Teaching Tuesday: Three Things from the Fall Semester

It has been a long fall semester, and I feel like I’ve learned about as much this fall as was possible. I’m hoping some of what I learned will make me a better teacher especially as I go into a spring semester where I’ll be teaching four classes for the first time in many years. 

This week, as I write syllabi with one hand and grade papers with the other, I’m thinking about three key things.

1. Communication. I was fascinated by a little conversation on Twitter this past week about students and email. In general, we as faculty think of communication as the key to building effective relationships with students. In fact, I go to great lengths to set the tone both in the classroom and through the various other media that we now use to communicate: Zoom, our campus LMS (Blackboard), email, and so on. Despite my efforts, it is clear that students struggle with feeling comfortable using these media.

Some of this almost certain arises from a general lack of familiarity with the expectations of a college classroom. Something as simple as what do you call your professor (and the range of expectations on any campus about what is deemed appropriate) can be baffling to students especially first generation students who lack the relationships that can provide intergenerational guidance on college etiquette.

More than that, students clearly operate by a set of standards and practices concerning email that are often quite different than those of faculty. While many of my faculty colleagues complain about the daily deluge of emails, I’ve at least experienced a steady decline in student emails over the past few years (administrative emails, of course, continue unabated!). My classes involve a good bit of collaborative learning that sometimes requires work outside of class, and my students who are left to their own devices to self-organize rarely opt to use email even when they’re using Google docs to write. In other words, students are using email less and less as a mode of communication. 

It is fair enough that we should expect our students to check their emails, and my professional life demonstrates that emails continue to be a vital mode for communication. At the same time, I’m a bit hesitant to criticize students for ignoring their campus email accounts for days at a time. Students may well know the horrors that will come when they adopt proper attention to email and this awareness has already shaped student communication strategies. Student resistance to emails may well represent an intergeneration and political line in the sand.     

2. Attendance. I’ve never been the kind of teacher who has outstanding attendance in my classes. First, I’m not especially charismatic or personally engaging. Second, I make the mistake of telling students that attendance is important which I suspect comes off more as a challenge than a statement of fact. Third, last year’s COVID conditioned semesters changed student expectations on what constitutes attendance. Various hyflex and hybrid models of teaching allowed students options of attention courses in person or via digital “modalities.” The various digital ways of attending courses ironically served to de-emphasize the importance of being present in the classroom because they allowed students to coast passively through a class session while still adhering to the letter of class attendance policies.  

The result was that students drifted away especially at key junctures in the semester such as the midterm or end of the semester wrap up. Student work suffers as a result. I’m reluctant to implement punitive measures designed to enforce attendance, but also regret that students miss class and do poorly.

As a result, I’m going to emphasize more the responsibility of students to keep up with work even if they don’t attend and do more to make various assignments accessible and understandable to students who struggle with attendance. I can’t make attendance mandatory nor can I make it unnecessary, but I feel like I probably need to do more to teach those students who are not present. 

3. Work Load. Over the past semester, I’ve become increasingly worried about student workloads. Some of this stemmed from doing the simple maths and discovering that the average college student with an average course load is expected to work at least 35 hours per week on school work alone. This leaves precious little time of jobs, other campus responsibilities, and home lives. In fact, studies in Scandawegian countries have shown that employees often work optimally at 30-35 hours per week. It is clear that our students are working many more hours than this when we combine course work, outside employment, and other campus opportunities. 

It seems to me that the economics of higher education where more of the burden is falling on students is largely to blame for this. Every semester I have students who take pride is working full time and going to school in order to graduate debt free. Many of these students, however, pay for this choice by engaging less fully in their course work. Moreover, in many cases students struggle to discern which elements of course work produce the most valuable returns on their investment of time. 

Some of this is a result of course design which distributes the benefits of the course across a wide range of assignments in the hope of engaging with a wide range of learners. The downside of this is that every student likely experiences some work that doesn’t particularly suit their learning style or does not feel particularly valuable. These encounters invariably create a sense that the class is filled with flotsam that they can comfortably ignore without much consequence. Unfortunately, the downside of this entirely reasonable response is that the students have to discern what assignments and approaches are best for them to learn something and negotiate the workload of the semester. This, unfortunately, requires both a fairly high degree of self awareness and a level of strategic thinking that many students are only still developing in college. 

I don’t have a solution to managing student workloads better other than to continue to aspire to a kind of transparency and managing what I do in class with an eye toward doing more with fewer assignments.  

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