It is always hard to get going and motivated toward the end of the semester. I’m tired, the students are tired, and everyone is just waiting on the end of the semester to get here. We all can’t wait for it all to be done, and this is always more true of the spring semester than the fall semester. These last couple of lectures are really rough to get through for that very reason, although if the classes can help support me, I can usually make it through them without too much trouble. Monday was a show in what that means. I teach two classes on Monday, one at 9:30am and one at 11am. The contrast between these two classes is stark.
In the 9:30 class, the students are generally good, paying attention and responding to the lecture. I am not the type of person who asks very many questions in lecture, so the response I am talking about is eye contact, nodding, smiling, and that sort of thing. It doesn’t take much of that to keep me going well. If you add in a few questions or comments from the students, then I can make it through a lecture just fine with no problems and some enthusiasm, even at this late date in the semester. The lecture covered roughly the period from 1980-1992, so I talked a lot about Reagan, spent some time on Iran-Contra, discussed the fall of the Soviet Union, played out the Persian Gulf War, and ended with the 1992 election. It is not, admittedly, the most exciting lecture, and I would love to divide it up into at least two lectures to hit some of those topics in more detail. However, it flows pretty well and is not too bad of a lecture. Most students at least find the Iran-Contra explanation to be interesting.
The other class was much different. It is my two-way video class, so I know that the high school students that I connect to will be completely unconnected. I don’t know if they are monitored on that end, but I get the feeling they are only vaguely paying attention, especially by this time in the semester. What was more of a problem was the students in front of me. The class originally had 15 people in it. Two have dropped, so technically there are 13 students in the class. However, on Monday, only 7 showed up, making it a tough class to begin with. Out of those 7, only 2 of the students were actually paying attention to me with any of those visual clues that I mentioned earlier. And even those two were obviously day dreaming by a certain point in the lecture. So, I just lost all interest in it myself. If the students aren’t into it, I can manufacture enthusiasm earlier in the semester, but, by this point, it can be a struggle. I turned into super-fast lecture mode, just spewing out the material, with little regard for the ability of my inattentive class to follow it. And, none of them protested, asked any questions, or even looked up at me. The result was that the lecture that took me about 70 minutes during the 9:30 class was over in 55 minutes in the 11am class.
That is what an uninspiring class can do, and why I just feel that the lecture style is killing me and my students after a certain point. I hope tomorrow will be better, but it was a forgettable day.
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.
Today was an uninspiring teaching day. I have reworked lectures at various times over the years, and much of that has been to shorten earlier in the semester lectures so that I can make it further into the time period that I’m covering. Today was one of those lectures where I made cuts that disconnected the material from its real point. So, I struggled through the first delivery to connect everything together and show the students why this was not just a collection of random material but instead was connected and relevant. It worked better by the second class, but both classes were also depressing for another reason. The big problem is that I felt the students were more disconnected than usual today. The drops are starting, so some students are getting out of the class now, but I really have a large number of people simply not showing up. And, of those who do show up, it’s hard to peg very many of them as actually paying all that much attention. Again, it certainly wasn’t my best material at all, but it just reinforces for me the problem with a lecture. When my lecture is going really well, I might have 50-60% student engagement. Today, it felt like 20-30%, which is just depressing overall. In my second class, which is a two-way video class, the high school I was connecting to was not in session, and a lot of people were missing in front of me, so I ended up lecturing to nine people. Twenty-six out of forty in the first class was already low for this time of year, but nine is really depressing. And then to see them mostly disconnected is even worse, as there’s no hiding the fact that you’re not connecting on the material with that few students in the room.
I have been saying for a while that my lectures need to be revised soon, and this lecture was one that needs to be worked with desperately. It might work better as one that is not delivered but that is, instead, seen by the students not as an individual lecture but as a narrative supplement that I have available to enhance the hybrid class going on in the classroom. I guess that’s going to be the question when I do redo the class, whether it’s a full flip or not, which is do I present the lectures at that point in episodic form, like they are now, where there are distinct lectures, or do I format my own material like a book, putting it together in a narrative that the students can engage with like they would the textbook. They can read it in pieces or all at once. I’m thinking of an integrated lecture, with my PowerPoint images combined with the text from the lectures that can be read more like a book. I don’t know, just brainstorming here. I started that a while ago and made it through the first two lectures, coding them in Dreamweaver to bring together a web lecture. Nothing fancy except for integration of the images with text. Still, it would give the students something to read more interesting than just a Word document with an accompanying Power Point. And, this would give a good opportunity to rework the lectures, especially if I am to move beyond the delivery of the lectures and think about them more as a way to deliver my ideas to the student. I can imagine that the lectures would be different if they were aimed at being read rather than delivered. I don’t know. This will be something to think about as I move forward.
I guess all of us who teach have these days, but it was definitely less than inspiring. Beyond that, it was mostly small stuff at work, writing a recommendation letter and weighing in on the choosing of a new textbook for the class. I wish I could say there was more, but that’s about it. I have grading to do, but I did not get any done today, because that filled up my day, and by the time I got home, it was time to pick up the kids. Then, it was chores, homework time with the kids, and dinner. Now, all of the sudden, it’s 10pm. So, I shall sign off for the evening and hope for a more inspiring day tomorrow.