Yes, this sounds like I am going to talk about my students failing this semester, and, to be honest, I will in a roundabout way. However, in reality, what I am writing about is my own failure this semester. I tried something new, as I do every semester. And, I can honestly say that it has not worked. I feel like I have failed the students, although, in reality what I have done is to make it easier for them to fail themselves. As there is so much pressure on us to help the students succeed, I certainly do feel that I have done them a disservice and made at least a few of my students less successful that they would have otherwise been.
What I did this semester was I did not assign weekly writing assignments to check and make sure the students were doing the work they were supposed to. To be clear, I did assign chapter readings and chapter work, so I was checking up on whether they were doing that part of the work. However, as a part of the hybrid-class model that I am using, the students have extra work each week, whether it be watching a documentary, reading some extra piece, or even completing a history game. Last year, I consistently had the students complete a response paper each week. This mostly was used to check on whether they had completed the work they were supposed to and provided a basis for a regular check and grade on their work each week. In the evaluation of the course last year, I heard back from students that, while they did not like writing something every week, they felt that it was helpful in making sure they were doing the work they were supposed to. The students said that they felt more prepared to discuss the material when they had been required to write a response paper about it.
With that said, it would seem stupid for me to not assign those response papers this semester, but, when it came down to what my weekly workload would look like, I chose to take them out. I was assigned an extra class at the last minute this semester, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester. Five of those classes are online, and so they are not affected by this change. It is only in my two hybrid classes that I decided to try running the class without the weekly responses. I was afraid of what the teaching load would look like if I added those extra grading pieces each week, and so I left them out. In retrospect, this was a bad idea. For one, my students have been noticeably less prepared this semester than last year. I have had to send them away twice this semester when I did go and check on whether they had done the assigned work, only to discover that they had not. The other reason this was a bad idea is that I have not been as burdened this semester by an extra class as I thought I would be. So, I could have easily done the response papers with little consequence on my overall work load.
What this leaves me with is that fact that I made students less likely to succeed, despite both knowing that they would do better with regular checks on what they were doing and despite having the time for the resulting grading. This is why I see this as a failure on my part. The check that I had built into the semester for them doing the extra work to prepare for class was that they have a discussion grade for the class that counts for 25% of the overall grade. It turns out that this grade is too abstract for the students to care about on a weekly basis. The level of participation has been lower this semester, and the quality of participation has been low as well. Given the opportunity to have no checks on whether they have done the work or not, most students have chosen not to do the work and not be prepared for class. I know this should come as no surprise, and, if I had thought it through more, I would have easily realized this. This, again, is why I put the failure on myself. I did put out the rope for my students to either grab on to or hang themselves with, and most of my students chose the latter.
I do not know how this class will fall out at the end, but I have a feeling that my grades and pass rates are going to be horrendous for the hybrid classes this semester. Obviously, I know what to do to fix it next semester. However, it still sits heavily on me that I have let these students fail out when I could have done something to help them. Sigh.
I am, again, late on discussing what I am doing on a week-by-week basis in my class. This week, my excuse is that we had an accident last Friday. In the rain, we hydroplaned on the freeway and were hit by an 18-wheeler. Everyone came out ok, but the car is going to be in the shop for a while. So, blogging has been kind of the last thing on my mind as we’ve been dealing with the fallout from the accident.
But, I do want to talk about what I am doing each week in my hybrid class, and so, this is what we did in Week 4, even though we just finished up Week 5. The topic for the class was — religion. I set up the discussion with a disclaimer. From my experience, religion is something that is just not discussed in much detail in most history classes, except in a mostly cursory manner. I will take out two of the classes this semester and talk exclusively about religion, once with the First Great Awakening and once with the Second Great Awakening. Yet, discussing religion in class is hard. It is an extremely personal subject, and it is hard to discuss it without people making it about themselves.
To set up the discussion, I had the students do two things — watch part 1 of a documentary called God in America and read a sermon from the First Great Awakening. As to discussion, we approached religion in two ways. First, we looked at the impact of the clash of religions between the arriving Europeans and the people who were already there. There were two basic things we took from that:
- That you cannot believe in a religion without believing that you are completely correct and that people who believe otherwise are wrong.
- That the idea of evangelicalism in religion is a difficult thing to achieve, as it is based upon the assumption that you simply have to tell people who have not heard the good word before simply have to hear about your religion and they will then convert.
With those two things as our base starting point, we worked from there. We discussed how religion shaped the colonies as they developed, looking at the assumptions on both sides and the rise of a religious idea in the colonies. We then moved rather quickly forward to the First Great Awakening, talking about what the older forms of religion had become by a century or so later and what the new ideas of the Great Awakening were. We talked about why the people in the Awakening felt that there was a religious problem in America by the mid-1700s and what their solution was. I did not do as good of a job here as I would have liked to, as I never really brought in the sermons explicitly. That’s a bad idea, as I need to hold the students directly responsible for the readings that I assign them. Still, the discussion went reasonably well, especially with the two points above in the bank already. We talked about the importance of the ideas of the Awakening in moving toward a new form of American religion as well as the push toward a break with old English ways that would be important for the ideas of the Revolution.
Overall, I think the class went reasonably well. We finished up tying everything back to the theme of unity or division in the colonies, and we left with the good historians answer — yes and no. The Awakening unified because it was a common experience among the colonists, yet it divided as the Awakening ended up dividing many in America over religious ideas. I closed everything with my final thoughts on the Awakening, that it was one of the most important pre-Revolutionary movements that is really not talked about very much in a lot of history classes.
As I mentioned above, the only problem I really have with it is that I did not actually directly discuss the documentary or the readings that much. I need to be holding them more directly responsible for the assignments that I have set for them. It is hard, as I know that a lot are not doing anything, yet, I am encouraging them not to do anything by not holding them responsible. It’s a bit of a catch-22.
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.
Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class. I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester. I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today. But, I digress from my main point today.
This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class. I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class. I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.
These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:
- what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
- what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
- why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
- why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
- what we can learn about the United States today from this era
I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann. This is what I wrote on the board: The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence. Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.” I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like. I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information. In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.
The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies. I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion. This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still. I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much. Still, I think it went pretty well today.
As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion. The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall. They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point. Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of history. We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.
Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day. I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways. We shall see.
I just finished up the first “week” of the hybrid class. The real first week was taken up with orienting the students to the class and introducing the format (as I detailed here). Since then, I have been seeing each of my sections for the first time with real work to do. I divided the class up so that each student only meets once a week, and, since Labor Day was last Monday, we just finished up the first round of classes today.
For this week, I had the students do the usual stuff – access my lectures and read the textbook. However, the activity in class centered around the students watching a video and then having a discussion in class. As this is the first half of American history, we concentrated in on the Spanish conquest and the motivations for coming to the New World. For that purpose, I chose a video that looks at the transformations that occurred on both sides of the exchange between cultures. I would have loved to have had the students watch the documentary Guns, Germs, and Steel, but that is not available for free and is not available streaming for my students. Even more, I would have loved to have them read the book, but that is even more impossible at this stage. So, I settled on one offered free and streaming through pbs called When Worlds Collide. It is not bad, although the narrator does get on my nerves a bit.
The actual class day went like this:
- Troubleshooting/check in on progress
- Student introductions (I waited for the smaller groups for this)
- Questions about lecture/textbook content and Uncle Tom’s Cabin
- Discussion on the documentary
The discussion went well in all four classes. Nothing spectacular, as expected for the first time out. And, as expected, only around a third of the students actively participated. Since the grade is almost completely participation based, I’m going to assume that some more might be participating the next time out. I also, since it was the first time out with this discussion model, let the students largely direct the discussion. I tried to ask as few questions as I could and let them go where they wanted. I started each discussion with the “What did you think? What did you learn new?” set of questions, and, for the most part, that’s the most guidance I needed to do. Because of the other things, we only had about 30-40 minutes for the discussions, but that seemed to work pretty well. What was interesting is how different the four different discussions were. Even though the material was the same, each class went in different directions. We did cover many of the same topics, but, instead of a lecture that dictates exactly what each student will hear, this more free-ranging approach allowed the students to concentrate in on what they found interesting.
Another very interesting aspect of this approach was the number of times that I was asked a question. When lecturing, I rarely ever get stopped and asked questions by my students. The very mode of a lecture can be fairly prohibitive of that. With this format, though, I was asked multiple questions by the students. While some were asking about things they did not understand, the majority of the questions were more along the lines of asking for further information about what they were interested in. In that way, I feel that the discussion model was a success.
The drawback that is quite apparent at this point is that only about a third of students are participating. The rest just sit there. This class cannot work with only a third participation, and grades for the rest are going to be quite low otherwise. I am going to see how this next set of assignments work, as it will involve some in-class group work. We shall see what happens then.
Here we go, it is the second day of the semester, so I have met both my MW and TR class once so far. This is a new and interesting semester for me. We are teaching in our brand new academic building that has all of the latest technology in it. As well, I am teaching a completely redesigned course. If you followed my blog last semester, I talked about the push for redesign, and I have jumped in with both feet here. This is a fully hybrid class that takes on the “flipped” model of moving the lectures outside of class and reserving class time for applying the material.
I am teaching two sections of this newly redesigned class and four sections of my more traditional online class. So, I will have a direct comparison between the new class and one of my old models to see how it goes between them.
For the first day of class, it was largely a presentation of the class, ie. going through the syllabus and such. However, I talked mostly about why this class exists as it does and how my changes are intended to improve the learning process. Some of the big points I hit are:
- what is a hybrid class and what does it mean to meet only one day a week?
- what is a “flipped” classroom and what is the student responsibility that goes with that?
- what does active learning mean as opposed to passive learning?
- what does it mean to have a class graded on weekly participation?
- how is the new emphasis on research and sources going to play out in the class?
- and, of course, what is history and why is this a good method for studying it?
I was also very clear to the students that this is brand new. In fact, in one of my classes, I called it the beta version of the class. This is going to be an experiment on my part, and I told them to bear with me as we work through it, just as I will bear with them as they try to learn in a new way. I also explained the high hopes I have for them in the course and how we realistically might reach them. Finally, I told them that if they wanted a traditional, passive learning, lecture class, that they could go to most other history classes here.
I will try to update at least every week on this blog, as I have split the class in half, with each group meeting on only one day. Thus, every four days, I will go through the same set of assignments with each group. I will probably blog more, but this type of update will be at least weekly.
OK. So, I really wanted to post to say — I’M DONE! My first massive grading session is done. I have divided up my class this semester into 3 sections, which means that, at the end of each section, I have a large amount of grading to do. I just finished the first one. I’m, of course, the crazy one for assigning so much stuff, but I have this crazy idea that students should do a significant amount of writing in the classes they take. I have the students write at least 1750 words for me (in several different projects) at every third-way point through the semester. So, if you want to consider it that way, I am basically an academic masochist, because I am, of course, the one who has to grade all of that. Still, crazy as it all is, I believe that what I am doing is right and that what I am doing is helping my students. They might not agree, but very few students like doing the assigned work anyway.
I will say that I was generally pleased with how the assignments worked out overall. This last bit that I just got done grading was a total experiment. I just assigned the first take-home exams since I’ve been at my community college. I had no idea how it would go, and I think it went reasonably well. They did have to submit the exams to turnitin.com to try and curb cheating. Still, I did have to report 4 students for cheating on them. Otherwise, I definitely was pleased with a lot of the results that I got. Some were not good, as you would expect, and a certain number of people simply didn’t do them at all. But I got a solid third of them that were actually well written and well reasoned all the way through. I consider that to be pretty good.
But what I set up here as the topic of the day is one of those weird things that all of us who teach (or have been in class) know, that all sections of a course are different. I know this is nothing new, but I felt like I needed a topic today, and not in the mood to go look at articles after just finishing up grading today.
Certainly, the section personality is one of the first things that I notice. Every section has its own personality, whether that be outgoing, shy, argumentative, accepting, humorous, depressing, apathetic, or whatever. Each has a personality that stays relatively steady through the time that I teach it. The only thing that does change the personality sometimes is if one or two people have really set the personality for the section and those people stop coming. But sometimes the personality is not keyed on any specific people and can be determined by the room, time, subject, or even my own level of energy at that time of day. I do think that instructors have as much to do with it as the students. If I’m giving the same lecture over and over, the class that generally gets it first is going to consistently have a different experience from me than the one that gets it on my third time.
The students have a lot to do with it as well. The gender ratio can have a lot to do with it, as a majority-female class has a different personality than a majority-male class. However, considering how the gender ration is skewing more and more female these days, I have a feeling that the personality of sections is going to be more and more female driven. Where students sit has a lot to do with it too. If you have a class where everyone sits in the back, you’re going to have a less engaged class in general than one where everyone sits up front. The more who sit at the sides and nearer the door, the less interaction you’re going to get. If the outgoing and engaged students sit front and center, they can raise the energy level of a class. A long classroom is easier for students to hide in than a shallow, wide one, leading to totally different interactions.
I have yet to figure out how to figure out the personalities of online sections in general. The only time I had an online section with a personality was one semester where 3-4 people tried to create a rebellion against my teaching and expectations. They didn’t get much support from the rest of the class, but that was a trying class that semester. For the others, online students are often so disengaged that it is hard to get a personality out of the section.
Another interesting difference in sections comes in the grades and completion rates. You would think that student entrance into sections would either be random or that a certain type of student would pick you, but with the variance of sections, I know that not to be true. Just to take this most recent grading session, here are the differences:
- First half of American History online – only 2/3 completed the most recent assignments, but the ones who did performed very well
- Second half of American History online – 7/8 or so completed the most recent assignments, but the results were scattered all over the place as far as grades go
- Second half of American History Mon/Wed sections – 3/4 of the students completed the assignments, and the majority did well on the assignments
- Second half of American History Tues/Thurs section – less than 1/2 of the students completed the assignments, and the grades were the worst
The strange thing about that is how it links up to the personality of the sections. The online sections don’t have much of a personality, but the first half section has some of the highest performing students I’ve seen in an online class in a while. Out of my hybrid classes, I definitely have the most fun in the TR class and find them to be the most engaged, but the fewest of them are doing the assignments and those who do are not doing them well. The MW sections are mixed, one being a 40-person section and one being a two-way video section with 15 in the room and 5 on a screen. The larger section works fine, but it always gets my first lecture, and it can be a bit slow going at times. The two-way video section is awkward at best. The students in the room are fine, but I never feel that I can reach the students who are accessing me over the video link.
I know I’ve used engagement several times already, but this really is its own category as well. The variance between sections can be huge. I’ve had classes where they all seem to be paying attention to ones where I can’t get eye contact from anyone at all. I wish I knew what it was about the dynamic of the classes that affected engagement specifically, as I would do everything in my power to affect that directly. There’s nothing better than an engaged class. Not only is it an ego boost (and who are we kidding, as that is important), but it really makes me feel like I’m doing my job well. Any secrets out there on this one?
Anyway, those are just some ideas I had off the top of my head here. I’m pretty brain-fried here from all of the grading. I’ll be back to a more normal blogging schedule for a while now until the next set comes in.