I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.
An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.
I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.
This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.
The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.
This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.
So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.
So, here we stand. Our third snow day in the last two weeks. All of them in late February to early March in Texas. Yes, that is unusual. It poses the same challenges that happen any time you have unscheduled time off from school, and, without a doubt, it is better than last year, when our big frozen, snow days were during finals period of the fall semester. Missing days in the 7th and 8th week of the semester is not bad overall, especially since I do not give midterms. Those who do midterms are struggling to figure out how to make those up, with the real result that most of them just get pushed to after Spring Break, which is next week.
I know that a snow day is nothing particularly unusual, and that what counts as a snow day would be an average winter day in Pennsylvania, where I spent 8 years of graduate school. Still, it poses interesting challenges. I want to talk about those challenges in two ways — first with school and schedule and second with personal time.
The most obvious problem with a snow day is making up the material. For my online classes, there is no problem, except when students have their internet knocked out from losing power and the like. Otherwise, the semester just goes along like normal. And, unless it were to happen at a time when we were testing, days off are essentially irrelevant to an online class. Since half of my load is online, three of my classes were totally unaffected. My other three classes are hybrid classes, where the days off are more directly problematic. We only meet once each week, and if the day is missed, that week is missed. If the classes were distinct, I could make up in one class for one set of assignments missing, but I am teaching three of the same classes, all at the same point and doing the same assignments. Thus, to make up the material in any meaningful way means making some of my students do significantly more work for the grade than what they would otherwise do. There also are no built-in make-up days this semester for me, meaning that when I miss, that material is just gone. I do have some safeguards built in, however. For one, they all have pre-class writing on the subject to complete. So, they are, in fact, directly held accountable for the material that we were to discuss that week. As well, I have an assignment on the chapter(s) for the week also due before class, and that also means the students are held responsible for the material. What they are missing out on is the actual classroom discussion of the material. Two of my three hybrid classes have now missed a day (different weeks of material, of course), and that means that I have not had a chance to discuss the material with them. One of them was last week, and so I did make some references to the material this week in class. The other one missed this week, which means I will not see them again until two Thursdays from now. That is a long time to carry over material. The other big problem for me is that we were in the middle of a three-class themed set of material. We covered the World War I to World War II period looking at the theme of American neutrality in the world as it related to the US becoming a world power. Since the three were linked, missing one means that material was not covered and topics got lost. As we were doing a narrow look at the issues, it also means that the broader context of what was going on in the world also didn’t get connected to the material. What’s the effect of all of this for the students? They’re probably just happy to not have to come to class. But for me, I’m just trying to figure out how to stay on track and cover what I want to cover. By the next time I see the class that didn’t meet today, it will be two weeks later, and we will be on to the post-war period. Sigh. I worry too much, I’m sure, but I can’t help it, as it is my job.
The other side is my personal experience with the snow days. It seems like an unmitigated good. A day off from school. No travel, no obligations. But it never works that way. Of course, as I said above, for one thing, my online classes just continue as normal. The days off we had last week were in the middle of my own grading period of their material, and so I graded in my time off. But I actually feel like I got less grading done with the days off than I would have if I had gone into work. The problem with everyone being home is that we are a household of 6, and getting things done at home when everyone is home is not always the easiest thing. An even bigger problem, however, is the feeling that I get that is like how the students feel. I have the day off, why should I work? I have to force myself to get something done. For example, take today. If I had been at school, I would have gotten to campus around 9:30. I would have been in my office doing work from 9:30-11. I would have taught from 11-12:15. Lunch until 1:30. Then back in the office doing work from 1:30-3:30. On my own at home, I could barely force myself to sit down for an hour to do classwork. The temptation to view it as a full day off, especially as this would have been the last work day before Spring Break anyway, is strong. But I have a lot to do. I have things to catch up on, both in grading and in preparation. I owe my hybrid students grades on quite a few small things, and I do not even have the next week of material up and ready for them. But I find it hard to get any real work done. That means that I am not getting what I need to do done and feeling guilty about not doing the work at the same time. Isn’t the human brain wonderful?
The solution to this? Treat a snow day off from work as a work day. Or, treat a day off from work as a day off. I have to choose one or the other. If I try to treat is as partly one or the other, I just feel guilty.
Those are my thoughts on it. What do you think? Do you enjoy unexpected days off? Do you get anything done? Do you feel guilty about not getting things done?
One thing I wonder by about the time I have reached the end of the second week of the semester – if I have heard very little from my students at this point, does this mean the class is going well or badly?
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?
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.
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.
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.