Thoughts on Teaching – End of Semester Wrap-Up – 12/17/14

And so another semester has come to a close.  I have not blogged nearly as much as I would like to, but I hope that changes soon.  This was my second semester in a row of an unasked-for double overloads.  While it may not seem like much to add in an extra 30 students over my normal single-overload semesters, that means more grading, more emails, more student issues, and more time.

My free time becomes less academically oriented the more that I have to actually work on my academic career.  I have more time, I find, for blogging, reading academic newsletters and email subscriptions, and reading in my field, when I am not stretched to the limit on teaching.  I was just catching up on my Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed newsletter subscriptions and realized that I had not read anything there since October, despite getting 3-5 emails a day.  That means that I am behind by a lot, and yet I would like to look at each email I get there, just to keep up with what is going on.  In fact, before deciding to sit down and write a post, I read through a week of the emails, meaning that I am still in October, but in late October versus mid-October.

I staggered out the due dates for material this semester, as I knew I had a lot of students to grade and a lot of work to do.  My assignments for the end of the semester actually started coming in on the Sunday before the last week of classes and were staggered through the Thursday of finals week.  So, while I was grading pretty constantly for about a week and a half, I was never under the big push of having everything needing to be graded in 3-5 days.  In fact, if we had not had our internet service go out at my house from Tuesday through Saturday of finals week, it would have gone relatively smoothly overall.  That added layer of complication made for a more stressful period, but, outside of those last stressful days, I can’t say it was a bad semester overall.

Now, I am winding down toward Christmas at home.  In addition to being selected as Faculty Member of the Year at the end of last spring, I was chosen for the Jack Harvey Academy of Exemplary Teachers this year, which will come in late January.  So, it has been an exciting year for honors.  I hope also to make it to at least one conference this spring, as i try to get back into the academic side of things for my job.  I would like to get back going with continuing education and building my skills rather than just trying to make it from one day to the next.  Teaching fewer classes and students will help, as I will be down to just six sections this coming semester, topping out at 180 students, assuming all of my sections fill.  I hope for more time with my work and with my family.

Thoughts on Teaching – Drop Deadline – 11/16/2014

We have reached the late points in the semester.  With Thanksgiving Break coming quite late this semester, we have 2 1/2 weeks of classes left, followed by finals.  The deadline for withdrawing from classes was last Friday, and every semester I am surprised how late in the semester that students are allowed to drop their classes.  They can go 12 weeks into the a 15-week semester and drop the class at that point if they want to.  I do not know the reasoning behind it, but I can say that I do have my own opinions on what such a deadline does to students.  I know one of the reasons for it is to give the students as much leeway to succeed in a class as possible, and, if students used that time for that, I would wholeheartedly support the late drop deadline.  However, what I see from the teaching side is that the students who drop at the deadline overwhelmingly were ones who should have dropped after week 4 or 5.  That does not mean there aren’t a few who needed that extra time to carry forward and try to get it going over the rest of the semester, but the majority are not in that situation.  We are required to put a last date of attendance when we sign drop slips for our students, and the majority of the drop slips that I see are from students who have not participated since September, and they are dropping in November.  Again, there are always a couple who are attending and participating all the way up to the deadline, but even for many of these, the writing was already on the wall that they were not going to be successful.

So, what is my point here? Let’s start with the students who should have dropped much earlier.  We have an early alert system at my community college, where we send out warnings to students who are falling behind as the semester goes forward.  We can send as many or as few early alerts as we choose, and I know some who send none at all, while others have been known to end up sending some students 7-9 alerts over the course of the semester.  I send out two alerts, one just after count day, when I am first asked to sit down and officially look over my rosters.  At the first point, the alert is very simple, if you have not done any significant work at that point (meaning just a few introductory assignments and a couple of chapter assignments), then I send an early alert.  I have not sat down and looked at the numbers, but just on my general remembrance of names, a good number of these will drop the class or not drop and fail.  The second alert goes out when I have graded the first round of major assignments, which is usually by the 6th week of the semester.  The overlap between the first and second alerts is high, although a few more alerts do go out this second time.  I do not send out alerts after that, as the last round of alerts would hit so close to the drop deadline that I generally don’t have time to sit down and do them.  However, since 65% of the grade is determined by that point (ie. by the end of last week), there really is no further need for an alert at that point.  So, as I said, the majority of students who should drop are fairly obvious by fairly early in the semester.  Students who do not complete the early assignments are not likely to continue doing work.  Students who do not complete the first round of major assignments are not likely to pass the course.  What that means for me, when I look at it, is that the majority of the students who will drop generally should drop somewhere around the 6th to 7th week of the semester.  So, giving them 12 weeks only allows them to drag out the semester unnecessarily.

What about the others?  There are a few who do drop later in the semester who were not obvious earlier.  Some of these are people who were making marginal grades (low Ds and high Fs) after the first round of major grades who do not improve by the second.  Others are ones who don’t run into problems until that second round of major grades, where they either drop significantly in their performance or miss some of the assignments.  The final group are those who are not making the grade they want to make.  We always get a few students who drop because they are looking for an A when they have a C in the class.  I guess the question is, are these students worth the longer drop period?

Here is my fear of what the long drop period gives students.  They can drag out the decision for far too long, when some should cut their losses and get out once it become obvious that they will not be successful.  Of course, it might not be obvious to the students, but it certainly is obvious for me in looking at them.  I do not think we are doing them a good service by letting them keep hanging around.  What I mean by cutting their losses is that some students would be better dropping a course or two and concentrating on the ones that they can succeed in.  If they were to drop one or two early in the semester, they could do better in the classes they remained in.  Some might not take advantage of that, and there is the issue that people always hold out hope for success despite the evidence in their faces.  The financial aid system also makes this route difficult, as students who drop can lose their aid.  Those not on aid lose the money they spent on the class as well, which is something that makes them stay in longer in the hopes they can pull it out.

The question that remains, after this wandering look at the drop deadline as I see it, is, what can we do about this?  Certainly, systems like an early alert are a step in the right direction, but I have received very little feedback from students who I send alerts to.  It takes a couple of hours to get the alerts together and send them out, and I often wonder if it is worth it, as I see very little direct feedback from the students after sending out the alerts.  However, I can certainly say that I did my part to let them know, which is at least one step.  I can’t sit down with each of the students in trouble and get them going.  This is largely because the students who I would need to sit down with are already not coming to class or participating in my online class and I have no way to get a hold of them besides sending an email (which is what the early alert does anyway).

Of course, then the question is, would things really be any different if the drop deadline was earlier?  I don’t know if it would.  The same students would probably drop either way.  It is certainly not directly hurting anyone to have a later deadline, unless we believe that all students are rational and cut their losses earlier when they would need to by dropping the classes that were not going well early to concentrate on the ones left.  I think both psychology and financial aid makes that a difficult prospect.  It would make my own job neater and cleaner, as it certainly is nice to have people cleared off of the roster that I no longer have to keep entering 0’s for on every assignments.  It’s not that this really takes a significant amount of time, but it does get irritating as the semester goes on.  It also leads to lots of lamentations among the faculty, as I cannot count the number of conversations that I have either participated in or heard as we talk about the students who we have given chance after chance to without any real results.

So, maybe I am making too much out of something that is really not a big deal.  I don’t know, but it is what is on my mind.  What do you think?

Thoughts on Teaching – Third Week of Online Classes – 9/14/2014

This has been a mixed semester so far.  I really thought it was going to be a rough one after the first week, which I referenced in my last post.  I got everything cleaned up from my first mistake of having the incorrect link up for my classroom, and things have been fairly smooth since then.  I always forget from one fall semester to the next how clueless about how to work online many of these students are in their first classes at college.  Many students get shuttled into online classes as they work well with any schedule and are often perceived as easier than face-to-face classes.  Yet, many have had no experience with online classes and really have trouble in those first weeks of classes.  So, I end up doing a lot of technical support and repetition of information to the students as they try to grasp what they need to do.  Luckily, by the time you get to the third week, most of that is behind, and the rest of the next couple of weeks is mostly maintaining the course and keeping it going.

What is interesting is how these first weeks are the same every semester.  If I could somehow get it through to all of my students, I would set up a couple of things:

  1. The reaction I get from students who are taking their first online class with me is that my class is complicated and hard to understand.  By contrast, any student who is coming into my class from other classes (and often the same students who were confused at first by the end of the semester) comments on how well laid-out and straightforward it is.  I wish I could tell those students more directly that they will get used to it.
  2. Read the course outline.  Again, read the course outline.  And, read it again.  Have a question?  Read the course outline.  Have a specific question?  Look in that section of the course outline and see if I have answered it already.
  3. If you have a question that you can’t find the answer to, let me know as soon as possible.  Do not wait until the second or third week to ask me a question that you had from the first moment in the class.  By then, assignments will have come due, and it will be harder to fix things.
  4. Come by and talk to me if you have any questions.  I can show you how everything works, and it often works better to show you how things are done rather than tell you.

You might think, well, why don’t you just say these things.  The issue is that I do.  In fact, I say them over and over.  However, here is an example of what I am up against.  Shortly after I wrote my last post, I got an email from a student.  He said that some students (including him) were have trouble getting to the correct assignment and I should really tell the students about the problems there.  If you will remember from my last post, the issue was that I had two contradictory links on how to access the textbook site in the classroom.  I discovered this on Tuesday and corrected it at that point.  So, I am getting this email about a week later telling me that I really needed to tell the students about this.  As I then pointed out to that student, I had sent out 4 different announcements to students addressing this issue.  I had also answered two questions posted in the questions forum in the class about this issue.  I had answered about 20 different emails from students about this issue.  So, when this student emails me telling me that I had not done anything to inform the students about this problem, I just had nothing left to say.  And, this is the problem, no matter how many times I say anything, I can’t say it enough to reach every student.

So, what really is the answer is that I just have to keep my cool and remember that every student is new to this.  Their problems are unique to them and they do not have the eight years of online teaching experience behind them.  Unfortunately, this is not something I am particularly good with, as I get easily frustrated after dealing with issues over and over everyday.  I just have to remind myself over and over about this.

The good thing is, by the third week, this section of troubleshooting and explaining is pretty much done.  Some scattered issues with my online classes will come up, I’m sure, but things should be fairly stable until the first set of big assignments are due.  I can’t say as much for my hybrid classes, but that will be another post.

Thoughts on Teaching – First Week of Classes – 8/30/2014

Well, the first week of classes is drawing to a close.  I went from not at all ready as of the middle of last week to making it through the first week with minimal problems.  I can’t really complain about that, as I know many people have many more problems come up in the first week of classes.  

I found out about midway through last week that I, once again, have a double overload this semester, with 7 class sections on my schedule.  I did not ask for the seventh, and I had specifically said that I did not want a 7th class.  But here I am, teaching this semester with 2 hybrid sections and 5 online sections, and there’s not much I can do about it at this point.  Luckily, I only have two actual preps, as I am just teaching sections of each of the halves of the American history survey.  

It has been a bit of a rocky start so far in what should be my least problematic sections, the online ones.  I had recycled the class from last year, and I neglected to remove one link that had the students going to the textbook website.  I did not realize this until the second day of classes, meaning that I have a bunch of students who initially got into the wrong section (the one from Fall 2013).  So, I have had to deal with the issues of getting everyone to the correct place, which takes time and patience. It would be easier if students actually read the announcements that I posted rather than me having to deal with each of them separately, but, considering this was the most problematic thing I had to do in the first week, I really can’t complain too much.

I’ve got the online courses fully ready to go for the semester, with just having to open up each thing as it needs to open.  Of course, I also have to grade the things as they come in, and, since I am a grading masochist, that is three papers and three essay exams from each student this semester in my online sections.  The hybrid classes are planned out for the first 5 weeks.  I set up the class last fall, and I am doing things a bit differently this semester, which is why I can’t just run things as they are.  I have actually added more class meetings where I will be having activities for the students to do.  That means that I am actually doing some real creation of materials and assignments.  Thus, in the time that I was working to get ready for the semester, I had time to get the first five weeks ready.  So, over the next four weeks, I will be preparing the rest of the material for the later ten weeks.

So, this semester, I am teaching 195 students.  Of those, about 45 are high school students.  We are teaching a lot of high school students in dual credit sections, and almost all of mine are in my online sections.  There are 4-5 in my hybrid sections, but the 9:30 in the morning start makes it hard for many more high school students to make those classes.  

Thoughts on Education – Continuing Education with Limited Time and Money – 7/31/2014

One of those interesting topics that comes up sometimes is the question of how and when those of us who teach can keep our job skills up to date. Admittedly, many who teach do not care about this at all, and they are happy to teach as they have always taught because it works for them. I, for one, am never happy with where I am as a teacher and educator. To my family’s ongoing chagrin, I am always reinventing, reconfiguring, rewriting, and reforming my classes. Only rarely do I run the same course again the next year as I did the year before. I am always making changes, and I am always seeking out ways to make these changes.

The problem comes in the question of what to change and how to make changes. In this case, my own desires for continuing education and change meets the ongoing budgetary crisis head on. We do not have the money for conferences or continuing education. And, as a community-college instructor who teaches full time with overloads and summer courses (essentially a 6/6/3 load), there is little time and money on my own for going to and doing things to improve my education. One of the options is, of course, books, but I find myself with little time and motivation to read professionally any more. This is sad, as I used to read history for fun, but now, after 8 years of graduate school and 8 years of full-time teaching, the idea of sitting down and reading a historical monograph is just not very appealing. I have had to confront this in myself, as my job is history education, and I should have the responsibility to be up on the latest scholarship, while also reading widely in topics relevant to what I teach. However, much like my students, if it is not required, I am not going to read it. In the spare time I do have for teaching, I generally read fiction, as it allows me an escape from everything else. Unfortunately, that means that one primary avenue for continuing education is largely unavailable for me.

So, with no money or time for traveling to conferences and not really being willing to read the things that I should, I have turned to taking MOOC courses through Coursera. Last Spring, I took University Teaching 101, and this summer, I am in two of them. The first one, which I am in the middle of right now, is e-Learning Ecologies, which looks at new ways we can think about the online learning environment.  It runs for eight weeks, and it is week 5 right now.  The other one that I am taking now is Learning to Teach Online, which takes a more basic approach to looking at how we teach in an online environment.  I am hoping to learn more through these courses about how I teach, how I could teach, and what other ideas there are out there.  I can’t say much more about them than that, as I am still working on them.

Those of you who teach, what do you do to keep updated with your skills?  Those of you who do not, what else can you think of that could be useful?

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.

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