How to get students to find and read 94 articles before the next class

My student-researchers and I tried something a little different to kick off our semester.  Instead of the standard syllabus that requires everybody to read a few articles to discuss, we decided instead to organize ourselves into a Smart Mob that would try to read a good hunk of the literature on a single topic in one go.  We chose to explore the implications of anonymity online, which is the centerpiece of our project this year.

Each student was required to find 5 articles, read them, and summarize them; uploading their summaries (or the author’s own abstract) into a ZohoCreator form.  ZohoCreator is a free service that allows you to create database input forms.

Zoho Form

As the students entered their summaries, they were made instantly available to the other students as an online database.  One member of the research team, Kevin Champion, then created a page that took all of the data from the database and formatted it into this very slick and readable presentation:


All summaries were due 36 hours before the next class period, leaving those final 36 hours for all students to read all the summaries posted by their fellow team-members.

By the time of our next class, all 16 students had read 5 articles and been exposed to the main ideas of 94 articles.  This created an amazing foundation for deep conversation.  I think all of us were literally on the edge of our seats, finding connections and debates across the literature at a level I have *never* experienced in an undergraduate setting.  I count it as a huge success, and I would highly recommend it to any other faculty out there looking to spark an engaging conversation with your students.


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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36 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    That is amazing! Mind if I share this idea with grad students here at UM?

  2. Susan Mann says:

    OK… I am not so good at math but how did you manage to get 16 students to read and summarize 5 articles each (80 articles) and then get them all to have read the summaries of 94???? Even counting you and a TA that only makes 90…. a second TA would make it 95…

    I think I am going to do this with my class next week… I will post back with results… I have some pretty disinterested students….

  3. Franki says:

    Love this idea. What a great way to build capacity for thoughtful conversations and expertise in a short amount of time. I am thinking about the possibilities of this for elementary classrooms. And for teacher professional development. Thanks for sharing. You’ve given me lots to think about.

  4. Prof Wesch says:

    @Caroline Of course!

    @Susan Some students did more than 5 (and if you dig very deep you will find that a few students did not do as well as others – but I’m sure they will do better next time now that they see what we are up to)

  5. Ian H. says:

    Fantastic idea! What a great way to have a good jumping-off point to really get started talking.

  6. DK says:

    Classic ‘wisdom of crowds’ mash-up – great stuff and a model I’m sure many can (should) adapt and adopt in many sectors :-)

  7. Molly says:

    K. I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but are you *sure* they read all of these articles in their entirety? I mean I’m just curious. If you allowed them to use “the author’s own abstract,” what kept students from simply doing that rather than actually reading (i.e., examining, understanding, thinking critically about) the whole article. Or, why not do a quick search on a library database and use the online abstract? (By the way, this last technique is commonly used by students to easily complete “annotated bibliographies.” It is also copyright infringement.)

    Honestly, if you got each of your students to read, comprehend, dare I say reflect upon these articles – rock on! But, there are quite a number of ways undergraduates subvert that whole *reading* thing these days.

    From an I-promise-I’m-not-crabby-just-skeptical undergraduate librarian.

  8. JLM says:

    I can understand your skepticism Molly, but I think that the results of the ‘experiment’ attest to the success of the trial:

    “This created an amazing foundation for deep conversation. I think all of us were literally on the edge of our seats, finding connections and debates across the literature at a level I have *never* experienced in an undergraduate setting.”

    Even if all of the students didn’t understand all of the articles, most of the students understood many of the articles. Far more than in a traditional setting.

  9. Pat Galloway says:

    How did you make sure they didn’t find the same papers?

  10. Ed says:

    Better add Twitter to you header image :)


  11. Marie Drennan says:

    What was the topic of the readings? I’m asking because I can see how some discussions would benefit from lots of people bringing in lots of different bits and pieces, impressions, etc., and making connections during the conversation — but sometimes we need students to “go deep” and get beyond their own first/general impressions. A lot of students expect the academic world to be like the consumer world: their opinion is what matters, not their understanding. It can be really tough to get past that. I’d be wary of encouraging the quick-and-shallow approach to reading. I wouldn’t do this if I wanted my class to end up capable of applying Marxist media analysis, for example, but I bet it would be great for something like net neutrality or digital rights management — something broader that would really benefit from a “wisdom of crowds” scenario.

  12. Prof Wesch says:

    The topic was “anonymity” (with a focus on the implications of media). Overall, I think the depth and quality of their reading in this assignment is represented well by the collaborative research proposal they constructed out of our discussion: (Remember, this is just week two in an undergraduate class and already this is looking very interesting.)

  13. Jeff Kitson says:

    I’m going to try this very thing with one of my seminar-style classes! Amazing! I really have to thank you for opening my eyes to all the information management available (Digg/Diigo/Delicious, Netvibes, even just hosting your own WordPress installation!).

    It’s a whole new web!

  14. corinnew says:

    This sounds brilliant and I really want to try it! How did you get them not to use the same articles though? I’m afraid they’d all use the first 5 articles that pop up in the search results.

  15. daibarnes says:

    This is a great idea because it is for higher end learning. In 6th Form in UK (I think G12/13 in USA) I need tools that very established and successful academic teachers can use (Medieval History for example) who have been using a didactic style for 30/40 years.

    I think I could create something similar to this via moodle with students using their blogs (not a great moodle tool as there is no comment facility) with a specific tag for the project they’re working on and then other tags may be included in the work as they see fit. Searching the blogs via the tag will collate all student entries into one list effectively creating the database similar to the zoho database generated in this blogpost.

    Thanks for sharing your idea.

  16. Prof Wesch says:

    @corinnew: I just told students that they had to find 5 unique articles (different from the others that had already been found). I had hoped that the database would automatically and instantly report a duplicate to the student, but it didn’t. On the upside, it forced students to read what the others had already posted before going to seek out their own. (which meant that if you set to work early you had an easier time of it) The topic was also broad enough that most students just focused in on some aspect of it and were able to find 5 unique articles fairly easily. For example, one student looked for “the history of anonymity,” while others looked for “anonymity in politics,” “anonymity and the law,” “anonymity online,” etc.

  17. Sarah says:

    Wow, facinating. Rather than being concerned with worrying whether all students read all required material, I would imagine that this was an amazing tool to promote thoughtful and generally well (researched, informed, knowledgable, etc..) discussion and learning in the forum……This is a deeper objective and what an interesting way to achieve it….

  18. Charlotte Jones says:

    I’ve also an academic librarian and read this post a few days ago. I’m returning 1) to see all the comments, which are fascinating in their range of viewpoints about students and academic culture and 2) to note that I was working with an undergraduate research group that stumbled on a similar process on their own. They are business majors faced (for the most part) with their first literature review. They all threw articles into an online folder and then divided up reading and reporting on them. I met with the group to help evaluate the articles they had found and to do a second wave of searching. We were working in a room where we could all see the record and abstract for the articles on a single large monitor. I was impressed with how well the team members’ oral “presentations” of the meat of the articles jibed with abstracts but didn’t parrot or paraphrase. We had talked quite a bit in class about how to read a research article and this might have helped. But I was impressed with the level of their work.

  19. Susan says:

    I just wanted to say that this is brilliant! Since I saw your video on YouTube (Web 2.0 The Machine is Us/ing Us), I’ve been intrigued by the way you incorporate emerging Web technologies into your classroom. I am Web manager at an academic library and the biggest thing I grapple with (or argue with the Reference librarians about :) is how to simplify our antiquated systems for students, yet at the same time teach them how to do research. I think some of your ideas would help us even in the library as we try to shift from classroom based instruction to building Web tools that students actually use. Congrats on all of the work you are doing; thank you for sharing it online!


  20. Gretchen says:

    I think Zoho is no longer free – I wanted to do this with my students, but I would have to purchase an account!

  21. pz says:

    This, to me, is an amazing assignment. I think it is applicable to any class in any subject, where research is required. Thanks for posting. –pz

  22. Heidi says:

    I love this assignment and am going to follow your class as you continue with this ethnography. The excitement of the students is permeable, and I feel “connected” to your project.

  23. Billg says:

    What kind of tool was used to create the “slick and readable presentation”? I love the basic idea, but this part seems like it would take an enormous amount of work.

  24. Heather says:

    I think this approach is an excellent solution to covering a breadth of information on a topic in a short amount of time. I think if this is the objective, to expose students to more information and shared knowledge on a topic than the average 5 articles could do, then this activity is a great match. I would love to try this with my undergraduate preservice teachers on topics of literacy. The vast amount of research out there cannot ever be covered in one course and this is an answer to opening students’ minds to much more than they have been open to in one semester. I also think that because they are responsible for selecting the articles, and writing/reading the abstracts, they will be much more prepared for and interested in the grand discussions on the topic of choice. I totally believe that you were all on the edge of your seats…this is what happens when students feel in command of their knowledge and learning. I would also love to try this on a smaller scale with elementary and middle school students. Thanks for sharing your success story. – Heather Summers (Chicago)

  25. I’m interested what software Kevin Champion used to create the website.

  26. Eva Pyle says:

    I viewed the video on You Tube that opens with the Marshall McLuhan quote and have watched it several times. I’m trying to figure out the meaning behind it…..I can interpret many different things from this video and wanted to know what the point was that you were trying to make?

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  28. Hery Yanto the says:

    What you have done was realistic for the environment in which the students have their access to information in everywhere. People have their money to acces cheap information. When you going to Indonesia, I think you will face lots of surprise to implement this things. There will be a challenge to become success as what you have done. Access to information (articles) is not as easy as you thinking. Students and their parents are more thinking about their daily needs. If there are 3 – 5 students can do what you have done it will make me fell happy as a teachers. You can imagine that everyday we have to deal with more than 5 class and each class contains more than 40 students. To read their assigments and paper works and evaluate what the students do in classes have consume many time. Besides, the government regulation with national exam in our country is still becoma the most disturbing barriers to doing new experiences. I read lots of new think in education, such as disturbing technology, web 2.0, multiple intelligence, reforming schools, etc. I tried to implement the thinks that realistic in our situation. That make more challenge to me and I hope it would be follow by other teachers in Indonesia as soon as possible.

  29. Wow! That is an amazing idea. Definitly something I would love to utilize in my class.

    Gretchen – Zoho is no longer free, but Google Docs has added a form utility to its spreadsheet. You can create an online form, share it with whomever, and track the results in a database. I think you could do the same thing as Prof. Wesch has done with Zoho.

  30. Thomas says:

    94 articles before the next class? Why so many? However, your method is so awesome, I could say it should be effective. Thanks.

  31. Michael says:

    I am a professor at an online university and have not yet started teaching yet and trying to think of how to adapt to an online environment that is interactive and engaging for students separated by a vast distance. We use moodle and other platforms that are very interactive and I will try to draw on this mob idea to kick-start the course. Some great ideas and due to my entirely online environment I see the web as full of possibility for teaching, learning and sharing. Keep up the good work.

  32. Jed says:

    It is indeed hard to imagine that they all read all 94, but even a fraction would be great.

    The lightboxed database is great, but it would be nice if you had the option to get a list of summaries to read instead of clicking 94 times to open and 94 times to close each of the summaries. Or at least some keyboard shortcuts! :-)

  33. Novostroiki says:

    That is amazing! Mind if I share this idea with grad students here at UM?

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