Karen Ramirez

Sewall Residential Academic Program

Course Context:

Small seminar classes (literature focused) of 18 students (Introduction to Women’s Literature and Native American Literature)

Target of improvement:  

Helping make the process of analysis more transparent for students. 

1: Modeling and focusing on what constitutes a productive discussion question: In early classes in the semester provide discussion questions (as I generally do), but not only discuss the questions, also introduce Bloom’s Taxonomy and discuss the types of questions being asked, the types of responses they generate. This step is to build a vocabulary and awareness of what makes more productive discussion/analysis questions (which the students will be asked to generate on their own throughout the semester). Continue to use an existing element of my course requirements, which is to require students to serve as “discussion leaders” on two days of the semester.  For each day they serve as discussion leader, they are required to post, 24 hours in advance of the class at least two substantive discussion questions and a 1-page analytical paper on the reading for that class period.  They are graded on these postings.

2. Assess assumptions about topics (feminism and Native Americans) at the start of the semester to use for my own information about what I need to respond to). Do some post-assessment on the threshold concepts at the conclusion of the course.

What I did and what I learned:
1. I did use Bloom’s Taxonomy in introducing my discussion leader assignment, but I did not find this so useful. I had the students generate questions on a rather difficult reading, post those questions to a class blog, and then I introduced the taxonomy and asked the students to assess their/others questions and post comments on the blog. I think I rushed through the taxonomy ideas too much and I think that this ended up being too much of an individual assignment (they used their own computers and were posting to the class blog in class before we turned to group discussion). Since it didn’t go so well, I abandoned this tool and didn’t bring the taxonomy into other class periods, so in the end I don’t think it was so useful for me this semester. I do plan to try it this again, but I will use the model that Nikki used (see Nikki’s report) and have it be a group activity. If I use the taxonomy in several classes, I think it will be productive.

2. I did implement a pre/post assessment tool that was designed to a) collect information about students’ starting preconceptions about the topics of study (Women’s Literature and Native American Literature) and b) assess how well they assimilated core concepts by the end of the semester.

a) Pre-assessment:
I conducted this as in-class discussion. In future semesters I think I’ll ask them to write out reflections, collect them, and then conduct the discussion. My prompts for this assessment of starting ideas/assumptions from my class plan document were as follows:

Women’s Lit:
Generate discussion on



o What are our cultural assumptions about gender?
o How do they differ according to race, class, region of the country, other factors? What do you think conditions your ideas of gender?
o How have cultural assumptions about gender changed or stayed constant over time?
o How does literature relate to cultural assumptions about gender?
o What does the term feminist mean to you and where are your ideas coming from?

Native American Lit
Starting discussion: we will begin with reading an essay by Thomas King entitled “You’re not the Indian I had in Mind” –

One of the factors of studying native American literature/studies = recognizing that the very term “Indian” comes with a set of signifiers or cultural metaphors …

So I want to start with becoming aware of what they are for (no judgment … this is just about becoming aware of what signifiers we do carry, see what are the commonalities)

- what comes to mind when you hear the term “Native American” or “American Indian”

- where are your ideas coming from?
- name 3-5 Native Americans
- Name any Native American Literature you are familiar with.
- What qualifies as Native American Literature?

Results from Pre-assessment
I found that students referred to this starting class period over and over through the semester, especially in my Native American Lit class. It was clearly eye-opening for them to SEE what their collective assumptions (and relative lack of knowledge) about American Indian experience was starting out and they truly became aware of their gathering knowledge over the semester. In particular, when I introduced terminology of “simulation,” “hyperreal” and “absolute fake,” the students made their own connections back to their starting ideas … and recognized that they themselves were presenting ideas of the simulated Indian in their starting comments.

b) Post-assessment
I came up with an interactive post-assessment activity that I found worked very well. For the final class period, I asked the students to identify and read one passage from any text they chose and then to prepare some comments about why they chose the passage and how it reflected some of the core concepts we’d studied in the class. I did not identify the core concepts for them. Here is the prompt I included in their syllabus:

- Look back through the literature we’ve read this semester, select one text (or a section of a novel) that you found especially memorable or that you want to discuss further. Prepare some remarks to share with the class about the text you’ve chosen to highlight and how it speaks to some of the key concepts we have discussed this semester – and be sure to bring the text with you to class to read from it!

This became a very productive review session as students read their passages and discussed the ways they saw core concepts reflected in these passages. On a few occasions I needed to prod students to move past summary, but frequently other students actually did this work for me as they drew connections between their own selections and those of other students. At the conclusion of the class I collected on the board a list of all the main themes students identified, so that we had a collective, visual review to end with.

Results of post-assessment:
This was a very productive way to assess what students gleaned over the semester. I was surprised at the level of analysis they reached in this final day of class and I was also surprised by how many students returned to material we studied very early on in the semester and applied ideas studied later to that earlier material. For instance, in my Women’s Lit class several students brought back Anne Bradstreet’s poetry (which we read the 2nd week of class) and not only discussed how she claimed a woman’s voice in her poetry through irony – a topic we discussed when I introduced Bradstreet— but also discussed her poetry for its presentation of/assumptions about class, race, and a “politics of location” (an idea from Adrienne Rich, which was introduced much later in the semester). Very cool.

What learned? What’s next?
- I will definitely use the pre/post assessment tools I initiated this semester again. I think that the post-assessement tool could be used at the conclusion of individual units in other classes, like the American West class.
- I plan to work on using the Bloom’s taxonomy again, but I will use the model that Nikki used (see Nikki’s report) and have it be a group activity. If I then reference the taxonomy in several classes, I think it will be productive.
- I plan to use one-minute papers next semester. I never got around to doing this, but I’m more convinced that they will be useful, especially at the conclusion of discussions where I want them to come up with a sense of the main topics of discussion. I tend to do this summarizing myself, but I think I can use my end-of-discussion summarizing techniques as a model for a while and then turn to asking them to do this in one-minute papers, and then ultimately maybe as a shared experience.
- I would like to experiment with student led discussions more. I have a basic model for using students as discussion leaders, but I think that I can go further in being creative about having them truly LEAD the class more than I’ve been doing.

To share with Sewall colleagues
- I began a discussion with the Sewall faculty around common pedagogical concerns/techniques this past spring as the Acting Director. This was a productive discussion because it illustrated for everyone present what are some of our common pedagogical goals (across disciplines) and challenges (in working with an all first-year population, mainly) and that we can do more to work as a faculty to share and develop our teaching at Sewall.
- I hope to implement teaching-focused faculty seminars at Sewall next semester (probably once a month or every 6 weeks) at which we will have Sewall faculty present/share teaching ideas/techniques. Ellen, Nikki and I will begin this with some presentation from what we took away from this assessment institute.

o I’d like to have our first teaching-focused faculty seminar be focused on the idea of helping students see what they are learning (metacognitive understanding) and we are thinking of sharing our experiences with the “common reading” that we use at Sewall (all students are asked to do a reading before classes start and Sewall classes are asked to incorporate some discussion of this common reading in the first class period).
o I think we could then each take a separate day to share some of the initiatives we’ve developed and written up for this institute. Basically, I hope to use our efforts here as a seedbed for starting up a regular discussion/sharing around teaching at Sewall. I don’t want to limit the sharing to those of us who participated in this institute, but if no one else steps forward for the first three seminars, we would be prepared.

To share beyond Sewall
I believe that we should have more RAP-wide discussions about teaching. I think that we as a campus could be more deliberate and communicative (with each other and also with the students) about teaching within the RAPs. These are programs where first-year students get small, seminar class experience and I think that there could be more campus-wide discussion about the teaching/learning experience in these environments. I would like to see that our work in this institute could provide some seeds for that wider discussion, perhaps especially if other RAP faculty were to attend this assessment institute next year, if it is held.

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