Another semester, another chance

(Google tells me the title is subconsciously borrowing from Rent.  Well, crap.)

Learning how to teach, like another other form of learning, never ends.  We try, we fail, we do it better next time.  I still have not figured out my teaching philosophy, but here is what I would like to emphasize to my students this semester.

No Child Left Behind – This was my lowest rating on evaluations.  The central problem is this: we actually are aware when a student is having trouble.  However, if the student doesn’t ask questions; doesn’t come to discussion; doesn’t attend office hours; doesn’t approach the teaching staff about their problem, what should the teaching staff do?  As college students and adults, they are the ones ultimately responsible for their own learning, not the teachers, right?  Would the teaching staff approaching borderline students be treating them like children, invading their privacy, or insulting their ability to solve their own problems?

But too many times have I seen students who could use help never ask for it (on the flip side, the people who come to discussion/office hours, while I won’t say they don’t need to come, there are students who need them more).  I think it often boils down to self-esteem: addressing the problem means first admitting to it, which means acknowledging I’m not amazing and perfect and a prodigy.  Most students would rather not deal such a blow to their self-image, so they ignore it since it’ll go away at the end of the semester.  The way to address this, I feel, is to change the students’ perception of asking questions and for help: that it is not a weakness, but a desire to overcome their problems and become stronger.  Even asking a friend is better than staying silent.  However, even when I told students before, it didn’t really seem to sink in.  Maybe it needs more than just a single pep talk at the beginning of the semester and needs to be reinforced by word and deed throughout.

(As an aside: the teacher asking questions is for another reason altogether.  It’s perception, by students, is that being asked a question exposes them in front of their friends.  However, the teacher’s goal is to make sure the student is actively processing the information rather than just copying down notes for later study… like the night before the problem set is due.)

I’m thinking we should try getting the GSIs to contact students who are having trouble.  70/115 on a Babak midterm is probably where I would draw the line; that’s where people would, at this rate, have trouble continuing into the next class in the series.  The goal would be to find someway for the student to improve on the remainder of the semester.  My main worry is that, if you ask a student why they didn’t do well on an exam, they will reply with excuses rather than plans to improve (i.e. it was a result of external circumstances, not internal reasons).  Improvement will probably require behavior change.  Some potential solutions:

  • Form a study group: ask questions, explain things to one another
  • Are they making full use of discussion, office hours, bSpace, etc.?
  • More practice: including past midterms and extra problems out of the book, because what little we put in problem sets isn’t enough
  • Study tips: my favorite is to annotate solutions (students who only check to see how one step leads to the next only get a superficial understanding of the solution; annotating the solution requires you understand how each step fits within the whole and not miss the forest for the trees)

Transparency – In expectations and grading.  Really, this is my attempt to head off what I feel is the cynicism and jadedness in the classroom.  My thinking is this: if students view grading as black box, they have no motivation to change their behavior because there’s no reason to believe the change will lead to any improvement.  However, if there is a behavior the teacher wishes to instill, one way to have students adopt it is to make it in their best interest, i.e. make it clear it will improve their grade.

The behavior I want to instill is for students to write clear, concise solutions.  Where students usually go off the rails is 1) writing down anything that comes to mind to chase partial credit, 2) leaving a disorganized mess that wanders all over the paper, and 3) never explaining why they’re doing what they’re doing or mentioning the underlying concepts.  Bottom line is, when I see a disorganized solution, I can’t help but read that the writer did not have the material organized in their mind, and so they do not deserve high marks.  (1) I view as students trying to game a system because they do not understand it; (2) and (3) they probably just underestimate the importance of.  Therefore the hope is, if grader expectations are explained to the students, they will adjust their behavior.

Handouts – In addition to my old summary/review document, I’ve added a common mistakes document.

And I need to boil this down to a 5-10 minute talk I can give at the start of discussion.

Please leave comments and critiques.

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One thought on “Another semester, another chance

  1. As a teacher, I would want teachers to approach students that are struggling. As a student, I would not (at least in most cases). However, also as a teacher, I know that although it might be slightly uncomfortable for the student, approaching the student will almost always lead to some improvement. How much improvement is still up to the student. I think if students know that the teaching staff is there to help them and if students are used to receiving help from them, the issues of treating them like children, invading privacy, and insulting their abilities will no longer be issues. Then again, I work with high school students who still act like kids sometimes.

    What we did in the math class that I TA-ed for this summer was we mentioned office hours every single day so that students knew that we were available. Some students also think we’re busy because they see us helping other students in OH (which is true) but we also tell them they can come to either of the TA’s or go to the instructor and I’m pretty sure we’re not all busy helping students at the same time. Something that was also helpful in getting students to come to office hours was encouraging them to come if they got below the average by saying we would raise their midterm grade if they came to OH and corrected their midterm.

    If an instructor or GSI asked me why I didn’t do well on an exam, I might tell them it’s because the material is difficult (i.e. I didn’t really understand the material that well) and I didn’t study that hard. I don’t know if those are internal or external reasons. And who knows what I’d really say.

    Transparency is always good.

    There’s also the fact that this is EECS you’re talking about. I think I’ve mentioned this before but EECS doesn’t have the same nurturing environment that some humanities classes do. And changing that is very hard.

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