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.

Energy Focus

It’s that time of the year when you have to reframe requests. I was chatting with some faculty colleagues about student work, and noted that I do not accept late work. The truth is that I do with qualifiers. I have a sentence or two in my syllabi that notes that students need to contact me before an assignment is due if they are deathly ill or an emergency has come up for them. I find it easier to specifically state my expectations. But, I also know that I have to be flexible. Life happens. 

I do not have enough mental energy to stress about late work. I was more rigid about deadlines, and then moved to rolling deadlines. And, an amazing thing happened, the percentage of students with excuses dropped. They knew that the first deadline meant more comments, and the last deadline was not late. This works well for my students. But, overall, my opinion with late work is one with less frustration. In some of my classes there are no rolling deadlines and just the policy–no late work is accepted. 

I have to choose what is my biggest concern. I want my students to be successful in the course. I do not want to hound them. I will not. They need my energies focused in the classroom and office hours. 

The photo below is the flip side of my Social Media name tag. My name is on the other side, but this side works. 

Performance Reviews: Coaching Your Grad Students

Today’s Fri Fun Facts is about my new use of writing Performance Reviews for the Teaching Assistants. After looking through the Canadian Union of Public Employee’s Agreement between my employer and the local group, I decided that it would behoove me to offer the Teaching Assistants a more formal review.  Today’s Fri Fun Facts will speak to how I will do this every term on.

My intention was to provide each Teaching Assistant with an honest, fair assessment of their work this term hoping that they could use the review in their teaching dossiers or as part of their resume paperwork. Writing the reviews took more time than I thought it would, as I really wanted to convey a personal review for each Teaching Assistant. How did I do this?

When I meet with each Teaching Assistant to review their graded work, I would email myself notes about the meeting and these summaries were useful. When students would see me during office hours and offer unsolicited comments about their Teaching Assistant, I would email myself a copy of the comments for my records. These little things were important to providing me a memory of the Teaching Assistant’s performance.

My suggestions:

1. Keep notes or records about the Teaching Assistant’s performance. If there is every tricky situations, these notes are really useful. More importantly, this will be helpful when you have to write a letter of reference or serve as a reference.

2. Check in with the Teaching Assistants to make sure that they are doing well and feel that they are getting enough support from you. You should assign a mentor Teaching Assistant to a new Teaching Assistant.

3. Provide them guidelines about your expectations. You might email or verbalize this. I actually provide a dossier: a one to two page expectations letter, sample graded work, exams, grading guidelines for the university, and a copy of the syllabus.

4. Be available. You need to set up times to be available for their questions or be willing to guide and coach the Teaching Assistants as needed. Some will need more of your time and others hit the ground running.

5. With the review, think about the Teaching Assistant’s grading, effort, interaction with the team, students, and comment on this. Note any areas for improvement and be willing to note if you think that you could have supported the Teaching Assistant more.

6. Be honest. The review should be helpful, but it does not need to only be positive. Constructive comments are sometimes needed, but offer them in a helpful manner.

Overall, the Performance Review should be helpful for you, the Teaching Assistant, and any future employer who sees the document. Remember that the arrangement is really an apprenticeship and you need to mentor or coach the graduate student, as this is not “free” grading for you. The cost is really supervising and helping the Teaching Assistant perform the duties. I have to remind myself of this occasionally! How do you evaluate your graduate students? Performance reviews is feedback, and we all deserve constructive feedback.

Thinking More about Evaluating Student Work

This is timely for me, as I have been marking lots. The first part of any assignment is to read the syllabus or perhaps to read the assignment. Right?

My blog post on Equality 101 about Student Evaluation  got me thinking about grading this past weekend. I was in the midst of marking quizzes for Gender and International Relations and had just marked more than one dozen papers for The Worlds of Politics. One of the things that I was first struck with for the latter class was how some students refuse to read the assignment directions. This term I also provided a paper checklist, which I borrowed from one of my Teaching Assistants.

Some students attached the checklist and checked off the points that they had followed, but then left other requirements blank or unchecked. This baffles me. If an assignment states that you must cite 5 sources; why cite 3? I dedicated an entire class period to this large paper assignment, made my lecture available as a podcast, and posted my PowerPoint presentation on Moodle, for the students’ review. I also sent a few Moodle (CourseSpaces) messages to the class reminding them about the assignment. Even by doing this, though, I know better than to be too surprised when I start marking. I have done my part. My point here~ follow directions!

Thinking of the upper division course, Gender and International Relations, I was also noticing a pattern of merely restating the question and reviewing the material, but not offering any analysis. I did something different this term in the class and I did not require student attendance. I did not take roll and now into Week 11 of the 13 week term, I realize that I will not do this again. Several students are not coming to class and I think that they would have been persuaded to do so if class attendance influenced their course grade.

What I am getting at here–there is a correlation between attendance and overall course grade for some students. Come to class!

Helping or Hindering Students

I want to discuss the fine balance between helping and hindering student progress. I am trying hard to work on this balance, as I am quite aware that sixteen years into teaching I am still learning. My current student population is different from my students circa 2005-6. I have attended various workshops about our students and more specifically about first years. Our students require more hands on attention and most universities now have stronger recruitment and retention strategies.

What this means for me on the ground is that I try to provide students with as much information as possible. But, I have also learned some important lessons. Several years ago I helped my godson register for courses and purchase his books in the bookstore. This entire experience really stuck with me. I have more compassion for my students and I am less invested in “schooling” them when they miss the obvious. There is no obvious for the new student. When I say schooling I am really talking about how I know that I have to repeat myself about due dates, have the due dates bolded in the syllabi, and that students will still inquire about things in the syllabus.

I can only do so much, though, and the students need to meet me half way. What do I mean by that? They need to show up to class and come to my office hours. I am not in the habit of chasing students down between my various courses; however, I will make announcements in class or send announcements via the online learning management platform reminding them about course related issues or other campus events. I do contact students when they suddenly disappear. Here, I am not including students who are in crisis or have other issues like learning accommodations that I must take into account. Those students require a different level of attention.

I have resolved for honesty in my office and with my marking. This translates into support and at times brutal honesty while I am assessing work. I do my students no favor when I am not honest with them. This might mean that I am clear about my  assessment of an assignment or an issue regarding academic integrity. What does this also mean? I am listening more. Does this make me helpful? I hope so. This term a common statement, “What can I do to help your success in this course?” But, this requires that the student contact me. Like I often say in class, “I don’t have ESPN.” I know–I need to find new jokes.

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It is the time of the year when students are thinking about what they are going to do next. Some are in their last term or last year of school and wondering if grad school is for them. It is important to have some plans. Yes, I said plans. Plan A, B, C, and maybe even a plan D. Some students want to get organized several months before they have to apply. The grad school process is a frightening one, as it makes most students do something that they are completely unfamiliar with–promoting themselves.

I find that it does not matter if the student is a strong one or one with lots of potential most still have a hard time putting together their grad school dossier. I know that I did, but I was extremely lucky to have some wonderful mentors, and was involved with a peer mentoring group. This post is going to make some suggestions that assume that you are an undergraduate thinking about applying to grad school in the Fall.

Here, we are in the Spring (almost). The firs thing that I tell my students is that the grad school application process is like having another course. You need to research the schools and programs. You need to research potential mentors and their areas of expertise. You really should not just pick a program and land there without having done some research about the courses and the faculty.

Where do you want to live? Seriously. This was a concern for me. I knew that I did not want to leave the West Coast when I was looking at Political Science programs.

What do you want to study? Which courses did you find most interesting during your undergrad career? Which courses were the most fulfilling? These might not be the courses that you did the best in, but rather that rocked your world.

Where do you picture yourself in 1 year? Three years? Five years? There is not one answer for each of these questions. There should be multiple answers and that is perfectly fine.

What do you have to do to get there? To answer any of the above questions and this question, lean on your friends and your mentors. Now, you might not think that you have any mentors. It is not like you sign an agreement with your mentor and there is an understood relationship. No, I have had students send me cards after they graduated and found out that they referred to me as their mentor. There are different levels of mentoring and for some students being at the front of the classroom is enough. And, for other students there is more engaged relationship between the student and the faculty member. My point is that you probably do have a mentor or two! Seek them out and ask them for advice.

You’ve picked a program. Now, make sure that there is 2-3 faculty to work with there. Now, this might seem ridiculous at a smaller program, so maybe you might need to look for 1-2 people to work with at the program. One of the best ways to find out if you will be successful is to chat with current grad students. Find out what the lay of the land is. Also, find out what most graduates of the program do once they finish their theses. What do most of the grads end up doing? Policy work? Continue on with PhD programs?

Now, when you find out what you think you want to do, you need to get your application in order. Who are you going to get letters of support from for your dossier? Who will review your statement of intent? As they say, get your ducks in a row. Once you get your dossier together, you will need someone to review it all. This is where your friends and your mentors are important.

This is part one of a few posts. Good luck!

Advising: #AcAdv

It’s just about that time of year when current students begin to think about their courses for the next year. The thoughts vary from what should I take to what do I want to take. But, for some of the students the backdrop is what can I take to help me more employable. Yes, cue sighs from educators who do not want students to focus solely on employment, but perhaps on the love of learning.

One of the things that I’d like to remind most academic advisor is when you were an undergrad surely you heard from your friends and family–that’s a great program to study and eventually get a job. Alternatively, you might have been like me and fielded odd looks or even condescending comments that  said, “What are you going to do with that?” (I have my BA in Women’s Studies and a minor in Political Science). I do think that many have always looked at a university degree as something that can open the door to a career.

What has heightened this is that more students are also feeling this way that their college education is really meant to help them find a career. This is the reality of higher education today and I’m not going to argue against this point of view. But, I will say that as an undergraduate advisor I am going to try to help each student in my office to the best of my ability. Some students want the practical advice about getting work experience or making sure that each class gets them closer to their next goal. Then, there are other students who treat their education differently and are trying to find their niche or area of interest. And, yet another group of students are convinced that they will work for the UN or become lawyers. I offer these generalizations as examples of some of the student population and know that this is not an exhaustive list of the various student demographics.

These last two weeks and most likely next two months will mean more career counseling and helping students plan out their next school year. I will continue to ask, “What do you want to do.” This simple question helps, scares, and starts important conversations.