Home > Teaching > Teaching Monday: Reflections on the End of a Year

Teaching Monday: Reflections on the End of a Year

As I work to get my final grades together for the Spring semester, I leafed back through my teaching notebook and began to think a bit about how to change my classes next semester. (I’ve already blogged at some length about my Twitter experiment this semester). I have to good fortune of teaching the same classes almost every semester, so I have a nicely iterative environment to experiment. This also allows me to chart trends over multiple semesters and make observations about the kind of variation present in my classes.

So for this semester, I have five observations:

1. Three years ago, I started a multiple-guess option for my History 101: Western Civilization class. I allowed the students to opt into a full multiple guess test, a half-multiple guess and half essay, or an all essay exam. At this time, I created a fairly robust test bank and revised my lectures to ensure that I hit on the answer for each question. Eventually, I recorded these lectures and podcasts (more on this later). Each semester, I add a few questions to the test and cycle a few questions out basically at random. Over the past three years, most students answer each question correctly. That is to say, that over 50% of the students answer the questions right and the average grade on the multiple guess sections hovered around 60%. I haven’t done more sophisticated statistical analyses on these questions, but it never ceases to amaze me that students’ responses do not pattern more clearly.

2. Attendance woes. Students do not come to my classes. I probably average less than 60% attendance in my larger 100 level night class and less than 70% in my midlevel, majors class. I’ve tried all sorts of tricks to get students to attend. In other words, I’ve incentivized student attendance, but I need to do it better. This is absurd on some level: I use incentives to make students want to do something that they have paid to do. Generally, these incentives have a pedagogical goal. In my large lecture class we do a series of in-class writing assignments focusing on the use of primary source readings. Some of these are individual writing assignments (which tend to put pressure on individuals to do the reading and come to class prepared), some are small group assignments (which force students to pool their preparation and resources), and some are large group assignments (which encourage students to hash out the best answers from a group of with similar levels of preparation). These in-class writing assignments are facilitated by myself and my teaching assistant, focused on building the skills required in the short paper and on the essay sections in the exam, and contribute to a discussion grade that is worth 30% of their final grade. Despite the grade and pedagogical incentive to come to class students still skip in remarkable numbers. The reasons are similar: the class is too long (it’s a 2:20 minute night class), they work, they can listen to versions of the lectures as podcasts, they are busy with other classes, and my class competes with Lost. The defeatist in me sees the reasons for cutting class as being deeply embedded in student culture (here?), but part of me thinks that I can find the right combination of incentives and penalties to break student resistance to attending class.

3. Podcasts are the new textbook. Two years ago, I transitioned from using textbooks to using my own podcasts to provide basic narrative for my class. I did this for three reasons. First, podcasts could serve both my in-class and my online class . Second, textbooks are really expensive and even though most of my 101 students sold their textbooks back at the end of the semester, I was skeptical that the use of the book was worth the money that the students paid. Finally, I had this strange idea that students would find it easier to listen to podcasts than to read a textbook. While there is no disputing that podcasts serve my online teaching well and that they are free, students — according to my very informal poll — did not find my podcasts any more appealing than a textbook. In fact, many of the students admitted to not listening to them at all. This surprised me as I had tried to use the podcasts to turn class time in a more dynamic space where I could talk about big, conceptual issues in the history of the West and spend time focusing on class writing. The result, however, seems to have been that many students felt that the podcasts were as good as my lectures and opted to neither attend my lecture nor listen to the podcasts. Yikes.

4. Drafts. I used to be a big advocate of students writing multiple drafts of papers. In fact, I structured an entire class midlevel history class around this practice. In the best case scenarios, students would diligently work to improve a manuscript focusing on various different skills in each version and eventually produce a sophisticated and polished final draft. In the most-case scenario, students would work hard on one draft of the paper – either the first or more often the last – and temporize with the rest making insignificant edits, cosmetic fixes, or (most annoyingly) only those changes that I recommended explicitly. So, this year I did away with multiple drafts and instead assigned multiple, different, unrelated, short papers each of which focused on developing a particular skill set: focused thesis, citation formats, good prose, et c. The final paper of the semester required the students to bring together these skills into a single paper. The result: well, as a group, these papers were no way worse than the results from papers for which I required multiple drafts.

This got me wondering if the formal process of producing drafts – particularly completed, substantial, and relatively polished drafts – was an artifact of older technologies and practices which focused on the production of relatively complete texts which were then subjected to editing. This made sense in a world where handwritten texts had to have a degree of polish to be legible and type-written texts involved a significant commitment of time and energy. As a result, drafting involved the creating of relatively work-intensive texts, which were then only re-produced after receiving substantial editing. Today, producing a text is relatively easy (as this blog undoubtedly shows!). Editing can be performed on the fly, printing is a separate and fairly easy process, and as a result we focus less on creating distinct versions of a paper and more on the malleability of the text-always-in-revision. In this environment submitting a copy of a text for critique marks the end of the editing processes, during which time the text exists on screen or on scrap papers, rather than in a polished format suitable for circulation.

5. Process versus Product. Along similar lines, I have included components of my classes that focus on process. A colleague here uses journaling as a way to capture parts of the intellectual process. I’ve been using an old-school threaded discussion board where I post weekly discussion questions. The students do not discuss the questions as much as write short reflections on the discussions questions supported with evidence from the primary source readings for that week. Mostly these short reflections are poorly considered, historically problematic, or logically flawed. Despite that, the students nevertheless write around 3000 words a semester and strive over 15 weeks to write using historical sources as evidence. I’ve defended these short assignment, which I evaluate on a 5 point scale, as ways to get the students write and useful contributions to my goal of having students write 5000 words a semester in an introductory level class. What I need to do now is set up a way to evaluate whether these short assignments are successful in making the students better writers or whether they merely reinforce poor writing practices.

By noon today, I will have submitted my grades and dust will largely have settled from another semester. Hopefully, I’ll have some new ideas by the time the fall semester rolls around.

Categories: Teaching
  1. May 17, 2010 at 2:50 pm

    In regard to multiple drafts, I think you might be on to something. Not to say that writing and rewriting are not important (as I know far too well, even if I never believed it in college), but we do much more editing and revision during the writing process now than we could have done before.
    Recently I went back to handwriting for a novel and I realized just how much I depended on and utilized the delete key during my writing process. At least a third of every page was crossed out as I wrote and edited and changed my thoughts mid sentence. It is so easy to erase and correct, backtrack and rewrite, that even a first draft will have been edited multiple times during the process of putting it together.
    That being said, academic writing and fiction writing aren’t the same, and the process of marshaling argument is a little bit more complex than storytelling, but writing is still writing when all is said and done.

  2. May 17, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    Actually, I think that academic writing and fiction writing are very similar in terms of process. And I think that the changes that are taking place now in how the process works (and is taught) are relevant in both spheres!

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