A Reluctant Constructavist

Several years ago I took an online class that was different than anything I had ever done before.   It was a 300 level creative writing class that was technically way out of my league. Instead of the disaster that I feared, the class process turned out to be a very meaningful learning experience, one of the most effective I had experienced whether face-to-face or online. When I saw the prompt for this weeks reflective writing, I decided to take the opportunity to pick it apart a little and figure out why.   Here is the set-up.

The first week of class, each student signed up for 2 different dates on which they would be responsible for turning in a 10 page short story.   This provided   2-3 weekly stories each member of the class was then required to critique, line by line.   Once those were completed the instructor also critiqued each story and provided a review of all the student critiques.   This provided feedback to both the author of the story and the reviewers on their review.   After receiving this feedback, the author could choose to rework their story, or not.

Also during the first week the instructor   set up the ‘rules’ for critiquing and the class mechanics.   A practice story was provided along with a critique of the practice story by the instructor. There was also a discussion board, though no points were associated with its use, and assigned readings throughout the course.

The second week of class, students were required to critique the practice story.   Feedback was provided on the process.   The instructor told us right then that we would learn very little from the reviews we received on our own papers,   but that we would learn much more from writing the critiques and by reading the critiques written by our classmates. He was right.

By the 4th week I had started racing upstairs to the computer as soon as I got home from work each day.   Dinner be damned, I couldn’t wait to see what had been posted during the day.   Sure enough, I learned more from this process then I ever thought possible.

Before really thinking about these pieces in relation to the Ally (2008) article, I would have thought myself to be firmly in the cognitive camp.   I even teach a student success workshop on memory with tips on increasing the depths of processing.   Though elements of cognitive theory is evident in my example class, it seems that a heavy dose of constructivist techniques were also at work   heavily influencing my learning experience.

The instructor acted primarily as advisor, facilitator, and occasionally, as moderator.   As the writers of both papers and critiques the student role was very active rather than passive. Interactions between students were both frequent, and authentic, creating an extremely strong community of practice.   I certainly didn’t like them all, but I definitely learned from them all.

About Constructivist theory Ally states, “interaction is critical to creating a community for online learners.’   In this case the community was as strong as the interaction was constant.

4 thoughts on “A Reluctant Constructavist

  1. Hi Kim,

    Thanks for sharing! I love your personal reflection on what made this experience successful. Fascinating that what made the experience valuable was writing critiques of and reading similar critiques of your peers *rather* than writing and reading critiques of your own written work.

    Extending this idea a bit – what does this mean about opportunities for how we teach the scientific method, history, etc…?

    I’m so glad you had and shared this successful online learning experience. When everything comes together successfully, magic can happen.

    May I share this with a cohort of faculty I’ll be working with in October?

    Nice work!


    1. Owen, while doing some review for my philosophy, I bumped into this old thread and realize I never responded to your question. October has passed and my apologies for the delay, as you are welcome to share my story.

  2. Hey Kim – I helped teach Creative Writing (HS) last year and had a very different experience with the workshops.

    Students were terrified of workshops for quite a while. It took them months to get used to the idea, and even then they sometimes didn’t want to share unless it was with someone they were especially comfortable with. I’ve heard similar things from the creative writing professors at UAF, as well as some of the creative writing students. I’m not a creative writer by any means, and I’d be lying if this wasn’t one of the reasons why. I’m not exactly keen on letting people see things I’ve created.

    Do you think the fact that this was an online class helped alleviate some of the stress that is typically associated with sharing writing? In my experience, for a lot of people, sharing writing is right up there with public speaking in the list of fears. I wonder if online courses are privileged in this way? There’s less pressure, so there’s more freedom and and a greater sense of…openness, I guess?

    It’d be interesting to teach a writing class online and another face-to-face at the same time to gauge the reactions of students to the sharing process. Do you have any idea if the other students shared your enthusiasm?

    1. Another delayed response. I think the anonymity of the online experience did augment the confidence level a little. There was a great range of experience in the class, from people like me who had done no creative writing to a published author. It was very personal and I think that might have sparked the engagement. The class was too small to hide with 12 or 15. It was awkward to critique someone I knew was a much better writer than I, but eventually you realized that the feedback of experienced readers was valuable as well and started gaining confidence in what you could contribute.

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