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Observation Exercise

I'm participating in a panel-discussion today at lunch time for the Center for Teaching. They've asked me to bring two of the activities I use with students. I thought I would use the Methods Project and the observation exercise I do with students on the first day of class:

In-class Observation Exercise

On the first day of class, I generally have my students engage in an observation and writing exercise. A focus of my class is encouraging students to write from their own experience. The first time I taught the class, I was surprised to find that the students had little or no experience with careful observation or with descriptive writing. I developed this exercise to help them develop those skills.

To begin the exercise, I provide each student an item and ask them to begin writing observations of the item. In my life sciences classes, I generally use small maggots from the bait shop. Rat-tailed maggots (called "mousies") seem particularly effective, but any small unusual object that is unfamiliar to the students would probably work well. I've used green onions (from the grocery store) before. I could imagine using photographs or other small objects (like pebbles) to do this for other disciplines.

After providing the initial directions, I monitor the class. I move from student to student, see what they're writing, and provide small words of encouragement. As students begin to run out of things to write, usually after 15-20 minutes, I encourage them to "look more". After another 10-15 minutes, or when most of the students seem stuck, I encourage them to turn to a neighbor and begin to exchange observations: what did they see that you did not. After a few minutes, I invite them to share observations with the whole class. Afterwards, I say, "Do you think you could observe any more? How about if you had tools? (I often pass out some magnifiers and rulers.) If we mixed them all up again, could you find yours based on the description you've written? Write more!" I encourage them to go through another round of observation where they extend their notes.

After they've observed everything they think they can find, I switch the focus of the discussion to organization. I solicit categories of observations and we try to come up with paragraphs that groups of observations could fall into. I ask them to indicate the characteristics of a good paragraph and use this as an excuse to talk about the weekly Perfect Paragraph assignments they will be doing.

At the end, I ask each of them to count how many words they've written and we estimate the median. I ask them to use that number as a metric to understand how many words they should be able to write for their 3-hour weekly Journal Writing. "You wrote 500 words in less than an hour," I say. "And that was about a maggot! You should be able to write at least 1500 words in 3 hours."