Thoughts on Teaching – 3/8/2012 – Comparing sections
OK. So, I really wanted to post to say — I’M DONE! My first massive grading session is done. I have divided up my class this semester into 3 sections, which means that, at the end of each section, I have a large amount of grading to do. I just finished the first one. I’m, of course, the crazy one for assigning so much stuff, but I have this crazy idea that students should do a significant amount of writing in the classes they take. I have the students write at least 1750 words for me (in several different projects) at every third-way point through the semester. So, if you want to consider it that way, I am basically an academic masochist, because I am, of course, the one who has to grade all of that. Still, crazy as it all is, I believe that what I am doing is right and that what I am doing is helping my students. They might not agree, but very few students like doing the assigned work anyway.
I will say that I was generally pleased with how the assignments worked out overall. This last bit that I just got done grading was a total experiment. I just assigned the first take-home exams since I’ve been at my community college. I had no idea how it would go, and I think it went reasonably well. They did have to submit the exams to turnitin.com to try and curb cheating. Still, I did have to report 4 students for cheating on them. Otherwise, I definitely was pleased with a lot of the results that I got. Some were not good, as you would expect, and a certain number of people simply didn’t do them at all. But I got a solid third of them that were actually well written and well reasoned all the way through. I consider that to be pretty good.
But what I set up here as the topic of the day is one of those weird things that all of us who teach (or have been in class) know, that all sections of a course are different. I know this is nothing new, but I felt like I needed a topic today, and not in the mood to go look at articles after just finishing up grading today.
Certainly, the section personality is one of the first things that I notice. Every section has its own personality, whether that be outgoing, shy, argumentative, accepting, humorous, depressing, apathetic, or whatever. Each has a personality that stays relatively steady through the time that I teach it. The only thing that does change the personality sometimes is if one or two people have really set the personality for the section and those people stop coming. But sometimes the personality is not keyed on any specific people and can be determined by the room, time, subject, or even my own level of energy at that time of day. I do think that instructors have as much to do with it as the students. If I’m giving the same lecture over and over, the class that generally gets it first is going to consistently have a different experience from me than the one that gets it on my third time.
The students have a lot to do with it as well. The gender ratio can have a lot to do with it, as a majority-female class has a different personality than a majority-male class. However, considering how the gender ration is skewing more and more female these days, I have a feeling that the personality of sections is going to be more and more female driven. Where students sit has a lot to do with it too. If you have a class where everyone sits in the back, you’re going to have a less engaged class in general than one where everyone sits up front. The more who sit at the sides and nearer the door, the less interaction you’re going to get. If the outgoing and engaged students sit front and center, they can raise the energy level of a class. A long classroom is easier for students to hide in than a shallow, wide one, leading to totally different interactions.
I have yet to figure out how to figure out the personalities of online sections in general. The only time I had an online section with a personality was one semester where 3-4 people tried to create a rebellion against my teaching and expectations. They didn’t get much support from the rest of the class, but that was a trying class that semester. For the others, online students are often so disengaged that it is hard to get a personality out of the section.
Another interesting difference in sections comes in the grades and completion rates. You would think that student entrance into sections would either be random or that a certain type of student would pick you, but with the variance of sections, I know that not to be true. Just to take this most recent grading session, here are the differences:
- First half of American History online – only 2/3 completed the most recent assignments, but the ones who did performed very well
- Second half of American History online – 7/8 or so completed the most recent assignments, but the results were scattered all over the place as far as grades go
- Second half of American History Mon/Wed sections – 3/4 of the students completed the assignments, and the majority did well on the assignments
- Second half of American History Tues/Thurs section – less than 1/2 of the students completed the assignments, and the grades were the worst
The strange thing about that is how it links up to the personality of the sections. The online sections don’t have much of a personality, but the first half section has some of the highest performing students I’ve seen in an online class in a while. Out of my hybrid classes, I definitely have the most fun in the TR class and find them to be the most engaged, but the fewest of them are doing the assignments and those who do are not doing them well. The MW sections are mixed, one being a 40-person section and one being a two-way video section with 15 in the room and 5 on a screen. The larger section works fine, but it always gets my first lecture, and it can be a bit slow going at times. The two-way video section is awkward at best. The students in the room are fine, but I never feel that I can reach the students who are accessing me over the video link.
I know I’ve used engagement several times already, but this really is its own category as well. The variance between sections can be huge. I’ve had classes where they all seem to be paying attention to ones where I can’t get eye contact from anyone at all. I wish I knew what it was about the dynamic of the classes that affected engagement specifically, as I would do everything in my power to affect that directly. There’s nothing better than an engaged class. Not only is it an ego boost (and who are we kidding, as that is important), but it really makes me feel like I’m doing my job well. Any secrets out there on this one?
Anyway, those are just some ideas I had off the top of my head here. I’m pretty brain-fried here from all of the grading. I’ll be back to a more normal blogging schedule for a while now until the next set comes in.