Teaching Tuesday: Time, Attendance, and Process

This semester I’m teaching three very different classes. One is a traditional lecture and discussion class that interleaves a narrative style lecture with primary sources to unpack the history of historical writing. Another is an open-ended immersive class that has as its focus a building rather than a narrative, question, or series of methodological goals. Finally, I teach a 40-student introductory level survey in a flipped classroom which is project-based. 

Each class offers some pedagogical challenges. For my little post today, however, I’d like to consider how classroom management plays a role in the success of the various classes.

1. Time. One the greatest challenges in my introductory level class that uses a project-based, flipped pedagogy is devising projects that fit into 2 hour weekly night class. So far, the first project, which involved identifying and defining five individuals, five events, five places, and five key terms from an open access textbook chapter took far less time than I imagined. The second project, creating a list of four, short, primary source readings and providing some introductory matter to guide the reading of these sources took well over the 2 hours of class time. In fact, I ended class last week by telling the students to close their computers and go home. I let them know that we’ll have time this week to finish last week’s project. 

So far, the work on the second project seems much better than the results of the first. In fact, the lists of individuals, events, terms, and places were often pretty superficial and will require additional work before they can be submitted for a grade. More than that, they showed signs of haste. I wonder whether the superficial simplicity of the assignment lulled students into thinking that the work could be accomplished quickly. On the other hand, the most complex task associated with not only identifying, but also guiding the reader through a primary source took more time than I had allotted suggesting that I underestimated the complexity of the project.

2. Attendance. One of the challenges that I’ve faced over the course of my college teaching career is getting students to consistently attend class. At first, like most new teachers, I blamed myself. I thought: “self, you’re so boring students don’t even want to come to class.” Then, as I grew more confident, I shifted to blaming the students: “the kids these days…” 

As I’ve become more perspective on my teaching, I tend to spread the blame around a bit more. On the one hand, I know that classes that encourage deep engagement tend to have better attendance. I also know that students today at my Institution are pulled in more and more directions that take them out of class. This is more than just the age-old character of student life as an incubator for contagious illness and unhealthy lifestyles. Students today work long hours, are stretched thin by extracurricular activities, and often have classes or majors that expect them to be able to miss class from time to time throughout the semester in order to attend conference, events, or lectures. I refuse to get too annoyed with my students for missing class, but irregular attendance does make it hard to develop rapport with my students and for them to digest material that I present without the backstop of a textbook or a study guide. 

Ironically, part of the design of my introductory level class (discussed above) was to shift the writing and some of the reading that often took place outside of the classroom to class time. In my lecture/discussion class, I’m often more than willing to allow students to struggle with difficult readings provided that they are willing to engage the material during classroom discussions. Needless to say, if students don’t come to class, then these discussions are both impoverished and individual students are less likely to understand the complex texts that they read.

This leaves me two options. One is to try to force students to attend class, but this tends to fail because most students feel their reasons for missing class are legitimate and unavoidable (and in most cases they are right!). The other is to ramp down the readings, which is less desirable to me, but maybe a more realistic response to the complex lives of our students.

3. Process. Finally, in my open-ended class, I’m finding it an intriguing challenge to watch my students struggle a bit with process. On some level, I designed the class with a lack of structure to encourage students to think about process. On the other hand, I’ve found it plenty challenging to watch my students spin around a bit and try to find their footing when dealing with an unfamiliar medium (a building), unfamiliar history (the history of architecture and our campus), an unfamiliar classroom environment (a largely abandoned building), and unfamiliar procedures (requesting documents from special collections). Compounding this, the class is a 1-credit class which limits how much I can lean on students to engage fully with unfamiliar tasks.

Most importantly, though, I have to resist the urge to go in and push the students to conform to my workflow. I have to give them space to figure out their process without my interference.  

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