Thoughts on Teaching – The Weed-Out Class – 2/14/2022
I had a thought while reading Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto about the purpose of teaching. It led me to make a connection to my own undergraduate experience that I had really never made before.
In Chapter 2 of the book, titled “The Things We Tell Our Students,” Gannon discusses the weed-out classes — those classes with the reputation of thinning out students and being a gateway to higher-level courses in the major. This passage really spoke to me:
Think about a particular course at your institution that has the reputation as a “weed-out” class for a particular major. Perhaps the instructor has a first-day tradition of dramatically conveying to students what the class’s purpose is. Turn to your left, now turn to your right, they intone; judging by historical averages, one of the three of you will not make it through this semester. Students who survived this gateway course talk about the demands of upper-level work in the particular program of which it’s a part. All-nighters, brutal exams, impossible group projects—there might even be an institutional lore surrounding the program, and an almost perverse pride from some of its members in being the most rigorous or demanding or intense major out there. Now ask what this type of culture is really saying to students. What’s really valued here: learning, or endurance? If students major in this program, will they embark on an intellectual journey, or a gauntlet of academic hazing? Are students being told what really matters is their readiness to submit to all sorts of draconian requirements inflicted in the name of “rigor,” rather than the specific knowledge and habits of mind needed by practitioners of this discipline? (33)
Kevin M. Gannon. Radical Hope : A Teaching Manifesto. West Virginia University Press, 2020.
I remember back to my own undergraduate days at Rice University. I did not personally take this class. In fact, I actively avoided it because of its reputation. The class was PHYS 101, the introductory physics class. As a history major, I had to choose some math and science to take. The two choices presented to me were to take one each of MATH 101, CHEM 101, and PHYS 101, or to take two classes of two of those. I chose to take MATH 101 and 102 and CHEM 101 and 102 just so I could avoid the physics class. And, everything I heard from those in the math/science/engineering pathway that took physics justified my choice.
The class was brutal, according to them, with class averages on the exams in the 40s and 50s. Yet, those who made it through the course felt proud that they had survived and could now go on to the field they had chosen. That seemed normal at the time. What Gannon talked about was in full presentation with physics at Rice in the mid-1990s. But looking back now, I have a completely different opinion on it, especially after reading this section from Gannon’s book.
At that time, the fault for not succeeding in the class was fully on the student. If they can’t handle this class, then they will never succeed in future classes. But, thinking about it, that is so perverse. They have created a course that is so difficult that many do not pass. Here’s the thing — if you create a class where the class average on exams is in the 40s and 50s, then the problem is not with the students but with the teaching. If you can’t teach the material well enough to where students have a chance to not only pass but to succeed on assessments, then you are doing a poor job of teaching. If your students cannot pass the exams you have put together, despite having done the homework and attended your lectures, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. The whole design of the class is set up to make each student work as hard as possible (and this was Rice, which was already a challenging school) for the chance that they might pass. Instead of assessments being a point where students can show what they have learned and apply that learning, the assessments were designed to highlight how little the students can actually do, despite the instruction given to them.
Now, I am guessing on much of that, as I did not take the class myself. However, I had a number of friends who struggled through it, and my memory of things they said has stuck with me. I do remember two classes I took that worked in a similar way.
- I thought I might be interested in Psychology, and so I took PSYC 101. The class ended up being in a large lecture hall with an old white male professor droning on at the front. I remember almost nothing from what he said, and I learned pretty quickly that what he said was not what was important. Instead, what was important was the textbook. We had three exams as our only grades in the class, and they were essentially over anything that you could find in the book. We had little guidance as to what to study, and were faced with long multiple-choice exams (I seem to remember about 100 questions, but that was a long time ago). I did not do great on them, but I didn’t do terrible either ending up in the mid- to upper- B range. Then, on top of that, the class was then put on a curve, which could either move you up or down. In my case, it went down, leading to an ultimate B- in the class. There was little to inspire me to be interested in anything to do with Psychology out of this class, and I the class and assessments were more like a chore to get through than any sort of inspiration to go on to further study. And, I didn’t, as I never took another Psychology class.
- I am still not sure to this day why I took an Economics class my freshman year. I did generally do well in Economics in high school, but it had never been a real interest. However, somewhere along the way, I decided to take Macro-Economics. It was hands down the worst class I had at Rice. I have talked about it many times with my family, with colleagues, even with my current classes that I teach. The way I characterize it is this: There were three aspects to the class — lecture, homework, and exams. None of those three had anything to do with the other. Attending lecture did not help with homework or exams. Doing the homework did not help with the exams. In fact, each seemed to exist completely separate from the other. Not only did I learn nothing, but I actively avoided anything to do with economics for more than a decade afterwards. Only as I have come to realize that an understanding of economics is key to teaching history have I gone back and tried to learn what I should have at the time. I ended up making my only C at Rice in this class, and those of us who survived the class had a ritual book burning of the book at the end of the semester.
What is my point in all of this. I teach differently. Not because of these things necessarily, but those lessons resonate with my own approach. I teach now with the aim of working with my students, engaging with them, teaching and learning with them. My class is demanding, but it is demanding because I ask the students to be active participants in their learning. They are not just told the history, but they work with it, question it, challenge it, make links, and apply the history to their lives today. As I say to my students every semester, my goal is to have my students succeed. I will do everything I can to help them succeed. They just have to meet me halfway – by doing the work. If they can do that, we will all learn together, and I promise them a much more engaging and interesting history class than they have often found in the past.
Posted every semester in my class is a short biography of me that includes my teaching history, my teaching philosophy, and a section I call “My Goals for the Class.” I am going to paste that part in full here, because I think it reflects exactly what I am saying here while also attempting to not be what those courses above were to me as an undergraduate:
My Goals for this Class
My goal for you and this class is to help you succeed. This does not mean that my goal is to guarantee you an A or a passing grade. Instead, my goal is to provide you with all of the material and guidance that you need to achieve what you want to in the class. For this, I promise you these things:
- I will do my best to be open, fair, and available to you throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will provide a working classroom that contains all of the information that you need to succeed.
- I will be an active participant both online and in person throughout the semester or summer session.
- I will hold all office hours that I can and notify you when I will not be around.
- I will answer emails and Canvas messages as soon as I can, but no longer than 24 hours after you have submitted them to me.
- I will do my best to complete all grading within a week from when the assignment closes. However, I will notify you of my progress throughout my grading and will let you know if it will take longer than a week.
- I will communicate with you regularly through Announcements.
- I will grade your work fairly and will give you the grade that you deserve based upon your effort and skill.
Beyond my specific goals for the class, I hope to help each of you develop skills that can help you succeed in your future college classes. I aim to develop three basic skills that will help you in future classes. These are critical thinking, critical reading, and critical writing. Again, the hybrid class is more aimed at these skills than the online class, but I am working on developing the online class more in that direction. I am also available for academic advising and counseling to all of my students, so if you want to discuss college planning, scheduling, majors, transfer, degrees, programs of study, life issues, or anything else, please come by my office at any point where I am there. You can also contact me via email or Canvas messaging at any point.
I hope you can see from that what I try to bring to my classes. I am interested in any feedback or thoughts on this.
Thoughts on Teaching – First Week Craziness – 08/27/2020
Well, the first week of Fall 2020 is coming to a close. It was quite a week.
So, what is #3. I was not on campus, but my department chair was. My hybrid classes were to meet on Wednesdays, and he checked to see if the same room was open on Mondays at the same time. When he found out they were, he authorized splitting my hybrids in two, with half meeting on Mondays for the semester and half meeting on Wednesdays. This is a very good thing for the purposes of getting all of my students in the class once a week, which is really pretty necessary with a hybrid class.
It began with a blur of changes. All of those options that I referred to in my previous post as to how the fall semester was going to work were thrown out the door on Monday. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, as I would have liked to have #1 as the option and really did not want #2 as the option. What I ended up with was #3, however. And since I did not even know about #3 until Monday, it required a lot of scrambling and a recreation of many parts of my hybrid classes.
The complicating factors, however, are many.
- For one, not every student can switch, as some have scheduled other classes in that time on Monday and others didn’t do classes on Monday because they were already working or had other obligations. So, even after splitting the classes, which was left completely up to me on how to do it, I then had a couple of days of exchanging announcements and emails back and forth with students to get everyone in the section where they could meet, either on Monday or Wednesday
- Second, I generally avoid Monday hybrid classes, as there is always one more Monday missed than all other days in the semester (Labor Day and MLK Day). Now, with not making this change until after Monday classes would have met this week, I have essentially lost two Monday classes in comparison with the Wednesday section. I have somewhat solved this by having the Monday class meet once in finals week and having the week of Labor Day be an online-only week.
- Third, I now have to (and am still) double all due dates on all assignments, as the Monday and Wednesday meetings will necessarily have different due dates. I had to recreate the syllabus to reflect this first, and I finished that up on Tuesday. Now, I am still in the process of doubling all assignment due dates so that there are different ones for Monday and Wednesday. This is not a hard thing, but it is both tedious and time consuming.
- Fourth, Canvas does not easily allow you to divide up students inside your classroom, and so I had to work around some things to get the students to only see the due dates that were relevant for them.
- And, on that note, McGraw-Hill Connect (which I use in my classes) does not allow you to have different due dates for a single section, meaning that everybody’s due date became the later due date
And that’s just the hybrid stuff I had to do.
We also had the very fun situation of having changed over our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) this semester. The changes have made two complications for our classes.
- About half of the classes in our system could not bring students into the Canvas classrooms. This was not solved until late on Monday. This just added to everyone’s stress level for starting the semester. There’s nothing like taking or teaching online classes and having students not be able to access anything in that time.
- This same ERP changeover affected those of us who use McGraw-Hill Connect, as both the faculty and any students who had used Connect prior to this semester had to go to McGraw-Hill’s tech support to have their logins reset. While this was not difficult, it was again one extra step.
So, all of that adds up to me being much further behind on the Thursday of the first week of classes than I would normally be. But, I am catching up and moving forward. I just hope we are done with these types of issues for a while.
How has your start of the semester been?
Thoughts on Teaching – Series on Student Reflection, Part 2 – 7/4/2020
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.
Thoughts on Teaching – Series on Student Reflection, Part 1 – 6/24/2020
This is the first substantive post of my new series on student reflection. I have detailed where this series comes from in my previous post introducing the series.
In this post, I am going to describe the student reflection assignment that I have used for 4 semesters now. Later posts in the series will deal with why I use student reflection (Part 2), the student response to these reflections (Part 3), my thoughts on how they are going and what they can help with (Part 4), and then what use they can be in our new pandemic world (Part 5).
I started using student reflection as a part of my hybrid classes starting in Fall 2018. For the first year of using them, they were more aimed at making sure the students were paying attention in class, but they slowly morphed into something more than just a reflection on the class. Over the summer of 2019, I made the decision to move student reflection into my online course and to change up the use of them in the hybrid class.
In Part 2 of this series, I will delve more into why I use them and why I made the changes. For now, I just want to give you the format of them.
Each week, my students are asked to submit a response to the following 5 questions. I have no specific word count on this assignment, and I grade only on if they complete it.
- What did you do in the class in the past week? (After the first week, I add a second question: How does that match up with what you said you would do in the previous week’s reflection?)
- What are you planning on doing for this class in the upcoming week?
- This question relates to something going on inside the course. This can be something like:
- Have you started working on a particular assignment yet?
- Reminder to make sure they know something is coming up, like the drop deadline.
- Question about how they responded to a specific assignment, especially if I am trying something new.
- This question relates to something going on outside of the course, such as:
- How are the other courses going that you are taking?
- If it is later in the semester, what advice would they now give themselves at the beginning of the semester?
- What is the best piece of advice they have received about succeeding in college?
- What one change would they make in the course if they had the ability?
- Are you planning on attending/participating in this particular thing going on at the college?
- What are your plans for after you finish the course/finish at the college
- And, especially after the COVID-19 shutdown, this question became one about how they were doing and if they needed help with anything.
- Lastly, is there anything else you want to tell me, either about yourself, about the class, or about something interesting in your life? This last question is your free space to write whatever you want to. If you do not want to write anything, that is fine, but I wanted to give everyone some space each week to write whatever they want with no judgment on my part. I will read it, but that is all, unless you ask me for advice or have questions.
So, for each student (I start out the semester with about 200-220 and end up with about 170-180), I get a response back to these questions every week. As noted at the beginning of this post, I will be exploring aspects of this assignment as I move forward with this series.
Thoughts on Teaching in a Pandemic – Reflections, Part 2 – 05/31/2020
As noted in my previous post, I am continuing my reflecting on the previous semester.
I am continuing looking at a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education from earlier this month – “5 Takeaways From My Covid-19 Teaching.” by Michelle D. Miller.
I had previously looked at lessons 1-3 that she had identified. In this post, I will look at the other two lessons that she was talking about.
4. High-stakes assessments are overrated.
This one is definitely one that I believe in completely. As she said, “For a while now, teaching experts have advised that students learn best from frequent low-stakes quizzes and other assignments — either in addition to, or in place of, traditional midterms, final exams, and term papers.” I have been working in this direction myself, moving more and more toward many smaller assignments rather than a few big ones. This transition was already coming for me prior to this move remote teaching, and I was very glad that I had started on that path already.
The large numbers of low-stakes assignments gives my students a lot of opportunities to work through the material in ways that keep them engaged throughout the semester and working fairly constantly on the material. Rather than being graded in 2-4 high-stakes assignments, the students can have their grade evolve through the semester. It allows them to work regularly with the material rather than put their attention (and grade) on a couple of assignments where they have to memorize and perform well in a couple of sessions throughout the semester. In a high-stakes environment, the students pass/fail based upon just their performance in a few points of the semester. Now, this is not to say that some students do not do well in these types of assessments nor that there is no value in testing the students on their knowledge. It is just that many of students do not perform well in these circumstances for reasons beyond their own control. It is not about being good students or bad students but about being able to perform in a very specific circumstance.
I had already come to the conclusion myself that I would rather see how my students progress through the semester and learn versus seeing how well they can memorize a specific set of information in a single sitting. This was even more true in the high-stress environment of last semester. Students already under stress and unsure about their economic and physical futures don’t need to have the added stress on them of a high-stakes assessment. Students already freak out about exams, and even the best students can struggle. Add on the pandemic, and you have an even more perfect storm of disaster for most students.
5. Student mental health will be on my mind.
This one became completely clear to me in these last couple of months. This is something that I have largely ignored in the first decade or so of my teaching career. It is only since attending a couple of sessions at conferences in the last couple of years that I have become more and more aware of the struggles that they are under. The research is showing that more and more of our students are financially insecure, food insecure, and housing insecure. It is harder for them to succeed academically if they are struggling in every other way.
At a community college, even more than at many 4-year institutions, our students are working, taking care of families, and just trying to get by. The pandemic and the implosion of society just piled on top of what else they had going on. I saw it myself, as did many of my fellow faculty members. We saw many students who continued on with out major problems, but some of those who were already on the edge were pushed over the edge by these circumstances. By not seeing the problems previously, it allowed us to largely ignore the ongoing problem. We have to consider the issues and problems from the beginning, not just address them when they come to the surface.
So where does that leave us? I can really only leave this reflection with her words, as I can’t say it any better than she did:
“If the Covid-19 crisis ends up making me a better-prepared, more supportive, and more agile teacher, so much the better. And if it spurs our institutions to put more priority on serious collaboration between administrators and faculty members, backed up by the best evidence and research out there — well, we couldn’t ask for more. I’m not one to say that this tragedy is full of silver linings. However, I intend to come through it stronger, and I hope our whole profession will, too.”
How are you reacting to the crisis, and how will it change you?
Thoughts on Teaching – Why Change the Way We Teach? – 6/10/2019
I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.
Dr. David Pace, writing in the Decoding the Ivory Tower blog, wrote the following in his blog post, “Addicted to the Curve:”
An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.
I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.
This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.
The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.
This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.
So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.
Thoughts on Teaching – Snow Days – March 5, 2015
So, here we stand. Our third snow day in the last two weeks. All of them in late February to early March in Texas. Yes, that is unusual. It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester. Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms. Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.
I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school. Still, it poses interesting challenges. I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.
The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material. For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like. Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal. And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class. Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected. My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic. We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed. If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments. Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do. There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone. I do have some safeguards built in, however. For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete. So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week. As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material. What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material. Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them. One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class. The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now. That is a long time to carry over material. The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material. We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power. Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost. As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material. What’s the effect of all of this for the students? They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class. But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover. By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period. Sigh. I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.
The other side is my personal experience with the snow days. It seems like an unmitigated good. A day off from school. No travel, no obligations. But it never works that way. Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal. The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off. But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work. The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing. An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel. I have the day off, why should I work? I have to force myself to get something done. For example, take today. If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30. I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11. I would have taught from 11-12:15. Lunch until 1:30. Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30. On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork. The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong. But I have a lot to do. I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation. I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them. But I find it hard to get any real work done. That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time. Isn’t the human brain wonderful?
The solution to this? Treat a snow day off from work as a work day. Or, treat a day off from work as a day off. I have to choose one or the other. If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.
Those are my thoughts on it. What do you think? Do you enjoy unexpected days off? Do you get anything done? Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?
Thoughts on Teaching – Quick Thought – 1/23/2015
One thing I wonder by about the time I have reached the end of the second week of the semester – if I have heard very little from my students at this point, does this mean the class is going well or badly?
Thoughts on Teaching – Drop Deadline – 11/16/2014
We have reached the late points in the semester. With Thanksgiving Break coming quite late this semester, we have 2 1/2 weeks of classes left, followed by finals. The deadline for withdrawing from classes was last Friday, and every semester I am surprised how late in the semester that students are allowed to drop their classes. They can go 12 weeks into the a 15-week semester and drop the class at that point if they want to. I do not know the reasoning behind it, but I can say that I do have my own opinions on what such a deadline does to students. I know one of the reasons for it is to give the students as much leeway to succeed in a class as possible, and, if students used that time for that, I would wholeheartedly support the late drop deadline. However, what I see from the teaching side is that the students who drop at the deadline overwhelmingly were ones who should have dropped after week 4 or 5. That does not mean there aren’t a few who needed that extra time to carry forward and try to get it going over the rest of the semester, but the majority are not in that situation. We are required to put a last date of attendance when we sign drop slips for our students, and the majority of the drop slips that I see are from students who have not participated since September, and they are dropping in November. Again, there are always a couple who are attending and participating all the way up to the deadline, but even for many of these, the writing was already on the wall that they were not going to be successful.
So, what is my point here? Let’s start with the students who should have dropped much earlier. We have an early alert system at my community college, where we send out warnings to students who are falling behind as the semester goes forward. We can send as many or as few early alerts as we choose, and I know some who send none at all, while others have been known to end up sending some students 7-9 alerts over the course of the semester. I send out two alerts, one just after count day, when I am first asked to sit down and officially look over my rosters. At the first point, the alert is very simple, if you have not done any significant work at that point (meaning just a few introductory assignments and a couple of chapter assignments), then I send an early alert. I have not sat down and looked at the numbers, but just on my general remembrance of names, a good number of these will drop the class or not drop and fail. The second alert goes out when I have graded the first round of major assignments, which is usually by the 6th week of the semester. The overlap between the first and second alerts is high, although a few more alerts do go out this second time. I do not send out alerts after that, as the last round of alerts would hit so close to the drop deadline that I generally don’t have time to sit down and do them. However, since 65% of the grade is determined by that point (ie. by the end of last week), there really is no further need for an alert at that point. So, as I said, the majority of students who should drop are fairly obvious by fairly early in the semester. Students who do not complete the early assignments are not likely to continue doing work. Students who do not complete the first round of major assignments are not likely to pass the course. What that means for me, when I look at it, is that the majority of the students who will drop generally should drop somewhere around the 6th to 7th week of the semester. So, giving them 12 weeks only allows them to drag out the semester unnecessarily.
What about the others? There are a few who do drop later in the semester who were not obvious earlier. Some of these are people who were making marginal grades (low Ds and high Fs) after the first round of major grades who do not improve by the second. Others are ones who don’t run into problems until that second round of major grades, where they either drop significantly in their performance or miss some of the assignments. The final group are those who are not making the grade they want to make. We always get a few students who drop because they are looking for an A when they have a C in the class. I guess the question is, are these students worth the longer drop period?
Here is my fear of what the long drop period gives students. They can drag out the decision for far too long, when some should cut their losses and get out once it become obvious that they will not be successful. Of course, it might not be obvious to the students, but it certainly is obvious for me in looking at them. I do not think we are doing them a good service by letting them keep hanging around. What I mean by cutting their losses is that some students would be better dropping a course or two and concentrating on the ones that they can succeed in. If they were to drop one or two early in the semester, they could do better in the classes they remained in. Some might not take advantage of that, and there is the issue that people always hold out hope for success despite the evidence in their faces. The financial aid system also makes this route difficult, as students who drop can lose their aid. Those not on aid lose the money they spent on the class as well, which is something that makes them stay in longer in the hopes they can pull it out.
The question that remains, after this wandering look at the drop deadline as I see it, is, what can we do about this? Certainly, systems like an early alert are a step in the right direction, but I have received very little feedback from students who I send alerts to. It takes a couple of hours to get the alerts together and send them out, and I often wonder if it is worth it, as I see very little direct feedback from the students after sending out the alerts. However, I can certainly say that I did my part to let them know, which is at least one step. I can’t sit down with each of the students in trouble and get them going. This is largely because the students who I would need to sit down with are already not coming to class or participating in my online class and I have no way to get a hold of them besides sending an email (which is what the early alert does anyway).
Of course, then the question is, would things really be any different if the drop deadline was earlier? I don’t know if it would. The same students would probably drop either way. It is certainly not directly hurting anyone to have a later deadline, unless we believe that all students are rational and cut their losses earlier when they would need to by dropping the classes that were not going well early to concentrate on the ones left. I think both psychology and financial aid makes that a difficult prospect. It would make my own job neater and cleaner, as it certainly is nice to have people cleared off of the roster that I no longer have to keep entering 0’s for on every assignments. It’s not that this really takes a significant amount of time, but it does get irritating as the semester goes on. It also leads to lots of lamentations among the faculty, as I cannot count the number of conversations that I have either participated in or heard as we talk about the students who we have given chance after chance to without any real results.
So, maybe I am making too much out of something that is really not a big deal. I don’t know, but it is what is on my mind. What do you think?