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A Nontraditional Approach to a Traditional Class

Hudson Owens is a self-proclaimed “math guy.”

But he knows and understands the importance of his introductory college English classes, which focus on composition.

Owens was enrolled in Dr. Jennifer Randall’s class spring semester as he was wrapping up his freshman year at Dalton State. Randall, an associate professor of English, doesn’t exactly do things the traditional way in the classroom.

And her students appreciate her for her teaching style, which is much more fluid and puts more responsibility in the hands of the students. She does this by giving them choices on assignments and testing.  

“This class has given me more flexibility,” said Owens, a business management major. “She is teaching us what we need to know while also giving us responsibility to choose our assignments and projects. It has helped me a lot with my time management. And it’s a good class. I want to be a well-rounded student and this class is helping me achieve that. I’m a math guy, but I know I need to know how to clearly communicate thoughts and think critically.

“This class may be a requirement, but at the same time, I’m really enjoying it,” he said.

Randall developed her teaching style while looking to her personal preference for learning as a student. She shared this method at a campus-wide Bold Talks program, modeled after the popular TED Talks.

“After my first year of teaching, I realized students benefit from having more options,” Randall said. “I didn’t want to do the same type of assignments I did when I was a student or that many professors still give.”

Many times when Randall gives a student an assignment she’ll give options, such as writing a traditional essay, doing an advertisement, creating a board game, or something else creative. Whereas an English major may be more comfortable with a traditional essay, a marketing student may thrive creating an advertisement, she said.

Having options for assignments can also help students tie those introductory classes in with their majors and helps them see the relevance in taking this type of class. This fits in with the University System of Georgia’s Momentum Year initiative, which is designed to ensure students are successful in their first semesters on campus leading to a better college experience and to students graduating on time.

“Why should English just be words on a paper?” Randall asked. “Students can communicate effectively through other mediums. A student can analyze a work of literature through a blog or a documentary and communicate that a lot of times better than an essay because they’re more invested in a more creative project. With essays, a lot of times students wait until the last-minute and they’re not as invested in the assignment. But I’ve found students become more engaged with options. They can choose what works best for their personality and interests.

“I make them think through their assignments,” she said. “We practice metacognition. We might explore why Ezra Pound compares flowers to people. I really want my students to feel they matter in the classroom.”

Randall also gives her students the option to choose their final. Some classes may vote to do a final project while others may vote to do a traditional written final.

When students write an essay, if they make more than 20 mistakes, she returns the essay so they can make corrections. But she doesn’t tell them what the mistakes are. They must seek those out on their own.

“You can do so much with an English degree,” Randall said. “But English is so embedded in everything else we do. I want students to understand why they need English classes no matter what their major is. When we study literature, I ask them how the piece is important and why it is important. They’re growing and learning about themselves in the process.”