Teaching Tips

“Heads Up”: Need to know vs. nice to know

You’ve gotta love it when a chat with a colleague self-combusts into ideas for a great class.

I’d been thinking about ways to revitalize a class I’ve taught for several years, but I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Then my colleague mentioned the “Heads Up” activity we had done in our recent Active Learning professional development workshop. Heads Up is an app that operates a bit like the game Taboo—someone has to guess a word or phrase with clues from their teammates who can’t say that word or phrase. I could work with this.

But wait—there was a second lesson I was trying to abide by in my class planning besides revitalization: differentiating between “need to know” and “nice to know” in my course materials. This lesson from the same workshop was key in my decision to head this new direction.

The students in my Teaching the Writing Process class had just read Muriel Harris’s landmark essay “Talking in the Middle: Why Writers Need Writing Tutors.” In the past I had asked students to work up a job description for writing tutors from the article. That actually fit into the “nice to know” category. I didn’t need to have the students develop a job description right now; in fact, I had one ready to distribute since these students will be applying to become writing tutors in the next few months.

What we really needed was to establish for them some key concepts we would be working with all semester and that they had read about in the article. The Heads Up app has its own terms, so I had to create my own on notecards I distributed to the students. (Note: This activity is best for developing and understanding terminology, not just random words.) I could easily distill the “need to know” ideas from the article into six concepts or activities: collaborate, translate, writing process, model, gain confidence, and analyze.

I put the students in groups of three so each could have two turns. As they took turns guessing and using alternate terminology to get at the new key concepts, I listened and took note. They were using other terms we will need as the semester goes forward to describe the terms I wanted them to learn during the exercise. And in doing so they were reinforcing their understanding of the importance and relevance of the new key terms.

And best of all, they asked to play Heads Up again. Now I have some direction as I plan to revitalize a couple more pieces of my course. Does more fun equal more learning? It seems so. Nice.

Ellen Sprague is an assistant professor of writing in the Principia College Center for Teaching and Learning. She trains and manages Principia College’s peer writing/research tutors and their blog—Write Here, Write Now, Write On at www.principia.edu/writeon.

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