Reading Reflections vs. Midterm Papers

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As you plan your syllabus for the next semester, consider assigning reading reflections instead of a midterm paper. A reflection is “a pause,” as PALS contributor Corinna Cook writes, “it involves turning to look back, and to reconsider something thought or done in the past from the perspective of the present.”

In my experience, a lot of intellectual energy is spent in a single midterm paper and midterms come all at the same time in a semester. By the time the longer, research-based, and thesis-driven final paper comes around, students are exhausted and have only half a semester to come up with a new thesis instead of developing one greater idea throughout the whole semester.

Recently, in the past two semesters, I’ve developed a reading reflection assignment that replaces the midterm, and both I and my students are happy with the result. Below is a brief explanation of my reading reflection assignment, which has been adapted based on student feedback and personal experience.

How Often Should I Assign Reflections?

I don’t make reflections due every week because that’s too much labor for them and grading for me, so I spread them out, assigning them only after students have had substantial time to read more than one author (so they have a choice of what to write about) and more time to reflect on the readings. This spaces out the reflections to about once or twice a month. We know that reflection is where most of the learning actually happens.

What Day Should I Make them Due?

I used to assign them on Fridays thinking it would give students the weekend off and me time to grade before the next week begins. This worked great for me but forced students to rush things rather than come back to materials later and truly reflect on them with some distance. Also, students turn off on Fridays and are simply ready for the weekend, so they suggested I change the due date to Sundays. And that gives me the weekend off, too.

How Formal Should They Be?

The reflections are somewhat informal compared to a midterm paper but they also offer students opportunities to improve their writing and develop their authorial voices. I just ask that they proofread and don’t send me something sloppy. I tell students to treat this as an opportunity to work on P.I.E. paragraphs, attend to grammar and spelling, and to produce a polished product. At the same time, I don’t expect them to have fully formed theses about the readings yet.

Students can either present an idea at the beginning of the reflection or write their way to a conclusion about something they felt was left unsettled in class. With the latter, I encourage students to go back and front-load their inquiries and arguments. I point out what is most curious and interesting and ask them to press on those ideas further. In general, I treat these reflections as a testing ground for ideas and an opportunity for me to push on those ideas by asking follow-up questions that might help students develop reflections into final papers.

The feedback I give students throughout the semester gets incrementally tougher but it also gives students a sense of what I’ll be looking for in the final paper and prepares them for my editing pet peeves and quirks. No editor is the same.

How Long Should Reflections Be?

Although the reflections are somewhat informal, the word count adds up to what I would assign for a midterm-length paper. That’s a substantial amount of work and I think it should count as much as a midterm. I count reflections toward 30% of students final grades. One thing you might do to switch over from the midterm to the reflection structure is divide the total word count of the midterm (let’s say it’s 2,500 words) by five and assign five 500-word reflections. I find that 400-500 words is a sweet spot for developing one idea about a text and offering close readings and examples.

The Assignment: Make it Crystal Clear

My best advice is to make the grading rubric and your expectations as clear as possible. Here’s my assignment as it reads in my syllabus, to give you an example:

Short Reading Reflection Papers 30%

Write a 500-word reflection on one of the readings to submit to your instructor via email on Sundays marked on the syllabus. You can always ask for an extension but there is no guarantee one will be granted. Late (without an extension) reflections will still earn up to 50% credit and are worthwhile to hand in — anything is better than a zero! These reflections should demonstrate that you have read the assigned reading, and have advanced your critical thinking about the reading (include quotations to give examples and provide some close analysis of the reading). This assignment is meant to help you further your thinking in feminist, gender, queer, and race theory by applying a theory to your analysis of the text. I am looking for: (1) at least one instance of close reading/interpretation of a passage, (2) further development of your initial thoughts in class discussion (not a regurgitation of class discussion and definitely NOT a summary of the text), and (3) it would be an added bonus if you could make connections between the primary text and another reading in the class. Personal reflections are welcome as long as criteria #1 is met.

I hope this works for you in your class. In general, students find that this breaks up the work load, relieves them in the mid-semester midterm period, and what they learn in class sticks better because they’ve had to circle back to it and think about it some more. I highly recommend doing this instead of a midterm paper!

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