Theodore Panitz's idea of "writing a letter to your students
prior to the semester" for my recent 300-level French course
(enrollment of 20), I had several purposes:
help students realize what they already know and how that prior
knowledge can help them learn new material
provoke each student to consider what s/he hoped to learn in the
make clear that the course would best succeed as a team effort
encourage serious students and discourage those looking for an
level the playing field among students whom I knew from previous
courses and those new to me
filled my objectives well. Students offered a wide variety of goals
and confirmed my suspicion that they brought diverse background
knowledge and skills. Moreover, since they e-mailed me their letters
before the course began, during the first class I was able to alleviate
many anxieties they had voiced (for example, no knowledge of Hugo's
work, perceived low-level French ability, fear of speaking in class).
last day of the course, I returned students' letters and asked them
to spend five minutes writing individually about these topics:
their goals had changed, if at all
what extent they felt they had met their goals
future course improvements they would suggest for students with
goals similar to theirs
discussion was very productive. More importantly, students had a
chance to reflect on what they had learned; they finished the course
conscious that they had accomplished muchif not allof
what they had proposed for themselves. Colleagues have found such
an invitation effective in courses enrolling as many as 60 students.
Such a letter can, of course, be adapted to various goals, including
encouraging students to succeed in a demanding course and alleviating
such worries as math anxiety or fear of contributing to discussions.
Here is my version, in English translation:
Cited: Panitz, Theodore. Learning Together:
Keeping Teachers and Students Actively Involved in Learning by Writing
Across the Curriculum. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2001:
colleagues: [first names of students]
to our course on selected works of Victor Hugo, a writer whom many
have called a genius, whom others have called a madman, and who
remains a French monument. Whether or not you already know something
about Victor Hugo, I'm happy that you will be accompanying me on
this adventure of discovery and rediscovery of Hugo's works.
course we will be working as a team. We'll be discussing a lot,
and you'll have the opportunity to explore and explain some aspects
of Hugo's work that engage you personally. I will be there to help
you understand, interpret, and pursue your research. We'll learn
a great deal about Hugo's writings, but will also learn about him
personally and about the literary and political movements of his
I can get to know you a bit, I invite you to write me a letter,
in French of course, about the topics below. Please write an essay
at least 500 words long (typed or word-processed, doublespaced),
and E-MAIL IT TO ME BY JANUARY 14. Treat all the questions, but
write a well-organized essay, not a list of answers. The order of
your ideas depends on you, not on the order of this list:
will you be able to contribute to the course?
your knowledge in a number of areas: for example, art history,
French history, political movements, European and British
literature, Hugo's works that you may know, and so on.
too, your skills: for example, Do you discuss well? Do you
like to invite others to join in the conversation? Are you
logical and analytical? Are you imaginative and creative?
Do you understand and interpret images and figures of speech
well? Do you speak and/or write well in French? Do you work
effectively on a team? Can you help others learn?
are your goals for this course? What do you hope to learn? Please
consider all the aspects of the course, not only information about
your opinion, what's an effective discussion? What is necessary
to create successful discussions? What are the roles of the professor
and the students?
worries or concerns do you have about this course? What could
I do to help you succeed?
you very much for engaging in this dialogue with me. I'm looking
forward to reading about your ideas and interests and to meeting
you on the 15th.