Beyond the Autopsy

Beyond the Autopsy

            Several years ago in a workshop in Liverpool, Gregor Novak, the founder of Just-in-Time Teaching, commented that in most courses the final exam is like an autopsy – it does no good for those students who are already “dead.” It could be argued that the traditional final is even worse than an autoposy because it provides little or no information about precisely what was lacking in the students’ repertoire of skills that led to their unfortunate demise.  To continue the metaphor, what is needed is the pedagogical equivalent of preventive medicine, in which regular check-ups identify weaknesses in student skill sets early in a course and provide occasions for remedying those deficiencies before they result in the termination of academic life.

            Precise assessment of student strengths and weaknesses has been a part of Decoding the Disciplines since its creation.  But by placing this crucial function at step 6 in the process, Joan Middendorf and I may have inadvertently created a misapprehension that it occurs only after one has modeled basic skills and given students an opportunity to practice them. Before a course even begins, it is desirable to conduct an inventory of the mental operations that are essential for success and to estimate, on the basis of experience with students in the past, where problems are apt to occur.  But it is also important to test the validity of these approximations early in each course to see if the skills of the particular set of students before us match the hypothetical profile we have created.  Instructors who skip this step are apt to be aiming their teaching at a group of phantom students that exist only in their imaginations.

           Some years ago, early in a course that I was teaching on the history of ideas about the future, I assigned a chapter from When Time Shall Be No More, in which the historian, Paul Boyer, described the development of ideas about the Christian Apocalypse in the late classical and medieval periods.  I knew from previous courses and from our work with Decoding that, to make use of this material, students needed to be able to reconstruct the argument being presented by the author and to evaluate the evidence that was being used to support that position. If they could not do this, much of the rest of the course would be a disaster for them.  But I was unsure how many of my students arrived in my course already able to accomplish this task

          To answer this question, I focused on two consecutive paragraphs from the readings. In the first Boyer presented the view of Norman Cohn, who described the apocalyptical culture in the Middle Ages as a creation of “the underprivileged, the oppressed, the disoriented, and the unbalanced.” In the next paragraph Boyer contrasted this position with that of more recent scholars, such as Bernard McGinn, who argued that such eschatological beliefs were also present in the upper classes.

            Boyer’s argument was perfectly clear to me, as was the fact that he was obviously convinced that McGinn’s position was more credible than that of Cohn. But that was because I applied a particular set of procedures for reading that were automatic to me as a professional historian.  For students, who lacked this process, the passage might be a confusing collection of random statements.

            Therefore, to find out how students read this passage, I assigned an on-line Just-in-Time Teaching warm-up exercise  that asked my students to do four things:

  • Summarize the basic ideas of the passage in one clearly written sentence
  • Describe in one sentence the basic issue that is being dealt with in these two paragraphs
  • Describe in one sentence the position that the author takes on the issue
  • Give three examples of bits of evidence that the author uses to convince his readers that his position is more apt to be true than opposing positions.

          These questions go to the heart of the skills required in most college history courses by breaking down a crucial task into its component parts.  To answer them, students must 1) recognize that history is about making arguments and supporting them with evidence, 2) be able to recognize specific arguments,  3) see how particular pieces of evidence made certain positions more credible, and 4) recognize the linguistic clues that reveal all of this.  Without the ability to do these things it would be difficult to succeed in my course.

          To my dismay, a significant portion of my students were unable to perform these actions. Their summaries of the passage in response to prompt #1 created the illusion that they understood the passage, because they mentioned some of important features, and I unconsciously filled in the pieces.  But they were quite challenged to describe the basic issue that was being discussed (prompt #2) and, thus, unable to recognize the position that Boyer took on the subject (prompt #3).  Since none of the basic structure of the argument was clear to them, they answered the final prompt, concerning Boyer’s use of evidence, by picking random examples from the two paragraphs, and they were as likely to use material from the description of the position that he rejected, as from the one that he supported.

          Combining Decoding with Just-in-Time Teaching, I shared these results with the class, and we discussed how to turn the words of the text into a clear understanding of the issues involved, identify the position of the author, and evaluate the evidence that was made available.  As the initial assessment morphed seamlessly into a modeling session, and finally into student practice of the necessary mental processes, more and more students came to understand how the passage worked. Most of them now realized that Boyer was clearly more convinced by the argument and the evidence in the second paragraph, but they had difficulty articulating precisely what told them that this was the case.  Then at last a student recognized that the crucial words “In reality” at the beginning of the second paragraph were the key to understanding the entire argument.  I was prepared for this moment and immediately displayed a slide of the passage in which these two words were enlarged and in bold, and I talked with them about how in reading there are often certain words that tell the reader how to interpret the rest.

          Using a similar approach in a course on geology, Claudia Johnson gave her students a standard research article and asked them to answer four questions:

  • What is the question being dealt with?
  • What are the data?
  • What are the interpretations?
  • Are the authors adhering to their data?

          She discovered that a significant portion of her students were no more able to process a research article in her field than mine were to make use of a historical study.  Despite the fact that the sections of the article were clearly delineated, her students confused data with interpretations and were, thus, unable to make a coherent statement about whether the authors adhered to their data.  Knowing this, she was in a position to model for her students the steps that scientists use to process research articles, and, thus, to minimize the number of autopsies at the conclusion of the course.*

*For a discussion of this and other strategies for clarifying bottlenecks see David Pace, The Decoding the Disciplines Paradigm, pp. 26-28; and Joan Middendorf and Leah Shopkow, Overcoming Student Learning Bottlenecks, pp.16-19.

Special thanks to Gregor Novak and Claudia Johnson, who have kindly allowed me to use their ideas.

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