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My Reflections on the Critique

I gave this exercise to my laboratory and discussion section of the third quarter of the introductory physics for engineers sequence at the University of Minnesota. This particular class had a history of not being very good, so I was somewhat skeptical about giving them an exercise like this. Students were given the Lab Write-Ups handout the week before, so they would know what I expected of them, and then told to bring in 5 copies of their write-up the following week. Students then wrote up the lab in groups of three and brought the copies to class.

The exercise was modeled on literature classes I have taken, where students exchanged papers and critiqued each other's work. In this class, because the lab reports were group projects, I had each group give their report to another group to be critiqued. Because reports were rotated around the classroom, by the end of the hour, every group had either critiqued the work of, or been critiqued by, every other group. By using this rotation, every group was exposed in some way to the style of every other group. At the end of the two-hour period, the papers were returned to their authors, who had to meet and decide what to do with the comments they received.

I encountered one problem immediately, as one group arrived late and another arrived without any copies of their write-up. This threw off the timing of the exercise, and put some groups well behind the others. Timing is, I discovered, essential for this exercise to work. In retrospect, I should have made the faster groups go back and look over the reports a second time to avoid rewarding groups (by letting them go early) who did a mediocre job. Also, I think that many students weren't used to this kind of exercise in a science class, and did not come prepared. If the exercise had been repeated during the quarter, I think the students would have come better prepared the next time.

During the class period, I was somewhat bored, but the students were interested and actively participating. Most of the advice students gave to each other was fairly basic, concentrating on mechanics such as grammar, spelling, mathematics, and units on graphs. They really didn't address the deeper issues of how effective the report was in communicating what the authors wanted. However, I think this is likely due to inexperience in evaluating writing. These students were, after all, only freshmen and sophomores in the college of engineering, and had not been exposed to many courses that used this technique before. I suspect that they would have gotten better with practice.

The most interesting thing of all, however, was that in many cases where students gave each other good advice, the recipients simply ignored it. Still others received two conflicting pieces of advice and consistently opted for the choice that involved less work. In some cases, such as graphs with labels missing, one of the two opinions was clearly wrong, and yet that was the one that was consistently followed, because it meant less work for the authors. In spite of these difficulties, I was pleased with how well the exercise came off. It was the first time that I had attempted this kind of activity in class, so I had expected to have some problems. Afterward, I asked a few students what they thought, and the response was quite positive. Several mentioned that it was a "real eye-opener" to see what the reports of their peers looked like. I think that, as a result of this experience, the students improved their ability to evaluate their own work critically.

Look at the handout I gave to the students detailing how a good lab report should look.

Look at the instructions I handed out on the day of the critique.

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