Friday, November 04, 2005


Teaching in Context, or, All Hail Dr. Crazy

Dr. Crazy has a series of really good entries going on how she has had to adjust her teaching style and expectations to meet the students she actually has, rather than the student she was at their age. I’m thinking of printing them, binding them, and giving them to all our new hires.

Graduate school is terrible preparation for teaching generally, but it’s especially bad for teaching non-elite students. In graduate seminars, as I remember them, teaching pretty much consisted of wild theoretical curlicues, name-dropping, and generous dollops of shame if you couldn’t keep up with either. Grades were beneath discussion; it was pretty much assumed that you got an A if you did the work competently, and an Incomplete if you couldn’t finish it on time. Grades were based on, to the extent they were based on anything, a single assignment (or, at most, two).

After years of that, teaching non-majors at some very non-elite places required major adjustments. For one, guilt simply didn’t work as a motivator. The students simply didn’t care if they didn’t know historical events, or big names, or anything at all in my subject area. They had been inured to teacherly imputations of guilt, having experienced so many of them in the K-12 years. Most never read books for pleasure, and didn’t see anything odd about that. Their reading comprehension was dreadful, when they bothered to read at all. And they weren’t at all shy about asking me, self-righteously, why they had to take this class.

I don’t remember the exact moment of the epiphany, but at some point I realized that the culprit was my grad-school-style syllabus. It was based on the two-major-assignments school of grading. Since the students couldn’t see the immediate numerical payoff of, say, doing the reading for a given day, they didn’t. Naturally, the class discussions lagged, and the papers (when they weren’t simply copy-and-pasted from the web) were just embarrassing. Desperate, I rejiggered the syllabus to break 100 points into about 20 chunks: weekly quizzes (3 points each), several exams (10-15 points each), papers with rewrites, oral presentations (these did wonders to combat plagiarism), etc. Every assignment had some point value, even if it was tiny. And I abandoned makeup exams, instead giving three exams over the course of the semester and counting the best two. (When I told them I would do that, I outlined the logical consequence: if you haul ass on the first two, you get to skip the final. They liked that a lot.) It cut down on the whining, and gave a student who tanked the first exam a reason not to give up hope.

The turnaround was dramatic. Given a tangible reason to read, more of them did. The connection between the reading and success in the overall course, which I had always assumed implicitly, became legible to them.

As a student, I would have been insulted by this approach. But they aren’t me. Kudos to Dr. Crazy for figuring that out too, for having the courage to reject what she had been taught when she found that it didn’t work. She isn’t being elitist or condescensing; she’s willing to accept the possibility that the students in front of her aren’t just younger versions of her. This kind of openness to reality is what separates the good veteran professors from the tired old professors; disappointed, closed-minded idealism (or narcissism) has a way of becoming orneriness over the years. Dr. Crazy has the insight and the internal confidence to change tactics when she saw what wasn’t working. Professors were (usually) very good students, and we sometimes forget that most students aren’t. Many of us started out with (however acquired) a sense of how the academic game is played, and that sense is so ingrained that it seems natural and obvious. We forget that non-elite students often don’t have that, and their previous experience of academia has been mostly negative. Making the rules legible, which may seem condescending to us, is actually making the game fairer. Well done, Dr. C.

Dean Dad, you make me blush! Thank you for, well, all of these things that you say about what I've written. But watch out because I might get a really big head from all of this:)

Incidentally, I think there may be another post coming on my blog about actual practical things I do in the classroom. When you mentioned how you changed your syllabi in response to your students it struck me that it could be a good thing to actually talk a bit about some of the actual things that I do rather than just why I do them.

Anyway, thanks again. I love your blog and a compliment from you means a lot to me.
Dean Dad, I must admit that as a student I never liked the two paper or two exams a semester model of teaching. I would much rather know how I am doing all along, and be able to adjust my studying accordingly, than spending half the semester going along on the wrong path and then doing poorly on a major grade. It didn’t make me necessarily a bad student . . . or maybe it did, I don’t know. To go to grad school and eventually teach the subjects that you love, speaks of a drive and commitment that 95 percent of the rest of the students don’t have, and it is a bit disheartening to think that students are looked down upon because they aren’t all self-directed dynamos for each class.

I know that’s not exactly what you guys are saying, but it feels that way. I love reading everyone’s blogs because they give such insight into teaching (and sometimes they’re pretty funny, too!), and I have been thinking about going back to school to go do that. Teaching ESL to adults has humbled me. They want to learn so badly and even though they are tired from working all day, haven’t practiced their English at home during the week, and may not feel like being there, they still come to class for two hours two nights a week to try to improve themselves . . . and they don’t have to.

I guess they are the non-elite students you guys describe . . . I don’t know, this post just depressed me somewhat today, so I felt compelled to respond . . .
I have tried several of the methods that you discuss to keep students motivated...and some of them do work. A suggestion: I have worked with the dropping of one exam (with a minimum of 4 exams a semester), but the one stipulation that I make is that no one may drop the final exam. The reason is that if students have a passing grade after 3 exams and don't choose to take the final, they stop reading, participating, and are sometimes "slugs in residence" Otherwise I agree that Dr. Crazy has some excellent suggestions.
It's not just commuter-college students with fulltime jobs who seem to thrive best with frequent opportunities to self-check how they're doing.

Dick Light has carried out a number of studies interviewing large number of Harvard undergrads and they too say they learned the most from courses in which they had a large number of small assignments (with feedback and opportunities for midcourse correction) rather than courses that had, say, just a big final paper and a final exam at the end.

In his book, "Making the most of college," he stresses that students in general will be better off if they choose classes with many small checkpoints rather than just a few big ones.

There is a very cool technology used at Harvard and a small but growing number of other schools that gives each student a remote control device.

The professor can administer a quiz question to the whole class and get an immediate color-coded feedback as to what multiple-choice answer each student gave.

This gives the prof immediate feedback on whether the underlying point of the question requires further elaboration.

A common device: ask a question, have each student think about the problem individually and zap their answeer up to the prof's receiver at the front of the room. Then tell everyone in the class to discuss the question with their immediate neighbors and rezap in their (possibly updated) answer.

It's cool to see the color-coded maps change as the students discuss their work.

It's mostly physics classes that use this technology, but it seems to be very popular. There is a definite "Aha!" experience after the students revise their answers after the discussions with their neighbors.

The technology isn't all that expensive, when you figure that it allows professors to teach larger classes much more effectively than they could before--they can get an immediate sense of whether the class is understanding or not.

And the whole class NEEDS to stay awake and engaged and LISTEN during the entire class, because the device can be used intermittently throughout the whole class.

The technology seems like a very good investment for a lot of classes. Keeping students "awake and on their toes" can be a challenge, especially in a large class. Being able to give immediate feedback and explanation to the class right after everyone has thought hard about the problem seems like a really cool thing to do.

(Some college actually make students purchase the device themselves. I've seen a list price for individual student purchase at a college bookstore for under $50, which might seem like a lot but I'm sure a used market can develop. Some colleges purchase the devices in bulk and provide the students with loaners to use throughout the semester. It might make a good thing to write a grant for--the science profs who use these things swear by them--and the students seem enthusiastic too.)
My husband and I have had various versions of this discussion over the years. He was Ivy league educated and expects his students to want to learn as much as he did as a student. I went to public colleges (just an okay one for undergrad and a better one for grad) and I have totally different expectations for my classes. Generally, I try to figure out how to engage them through odd facts and information pertinent to the topic, but interesting. I remember my undergraduate days and know many students aren't there because they want to be, but because they were told "you must go to college, like it or not" and don't understand why it's important to know this information aside from getting 3 credits towards graduation.
My husband slowly is realizing students often don't want to think too much, they have to be told what they need to learn to pass the class.
My classes read 1-2 articles from a list of choices and write papers on an every two week basis. I've found students love to know where they stand in a class at any given time. Top students often can care less because they are interested in the learning process and are naturally good students. Most students I have at the public university I work at have to be convinced this stuff is cool, and one of the ways to do it is with short regular papers. Then, once they are hooked into the idea this is interesting, it's easy to push them. I always get a little thrill from kids who come up and say "I was talking to my parent about the lecture on..." because it means they get it enough to want to discuss it... especially to mom and dad.
Graduate school often does a disservice because you are in a program with people who think what you do is as cool as you do. I think alot of us forget most the population could simply care less about what we do and why we like it. I look at my job as a way to convince most the students this is at least tolerable, and hook a few into realizing it's actually very interesting.
Dr. C -- I'd love to hear more specifics about the methods you've developed! (Just don't get mad if I steal them, share them, etc.)

random kath -- sorry if the discussion seemed depressing. One of the occupational hazards of teaching is forgetting that whatever we're teaching is really just a tiny piece of anyone's world. It's easy to get offended when students remind us of that, especially because they're right.

dad -- Hi! Yeah, there's a risk with allowing students to drop the final, but I've been able to avoid the worst of it by scheduling the oral presentations at the end of the term. Gives them a reason to keep trying, at least.

mathsophie -- I wish I had known that before! The clickers sound like they have potential, at least for certain kinds of classes. I'd much rather go with the 'rental' model; students pay too much for textbooks as it is.

jointhenoise -- I hear ya. Good luck bringing your husband around! (Ivy League deprogramming is a crying need. Not a bad idea for a savvy entrepreneur, actually...)
A question -- When I was a CC student, my college was on semesters with block scheduling. My last school had some block scheduled classes and I taught hybrids for the rest, so I had one day a week where I wasn't in the classroom. At my new school, I've got three preps, each five days a week, and it's kicking my ass.

This is the first time in my teaching life where I've really thought, "oh, please, I can't keep doing this forever."

I would love to give smaller assignments, but I'm barely keeping up with my own prep! My turnaround on midterms was a week for one class, but 9 and 10 days for the others. In a quarter system, that's just not fast enough for good feedback.

Suggestions for breaking down the work?


And yes, this is really me talking. And the students don't seem to know the difference ...
As a CC graduate, who awas accepted at a our of state private college, but couldn't afford to go... I do not feel CC prepared me to continue on with my education. For that matter, neither did High School. Most of my academic career has been memory regurgitation, and that kind of environment does not prepare you for the sxpectations of analysis and synthesis expected at higher levels. While giving quizzzes over reading assignments may keep students on track, it doesn't teach them how to analyze and apply the information that is important to a given subject or further to a broad situation. It meets the immediate need of"helping" students stay on track and memorize information, but does not necessarily help them to process and apply that information. I know, by the college level students are expected to "know" how to perform this tack. As a student who graduated 7th in the class in HS, with an honors diploma let me tell you, even the AP classes dont' teach you how to perform these tasks. Honestly, neither did my CC classes. It was not until it was broken down until step by step assignments from my first Advanced Writing and Research class at my BA college that I learned how to perform analysis and synthesis. I'm still not great at it, it painstaking, and time consuming. I easily get confused with where I am headed. I really feel that being coddled through HS and CC did not prepare me for what would really be expected in the beyond.
I'll have to go read Dr. C's post now. I have always taught at "non-elite" schools and have followed your basic principles, lots of small assignments with the ability to drop some along the way. I'm now teaching at an elite school, having to follow someone else's guidelines and it's driving me crazy. There are no grades in the class until the end. We're "not allowed" to give grades on individual assignments. Gah! I gave a midterm evaluation and told the students what grade I'd give them based on the work at this point. That kicked a few people in the pants, but maybe not enough. I think I'll have to think about this if I teach this class again.
I have a question for you as an adjunct cc teacher. However, I'd prefer to send it as a private email. I couldn't find your email address. Thanks,

I can be emailed at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.
Just a quick comment on the clickers - my husband used those two years ago (at a decidedly NOT Harvard kind of school), and they were bundled in with the students' textbooks for $3 each. (That is, I'm pretty sure it was his textbook publisher that marketed them, and I can't remember what the textbook cost, but the clicker only added $3 to the cost.) Overall I think he liked them (this was for a class of 70+ students).

As for the smaller assignment model - I just wanted to comment that I've never thought of that as something that suggest students aren't self-directed dynamos; it just has always seemed like common sense to me, that people do much better with smaller, more progressive assignments than with a couple of big things on which everything rests. This isn't b/c I'm somehow a brilliant pedagogue as much as it is that I mostly got the small, progressive assignments in my own education. But I wanted to assure random kath and any other students that the small, multiple assignments model doesn't imply anything about how the profs view the students. (I always got annoyed with colleagues who bemoaned students' "lack of initiative", desire for structure and feedback and so on, because I don't think there's any moral virtue in one learning style over another, and I figure, there's no point in wishing our students were some mythical past golden-age student population - we have to teach the students we have.)

And I think (to respond to amanda) that it is possible to give quizzes or other kinds of smaller, more frequent assignments that do in fact ask students to analyse and synthesize and so on - I think that Dr. Crazy focused on quizzes as the easiest way to talk about her approach, but I think everyone would agree that mere fact regurgitation isn't the point of such exercises.
This discussion makes me wonder if we couldn't have two types of college teaching tracks--one for professors who want to teach at non-elite schools, with students who are primarily first generation, and with a dual emphasis on developmental education and teaching their subject matter. And then keep the current system for more elite schools. I know some folks may think this is giving the non-elite students second-rate scholars, but I am not so sure.
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