Tag Archive | students

Thoughts on Teaching – Open Forums – 7/20/2013

I tried something new this summer.  I have always had fairly formulaic discussion forums in my class.  Something along the lines of — here is a paper topic;  write the paper;  discuss the ideas of the paper in this discussion forum;  repeat several times a semester.  That was always a very discouraging discussion format for me, as this narrowly bounded topic selection led to very unoriginal submissions and dull reading on my part.  The students largely repeated what they had written about, and, since most had written fairly similar things, the results were basically the same.  And then, when I had the requirement that they had to respond to each other as well, then they largely just said they agreed with each other over and over, because, honestly, what else were they going to do.  They had all written essentially the same thing over essentially the same topic.  What else could they possibly do.

So, this summer, I tried something new.  I introduced open forums.  Instead of tying the discussion forums to a specific topic or to a specific assignment, I had them as open discussions for the students.  Here are the instructions I gave them:

The purpose of this discussion forum is for further discussion on the course material.  One of the consistent pieces of feedback I have gotten back over the years is that there is not really a place to discuss what is being read and accessed throughout the course.  This forum is intended to correct that.  As well, I am trying something new with this forum, as I have not been happy with more focused forums in the past, as they generally are uninteresting and everyone says close to the same thing.  I do not know if this one will be any better, but I am trying to branch out to a new idea here.

For this forum, I am asking you to discuss the material that you are working with in class.  For Unit 1, that includes Chapters 11-, the lectures Topics 1-8, Critical Mission 1, and any other material relevant to the course.  As this is an open-ended forum, I am really not going to say much more than that.  Here are some examples of things you could post about:

  • I was reading the textbook/lecture, and this was something I did not know anything about/I found interesting.
  • In the lecture/textbook, it says _____.  I don’t understand what this means.  I think it means this, but I’m not sure.  What do you think it means?
  • As we looked at this event in history, it reminded me of something going on today.
  • I found this piece of history really interesting.  Where might I find more information on it?
  • How do we know that this piece of history we are studying is correct/true?  What information is it based on?  What might we not know?

Those are just some ideas, and you can go beyond that at will.  I will be trying to actively participate in the forums, but I will not respond to things immediately, as I prefer for you to answer and respond to each other rather than just having me respond.  I find that my responses in discussion forums almost always end the discussion, and so I will be posting only occasionally.

I think it went pretty well overall. I wanted to try it in a summer session first, as the student base is smaller, and the expectations are different.  Most of them would not have had me before or probably even heard much about my class, so they could approach it as a brand new assignment.  As well, in the summer, I can have an assignment like this and work with it more, as I have more time in a summer session to dive into the material myself as well.  I was pleased with the results from those who participated, although there were a pretty decent number of people who did not participate.  The topics posted were quite varied, and it did go in many different directions.  I am not going to kid anyone and say they were all wonderful, as the majority were about what you would expect out of undergraduate students — fairly simple and short in form.  However, they were a vast improvement over what I had before.

I also had to grade this forum in some way, and I posted up a grading rubric for the students.  As I can’t get the formatting to work out correctly, the rubric will be the last thing in the post here.  It was interesting to see how it went based on the grading.  One of the things to note is that I did have a specific number of posts the students were required to make, and this is where most people, even those who participated well, did not meet my expectations.  I’m not sure if I set the number too high, but I thought it was fairly reasonable.  Still, I would love some feedback from anyone who is teaching or from anyone who might look at this from a student’s perspective.

The other thing to say about the open forum at this point is that I found it nice from my perspective.  I could go in and comment and explain on what I found interesting.  As well, if I came across an interesting article or podcast somewhere, it made for a very convenient place to post that for student consideration.  Overall, I was pleased.

Has anyone else used something like this?  Have you taken a class that included this?  What do you think of my instructions and rubric?  What would you change or improve?

Grading rubric for Discussion Forum

Standard Not Done Poor Average Good Excellent

(25 points)

Does not participate in the discussion at all.

(0 points)

The student participates poorly in the discussion, participating less than 6 times during the discussion.

(10 points)

The student waits until the last minute to post, having all posts in the last days of the discussion.

(15 points)

The student posts throughout the discussion as well as early in the discussion.  The student participates at least 2 times early in the discussion and a total of at least 6 times throughout the discussion.

(20 points)

The student posts frequently throughout the discussion, with posts at the beginning, middle and end parts of the discussion. The student posts at least 8 times.

(25 points)


(25 points)

Does not contribute to existing discussions.

(0 points)

The student only posts his or her own ideas without interacting with other students.

(10 points)

The student only replies to other students and does not make any original posts of their own.

(15 points)

The student contributes his or her original posts and relevant follow-up questions to posts by other students. The follow up questions are timely and do not slow the discussion.

(20 points)

The student posts original content and follow-up questions that are timely and highly relevant to the discussion and spark further conversation. The student has asked questions that others have not considered.

(25 points)

Content Quality

(25 points)

Does not make any references to the content of the discussion from the video, lectures, or textbook.

(0 points)


The student shows little engagement with the content of the course.

(10 points)

The student posts content that is related to the discussion.

(15 points)

The student posts content that is related to the discussion and uses specific historical references from the material to support their ideas.

(20 points)

The student posts highly relevant content and helps keep the discussion engaging and educational using the material from the course.

(25 points)


(25 points)

Posts are incoherent, distracting, and/or in very poor form.

(0 points)


Posts are simple in nature and largely just agree with what others say.

(10 points)

Posts show some awareness of the ongoing discussion and attempt to engage.  Some grammatical errors.

(15 points)

The student contributes in a thoughtful way. The student has used grammar correctly and expresses opinions without denigrating others.

(20 points)

The student has used language that expresses thoughts and opinions clearly and respectfully. The text is clear and concise and free from major grammatical mistakes.

(25 points)


Thoughts on Teaching Summer School – 7/17/2013

Yes.  I know.  I have not written in a while.  You can blame the birth of our daughter and the first nine months or so of her life.  Between teaching a full load, teaching an overload, taking care of the other three kids, and taking care of a baby, blogging has taken a back seat to the rest of life.  Now that things are settled down some, and my teaching is done for the summer, I hope to get back on here a bit.  We shall see how I do, but you have to start somewhere.

I just finished up my seventh summer of teaching full time (yes, I also taught some summer classes as a graduate student).  I have taught online every summer session that I have taught, and this one went about the same as usual.  Since our pay decrease two summers ago, I now have to teach three summer classes to make the amount of money that I want to make, so I taught three sections — two of the first half of American history and one of the second.  I am not sure why my department chair assigns me both halves in the session, as it would be easier to do all of one, but I don’t have a lot of choice there.

While teaching in the summer, I had some general thoughts that I thought I would share.

The quality of students we get at a community college is dramatically higher in the summer.  The majority of students are ones that are off at a 4-year university somewhere and have come back to get a few classes out of the way cheaply.  Thus, the quality of work submitted is often much higher, and the ratio of A’s to the rest of my teaching is much higher.  It reminds me a lot of my teaching in graduate school, where I was always fairly pleased with the quality of work submitted to me.

At the same time, we also get a lot of students who are taking summer classes who should not.  I started out at the end of the spring semester with three full sections at 30 students each.  By the time the summer session started, I was down by about 10 students, as we always lose some for academic suspensions or failure to pay.  Then, in the first week, upon getting into the class and seeing the level of work required, I lost about 10-12 more students.  Then, over the course of the summer session, I had more drop and/or stop attending.  All together, I started out with 90 students at the end of the spring semester and ended up submitting about 55 real grades to students who worked on material all the way through the summer.  This is fairly typical.

One of the requirements at my community college is that we hold physical office hours over the summer, even if we are teaching only online.  The required number of on-campus office hours is fairly flexible, but some must be there, and I ended up holding 8 on campus each week.  In the five weeks of the summer session, I saw three students in those office hours, and they all came on the day before the first exam opened.  So, except for that day, it was a waste of both my time and gas to go to campus every day.  I also held online office hours in the evening for students who could not make the on-campus hours.  In the five weeks, I had no students in my online office hours.  So, traditional office hours were largely a waste.  However, I answered emails all day every day, participated in online discussions, responded to student posts with questions in the classroom, answered messages in our LMS system, graded, evaluated, read drafts, worked on course material, and more.  Yet, if you count my output on what I did during my “official” time in office hours, it would look like I did very little.  This is the conflict that we run into with teaching online, that the actual productive activities are not easily quantifiable or restricted to traditional avenues.  In our culture that wants to quantify everything, it can easily look like I don’t do much, yet, if you ask my wife, I never stop working.  I am busy in the class every day from when I get up until when I go to bed.

As usual, 20% of my students say they loved the class, 1-2 students said they hated it, and the rest are never heard from.  It is frustrating sometimes, as I can only assume I am doing good as most of what I hear is positive.  Yet, all it takes is that one students to write how much (s)he hated the course to drag down the rest.  That is the comment I obsess over and worry about.  I know I shouldn’t when that person is outnumbered by far by the rest.  The one this summer session hit me harder than usual, as she said that I came off as rude and unwelcome in my Announcements to my students.  Thus, now she has me paranoid that this is how I came off, and that is why I don’t hear from the other students.  The so-called rude Announcement that I made was that the students should read the syllabus and Announcements before contacting me, as I get irritated when I have to copy and paste the answer back to them from something I have already said.  I didn’t think that was an unreasonable thing to say, and I have sent an Announcement out along that line most semesters that I have taught.  Sigh.  It only takes one comment to get under your skin.

And, finally, the good thing about my course now is that I have it all pretty well set up.  So, it largely runs itself, which allows me more time to actually participate in the classroom rather than spending my time creating and maintaining.  It was a generally pleasant experience overall.

And, with that, I’m out for now.  I just hit 1000 words, which is pretty good for the first time out in a while.  I promise to try and write more.

Thoughts on Education – 6/20/2012 – Vocal comments during grading?

So, I had no idea this was a thing until it came across my email (I just can’t say came across my desk, as nothing comes across anyone’s desk anymore).  The article in the Chronicle of Higher Education ProfHacker blog titled, “Grading with Voice on an iPad,”raises the idea of  leaving voice comments on graded material for students along with the normal written comments.  Here is the reasoning by the guest author of the post:  “One of the frustrating things I found in teaching online last semester was the lack of direct contact with students. The class felt impersonal, despite my efforts to give it life.  I found that especially frustrating when I graded assignments. The feedback seemed cold and distant, even as I as I tried to point out strong areas of writing and multimedia projects.  I overcame this in part by using my iPad to add audio comments to grading. This was a revelation to me.”  As I said, I had never thought about this at all before.  I then noted, as I am grading right now, that if you go to turnitin.com, you will also find an “advertisement” toward the top for adding voice to graded responses there as well.

I had not really noted the piece on turnitin before, considering that I normally have adblockers on my browsers and generally do everything I can to avoid advertisements of any kind in my daily life.  So, this really hit me as something completely new.  Has anyone else out there ever done this?  Have any students out there had graded assignments returned with voice comments?  I’m really curious about this.

Beyond just asking about this (which is a primary purpose here, so please let me know if this is something you have heard of), it also got me thinking about the whole concept of it.  The basis on which the above instructor said they found it useful does not really apply very well to me.  I have never provided verbal feedback after an assignment.  History essays and work tends to be graded and handed back with no opportunities for correcting the material or working on it again.  Thus, written comments work pretty well for the few students who actually bother to read them.  Or, at least I assume they do.  Am I missing out on a whole avenue for providing feedback here?  This whole idea just set my mind swirling about the whole way I provide feedback.  As I just said, I have strong doubts (and in the case of turnitin.com, which documents students who look at their graded assignment, I know) that many students ever look at the written comments.  So, I’m spending a lot of time grading for a very minimal payout.  Would verbal feedback in general get more of a response?  I don’t mean just recorded as the article refers to, but actually sitting down with students and giving them verbal feedback.  Or, would I be just as frustrated at that prospect considering most students would probably resent the fact that they were required to come in to talk to me to get feedback.  I already offer to explain grades or answer questions after every assignment I hand back, with a near 0% acceptance rate for that offer.  In fact, since most students don’t look at feedback and just accept the grade as given, perhaps providing verbal feedback would be just another waste of my time.  I don’t know.  I’m just thinking out loud (on the keyboard?) here.

Any thoughts?

Thoughts on Teaching – 6/10/2012 – Teaching summer school

Well, that time is here again.  Time for teaching summer school again.  We always need the extra money, so I teach every summer.  I teach online, as that is easier with my own schedule as well as easy to step in with prepared classes.  Also, as I am the primary online history instructor at my community college, there is always a high demand for my classes in the summer.  So, I never have to worry about my classes making.  It’s a good thing all the way around.

The summer is always weird.  Squeezing what the students normally do in a 16-week semester in 5 weeks is quite a challenge for them.  They have a lot to do each week, and I don’t think that a lot of students realize what that means.  We always get students who are taking vacations in the middle of the summer session or who wait a week before entering the course, leaving them tremendously behind.  I think that students assume that an online summer course is going to be easy.  The general perception of online courses, I have found, is that they are easy (not mine, unfortunately for them).  As well, many assume that it will be easy to complete a course in 5 weeks because it takes up less time.  The time demand is high, and you cannot put your work off until the last minute because there is a lot of it.

Summer school also attracts an odd mix of students.  Here are some of the types I have noted:

  • Students who want to finish their degree early and so are doubling up in the summer
  • Students who go to a four-year university and are home for the summer and taking a class or two for cheap
  • Students who have failed the class in the normal semester and are hoping for better results in the summer
  • Students who have never taken either an online course or a college course and decide that this is the best way to do it

It’s the last group that is the biggest pain for me.  It’s always a good 10-15% of the students.  I don’t know if someone advised them to do it, or if they simply decided on their own that their first college course should be an online summer class, but it is almost universally a bad idea.  Either online courses or summer courses by themselves are more challenging then many semester-long, face-to-face classes, but to do both as your first experience is brutal.  I spend an inordinate amount of my time in the summer dealing with these students.

On the other side, the first two groups tend to be some of the most motivated and strongest students that I will see in an academic year, so the summer also has its good side, as these students can restore your faith in students.  Teaching can be depressing, especially when a semester goes poorly, and the summer session can sometimes be rejuvenating because you do get some of the best students there.

As of right now, we are just finishing up the first week of the summer session, so four more weeks are left.  The first set of assignments come in tonight at midnight, so I will be able to start sizing up the students at this point.  And, as it is an online class, I again have online office hours.  I have them Wednesday and Sunday nights, and, so far, one student has come by to ask a question.  That makes it already one more student than came to my online office hours all of last semester, so there’s something.

I don’t know how active I will be posting on this blog this summer, but you will probably be hearing from me on Wednesday and Sunday nights at least, as I have to sit here at the computer for two hours anyway.

Thoughts on Education – 6/6/2012 – Studying in college

I wonder about this all the time.  How much work do students really do in a class?  I don’t know if my own memories are clouded by the distance, but I certainly remember working a lot in college.  Admittedly, I went to an upper-tier private school, but still, I worked on my classes every day of the week.  The only day that I took off completely throughout almost all of my college experience was Friday.  I only worked a few Fridays over the four years I did my undergraduate work.  All other days were fair game, and I usually did school work on all other days.  Now, I did not study all the time by any means, and I did plenty of other things as well, but I just remember doing almost all of the assigned readings, working on assignments before they were due, and just generally being engaged throughout the school year as a full-time student.  Of course, I did have the luxury of being a full-time student, working only enough to earn some extra spending money, so that did affect what I did.

At my community college now, things could not be more different.  We struggle to get the students to do any work, and certainly do not expect the students to work on anything any earlier than absolutely necessary.  Of course, it is a community college, and the students here are largely not that strong academically and often work in addition to going to school.  Still, it is disappointing and difficult to try and teach students like this.  I’m certainly not trying to romanticize my own background, but I think I was a pretty good and pretty diligent student overall.  I had good semesters and bad semesters, good classes and bad classes, but I consistently did my work, paid attention to assignments, and was mostly engaged in my classes.

I’m certainly not the only one who has noted this.  You just have to talk with any of my fellow instructors, or really instructors in general, and we all feel like the students aren’t doing enough.  It is easy to dismiss this, as it is the same type of thing that teachers have been saying about students for a long time.  I’m sure my own professors groaned about me and my fellow students as well.  So, I don’t know if I’m really bringing up anything new, but I have come across a couple of articles on the subject as well.

This Washington Post article is interesting, just from the perspective that it takes.  According to the article, the average student today studies around 15 hours a week, whereas in the 1960s, the total was 24.  Even at the “better” universities, apparently the average is only up around 18 hours a week.  The article then notes the 5 top reporting schools, each of which exceed this average.  Most are small, isolate, private liberal-arts schools, with the University of Wisconsin being the only exception.  I have to wonder, however, what the average is at my community college, as I’m assuming that community colleges were not included in these numbers, although I could be wrong.

Also in the Washington Post, is this article, asking the question, “Is college too easy?”  It takes these same statistics and turns it around.  Is the problem that the students aren’t working hard enough or is it that we instructors aren’t asking enough of them.  The data they have shows that the average student in the 1960s worked roughly 40 hours a week in college, while the average today is 27 hours a week.  That brings about the chicken-and-egg conundrum.  Are we asking less of students because we expect less of them or are students doing less because we ask less of them.  Or is it really a symbiotic relationship all the way around that has led to this decline?  I don’t really know.  I have taught for around 10 years now, and I can see the creep toward asking less and less.  This is especially true in an era of tight budgets and increased class sizes, since asking more of students means more work for me with no more (and sometimes less) compensation.  So, I wonder where to look to think about this problem.  Even my own wife has said to me that she remembers working harder in high school (over a decade ago) than in the bachelor’s degree program she just finished.

I don’t know what to think about it, so I’m just raising questions here.  What do you think?

Thoughts on Teaching – 05/16/2012 – Wrapping up the semester

I know I’m a bit late here, as I finished up the semester almost a week ago now, but things have not slowed down since.  Now that we have time to work on our new house, we’ve been doing that every day.  As well, my wife graduated with her BA over last weekend, so we had celebrations for her graduation.  Also, Diablo III came out yesterday, and that is eating up my free time as well.  So, summary of all of that is, it’s been busy.

However, I did want to wrap up the semester here.  It was a pretty good semester overall.  I tried out some new material, writing a new lecture and piloting some new assignments in my classes.  Both my new in-class activities and the chapter quiz activities that I was using were quite successful and will be part of my core redesign next semester in my classes.  The base class went well also, with few major problems.  There were a few instances of cheating to deal with, and I didn’t devote as much time to the class in the second half of the semester because of our house hunting.  Overall, it was at least a typical semester.  I crunched some of the numbers from the semester, and it was about as bad as normal in the raw numbers.  That’s the way with community colleges, we have a high non-success (a D, F, or withdrawal) rate.  My overall non-success rate for the semester was 44%.  So, 44% of the students who started the semester finished with a  grade of D, F, or W.  As I said, it is sad, but that is typical.  We have a large portion of the population who is on the edge of whether they should be in college or not.  For a lot of them, they are trying their best, but they really can’t deal with the level of work required for a college education.  For others, they don’t really want to be there.  They are in college because it seems like the right thing to do, or they have been pressured in by their family, or they just don’t have anything else to do.  A lot of those don’t make it very far.  Another group fall victim to the too-many-obligations curse.  They are a full-time student, work full time, have family to take care of, and so forth.  School starts out as a priority but fades over the semester.  Even worse are those who are teetering on the edge of being able to do school and then have something bad happen – with a job, family, health, or something else.  All of those things contribute to the high non-success rate.  In fact, in my class, if you show up and do all the work, you are probably going to get a C or better, so almost all of those who are not successful are that way because of the reasons above.  It makes it hard to fix from my end, because there is little that I can do in my class to make it better for those students.

Anyway, as I said, I just wanted to wrap up the semester here.  I’ll have more substantial posts later, but this will tide everyone over, I hope.

Thoughts on Education – 04/28/2012 – Mentoring college students

I went up to campus yesterday on my day off to a meeting centered around a new push to mentor our students.  I have been on our college’s retention committee for two years now, and we are starting to see some of our ideas floating up through the bureaucracy of the college and becoming an actual part of what we do.  Some of the changes so far have been with regard to easing registration, requiring students to visit their instructors to get drop slips signed, introducing a small set of students to a “how to do college” class, and so forth.  The faculty side of things has largely been left out of the changes so far, but one of the things that I have been pushing for is starting to come into existence.  I believe that students should have actual faculty advisors that they talk to, not for setting up schedules, but for more general college advice and help making it through the college process.  Thus, we now have the beginning of a mentoring program.  It will be slowly launched in a pilot program this fall, and the meeting yesterday was the first in a series of meetings to gain interest and see who would be willing to use their time for this.

The program itself, from what I understand, will be aimed fairly narrowly at first.  We will be advising first-time-in-college, first-semester, full-time students.  Out of our 5000 or so students, that means about 3-400 students that we will be directly mentoring in this first batch.  I fully applaud this idea.  I would love to see it expanded soon, but I know that it has to start somewhere.  As the program sits now, we will be given 5-10 of these students to mentor, with the expectation that we will try to meet with them around three times a semester, serving as a person they can talk to about college, get advice from, and use as a sounding board.  These are students who need all the help they can get, but, honestly, there’s probably not a single student on campus who could not use some set of advice.

This was echoed in this article from the Chronicle recently.  In it, community colleges are admonished to stop blaming others for the problems of students not succeeding and doing what they can internally to improve this.  I think the retention work we have been doing, and this mentoring program as a part of it, is a good step along the way toward creating better chances for success among our students.  As well, the second point from the article is also part of this.  She says that colleges, especially community colleges, need to be better at guiding students through the process.  Right now, our students, without a serious amount of advice outside of preparing schedules each semester, blunder forward until they have reached enough credits to do something with them.  For many, the idea of a degree plan, a goal outside of taking their “basics,” or even what it takes to graduate, is something that only the most academically involved and prepared students have.  A mentoring program can help focus the students in on their plans and help with general academic planning throughout their career.  If we can get them in, out, and done, we will be succeeding.  The longer they take, the more likely they are to not succeed.  As well, the less focused they are, the less likely they are to reach a satisfactory conclusion to their academic career.  Hopefully this mentoring program can get them going with that.

Programs like this are also an answer to the question of how we measure student progress.  Right now, we are in this wave of measuring, one that looks at the progress that students make academically as they proceed through college.  This article from The New York Times illustrates that, discussing the need for something that can measure progress and pointing out the different ways this is currently done.  I think an equally valid measure is what success the students have in reaching their goals, regardless of specific success in a specific course.  With a mentoring and advising program, that can be helped, as we can work with students who are often lacking in a real idea of what they want to do. This group we will be dealing with is especially unconnected to the traditional measures of success and progress, as they have no family experience to fall back on as to what they should be doing in college.  What they know is that they are supposed to go to college to get something (often undefined) and that by taking classes they will somehow get there.  I know we are not the first place to ever put in place an advising program, and I know that success with the program will depend on both instructor and student participation.  However, if we can even point half of these students in a more productive direction, then we will have success.  If they can come out with a better idea of what they need to be doing, what classes will get them there, and what they can do with the classes/degree afterwards, then we will have helped them along the way.

Thoughts on Teaching – 3/27/2012 – Dropping classes

This was a banner day for dropping my class today.  That is probably because the next big round of assignments is coming due in the next week or so, and people are getting out now before they have to put in any more actual work.  I signed drop slips for 4 students today.  That’s certainly not a record by any means, but it is always interesting that they come in  waves like that.  I had three come to me either right before or after class, and since my Tuesday/Thursday class is the worst one this semester, in terms of grades at least, that is really no surprise.  What is more surprising are the other two who came by my office.  Two different students came by with progress report sheets to fill out, and I had to break it to both that they were doing very poorly in the class.  Both of them knew that generally, but the numbers are much harsher.  Of the two, one decided to drop, and the other stayed in.  With both, they had skipped a significant portion of the assignments due so far, so they should not have been really surprised about it.  Still, they were, as I think that students often don’t think that much about the effects of their actions on their class grade.

The good thing about the drops and discussions of progress today was that all of them took responsibility for their poor performance.  I didn’t have any who blamed anything that I was doing in the class, which is really always a relief.  I don’t know about any other teachers out there, but I am always incredibly nervous and self-conscious about my teaching and whether I am giving the students everything they need to succeed.  I see a failure by a student as a personal failure on my part quite often.  I always wonder if there’s something else that I could have done for them.  So, when they come to me and talk about what they did wrong in the course, it always is a bit of a relief – guilty relief – but still relief.  I don’t know if it is just my personality or if it is something every teacher feels, but I get very personally invested in my students.  It’s one of those things that does make this job exhausting at times, as I take even a rough comment or criticism as a personal attack on my teaching skills and I fret over it for a long time.  But a day like today, while upsetting because so many dropped, is somewhat of a relief, as I got some personal validation that I was not directly to blame for any of these.  Isn’t it strange how the mind works?  I assume things with my students are my fault until proven otherwise.  Any other teachers out there have this same feeling?

Anyway, just a few thoughts to end a very long day.

Thoughts on Teaching – 3/26/2012 – Second big activity

I had my second big test toward flipping my classroom today.  For those of you who have not been following, I am in the process of experimenting with reducing the lecture component of the classroom and turning my class into a hybrid class where the primary activity in class will be student-centered activities.  I’ve been taking the first steps toward that by designing two new activities this semester that plug into the regular face-to-face class.

Today’s activity built off of a set of videos on FDR that I had the students watch before class.  This one was set up similarly to the Triangle Fire activity that I discussed in an earlier post.  In this case, the students had to watch eight 2-3 minute videos highlighting different aspects of FDR’s life and politics.  The other option was to have them watch the entire documentary available on him, but that was 4 hours long, and I decided not to push my luck there.  They also had a few supplementary readings on FDR to enhance what I had talked about in class and what was available in the textbook.

I also filled in the students on why I was doing all of this, meaning I basically told them what I just wrote here.  As well, I talked about why I chose to concentrate in on FDR for a full day.  I talked about how influential he was, how he was elected an unprecedented 4 terms, and how he makes up a significant portion of the total time covered in the second half of an American history course.  I have been trying to do this more, talk about why we are studying specific things and what my goals are.  I have no idea if the students appreciate it or not, but it is important to me.

What I did not do, and I am disappointed in myself for this, was do much more than have them look at the material and then have a discussion about it.  Yes, that’s fine, but that’s about where it stops.  The discussion went well in the two classes that I had today, with the first one going very well and the second one being pretty good.  I have one more tomorrow.  I was just hoping to do more than just a discussion.  I just feel that a discussion is just the default alternative to the lecture format.  I know that it does invite more participation from the students, but it is still something largely led by me.  It also lets a large number of students off the hook, as I do refuse to do the whole calling-on-people thing.

As I said, though, it feels lazy to just do a discussion.  I wanted to do more, but I couldn’t really find the right themes in the videos to hold a debate or group work.  I guess it’s also still something that is out of my comfort zone.  I will have to get over that and get more adventurous in the future.  I have also been distracted by our house hunt, which took up much of the weekend, so I did not get to prep as much as I would have liked to.  Hopefully with a full semester of projects like this, I will be able to devote more time and be forced to be more creative, as a whole semester worth of discussions would just get boring after a while.

Anyway, I think it did go well, but I would have liked to do more.  That’s the short version (the tl;dr version).

Thoughts on Education – 3/20/2012 – A long article

I promised that I would return to this article, and so I will here.  I had read it earlier and just revisited it now.  I was quite impressed with the thought that went into the article, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said.  I especially liked these ideas here:

  • “Instructors walk to the front of rooms, large and small, assuming that their charges have come to class “prepared,” i.e. having done the reading that’s been assigned to them — occasionally online, but usually in hard copy of some kind. Some may actually have done that reading. And some may actually do it, after a fashion, before the next paper or exam (even though, as often as not, they will attempt to get by without having done so fully or at all). But the majority? On any given day?”
  • “We want them to see the relevance of history in their own lives, even as we want them to understand and respect the pastness of the past. We want them to evaluate sources in terms of the information they reveal, the credibility they have or lack, or the questions they prompt. We want them to become independent-minded people capable of striking out on their own. In essence, we want for them what all teachers want: citizens who know how to read, write, and think.”
  • “We think it’s our job to ask students to think like historians (historians, who, for the moment, were all born and trained in the twentieth century). We don’t really consider it our job to think like students as a means of showing them why someone would want to think like a historian. We take that for granted because it’s the choicewe made. Big mistake.”
  • “For one thing, there’s too much “material” to “cover” (as if history must — can — be taught sequentially, or as if what’s covered in a lecture or a night’s reading is likely to be remembered beyond those eight magic words a student always longs to to be told: “what we need to know for the test”). For another, few teachers are trained and/or given time to develop curriculum beyond a specific departmental, school, or government mandate. The idea that educators would break with a core model of information delivery that dates back beyond the time of Horace Mann, and that the stuff of history would consist of improvisation, group work, and telling stories with sounds or pictures: we’ve entered a realm of fantasy (or, as far as some traditionalists may be concerned, a nightmare). College teachers in particular may well think of such an approach as beneath them: they’re scholars, not performers.”
  • “Already, so much of history education, from middle school through college, is a matter of going through the motions.”
  • “Can you be a student of history without reading? Yes, because it happens every day. Can you be a serious student of history, can you do history at the varsity level, without it? Probably not. But you can’t get from one to the other without recognizing, and acting, on the reality of student life as it is currently lived. That means imagining a world without books — broadly construed — as a means toward preventing their disappearance.”

OK, so if you’ve stuck with me this far, you are looking for more than just a bland repeating of what someone else said.  So, here are my own thoughts on the matter.  I think this is spot on with regard to the assumptions that we make in teaching history.  I have long since given up on the idea that my students actually do the reading that I assign, although I do my damnedest to get them to.  I put together more and more complex quizzes that the students have to complete on each chapter, with the hope that they will not be able to complete them without reading the chapters.  Actually, I won’t even say I do that, as more of the approach I make is that it will be much easier and faster for the students to complete the assignments they are required to do if they have actually done the reading.  What is funny, and really a failing on my part, is that I still run the class as if they are doing the reading, even though I know they don’t.  This is exactly the fault at which this article is aimed.

I also fall victim to the idea of coverage.  I feel that, as long as I am lecturing, then I am expected to fully cover the material for the course, telling the students everything that they are supposed to know.  I adopt that “sage on the stage” persona so easily that it is scary.  All it takes is for me to stand up in front of the class, and I can talk for 75-minutes on the subject, never asking questions, never stopping for clarifications, and just going, going, going.  I do that day after day without really trying.  Despite my best intentions, I have the standard lecture class down pat, so much so that it takes very little preparation on my part these days to be able to walk in and deliver that lecture.  I wish this wasn’t so, but I feel that I’ve actually gotten lazy with my teaching, just delivering the same old series of lectures, which are now on their 4th year since the last set of revisions.  I’m no better than that joke that we all laugh about of the old professor going in with his old hand-written notes on a legal pad that he did 20 years earlier and delivering the same lecture.  I have fallen into that trap.  Instead of innovating in the place where it matters most, I am stagnating.  I have innovated everywhere else, but day in and day out, I do the same old thing.

So, what can I do?  Well, I have already been planning it out in this blog, and the more I read things like this article, the more I am convinced that it is time for a radical change.  I don’t mean incremental change with some modifications to the lecture and so forth.  I mean radical change.  Blowing up the lecture class.  Flipping the classroom.  Whatever you want to call it.  I need to approach the students and deliver to them, not do what I and my colleagues have always done.  And when I step down from my teaching high each day, I look around at the students, and what do I see?  They are gazing off into the distance, texting on their phones, watching me, surfing the internet, taking notes, dozing, and all sorts of things.  Yet, all of those things are passive.  Sitting there.  Letting themselves either be entertained or annoyed at having to be there (as if I’m forcing them to get a college education).  I want an active classroom.  I want the students to be engaged.  I want to teach history, historical thinking, critical thinking, and so much more.  I don’t want to just lecture, deliver.  To do that, I’m going to have to step out of my comfort zone.  I’m going to have to stop going in with my pre-made lecture and talk for 75 minutes.  I will have to do it all differently.  I will have to change.  It will be hard.  It will be a lot of work.  It will be uncertain.  But I hope it will also be valuable to my students and to me.