Susan Burgess’s approach to helping students tackle tough English lit texts? Teach them how to develop midterm-worthy questions.
Adjunct Professor of English, Diablo Valley College, San Ramon, CA
MA and BA in English
A passionate, engaged instructor—one who drives participation and student involvement—can make a lasting impact on students’ lives, both in and out of the classroom. Susan Burgess knows this firsthand.
“Dad was a truck driver and Mom was a bookkeeper in a sawmill. I’m the only one with an advanced degree in my immediate family, but my parents really believed in education,” she says. “And I had fabulous teachers.”
She points to two instructors in particular—Mrs. McFadden, her much-adored high-school AP English teacher; and Dr. Tom Fox, her mentor at Chico State—both of whom set her on her current path. In fact, it was Fox who first encouraged Burgess to become a tutor, which revealed to her the profound rewards of sharing her passion with students who are at a loss for words.
Today, Burgess is an adjunct professor of English at Diablo Valley College in San Ramon, California, where she strives to make a lasting impression on her own students. The difference: While Burgess has always been an avid reader and bibliophile, most of her students have not—and that has led to an interesting in-class dynamic.
Challenge: Engaging “I just need the credit” students
For many of the students in Burgess’s class, humanities classes are not a passion—they are a means to an end. “[They’re] mostly majoring in business, economics, finance, computer science, or engineering,” Burgess explains. Many students are focused on securing the credits they need to transfer to the University of California. “Diablo Valley College has a successful transfer rate to the UCs [University of California schools], including Berkeley,” she says. “A lot of our students are here because they didn’t get into their first-choice school.” That makes it a challenge to create student engagement in a course like Critical Thinking: The Shaping of Meaning in Language.
Further, the class textbook—A World of Ideas, edited by Lee A. Jacobus—is no typical intro-level tome. “It’s a compilation of excerpts from books that shaped thought and theory in multiple disciplines,” she says. “It’s not just five- to 10-page essay stuff.” As such, it does not spoon-feed students a series of questions and answers, as they might expect. “They’re coming out of an education system [that] prioritizes right and wrong answers on high-stakes tests.”
Burgess needed students to be able to place literature in context for the times, spirit, and situation in which it was written—and to be able to deal with paradoxes that do not lead to clear answers. “That lack of certainty is something they’re not used to,” Burgess says.
However, Burgess knows that the skills students will learn in the class will be a benefit to them long after they leave her classroom, or the Diablo Valley Campus. “My goal is that by the end of the semester, students can tackle very difficult texts and be able to not only understand them but also pick them apart.”
To set them on this path, Burgess needed to first find a way to help her students engage with texts that do not have right and wrong answers. So she asked herself a compelling question: What if the students were tasked with creating the answers?
Innovation: Have students create their own study guides
Burgess’s solution to her multilayered challenge seems remarkably simple, but it neatly builds on the belief that, while teachers can facilitate discussion, their primary role is not to impart knowledge from on high but to help each student discover the subject matter for themselves. “I wanted a way to get them more engaged in studying and digging in with the content instead of just rote memorization,” she explains.
To do this, she has them write their own sample questions for the class’s major exams.
Students are required to create a minimum of three questions. Each must have a detailed answer, with reasoning and sources (with page numbers) where fellow students can review related material.
“Having [students] create a question bank and study guide for their own midterm and final makes them much more active in discovering what is important,” she says.
“My goal is that by the end of the semester, students can tackle very difficult texts and be able to not only understand them but also pick them apart, and see how authors are using language to persuade people, how different types of sources are not always credible, and how people can misuse sources.”— Susan Burgess, MA
Course description: This course will focus on the development of logical reasoning, analysis of primarily expository and persuasive texts, and analytical and argumentative writing skills. It is designed to develop critical thinking, reading, and writing skills beyond the level expected in ENGL-122. This course will concentrate on how expository texts make their arguments as demonstrated through higher levels of critical thinking such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation.
See resources shared by Susan Burgess, MASee materials
Coach students to create great questions
Burgess has found that students need a bit of coaching in order to create thoughtful questions for their study guides. To give them time to develop the skills they need, she introduces this assignment during the fourth or fifth week of the semester—and then students start practicing. “This gets them thinking about what they are learning in a different way,” she says.
Here are the three core steps she takes to draw out great questions from her students.
Start with in-person discussion
When students are writing their initial questions, Burgess devotes class time to discussing the details of test-making, so they are starting from a solid foundation.
In class, Burgess discusses the five kinds of questions students should consider:
- Multiple choice
- Short answer
- Long-answer essay (one to two paragraphs)
“They each have their book out, so they can go through it and ask, ‘Is this a good question?’” she explains. “They also have the chance to ask about the different types of questions—and logistical issues, like how many possible answers you need for a multiple-choice question.”
Let them practice online, in public
Burgess uses Canvas, the school’s learning management system, to host an ongoing online discussion on the assignment. On the discussion board, the whole class is able to read one another’s questions and answers and benefit from resultant observations from Burgess (and the conversations they can precipitate).
“On the discussion board, if someone [writes an answer] that’s incorrect, I can make edits in real time—and everyone can see it and learn from it,” Burgess explains. “Then other students read what has already been posted [so they can pre-edit their notes] before they participate.”
This active involvement helps Burgess evaluate what students are learning, so she can implement course corrections in class if a particular topic seems to be leading them astray. She has heard from her students that the online discussions are as effective as the question-creation assignment itself.
Motivate them with extra credit
Burgess offers extra motivation for students to complete this assignment: If she uses one of their questions on the midterm, the student who wrote it gets extra credit.
“Words move me. If I read a really well-crafted sentence, I have to stop and breathe.”— Susan Burgess, MA
Of the approximately 35 questions on the midterm, Burgess says she typically extracts 10 questions from the bank of questions and answers written by students.
Another bonus: This approach also means that the class will have seen roughly one-third of the midterm in advance—provided they have been paying attention to the in-class and online discussions.
Burgess acknowledges that she has not made a measured analysis of the average class grades achieved before and after she instituted this approach. However, she says, “I do find that this assignment helps to lessen the amount of stress that the students project in the [class] meetings, before the midterm and during the test itself.”
Burgess feels that the question assignment has helped students be better prepared for the midterm—and their feedback backs that up.
“I have a feedback component at the end of the semester where I ask, ‘Which assignments would you get rid of and which would you keep?’” she says. “[This assignment has] never been on the ‘get rid of’ list. So that’s a plus.”
In essay-style student evaluations of the course, 10 out of 10 responders wrote that the study guide was “somewhat useful” or “very useful.” Here are two recent quotes from students who completed the course:
“The assignment got everybody to make sure that they put 100% effort in creating. They knew that making it good would be beneficial to them. It was a great tool to have as a study guide. I studied from it and did quite well on the test. The only thing that I would suggest is maybe making just one discussion sheet to avoid confusion and maybe making the list of topics a little shorter.”
“This was a great assignment that helped me achieve a good grade on my midterm.”