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Linda Shadiow, PhD

Inquiry Into Learning: Minute Papers

Linda Shadiow and students

Because we are lifelong learners who pursue even more learning during graduate studies, we know what it means to learn. We are likely to generalize the processes from our many years as students, and those generalizations form a basis for how we view—and judge—the learning of the students in classes we teach. As much as we value bringing the skills of inquiry to our research and advanced studies, turning an inquiring eye to that student learning is rarer than it should be.

At one end of the continuum of inquiry into learning is scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). Journals on university teaching disseminate the results of studies undertaken by faculty who turn their agendas of inquiry to their classrooms. College Teaching, The Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, Teaching Sociology—there are both general journals and those that are discipline-specific. A comprehensive list of these can be accessed through the faculty development website.

At the other end of the continuum are semi-structured “data-gathering” opportunities that can be used in classes to obtain insights into students’ own learning experiences. The benefit of gaining information from students about their learning (information that augments what we learn from exam and assignment results) is that our teaching can be more directly informed by their learning rather than by our assumptions about it based on our own histories as excellent students in the classes we are likely to be teaching.

Minute Papers

"Minute Papers" have been a staple of this kind of data-gathering and they are used across disciplines. They entail asking students to take a minute to respond to a simple question or to complete a sentence stem. These are often requested near the end of a class period, and students leave their responses on a table for the faculty member to look through prior to the next class. The next class period opens with the faculty member synthesizing a couple of key points from the minute papers and commenting how this information is helpful. Here is a baker’s dozen of potential approaches to gaining key information about learning from the students’ experiences in the class:

  1. What is a unique quality, interest, or experience you bring to your studies in this class that others might not?

  2. What are five facts, opinions, or responses you bring to our next topic of study?

  3. Consider what you have learned up to this point in the semester and complete this sentence stem: "It helps me when…because…."

  4. Consider what we are studying in this unit and complete this sentence stem: "For me, the muddiest point is…." (See examples/explanation)

  5. What would you ask the author of the text if you had a chance? Why this question?

  6. What did you do to help yourself accomplish the requirements of this assignment?

  7. What could you have done to help yourself on this assignment?

  8. At what point this week did you feel most engaged in our study? Why?

  9. At what point this week in our study did you feel most confused? Why?

  10. Consider our current study. What concept do you feel you now could explain to others?

  11. Compare the grade you got on the assignment/exam with the grade you expected. What do you feel made them similar or different?

  12. As you come into class this week, write down three questions you hope are answered during these class periods. (Collect these before class begins.)

Students can help write the story that is each semester no matter what the discipline or format. Imagine having even one of these pieces of information from an entire class, and consider how teaching can be informed by that information. Minute papers are adaptable for online classes, for Bb Learn sites, even for large classes. Asking students whose last names begin with A through L to submit a minute paper one day and others to do so to different questions on subsequent days is always an option. And teaching is about options: in using minute papers, what would be helpful to know? What to use, how often to do so, how to respond… all are questions that are answered in context-specific ways.

Start Here

If you are unsure where to start but are interested in seeing how minute papers might inform your teaching, I suggest you try question #4: "What for you is the muddiest point?" Just when I think I am the clearest, asking students this question brings me back to ways both the content and the learning of it are multifaceted. Or try question #3 ("It helps me when…") to get some feedback on the aspect of teaching that helps students learn.

Linda Shadiow

In a classroom that centers on learning, inquiry into that learning can inform the teaching and fulfill the students’ and teacher’s aspirations that learning result.

—Linda Shadiow, Director, Faculty Development Program and Professor of Educational Foundations