How did you do the homework?

“The question to ask your students is not ‘Did you do the homework?’ Instead, it’s ‘How did you do the homework?’”

I heard these words this summer from Kevin Mattingly, an educator I deeply admire (and the creator of the EdX course on the Science of Learning). They struck me the minute I heard them, because they helped me to see that I had assumed that students knew how to reach texts in Philosophy or Religious Studies – an assumption that no longer strikes me as a good one.

Inspired by Kevin’s words, I began to dig around a bit for some resources and came across a related article: “Reading Philosophy with Background Knowledge and Metacognition,” by David Conceptión. Conceptión argues for the importance of explicitly teaching students how to read and engage with philosophical texts, especially because so many students will not have read them before encountering them in our classrooms.

The convergence of these two thinkers has led me to try out an experiment with my three senior electives this fall. In an effort to help students become more aware of how they are reading – how they approach texts – I asked them to do the following: set a timer for 10 minutes and then read the homework. Then, I asked them to write a paragraph in response to two questions: 1) How did you do the reading? and 2) What did you learn from it?

Both the students and I knew that 10 minutes was not adequate, and in one sense, that’s the point: they will have to make certain choices about what to do and what not to do. And while they may think that the second question is the more important one, it’s really their responses to the first that I’m after. How did they do the reading? – that’s the real question, the real order of business.

(To put it another way: if the students make the kinds of decisions I’m hoping they will make – pre-reading the text, skimming it, mapping out a basic sense of the structure, looking for the argument – they will do it in the first ten minutes. If they do not, then they won’t, no matter how much time I give them.)

A number of the students seemed a bit puzzled by the request, but only one student asked a follow-up question. He said, “What do you mean ‘Write about how you do the reading’?” I tried to tell him that the question most likely meant what he thought it meant, and I asked his thoughts on it. He replied that when he has reading, he just does the reading.

With luck deliberate effort and thoughtful guidance, that approach will change for him and his classmates by the end of the term.

I’m going to try and post more regularly, and I’d like to write a follow-up blog on this assignment, so stay tuned!

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