In Part 2 of this series, I am going to look at why I decided to introduce and include student reflection in my courses.
I started out using what I called reflection responses in my hybrid class, largely as a check on making sure that students were actually paying attention in class to what we were talking about. The first two semesters I used them, they took the form of questions that I posted in the last 5 minutes of class, with the answers due the next day. This both helped make sure the students stayed for the whole class and helped me see if they were understanding the main points from the day. I was reasonably happy about this method, but in a class that is discussion-based, the difficulty was both in making sure I ended with enough time to write out a question and in not being able to set the question before that point in time as I did not know how the discussion might go. As it became more of a burden, I moved to a new type of reflection in my hybrid courses the next semester.
In Spring 2019, I changed over the reflection responses in my hybrid course, giving the first ones that look like the assignment I discussed in Part 1 of this series. I started using a set series of questions that were released on the day of the class and then due the next day, giving them about 36 hours to complete them. While they were not tied specifically to the discussion, I still tied them to the larger themes of that week in the class. Again, that worked reasonably well.
In Spring 2019, I attended the TxDLA conference in Galveston, TX, and heard another session on the ideas of having the students do self-reflection. It was not the first time at all, but it was the one that really triggered me to consider expanding their use. That conference also started getting me to think about reflection more as a way to have the students set their own goals for how they would complete the material and allow me to check in on both their progress in the course and their overall attitudes each week.
In combination with the ideas from the conference, I had reformatted my online course in the 2018-19 school year, moving from weekly due dates to a unit format, with each unit being open for 3-5 weeks and all assignments in the unit due at the end of the unit. I was overall pleased with how that was going, but a certain percentage of students were waiting until the last minute every unit and then not being able to complete everything. For other students, they were really confused on what they should be doing each week, as they could not plan well enough to be able to spread out the material to get it all done in a 3-5 week period.
So, in Fall 2019, I introduced the reflection responses as I detailed in Part 1. The immediate benefits were that I could help direct the students in what they should be working on each week to keep on track. The questions asked also put it in their own minds that they did need to plan out how they were spending their time in the course. I also used the “nudge” approach by mentioning certain upcoming assignments in the middle questions, getting them to realize that certain deadlines or assignments were coming up that they might not have on their radar yet. I saw an immediate improvement in their own self-reported progress in the course, although I have not had a chance yet to go back and run any comparison numbers to see what it might have changed in grades.
The bigger surprise was the answers to the final question — the open-ended one. From the beginning, a good 1/2 to 2/3 of the students were answering that question. I was getting at least a paragraph and sometimes multiple paragraphs about what was going on in their lives. I started having a much better sense of what their lives were like and what challenges they were facing outside of class. I also heard about birthdays, celebrations, pets, relatives, accidents, funerals, successes, failures, and just about everything else you can imagine. While I can say that not all of what they wrote were things that I necessarily wanted to know, it kept me appraised of what they were doing with their lives and how they were fitting my class in with everything else going on. I had a better idea of why one student might not be completing assignments on time or why another student might need an extension on an assignment. I could see ahead of time when a student might be struggling with something, and I could send congratulations to them when something positive happened.
Over the past two semesters, I have found the whole process to be very rewarding. In the next post, I will talk more about the student response to the reflections they were asked to fill out.
Back to your normally scheduled educational blogging. I’m feeling better finally, and I’m going to take a bit of time to blog here before starting on my main job for today, which is going to be grading.
The beginning has to be the continuing discussion of the assessment of how much students learn in their college education. The latest information that has been released shows a further problem with our higher education system: “While press coverage of Academically Adrift focused mostly on learning among typical students, the data actually show two distinct populations of undergraduates. Some students, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, matriculate well prepared for college. They are given challenging work to do and respond by learning a substantial amount in four years. Other students graduate from mediocre or bad high schools and enroll in less-selective colleges that don’t challenge them academically. They learn little. Some graduate anyway, if they’re able to manage the bureaucratic necessities of earning a degree.” With teaching at a community college, I do, unfortunately, see mostly those from the second half. And, as I know from experience, when people think of college students, they don’t think of the students I have. Instead, as has been noted, the people who talk about educational policy mostly come from that first group and the people who create educational policy come from that first group. Students like mine are generally ignored in the debate about what to do about academics, which is why I often find the advice and discussion about education to be somewhat irrelevant to who I teach. In fact, even the failures of my students (and there are many) are generally seen as a failure on the part of the student. We blame the students for failing, even when they come into a system not designed for them and where their needs and abilities are not dealt with in a constructive manner. I don’t mean to say that the community college system or my community college is failing, it is just that when I have an expectation that 30-50% of my students will either withdraw, fail, or get a D out of my course, then we have to be working at a different standard. You don’t see that at elite or even normal 4-year colleges, yet most of what you see out there that involves higher education deals with those students. There are some community college specific resources, but they don’t drive the national conversation about education.
As this report shows, that bottom level of college students are more likely to come out of school with few skills and few prospects, where the likelihood is that they “are more likely to be living at home with their parents, burdened by credit-card debt, unmarried, and unemployed.” And, that makes it more difficult to justify an education to the students and to justify the cost of that education to those who pay for it. Of course, as I have noted so many times, articles like this love to point out the problems, but they never say much of anything about solutions. In fact, the implication of the end of the article is that maybe this research isn’t really correct and that we need to do our own research to find out the real truth. But I see the failures every day. We know that a certain number of students will simply never make it through, no matter what we do. It is sad, but it is true. But are we giving value to the rest of the students is the real question. I hope that we are, and I know that our current assessment craze is trying to prove that. I guess I don’t have anything more profound than that to say about it. It is definitely one of those things that makes teaching hard and makes justifying the money and time spent on teaching hard. But the question to ask always is, would we prefer a system where we never give any but the top people a chance at an education?
I came across two other related articles on teaching that I thought I would talk about for the rest of this blog post:
I picked this one because it is one of the things that pisses me off over and over in reading articles about changes in teaching. Here’s the reason: “Science, math and engineering departments at many universities are abandoning or retooling the lecture as a style of teaching, worried that it’s driving students away.” Where are the humanities and social sciences in this? Why is it only STEM that is trying to make changes. Yes, I can find a few history sites out there, but overwhelmingly if you’re talking about changing up education or the use of technology, it comes back over and over to STEM as the place where changes come from. So, wonderful, colleges are looking beyond the lecture in these areas because students aren’t succeeding with the lecture. Does that mean the lecture is working elsewhere? Or is it because the lecture is such an expected part of other areas of education that we don’t even question its utility.
So, the article goes on to talk about the challenges of the lecture system — low student learning, the ability of students to get the same information elsewhere, and low retention. What is interesting is the last part of the article that talks about the solutions, which is mostly to stop lecturing. While they don’t use the term “flipping” the classroom in this article, that is what is discussed over and over. So, nothing really new over things I have discussed in the past. What is interesting is that most of the solutions talk about “experimental” classes that are tiny in comparison to the large lecture classes. But, is that an acceptable solution? Obviously, we have large classes because that’s what makes the most monetary sense, and we are not going to switch to a situation where there are no more big classes. So, I found the solutions here to be unrealistic.
This article is certainly related to the last, and I include it here, as this is the direction that everyone looking at education reform is looking at, based simply on how many articles there are out there. It is, of course, also what I am considering, which is why I pull every article like this out to look at more closely. But then, what do I see? “The physics department has replaced the traditional large introductory lecture with smaller classes that emphasize hands-on, interactive, collaborative learning.” Back to STEM. Back to ending the large classes. Sigh.
Of course, if we had the money and resources, I would certainly jump at trying this: “At M.I.T., two introductory courses are still required — classical mechanics and electromagnetism — but today they meet in high-tech classrooms, where about 80 students sit at 13 round tables equipped with networked computers. Instead of blackboards, the walls are covered with white boards and huge display screens. Circulating with a team of teaching assistants, the professor makes brief presentations of general principles and engages the students as they work out related concepts in small groups. Teachers and students conduct experiments together. The room buzzes. Conferring with tablemates, calling out questions and jumping up to write formulas on the white boards are all encouraged.” But, we don’t have that type of classroom, those types of rooms to work with, teaching assistants, or anything like that. Plus, as the first article made the distinction, is this something that only works with the top level of college students or could it work for the bottom as well? A big question that I do not know the answer to. But since this is where the current push to change the system is going, I am trying to find out all that I can.
That’s why I started with the first article, as I think that we do design and think about the top level of students first, but that often leaves the bottom level out. And, I teach a good portion of students who are at that bottom level. I am trying to change their opportunities, but so often it does seem like the solutions I’m looking at require more money, time, and resources than are available to me. And yet, we’re also facing continuous budget cuts because even at the level we are now, we seen as being too expensive. I don’t know what this means, but it does make the job more difficult. Being innovative, creative, and improving student success on the cheap is very difficult.