Wikified class notes

Ask, and ye shall receive–How PBwiki & I do class notes:

I was motivated to try this assignment by two factors:

  • Many students take almost no notes in English classes, especially upper-division English classes, and especially when class discussions turn to close reading.  That leaves students: 1) unprepared for exams; 2) without a sense that there is a body of knowledge/practice emerging during the class; and 3) slightly cynical about the purposes of class time.
  • Class notes themselves are epistemologically weird.  Usually, we think of notes as private, but if they’re *too* idiosyncratic, they might not be very accurate, or very useful later in the semester.    What would be useful is a set of canonical class notes: This is what we agree happened on this day in class.

Wikis, it turns out, are very good at establishing this sort of document.  Someone starts by uploading their notes, and subsequent students can expand, revise, delete, re-arrange, or otherwise improve the version, until it reflects something like consensus about the day’s class.  Further, the page can be updated throughout the semester, as later class periods interact with earlier ones.

I’m now on my second version of the notes assignment.  (You can see my page for it in my wiki.)  Both versions split students into groups, such that each student is only actively having to work on the notes every other week, or perhaps every third week.

Version 1 of the assignment gave students almost no structure, asking them instead simply to establish a page for each class that reflected some sense of what went on in class that day.  This was a disaster.

Version 2 of the assignment is more organized.  Each group now is responsible for, at a minimum:

  • Creating a 75-100 word statement of the main idea or unifying theme of the class.  (For a 50 minute class.)
  • Transcribing a passage from the text that we discussed in class, and then explaining how it links up with the main idea.
  • Identifying any key terms from the class and providing definitions.
  • Finding 3 links from reputable sources for further information.

Many students also post images.  You can see a good example of the result here.  Note that this example isn’t perfect–for example, a simple vocabulary word like “decanted” doesn’t really belong–but the students did reflect the work of the class. Here’s a different example, where the students became interested in the concept of synesthesia, and its relationship to Neuromancer.

Some reflections on this assignment, which I think I love:

  • It provides a realtime assessment of whether class made any sense.
  • It asks students to reflect on their day in class, and work together a little–thus establishing the idea of the class as sharing a common intellectual project.
  • I always show Jon Udell’s screencast about Wikipedia’s rockdots entry, to show students what collaborative writing might look like.
  • One drawback of the assignment, right now, is that I don’t freeze pages for grading until the end of the semester.  (This is so people can make connections between early material and later.)  This creates a new kind of problem: The student who didn’t really do much all semester, but who swoops in at the end of the semester and makes a bunch of quasi-random edits to try to “improve” the notes and save his grade.  Depending on the nature of the edits, this can be a real problem.
  • Providing feedback to students is delicate: On the one hand, these are *their* notes.  On the other hand, your perception of what happened in class, and what’s important, is not irrelevant.  On the one hand, you don’t want to short-circuit the collaborative process.  On the other hand, if the first person’s notes are . . . not the best, then it can cause some dark nights while you wait for the group to work itself out.  I have no advice on how to handle this!
  • The assignment does make for a dramatic late-semester class, when, on a tired day, students are having trouble recalling material from earlier in the semester.  You can just call up the notes and say, “Look . . . we did this in class!”
  • It also makes each group implied experts on the content from their days.  They have to look at the material enough that they can usually recall it pretty well in class.

From here, students can begin to formulate their own exam questions, create ready-made (and guaranteed accurate!) study guides, or almost any other thing.

One more thing: Yesterday, I made a screencast (using iShowU) for my students about how to edit files in the wiki.  You can see it on my wiki’s main screen.

I’d be grateful for any thoughts/comments about the assignment!

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