Hacking the Classroom

Every instructor has likely walked into a room and thought, “Oh, no. How am I going to teach in this room?” The classroom might be in the basement and have no light or have more chairs shoved into it than it truly fits. I am used to hacking the classrooom and making it work. This might mean working with what I have and making the best of it. I have to walk and work the classroom and it is imperative that I have a place to move–to pace. 

I also need to see students’ faces. I am pretty good at reading a room and I need to see the ephiphanies or looks of boredom so that I can respond. I will ask students to not sit in the very back or if they must multi-task to do so in the back of the classroom. I try to set up the etiquette guidelines during the first week. I explain my expectations, then what they can expect from me. I have moved our classroom furniture, booked lab space for one day, and booked a different classroom for group exercises. I will do what it takes to the make the classroom ours, and make it work.  

The image below is from the National Forum on Active Learning Classrooms. We were using playdough to make our ideal learning space. 


Introspective Exercises

I am co-teaching a new course, Digital Skills for Your Career. Last night my slide deck consisted of a letter  in bullet point form to my 20 year old self. I shared with my students some regrets and points of reflection. It was blunt and at times humorous. My point was to help them with their exercises. Co-op and Career had provided them a venn diagram to fill out and for some of the students the exercise was a tough one. They needed to think about their skills, wants, and competencies. The exercise is all about introspection and self-promotion. It is not as easy as it sounds. 

And, their first assignment was due this week. We had asked them to curate a fulsome About.Me page, and in two weeks their LinkedIn URL is due. They worked away in pods chatting with one another about what is holding them back, and how to overcome self-doubt. 

Mentoring university students has taught me numerous things. One consistent issue is the uncertainty and the way it can stifle creativity, bravery, and happiness. My exercise in self-deprecation and honesty was to remind them that they are going to make mistakes and it is OK. We are three weeks into this course and I hope that they are enjoying it as much as I am. 

My photo of one of Co-op’s Slides. Thanks! 

Things College Professors Like

Let me start by saying that this is not an exhaustive list. And, this list is based on my experiences as a college professor, teaching assistant, and life-long learner. I also talk to other instructors in the college environment, as well as teachers in the primary and secondary schools.

1. Show up to class

2. Read the syllabus or course outline

3. Come prepared

4. Talk to us after class or in office hours. You are never bugging us when you want to chat about the course or materials. If you need another copy of the syllabus, ask for it. 

5. Plan your time accordingly for the assignments. We realize that you have other courses 

6. When you email us, please use complete sentences and the usual rules of writing. And, start of formal and use Prof. A or Professor. Some profs prefer the title and others will say it’s fine to use their first name.

7. Be open to the materials and course content. 

8. Get involved

9. Come to office hours

10. Review graded work with the prof to see what you can do better next time. <This is different than asking for more points>.

11. Have fun

Number 11 is about making connections between the materials and your other courses or events in the news. Overall, I want to see you engaged and it is a give and take situation. I cannot expect students to magically engage–part of it is my work. I need to make you want to come to class. I will do my part.  


Popular Instructors

I cannot believe that I am starting my 18th teaching year. I always start counting the years in September and this is 18. One of the things that I am mulling is what a popular instructor or popular prof means in academe. Does this reflect your enrollments? Is this term cast as a negative assuming that your course content is easy? I think the context mattters.

1. Hearing it from some colleagues it is clear that it cheapens your pedagogy and the depth of what you teach. 

2. Hearing it from students varies, but it is mostly meant as a compliment. 

3. Some colleagues clearly mean it as a compliment. 

Overall, my sense is that the so-called popular instructors generally enjoy teaching. I think that is the difference.  


Participation Ribbons: Show Up

At some point in the last decade or two participation ribbons became common at sports events. I have mixed feelings about this. While I understand the need to make every kid feel good about her or his participation in a cross country meet, there is another part of me that cringes with this practice. My mixed feelings stems from not wanting my kids to think that they have to win to be their best. Perhaps this is why they both like competitive swimming? While they swim against others, ultimately they are trying to lower their swim times and it becomes self-focused. 

I know that when I watch competitve sports events I am the one in our household who always comments that it is an honor for the athletes to compete. And, I think it is. Participation ribbons, though, have another part to them. Things get more complicated when I am in the classroom. Somehow this culture of rewarding people for showing up has bled into school work. There is this equation in some students’ minds: effort = A. And, this equation is a problem. 

Yes, it is important to participate. You need to show up to class. However, that is only one part of it. There are terabytes worth of research about the correlation between student attendance and success. Part of it is that students who attend class are more likely to be prepared and feel accountable, but the other part of it is that this same group is also likely to hear annoucements, do the reading, and possibly attend office hours for clarification about assignments. My issue is that I often have to explain to a student that their gauge for effort will vary, and that some students can whip an assignment together fast and do well and others will not. 

I do not believe in participation ribbons in the classroom. A solid blog post, research design, paper or vlog is going to take some effort, and merely doing the assignment is not enough. A stronger assignment is going to have to make me pause. The pause is one of excitement–this is great work. However, most of the students will do good to fair work and this is in the B to C range. And, nothing is wrong with this. What is the saying, “Bs and Cs earn degrees.” It’s true, but the learning experience is more than grades. A new term is right around the corner for our college students. My advice: show up. I hope that your instructors entice you to learn, think, and try. You do not have to do your best, but note that you’ll benefit based on the effort you put into the class. The benefits, though, are more tangible than a grade, and you might end up taking away more than the the ability to write better and think critically. You might be moved to change your major or take more classes with that instructor.


Thinking about Learning Spaces

I attended the National Forum on Active Learning Classroom conference held at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. What an amazing conference! Between the Society for College and University Planning and this conference, my head is going to explode with all the great information that I heard. The good news is that I feel validated. Validated for my teaching style and the disruption that I cause in the classroom and with my educational technology use.

I understand from my friends and colleagues in many departments that their classroom is everywhere. They teach online and I tend to veer toward a blended or flexible format. I might have two sessions of lecture/discussion style, lab time or online/group learning time. The reality is that learning spaces exist in and outside of the traditional classroom and we need to make sure that we are supportive of the variety of teaching modalities. Likewise, our students are used to making virtually any space a learning space and we need to remember this as we plan space on campus.

One little takeaway was the artful way that the facilities office has suggested that students clean up after themselves. This is the way to encourage students and does not rant or nag at them, which they dislike. And, I cannot blame that. Many colleges are moving to recycling centers outside of classrooms to encourage sorting your garbage and recycling. I took lots of photos at the conference and there are some other great posters in the rooms. 


U of MN classroom

The conference was small with about 250 attendees and the group was mixed in terms of facilities staff, administrators, and faculty.  However, based on my interactions, it seemed like there were more faculty at this conference. The faculty shared a common interest–dedication to teaching and learning. It is refreshing to interact with large groups of people dedicated to teaching and learning. We talked lots about flipping the classroom and the importance of active learning spaces. The photos below are from the conference sessions. All of the sessions were held in active learning spaces. I have more to say, and this is just one post. Look for more about this topic.


Assessment of Student Work: It’s Not about You

This post is worth sharing again. I spent the weekend and part of last week reviewing and marking first year mid-terms. This post is worth sharing again and again. This morning I read some of this blog aloud to my first years. I even had the blog up on the screen for them to see. I do think it is important to remind students that the mark is not about you, but the work that was reviewed. We (me and the TAs) are not judging you as a person. I know that it might feel like it, but that is not the case.

If I could look into the eye of every student (undergrad and graduate) and say:

Your course grades do not reflect who you are as a person. The grade is only an assessment of your performance in this moment with these assignments–no more. You should not take the grades personally and wonder if this means that the person who assessed your work doesn’t like you. We are assessing so much work and it’s ultimately about the writing, analysis, presentation, ideas, grammar, spelling punctuation, directions, but not about you as a person. The assessment is about the performance of the assignment or the project and it is not personal. And, I also ask that you think about the assignment that you submitted. Was it your best work and did you follow the directions? Are you owning the grade and the comments? It is so to say that the Teaching Assistant or Professor has it in for you or does not understand you, but is there more there? A moment of introspection is needed so that you can think about the assignment and the expectations for your work.

I remember when I started teaching and I was more casual with the students. I would occasionally hear the following, “But I thought you liked me.” I conferred with my mentors and was told–you have to be more formal. Use your title and remind them that you are assessing their work and not them. Who they are has nothing to do with the grade. It’s about the writing and thinking. I re-worked my syllabi and did become more formal the following term and didn’t hear those personal statements again. March Madness on campus is really not just about basketball. It’s also about research, thinking, and writing. Mange your time well so that you do justice to your ideas. My purple pen is here to comment and tease out ideas. I pick up each paper and think~ what is here and how can I help? The assessment is really about the ideas. Please remember this.