Tag Archive | introductory classes

Thoughts on Teaching – Transforming the Way We Teach – 6/5/19

I have been doing so much thinking about teaching this summer so far that my brain is starting to hurt. I have a lot of ideas floating around, and I’m going to keep writing about them here this summer. Some of it is so that I can get feedback, but some of it is simply so that I can have a place to keep my ideas together.

One of the things that really triggered my thinking while walking my dog last night was in a podcast I was listening to. The podcast is “Tea for Teaching,” and the episode is 17 – Online Learning.

They were discussing a lot of ideas about online teaching in general, and I could probably have a whole post here just deconstructing the podcasts I’m listening to. However, there was one section that I wanted to separate out and talk about here.

One of the hosts, John, was talking about how we struggle in class to figure out what to talk about and how we are generally taught to rely on the students having read the material ahead of time so that we can synthesize and add to that material. This is especially true in the introductory courses like my own history courses. On the question of whether students are reading, he said:

…faculty who lecture primarily, often get into this situation where they tell students to do the reading… students come to class and they ask them questions about the reading and they find students haven’t done the reading… and in response they end up going over the reading… and then students realize they don’t have to do the reading, because it’s going to be gone over in class anyway… and then the faculty realize that they’re never doing the reading so they have to do it in class…and we get this vicious downward spiral in terms of expectations of both students and faculty — where students end up not learning as much as they could be if that time outside of class was more productively used.

This is right along the lines of what I feel about the traditional lecture and why I have dropped the traditional narrative lecture from my hybrid classes in favor of project-based weekly activities in class where they have to have done the reading ahead of time to be able to discuss and participate.

I don’t have anything more to say right now about this, but I just found that to be so perfect to what I have been thinking about and doing in my classes that I just had to share. What do you think? Do you teach and see yourself in this statement? Are you a student and have had classes that look like this?

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What I Do – Part 1 – Online Courses – Teaching the Content

I was at a 5-year-old’s birthday party this past weekend, and a parent asked what I do. When I responded that I teach history at a community college, he proceeded to tell me about his own experience. He came to this country as a senior in high school and had to take American history to graduate. He then went off to college and took American history there the next year. His comment was that he thought it was a waste of time to take college-level history, as it was just a repeat of what he had been taught in high school. That further convinced me that my approach to teaching college-level history is heading in the right direction, as I know that my class is nowhere near just a repeat of what the students would have gotten in high school. In fact, the top comment that I get in my discussion forums is how the students have not heard much of anything that I teach before coming to my class.

That brings me to the first part here of what I do in the online teaching environment for history. For a long time, teaching history has been focused around the narrative, with the feeling that, if you do not speak about every single detail of American history that you can squeeze in, then you are failing to do your job. I hear that from my colleagues here and elsewhere that, every time we are asked to do something besides teaching the narrative, we are taking time away from what we are supposed to be doing. When I get to Part 2 of this series, talking about my hybrid courses, I will talk about a course where I have started the break with the narrative approach to history. However, for Part 1 here, my online course is still largely a narrative course.

What makes my course different from a high school course is: What narrative are you teaching? My students have to cover the material in multiple different ways online, getting the narrative from multiple sources and perspectives.

In the old style, the narrative came from two sources — the instructor and the textbook. The instructor presented the “true” content for the course, and the textbook covered all the cracks where the instructor either did not have enough time or did not present on topics he or she wasn’t all that interested in. These two sources largely matched in approach, and student success in class came in how closely they could match the instructor and textbook approaches on their multiple-choice and essay exams.

I have so many different perspectives in my class that there is no single source of information. As well, throughout all of it, I do not insist on a coverage model at all, as we will have some material that we will spend a lot of time on and others that we will not. At the base, here are the sources that my students have:

  • My lectures (presented in both a Word document and as audio podcasts)
  • The textbook (1-2 chapters each week)
  • 7-10 primary sources with detailed assessments on each through the semester
  • Crash Course US History videos from YouTube
  • 10-20 additional resources on the web each week.
    • These are basically anything I can find for free on the web that has a stable link that covers some subject related to that week. These include:
      • documentaries
      • podcasts
      • newspaper articles
      • magazine articles
      • journal articles
      • slideshows
      • online museum exhibits

The only part of the above that is not required are the additional resources, but I know that students are reading them because of what they talk about in the discussion forums (which will be a later post). I will have one student post what they find interesting in a resource, and then another student will say that inspired them to read/watch/listen to the resource. Then, they post about it, triggering another couple of students, and so forth.

It is a lot of material, but, of course, in an online course, I can ask for them to do that material and hope they do it. I try to have assessments tied to all of it except the additional resources, whether it be in textbook quizzes, assessments on primary sources, or broad-based essay questions that cover the lectures and Crash Course Videos. The evidence overall shows that students are definitely accessing some of it, with the better students accessing all of it.

I feel that the coverage that I give them works well, as I hear from them regularly. I have a lot of avenues for students to talk to me about their progress in the course, and they find the material manageable and interesting, which means I am meeting the goal I am looking for.

As I move forward in developing material, I do want to do more.

  • First, I am looking to redo my lectures. They are the ones that I first developed in teaching American history almost 15 years ago, and I know they are dated. They are largely still on the coverage model, and updating them would allow me to have the lectures be more of a deep dive into the interesting material for the subject and allow the textbook to remain as the one source still tied to the coverage.
  • Second, I would like to diversify my assessments to focus more on the skills that I am looking for students to learn rather than just their memorization of the material. I have been fairly successful so far in doing that, but I know I could do more (which I will discuss in the assessment part of this discussion of what I do).

For right now, I am moderately happy with my content coverage, and, if I could do that first one, especially, I think I would have my online history course in a very good place.

Do any of you who read this teach history or another introductory subject? What do you remember from when you took introductory history?

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.