Thursday, July 30, 2009

Come on baby, kiss that frog!

Remember The Frog Prince ? This was the fairytale where the frog convinced the princess that if she kissed him he would turn into a handsome human prince and they would live happily ever after.

What does this have to do with teaching? Well, around the end of each semester, many an undergraduate student makes allusions to this story. They seem to think that despite the fact that they've spent the entire semester sitting comfortably on a lily pad in a marsh somewhere (or whatever it is they've actually been doing besides studying), with a little bit of kissing up they can magically become students who will sail off into the sunset with a passing grade in your class. And you're meant to feel like the evil queen if you refuse to help them in their quest.

Now I'm all about second chances. We've all run into tough spots from time to time that we needed a little help and understanding to get out of. After all, life happens, right? But this is why I keep in touch with my students throughout the semester, asking those who are doing poorly or suddenly show a drop in performance to meet with me to get extra help. This is also why I create extra credit assignments - so folks who dug themselves into a little hole can find their way back out. But if that hole is six feet deep, I'm sorry my dear, but you seem to have dug your own grave.

I feel for these students, I really do (despite what you might have heard me mumble under my breath). The ugly truth however is that not everyone will succeed in college. Cutting some students extra breaks is not fair to the students who worked hard all semester (and trust me, they all have lives and difficulties of their own). It's not fair to future employers who take at face value the college degree you come to them with. It's not fair to you, the frog, as if you've never had to climb up out of the mud on your own then you'll never learn how.

I don't think that these students are bad people. I don't even think they want special treatment - most of them come into my office not with a sense of entitlement, but embarrassed and desperate. My guess is that somehow along the way we (educators, parents) forgot that eventually Froggy would have to do things for himself. In the real world, not everyone gets a prize. If you consistently miss deadlines or fail to show up, you probably don't get to keep your job. A little bit doesn't always go a long way.

And frogs don't turn into princes.

Photo courtesy of _marmota

Monday, July 20, 2009

Just another face in the crowd?

Do you know how to recognize when a student needs help?

Sure, their test scores suffer. Maybe they don't seem to be following along in class. Perhaps they're not even coming to class. But when you are teaching 100+ students, and that's just one class, how are you to know?

Unfortunately, the students who really need help are often invisible. They're the ones who show up for the final exam and you don't recognize them. You know their names but not what they look like. You're surprised at the end of the semester that they're still enrolled.

Some of us take the time to try to contact these students. We ask them to come and see us in our offices (although as one student recently told me, if he were failing he'd be too embarrassed to come see the instructor). Maybe we write "See me" on the bottom of a term paper that never gets picked up. We email and hope that they check their school account every once in a while, even if it's just for discounted football tickets.

Some of these students are struggling because they're too wrapped up in the non-scholastic side of college life. I imagine some didn't come prepared with the skills they need for college and now don't know how to get help (or are too afraid to ask). Some, I'm afraid, may be calling out for help.

The U of U Counseling Center has some great resources available to help you identify what may be more than just irresponsibility and potentially a warning sign of a serious problem. They'll help you identify red flags, learn how to talk to a student who may be in danger of hurting themselves or others, and also provide free and reduced-rate counseling services to students seeking help.

My only question now is how can we reach these students? Do we keep sending emails into the over-loaded inbox that they never check? Do we tackle them at the door of the classroom before they can disappear? What can we do if they refuse our help?

My answer right now is to just keep trying and hopefully just knowing that someone is paying attention and is concerned will have some impact.

Photo by Edgar Zuniga Jr.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Need some rejuvinating?

Doesn't this look refreshing?

Don't you wish there was a way to do this mentally? A way to have some fun and come back refreshed - but with no guilt and no catching up to do?

We at CTLE spent all day yesterday at an off-site retreat. We didn't spend a lot of money - one of our team members hosted us at his home. It wasn't all fun and games - we worked hard all day! But because we enjoy one another's company and what we do, we were able to have a really productive day that left us (I think I can speak for everyone here) refreshed and inspired. Although we always walk away with a lot of work to do, it's also with a renewed sense of purpose and excitement, as well as a greater appreciation of one another.

So how can you apply this to your teaching? Why not have a teaching retreat? I think it would be a great idea for folks who teach similar classes to get together, even if it's just once a year, and share new ideas, try out activities, and work together to find solutions to problems. It might be even more exciting to get together folks who teach in different disciplines - it would be a great chance to learn from one another, and you likely have more in common than you might think.

Can't get everyone together in the same location at the same time? Why not hold the meeting online, taking advantage of the online tools available to us, such as Wimba? This would allow everyone to join from wherever they happen to be (even if it's at home in pjs), and to try out new technologies. Although Wimba can be used with a phone or through text-based conversation, why not buy a webcam (they're fairly inexpensive these days) so you can see one another (although pjs are not recommended in this case).

Don't have a group to meet with? Why not hold your own personal teaching retreat? Clear a full day on your calendar to surround yourself with all of the notes and resources you've been meaning to review. Create an agenda so you don't find yourself tuning out and checking email, listening to the radio, etc. Set goals for the next semester or year (e.g., incorporate at least one new activity into each class, try a new technological teaching tool) and devise strategies to help you reach those goals. Take time to create a group of peers so next year you won't be all on your own (you can try searching the internet for chat rooms, listserves, existing groups in your area...)!

Remember, sometimes you have to take time out to set goals, reprioritize, and rejuvinate interest in order to be really effective at what you do. This is time well spent!

Photo courtesy of bbum.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Engaging Students

Last week I mentioned that I thought particular students in my class needed to participate more. My sense is that these students would perform better on exams if I could find ways to better engage them in class.

So in our last class session I tried a few things, including something a bit controversial. I called on students by name.

A few times each semester someone will ask me if I think it's okay for them to call on their students. Usually the undoubtedly satisfying answer I give is : "It depends." I truly believe this answer to be true.

I was for most of my education a student who preferred to listen rather than to share (this is true of my personal life as well). For me at least, this didn't mean that I was not paying attention (at least most of the time), but rather, that I was processing the information and making connections of my own. I really didn't become very good at, or at least very comfortable with, "thinking out loud" until I began to teach as a graduate student. So personally, I think it would have been mortified if a professor had called on me in class without my first volunteering to offer an answer.
In my own classes, however, students like this aggravate me. I read their thoughtfully-constructed and insightful comments on the material in their papers and exams and want to bang my head against my desk (and sometimes do), screaming "Why didn't you say this in class?!?!"

So now to help provide opportunities for students to learn from one another, and to allow me to gauge how the quieter students are doing (are they silent geniuses or completely and utterly lost?), I call on students by name to answer questions. I do give them some time to formulate a response first, sometimes by asking them to write it down, sometimes by discussing in a small group, and sometimes simply by waiting before calling on anyone. Of course, not all students are able to answer. I make a habit of letting them know that they can pass, but that I will call on them again, either later in the same session or next time. My hope is that this will help start a fire to get them to come to class better prepared, and also give me a sense of what types of questions they are struggling with (for example, maybe they can define terms, but not provide a real-life example).

Now obviously, being able to call on students requires that you know their names. More on this next time.