The Muddiest Point


For the first time this semester I ‘m requiring each of my students to email me a sentence or two about the section of the required textbook reading that they understand least well…their “muddiest point.”   These emails are due at least two hours prior to class.


This simple innovation has been well received by students and is more beneficial than my most optimistic expectations.  


My “use” of the “muddiest points” varies.   If half the students focus upon one particular page, the whole class period may be devoted to clarifying that concept.   If a passage is mentioned by only one student, I may prepare a response specifically for that student and avoid using class time.   If many students are struggling with the entire assignment, a document that includes all submitted “muddiest points” and my response to each may be sent to the entire class.  [Mechanically, all muddiest points are pasted into a single word-processing document, and then my comments are inserted in color font.  The document is then emailed to the entire class.]   Or, an entire lecture may be devoted to a series of the “muddiest points.”  Another variation could be to ask Student B to write a paragraph of clarification that will help Student A’s understanding.


At the most basic level, the “muddiest point” exercise encourages students to read the text prior to class.  When comments are shared among classmates, there is a new level of accountability.   Feedback is provided prior to the lecture, so that classroom strategy can be adjusted “just in time.”   Classroom time is related to topics that students regard as the most difficult.   Discussion can start from “where the students are,” rather than from where the professor thinks the student are.   The language used can be that of the student.  Students who raise the difficult questions can feel that they are contributing to the learning process.   When much of the question-response is in electronic form, the topics can be archived for review and repetition.


Here we see technology at its best.   Email is simple to learn and easy to use.  Individual students get custom attention.   They feel empowered.  Feedback loops are short.   Through archiving, preview and review are supported.   Through sharing responses, collaboration is encouraged.  By relating to individuals outside of class time, valuable face to face time is available for other uses.  


Before the widespread use of the computer, these strategies simply weren’t available, at least not for middle to large classes.  It’s not possible to talk with 100 students just before and after class, or even during office hours.   But, with the computer, it is now realistic to type responses to 100 students, if done asynchronously and especially if aided by teaching assistants. 


The “muddiest point” exercise is working well for me.  It’s worth a try!