Reading partners to foster connection

22 May 2020

Carleton faculty have been amazingly resourceful and creative this term. One of the biggest challenges has been building community in the classroom, particularly fostering the rich connections that one finds in a face-to-face environment. When I heard about a reading partners approach that Meredith McCoy (History & American Studies) used this term to help her students connect with each other, I reached out to learn more. Meredith kindly agreed to share how she has organized the reading partner activities in her class.

What did you hope to achieve with the reading partners approach? 

I designed the reading partners approach to help students have a stronger sense of community while learning online. It built in some accountability for doing the readings and also made sure that no student felt like they were going through the class alone.

How did you partner students?

I gave students an opportunity before the term began to let me know if there were any classmates that they would like to especially work with as reading partners (or in their small groups for our weekly calls). I also gave them an opportunity to let me know about anyone that they did not believe they would work with well. I was able to meet almost everyone’s requests for partners, and I was also able to do some intentional grouping, thinking strategically about which students had taken my classes before and had prior knowledge and which students might need someone to help them think about the content more deeply. 

Can you provide a summary of the mechanics of this approach?

At the start of the term, each set of reading partners selected a method of communication (phone, Zoom, hangouts, etc.). I told them to meet for an hour each week and to prioritize visiting before jumping into work. Having students check in on each other through the calls gave me more confidence that I would find out if students were having any significant problems that I should be aware of. It also meant that the students were able to support each other when they were having difficulty coping with the pandemic. 

After checking in with one another, the students collaborated to create their reading notes for the week. This was the area that needed the most ironing out as we went. At first, some groups were spending multiple hours each week co-creating their reading notes. These students felt that they had to respond to every question that I had given them in the reading notes guide, instead of having an organic conversation that arose naturally in response to the readings. In later weeks, I modified the assignment to provide questions that were less document-based and more about synthesizing ideas across the readings. I ended up giving students the flexibility to choose which question style best fit their needs, and I reiterated during our Zoom calls that students should prioritize having a rich conversation about the readings over submitting notes that exactly answered every question.

Did you grade reading notes?

At the bottom of the reading notes, the students gave themselves a score between 1 and 5 to reflect how much they felt they had contributed to the readings that week…..The rating was an imperfect system, but it allowed me a quick check of when students had weeks where they felt they just couldn’t contribute as much as they wanted. Anytime I saw a self-reported score of less than 4, I reached out to the student to see if they needed extra support.

The “contributions” score did become part of the weekly grade: each set of reading partners received one weekly grade, which I defined as quality (x/10) and contributions (x/5)…..In future terms if I do this again, I think I would grade for quality only and use the contributions score solely for my information.

What are some of the benefits of the reading partner approach for the students and for you?

Students have responded really well to the reading notes activity. It has created a sense of community and helped to mitigate feelings of isolation. Having reading notes submitted in partners also cut my grading of the notes by half (something that was welcome since I was also grading weekly reflections and group work activities for the class), while also giving me confidence that all of the students had engaged with the week’s readings prior to our call on Thursday. In the 7 weeks of reading notes, I only had one set of partners unable to turn in the reading notes on time, and that only happened once. All other notes were turned in by Tuesday at 3pm, which allowed me to read the notes and check for misunderstandings before posting the Wednesday video lectures. I think the high rate of engagement resulted in part from the flexibility of format, which allowed students with no Internet access to complete their notes with a partner over the phone. The student with stronger Internet connectivity was then able to submit the notes.

What advice would you give to a colleague considering trying this activity in their class?

I would suggest that anyone taking on this activity prioritize intentional grouping. It seems that giving students a high amount of choice (who to work with, how to work together, what format to use for their notes) was also really important. Lastly, it’s important to engage directly with students’ comments and questions on the reading notes. I actively read each document to comment on specific areas of strength and answer questions. Without this, it likely would have felt less engaging and relevant.