Thoughts on Teaching – A Depressing Class – 9/19/2013
I know I missed last week, so I will try to double up this week on posts. This first one concerns last week’s class, which was quite depressing. That is one reason that I did not have the motivation or energy to write about it last week. Yet, I want to make sure to write about my class weekly, and so, I am not going to leave last week out. I just needed some cool down time before I set anything down on “paper.”
So, here’s what happened:
For my hybrid class, I have the last assignments close on Sunday night at midnight. That means that I spend Monday going through and entering grades from the previous week. So, we were essentially heading into Week 3 of my class at that point, and I had a chance to see, before I met them that week, how the previous assignments had gone. In addition to the normal weekly assignments, however, I also had a set of assignments that I call the Initial Assignments and Orientations, which is a basic set of things like reading the syllabus, signing up for the textbook site, taking a few introductory surveys, and the like. To get credit, you simply have to complete these things, at which point I will give you a 100. If you do not do them, you get a 0. It counts for 5% of the overall grade. Largely, I see it as an assignment to get the students going and get them comfortable in the classroom. So, I was entering both the grades for that assignment and for the weekly assignments due just before. What I found was a completely dismal set of grades. This has nothing to do with my online class but is unique to my hybrid class this semester. When the only grade on the orientation assignment is either a 100 or 0, then a class average of 50 means that only half of the people did the assignment. And, I had between a 45 and 55 average with the hybrid sections, meaning that roughly half of the class did not do them. The assignment had been open for the first 12 days of the semester, and only half of the students had bothered to complete it. Then, as I was entering the weekly grades, I noted that not only had a significant minority not done the chapter assignments they had in the textbook website, but that about a quarter of my students had not even signed up yet, even though we were already two chapters into the assignments at that point.
That made me rather depressed right there. The assignments that I have set out as graded assignments, and, not to mention, the first graded assignments of the semester, are not being completed by my students. Then, I took a dangerous turn for the worst. I had set up the students for the coming week to do three things — to access my online lectures, complete two chapters in the textbook, and view some video lectures on an external site. What the students don’t know is that I can directly track who does what in my LMS (Learning Management System), as the LMS allows me to see how many “clicks” there have been on each thing that I have given the students to do. That is always a depressing thing to look at, because it puts directly in your face as a teacher how few students are bothering to access the material you are requiring them to do. What I found confirmed my suspicions, as a dismally small number of students had accessed anything at all in preparation for that week’s activities. They had not read my online lectures. They had not completed the textbook material. They had not looked at the external link to the video lectures. When I say they had not, I mean that the number of clicks in the classroom equalled about 1/4 of the students in the class. That is even optimistic, as it assumes that each click is a distinct student, which is not necessarily true.
The problem with this is probably obvious. I assigned something, and the students did not do it. Beyond that, however, I am currently employing the flipped model of classroom, which means that the students access the central “lecture” material for the course outside of the classroom, and then we apply the material in classroom activities. So, if the students are not prepared, we cannot work.
So, all of that is depressing enough, but what made it a depressing class is that I then had to address this in class. I have to have a talk with students every semester that I teach. It is the nature, especially, of a community college that the students are not ready for college. They do not know what it means to be in college, and most approach it as just an extension of high school. We have a large DFW rate each semester (a D (which does not transfer), and F, or a withdrawal. It usually runs between 40-50% of students in the freshman core classes, like mine. We have done everything we can to try and fix this, and one of the things I have to do is have that heart-to-heart talk every semester about what they are doing here in college. I ask them directly to think about why they are there. I ask them to consider what is making them come to college and whether they are putting out the effort necessary to succeed. I also talk about what it means to be successful in college. And, honestly, I ask them to consider if this is something they value at all. I point out that nobody is making them show up to class, do the work, and so forth. I can do everything on my end to try and get them to succeed, but if they can’t meet me at least halfway, then it will be a failure. This is not high school, and nobody is going to get a C for showing up. I can and will fail them, which is something that most have not heard before. I ask them to consider what it is they are wasting by being in college and wasting the opportunity they have — whether its money, their time, my time, another student’s chance to be in the class, or whatever. I am blunt. I am direct. And, I am not particularly nice about it. I don’t like doing this, which makes for a depressing week, as I then had to do the same thing in all of the other classes that week, which meant that day-by-day I had to drag myself to class to deliver one depressing talk after another. And, sadly, I don’t know if it does any good. I can’t know, really, and that is also depressing.
A week of depressing talk later, and I, as you can probably imagine, really didn’t have much interest in blogging about it. Now, I am a couple of days out of it, and things are a bit further in my mind, leaving me able to talk about it without getting all worked up again.
And, in case you were wondering, after having that talk, no, the rest of the class that day did not go particularly well either.
Thoughts on Education – Teaching Mistakes I – 8/1/2013
I came across an article recently that had me reading a long list. I’m not crazy about lists, but when I use them, I try to keep them short (under 5-6). I also write a lot in general, so a long list format doesn’t work great for me because I tend to make each item way too long. But this one was interesting to me, and should be interesting to anyone who teaches or takes classes. The article is The 67 Worst Teaching Mistakes. What was interesting to me was that the list was not produced by some editor at an online publication somewhere, as those types of lists tend to be so vague and general as to be completely useless. Instead, this list came from user submitted mistakes, all submitted by current educators with both their names and institutions included in the list. This makes it inherently more interesting and worth looking at. Here are some of the highlights that I agree with:
3. Always standing behind the lectern – This is something I have come more and more to do as I move forward with my teaching. In fact, I believe teaching from any single spot is a drawback, as it easily lulls the students into a torpor upon looking at the same spot for 75 minutes. I may walk around excessively, but it is better than standing still the whole time.
7. Talking too much or doing too much – I fail at this every day I teach. I am a talker by nature, and I have a hard time controlling myself in a classroom setting. I know I say too much, and I know I don’t leave enough time for the students to speak.
26. Telling students they must read the textbook or other materials and then not following up on that requirement – I have been working on this one, but it is something I do not do well. I don’t like having my students read a textbook, but it is something that is a requirement in my department, and so I have to. My feelings on textbooks in general are mixed, as I don’t find them to be very useful, and I think students rarely get much out of reading them. At the same time, however, I can’t assume that my students have a strong level of knowledge on my subject prior to my classes, so there has to be something there to give them the basics. As well, since I do a hybrid, flipped classroom, they have to get this information from outside of class in some way, and the textbook is the least objectionable form for it. Because of all of this, I am not good at integrating the actual material into my course. There are chapter quizzes, but they are separate from anything else in my class, making them disconnected. This was the biggest negative comment about my class from last semester, and I am working on ways to improve the integration of the required readings into my course.
30. Testing for knowledge and understanding of course content through multiple-choice tests and exams only – This is what inspired me to move to a hybrid, flipped model of teaching, as I strongly believe that rote memorization is an abject failure of teaching in the history classroom.
65. Believing that you are the answer person for the students, that you should never admit that you don’t know something, because students might lose respect for you as the professor – Although this one is directly contradicted by some of the other mistakes here, I do believe this one is spot on. I teach my class in a way that has the students question everything, and I could not do that and then set myself up as infallible. I admit when I don’t know the answer, and I usually hedge a lot of my answers with something like “My understanding is . . .” or “This is how it is currently understood . . .” The key is that history is changing, and there are many topics that we don’t know the answer to. If you present history as a completed subject, then you are just asking the students to memorize the accepted answers. I want my students to think, and the course is centered around that. I want them to question what they know, what they are told, and what the “truth” is, and I would be failing them if I presented myself as the ultimate source on everything.
Those are the ones that stuck out to me as ones that I have tried to work on or agree with very strongly. That’s not to say that others aren’t relevant as well, but I don’t want to just sit here and comment on all of them. As this post is already of a pretty decent length, I’m going to make this one part 1. In my next post, I’ll go through the same list and talk about the ones I disagree with. So, keep an eye out here for part 2.
Thoughts on Education – 2/28/2012 – Blogging in the class
I’ve been meaning to do this post for a bit, but my grading has distracted me from other things.
I attended a webinar last Thursday on the subject of blogging in the classroom. It was led by two authors of blogs and attended by several others running blogs in the classroom. In this case, the focus was history, and I found the fantastic blog Teaching United States History through the chat. We bounced around ideas among the 15-20 people active in the webinar, and I found it productive and academically stimulating. The primary discussion centered around how blogs could be used and how they could be evaluated as part of an assignment. I can’t say we came to any profound conclusions, but I enjoyed the time there and hopefully have made some contacts in the broader blogging community out there. I wish I had more time to devote right now, but I’m just able to get out these short posts right now.
So, here are some of my thoughts on blogging.
- As I’ve been exploring the “flipped” classroom idea, the question keeps coming up of how to evaluate the students. Weekly quizzes are an obvious way to get the students to do the work, but I’ve never really felt that quizzes truly evaluate much more than basic recall. LearnSmart through McGraw-Hill is a bit better, but at its heart, it is still a quiz. I also don’t really want to get weekly papers from the students, as I’m the one who then gets to grade them. So, something ongoing like a blog could be ideal.
- There is a danger with a blog that is not well defined. I tried wikis that were worked on over the course of a semester, but 90% of students did them all at the end of the semester. If I did not have weekly requirements for the blogs, most students would not do them until the last minute. And, if I have weekly requirements, then I’m back to grading something from every student every week.
- I like the idea of an informal blog for the students. It would be required but be open ended in what they write. But then, would they post well? Would I get what I want out of them, or would they turn into a busywork exercise of the students?
Just a few things I’ve been thinking about. What do you think?
Thoughts on Education – 2/2/2012
I was reviewing some articles that I thought I might write about here, but I really didn’t come across much that I found incredibly useful in the last couple of days. I had picked out a couple of articles on gaming in the classroom, thinking from the titles and blurbs that they would be interesting, but I didn’t come up with much. The best, probably, is this one from the New York Times. It’s ok, but it has the same flaws that I see in so many of these articles, namely that it says this would be a great idea but then fails to provide any resources or solid examples. So, the theory might be great, but what am I supposed to do with it? I feel that way about a lot of the educational “advancements” out there. They always sound great, but how do they actually work? That’s why I like the idea of the “flipped” classroom model, as I have seen more about how that works than anything else.
The interesting thing about the flipped classroom is that everyone starts off the article saying how it is an obvious fit for math and science, but they think it could probably work for the humanities and social sciences as well (see this one for example or this one that is even advertised as flipping a history class but uses a chemistry video to show how its done). But that doesn’t seem as obvious to me by any means. As this article from another blog here in WordPress shows, the real idea behind flipping is a pretty natural fit for teachers from all areas. As he says, “I think good teachers have been doing this sort of thing, well . . . forever.” I have to agree in general, as what else is a discussion section or anything like that anyway. Yet, making the next step and giving up the lecture is a much bigger one. Is a better model the one from my grad school days — the large lecture two days a week and then a discussion section the last day? Yet, I was never satisfied with those, as it never seemed like the students were all that prepared to discuss. They wanted the material delivered to them, not to have to interact with it in a meaningful way. The level of engagement was low, as it often is in my discussion classes today, where about a third of the class is actively participating, another third is paying attention, and the rest are completely tuned out. I just wonder what incentives would be needed to get a higher level of engagement. Because without students paying attention and participating, this will be a failure.
How about these ideas/questions?
- Would the students be more willing to do a serious amount of work outside of class if they only met one day a week?
- What sort of incentives would be needed to get the students to do the required work ahead of time? A required one-page response? Completion of a mastery quiz? Completion of a blog post?
- What do you do with students that have not, despite all incentives, done any of the required work? Do you have daily grades that they essentially don’t get? Do you kick them out? Do you let them stay on the assumption that it’s better for them to hear what’s going on even if they haven’t done the prior work?
Just some practical questions that I’ve had running through my head while I’ve been reading over things. I actually got some of these questions while wandering through an H-Net discussion over flipped classrooms. It is a bit hard to follow, as you’ve got to delve through the forums, but there were a lot of good pros and cons raised about the flipping idea, and I feel that it is really worth reading for anyone considering something like this. Even though H-Net is history focused, the ideas are mostly general and could apply to any discipline.
By the way, this one is the absolute best article on flipped classrooms for those of us in the humanities and social sciences. It covers the usual major criticisms of flipped classrooms and refutes each quite well. I’m not going to go back and repeat them here, but I will just recommend you go and see for yourself.