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Thoughts on Teaching – Introduction to a New Series on Student Reflection – 6/23/2020

One of the things that I promised to get back to in an earlier post (see “Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Reflections – 05/20/2020″) was the work I have been doing on student reflection. I am going to lay out some ideas on student reflection in a couple of posts here.

As a first side note, these posts are not directly on teaching in a pandemic, as I was doing this before the pandemic started, but the idea of student reflection certainly has something to do with teaching in a pandemic. I will explore this in a later post in this series.

As a second side note, I am doing this series on student reflection to help me get some ideas down in preparation for a conference presentation on student reflection. I was slated to present on student reflection at the 2020 Texas Distance Learning Association (TxDLA) conference in March. Like most everything else, that conference was canceled due to the shutdowns from the pandemic. However, it now looks like there will be a virtual conference during the fall, and I have already expressed my willingness to present virtually at that conference. Thus, I am using this series to get some of the ideas down.

As a third side note, I also have been sharing the ideas of student reflection with different groups I have been involved with, including most recently the TCCTA Master Teacher Meetup session that I attend on Monday afternoons. I have talked about doing the reflections on several occasions in those meetings, and they asked me to write something up on what it looks like for me. That will actually be the next post, as I want to have it ready soon.

This post serves as the introduction to this new series. Please stay tuned as I put together this series over the next week or two here.

While you are waiting to see what I have to say about student reflection, I would ask you what you think student reflection in a classroom means. How might you use it as someone who teaches? If you are or have been a student who has seen reflection exercises in a classroom, what did they look like and what did you think?

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Synchronous vs. Asynchronous Learning

One of the issues the I keep coming back to in thinking about the past semester is how we teach online. Much has been made of the difference between online teaching (which I have been doing for over a decade now) and remote learning that was forced on everyone in March of this year.

The difference between the two is vast, as a true online course is one that needs to be created from the ground up as an online course and cannot be a quick move over of face-to-face content to an online environment.

One of the real differences that I noted in the approaches to online vs. remote teaching is the question of how the learning takes place. In my online course (and as echoed by my friend Mike Smith at McNeese State University), I have taught almost exclusively asynchronously. Most of the design books that I have read and resources that I have accessed over the years have confirmed that this is the best format for fully online instruction, as it allows for the flexibility in completing work and interacting with material that many online students are looking for.

Definitions

Before I go any further, however, I do want to provide some definitions here:

  • Synchronous Learning – Learning that takes place in a format where both the instructor and the learner are in the same location in time and/or space. This can be a traditional classroom format or something like a Zoom session that delivers content in real-time.
  • Asynchronous Learning – Learning that takes place where the instructor and learner are separated in time and/or space. This is seen very often in online courses, where resources and assignments are provided for students to access and complete on their own time.

Asynchronous Learning

As I stated above, my online class is completely asynchronous. The students are given the resources, assignments, lectures, textbook information, assessments, and discussion space all online with no expectation that there is a specific time or place where they will all come together for instructions. This does not mean I am not involved, as I generally work inside my classrooms for 1-4 hours each day, depending on the time of the semester, and am constantly monitoring both my classrooms and other messaging that I get from students outside of the classroom (such as email).

The only real point of direct, face-to-face interaction would be office hours. I also do hold more traditional office hours. This is a bit of sticking point for me, as my department had up to March of this year not allowed online office hours, which seems to me to be a blind spot to where our students actually are. Since March and probably for a while after, we now can have online office hours, which would actually be the only really synchronous material for any students who would come into those office hours and get instruction or have questions answered by me in real time.

Hybrid Learning

One thing that I do differently than a lot of people in their teaching is hybrid learning. I have been teaching hybrid classes for about 6 years now, and my model is roughly a 70/30 model, with 70% of the learning taking place online and 30% in class. Thus, like what I noted above, all of the online portion for the hybrid course is asynchronous. That 30% is the hour and fifteen minutes that I meet with them each week, and that is the only synchronous portion of the course.

My hybrid students are more likely also to come to physical office hours than traditional online students, meaning that they do also have those synchronous options.

The Change in Learning with the Pandemic

As we moved to remote learning in the pandemic, everyone had to scramble to figure out how to make those changes. I have already detailed some of this in previous posts in this Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic series. Since a lot of those who were guiding this move were focused on how to move the face-to-face classes to online, much of the assumption was that the remote learning would be at least somewhat synchronous. Since this is the assumption that many have of what online teaching looks like when they have not taught online before, I saw this all over the place – the assumption that we would all just schedule Zoom sessions during our normal class time and then lecture to the students as we would have at the same time and same place.

For better or for worse, this has become part of the story of what has happened – with a narrative emerging of how challenging, or even ineffective, Zoom learning (as it so often came to be) is. In my opinion that is because online learning is not meant to be synchronous. There can certainly be successful synchronous elements in an online course, especially if students are notified up front and early that there will be certain times or certain assignments that are going to require their presence. I don’t use any, but I know of a number of successful online instructors that do use synchronous discussions, group work, and the like in online classes. However, even those classes remain heavily asynchronous overall.

So, What’s the Point?

Why am talking about this somewhat weedy subject? I think that why so many faculty and students were unsatisfied by what they saw in the spring of 2020 is because of this synchronous vs. asynchronous distinction. I have heard, even from my own sons in college, that the learning situation in the spring was not very good. Both of my sons recounted having to get up for 8am classes from home and then sitting there with a lot of random banter, technical problems, and then not learning much overall. Now, could I say that every class experience I have had has been worthwhile and engaging, but there is something different about trying to do it online vs. face-to-face. Especially for my son who is going to a very (VERY!) expensive private university, he felt he was getting very little value out of his education for those last months. A lot of the “value” comes from being on campus and having access to everything there. Sitting at home in front of a screen when that is not what you signed up for is going to be rough no matter what. The insistence on holding classes at the same time and in the same format as before seems to me to be a recipe for discontent overall. It’s not the fault of the professor or of the university, as everyone had to figure out how to do this in a week or two. So, if it didn’t go well, then it just didn’t, but at least everyone knew that we were all doing our best in a difficult time.

What I worry about in the summer and fall. The easy path will be to try to continue on as if nothing really happened and feel that we can all just turn on a dime and teach online again if a second wave breaks out. I only hope that some lessons have been learned about what works and what doesn’t. This summer has to be one of reflection and reworking of courses for everyone. If change isn’t made, it is the students who will suffer. Both of my sons have said that they are worried if it will be worth it to go back to their four-year universities if it is going to look like it did in the spring. I am certainly not trying to say that the question of synchonous or asynchronous is the only issue in making a strong course that can be presented online only or moved online if needed, but it is an issue that needs to considered by everyone who wants to teach in any online format for the future.

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Reflections, Part 2 – 05/31/2020

As noted in my previous post, I am continuing my reflecting on the previous semester.

I am continuing looking at a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education from earlier this month – “5 Takeaways From My Covid-19 Teaching.” by Michelle D. Miller.

I had previously looked at lessons 1-3 that she had identified. In this post, I will look at the other two lessons that she was talking about.

4. High-stakes assessments are overrated.

This one is definitely one that I believe in completely. As she said, “For a while now, teaching experts have advised that students learn best from frequent low-stakes quizzes and other assignments — either in addition to, or in place of, traditional midterms, final exams, and term papers.” I have been working in this direction myself, moving more and more toward many smaller assignments rather than a few big ones. This transition was already coming for me prior to this move remote teaching, and I was very glad that I had started on that path already.

The large numbers of low-stakes assignments gives my students a lot of opportunities to work through the material in ways that keep them engaged throughout the semester and working fairly constantly on the material. Rather than being graded in 2-4 high-stakes assignments, the students can have their grade evolve through the semester. It allows them to work regularly with the material rather than put their attention (and grade) on a couple of assignments where they have to memorize and perform well in a couple of sessions throughout the semester. In a high-stakes environment, the students pass/fail based upon just their performance in a few points of the semester. Now, this is not to say that some students do not do well in these types of assessments nor that there is no value in testing the students on their knowledge. It is just that many of students do not perform well in these circumstances for reasons beyond their own control. It is not about being good students or bad students but about being able to perform in a very specific circumstance.

I had already come to the conclusion myself that I would rather see how my students progress through the semester and learn versus seeing how well they can memorize a specific set of information in a single sitting. This was even more true in the high-stress environment of last semester. Students already under stress and unsure about their economic and physical futures don’t need to have the added stress on them of a high-stakes assessment. Students already freak out about exams, and even the best students can struggle. Add on the pandemic, and you have an even more perfect storm of disaster for most students.

5. Student mental health will be on my mind.

This one became completely clear to me in these last couple of months. This is something that I have largely ignored in the first decade or so of my teaching career. It is only since attending a couple of sessions at conferences in the last couple of years that I have become more and more aware of the struggles that they are under. The research is showing that more and more of our students are financially insecure, food insecure, and housing insecure. It is harder for them to succeed academically if they are struggling in every other way.

At a community college, even more than at many 4-year institutions, our students are working, taking care of families, and just trying to get by. The pandemic and the implosion of society just piled on top of what else they had going on. I saw it myself, as did many of my fellow faculty members. We saw many students who continued on with out major problems, but some of those who were already on the edge were pushed over the edge by these circumstances. By not seeing the problems previously, it allowed us to largely ignore the ongoing problem. We have to consider the issues and problems from the beginning, not just address them when they come to the surface.

So where does that leave us? I can really only leave this reflection with her words, as I can’t say it any better than she did:

“If the Covid-19 crisis ends up making me a better-prepared, more supportive, and more agile teacher, so much the better. And if it spurs our institutions to put more priority on serious collaboration between administrators and faculty members, backed up by the best evidence and research out there — well, we couldn’t ask for more. I’m not one to say that this tragedy is full of silver linings. However, I intend to come through it stronger, and I hope our whole profession will, too.”

How are you reacting to the crisis, and how will it change you?

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Reflections – 05/20/2020

I am, of course, not the only one out there who is reflecting back on what teaching through the pandemic was like. I have already discussed some general thoughts on the transition and on how the students reacted in previous blog posts here. I have been consuming various pieces of media, from blogs to webinars to podcasts, where everyone has been reflecting on the changes and how the last couple of months have gone.

One of the pieces that I wanted to reflect some on was a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier this month – “5 Takeaways From My Covid-19 Teaching.” by Michelle D. Miller.

Probably the most direct takeaway from the piece is what she said about how the transition – “In short, we did the job we signed up to do — under conditions that none of us signed up for. And, unfortunately, it looks like many of us will be in the same predicament come September.” To me, that is really the story of this time. I won’t say at all that everything was the best at all, but I do think that I did a pretty good job in keeping up. I also feel like I actually did more work in the last month and a half than I normally do.

In looking at her 5 lessons learned, I can see some parallels in my own experience.

1. They’ve gotten a bad rap, but Zoom classes can be rewarding.

While I am not so sure about Zoom classes specifically, I found her discussion of the synchronous vs. asynchronous debate interesting. I know for a fact that some of our faculty had never even heard those words with relation to education prior to this, but it became a key point with the transition. My own online course is exclusively asynchronous, but I added in Zoom office hours for them. I have done online office hours before, with only a very minimal participation by the online students. This experience was no different, as they were just online office hours, not a specific session of delivering information. I had not a single student from my three online sections attend any of the online office hours in Zoom, which pretty much matches up with my previous experience. As there was no synchronous component of my online course, there was no expectation on the students that there would be one after, and there was apparently no interest in the new addition for them.

Now, of course, the hybrid class had its own synchronous component of meeting once a week in person. I switched over that time to a Zoom session for each hybrid section, but I did not make it mandatory for attendance. This is largely because of a recognition that many of my students might not be capable of making a session on Zoom, and I didn’t want to penalize them. I had a number of students with connection issues (as in poor internet access), who had family issues or conflicting school times for their kids, or were called in to now work at the time they would have had class. I had one student out of 25 attend for one of my hybrid classes and 4-5 students out of 21 attend out of the other hybrid class. So, there was some small demand, and I gave participation points for coming on and talking about the material. Far more students chose to participate in discussion forums than in the Zoom sessions overall.

2. Have a pivot plan.

This is exactly what we’ve been told to do for the fall. We don’t know if we will be in person, online, or a mix of the two. Right now, our schedule looks exactly as it would any fall, and we have been told that any decision about changes to what we do in the fall won’t come until June. However, the more general messaging is that we need to be ready to pivot and that we all should be developing courses that can be both in-person and online, possibly even at the same time. In many ways, this matches the new thing I have heard quite a bit about in the last week – HyFlex courses. While we won’t have any courses scheduled as HyFlex, the model essentially has students given the opportunity to take the course either online or face-to-face as they want without losing anything either way.

3. Student goals will take center stage.

I will be honest that I did not change enough in my course to affect the student side of things. I already did things like student reflection essays (more on this in a later blog post), things that are already really student-centered. In relation to a lot of the rest of what we were asked to do, my course met the idea of student goals taking center stage before the crisis and continued to do so afterwards.

I will come back soon with the final two, as this is already getting long as it is. What are your thoughts, either as a teacher or students in this new environment?

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – The Students – 05/18/2020

My last post was a general reflection on my teaching during a pandemic. It was on my own experience and how it affected me. Today, I want to talk about how my students responded to the changes that came this semester.

  • As I noted in my last post, the online students’ experience didn’t change a huge amount, but really the experiences of both the online and hybrid students did change.
    • The majority of students expressed a feeling of overwhelm and anxiety to me with the switch. For a lot of the hybrid students, they were taking hybrid because they did not want an online class, but they said that since the class did not change significantly that it was not a major issue.
    • For my classes, the fact that we lost a week and had to make things up pushed assignments closer together.
    • As well, while I do think students often take Spring Break to do some catch up in their classes in a normal semester, we extended the Spring Break by a week this year. This 2-week Spring Break was very unproductive for them because of how the world was overturned. Not only that, but it also took longer for them to get back into working on classes at the level they had previously.
      • So, even though I moved some assignments to extra credit rather than required and moved the exam to a take-home, there still was a feeling that they were doing more than usual in my class each week.
    • However, while many said they were working more for my class, almost all who were in multiple classes said that their workloads for school had gone up even more for other classes. I heard many say that the result of changing online out of face-to-face classes was that the expectations and workload seemed to go up dramatically. I have no insight beyond that, as few said why that changed happened and I did not want to pry into what other faculty were doing, but the universal feeling was that classes that were face-to-face that went online got both more demanding and more difficult to complete.
        • Here is what one student said: “I got really behind this last unit, having more than one online class (since they all got put online) has been really hard to keep up with all the work. And effectively giving each class time in your day is very challenging, So with that being said, I did not participate in this discussion forum. I hope no one else is in the same boat and struggling to stay a float with all their classes being online! I miss face-to-face classes so much. A lot of my classes are 10 times the work online. Finish Strong!”
    • A majority of students reported difficulties in prioritizing school work.
      • For some it was because they were now working more because they are essential workers or now had time off to add hours to their jobs.
        • As one online student put it: “I personally have 2 classes online including this one, but besides having these classes I have been working almost every day including weekends now because I have more responsibility for my projects. the quarantine didn’t stop the company I am working for because of the nature of what we do. However, I have been feeling like I am not productive enough and so I started to do some online courses, reading new books and also I started to do the extra credit assignment. So far I have tried to keep a daily schedule to keep up.”
      • For others, the loss of jobs meant that they now had financial strains that impacted their ability to do their work for classes.
        • I did not keep track of everyone who reported this, but I had a number of students tell me that either they had lost work or that people in their families had lost work.
    • What I heard the most, however, was that the isolation was quite intense for the younger students who were now stuck at home with their families, especially those who relied on leaving the house to get work done because of chaotic home environments.
      • For those who are older and have kids, they had the same experience that I have had – namely that I am now educating my kids and/or trying to keep them focused and entertained. We are now at home all the time, fixing way more meals at home, and having to run all sorts of educational and Zoom sessions for my kids. Those with kids noted that the shift to having kids at home and having to educate/monitor them was a primary distraction to getting real work done.
      • As one online student put it: “Hello! I hope everyone has been staying safe and healthy as we are coming to the end of the semester! Summer is almost here and thankfully this week most states are gradually opening back up again so hello sun! These past few weeks have been crazy at home though I haven’t been working from there…So while having a family at home while I was working a bit more than usual school seems like a lot as all of my classes are coming to an end. This class has been great I have been working hard in this unit 5 I am actually almost done with it!!! I think the most stressful part about this class at the moment is the Final paper only because all of my other classes have a final paper due the week too. Anyways I hope everyone is doing great any comments about unit 5 or the paper please leave I’m interested to know where others are at the moment in the course.”

Those are just some of my thoughts about how the students have reacted to the situation in my own experience. For those of you who are teaching or for those taking classes, what was your experience?

 

Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – 05/14/2020

We have come to the end of our semester of craziness. The breaking of COVID-19 and the push to abrupt remote teaching at Spring Break made this a semester like no other. I was luckily more able to make the transition than many, as 3/5 of my sections were already online. The other two sections were my hybrid sections, and those are already about 2/3 online in the way that I teach them. Thus, for me, the personal transition was not as hard as it was for many.

There were still some challenges, for sure.

  • My three online sections were still somewhat impacted, as the extended Spring Break moved their assignments back a week and that pushed closer together a lot of the assignments for the last part of the class. It also grouped together my grading more and made it to where I did not have as much time to get comments back to students on their thesis and outline so they could work with them on the final paper.
  • As I noted above, the hybrid classes were already about 2/3 online. It was, however, one of the most important components, the face-to-face discussions, that got dropped. To make up for that, I substituted online discussions each week and a weekly optional Zoom session. These went reasonably well. I don’t think it went nearly as well as if we had been in class, but it was at least acceptable. The big thing that I noted was that I did not have nearly as much time to devote to participating with them, as the pushing together of assignments that I noted with the online class happened here as well. I was grading more, and because of that, I was doing less other things in the class. There is another reason as well, that I will put in the third note here.
  • The thing I spent an unusual amount of time on is the helping of others in the department and keeping up with both the changes and trends in higher education broadly and with COVID-19 in specific. My energy level and attention level were drained by both of these, and that also contributed to me not interacting as much in discussions with my students. I still did all of my Zoom sessions, held my online office hours, and answered student questions in a timely manner. I would even say that I got things graded faster than I would normally at the end of the semester. But I definitely participated less in discussion forums, both with my online and hybrid students. In fact, in grading them in the last couple of days, I see that I missed a number of places that I might have responded, either with information or with prompting questions to get them to go further.

Working on all of this from home was also a challenge, of course. While working from home did take out many expenses in time and gas for travel, sitting at the office, and eating meals/snacks there, there were also costs to being at home. I have four kids, two in college, one in high school, and one in elementary school. Everybody was home (and still are) since the start of Spring Break. The three older kids have had their work to do, but they are relatively self-sufficient with their work. We are, however, full-time teaching our 7-year-old. Her Montessori school has been sending home packets to complete, and they are keeping us busy.

Being at home all the time is not a big problem for my own work load, since so much of it was online already. But it still was quite different from the norm. How has everyone else’s experience been? For those of you who teach, what was the impact on your teaching?

I will be back for a couple of more of these as I reflect on the semester and start preparing for the next one, whatever it might bring.

Thoughts on Teaching – Reviewing a Textbook – 6/22/2019

OK. So, the topic for today is not actually about reviewing a textbook, although that is what I am doing right now. For those of you not in the academic business, we are often approached to review textbooks and materials, and I am reviewing one right now. In doing so, they often have you write up something about your own approach to teaching, and I thought this was a good opportunity to share what I wrote with everyone else. So, my apologies to the textbook company that put the questions together for using them here, but here is what they asked about my own teaching and what I had to say about it:

Course Goals

What are the main goals of your course? What should students understand and retain after taking the course?

My course is about teaching my students the skills that they need to be successful in college, using the field of American history as the background material for that purpose. I focus on three primary skills in my course: critical reading, critical thinking, and critical writing, and I use the course material to emphasize and further the development of those skills. I use a lot of primary source documents, as well as a department writing assignment that has the students use historical evidence to relate an aspect of the past to the modern day.

I also emphasize the idea of what I call the “American mythology,” the simplistic history that students are often taught in their K-12 education, and especially in K-8 education. There is an element of Lies My Teacher Told Mein my course, where I show them how what they have been taught in the past is not the full truth or sometimes even the truth at all.

From this, I hope that my students will come out of the course with a better understanding of the world and their place in it. I hope they will have an appreciation of what history can tell us about who we are and where we came from. I also want them to be successful students from this point forward, as I am typically teaching first-semester college students, many of who are first generation or nontraditional students. I shape the course in such a way as to emphasize the skills they will need both in my course and in future courses and help them to gain or improve those skills in my course.

 

Your Course Today

Are you currently emphasizing any new topics, themes, or skills in this course that you were not covering or emphasizing in the past few years? If so, what are they?

Most of what I am doing now is different than what I was doing 5-6 years ago. I teach online and hybrid, and I use the flipped classroom model for my hybrid courses. I do not lecture in the traditional sense, and I have largely abandoned the idea of teaching the narrative of what happened in my courses. Instead, I am emphasizing what I said above, mainly in the use of the history that we do cover in teaching them broader skills that will make them better students and more informed citizens.

My hybrid course takes a largely case-study approach to history, using the method of a deep dive in to a few topics to illustrate the broader trends of American history. As well, I helped design and devise our common writing assignment in the department, with its emphasis on using historical evidence to make an argument and in relating the past to the present. I have turned my hybrid teaching from a traditional lecture class with traditional assessments into an active learning classroom that works to engage the students with historical skills, many of them aligned with the AHA’s Tuning Project.

My online course is more in development in its changeover to this new mindset. I have spent years getting the hybrid course together, and It is the turn of the online course now. I am also going to be moving it away from the narrative lecture and into a more case-study approach. I am also introducing things like the Crash Course Digital Literacy material into the course, both to help the students in their own lives and to provide them with a questioning framework for understanding history and its evidence. I am also going to be including more interaction, especially with more self-assessments and inter-group cooperation.

 

Course Challenges

What are your teaching challenges and your students’ learning challenges in this course?

The biggest challenge remains the lack of the skills that I am trying to teach. As I stated above, the students at my community college are heavily nontraditional and first generation. We have our share of the traditional studnets just out of high school as well, but, at an open-enrollment institution, even those students often come to us because we are relatively inexpensive and close. Even the traditional students often lack college-level skills, which is one reason why I have been transforming my courses. I got tired of sitting and complaining each year that my students could not do the work and blaming them for it and decided that it was time I started working toward helping them with the skills gap. The gaps that I see are:

  • Lack of understanding/ability to read a college-level textbook
    • This is because they often have never had to do it before and have not been taught how to do it. Seeing my own children go through in high school (I have one in high school and two entering college right now), I know that reading is a small part of the overall curriculum these days, as my kids rarely have had reading assigned outside of class and are not provided with any textbooks to bring home at all. So, for many, my own requirements that they read and understand a college textbook or primary sources more generally simply is a skill they have had little practice at.
  • Poor understanding of how to think critically in an age of multiple-choice tests
    • The increasing reliance on multiple-choice assessments here in Texas means that most of my students have an understanding of history and academics in general as a curriculum of memorization for the text. There is not as much emphasis on the higher thinking and reasoning skills, especially in the non-AP classes. When presented with history as a field of study without concrete answers and where the questioning of sources, interpretations, and understandings comes out as a key aspect, they have a lot of trouble with it.
  • Lack of effective study skills and academic skills
    • Again, to use my own children as an example, I rarely have seen them ever study outside of school for anything, and my twins entering college now (one coming out of AP in high school and one who pursued the International Baccalaureate plan) seldom did homework, even in relatively rigorous high school course work. The students I generally see have little idea of how to do homework, how to plan out an academic semester to get work done on time, how to study for a test, how to write a paper, and just in general how to navigate a college environment.
  • Poor writing skills
    • The students I see have trouble creating an argument/thesis, understanding evidence as it applies to a paper, using evidence to support an argument, drafting and editing a paper, and effectively using citations and a Works Cited. I cannot rely on my students gaining those skills through our English classes, as there is no requirement they take English before my class, and so I have to create assignments that help them with this process.

Notice what I have not said here, which is that I do not have any problem with their knowledge of historical facts and figures. While they often do not know very much that is not in the very broad canon of US history, my approach allows them to gain what they need along the way, as the teaching of the skills along the way are based upon using the knowledge that is necessary to succeed. In an era of smartphones, the memorization of history is no longer a necessity, and the broader skills will allow them to understand the history much more than just knowing what happened in the traditional narrative. As well, a focus on understanding the American mythology as it is generally taught will make them more critical thinkers in evaluating evidence and using it to prove an argument.

Thoughts on Teaching – Why Change the Way We Teach? – 6/10/2019

I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.

Dr. David Pace, writing in the Decoding the Ivory Tower blog, wrote the following in his blog post, “Addicted to the Curve:”

An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.

I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).

That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.

This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.

The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.

This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.

So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.

Thoughts on Teaching – Office Hours – 5/27/19

I often don’t have time to keep up with the various teaching articles and publications during the semester. So, these off times are often when I get to check in with what has happened outside of my classroom during the semester.

So, I’ve been doing some reading over the last week or so, and I have some blog post ideas lined up here for the summer.

The first thing that came to my attention was a recent post in Inside Higher Ed titled “Office Hours: Why Students Need to Show Up.” It was the first paragraph that really got me considering my own experience. As the author describes her experience with office hours:

Office hours: those moments when we are held hostage by our students, shackled to our desks, unable to tackle our mountains of other responsibilities. At crunch times, to better handle the line of students queueing outside my door, I’ve thought about installing a ticket dispenser, like at the deli: now serving number 17.

This is very much not my experience. And it goes back to a broader sense that I have about one of the challenges of teaching at a community college versus a more traditional four-year university. I have sat in my office week after week with almost no students ever coming by my office for thirteen years. I see students most often when they need a drop slip or a mid-semester grade check signed. Students certainly do not line up at my door, and I certainly do not feel held hostage by them. Instead, I have a required 10 hours of office hours every week, where I spend the majority of my time sitting there doing my own work and not interacting with students, except for what I do in my online class during that time.

I have my office hours clearly posted on my syllabus and in my online classroom. I sell my office hours to students at the beginning of the semester. I remind them of office hours multiple times in the semester and offer up advising time and draft-reading time often throughout the semester. And still, I have almost no students at my office hours.

And, do I complain about this? Of course. Instead of phrases like being held hostage, I instead bemoan the “students today” who don’t take advantage of the opportunities offered to them. However, I have more recently come to a realization that I need to approach the lack of students at my office hours differently, much like I have been trying to approach other things in my course differently. Although I can’t place the exact place that triggered the idea, I would say it probably came from one of the podcasts I listen to regularly:

The thing that I think is the biggest issue is the idea that if students are not doing what I would think is in their best interest, then it probably means the they do not know it is in their best interest. Instead of complaining that they don’t come to my office hours, I need to see the problem as one of them not coming from the academic tradition of understanding what it means to be a student. Students at a community college are often from families without a long tradition of college education. To them, we professors are unapproachable and intimidating. They do not see me as offering an opportunity for them to do better. Instead, without a culture of understanding academic life, like those of us who teach them who have become very comfortable with the ways that academic life transpires, many of them are first timers who are not comfortable with meeting a professor one-on-one in his or her office.

So, I know that I need to do something different to help bring students into my office hours. That’s because the article I started off is correct, the one-on-one interaction is important and often makes a big difference in student success.

Here are some of my ideas:

  • Making an initial office hour visit a requirement at the beginning of the semester.
  • Having students meet to discuss a project or paper as part of a progress report in the semester.
  • Having more active office hours where there is a theme or object each week for students to participate in.

More radical ideas than that are currently not allowed by our office hour requirements – as I have to have 10 office hours on campus in my office each week. But I would be open to suggestions? Does anyone have any more success at getting students to office hours? Are there any things that we could do differently to get students in office hours?

 

What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – Teaching the Content

I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party this past weekend, and a parent asked what I do. When I responded that I teach history at a community college, he proceeded to tell me about his own experience. He came to this country as a senior in high school and had to take American history to graduate. He then went off to college and took American history there the next year. His comment was that he thought it was a waste of time to take college-level history, as it was just a repeat of what he had been taught in high school. That further convinced me that my approach to teaching college-level history is heading in the right direction, as I know that my class is nowhere near just a repeat of what the students would have gotten in high school. In fact, the top comment that I get in my discussion forums is how the students have not heard much of anything that I teach before coming to my class.

That brings me to the first part here of what I do in the online teaching environment for history. For a long time, teaching history has been focused around the narrative, with the feeling that, if you do not speak about every single detail of American history that you can squeeze in, then you are failing to do your job. I hear that from my colleagues here and elsewhere that, every time we are asked to do something besides teaching the narrative, we are taking time away from what we are supposed to be doing. When I get to Part 2 of this series, talking about my hybrid courses, I will talk about a course where I have started the break with the narrative approach to history. However, for Part 1 here, my online course is still largely a narrative course.

What makes my course different from a high school course is: What narrative are you teaching? My students have to cover the material in multiple different ways online, getting the narrative from multiple sources and perspectives.

In the old style, the narrative came from two sources — the instructor and the textbook. The instructor presented the “true” content for the course, and the textbook covered all the cracks where the instructor either did not have enough time or did not present on topics he or she wasn’t all that interested in. These two sources largely matched in approach, and student success in class came in how closely they could match the instructor and textbook approaches on their multiple-choice and essay exams.

I have so many different perspectives in my class that there is no single source of information. As well, throughout all of it, I do not insist on a coverage model at all, as we will have some material that we will spend a lot of time on and others that we will not. At the base, here are the sources that my students have:

  • My lectures (presented in both a Word document and as audio podcasts)
  • The textbook (1-2 chapters each week)
  • 7-10 primary sources with detailed assessments on each through the semester
  • Crash Course US History videos from YouTube
  • 10-20 additional resources on the web each week.
    • These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
      • documentaries
      • podcasts
      • newspaper articles
      • magazine articles
      • journal articles
      • slideshows
      • online museum exhibits

The only part of the above that is not required are the additional resources, but I know that students are reading them because of what they talk about in the discussion forums (which will be a later post). I will have one student post what they find interesting in a resource, and then another student will say that inspired them to read/watch/listen to the resource. Then, they post about it, triggering another couple of students, and so forth.

It is a lot of material, but, of course, in an online course, I can ask for them to do that material and hope they do it. I try to have assessments tied to all of it except the additional resources, whether it be in textbook quizzes, assessments on primary sources, or broad-based essay questions that cover the lectures and Crash Course Videos. The evidence overall shows that students are definitely accessing some of it, with the better students accessing all of it.

I feel that the coverage that I give them works well, as I hear from them regularly. I have a lot of avenues for students to talk to me about their progress in the course, and they find the material manageable and interesting, which means I am meeting the goal I am looking for.

As I move forward in developing material, I do want to do more.

  • First, I am looking to redo my lectures. They are the ones that I first developed in teaching American history almost 15 years ago, and I know they are dated. They are largely still on the coverage model, and updating them would allow me to have the lectures be more of a deep dive into the interesting material for the subject and allow the textbook to remain as the one source still tied to the coverage.
  • Second, I would like to diversify my assessments to focus more on the skills that I am looking for students to learn rather than just their memorization of the material. I have been fairly successful so far in doing that, but I know I could do more (which I will discuss in the assessment part of this discussion of what I do).

For right now, I am moderately happy with my content coverage, and, if I could do that first one, especially, I think I would have my online history course in a very good place.

Do any of you who read this teach history or another introductory subject? What do you remember from when you took introductory history?