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Can You Get Your Students to Come to Class Prepared?

Several years ago I attended a session at a conference about how to get students to come to class prepared to learn the lesson of the day. I had struggled with this problem for many years and was really interested in some new ideas. The instructor explained what he did in a College Algebra class and that it was working for him.

This instructor had come up with the idea of Prepare/Reflect papers. Before each class, the students were required to read the section and outline the major ideas. After the class session, the student was to reflect on the lesson presented and make corrections and additions to their paper. The student also was required to do one or two problems from the homework set and identify their “muddiest” idea. The paper was then handed in and graded at the next class session.

This sounded like a good idea to me, so I tried it out. It didn’t work for my students. My students did not seem to be able to identify the important concepts in the reading or their muddiest point. They also were not compelled to do the task, even though it counted for part of their grade.

I still thought the activity had some merit, so I tried making some changes to it. I now have a Prepare activity that seems to work very well. I changed the preparing part of the assignment by guiding the student through the reading. I identified the vocabulary words I wanted them to come to class knowing. Rather than the open-ended instructions of outline the section, I made that more specific by asking very directed questions and having them copy down specific examples. I also sometimes include questions about the prerequisite material they will need for that day. For example, if we will be using the product rule to understand a concept and it has been several months since they have specifically talked about the product rule, I will have them write that down on their prepare. I dropped the reflect part of the activity.

The other thing I changed is how this paper is graded. I actually walk around the room at the beginning of each class and look at each paper and talk to each student. For the most part, students do not like to be unprepared when the teacher is looking them in the eye. I probably have over 95% participation, so most of the students are prepared to learn the day’s lesson.

Looking at each paper takes a chunk of time. So this time is not free time, I generally have an activity that the students are working on in groups while I walk around the class. This activity gets the students engaged right away and the transition to the lesson of the day is quite seamless. I also speed the process up by using the attendance feature in the Moodle grade book to record this grade each day. I also pick up and hand back any papers at this same time.

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