Thursday, July 26, 2007

Ask My Readers: First Time Teaching at a CC

A grad student in psychology writes:

I am an ABD grad student and am teaching my first class at a local CC this summer. I am also teaching an upper division class on the same topic at my large state university in 2 weeks. I have a few questions about teaching for you and your readers:

First, what should the difference be in teaching a CC class (that transfers for lower-division units) and an upper division class? Should it be more challenging, more material, more difficult exams, more detail? I asked a colleague who teaches full time at another CC and adjuncts at my university. He told me that he teaches his CC class and the upper division class exactly the same way - down to the same tests. That doesn't sound quite right, does it?

Second, how do I help students who are struggling? I understand and like the idea of "meeting students where they are and taking them where they want to go." But it is difficult to teach a class when I have some college graduates who have come back to get prereqs for nursing school and some students who barely finished high school. How do I put the ideal into practice? How can I reach out to these students without dumbing down the rest of the class?

My last question is indicative of my newbie adjunct status. How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying? I have a student who sits up front, asks good questions, stayed for the optional review session, and seems to put effort into learning the material. But he is still barely passing.

I'll ask my readers to chime in in the comments section, since I certainly claim no monopoly on pedagogical wisdom.

In answer to your first question, as an old professor of mine used to say, nothing is too good for the proletariat. On moral grounds, I'd argue that cc students deserve the same level of care and rigor as do students with more money. On pragmatic grounds, I'd argue that many of those cc students will eventually transfer to four-year schools, where they'll have to compete head-to-head with 'native' students. If they got watered-down preparation at the cc, they will have been set up to fail, which doesn't help anybody.

(I'll add that the first question seems to vacillate between comparing levels of college and comparing levels of course. I'd say that an Intro class at a cc should be comparable to an Intro class at a four-year college. An upper-level class (300 level?) should be more focused, wherever it's taught.)

In answer to your second question, I'll suggest that you have 100 points per student to play with, and you shouldn't be shy about cutting those 100 into some very small bits. Lots of small, quick-turnaround assignments of different genres will allow students with different learning styles and levels of preparation to gain purchase – and therefore confidence – at some point. There's also a weird cultural norm among some students – I saw this in its full glory at Proprietary U – wherein to do any work that doesn't immediately result in points is seen as selling out. If you 'justify' keeping up with the reading by giving quizzes, you'll increase the likelihood that they'll read. It's kind of a pain, but it makes a difference. (The idea, of course, is that once they've actually invested some effort, they'll develop a taste for it. And on pragmatic grounds, the least-prepared students are also the ones least likely to be able to catch up by cramming.)

There's also something to be said for switching styles of presentation. To the extent that you can do this without violating either the content of the course or the nature of your personality, it's good to build in a mix of lecture, large-group discussion, small-group discussion, simulations, presentations, etc. Folks who may not 'get it' in one format may get it in another. Time constraints can't be ignored, and you shouldn't water down the content, but some forethought here can pay off. (I always had great results with mock courts.)

In response to the last question, my personal stand is that sometimes failing a student is the best thing you can do for him. (I'll admit that some colleges have formal or informal 'nobody fails' policies, which I consider a form of prostitution. Try to get a sense of the local culture on this issue.) College isn't the 13th grade. Again, think about transfer; if you pass a kid who was simply overmatched by the intro course, what will happen to him down the line? Better to give the student an honest reading of his performance, even if it occasionally breaks your heart.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

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