Saturday, January 25, 2014

Taking Minutes

One of the things that has bothered me over my entire teaching career is that from day-to-day I don't really get a good feel for how well the students take notes. I have always been able to gauge how well they are understanding the material (or at least, I think I have) from the questions they ask, and in a Harkness classroom I can also gauge their understanding from the conversations they have and the stuff they put on the board.  But whether or not this actually makes it to the students' notes has never been available, at least not day-to-day. Yesterday, however, I tried something with the classes that helped on a lot of levels: I asked each of the groups to “take minutes” of their discussions, and at the end of class I took a picture of the minutes with my tablet.
Looking at the minutes, I was able to catch a few mistakes and omissions that I would not have caught otherwise.  This was a huge benefit to me, both because I got to see some of the mistakes and because it made me more acutely aware of the fact that there are three groups and only one me. Being outnumbered, I need ways to see more of what is going on, and this certainly helped in that regard.  I posted the pictures to the class website, along with a Word file containing my comments on the minutes, and hopefully the students will use them to make corrections to their notes as well as help them with the next set of exercises.
The unintended consequence of asking the students to take minutes of their discussions was that the discussions slowed down just a little bit, which is a good thing. They had to pay a little more attention to the details (in particular, the “secretary” taking the minutes had to pay a little more attention to the details), and in doing so they had to slow down and focus just a little more. This was especially good for the “easy” exercises that have tended to get ignored in the past, and as I’ve mentioned before not giving these exercises enough attention has often come back to haunt the kids. Yesterday, however, none of the exercises got ignored.
So, I’m planning to continue to have the kids take minutes for the foreseeable future.  Whether or not I post the pictures and my comments every day will depend on whether or not the kids are finding them useful; however, after just one day, I found it useful enough that I see it becoming a permanent part of the class.  
And in case you’re interested, here’s an example of the minutes from one of the groups:

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