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.
This has been a mixed semester so far. I really thought it was going to be a rough one after the first week, which I referenced in my last post. I got everything cleaned up from my first mistake of having the incorrect link up for my classroom, and things have been fairly smooth since then. I always forget from one fall semester to the next how clueless about how to work online many of these students are in their first classes at college. Many students get shuttled into online classes as they work well with any schedule and are often perceived as easier than face-to-face classes. Yet, many have had no experience with online classes and really have trouble in those first weeks of classes. So, I end up doing a lot of technical support and repetition of information to the students as they try to grasp what they need to do. Luckily, by the time you get to the third week, most of that is behind, and the rest of the next couple of weeks is mostly maintaining the course and keeping it going.
What is interesting is how these first weeks are the same every semester. If I could somehow get it through to all of my students, I would set up a couple of things:
- The reaction I get from students who are taking their first online class with me is that my class is complicated and hard to understand. By contrast, any student who is coming into my class from other classes (and often the same students who were confused at first by the end of the semester) comments on how well laid-out and straightforward it is. I wish I could tell those students more directly that they will get used to it.
- Read the course outline. Again, read the course outline. And, read it again. Have a question? Read the course outline. Have a specific question? Look in that section of the course outline and see if I have answered it already.
- If you have a question that you can’t find the answer to, let me know as soon as possible. Do not wait until the second or third week to ask me a question that you had from the first moment in the class. By then, assignments will have come due, and it will be harder to fix things.
- Come by and talk to me if you have any questions. I can show you how everything works, and it often works better to show you how things are done rather than tell you.
You might think, well, why don’t you just say these things. The issue is that I do. In fact, I say them over and over. However, here is an example of what I am up against. Shortly after I wrote my last post, I got an email from a student. He said that some students (including him) were have trouble getting to the correct assignment and I should really tell the students about the problems there. If you will remember from my last post, the issue was that I had two contradictory links on how to access the textbook site in the classroom. I discovered this on Tuesday and corrected it at that point. So, I am getting this email about a week later telling me that I really needed to tell the students about this. As I then pointed out to that student, I had sent out 4 different announcements to students addressing this issue. I had also answered two questions posted in the questions forum in the class about this issue. I had answered about 20 different emails from students about this issue. So, when this student emails me telling me that I had not done anything to inform the students about this problem, I just had nothing left to say. And, this is the problem, no matter how many times I say anything, I can’t say it enough to reach every student.
So, what really is the answer is that I just have to keep my cool and remember that every student is new to this. Their problems are unique to them and they do not have the eight years of online teaching experience behind them. Unfortunately, this is not something I am particularly good with, as I get easily frustrated after dealing with issues over and over everyday. I just have to remind myself over and over about this.
The good thing is, by the third week, this section of troubleshooting and explaining is pretty much done. Some scattered issues with my online classes will come up, I’m sure, but things should be fairly stable until the first set of big assignments are due. I can’t say as much for my hybrid classes, but that will be another post.
Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.
But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.
So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.
I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.
So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.
No, not that president. I’m not that important. The college president stopped by and visited my class on Thursday. He did this last school year as well. I asked my Dean about that last year, and he said that the president considered it to be his right to stop in and see any class he wants to. At the same time, I don’t know of anyone else who has been visited, and I certainly don’t know of anyone who has had two visits in two years.
What was interesting, however, is that, unlike last year, the president talked to me this year afterwards, in an email. He made three observations:
- The students showed a striking lack of critical thinking.
- There was one student who was very disruptive.
- There was one student who was smoking a vapor cigarette in class.
So, how did I address those things.
For the first one, I confirmed what he saw. I said that students come to us from high school with very limited skills. They have very minimal critical thinking, writing, or reading skills. The nature of high school history in my state is dismal, with history generally being one of my students’ least favorite classes when they come to my class. Then, I talked about what I do with my students, that this is one of the big things that I emphasize over the course of my class, and that it is a very slow process to teach them something that they have not successfully learned in the 12 years before that. I also said that if I have the chance, that I generally see the biggest improvements when I have them for two semesters at a time. This is absolutely true. The students who stick with me and work through the assignments in my class over two semesters come out stronger. I’m not trying to brag, but when I can work with the same student for a whole school year, I can really start to make a difference.
On the second one, it was easy. I have an autistic student, and I have been warned by the college that he is likely to be disruptive. As he has as much of a right as any other student to be in my class, I have to manage it as best I can. The president agreed that I was doing the best job I could on that one.
The third took a bit of back and forth. The school policy is no tobacco products, and we have no policy on the vapor cigarettes. They apparently give off a water vapor when smoked, and, when I first saw it, I thought we had a fire in the classroom. After it was explained to me what it is, I really had no idea what to do with it, so I decided to let it go. However, the president was adamant that I should have stopped it in class, as it could be considered a distraction. What I replied back is that when we have no policy on those things specifically, then I really don’t know what to do about it. And, so, the result of that is that, as of Friday, we now have a policy on them that says we do not allow them in class.
So, it was an interesting day. Again, I don’t know if there’s any agenda in the president visiting my class two years in a row. But, like so many other things, I don’t really have any choice in the matter, and so, like so many other things, this is what we do.
I haven’t done any article reviews in a while, so I thought I’d sit down and hit my Evernote box a bit here. So, here we go.
The first article comes from the ProfHacker blog at the Chronicle of Higher Ed. As with so many others, the intent here is to look at way the future of the university system will be, and while I teach at a community college, and not a university, the ideas are still relevant. I also, of course, like the origin of this one, since it came out of a conference at my alma mater, Rice University. It starts off this way: “I sometimes hear that the classroom of today looks and functions much like the classroom of the 19th century—desks lined up in neat rows, facing the central authority of the teacher and a chalkboard (or, for a contemporary twist, a whiteboard or screen.) Is this model, born of the industrial age, the best way to meet the educational challenges of the future? What do we see as the college classroom of the future: a studio? a reconfigurable space with flexible seating and no center stage? virtual collaborative spaces, with learners connected via their own devices?” Certainly, my classrooms are set up that way, even my “other” classroom, the two-way video one, still has all of the emphasis on me. The article also noted: “With declining state support, tuition costs are rising, placing a college education further out of reach for many people. Amy Gutmann presented figures showing that wealthy students are vastly over-represented at elite institutions even when controlling for qualifications. According to Rawlings, higher education is now perceived as a “private interest” rather than a public good. With mounting economic pressures, the public views the purpose of college as career preparation rather than as shaping educated citizens. In addition, studies such as Academically Adrift have raised concerns that students don’t learn much in college.” I have posted up articles that talk about both of those things before, but this information from this conference really narrows it all down well. At its heart, what the article notes from the conference is that it is time to update the model to the Digital Age from our older Industrial Age. That we have adopted the multiple-choice exam and the emphasis on paying attention in class from this old Industrial model, where creating a standardized and regulated labor force was key. In the Digital Age, it will be important to “ensure that kids know how to code (and thus understand how technical systems work), enable students to take control of their own learning (such as by helping to design the syllabus and to lead the class), and devise more nuanced, flexible, peer-driven assessments.” Throughout the conference, apparently, the emphasis was on “hacking” education, overturning our assumptions, and trying something new. While the solutions are general in nature, I found this summary of the conference to be right up my alley, and certainly a part of my own thinking as I redesign. I wish I had known about the conference, as I would have loved to have attended.
Looking at the question from the opposite end is this article from The Choice blog at The New York Times. The blog post was in response to the UnCollege movement, that says that college is not a place where real learning occurs and that students would be better off not going to college and just going out and pursuing their own dreams and desires without the burden of a college education. What is presented here is some of the responses to that idea. A number of people wrote in talking about what the value of college is, so this gives some good baseline information on what college is seen as valuable for. Here are some of them:
- “a college degree is economically valuable”
- “college is a fertile environment for developing critical reasoning skills”
- several noted that you can get a self-directed, practical college education if you want it
- “opting out is generally not realistic or responsible, given the market value of a degree”
- “the true value of college is ineffable and ‘deeply personal,’ not fully measurable in quantifiable ways like test scores and salaries”
That’s just some of the responses, specifically the positive ones, as that’s what I’m looking at here. It is interesting to see the mix of practical things and more esoteric ideas. I think that both are hopefully a part of college education and that both are part of what we deliver. I would like to think that’s what my students are getting out of college in general, and I hope that the redesign that I am going for will help foster that even more. I especially hope to bring more of the second and fifth comments into what I am doing, as that is the side that I think a college history class can help with.
Then there is this rather disturbing article, again from The Chronicle of Higher Ed. It discusses the rising push for more and more online courses, especially at the community college level. As the article notes, that is often at the center of the debate over how to grant a higher level of access to the education experience for more and more people. But, with more emphasis being put on the graduation or completion end and less on the how many are enrolled end, this could end up putting community colleges at an even higher disadvantage. As one recent study put it, “‘Regardless of their initial level of preparation … students were more likely to fail or withdraw from online courses than from face-to-face courses. In addition, students who took online coursework in early semesters were slightly less likely to return to school in subsequent semesters, and students who took a higher proportion of credits online were slightly less likely to attain an educational award or transfer to a four-year institution.'” So, we are actually putting our students into more online classes that make them less likely to finish overall. In fact, they are not only less likely to finish, but they are less likely to succeed at that specific class or come back for later classes. As well, a different study pointed out similar problems for online students: “‘While advocates argue that online learning is a promising means to increase access to college and to improve student progression through higher-education programs, the Department of Education report does not present evidence that fully online delivery produces superior learning outcomes for typical college courses, particularly among low-income and academically underprepared students. Indeed some evidence beyond the meta-analysis suggests that, without additional supports, online learning may even undercut progression among low-income and academically underprepared students.'” This is disturbing to me, as this is exactly what I teach at least half of my schedule each semester in – the online environment exclusively. I know that success in an online class is difficult, although I have actually been slowly improving the success rate over time in my online sections. I think I’ve finally hit a good sweet spot with the online classes right now, and I’m less in need of fixing them at the moment. I do, however, agree with the very end of the article that says that what is often missing from the online courses is the “personal touch.” That is the only part of the class that I would like to change, as I need a way for me to be more active in the class right now. I can direct from the point of putting in Announcements and the like, but I do feel that I get lost in whatever the day to day activities are. I need to design some part of the class that has me participating more directly rather than leaving it up to the students. Otherwise, I do think I’m doing pretty well in this part of my teaching career.
OK. I think I’m going to call it a night here. Any reactions?
I can’t help but start today with a response to an article that I discussed in my last education post. The original article had students talking about what they didn’t like about the lecture format. This one has professors responding. I will be honest that the professor responses are quite underwhelming in my opinion. I don’t know if it is a result of editing that makes the professors less compelling than the students or what. In fact, the best response that I saw there was in the form of a PowerPoint, but the editing of the video made it impossible to read the PowerPoint fully in the time allotted for it. However, when paused, the best points are there, and they largely mirror the ones that I would make. That is, the the failure of lecture is the fault of both the instructor and the student. Since the fault of the instructor has already been raised, I’ll focus on the student side. Students are raised in our educational culture to see education as both something they will be guaranteed basic success at with not that much effort and as something that is a nuisance and waste of time. That combined attitude is hard to combat in a semester course, when the student is one of many sitting out there in a semester class. As well, when they get to college, most students have not encountered the straight-up lecture format before, and it is simply foreign. As the PowerPoint points out, the students are encountering a different form of education for the first time, and they are being asked to adapt to it. However, our current educational structure is so student-focused that the students are not expected to adapt anymore. They should be catered to completely and not asked to leave their comfort zone. When the students encounter the lecture format for the first time in college, they have gone through a life of having their own educational styles catered to over and over, and so their reaction to the lecture is what you would expect. They want what they want, not what we want. What is interesting about this is that I will repeatedly stand up for the right of myself and fellow instructors to grade differently (usually harder) and assess differently, but I am willing to explore different methods of content delivery because the students aren’t responding. I wonder why this is. I have made my own comments here about the lecture format, and I guess that’s it. I do agree that the lecture format is broken, so I have much more tolerance for trying something new.
Of course, what all of this leads into is the bigger question of what college is for. A couple of articles have passed through my Evernote on this topic as well recently. It always helps when the current presidential candidates are talking about it, as that leads to a number of related articles scattered throughout the news sphere. This one from The Washington Post tries to address this broad issue. I have been reading Michelle Singletary’s commentary on personal finance for a while, so I would have read this one even without the educational focus. She sets up the standard two sides of education here, asking, “Is college a time for young adults to just enrich their minds, or should students use that time to concentrate on a major that will prepare them for a career?” She comes solidly down on the second motivation, pretty much dismissing the idea that college should be a time to take whatever classes you want, get whatever degree you want, and just explore. Her point is primarily financial, which makes sense as she is a financial correspondent. She believes that the financial cost of education these days means that students do not have the ability to learn for the sake of learning and need to be focused on what they can get for their education. She does not completely dismiss the idea of education for education’s sake, but she definitely comes down on the side of a practical education. I can’t say I disagree, but I certainly did the opposite. I don’t think I ever got a practical degree, and I feel lucky to have looked for a job and gotten one with my MA in History just before the recent financial collapse. My wife is just finishing up a BA in Art History, and we are currently trying to figure out what to do with that. So, I can understand. It is also at the root of why so many of my students ask me what they have to take history, as they see no practical use for it.
I just have to note this article from The Washington Post as well. It is from the Class Struggle blog on their site, and it gives a nice historical look at the idea of college. As Jay Matthews notes, “The outpouring of college student support after World War II fueled the unprecedented surge of the U.S. economy and its education system. This would be a good time to remember that before we start slipping back.” He notes the challenges facing the idea of college education all around, with Obama pushing more students to enter college, while Santorum is saying we should not. Matthews points out that we see a similar discrediting of education for all that was also seen just before the big push from the GI Bill. He warns us to remember that the benefits of education always seem to vastly outweigh the cost. I am never explicit about this when I teach my students directly. I do, however, always try to talk about the idea of education to my students and to place the education they are getting into a broader context for them. I hope that I do that reasonably well, but I know I could do more. I wonder at what level I need to be doing something like this, talking more about college in the historical sense. I know that the students generally don’t get much direct discussion of the value of college, so we would probably do well to talk ourselves up.
I’m going to close here, as the next article I want to talk about probably needs its own post. Just as a preview, this is the article I want to discuss in some detail. Your homework – read it ahead. OK, just kidding, but it is quite interesting.