Tag Archive | students

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.

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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 – 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.

Thoughts on Teaching – Presidential Visit – 9/7/13

No, not that president.  I’m not that important.  The college president stopped by and visited my class on Thursday.  He did this last school year as well.  I asked my Dean about that last year, and he said that the president considered it to be his right to stop in and see any class he wants to.  At the same time, I don’t know of anyone else who has been visited, and I certainly don’t know of anyone who has had two visits in two years.

What was interesting, however, is that, unlike last year, the president talked to me this year afterwards, in an email.  He made three observations:

  1. The students showed a striking lack of critical thinking.
  2. There was one student who was very disruptive.
  3. There was one student who was smoking a vapor cigarette in class.

So, how did I address those things.

For the first one, I confirmed what he saw.  I said that students come to us from high school with very limited skills.  They have very minimal critical thinking, writing, or reading skills.  The nature of high school history in my state is dismal, with history generally being one of my students’ least favorite classes when they come to my class.  Then, I talked about what I do with my students, that this is one of the big things that I emphasize over the course of my class, and that it is a very slow process to teach them something that they have not successfully learned in the 12 years before that.  I also said that if I have the chance, that I generally see the biggest improvements when I have them for two semesters at a time.  This is absolutely true.  The students who stick with me and work through the assignments in my class over two semesters come out stronger.  I’m not trying to brag, but when I can work with the same student for a whole school year, I can really start to make a difference.

On the second one, it was easy.  I have an autistic student, and I have been warned by the college that he is likely to be disruptive.  As he has as much of a right as any other student to be in my class, I have to manage it as best I can.  The president agreed that I was doing the best job I could on that one.

The third took a bit of back and forth.  The school policy is no tobacco products, and we have no policy on the vapor cigarettes.  They apparently give off a water vapor when smoked, and, when I first saw it, I thought we had a fire in the classroom.  After it was explained to me what it is, I really had no idea what to do with it, so I decided to let it go.  However, the president was adamant that I should have stopped it in class, as it could be considered a distraction.  What I replied back is that when we have no policy on those things specifically, then I really don’t know what to do about it.  And, so, the result of that is that, as of Friday, we now have a policy on them that says we do not allow them in class.

So, it was an interesting day.  Again, I don’t know if there’s any agenda in the president visiting my class two years in a row.  But, like so many other things, I don’t really have any choice in the matter, and so, like so many other things, this is what we do.

Thoughts on Teaching – First Discussion – 9/3/2013

Today was the first week of discussion in my hybrid class.  I have reoriented this American history class on a more dominant theme throughout the semester.  I will write about that in a later post, but the short version is that we are looking at the overall question of whether the American colonies/United States could be considered a united group at any point in time, with the definite connection to our sense of unity today.  But, I digress from my main point today.

This discussion was really set up to get my students started in the class.  I had them read two chapters in the textbook and access one lecture that I had written in preparation for the class.  I had no other major assignments for them to do before class, except that I provided them with a series of questions to think about to prepare them for the discussion.

These were the questions I gave them to think about as we approached the discussion:

  • what the Americas were like before the Europeans arrived
  • what the Europeans were like before arriving in America
  • why the Europeans chose to colonize and settle in the manner that they did
  • why we do not generally talk about the non-English origins of the Americas
  • what we can learn about the United States today from this era

I started off the discussion with a quote from the book that influenced my thinking on this topic more than any other — 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.  This is what I wrote on the board:  The idea that the natives “had existed without change in a landscape unmarked by their presence.  Then they encountered European society and for the first time their history acquired a narrative flow.”  I had the students first take apart the quotation, and then we delved into what the societies looked like.  I worked both from having answer questions and draw conclusions on their own, while also imparting new information.  In addition to 1491, I also referred repeatedly to Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond.  That book has been highly influential to my own thinking of the period, and I talked a lot about the differences between the European and American societies and how they encountered each other.

The underlying theme, however, was that of civilization, namely, how do we define civilization in the interaction between these two societies.  I will be the first to admit that I did not go as far as that as I would have liked to, but the level of knowledge of the scholarly articles is low with my students, and much of the day was filled with imparting information, even though it was a scheduled discussion.  This is something I get into trouble with repeatedly, in that I fall into lecturing too easily still.  I try to have it a discussion, but I still talk too much.  Still, I think it went pretty well today.

As to the students, about half participated, which is not bad for a first discussion.  The responses were varied in quality, but a number of people said at least 3-4 things in a 75-minute discussion, which is really not too bad overall.  They seemed to understand the general ideas, but I would have liked to delve more, as well, into why they are not taught these things up to this point.  Namely, I would be very interested in their ideas about why we hear so little about what really happened in history and are more often taught a simplified and sanitized version of  history.  We will definitely hit on that theme as we go through the class, but I would have liked to have brought it up more explicitly today.

Anyway, that was today, the first full discussion day.  I run the same discussion in the next three class days, and the cool thing is that the exact same topic can very likely go three more different ways.  We shall see.

Thoughts on Teaching – The First Week – 8/30/2013

We are just finishing up the first week of classes.  It is my eighth first week of classes since I got my first full-time teaching job, and it is certainly starting to feel relatively normal at this point.  I was fairly prepared this semester going into my classes, which did help.  My online class is pretty much set in place at this point until I am ready to do a major overhaul.  So, it is largely a matter of updating the dates and links, and then that class is ready to go.  The hybrid class was a bit more work, as I really did want to make some overhauls from what I did last year.  However, my best-laid plans from the summer of spending a lot of time recreating the course did not pan out.  As is true most academic years, I do my primary prep in the week before the semester starts, and so I get a limited amount of work done.

I did have one big change come my way in the week or so before classes started.  Late in the week before our in-service week, I was asked (with refusal not really being an option) to take on another course.  Our normal course load at my community college is 5 classes a semester.  I normally have an overload, so I generally teach 6.  As I was given this extra course, I am now teaching 7 classes this semester. 5 covered by my normal pay and 2 more at adjunct pay ($1800/course).  So, my semester is now set at the highest number of students I have ever taught in one semester (around 230).  There are two good things about this.  First, I was given another online course section, so largely I just have to integrate in 30 more students to my existing course.  There is not an extra course prep, just more students to respond to and grade.  Second, I was given this extra section with enough time to be able to compensate for it in my assigned work load.  I reduced the number of assignments in my online class and changed up some of the ideas that I had for my hybrid class in order to make up for the extra grading I knew I was going to have to do.

Now, we have reached the Friday of the first week of classes.  I have met each of my hybrid classes twice, and they have now been divided up into the sections that meet once a week.  I have fully introduced the course to them, and I have them set to be ready to start real class work next week.  My online class is in its fifth day at this point, and, while there have been some questions and issues, I would say that this is one of the smoothest starts to the semester that I have had.  In fact, things are really going so smoothly so far, that I am really waiting to see when the wheels are going to come off and the fist major crisis is going to begin.

For now, however, I think that the first week has been a success.  I’ll write more specifics about the classes I’m teaching in the next couple of days, so I will get more into the nuts and bolts of the particular classes and talk about what I am doing, what I plan to do, and how things are going.