, but I used Canvas. It has the assignment type, which I think is called document annotation. Students need to read the document and annotate it. So, I made sure that all of the PDFs were OCR compatible. There was one week where I was like, Oh no, some of these are not OCR compatible. Then I had to go through and fix them afterward. But I made sure everything was OCR compatible. And so there was an initial Canvas kind of landing page where it was: “here's how to complete this assignment type”. And it was built into the syllabus as there are 35 readings throughout the semester, you have to complete 25 to pass the class.

So they still had that option to, you know, engage according to their interests and reject the things that they didn't find interesting, which is fine. Not everything was interesting to everybody. So they had to read at least 25 of them. They could read more and would get points for doing so. But a minimum of 25. And there was sort of like a template assignment instruction that was linked on every assignment page, every PDF annotation page, and then specific instructions for their annotations on each page. So it would say something like, you know, here's how to complete this assignment. And then I had a little block of text that said “some things to think about as you read.” And then I would give maybe a quick summary of the text or some sort of leading questions or general ideas to get them thinking critically before they even read.

So one of the assignments I gave was an archeologist who discovered these items called tokens, which were like a precursor to writing. And so I explain, you know, Denise Schmandt-Besserat was an archeologist. This is the history of finding these incredible artifacts that are really important to the history of writing. When you're reading this text and thinking about these tokens, which are just little clay doodads, you know, would you consider them writing? How about Scrabble tiles just thrown onto a table? How about, you know, a bunch of pins sitting in a basket at like a cute little boutique,. and there's like a four-leaf clover and a rainbow flag and a pink ribbon… are those writing? So getting people to, as they're reading this text, think critically about ideas we're discussing in the class. And then sort of employ that critical thinking through their annotation practices which could be highlighting, be underlining, could be adding comments. Somehow, they’re engaging with the text and marking it up in a way. So I can go and look at it and see, you know if they drew a question mark, I can add a comment and respond to that question mark. Some students fully left questions like “I don't understand what this means.” It's like, Oh, okay, great. I can respond to this. And, you know, sort of be in dialog with students through this annotation function. And then in the case where I had things that were like videos or podcasts where people didn't want to read, you know, an hour-long transcript, but they wanted to listen to an hour-long podcast.

I also had a list of critical reading questions that were a little bit like Mad Libs for our students to fill in the blanks with something relevant to the material that they were reading or listening to and then something from the course. So for instance, we had a video by Jan Blommaert, who's a socio-linguist, introducing the idea of multi-modality. And so they could pull from the bank of questions. And a question might be: how does [blank] consider the idea of or the concept of [blank]? And so you could say how does Jan Blommaert consider the idea of the gestural mode? And so then they have to answer that question. So they write the question in a Mad Libs way and then they answer that question themselves. And I tried to do fewer of those because I think that's more ChatGPT-able than the annotation exercise. But I didn't want to not do videos and not do podcasts because I had lots of forms of text that people could interact with. I think that's good for accommodating different learning styles, and different contexts. You know, people might be working over the summer and so they need to listen to a podcast while they drive to work, and that permits that in a way that makes everything textual reading doesn't.

CITL: How did students respond? Was this a good change for them?

YVAINE: Yeah, I think students overall responded really well. In any classroom, there are a couple of people who are a little less engaged for whatever reason. So there were some students where it's just like the first sentence of every paragraph is highlighted which is fine. But I would say the bulk of students responded really well.

They took up the practice in ways that I was very pleased with. Everybody developed their own idiosyncratic way of annotating that I think speaks to varied learning styles and types of engagement with text. So that felt really good. And I did get explicit comments from students about, you know, “this is working really well. I've never known how to annotate before. I just highlight everything. I didn't know what I was supposed to highlight, but now I can think about why I'm doing it. I'm doing this in other classes now.” Yeah, all in all, they responded really well. I didn't get a sense that anybody was rolling their eyes at the assignment. You know, the way you can hear the groans about a discussion board post or other types of activities.

CITL: How do you feel about the outcomes?

YVAINE: Yeah. I think overall the result was really successful. I feel really happy with the outcome of the annotation assignment. I am thinking about if I were to teach this class in person again. If I taught it online and especially asynchronously, I absolutely have no doubts. I would definitely do the annotation exercise again. But if I did it in person, there is a part of me that still wants to do discussion boards because I do think seeing each other's ideas out in the open is really helpful for students to see. Like we as a community of thinkers are identifying these themes. Or, you know, one student sees that someone else made this connection. And then they're like, “Oh, I didn't think of that. That's really interesting.” So maybe a shortcoming of the assignment type is that it does sort of individualize learning, maybe even too much. And I wonder if there would be a way to give people bonus points for sharing their annotations in some sort of collaborative folder or something like that. Or maybe we do like annotation peer review to share strategies. You know the person who had the color-coded system. That would be very beneficial for someone who didn’t use color coding. And they could adopt the same strategy or vice versa.

CITL: What are the benefits that you see?

YVAINE: Some benefits of the annotation exercise. I would say one is that I can really concretely see who is doing what work and to some extent how much they're engaging with it. So like I mentioned earlier, some students would just highlight the first sentence of each paragraph. So then when they expressed confusion about an idea, I can see that they haven't been perhaps engaging with the readings as robustly as I might hope. And so then I can say, Well, if you go back to this reading, you'll notice on page two they talk about this idea in depth. Check back with that. And then let me know if you still have some confusion so that I can explain it again. So it gives me this really nice way to, like I said, individualize the learning and be able to track it in a way that doesn't feel like surveillance, but sort of feels like a really concrete way to check engagement. Whereas on the discussion board, people can comment on just one text and not talk about the other two and they get full credit for the assignment. Or I have no way of knowing if they even read the other two assignments or if we just discussed it in class. There's no way to see how it went.

Another thing I'm thinking about is that in class discussions and discussion boards, they do ask people to be vulnerable and share their ideas with others. And the annotation is more private so people can leave notes that are like, “I am deeply confused by this idea” or “This is so exciting. I can't wait to incorporate this into my next project.” It allows them to engage fully without necessarily shyness getting in the way. Or I’ve had a lot of students who speak with an accent and they're just really nervous about speaking up in class because they're afraid of how they might be judged for how they sound. And so they can fully engage with this annotation exercise and with me and that linguistic barrier isn't there.

CITL: Are there any pitfalls you discovered in this method?

YVAINE: So, making it more private for sure. I think if I had a lot of sections or a really big class, it would be harder to go through and have that sort of discursive, collaborative space with students where I see question marks. And I can respond to it. If I had a section of like 70 students or something, it was just me and the TA to respond. It might be harder to go through every single annotation.

What else would be a pitfall? It's not a pitfall so much as maybe just something that I think is natural to teaching. Like the students who could just sort of go through and are like, “Yup, I marked it. You said I had to have one annotation per page. So here are my highlights.” Like they're still not critically reading, but I think in every class you're going to have students who are sort of just there to get in, get out, and get their grade.

In terms of accessibility, I'm not sure how well the document annotation assignment type works for like screen readers and stuff. I did have an option where if someone had a PDF reader that they liked, they could just download the PDF. Mark it up in their PDF reader of choice. And then re-upload it to the assignment portal. So I think there's a workaround there. But I would be interested to know what kind of accommodation would have to be made for someone with different visual impairments or like information processing on screens.