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Fall ’14

13 Aug Posted by in Academics, Students | Comments
Fall ’14

The imminence of the start of classes and return of students has me doing my annual self-evaluation, as to whether I’m basically excited or not. When I stop looking forward to the challenge it will clearly be time to quit – but not so far. I confess to being a bit more nervous than usual, given a fuller teaching load and my first really new undergraduate course in a while; but that’s positive too, on the whole.

No reason for anyone to be terribly interested in my state of mind, but I’ve used a blog to greet a new fall semester for several years, and thought I’d maintain the tradition.

And I do want to share a few further thoughts, based on some recent conference lessons on undergraduate teaching. I haven’t independently verified the lessons, but they’re provocative and in one case at least worth some wider discussion.

First, as was the case last year, I will continue to try to make my classes more participatory. My introductory class is a bit smaller this term, 56 or so instead of 70 or so, which will help.  The exercise depends of course on some level of student preparation, but of course the more participatory quality is meant to stimulate or motivate more preparation. So I’ll try to push the envelope a bit further.

I’ll also try to do better on student names. Now that I’m fully back on faculty I have less excuse not to do well, but I confess it’s hard for me and I’m going to use some nameplate gimmicks to help. I do recognize how much students appreciate faculty mastery here, and I greatly admire colleagues who excel. I wish I had more natural skill, or that the interest in tattooing extended to names on foreheads.

I’m also going to try, in my upperclass course, some collaborative student work, again new for me. The research on teaching suggests this is one important way to improve student motivation and attachment, and it’s certainly an important capacity to acquire. So I’ll give it a shot, along with a more conventional individual research assignment.

The issue of class attendance continues to be interesting, and this is where I was particularly impressed with the recent teaching data presentation. Apparently, against the popular wisdom, research does not show a correlation between class attendance and grades, which is discouraging if true. But it does show a pronounced correlation between freshman attendance in the first four weeks, and probable retention over time. Some institutions are apparently going all out on the attendance front, developing computer systems that call students if they’ve missed two classes in a course, even sending RAs around to dorm rooms. I accept that, in the transition from high school to college and perhaps particularly in an environment of considerable helicopter parenting, some greater monitoring may be desirable. I can’t bring myself really to mandate attendance – I just think students need to learn their own diligence, and hopefully a usually-interesting class will do the trick for most. But I am going to pay some attention to the first four week issue in my introductory course.

One other thing from the recent conference, that relates to attendance.Urgent recommendation to make the first class session interesting, and not just a syllabus handout.I actually figured that out for my survey course several years ago, but had not thought about the general point. The idea is to pick a discussion topic linked to the course but not dependent on specific prior reading, that can elicit wide reactions. It’s actually fun, and helps set a great tone. The further suggestion – and this I had not anticipated, but will work on henceforward – was to make the last class, also, a bangup, perhaps with a brief “last lecture” element, to end on a high note and not just a review.

On these points and others, eager to learn other opinions and experiences. The main point is: it is exciting (on the whole; of course there are downsides) to be anticipating the new semester; it’s interesting to be stimulated by others’ findings and insights on the teaching process. And above all, best wishes to faculty and students alike.