To Take Roll or Not

After 19 years of teaching, I decided to not include a participation and attendance mark. I did have people sign in to assess attendance unofficially. But, what I really wanted to see is if not having participation marks made a difference. Oh, it did. And, the biggest proof is in the marks. I have taught my Gender and Politics course numerous times during my academic career at four universities and I can confidently say that there was a noticeable change in the students’ attendance and their assignments.

  1. Attendance was mediocre at best. And, by not attending announcements were not heard regarding assignments. My syllabus is lengthy, but I speak to each assignment in more depth during a class meeting.
  2. My office hours were not as busy as usual. While some might think that this is a good thing–it’s not. Office hours are important. This is when many students will get the check in to make sure that they are on the right track or the chance to chat about their assignments.
  3. Overall, the marks were the lowest that I have ever seen. Now, they were not terrible, but 3-5 points lower than usual.

My takeaway is that by not having a participation and attendance mark some students do not feel the pressure to come to class, to show up. I’m teaching in the again and I’m going to have a participation and attendance mark. My students benefit from it. I’m going to ask them to show up!

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Time Management: Todoist and Other Tools

A new year is here. I’m updating this post. Which apps are you using for time management or productivity? I’m still using Todoist.

I have previously blogged about how much I enjoy my job and offered advice for students and others about time management. Like most people I am juggling multiple deadlines, projects, and trying hard to get stuff done. How I have done this over the years has varied. Last Fall, I downloaded a few apps that worked like glorified lists and some were useful and fun.

A fun app that I used for a short period of the Winter was Carrot. This app gamified my productivity and rewarded me with praise when I accomplished lots and punished me with insults, when I fell behind. Of course, I wanted the accolades and not the missives from Carrot. I see that there is a Carrot exercise app, but I have not interest in that. I have since deleted Carrot, as it was not really an effective app for my use at work.

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My productivity changed drastically by my immersion with Todoist. At first I was using lightly; however, I started to increase my use as I got more busy with the demands of teaching, administrative work, and service. Where was Todoist, when I was a grad student? I have talked about productivity apps with my TS 300 students, and students in my office and I keep on referring them to Todoist. It is important that I note that I am a Type A person and enjoy apps of this nature. Todoist keeps me organized.

What I like best about the Todoist is that I am able to manage projects with different deadlines, integrate the app with my Outlook, and look long-term at projects or deadlines. I also like the way in which I can prioritize or share projects. I am not using the priorities as much as a I did at the start; however, it is useful for me to track what I am doing and what is coming up for me. Did I mention that I also like the look and feel of the app? I’ve bought other productivity or list apps and used them for a day or a week, and most of them were not intuitive for me or aesthetically pleasing. Developers will smile here, as they think of the app experience. I need the app experience to work for me. For all of these reasons I am an evangelist for Todoist.

Art of Listening: Office Hours

Each year during the latter part of the year, I find that my office hours and extra appointments are busy meeting with students. Office Hours are important, and they are not about me. This is the moment in which I do lots of listening. Typically this is the time of the year when students are scrambling to work on their papers, proposals, and other assignments. This last week my office hours were teeming with students who wanted to get help with their major research projects. Many wanted more direction about my comments, so that they could improve their assignment. For some students this process is not easy. I can see hands shaking and nervous looks as they sat and chat with me.

But, I would be remiss if I did not address that a small number of students come to office hours and are somewhat defensive. Again, this is a small amount and I would offer that one common trait with this small number is that they do not really listen. They are typically waiting to talk and respond, but tend to not listen to the advice or direction that I offer. And, they usually preface the meeting with something like this, “I am not here to ask for more marks.” <–Actually, you are or at least 9 out of 10 times, this is the case with the student in my office. It is better to note, “I want to do better with the next assignment.”

This small group is also typically convinced that their idea/topic is perfect and does not need any revision. These moments cause interesting conversations, as I am trying to help and I am cognizant of my grading rubric. It is my class! And, I am almost twenty years into teaching and have sound feedback to give. But, I cannot be defensive nor scold my students. Listening is important. I have to take a step back and think if the rubric or information in class or in the syllabus was clear.

Last year I had one student note in the course experience evaluation that my three sentences in the syllabus about an assignment was unacceptable. I took that to heart and reviewed my syllabus and lectures. Now, responding to the comment. The three class sessions dedicated to the assignment and extra office hours did not exist?! C’mon. I also had a student note that they did not know what they had to do to get the A+. I include a grading scale in my syllabus and it is clear that A+ work is exceptional. I point this out as I reflect on the comments and want to remind that patience works both ways.

That is right, the best advice I can give is patience. It is hard to review and revise our work and this is also hard for our students. We grade them and they get one official time to “grade” us. Smiling. This does not count RMP, Yik Yak or other social media. Patience is important. I keep on reminding myself of this when each student enters my office. And, I explain this to my Teaching Assistants, and other colleagues.

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.

Welcome to the New Term!

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Today was one of those days. I saw two families driving on the wrong side of the road. I also saw lots of parents with their kids walking around the bookstore and other parts of campus. The families looked happy. And, if anything, the incoming student looked excited. I want to welcome all of us to a new term.

The new term means a fresh start for all of us. I am looking forward to meeting my new students and colleagues. I was lucky enough to meet lots of new faculty at a few events in August. The new term is the perfect time to move forward with good intentions. The new term is the start of something precious. Yes, it’s precious. The clean slate is a good time to start new habits and try to keep to them. I am thinking about what I want this term. What do you want for the new term?

Teaching as Mentoring

 

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Last week I blogged about Lessons Learned, when a class does not go well. This post picks up where I left off, but focuses on my best teaching experience to date. I love teaching. I view it as a form of mentoring and learning that works both ways. I learn from my students, and I have ample opportunity to work with them as they read and engage with the course materials, their peers, and me. Mentoring is important to me and this class offered lots of mentoring moments.

Last Fall I taught a new course for the Technology and Society Program, Digital Skills for Your Career and the course was amazing. I need to clarify, I co-taught with an awesome person and she helped make it successful. The students were also open to the material and learning. We also had colleagues from Career and Co-op  lecture about planning for your career trajectory, resume tips, and LinkedIn tips. The thing is that we had lots of exercises and group work for the class.

The students started off with putting together an About.me page, where they could think about who they are and what they’d like to share. The course was also meant to have them think about being in control over their digital footprints. They also had to populate a LinkedIn profile well, blog, and then give a presentation about themselves and something that they’re interested in as their final project. There was also group work during class sessions.

We had a wide array of guest speakers from government, media, technology, non-profit, entrepreneurs, and other educators. Everything fit in well and our office hours were quite busy with the students. The student feedback unofficially and officially (student evaluations) was extremely positive. What worked well is that we allowed them to be vulnerable. We talked about vulnerability and we saw that thinking and planning was frightening, and they needed a space to do this. We graded them on their writing, depth of analysis, and public speaking. Overall, the course was awesome. Several of the students shared that they were recruited via their LinkedIn profile, and others used the class to think about what was next for them.

I am teaching the course again, and by myself this time. We are going to read Tom Rath’s Strength Finders and Sheryl Sandberg’s Leaning in For Graduates. I also have lots of articles about using social or digital tools wisely. Overall, I am looking forward to the class, and I hope that this next cohort of students are as excited as I am.

Lessons Learned

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I have had two outlier terms in my teaching career. And, one was in the last year. When things work well, you feel like every damn thing is in order, and you want to pinch yourself. In a similar way, when things begin to go wrong you want to stop and fix them, but they continue to slip out of your reach, it feels like a train wreck. Well, I had a term like this and I’m looking back, so that I can look forward.

I used some new materials, had some strong personalities, and did my best. Well, things did not go as planned, and I need to do a few things. I need to own it. I need to move on. But, right now I am reviewing things. What could I have done to make things better? I know it was not just the books, the students, and me. There are always more factors at play when a class is mediocre. I pride myself on how much I enjoy teaching, as I view it as a form of mentoring and I find teaching fulfilling. And, when things go offside, I feel responsible.

I chose a few new books in order to push my class to read about debates in the field. If I could go back, I would have chosen one new book. The material was provocative enough to cause uncomfortable feelings, debate, and a good measure of animosity between the students, and some directed at me. It is far easier to teach the usual suspects. So, there is a part of me that stubbornly thinks that I would not change the books. I did explain that the material would push the students and that they should feel uncomfortable, but it was not enough. From the papers, I could read that a handful of the students did not like the book or both books. Now, whether or not I had a deep reflection about the content is a different story, but I did hear about the materials vocally. “I want a different book suggestion, since I cannot relate to this one.” I did not give the student another book option.

Course materials are important and I reviewed several books and was really happy with the overall syllabus and assignment. I can reluctantly admit that I would not teach both new books again. One did not work. I won’t name it, as it will do a few things. It will make the students realize that I am talking about their class, and it’s likely better that they not know which of the courses I am referring to in this post! Well, on their own, both books are intellectually engaging or problematic. I do not want to teach perfect books, as that is too darn easy. What else would I have done differently? I think I would have noted that this course had fewer readings and pages of work due to me, than previous terms. From reviewing the evaluations, it is clear that some of the students thought that I was asking them to do too much work. I was not.

The good news here is that I take each class as a learning experience. While teaching feels like it comes easy to me, it is good to know that I will still have an off term. It is good for me to reflect on the course. And, I am not a rock star every term. I have been fortunate to have so many awesome courses and experiences–this year reminded me to be humble! And, the few unhelpful evaluations say more about the student, than they do about me. Thanks for reading the post. I’d appreciate any feedback you have about awesome or crappy terms. We all have them.