Teaching Tips

Listen and Learn

Listen and Learn

A couple of years ago I was privileged to be back in the classroom for a National Endowment for the Humanities institute focusing on translation. This was no lightweight conference for listeners, but an institute where we were all expected to contribute mightily to the academic discourse.

Our leaders did two things that made certain we would all participate—and at a high level.

  1. First, each of us was responsible for leading the discussion on one of the many articles and chapters assigned to us during the three weeks. Sound like a graduate seminar?
  2. The other strategy our professors had in place was to assign each of us to recap the previous class. This is the one that caught my attention. When it was my turn, I would have to pay close attention for about five hours, not miss anything, and both report on and synthesize the key points and gist of our discussion the following day. All this on top of already heavy reading homework.


Applications I envision:

  • In the undergraduate classroom, this could work as part of a unit in a 100 or 200-level course—where it would allow the professor to coach the students in note-taking as well as ways to track discussions and identify key points.
  • Or it could work for the entirety of a 300- or 400-level class, to get students ready for grad school or workplace team meetings.

While the student taking the notes might get more out of the activity on a given day than everyone else, each will have a turn and see the power of both paying close attention and serving their community of learners as a keen listener.


Implications I imagine:

  • This is perhaps one of those activities that would actually be a relief to students who don’t participate much in class because they haven’t quite figured out and formulated their thoughts. (Like me.) Here they can discern main points and connections and share them from the comfort of an already-written page of notes after a day or two of reflecting.
  • On the other hand, recapping and sharing in this way could be a bit of a competition in some courses. I found that some of our cohort were trying to one-up previous recappers. It raised the expectations and the intellectual level of the group. This might be valuable for those students who have not yet experienced academic competition—something often associated with graduate school.

While I found this activity both intimidating and inspiring—and a big part of developing our NEH learning community—I have yet to fit it into one of my courses. Maybe it fits right into one of your courses now. Let me know how it works!

Ellen Sprague is an assistant professor of writing at Principia College. She likes to write personal essays and translate writing from French to English when she has the time.

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