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.

Thoughts on Teaching – Talking about Religion – 9/28/2013

I am, again, late on discussing what I am doing on a week-by-week basis in my class.  This week, my excuse is that we had an accident last Friday.  In the rain, we hydroplaned on the freeway and were hit by an 18-wheeler.  Everyone came out ok, but the car is going to be in the shop for a while.  So, blogging has been kind of the last thing on my mind as we’ve been dealing with the fallout from the accident.

But, I do want to talk about what I am doing each week in my hybrid class, and so, this is what we did in Week 4, even though we just finished up Week 5.  The topic for the class was — religion.  I set up the discussion with a disclaimer.  From my experience, religion is something that is just not discussed in much detail in most history classes, except in a mostly cursory manner.  I will take out two of the classes this semester and talk exclusively about religion, once with the First Great Awakening and once with the Second Great Awakening.  Yet, discussing religion in class is hard.  It is an extremely personal subject, and it is hard to discuss it without people making it about themselves.

To set up the discussion, I had the students do two things — watch part 1 of a documentary called God in America and read a sermon from the First Great Awakening.  As to discussion, we approached religion in two ways.  First, we looked at the impact of the clash of religions between the arriving Europeans and the people who were already there.   There were two basic things we took from that:

  1. That you cannot believe in a religion without believing that you are completely correct and that people who believe otherwise are wrong.
  2. That the idea of evangelicalism in religion is a difficult thing to achieve, as it is based upon the assumption that you simply have to tell people who have not heard the good word before simply have to hear about your religion and they will then convert.

With those two things as our base starting point, we worked from there.  We discussed how religion shaped the colonies as they developed, looking at the assumptions on both sides and the rise of a religious idea in the colonies.  We then moved rather quickly forward to the First Great Awakening, talking about what the older forms of religion had become by a century or so later and what the new ideas of the Great Awakening were.  We talked about why the people in the Awakening felt that there was a religious problem in America by the mid-1700s and what their solution was.  I did not do as good of a job here as I would have liked to, as I never really brought in the sermons explicitly.  That’s a bad idea, as I need to hold the students directly responsible for the readings that I assign them.  Still, the discussion went reasonably well, especially with the two points above in the bank already.  We talked about the importance of the ideas of the Awakening in moving toward a new form of American religion as well as the push toward a break with old English ways that would be important for the ideas of the Revolution.

Overall, I think the class went reasonably well.  We finished up tying everything back to the theme of unity or division in the colonies, and we left with the good historians answer — yes and no.  The Awakening unified because it was a common experience among the colonists, yet it divided as the Awakening ended up dividing many in America over religious ideas.  I closed everything with my final thoughts on the Awakening, that it was one of the most important pre-Revolutionary movements that is really not talked about very much in a lot of history classes.

As I mentioned above, the only problem I really have with it is that I did not actually directly discuss the documentary or the readings that much.  I need to be holding them more directly responsible for the assignments that I have set for them.  It is hard, as I know that a lot are not doing anything, yet, I am encouraging them not to do anything by not holding them responsible.  It’s a bit of a catch-22.

Thoughts on Teaching – A Depressing Class – 9/19/2013

I know I missed last week, so I will try to double up this week on posts.  This first one concerns last week’s class, which was quite depressing.  That is one reason that I did not have the motivation or energy to write about it last week.  Yet, I want to make sure to write about my class weekly, and so, I am not going to leave last week out.  I just needed some cool down time before I set anything down on “paper.”

So, here’s what happened:

For my hybrid class, I have the last assignments close on Sunday night at midnight.  That means that I spend Monday going through and entering grades from the previous week.  So, we were essentially heading into Week 3 of my class at that point, and I had a chance to see, before I met them that week, how the previous assignments had gone.  In addition to the normal weekly assignments, however, I also had a set of assignments that I call the Initial Assignments and Orientations, which is a basic set of things like reading the syllabus, signing up for the textbook site, taking a few introductory surveys, and the like.  To get credit, you simply have to complete these things, at which point I will give you a 100.  If you do not do them, you get a 0.  It counts for 5% of the overall grade.  Largely, I see it as an assignment to get the students going and get them comfortable in the classroom.  So, I was entering both the grades for that assignment and for the weekly assignments due just before.  What I found was a completely dismal set of grades.  This has nothing to do with my online class but is unique to my hybrid class this semester.  When the only grade on the orientation assignment is either a 100 or 0, then a class average of 50 means that only half of the people did the assignment.  And, I had between a 45 and 55 average with the hybrid sections, meaning that roughly half of the class did not do them.  The assignment had been open for the first 12 days of the semester, and only half of the students had bothered to complete it.  Then, as I was entering the weekly grades, I noted that not only had a significant minority not done the chapter assignments they had in the textbook website, but that about a quarter of my students had not even signed up yet, even though we were already two chapters into the assignments at that point.

That made me rather depressed right there.  The assignments that I have set out as graded assignments, and, not to mention, the first graded assignments of the semester, are not being completed by my students.  Then, I took a dangerous turn for the worst.  I had set up the students for the coming week to do three things — to access my online lectures, complete two chapters in the textbook, and view some video lectures on an external site.  What the students don’t know is that I can directly track who does what in my LMS (Learning Management System), as the LMS allows me to see how many “clicks” there have been on each thing that I have given the students to do.  That is always a depressing thing to look at, because it puts directly in your face as a teacher how few students are bothering to access the material you are requiring them to do.  What I found confirmed my suspicions, as a dismally small number of students had accessed anything at all in preparation for that week’s activities.  They had not read my online lectures.  They had not completed the textbook material.  They had not looked at the external link to the video lectures.  When I say they had not, I mean that the number of clicks in the classroom equalled about 1/4 of the students in the class.  That is even optimistic, as it assumes that each click is a distinct student, which is not necessarily true.

The problem with this is probably obvious.  I assigned something, and the students did not do it.  Beyond that, however, I am currently employing the flipped model of classroom, which means that the students access the central “lecture” material for the course outside of the classroom, and then we apply the material in classroom activities.  So, if the students are not prepared, we cannot work.

So, all of that is depressing enough, but what made it a depressing class is that I then had to address this in class.  I have to have a talk with students every semester that I teach.  It is the nature, especially, of a community college that the students are not ready for college.  They do not know what it means to be in college, and most approach it as just an extension of high school.  We have a large DFW rate each semester (a D (which does not transfer), and F, or a withdrawal.  It usually runs between 40-50% of students in the freshman core classes, like mine.  We have done everything we can to try and fix this, and one of the things I have to do is have that heart-to-heart talk every semester about what they are doing here in college.  I ask them directly to think about why they are there.  I ask them to consider what is making them come to college and whether they are putting out the effort necessary to succeed.  I also talk about what it means to be successful in college.  And, honestly, I ask them to consider if this is something they value at all.  I point out that nobody is making them show up to class, do the work, and so forth.  I can do everything on my end to try and get them to succeed, but if they can’t meet me at least halfway, then it will be a failure.  This is not high school, and nobody is going to get a C for showing up.  I can and will fail them, which is something that most have not heard before.  I ask them to consider what it is they are wasting by being in college and wasting the opportunity they have — whether its money, their time, my time, another student’s chance to be in the class, or whatever.  I am blunt.  I am direct.  And, I am not particularly nice about it.  I don’t like doing this, which makes for a depressing week, as I then had to do the same thing in all of the other classes that week, which meant that day-by-day I had to drag myself to class to deliver one depressing talk after another.  And, sadly, I don’t know if it does any good.  I can’t know, really, and that is also depressing.

A week of depressing talk later, and I, as you can probably imagine, really didn’t have much interest in blogging about it.  Now, I am a couple of days out of it, and things are a bit further in my mind, leaving me able to talk about it without getting all worked up again.

And, in case you were wondering, after having that talk, no, the rest of the class that day did not go particularly well either.

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