Friday, November 04, 2005
Teaching in Context, or, All Hail Dr. Crazy
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.
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.
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 . . .
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 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.
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...)
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 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.