Thoughts on Teaching – A Day in Summer School – 6/19/2014

Today was another day of teaching. What can I say. My wife always asks me the same question every day when I come home – Was work exciting? And, I really never have a good answer to that. Rarely is work exciting, but rarely is it dismal either. Going in to work is a necessary evil in many ways. I teach exclusively online in the summer, and your standard community college student taking online classes in the summer is very unlikely to make it to on-campus office hours. In three weeks so far, I have seen three students. Now, yes, if I was not there, those three students could not have come in to see me, but does tha make up for the rest of it? I don’t know. It is a 25-minute commute each way to get to work, and I stay up there for around four hours at a time for office hours. And, for the most part, I sit there and do work. Or not. It depends on my mood, my attentiveness, my concentration, my guilt, and many other things as to whether a day in the office is a good, productive one, or a bad, unproductive one.

But that’s the thing, it doesn’t matter really one way or the other. I am going to get my work done, but I am not necessarily going to get it done during the hours I sit at work. As I am teaching exclusively online right now, there is no physical bounds on my work. It can be done anywhere and at any time. And, of course, being on campus on Tuesdays through Thursdays from 10am – 2pm is probably the least likely time that my online-only students are going to be working on the course material, meaning that I am most available at the time they are least likely to need my help. But it is the requirement at my community college that we hold on-campus office hours, so I am there. But, again, is it exciting? No. Is it necessary? Apparently. Is it worth it? That depends on the day.

So, when she asked me today, when I got home, if work was exciting, what did I say? Not really. I graded some essay exams. I went to lunch. That’s what I had to say. But, the reality is that I did much more than that. I got there a little before 10 and cleared my email inbox, answering emails from students, including two who wanted to drop the class (because it is now time to take the exam) and one who wanted me to look at drafts of the essay questions for the exam. I clicked through the rest of the emails, most of which required no specific action today but are things I want to look at later. I have a folder rule set up in Outlook to send all of the newsletters and informational emails to a folder to be read when I have the time and interest in reading them. Then I checked in on my online class, looking to see what had happened since I had last looked at the class the night before. I double checked what I had fixed at 8am this morning when the Testing Center had called with a question about the exam, where I had not set the closing time correctly. It was fixed correctly, luckily, and four more students had taken my exam since that point. I then checked to see if the fix that is due from the textbook publisher had come in that would allow me to grade the written submissions of my students had happened yet. And, it had not. So, the publishers’ program that I am class testing still does not allow me to grade what my students submitted, which is getting to be more and more of a problem. I went in to talk to my Dean about it, but he had taken the day off. So, I sent him an email about it. By that time, I had been there about 45 minutes, and so I took a few minutes off to do some random web surfing. I am in the office by myself by that point, so I had turned on some music to listen to. I then started grading. I can grade about 3 exams at a time before I have to take a break. So, in the time between when I started and when it was time to go to lunch, I got 9 exams graded. As the exam actually does not close until tonight, I figured that really wasn’t too bad overall, as I’m ahead of the game there.

I went to my usual Thursday afternoon lunch with some colleagues, and it was 1:30 by the time I got back to the office. I chatted about office politics and the like with some people in my office bay until it was time to go at 2. I made it home in time to help my wife get all of the kids ready to go to the grocery store with her. We then realized that our elder daughter had math tutoring to go to, so my wife took the other kids to the grocery store, and I took the one to the tutoring. I normally sit at Starbucks and work while my daughter is in tutoring, which is where I started this post. However, my wife had gotten locked out of the house, so I had to go back and let her in, leaving me to finish this post later in the day. I entertained the toddler while my wife made dinner, then I went back to get the other daughter from tutoring. We had dinner; I watered the flowerbeds and garden; I did some laundry; and now I sit down.

So, was the day exciting? You tell me, but this was fairly typical.

Thoughts on Teaching – Class-Testing a New Book – 6/4/2014

I am teaching this summer.  The summer sessions are always interesting at a community college, as we get a completely different crop of students.  While there are certainly a number of continuing students from the semesters, we also get a significant population of students who are attending a four-year university who take a class or two from us over the summer.  Thus, in many cases, we get students who would not normally be in a community college here over the summer.  I am not saying they are better students, although some certainly are, but they are definitely a completely different group of students.

This summer, I have decided to class test a new textbook.  So often, the textbook choice time catches all of us completely off guard.  We choose a new textbook every three years, and, so often, we start making that choice essentially at the last minute, relying on a quick glance at the book, a demo of the online material, and a visit from a rep.  Sometimes that is enough to get a sense of a book and to choose a good one, but it has also led to some duds over the years.  When approached this year about a new textbook from a different company than the one we are currently using, I decided to take it for a test drive to see how it might compare.  I will leave the names of the companies out of this, but they are all major publishing companies for college history textbooks.

I am not trying out the new textbook and company because I think that what they offer is superior, I am trying it out because I do not have any idea if they are superior.  We have used two different publisher’s books so far since I have been in my current teaching position, and I strongly disliked one and generally like the other.  When this third company approached me, I couldn’t help but be interested because I want to see what is out there.  I certainly have the time to go out and explore on my own, but if nothing is forcing me to, I probably won’t.  So, a class test forces me to delve into a different book and online system in more detail.  It also allows me to see how it actually works in practice.

I have launched on this with full openness to my students that this is a class test.  They have to know it anyway, as only this class has a different textbook than the others, as we use a common department textbook.  However, I also wanted to let them know, as I want their feedback as well.  It is just as important to me that the textbook and online system be manageable and accessible to them as it is that it be something that works for me.  It could be the best book in the world, but if they can’t deal with it, it is a failure.

The summer session started this week, and I have kept the students completely informed about the changes and expectations.  In my course outline, this is how I explained it to them:

Over the course of the summer session, we will cover the first 15 chapters of the textbook, which is what is included in Volume 1. This section is what I am class-testing this summer. Thus, all of the assignments in this section are new to me, just as they are new to you. I will be working through them along with you, and I will be evaluating them from my own historical perspective as well as looking at your own responses and performance in this section. We class-test material such as this both to ensure that we are using the best possible material for our classes at Weatherford College and to evaluate new content that we have not seen before.

What that means for you is that the material is presented to you in a way that explores all of the different options available from XX [censored to not show what book I am using]. What I have seen appears to be a manageable amount of material, but I will be evaluating as I go along in case what is here is too much. I am very happy to change if necessary, as this is all about testing out the material, both in quantity and quality. I also will be looking at how the material is assigned and accessed. It appears to be fairly obvious what material is due when, and it appears to be clear what assignments you need to do. If there is a problem, I will work with the material to try to figure out what is going on. As of right now, the material is organized by chapter, with the exception of the introductory assignments at the top.

Again, I want to be as open with them, so that I can evaluate the book and they can evaluate the book.  That way, when our choice comes up next spring, I can talk about not only the book we are currently using but another one as well.  We can all make an informed choice at that point and come up with the best possible outcome for our department and our students.

Thoughts on Teaching – First Grading Session – 2/24/2014

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.

Thoughts on Teaching – A New Semester and a New Beginning – 1/31/14

It seems like I am always starting blog posts off with an apology for not having written in a while.  Since the birth of our daughter 15 months ago, spare time has been harder and harder to come by.  However, she is settling down into a good routine, so I hope to do better this semester.  I had hoped, after the post in November to be back on track, but shortly after that, we had a major family health issue come up that pushed out non-essential items.  Now I think things have settled down, and I hope to be going again with my blog.

So, here we are, with a new semester (three weeks in but, hey, what can you do about that).  I have, yet again, been given a double overload in classes, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester for the second semester in a row.  I have 4 online sections and 3 hybrid sections.  My online sections are running as they always do.  I am in roughly the 5th year of my current configuration of my online class, as so they can largely run without much effort on my part.  That is one of the truths about online classes, that they are very involved and difficult to get going, but they can run pretty easily once you get them done.  However, if you have followed my blog so far, you will see that I am rarely satisfied with how my classes are going.  My online class is far overdue for a reworking, and I hope to start thinking about it this summer.  I have made some changes over the last 5 years on the margins, moving assignments around and changing a few things here and there.  However, I think it’s about time for an overhaul soon.  And, the model that I will use for my overhaul are my hybrid classes.

I have started getting my hybrid class really going in the direction that I like.  I am in the second year of working with this new hybrid format, and I am adjusting and working with the class as it moves forward.  Following what I worked with last, this semester, I have moved into a model of weekly work and a long paper at the end.  There are no exams, although I do have some chapter quizzing going on.  The big part of the grade (about 45% overall) is discussion based, both online and in-class.  Then, to keep the students on track, I have weekly, one-page response papers.  I have returned to this model from what I did the first year, because I tried not having response papers last semester, and I found that students did not do the work if I did not hold them directly responsible.  So, I am hoping that this semester they will do more of the work I expect them to do outside of class.  I don’t have any great desire to grade weekly papers, but I want my students doing the work, and their grades will improve (hopefully).

As I have this hybrid model settled in well, I think I can use a lot of the ideas from this format in my online course.  I would like to move beyond the exam model and include a lot more activities and discussions.  Right now, the online class is primarily made up of reading lectures and the textbook and taking quizzes and exams.  That is exactly the format that I have moved away from in my hybrid class, and I would like to move the online class beyond it as well.  I hope that I get it together relatively soon.

Anyway, that’s a good start for the semester.  Wish me luck.

Thoughts on Teaching – Failing the Semester – 11/26/2013

Yes, this sounds like I am going to talk about my students failing this semester, and, to be honest, I will in a roundabout way.  However, in reality, what I am writing about is my own failure this semester.  I tried something new, as I do every semester.  And, I can honestly say that it has not worked.  I feel like I have failed the students, although, in reality what I have done is to make it easier for them to fail themselves.  As there is so much pressure on us to help the students succeed, I certainly do feel that I have done them a disservice and made at least a few of my students less successful that they would have otherwise been.

What I did this semester was I did not assign weekly writing assignments to check and make sure the students were doing the work they were supposed to.  To be clear, I did assign chapter readings and chapter work, so I was checking up on whether they were doing that part of the work.  However, as a part of the hybrid-class model that I am using, the students have extra work each week, whether it be watching a documentary, reading some extra piece, or even completing a history game.  Last year, I consistently had the students complete a response paper each week.  This mostly was used to check on whether they had completed the work they were supposed to and provided a basis for a regular check and grade on their work each week.  In the evaluation of the course last year, I heard back from students that, while they did not like writing something every week, they felt that it was helpful in making sure they were doing the work they were supposed to.  The students said that they felt more prepared to discuss the material when they had been required to write a response paper about it.

With that said, it would seem stupid for me to not assign those response papers this semester, but, when it came down to what my weekly workload would look like, I chose to take them out.  I was assigned an extra class at the last minute this semester, meaning that I am teaching 7 classes this semester.  Five of those classes are online, and so they are not affected by this change.  It is only in my two hybrid classes that I decided to try running the class without the weekly responses.  I was afraid of what the teaching load would look like if I added those extra grading pieces each week, and so I left them out.  In retrospect, this was a bad idea.  For one, my students have been noticeably less prepared this semester than last year.  I have had to send them away twice this semester when I did go and check on whether they had done the assigned work, only to discover that they had not.  The other reason this was a bad idea is that I have not been as burdened this semester by an extra class as I thought I would be.  So, I could have easily done the response papers with little consequence on my overall work load.

What this leaves me with is that fact that I made students less likely to succeed, despite both knowing that they would do better with regular checks on what they were doing and despite having the time for the resulting grading.  This is why I see this as a failure on my part.  The check that I had built into the semester for them doing the extra work to prepare for class was that they have a discussion grade for the class that counts for 25% of the overall grade.  It turns out that this grade is too abstract for the students to care about on a weekly basis.  The level of participation has been lower this semester, and the quality of participation has been low as well.  Given the opportunity to have no checks on whether they have done the work or not, most students have chosen not to do the work and not be prepared for class.  I know this should come as no surprise, and, if I had thought it through more, I would have easily realized this.  This, again, is why I put the failure on myself.  I did put out the rope for my students to either grab on to or hang themselves with, and most of my students chose the latter.

I do not know how this class will fall out at the end, but I have a feeling that my grades and pass rates are going to be horrendous for the hybrid classes this semester.  Obviously, I know what to do to fix it next semester.  However, it still sits heavily on me that I have let these students fail out when I could have done something to help them.  Sigh.

Thoughts on Education – Reflecting at the Drop Deadline – 11/17/13

OK.  I know.  I have not posted in a while.  Shortly after the last post, I started my big grading session.  I had about 90 essays, 90 essay exams, and about 150 discussion forum grades to determine.  All of that took me a good part of two weeks, leaving me worn out afterwards.  I did not post during that time, and, as I did not post then, I keep putting off posting again, because I think I need to go back and catch up on that period.  However, I have finally just given up on that and am going to just move forward with the blog here and not worry about trying to catch up or recount.  There are a few things that I will go back and talk about, so you will see some of that over the next couple of blogs here.  However, today I’m going to write about that terrible point in the fall semester — the drop deadline.

The drop deadline in the fall semester at a community college is a very meaningful deadline.  So many of our students are not necessarily meant for college, as we are an institution that allows people to try out college for cheap and see if it works for them.  It is not unusual for me to lose a lot of students by the drop deadline, and I am not out of line from the norms in our department or among the various standard, introductory courses that our students take.  As to who drops, there is no direct profile, as they come from all types.  However, the most common drops are those who have simply stopped coming to class.  This can be a large number of students overall, as I often have 50% or less attendance in any of my face-to-face classes by this point in the semester.

What is sad, though, is how many students have stopped coming by this point and do not drop.  So, while I do sign a number of drop slips by students, a larger number of students will just take their failing grade by this point in the semester rather than drop.  Some of this may be because of the relatively new restrictions on the number of withdrawals you can have in a college career, which is either 5 or 6, if I remember correctly.  After that, you cannot drop a class, leaving you taking the F anyway.  So, some students may figure that it is not worth it at this point to waste a W.  However, I don’t think that is the big reason, as most of the students that I see are first-semester college students who are not thinking at all about their long-term college career.  They are just starting and not thinking about their college career and not worried about the number of withdrawals.

I think the bigger reason why drops are so common is that they are seen as so easy.  The students can drop all the way up until mid-November, over two-thirds of the way through the semester.  They can mess around in a class and see a lot of their progress before having to make any decision about dropping.  So, they are able to keep putting off their decision until what is, in reality, the last minute.  This should be an advantage for students, as they have many opportunities to succeed and should only have to drop when they have exhausted every possibility of getting a good grade in class.  The reality is different, however.  What I hear over and over from students is that they drop the classes when they get hard.  They drop them when they get too busy with other things.  They drop because they just don’t feel like going to class anymore.  In fact, for a lot of the students that I see, the reasons for dropping are anything but the fact that they have tried their hardest and just come up short at the very end.  I’m not denying that some students are like that, but it really does seem that the majority of what I see are students who get out when the going gets tough.  The problem with that, as I see it, is that college is going to be hard.  And, if students learn that they can get out when it gets hard, then they are learning a lesson that will not serve them well in their continuing education.  As well, it is what leads to longer and longer periods in school.  If students drop and drop and drop, they take that much longer to get a degree.  The two-year degree we offer at my community college usually takes longer than two years, as students take 12 hours or less in a semester and drop classes regularly.  Then, if they transfer, it takes longer there as well.  All of that means larger college fees and larger student loan bills.

I guess my real objection is philosophical to the lenient drop policies.  Again, I understand why they are this way, and I’m not going to get on a moral high horse and say that, back in my day, we did not consider dropping classes.  But I do think that students are not given the incentive or reason to power through their classes and force themselves to succeed over time.  I think it is too easy to drop and too easy to say that things are just a bit too hard, and to try again at a later point.  I think it contributes to the rising student loan bills and the growing number of people who start but never complete college.

What do you think?  Am I being fair, or is this just my perspective as a professor that does not take into account other realities out there.  Let me know in the comments.

Thoughts on Teaching – Wrapping up the first Unit – 10/3/2013

Week 5 in my hybrid class was the final class of the first Unit of the semester.  So, we have essentially finished a third of the class to this point.  In wrapping up the Unit, I tried to do two things.  First, I took some time out to talk about research.  Second, I set up a discussion about what united and divided the colonies in the lead up to the Revolution.

For the first part of the class, I started what will eventually be a three-part series on how to write a history paper.  This is something that I find we do not do at the college level.  (And, based upon what I see, is never taught before college either.)  The only class where we actually teach students how to write is the introductory English class, and the only class where we teach students research is the second English class they take.  Since my students are often taking my class concurrently with the English classes, they may or may not have any of these skills by the time they are writing for me.  And, in the past, I have generally assumed that my students will be able to write effectively for me without ever teaching them how.  In fact, I think that is how it is generally approached in most non-English classes — namely that we give them a paper topic and the next time we see anything from them is when they turn in the final draft.  We just assumed they could do that without any guidance.  However, the quality of the writing from that method was always rather poor, and the opportunities to teach them how to fix their problems only came in the comments left on their writing, which most students never read anyway.

So, I have embarked on a mission to try and teach them what it means to write a history paper and what it means to use historical sources in a paper.  Some of this comes from my college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), where we are to teach research methods throughout the college.  But it has also come just because I have grown sick and tired of never getting what I am looking for from my students.  This first presentation, which you can see below, concentrates in on two things — the need for an argument and the method for reading and understanding primary sources.  I started with the failings of high school education at teaching students how to make a historical argument, and I talked about what it means to make an argument.  I showed them the difference between what I call an information dump paper, where you try to get everything you know down on the paper in the hopes that you hit the points the teacher will be looking for, and an argument paper, where you have an organized and coherent argument that runs throughout the paper.  Then, I took them through a 9-point method for reading primary sources.  This is key because students have very little experience reading documents from the past.  They generally pick them up, read them, find them incomprehensible, and then put them down.  Thus, when we assign them to read something, they come away seeing it as unnecessary torture to read something that they are not going to understand anyway.  So, I take them through how they should be approaching a document, especially in getting them to think about the context of the document as a way to see why it might be something important.  I stressed to them that I do not assign things out of spite or sadism but instead assign things that emphasize the ideas I am trying to get across in the course.  I also talked about how it is important to try to read the document as if you were there in the past rather than as someone from today reading something in the past.  This is a difficult thing to do, but it can help the students understand why I would assign something for them to read.  As an example of this, I talked about William Penn’s “Plan for a Union” from 1697.  That was something I had assigned for them to read, and it is something that is difficult and largely opaque to the students.  What I pointed out to them was that if you considered the source and context, it could be a very interesting document, since it is a document that calls for political union among the colonies many decades before the Revolution.

Here is the PowerPoint that I used to hit these themes in my class:  SourcesPresentation1.  I don’t know how successful it was to talk to the students about these ideas, but I think it is important.

Going through those parts took between 30-40 minutes in each class.  That left only about 35-45 minutes for the rest of the discussion. I put two columns on the board — Unites and Divides — and had the students talk about what they would put in each column to show the things that united the colonies and the things that divided the colonies.  This is part of the bigger Semester Project that the students are working on, where they are asked to eventually write a long paper on the subject of whether we can consider the colonies/United States as united or divided.  The main goal, and one that was met in all of the classes, was to get the students to see that all of the major issues could realistically be put in both the unites and divides column.  As a specific example, I took the topic of religion.  I wrote on the board the statement that the American colonies were founded on the Christian religion.  Then we talked about how that could be seen as both true and false.  The true part, of course, comes from the fact that 99.5+% of the people who formed the colonies were Christian, all of whom believed in the same God and read the same Bible.  Colonial society, politics, and the like were all taken from a context of a people who shared very similar beliefs.  Then, we talked about what might make that statement not true, namely that, despite all being Christian, the colonists were all from vastly different sects and backgrounds.  In fact, many of the dominant sects very explicitly opposed each other and found the beliefs of each to be quite abhorrent.  In fact, the varieties of religion could be considered to be so vast that calling them a common group of Christians basically elides the reality of religion in the colonies.  As one of the students put it, it is not really a question of Christian values, but of which set of Christian values.  I was rather pleased with how the students grasped this concept overall, not just on religion, but on the broader idea that most major ideas could be both uniting and dividing.

The other thing that I wanted to cover in some detail, but largely ran out of time on, was the question of who we were talking about.  When we consider the question of what made the colonies united or divided, we are mostly considering the white, European colonists.  I raised the question at the very end of the class about whether we should also consider the slaves and the Native Americans.  We ran out of time to talk about this in any detail, but I was happy that I, at least, got to put the idea in their heads.

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