Giving guidance when students are ready for it

When should professors provide guidance to their students?  We hand out the syllabus on the first day (or post it earlier) as a guide for the entire course.  But is the first day the best time for all of that guidance?  Some years ago, I stumbled upon an answer for that question: probably not.  I learned this with regard to a semester-long project I assigned to my students.


I taught introductory environmental science throughout my forty-year career.  A few years in, I began asking the students to pick an article from the popular press (now, they get it from the web) and write a critique.  But I wanted them to write an informed critique, so I split the task into three parts, due at different times, and allowed them revise the whole thing after they got my comments on all three parts.  

Part one was a one-paragraph summary of the article, plus a list of the issues in the article that they would need to check.  Part two was a compilation of information, from sources other than the article, about each issue they had identified (I called this the background section).  Part three was the critique of the article, issue by issue and overall, comparing the article to what they had found from other sources (I called this the evaluation section).

Many (perhaps most) students had difficulty with one or more steps in the process.  Some picked articles that were too short, or too long, or inappropriate for the course.  Most had trouble identifying the issues.  Some had trouble gathering and organizing information from other sources.  Some had trouble using the information to evaluate the content and presentation of their chosen articles.  In my comments, section by section, I tried to steer them in productive directions.  I typed and printed my comments for each section so that they had a readable record of what they had done well, and of what they needed to revise.  I always gave them hard copies (old habits die hard), but electronic transmission would obviously work instead.

When students had problems, I also referred them to the handout I gave them on day one about the task.  Some found the handout useful, some didn’t, and some didn’t even have the handout when they needed it.  I know this because they were supposed to keep everything in a folder and hand in the folder when each part of the paper was due.  Most of them kept the handouts, and my comments, but some didn’t (using printed materials allowed me to provide replacement copies, when needed).


One semester, on the day I handed back the last set of comments on their evaluations, I also gave them a one-page schematic, based on the original two-page handout, that listed each part of the paper, what should be in it, and how it should be organized.  I told them that they could revise everything, and that the schematic was a guide for their revisions.  The classroom buzzed with comments, their voices rising and falling with the sounds of revelation.  The most common sounds I heard were, “Oh, yeah!”  They had been through the whole process of the critique once, and now they had directions for how to fix the problems.  The students immediately began asking questions, each of them about a specific part of the critique as it applied to their particular article.  Because I had read all their chosen articles and the drafts of their critiques, I could nearly always give them answers specific to their articles (the class ranged in size from 20-40 students).

Here’s my point: When the students got the guidance they needed when they needed it, the guidance was helpful.  They were about to make the revisions that would earn them an actual grade, not just more comments.  Now, things were serious.  And now (not three months earlier) they could see how to get to a successful conclusion.

The original handout was also helpful, but it had not been particularly helpful on day one because it came too soon, before they knew the problems that they would actually encounter.  Immediacy seemed to matter.

I was not always able to time my advice as well as I did for theses critiques, but I certainly tried, as did many of my faculty colleagues.  We often exchanged ideas about how to provide various types of guidance.  Sometimes, all we did was give students the same handout again, or reminded them of it, pointing out how the handout provided the information they should follow.  Sometimes, we gave them a new, shorter handout, emphasizing essential aspects of the task.  Sometimes, we would hand out or refer to the syllabus again, in whole or in part, to reinforce what the course was trying to accomplish.   Often, we were able to provide the timely guidance that at least some students seem to need.  


Timing matters.