Posts Tagged ‘College Teaching’

Reading the September “ASA News and Notes” e-mail, I noticed that TRAILS, the ASA’s online database of teaching materials, will finally be free to members, as it always should have been. As stated in the e-mail:

At its meeting in August, ASA Council approved a proposal to make full access to the TRAILS online database of teaching resources a new benefit of ASA membership for 2016. Pending the launch of the 2016 application and renewal system on October 15, paid member subscriptions have been discontinued in advance of the transition to free access. However, any member may sign up now for free access through October 15 using a special promotion code. Active your free subscription today!

This will hopefully encourage faculty members who can’t (or don’t want to) pay extra to access teaching resources when preparing syllabi, assignments, and class exercises. Better late than never!

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With a new school comes a new student evaluation form. Having taught in various capacities at four institutions, I have now experienced evaluations on four different forms, the most recent of which I got back after the fall semester. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t know if these forms measure what some administrators think they measure, but they do provide some insight into student satisfaction with our courses. Like my previous institutional transition, where the evaluations went from questioning the quality of class discussions to questioning whether I tried to have students discuss things, this new evaluation form demonstrates some of the things that an institutional committee agreed might be important while also showing how flawed this system is.

At my current institution, the evaluations measure things like students’ rating of me, the course, my grading, my assignments, and my course materials, indicating that all of these things are important. (My all-time favorite evaluation question was how close my course came to a student’s perceived “ideal college course” – talk about a high bar!) These items are measured on a five-point scale ranging from “poor” to “excellent.” The problem is that the scale is unbalanced, meaning that “poor” is really the only negative option and the other four are varying degrees of good. I suppose that this might allow administrators who look at my evaluations to see how positively students viewed my courses, but it also means that a rating like “acceptable” that falls in the middle of the scale looks like “neutral-to-bad” to administrators.

As I expected, my evaluations took a hit upon changing institutions. This is the aspect of the experience that led me to realize the ways that we reify student evaluations. By the last few semesters at my previous institution, evaluations for one difficult course were almost universally positive. The evaluations at my new institution for largely the same course were not nearly as positive. Why? Because I had responded to years of student feedback on a few particular areas of the course at my previous institution and then the instrument used to measure that feedback changed. Now I will begin the process over again, responding to feedback in new areas that will help me hone my course into one that students don’t have as much to complain about on course evaluations. This doesn’t mean that my new course will be “better,” just that it will better reflect the areas that my new institution deems worthy of student evaluation.

The thing is, if I hadn’t changed institutions again I might have forgotten the degree to which I’ve been effectively teaching to the evaluations over the past five years and simply accepted that I had become a master teacher. Even recognizing this, there isn’t much that I can do about it since these are the measures that will contribute to determining my future. As a new faculty member, it is comforting to think that lower evaluations are not only about me. The trick is to remember this fact as the evaluations rise over time.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links about teaching to tests, evaluations, and maybe even students via your news feed.


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In my tenth year of teaching college students, I am largely past the big changes in course policies from one semester to the next that characterized my early teaching. Traditionally, I have accepted late assignments with a reduction of one letter grade for each day that they are late. Looking at the syllabi of my new colleagues before the start of the fall semester, however, I saw that many of them would comment on late assignments but would not grade them, combining this with one or two exceptions per student, so I decided to change my policy. This was a big change.

This change was so big, in fact, that I had a very hard time enforcing it. Even though I had a very lenient policy for granting extensions (essentially: ask and you shall receive), a zero seemed like a very harsh penalty for an assignment that was a few hours, or even a day, late. For the spring, then, I’m returning to my old policy. I’ve considered limiting the number of extensions that students can ask for but I would rather have them learn to be proactive about recognizing when their schedule is going to be too busy to give something their best effort than imposing some sort of arbitrary cut-off for doing so.

I guess that in my tenth year of teaching I finally realized that if a class policy makes me uncomfortable, it probably isn’t best for me or my students.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. Consider it a New Year’s Resolution.

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For the past few years I have been requiring students to answer discussion questions about the readings before coming to class. The purpose of these discussion questions is to make sure that students do the reading (obviously) but also to ensure that students think about the readings and their connections to other course topics. After a trial run in one course I have adopted the practice in nearly every course with small variations (in lower-level courses, for example, I provide the discussion questions while in upper-level courses I combine my own questions with those written by students). When preparing my syllabi for the fall, I again included discussion questions even though I wasn’t entirely sure what students at my new institution would be like. In the days after completing my syllabi, though, I began to feel uneasy.

Using discussion questions in a course I’ve taught a number of times does not contribute much to my workload outside of class. Since I know what lass discussions have focused on in the past I can be sure to include questions on those elements of the readings. For a new prep, however, writing discussion questions involves reading a week or more ahead to anticipate the direction of class discussions while allowing my students enough time to use the discussion questions to complete the readings. The more I thought about it, the less I looked forward to writing discussion questions in addition to preparing for one new course and one course with substantially-revised readings. Higher publication expectations were also a factor, since reading ahead to write questions, preparing for class, reviewing readings before class, and grading would have left me with little time for writing.

In the end, although my syllabi had already been posted to Blackboard, I decided in the interest of my sanity and productivity to delete the discussion question requirements before handing them out on the first day of class. This will also give me a chance to see how I might use discussion questions most effectively with my new students. My decision isn’t particularly groundbreaking since my students likely won’t even know what they’re missing, but ten years into teaching it is important to remember why I was advised not to try too much in my first semester of teaching: it is easy to get overwhelmed when starting something new.

“Like” Memoirs of a SLACer on Facebook to receive updates and links via your news feed. You should also appreciate a post about labor for Labor Day.

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Ten years ago I walked into a college classroom to teach for the first time. A few minutes after that, I walked out again because I had gone to the wrong classroom. Then I walked into the correct classroom and began my teaching career. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have said that my teaching hasn’t changed that much in the past ten years, but looking back at the materials from my first semester the gradual evolution of my teaching became much clearer.

Looking at my first syllabus (which was only six pages – maybe syllabus bloat is a real problem), I am struck by how light the workload was (in my defense, I had 70 students and we were advised not to shoot for the moon in our first courses). Attendance and participation were each 10% of the final course grade and the remaining 80% was made up of the three exams. Students could also write three short “bonus” papers for up to 3% of their final grade, but these were the only writing assignments. About half of the students completed the first and about 60% completed the final one. I was apparently very lenient with these because most students received between .9 and 1 (out of 1). The average final course grade was a B.

Without looking at the roster, I can remember only three students’ names from that semester, one of whom I labeled “squirrely looking” on my roster (he earned an A), one of whom later died of cancer, and one of whom was friends with the student who later died of cancer. Even looking at the roster I can only picture a few more. What I do remember is walking across a stage at the front of the room every time I wanted to change the PowerPoint slide and then waiting for students to write down a definition that I had displayed (I didn’t use a textbook but had not yet discovered guided notes). I also remember feeling awkward when standing on the stage because I was so far above the students and feeling awkward when standing in front of the stage because I was so close to the students.

Although I felt fairly comfortable at the time, in retrospect I did a terrible job of getting students to participate in class discussions, which was noted on my evaluations. One student also noted that I seemed nervous a lot of the time. Another commented that by making them copy vocabulary words I was treating them like they were in seventh grade. The student then drew a frowny face, demonstrating that I may have been aiming at the right level after all!

Ten years later, preparing to start teaching at my fourth institution (including grad school and a small commuter college I taught at for a few semesters back then) it is nice to see that things have progressed. Given my emphasis on teaching as a grad student, I think that the biggest changes have been more about refining my approach than adapting to new institutional settings. At this point, I’m glad that my oscillations between different approaches for things like class participation and attendance have gotten much smaller. While small refinements may not seem as exciting as big changes from one semester to the next, it is nice to have gotten to a point with fewer glaring errors. I’m excited to see what changes the next ten years will bring.

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I recently learned that one of my former students has passed away, which is strange. This is actually the second time this has happened, following the student who found out that her cancer had come back near the end of my first semester of teaching. Unlike that student, this student was not particularly engaged in class. In fact, he was my student twice because he failed my intro course the first time he took it and enrolled in my course again over the summer, where he failed again.

When a student fails my course once, I wonder what else the student could have done. When this student failed my course twice, I wondered what else I could have done. The odds were against his academic success. He grew up in a poor area and went to a poor school. He was not prepared for college but was able to attend on an athletic scholarship. In addition to the demanding practice schedule he was frequently distracted from his school work by trips home to visit an ailing relative.

The way that students enter our lives, spend 16 weeks with us, and then leave our lives is strange to me. This was especially true when I was teaching in graduate school, since I often taught the same course and repeat students were rare. Still, I sometimes wonder what happened to them. The student who had cancer. The student who was suffering from depression. The only student to have failed one of my courses twice. Regardless of their in-class performance, I always hope that things will work out for them and it is always sad when they don’t.

This student died of an apparent medical condition, not the fact that he failed Introduction to Sociology twice, so it is unlikely that I could have had an effect on his life if I had been more involved in his education. But still, I wonder.

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On the first day of the first course that I taught, I went to the wrong classroom. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely alone. Two male students had also neglected to check the updated list of classrooms and accompanied me on my walk of shame from the business building to the library. On the way across the street I jokingly told these two guys that they would be my favorite students. The thing is, I have no idea who they were. It isn’t that I remember nothing about the students in that course. I remember that I labeled one student “squirrely looking” when I was trying to make notes that would help me remember students’ names. I remember the student who had excellent class participation but mediocre grades and who needed to take an incomplete because of a recurrence of cancer. I remember the student who later joined the military but came to sit in on one of my subsequent courses when he was on leave. I remember these things because I got to know my students over the course of the semester. On the first day of class, however, I was so caught up in my efforts to make a good impression (and the fact that I had likely failed by going to the wrong classroom) to pay much attention to the students who were with me.

Although I was especially flustered on my first day of teaching, this pattern has held over subsequent semesters. Despite, or perhaps because of, my efforts to make a positive first impression on my students, they fail to make a first impression on me. This actually works to the benefit of my students, since I fail to form negative impressions of those who start the semester without the required books or who take a while to grow comfortable participating in class discussions. So students, you have a few weeks to make a positive first impression, regardless of how things begin. Take advantage of it!

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The intense thought that I put into arbitrary decisions when creating my syllabi does not prevent me from making (and dealing with) mistakes. This semester, for example, a mix-up between me, the campus bookstore, and a publisher led to me arriving in the classroom with a different version of the textbook than my students and, as a result, a syllabus listing the wrong page numbers for course readings. Last semester my small discussion-based class was assigned to one of the largest lecture halls on campus. Making matters worse was the fact that the seats were arranged stadium-style so that everybody had a good view of the front of the classroom but the students could not hear each other.

Nothing tops my experience when heading to teach my very first class as a graduate student, though. On that fall day I took the bus from my apartment to campus, transferring at the downtown station. I then made my way to my classroom, which was in the business building. I arrived suitably early and started preparing by getting out my notes and syllabi and logging into the computer system while students trickled in. Then, just before my class was scheduled to begin, a man walked in, thinking that it was actually his classroom. I asked him if he was sure he was in the right place and he said that he was. I asked the assembled students what class they were there to attend. All but two (out of approximately 70) said that they were there for this other man’s business course. Since I was logged into the computer I looked online and found that my classroom had been moved late in the summer from the computer building to the basement of the library, which was thankfully just across the street. Publicly revealed as idiots, my two students and I quickly made the walk to our actual classroom, where we arrived about ten minutes late. Thankfully, the students who had gone to the right place to begin with were there waiting for us. There’s nothing like a humbling experience on your first day in a position of authority!

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It seems that around 2/3 of the way through every semester I find myself dealing with issues that have become major problems for a few students. Even after seven years of teaching college courses I still have a hard time being proactive in dealing with student problems. This is especially true if students do not do anything to establish themselves as “good” early in the semester.

One student, for example, missed three weeks of classes in a row before missing the first exam. I assumed that the student was planning to drop the class. I was wrong. When students were working on group projects and papers late in the semester, this same student neglected her group responsibilities. It is possible that she has been dealing with problems in her work or family life or that she just doesn’t care about my course. It is also possible that she has emotional or psychological problems that have prevented her from coming to class and performing her student responsibilities.

If she had been coming to class regularly at the beginning of the semester, I may have been more likely to reach out to her when problems developed. It would also be nice if students were more proactive in explaining their situations to me. As it is, though, I need to work on reaching out to students who are MIA before their problems become insurmountable (at least in terms of their grades in my courses).

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