Friday, July 22, 2011


I have spent a pleasant afternoon doing what I absolutely should not be doing at this moment, which is planning Fall's Intro to Fruit Studies class. It is the same course as from Spring, but now I know how to teach it. At least more than I did. So I am avoiding getting ahead on my current class grading* by instead contemplating the many things I hated about the Fruit Studies course setup.

Now, the Fruit Studies People had no requirements (or even, guidelines) about how to teach Intro to Fruit Studies except that the students had to know this list of Important Figures in the Discipline; they have to take an exit test when they graduate if this is their major. My fellow postdoc who also taught Fruit Studies (both semesters while I only did Spring) decided to have students to class presentations and they each picked a figure and reported on his/her life and contributions. So I blocked out a week on my syllabus to have us do the same, and really hated it. My students, even more so than in my comp class, just aren't prepared for college or really know what it should be like, and I got really terrible presentations --- they ranged from completely incoherent and wrong to merely dull and stultifying. I told them they had to do something more interesting than powerpoint presentations and I wanted them to be imaginative and creative, and they all did bad powerpoint presentations instead. Having them fumble with the room technology and the powerpoint technology slowed us down and killed any momentum, and a lot of them couldn't ever get the PP program to work.

Maybe, just maybe, you could say this is an important skill for them to learn, as is public speaking, (they are a very insecure/shy and passive bunch, who don't know the ins and outs of being a good student or public figure) and I should accept that prepping them/grading them on doing good powerpoint presentations would be a good assignment. But the students themselves looked so bored, dozing off in each others' presentations, and one senior guy (not a FS major) even mouthed off about how boring and what a waste of time the week was for him. I didn't appreciate the rudeness or the attitude, but that was basically my experience of that week of presentations.

The other total clusterfuck was that I believed all the people who say "Fruit Studies is so interdisciplinary and collaborative! We should always have a student-centered pedagogy in our classes!" Bleah. I put in a "student facilitator" system where a different student would be on the spot to help lead the discussion or bring in some sort of interesting related material, and that totally bombed. Remember how I was complaining how none of my facilitators were showing up on the day they were supposed to go? Yeah that was all FS students. When they did show up, their "facilitation" was either to stand behind the podium and read off a summary of the readings from a powerpoint slide in a monotone, or something even worse that they hadn't really thought through --- like the person who brought in a 3-hour movie for a 1 hr 15 minute class and ate up my entire time. Even when they did show up their stuff usually conflicted with whatever I had planned, even though I warned them again and again to let me know their plans ahead of time.

So since they don't know how to facilitate a class or even participate effectively in one, and since I'm a total control freak in class and not knowing what my lesson plan is until after I walk into the room totally gets me all worked up, I'm dropping that aspect from the class. I'll revamp the discussion grade and really push for them to present their findings from the small groups. I can still have it be "engaging" by me finding interesting current event articles and working up a bunch of questions/problems they have to solve, since I actually try to think about the desired learning outcome.

My fellow postdoc was so angry and frustrated that entire first semester because the students just wouldn't talk and wouldn't read/bring their books that zie rewrote the syllabus to have reading comprehension questions and/or a quiz (announced in the syllabus) due every class session. I did not ---- mainly because I thought the questions in the book weren't very good but I didn't have time to make new ones ---- and I had mostly the same experience. So I am following Fellow Postdoc's footsteps and instituting regular homework and quizzes in addition to all the little assignments (5, a film analysis paper and a take-home final) I had before. I'm not sure where it all fits in the syllabus yet, and I haven't figured out how I am replacing the Famous Figures of FS presentation ---- add another paper? some sort of class wiki or online thing? Hmm.

Oh, and I still haven't added anything about Fruits and Finance! (remember me discussing some sort of "take charge of your life/responsibility/think bigger/don't be so passive" activity I wanted to teach these students? I can't find the post. But I still want to, I just don't know what that activity would be.)

And will going to constant little assignments/quizzes totally kill me in terms of workload? Would you? (Would you drop/rearrange/consolidate the larger assignments?) Would you actually read/grade them all or just hold on to them? Or just check/plus/minus them? (I admit that I hardly ever read the comp classes' in class paragraphs I was having them do every day. Oops. Mea culpa or something.)

So, to wrap up, in shorter form:
  • Presentations on Important Figures sucked. What would be a better alternative assignment, since the department requires I cover these figures in some way?
  • Setting up reading homework/quizzes for every class session: Good idea or madness and overwork? Is that madness and overwork for me or the students and does it matter?
  • How might you teach/set up a project/activity thingy to have your students be more ambitious and assertive about their own lives and life goals, whether financially, career, or something else? (In the comments to the post I can't find, we discussed the book Your Money or Your Life, which I agree opens up interesting discussions about why we work, and I want to do something with it/related to it.
  • Anything else you'd want to suggest? What's your favorite fruit?

*Oh, like you grade an assignment the day it comes in!


Tree of Knowledge said...

Make the homework/quizzes easy to grade so you have them grade it in class. Then you just have to doublecheck the math while watching tv. Or, make them pass/fail (that's how I do comp journal assignments where the point if for them to think or try out a technique, and I have them due on workshop days so I can grade them in class).

What about an Important Figures exam? Or could you combine Important Figures and Life Goals? Students choose an Important Figure that most relates to their life goals and then write a short essay/give a presentation on that person, their goals and what they see as the connection? Or maybe identify what that Figure did to make their goals a reality and how might the student implement similar strategies in their life?

Anonymous said...

A thing on presentations that I find works very well - not that I'm saying you should do them!

1) I do the first presentation, so I model for them what the expectation is, based on the assignment I've given them.

2) Presentations are included throughout the semester - so like the first 15 minutes of each class period, and I try to make the presentations for each day somehow compatible with the material for that day. So, let's say that I have a presentation on X historical figure - the reading for that day is from the same time period, or is somebody who is responding to X historical figure. In other words, there is some sort of *reason* why we might want to know about the presentation topic.

3) And this is crucial - I tell them up front that they are all responsible for the presentation material and that I will include x # of questions on the final that are based on presentations - stuff that they can't know if they aren't there for the presentations.

So I don't think that presentations in themselves are a bad idea, but I don't think that presentation weeks work particularly well. And also: me modeling what a presentation should be is key to them giving the sorts of presentations that I want to see.

This isn't to say at all that I think you should do presentations - just to say that if you are inclined to do them, this is a way to make it work.

Also: student facilitator things have NEVER worked for me at my institution (which, as you know, is not unlike yours). Student-centered-discussion-leading = don't do it. They don't know how, and it makes your whole class suck in ways that it wouldn't if you just led your own discussions. (That said, the presentations interspersed throughout thing can be useful in that it gives you a starting point each day for getting class going, particularly if you plan them to fit with what you're doing each class. I've used that to great effect, but it's not expecting students to discussion-lead.)

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as for quizzing - I used to do it, and then got too overwhelmed by the paper. Now I just threaten them with quizzes if I can tell they aren't reading, which actually is pretty effective, and so now probably give maybe 3 quizzes in a semester? I have it stated in the syllabus that I will quiz if necessary and that it counts toward participation if I do give quizzes, so it's easy to count if I have to do it. (I just count it for participation for that day.) Seriously, I find that threats are a good motivator - they really want to avoid quizzes if possible, so they do their work :)

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I like the threat idea. As an undergrad at a SLAC, sometimes we had to do one page "responses" to the readings, or "come up with one discussion question" based on the readings (I do this in my seminars). Responses were graded pass/fail. Come up with one discussion question usually works, but it is less effective when there's a lazy student who basically says each time, "You know, I just didn't bother to do the reading this week" and refuses to be embarrassed about it-- that hurts class morale.

heu mihi said...

I do daily quizzes in my surveys now. They only take me about 7-10 minutes to grade--if that (probably a lot less, actually)--because I make them really easy to grade. If I give an interpretive question, I give full marks if it's clear they've read, half credit if they maybe read, and 0 if it was obvious they hadn't. I don't find it onerous, and it does at least let me know where they are.

Of course, they don't motivate the truly unmotivated, but what will? If nothing else, some of the borderline students might feel a little more accountable than they would otherwise.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

I find it's possible to keep up with frequent short assignments (1 a week, not every class period) if I'm grading with checks (plus/minus) or a straight A/B/C/F grade, no pluses/minuses, and few comments---just * for a really interesting point, ? where they're not clear (and provide a list of such abbreviations). You have to think carefully about the goals of such assignments and how much detail students actually need in your grading; if the point is to have them writing (because more writing is good), then what they mostly need is encouragement.

About presentations, if you were to keep them (& I hear you about why not to), not only do you need to model them, you need to emphasize repeatedly that that is what you are doing and that they have to pay attention to *how* you are presenting, how much time given to this or that aspect, rather than focusing explicitly on information given. They are mostly not remotely accustomed to such meta-analysis.

undine said...

Good ideas in your post and also in the comments. I'd like to second the quizzes/frequent writings idea and would agree with Tree of Knowledge that having at least be some of them be easy/a win is a good idea. They won't all get an A on a paper, but everyone can get an A on a quiz if they do the work.

Anonymous said...

On the multiple short assignments, I find them faster and easier to grade than longer ones -- and that includes short papers. You can give single, global comments, or do the kinds of things that Dame E says (check/plus, shorthand, etc.). And if they're not essays per se, you don't have to write about structure & organization and you can catch bad sentence-level habits more easily.

By their nature, my Old and Middle English language courses have lots of short assignments, and it suddenly occurred to me that I find the grading burden in those classes much lighter, even when the classes are larger than my other classes. (Strangely, they often are.)

But as important is their pedagogical purpose, and I think shorter assignments focused on a particular skill or set of knowledge can be more effective in *teaching* students than longer ones, and if you assign more of them than you would longer assignments, then they also give students more *opportunities* to learn, with lower stakes. And the same can be said of multi-part longer assignments -- so, for example, you might make the presentations multi-step both so that you can catch problems before they go "live" (for example, if they had to turn a draft transcript/outline) and students actually learn what's expected of them.

I'm actually going to do a post on how I'm putting all this into action in one of my courses (building on things I've done in the past), so I'll babble in more detail there. But, in short, if you want students to take more initiative, you have to, paradoxically, lead them to it and teach them how, and short series of assignments that build up the steps/skills needed (close reading, meta-analysis, whatever) are very good for that.