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Using a Class Journal to build writing skills
Giving students options while pushing them towards excellence
Robert’s post about video assessments last week inspired me to think about unusual types of assessments that I use. This week, I’ll share one of the most successful: a Class Journal. A Class Journal is like an academic journal, run entirely for the students in one class. It gives students a venue to showcase their very best work and to support each other, while giving me a chance to help them develop their writing skills.
The ideas I’m sharing here were originally inspired by TJ Hitchman, who also first introduced me to the ideas in Standards-Based Grading. Since learning about how TJ uses a Class Journal, I’ve taken the idea in my own particular direction.
To understand what the Class Journal is and how it works, it helps to know a bit about the class I use it in: Euclidean Geometry. This is a junior-level class aimed primarily at pre-service teachers, and I typically teach between 20 and 40 students.
The class itself is focused around student presentations. I provide students with a carefully curated selection of problems — big, open-ended, many-paths-to-success questions — and students attempt these before coming to class. These proofs typically involve many steps of mathematical reasoning, making connections to previous ideas, and representing concepts both in writing and diagrams. In other words, they take a lot of work! Class time consists primarily of students volunteering to present their solutions, asking questions of the presenters, and working in groups to patch up any issues found in the presentations. In a 75-minute class, we might see anywhere from one to four presentations.
I’ve written previously about how I’ve “ungraded” this class, removing grades and marks entirely. At the end of the semester, students make an argument for their grade and provide a portfolio of evidence to support that argument. I provide general criteria that students should meet to earn an A, B, C, or lower. Two critical criteria for “excellence” – to earn the highest grades – are:
Write not just correct, but exemplary proofs throughout the semester, and
Regularly share ideas with the class
To do this, each week, I assign several of the presented problems for students to write up as formal proofs, and students can include their best proofs in their final portfolio to demonstrate “exemplary” work. Likewise, students can share their ideas by volunteering to present.
But there’s another way to both demonstrate exemplary work, and share ideas with the class: the Class Journal.
How the Class Journal works
The Class Journal is a miniature model of an academic journal that lives entirely within my Euclidean Geometry class. Periodically, I post a list of problems that are open for Class Journal proofs (these are mostly questions that never got assigned to be written up after class). The list is usually fairly long, with lots of options. Students can access the list on our LMS.
At any time, a student can email me to “claim” a problem for the Class Journal. Once they’ve claimed a problem, they have one week to produce a written proof and submit it to the journal editor -- me. I put the student’s name and deadline next to the problem on the LMS, so that others can see it’s been claimed, and a student can only have one problem claimed at a time.
Once I’ve received a student’s proof, I write an academic-style referee report on their work (a helpful one – not Reviewer 2) and return it, usually with a request to “revise and resubmit” or to complete “minor revisions” or to “reformat according to the style guide” (we have a class style guide for writing proofs). We usually go through several rounds of revisions in this way, with me always providing help and encouragement. I begin with broad, general comments about mathematical correctness, style, and voice. As the proof takes shape, I begin to focus on details of mathematical notation, writing mechanics, creating useful diagrams, and such.
Students know that a proof might be rejected if it is fundamentally flawed or shows a significant lack of effort, but that has happened only a small handful of times. In the rare instance that I do reject a proof, I “re-open” the problem so that another student can claim it instead.
Once the student and I are both satisfied with a proof, I send them an acceptance email, again in the style of an academic journal. I post their proof in a shared document, which all students have access to through our LMS. Each student is clearly credited as the author of their proofs. I post periodic announcements about updates to the journal (in the style of “new issue” announcements) and I encourage everyone in the class to read the journal.
Benefits of using the Class Journal
The Class Journal provides a way for students to both write exemplary proofs and share them with the class. I’ve found some big benefits from the Class Journal:
First, the Class Journal lets me work very closely with a student and address their specific needs. The back-and-forth revision process lets me give super-targeted feedback to a single student. I often ask a student what they want to focus on in their writing, and give detailed feedback that addresses exactly those needs. Students tend to feel a great deal of “ownership” of their proof since it’s uniquely theirs — nobody else in the class will write up that problem. So they are also highly motivated to make use of the feedback, and the quick revision cycle enables them to use it immediately. The feedback in each revision tends to focus on just a few key issues, which makes each revision cycle even more effective. Working with a student on a Class Journal proof is one of the times when I can most directly see a student making big strides in their learning.
The Class Journal also lets me push students to excel both mathematically and in their writing. I tell students that the Class Journal is a way for them to take an intensive “short course” in excellent mathematical communication, and I encourage them to move out of their comfort zone and try a Class Journal problem as a way to work on improving their writing. Within the limited confines of a Class Journal problem, students and I both know that the goal is excellence, and that makes it a safe place to push them harder than usual.
But I deliberately don’t focus on excellent writing in the rest of class. Students write a lot in my class, and they consistently say how much they’ve developed as writers during the class. But the goal of our written proofs isn’t perfection. Instead, the goal is to show that the student has understood the underlying mathematics and can communicate it clearly enough to be convincing. This is already a challenge: Students typically take Euclidean Geometry right after our “intro to proofs” class. They often feel unconfident about their ability to write and communicate mathematics, much less while learning the new context of geometry. So, a big part of the class is about helping them become more confident in producing solid, valid proofs. I’ve found that it can be counterproductive to focus on the finer details of writing in such a context.
I believe there is value in finding the right time and place to focus on excellent writing, and the Class Journal lets me do exactly that. In a Class Journal problem, I often comment on general principles of writing and push students to improve their organization or clarity in ways that I might never mention in a homework proof. I can also focus on subtle issues of mathematical logic that, while not central to the proof, are worth thinking about. Students mention how much they’ve learned about excellent writing and logic from the highly tailored comments that I give.
Also, the Class Journal gives students models for excellent communication. Because accepted journal solutions are posted for the whole class to see, students can use them as models of excellent proofs. I encourage students to use them to learn more about mathematical writing, and because the work comes from classmates, it’s more authentic than any examples I might supply. Students also know that they can use the Class Journal as a reference guide to see how to structure a complicated proof, how to create useful diagrams, or to use certain types of notation.
Finally, the Class Journal gives students options. This was my original motivation for using the Class Journal. While I work hard to make sure the class is a friendly and supportive environment, some students just aren’t comfortable presenting their work. The Class Journal gives them an alternate way to make their voice heard (and to show that they are fully engaging with class). Students know that Class Journal problems involve a lot of effort — much more than an in-class presentation — and they can decide for themselves what they prefer to do. Every year, I have a few students who focus entirely on the Class Journal. A few others focus only on presenting, and most have some balance of the two.
Using a Class Journal in your own class
I think that a Class Journal could be useful in many different classes. Here’s what I recommend:
You’ll need a large collection of meaningful problems for the Class Journal. There need to be enough that each student can “claim” their own personal problem. “Writing prompts” could work here as well, especially if students can propose their own particular approach to a prompt.
These problems should involve something extra that pushes students beyond the regular expectations of the class. For me, that “something extra” is excellence in mathematical writing. In other contexts, the focus could be on improving other types of writing (such as expository writing, scientific communication for the public, etc.), working with a particular problem-solving strategy, or even demonstrating excellence with particularly difficult course content (like Hubert Muchalski’s “Mechanism Portfolio”).
To keep the Class Journal manageable, set up the rules and limits carefully. I’ve found my approach to work well with 20-40 students. In particular, ensure that each student can only work on one problem at a time, and that each problem is limited to one student at a time. Encourage students to focus deeply on their one problem rather than trying to race through it.
Overall, I’ve found it best if the Class Journal is both optional and clearly beneficial for students, as a way to demonstrate excellence (and therefore provide evidence they can use for earning a higher grade). The moment it’s required, student attitudes towards it will change as well.
One thing I’ve wanted to try, but never actually done, is to invite students to be referees. This is another way to promote excellence: Students who have demonstrated understanding of the key issues in Class Journal writing could then read other students’ submissions and write referee reports (which they would send to me, the editor, for review). This could be a great way for pre-service teachers to practice reviewing others’ work and giving helpful feedback. I’ve had plenty of students who I thought could be excellent reviewers, but I’ve never felt comfortable asking them to take on the extra workload. If you figure out a way to make this manageable, please let me know!
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Both parts of this are essential: It’s important for students to know that the problem is “theirs” to feel ownership of it; and it’s critical to limit students to one problem at a time in order to encourage focus and keep the instructor’s workload manageable.