Tag Archive | academic success

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 Education – 04/28/2012 – Mentoring college students

I went up to campus yesterday on my day off to a meeting centered around a new push to mentor our students.  I have been on our college’s retention committee for two years now, and we are starting to see some of our ideas floating up through the bureaucracy of the college and becoming an actual part of what we do.  Some of the changes so far have been with regard to easing registration, requiring students to visit their instructors to get drop slips signed, introducing a small set of students to a “how to do college” class, and so forth.  The faculty side of things has largely been left out of the changes so far, but one of the things that I have been pushing for is starting to come into existence.  I believe that students should have actual faculty advisors that they talk to, not for setting up schedules, but for more general college advice and help making it through the college process.  Thus, we now have the beginning of a mentoring program.  It will be slowly launched in a pilot program this fall, and the meeting yesterday was the first in a series of meetings to gain interest and see who would be willing to use their time for this.

The program itself, from what I understand, will be aimed fairly narrowly at first.  We will be advising first-time-in-college, first-semester, full-time students.  Out of our 5000 or so students, that means about 3-400 students that we will be directly mentoring in this first batch.  I fully applaud this idea.  I would love to see it expanded soon, but I know that it has to start somewhere.  As the program sits now, we will be given 5-10 of these students to mentor, with the expectation that we will try to meet with them around three times a semester, serving as a person they can talk to about college, get advice from, and use as a sounding board.  These are students who need all the help they can get, but, honestly, there’s probably not a single student on campus who could not use some set of advice.

This was echoed in this article from the Chronicle recently.  In it, community colleges are admonished to stop blaming others for the problems of students not succeeding and doing what they can internally to improve this.  I think the retention work we have been doing, and this mentoring program as a part of it, is a good step along the way toward creating better chances for success among our students.  As well, the second point from the article is also part of this.  She says that colleges, especially community colleges, need to be better at guiding students through the process.  Right now, our students, without a serious amount of advice outside of preparing schedules each semester, blunder forward until they have reached enough credits to do something with them.  For many, the idea of a degree plan, a goal outside of taking their “basics,” or even what it takes to graduate, is something that only the most academically involved and prepared students have.  A mentoring program can help focus the students in on their plans and help with general academic planning throughout their career.  If we can get them in, out, and done, we will be succeeding.  The longer they take, the more likely they are to not succeed.  As well, the less focused they are, the less likely they are to reach a satisfactory conclusion to their academic career.  Hopefully this mentoring program can get them going with that.

Programs like this are also an answer to the question of how we measure student progress.  Right now, we are in this wave of measuring, one that looks at the progress that students make academically as they proceed through college.  This article from The New York Times illustrates that, discussing the need for something that can measure progress and pointing out the different ways this is currently done.  I think an equally valid measure is what success the students have in reaching their goals, regardless of specific success in a specific course.  With a mentoring and advising program, that can be helped, as we can work with students who are often lacking in a real idea of what they want to do. This group we will be dealing with is especially unconnected to the traditional measures of success and progress, as they have no family experience to fall back on as to what they should be doing in college.  What they know is that they are supposed to go to college to get something (often undefined) and that by taking classes they will somehow get there.  I know we are not the first place to ever put in place an advising program, and I know that success with the program will depend on both instructor and student participation.  However, if we can even point half of these students in a more productive direction, then we will have success.  If they can come out with a better idea of what they need to be doing, what classes will get them there, and what they can do with the classes/degree afterwards, then we will have helped them along the way.