And so the summer session begins. I am teaching the second of our two summer sessions, which means that I just finished up roughly 8 weeks off before starting teaching again. I have never done that before, as I usually teach the first summer session, which means 3 weeks off, teach for 5 weeks, and then 5 weeks off. I can’t say I got any more or less done in having the 8 weeks off together, but I will see how I feel at the end of this summer session on how that change affects me.
I have 44 total students in two online sections this summer. We are on day 2 of the session, and 10 of those students have not yet logged into the classroom. Of the 34 who have, things seem to be going well so far. I have fielded some questions, and I have found one minor mistake in the material that I had prepared. Otherwise, I would say that it has been a smooth start so far. About 20-25 students have been at least somewhat active, starting to complete some assignments and interacting with the introductory materials.
The summer is always strange, as I pointed out to the students directly in one of my initial announcement posts. As opposed to a traditional, long semester, the students have just 5 weeks to complete all of the material. And, if you consider when I have to schedule exams (the school and Testing Center are only open Monday-Thursday over the summer), things get even more rushed. The first half of the course will take a little less than two weeks, which is normally the first seven weeks of a long semester. As I pointed out to the students, this means that each two days, they are covering a week’s worth of material. I would have let it go a bit longer, but with the school schedule, I have the first exam running a Wednesday and Thursday, leaving only 13 days to cover the first half of the course before the exam opens. Then, they will have about 2 1/2 weeks for the second half of the class, because I had to schedule my exams around the college’s schedule. I understand the need to have shorter work weeks in the summer and the less need for long hours with a much smaller student presence in summer classes, but 4 days a week is limiting when compared to 6 days a week in the long semester.
I have made some suggestions to the students on how to complete the material in time. I have the class set up with two major deadlines, one at the end of each unit. I know that the temptation for the students will be to put it all off until the end of each unit, but I have warned them that there is more material to complete than can be done in a day or two. My suggestion is that they take the class with the goal to complete each “week’s” worth of material from the long semesters every two days. If they do that, they will be on a path to complete the course material with no problem. I cannot, of course, force them to do this, but it is my suggestion. Of course, I could actually force them to do it, by putting in intermediate deadlines, but I like the flexibility that the current format allows students to have. The summers are always complicated, and I want to make this a process that works well for all of the students regardless of vacation and work schedules.
We shall see how the summer session progresses, but it has been a good start so far.
Here we go, it is the second day of the semester, so I have met both my MW and TR class once so far. This is a new and interesting semester for me. We are teaching in our brand new academic building that has all of the latest technology in it. As well, I am teaching a completely redesigned course. If you followed my blog last semester, I talked about the push for redesign, and I have jumped in with both feet here. This is a fully hybrid class that takes on the “flipped” model of moving the lectures outside of class and reserving class time for applying the material.
I am teaching two sections of this newly redesigned class and four sections of my more traditional online class. So, I will have a direct comparison between the new class and one of my old models to see how it goes between them.
For the first day of class, it was largely a presentation of the class, ie. going through the syllabus and such. However, I talked mostly about why this class exists as it does and how my changes are intended to improve the learning process. Some of the big points I hit are:
- what is a hybrid class and what does it mean to meet only one day a week?
- what is a “flipped” classroom and what is the student responsibility that goes with that?
- what does active learning mean as opposed to passive learning?
- what does it mean to have a class graded on weekly participation?
- how is the new emphasis on research and sources going to play out in the class?
- and, of course, what is history and why is this a good method for studying it?
I was also very clear to the students that this is brand new. In fact, in one of my classes, I called it the beta version of the class. This is going to be an experiment on my part, and I told them to bear with me as we work through it, just as I will bear with them as they try to learn in a new way. I also explained the high hopes I have for them in the course and how we realistically might reach them. Finally, I told them that if they wanted a traditional, passive learning, lecture class, that they could go to most other history classes here.
I will try to update at least every week on this blog, as I have split the class in half, with each group meeting on only one day. Thus, every four days, I will go through the same set of assignments with each group. I will probably blog more, but this type of update will be at least weekly.
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.