I am coming to the close of the first big grading session of the semester. I have the class divided up into three units, with major assignments due at the end of each unit. For me, that means that my busy time starts after each unit closes. And, the first unit hits before I get any significant number of drops, which means that I grade more in the first grading session than any that follows. This session has been no different. I have had my students complete papers, discussion forums, and essay exams, which means a lot of direct grading by me. I strongly believe that my students need to write and need to write a lot, but the curse of that is that I am then the one who has to grade them. So, I have been grading since last Monday, meaning I am just over a week into this grading session, which I hope to wrap up tomorrow.
The other feature of the first grading session is that I also get my first round of drops from the class at this point. Students can cruise along in the class for the first 4 weeks, completing some basic reading quizzes and the like. However, once a paper is due, a discussion forum closes, and an exam must be taken, that’s when the first round of students are gone. There are always a number of those, so it is part of the process.
The other thing that always comes up with first assignments in the semester is that the first technical glitches hit. Luckily, this time I actually had no glitches on the exam, which is where they usually occur. Instead, this time the paper has been the problem. The students are required to submit their paper to turnitin.com (to check for plagiarism and grade easily with a rubric), but I had about 10 students who managed to miss this part of the assignment. This is despite the fact that every place that the assignment is referred to says that it is due in to turnitin.com, as well as the fact that I sent out two announcements in the last week warning students that they needed to submit to turnitin.com. What it really shows, unfortunately, is how the students seem to run mostly on autopilot. Many just click on the next thing to do without ever looking at any instructions or materials that teachers post. This does mean that often I do not get what I am really looking for, as the autopilot mode often means that students hit a very minimal level of work.
I wonder if there is a way to combat these problems, but I have yet to come up with any yet. I modify my class every semester, working on the phrasing of instructions and reconsidering the structure and order of assignments. And yet, it really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, as the same problems continue. Unfortunately, where it ends up is that I end up just assuming a certain level of attrition with little I can do to help them. All of my efforts end up failing for a certain number of students. Of course, if they can’t meet my standards, then they probably do not belong in the class and certainly do not deserve a decent grade from me. That does not make me feel any better about it, but it is the best I can do for now.
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.
OK. I’m cheating on the date a bit here, since it just turned past midnight here, but I will probably get a Monday blog out, so I went ahead and put this with a Sunday date.
Just a note here as to why I haven’t posted all weekend. It’s a grading weekend! I took Friday off from grading after working through assignments last week, but Saturday and Sunday were full-on grading extravaganzas. For any of you who teach out there, you know how it is. I spent a good 8-10 hours each day working on my grading. My mom, who also teaches at a community college, sympathized this morning, although we have opposite schedules on our big grading times. Her strategy is to get up earlier and earlier in the morning to grade, whereas I just stay up later and later grading. This weekend, I stopped grading after 10pm each day, and this week is going to be similarly busy, as I have a lot of grading left to do. That’s the problem with setting up the class to have three major turn-in points for the students, as it means that when each of those points hit, I have around 2 major assignments from each of my 180 students to grade. I typically try to get things back to my students within a week from when they gave them to me, but that’s not going to happen this time. I am actually on the week after schedule so far, but I can already tell that I’m going to fall behind that schedule very soon, as there simply are not enough hours in the day to get things back that quickly. But I will keep working and keep the students notified of my progress, and that should be ok. I’ve noticed that, as long as you are honest about when the assignments will be graded, the students don’t mind not getting their work back for a while. It’s only when they have no idea what’s going on and when they are going to get anything back that they start to freak out.
In all of it, I must say that the grading went well. I did my usual of holing myself up in the back bedroom for both days, putting on either music or movies and just pounding out the grading. I graded roughly 50 essays each on Saturday and Sunday, graded using a grading rubric in turnitin.com. Also, today, when I finished up the second set of 50 essays, I then had to grade the discussion forum participation for each student and figure up final grades. For this assignment, I had the 2 essays and a discussion forum that figured into the grade for the online class. The first essay (the longer one) counted 40% of the grade, while the second essay and discussion participation were 30% each. So, at the end of my grading time this evening, around 10:45, I posted all of the grades up for those online sections.
And, of course, just as a note for all of those who think that teaching college is some cushy job, no, I don’t get paid anything more for working all weekend. Yes, I could just give all of my students multiple-choice tests and not have to worry about weeks like this (as this grading session will at least last through next weekend, if not longer), but I strongly believe that my students should write and need to write a lot. Yes, I teach 6 sections. Yes, I have 180 students signed up for my classes. But each of them will be assigned to write at least 20 pages for me over the course of the semester, and many will do a lot more than that, as my published word counts are only minimums. Most students will find that completing the assignments in the minimum word count is very difficult, and for many, I will read up to twice that much from them in the semester. Although I might curse myself while I’m in the middle of grading these things, I hope that by getting them writing and thinking and by providing them with feedback to help them improve, I am contributing to their further education and growth. Maybe that’s idealistic of me, but there’s still a little idealism left, even after 10 years of teaching.
It’s the joy that anybody who is a teacher knows — the joy of the first major assignment coming due. It’s the point where students who have skated by not doing much are going to have to put up or shut up. And for me, that point has been reached. In my hybrid classes, their assignments are scattered and due over about a 2 week period, so it’s not quite as bad with them, but with the online classes, they are turning in their first big one tonight. And, since I’m in online office hours tonight, I am here and witnessing it blow by blow. What that has meant is that I have been hearing and seeing all of the excuses roll by as to why something is not working or why things will not be turned in on time. Actually, I haven’t seen that many of those yet, but it’s almost 8pm now, and the assignment closes at midnight. So, as it gets closer and closer, the fear-induced excuses will grow. On the positive side, I have seen a lot of drafts so far, which is very good. Drafting means higher levels of organization and preparedness and generally leads to better grades overall. Of course, even then, the assignment has been open for 5 weeks, and I am seeing even drafts only in the last couple of days. I know it’s a joke to say an assignment is open for 5 weeks, as very, very few students will do any work on something more than a week before it is due. Most will do it a day or two before, so a good number are working furiously to finish it right now.
I’ve also thrown in a different wrench this time to their plans (lovely mixed metaphor there). They get all of the information for their assignment from the textbook website, but they actually turn it in on turnitin.com. So, they have to take the extra step of making sure they turn it in to the correct place. As of right now, I have already been contacted by two who realized they turned it in at the incorrect place, and I’m sure there will be more who will realize it at a later point. As to excuses, I’ve had two so far — a child in the hospital and a crashed computer — both are probably legitimate (the first definitely so), and those have been dealt with. The more creative excuses come as we get closer to the time when everything is due. I do take late assignments at a 10-point penalty per day, but I don’t actually say that up front, as I don’t want students abusing that option.
For now, it is the time when I start to see who is really serious about the class and who is not. It’s funny that it comes to that, but it is true as well. A good portion of my students do not make it even to the first assignment of the semester. They are already lost before they’ve even gotten any significant grades, and there is not much I can do about it. I can notify them that they have missed the assignment (we have an Early Alert system that sends them an official email and letter from the college), but that’s about all I can do. This semester, there has already seemed to be a larger number in classes overall here at my community college that are not showing up. One of my hybrid sections is already down a third in attendance. I’ll have a better idea of how the online classes sit after this weekend, so I can’t say anything there yet. I’ve talked to some colleagues and even my classes themselves, and everyone has noted a larger than normal number of students who have signed up for classes and not even made it past the third or fourth week. I don’t really know why or what would make this semester any different than the others.
And so I sit and monitor my classes for now. I have some other projects I’m working on, so I am doing those on the side while I’m here monitoring my email and my online office hours room, but most of it is just sitting here and monitoring. Not the most exciting thing, but then teaching, especially online, does devolve into a lot of waiting on the students to do their thing so that you can do your thing. By tomorrow, I’ll have a mountain of grading to do. But for now, I wait, do some other things, and keep checking to try to avert whatever crises I can.