It started with Associate Professor Bill Hart-Davidson’s Interaction Design Class when he asked his students to “change the world for the better in some way.” Group members Howard Fooksman, Laura Gonzales, and Rebecca Zantjer took this challenge to a whole new level when they began designing a web app that takes writing prompts to the student.
“We designed the thing that we want,” said Zantjer. “We are—all three of us—writing instructors so we both teach writing and are graduate students. We are both teachers and students. We have all felt that there have been moments when we have been given assignment sheets and we thought we did a really awesome job on them, but to come to find out that we did not do as well as we thought. We have also given assignments and have had students hand back papers where we were like ‘How in the world did they get this?’”
I can’t tell you how many times I have been given an assignment, and thought I was doing well no less, and get incredibly frustrated because I can’t figure out what it is telling me to do. Sometimes I am able to ask about the prompt in class, to my peer’s relief, but most of the time I misunderstand a keyword “situate” or “synthesize” and get marked down.
It is this phenomenon that the group looked into in the below video where they went outside of Wells Hall and asked students to define terms that the team pulled from writing prompts used in class.
Fooksman, Gonzales, and Zantjer designed this software to facilitate the conversation that was already happening around writing prompts. These are what Gonzales called “translation moments”. The team’s software is meant to focus on and facilitate such moments. “Translation is an everyday practice that everyone engages in. It’s not just something that people who speak more than one language engage in, but something that everyone does during class interactions,” she explained.
“What we are looking to do is create a space where the conversation that already happens around writing prompts can be facilitated and archived. Basically what we are looking to do is to create another space. Good pedagogy, good teaching requires this conversation. When a writing prompt is issued, there a conversation that goes with it. It’s not just ‘here’s the prompt go do the assignment’ it’s ‘here’s the prompt and here’s what I want out of this” and a lot of times there are these disconnects. Well what happens when the student is not there? What if they are nervous to ask questions? What if they are lost or they are late or they are just tired and they are not engaging in that conversation. As a teacher you get this email a month later when the rough draft is due that goes, ‘So, wait. What did you want me to do?’ And that’s an awful conversation to have on the student’s part because they have to admit that they are lost. For an instructor, ‘we’ve spent three weeks working on something and you’re still trying to figure it out’. We are trying to create a space where this can happen in a visual collaborative way. Think of it as Rap Genius for writing prompts” explained Fooksman.
In this space, a writing prompt can be issued to students. Then students are given time to interact with it in a collaborative way. They can leave comments and they can flag what is giving them problems. For example, you can flag terms you don’t understand. Students can redefine terms or put in their own words what they think they are being asked. They can endorse each other’s definitions. This both identities student leaders but also those students that their peers can go to for help in explaining things. They want to add a self-nomination help button for those students who are lost but too scared to raise their hands to ask questions. It encourages students to take chances on terms. This way they can set up a one-on-one with the instructor. It can also help.
Like Zantjer said, “It is no longer asking them to come to our space we are now going to theirs.”
On top of having sections asking students to “define” and “in your words terms”, there should also be a section asking students questions like “where have you heard this before?” This section would help both instructors to understand the backgrounds of their students, to see where they are coming from in relation to terms. Some students may come from a more scientific background so they will define certain terms like “synthesis” much differently than a person with a mathematical or artistic background. This can help instructors to better understand their class and adjust their prompts accordingly.
The great part about this conversation is that it is all saved in a space where both students and teachers alike can use it to clarify things and make better prompts and other assignments in the future.
“We are not asking people to change the way they teach. We are trying to give a tool to instructors to reinforce something they are already doing. These conversations are already happening. We are just trying to have a tool that will make it easier to have these conversations and make these conversations more useful, save time, save energy, help student responses. We are not asking people to change their teaching style; we are just giving them a tool that will make what is already happening better,” said Fooksman.
The team’s program is still in its early stages. They have a prototype and are working with Mike McCloud from Eli Review. They are hoping to try out the prototype in classrooms soon and get more feedback.
If you would like to take part in their project, you can join one of their focus groups by emailing Gonzales (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Zantjer (email@example.com). Students and faculty are more than welcome.