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The Muddiest Point

For the first time, this semester I’m requiring each of my students to e-mail me a sentence or two about the section of the required textbook reading that they understand least well, their “muddiest point.” These e-mails are due at least two hours prior to class.

This simple innovation has been well received by my students and has proved more beneficial than my most optimistic expectations.

My use of the “muddiest point” responses varies. If half the students focus upon one particular page, the whole class period might be devoted to clarifying that problem. If a passage is mentioned by only one student, I may prepare a response specifically for that student and avoid using class time. If many students are struggling with the entire assignment, I might send a document that includes all submitted “muddiest points” with my responses to each to the entire class.

To carry this out, I paste all “muddiest points” into a single word-processing document, and then insert my comments in a color font. The document is then e-mailed to the entire class. In some cases, an entire lecture may be devoted to a series of the “muddiest points.” Another variation could be to ask one student to write a paragraph of clarification that will help another’s understanding.

At its most basic level, the “muddiest point” exercise encourages students to read the text prior to class. When comments are shared among classmates, there is a new level of accountability. Feedback is provided prior to the lecture, so that classroom strategy can be adjusted “just in time.” Classroom time is devoted to topics that students regard as the most difficult. Discussion can start from “where the students are,” rather than from where the professor thinks the student are. The language used can be that of the student. Students who raise difficult questions can feel that they are contributing to the learning process. As much of the question-response is in electronic form, the topics can be archived for review and repetition.

Here we see technology at its best. E-mail is simple to learn and easy to use. Individual students get custom attention. They feel empowered. Feedback loops are short. Through archiving, preview and review are supported. Through sharing responses, collaboration is encouraged. By relating to students outside of class time, valuable face to face time is available for other uses.

Before the widespread use of the computer, these strategies simply weren’t available, at least not for middle to large classes. It’s not possible to talk with 100 students just before and after class. But with the computer, it is now realistic to type responses to 100 students, especially if you are aided by teaching assistants.

The “muddiest point” exercise is working well for me. It may be worth a try for you.

About the Author

David Brown ([email protected]) is vice president and dean of the International Center for Computer Enhanced Learning at Wake Forest University.

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