David Meens

INVST Community Studies

Course context:
INVS 4402/SOCY 4111: Democracy & Nonviolent Social Movements; 28 students; one 2.5-hour meeting weekly.

Target of improvement/evidence:
I aimed to 1) register and more productively respond to opportunities and challenges presented by students’ learning process regarding the history and theory of nonviolent social movements and democracy, and 2) to cultivate students’ understanding, and capacity for application, of the threshold concepts of Sociological Imagination and Thinking “Praxically”.

What did you do?:
My original plan for integrating formative assessment techniques into my class, INVS 4402/SOCY 4111: Democracy and Nonviolent Social Movements, was made-up of three components:

1. An anonymous survey on the first day composed of three simple questions:  1) What assumptions or beliefs do you have about nonviolent social movements?  2) What assumptions and beliefs do you have about democracy?  3) What are you most interested in learning from this class?  Results will be compiled, typed into wordle.net, and shared for discussion at our second class.  A similar survey will be given at the second to last class, and will be used in a final discussion/celebration of our accomplishments and intellectual development as a group.

2. Five reflection journals, turned in and graded for credit (30% of final grade) based on prompts that encourage engagement with texts and course themes, but also require reflection on the development of students feelings, attitudes and beliefs, and interests over the span of the course (for specific prompts, see below).  Two of these reflections will require that students create Word Clouds using the texts of their own previous reflection entries in order to identify themes/continuities as well as changes/divergences.

3. In class, I will use anonymous (5-)minute papers to allow students to register what they take to be the main points/take-away concepts or lessons and confusion or further questions.  These will occur every other or every third week, and some of these will happen at the beginning of class (oriented towards recalling either discussion from the class before or the assigned reading), others will happen towards the end of class to inform my own reflection and planning prior to the next class.

The first and the third of these strategies were only partially implemented. My energy became focused more intensively on strategy 2 as the semester unfolded, and it was this that yielded the most interesting and powerful results. The following are some observation regarding the way that each of my strategies actually played out:

1. After the initial description of the course and review of the syllabus, I did have students respond, anonymously on 3x5 flashcards, to the three questions listed for this strategy above. I then had the students share their responses with one another in small groups of 3-4. Students then shared in the whole group convergences and divergences they had noticed in their small group. This was not repeated at the end of the semester, for reasons discussed in the following section (“What difference did it make?”).

2. This strategy was most successful of the three I implemented. I attribute this to the fact that it was built into the curriculum and the evaluation structure of the course. The regular reflections interacted with the students’ Reading Notes (turned in weekly and graded for completion, two out of every three weeks) and required that they respond to the following prompts:

Journal #1: 02/02 – What reactions have you personally had to course material? What are the most interesting ideas? What has excited you? What inspires you? What has made you uncomfortable? Angry? What do these reactions reveal about your own identity? Your own deeper commitments?
Journal #2: 02/19 – Please re-read the first page of the course syllabus. Highlight phrases that seem particularly important, interesting, or challenging. Reflect upon the your experiences in the course so far. What do you understand that you didn’t before? What new questions have emerged for you? What have you learned about yourself? What have we addressed already? What have we not yet touched on?
Journal #3: 03/12 – Create a word cloud using wordle.net and the text of Journal entries #1 and #2. What themes do you see? What are the continuities? What are the major differences? Do these reflect changes in your thinking, your beliefs, or your interests? Reflect on shifts in your own thinking and feeling thus far in the course.
Journal #4: 04/09 – Describe your Field Work process and learning: How did it go? What feelings came up for you in the process? What did you learn? What conceptions or beliefs that you had were challenged? In what way does your Field Work contribute to your understanding of the ideas and the history we have examined in class?
Journal #5: 05/03 – Using a word cloud for each of your previous journal entries (there should be four total) and Reading Notes (up to eight of these) annotated using the tracking/commenting function in Microsoft Word, reflect upon and describe the development of your thinking based on your experience in the course. What are the most important ideas you are taking away? How has engaging with this material clarified, reinforced, or challenged aspects of your identity? Your view of the world? Your view of possibilities for social transformation?

Additionally, after the second journal entry I introduced a rubric, establishing criteria for grading the reflections. Here is the rubric:

INVS 4402/SOCY 4111: Democracy & Nonviolent Social Movements
Reflection Journal Grading Rubric

Spring 2011

  Completely Lacking (1) Under-developed (2) Good (3) Excellent (4)
Integration Provides no clear connection between texts, experience and learning
Provides minimal and/or unclear connection between texts, experience, and learning
Provides adequate and reasonably clear connection between texts, experience, and learning Provides thorough and very clear connections between texts, experience, and learning
Accuracy Consistently makes inaccurate statements and/or fails to provide supporting evidence for claims Makes several inaccurate statements and/or supports few statements with evidence (from texts or experience) Usually but not always makes statements that are accurate and well-supported by the evidence (of texts or experience) Consistently makes statements that are accurate and well supported with evidence (from texts or experience)
Depth Fails to address salient questions that arise from statements being made; consistently over-simplifies when making connections; fails to consider any of the complexities of the issue Addresses few of the salient questions that arise from statements being made; often over-simplifies when making connections; considers little of the complexity of the issue
Addresses some but not all of the salient questions that arise from statements being made; rarely over-simplifies when making connections; considers some but not all of the full complexity of the issue Thoroughly addresses salient questions that arise from statements being made; avoids over-simplifying when making connections; considers the full complexity of the issue
Breadth Ignores or superficially considers alternative points of view and/or interpretations Gives minimal consideration to alternative points of view and/or interpretations and makes very limited use of them in articulating the learning that’s occurring Gives some consideration of alternative points of view and/or interpretations and makes use of some of them in articulating the learning that’s occurring Gives meaningful consideration of alternative points of view and/or interpretations and makes very good use of them in articulating the learning that’s occurring
Writing Consistently makes typographical, spelling, and/or grammatical errors Makes several typographical, spelling, and/or grammatical errors Makes few typographical, spelling, and/or grammatical errors Makes very few or no typographical, spelling, and/or grammatical errors

Adapted from the “DEAL Model Critical Thinking Rubric” [August 2007; www.criticalthinking.org]
Total points possible per journal entry: 20 % of overall course grade per journal entry: 5

3. This strategy was only implemented in two instances (filling out minute papers at the end of class), due partly to time constraints, but also due to the significant opportunities for feedback already structured into the course (mostly by strategy 2).

What difference did it make? How did the classroom assessment (feedback gathering) help you make adjustments mid-course?:
1. The initial survey and discussion that followed were very good for introducing the course’s two threshold concepts (thinking “praxically”—understanding the relations and interactions between individual’s experience, beliefs, and actions—and to develop a capacity for and exercise “sociological imagination”—seeing ones own attitudes, experiences, and actions, as well as those of others, in relation to broader social structures). These survey questions, along with the immediate small and whole discussion, were helpful enough that I repeated this activity when we came to the topic of the religious origins of the nonviolent social movements that we were studying; this allowed students to share and begin to situate (and even critique) their own views and the assumptions that these are based on. This had benefits for our classroom culture, establishing a respectful tone for the consideration of diverse views in open discussion, and sensitized the students as well as me to the beliefs and capacity for this kind of inquiry that students possessed upon entering the course. Follow up surveys, mirroring this structure, didn’t seem necessary at the end of the semester, given how strategy 2 unfolded.

2. The Reflection Journal assignments very successfully accomplished two things: First, it allowed me an almost real-time window into the thinking of students regarding the subject matter. Approximately every three weeks, they wrote relatively in-depth responses that allowed me to identity the themes that were of greatest interest and areas where their grasp seemed strong, as well as areas of confusion and misunderstanding. This allowed me to address these issues through lecture and class discussion prompts. Second, these reflection assignments strongly supported the integration of the learning the students were doing at various points throughout the course. By directing attention to connections across the different course material as well as their own learning process, this strategy led to improved learning outcomes in terms of the retention of information and improved grasp of crucial concepts.

3. The minute papers, when I used them on a couple of occasions, added to my understanding of students thoughts, but given the more thorough development of these same thoughts in the Reflection Journals, taking up scarce class time to assign these seemed superfluous and even counterproductive (it’s possible, from student’s point of view, to do too much reflection on their own thinking and process).

The primary evidence of positive results is the self-reporting, in their reflection journals, of the students themselves. This had a cumulative dimension to it: since each reflection built upon the others, the positive impact on student learning is most apparent in the students’ summative reflection (response to prompt #5).

Here are some examples of word clouds that the different students generated, and then used as the basis for their final reflection:

Journal #1:

Journal #2:


Journal #3:

Journal #4:

Many of the students noticed a progression in their word clouds from abstract and theoretical issues to more applied, concrete thinking, involving the synthesis of concepts presented throughout the course, and testing assertions and assessing related evidence. The cumulative dimension of the journal assignment is also apparent – words that make their first appearance in journals #1 and #2 tended to recur in the later journals.

Here are a few excerpts from their journals, in which students summarize their own take on what has resulted from the process:

“I have never before experienced the range of learning opportunities that this course offered. It was impossible to take part in this course and pass without severely questioning my identity and my worldviews surrounding the topic of nonviolence and violence in modern day social movements. This class not only helped me to grow in my intellectual knowledge of these issues and topics but helped me to cultivate my own worldview.”

“After creating word clouds for my previous four journal entries, along with going over my past reading notes from earlier in the semester, it has become clear that we have made great gains in this course. I feel that considerable progress has been made, not only in the material covered and in our understanding of nonviolence, but too, in my personal feelings and beliefs of that same concept and perhaps, the world at large. I feel that is has become very cliché to say that reading this or that, or learning about something has changed the way you see the world, but I can honestly say that this course, more than nearly all others I have taken -- has done just that.”

“All in all, this class taught me a lot about nonviolence and democracy, as well as about myself and my own personal views. It helped to shape my personal views about nonviolence, and create my own definition of what exactly violence is, as well as learning how other people can view it differently. I learned about a variety of individuals and specific movements and demonstrations through class discussions, supplemental readings, guest speakers, movies, videos, oral interviews, and getting out into the community. The biggest thing I will take away from this class is that we are all powerful…and we can make a change. I will change my life by being more involved in the community. As already stated, we are part of a movement now, and we are currently fighting against inequalities and injustices now, now is the time, the first step is realizing you are already a part of it. Overall, this was one of my most inspiring, life-changing courses I have taken at CU Boulder. I hope to remain steadfast in my beliefs and actions to help make the world better for everyone.”

What did you learn?
I learned that developing the curriculum in a cyclical/cumulative fashion—i.e., asking students to integrate new material with what came before—can be very helpful for augmenting the retention of information and concepts. Perhaps more importantly, it also can increase students’ motivation to continue to engage with material, as it allows them to see every new topic introduced and every new text and in-class experience as closely related to what came before.
• In the future, I will supply the rubric at the very start of the semester and give students an opportunity to assess sample journal entries according to this rubric at that time. Clear expectations, when introduced about mid-semester, definitely seemed to contribute to higher quality reflections.
I also learned that introducing a topic with targeted, brief survey questions, followed by an opportunity for dialogue, can provide useful information on which to base subsequent lessons, and, more importantly, it contributes to a respectful and productive classroom culture.
• I will continue to use these types of questions and immediate follow-up processes.

Finally, I learned that requiring such frequent and detailed feedback from students on their learning is incredibly time consuming on the part of the instructor.
• In the future, I will attempt to strike a better balance between opportunities for meaningful reflection, integrated into the curriculum in ways that are relevant to both content learning and reflexive thinking about the learning process itself, and that don’t require reviewing and responding to notes and reflection papers from 28 students.

Sharing with colleagues?
I have had several opportunities to discuss the assignment structure and curriculum adjustments described above with colleagues in my unit. These discussions have been semi-formal, during staff meetings.
I intend to disseminate some form of this document formally to our instructors along with an invitation to discuss my strategies and results as we begin planning our courses for the fall semester of 2011.

What did you learn from colleagues in the conversation within the context of the forum?
Other faculty in the institute reinforced my conclusion that learning outcomes are highly dependent upon the level of awareness students bring to their own learning process.
In particular, I think that getting more student-buy-in concerning evaluation criteria, earlier in the course, would strengthen this class (and any others that I will teach in the future). A good approach may be through distributing rubrics early, and having them apply the rubric to their own work and perhaps some well-chosen examples, and then discussing the judgments that students make an why regarding applying evaluation criteria.

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