Why I Run Review Sessions

I am revisiting this idea. While I am not teaching a large first year course anymore, this post is relevant. I started this post a few years ago and saved it as a draft. Now, I am finishing it and mindful that it is a good reminder for my teaching and learning. I am an advocate of review sessions and workshops for students. We want students to think about how their professor is helpful. I include a screen grab from a search for “my professor is.”

my prof is

I am co-teaching a first year level course with three other faculty and one of the things that I take on as the professor of record is offering review sessions for the exams and other major assignments. I have taught first year courses for most of my academic career and the review sessions are important to helping my students with their learning. Review sessions or re-visiting “how to be successful” is not pandering to our students. It is an important part of active teaching.

Now that I have started my 19th year of teaching, I have come to realize several things. My students want more guidance about assignments. For an array of reasons, when I first started teaching the typical student would come to office hours or ask a question about an assignment in class. Now a majority of them want me to give them more information about the major assignments during class time. They likely feel that the stakes are higher for them and they want to fully understand my expectations.

I have also found that when we are blogging, uploading to Wikipedia or using any educational technology platforms in the classroom they need more than one workshop session to learn the technology. Some colleagues are surprised to hear this, “but they are the digital generation.” Yes, we can refer to our students as such, but when marks are involved it is a different story. This is not an exhaustive list of what I have learned over the years. I will certainly add to this post, as I ruminate why I am fine with clarifying, review sessions or otherwise digging deeper.


Thinking about 2011-12 Courses

Revisiting this post and thinking about how my focus made a difference for me and for the Teaching Assistants. Giving first year students as much information as possible is helpful, but they need to read the syllabus and come to class prepared. I will say that the Fall term fielded lots of attribution issues–not quite plagiarism, but in the same family.

How did I re-think my courses? This is not going to be specific to  each of the three courses that I will be teaching. Instead, I am re-thinking assignments and other matter in my course syllabi. I realize that with the first year students I have to explain every single detail and contingency. My syllabus is a leviathan at about one dozen pages. It’s length will increase by a page with an example of what a topic sentence outline should look like.

Moving to the more advanced courses, I am emphasizing due dates as well as noting my new policy of not accepting any late research papers. The sheer number of late assignments can throw off the marking schedule. Given that most terms I have almost 300 students, I need to have a good schedule in order to return work back in 6-10 days. However, specific to the research papers, by and large late research papers are usually not strong assignments. Students have waited until the last minute and usually submit  mediocre work. They are exhausted from the entire term’s work load and submit what they could do in a day or two.

The other more cerebral matter is thinking about teaching or learning outcomes. What do I want the students to learn? What can certain readings or assignments offer? These are the more weighty decisions. I review each reading and ask–did this work? Was it successful last term or last year. I hear from some colleagues to not change a thing, but I have never done that. I always tweak and massage, and re-think. I’m still thinking.

Overall, it was a successful year and I’m still processing it.

Reviewing Student Work: Teachable Moments

Reviewing graded work with students is not an easy task. This typically happens when a student wants to contest the mark, complain about the Teaching Assistant or about my assessment. Some students come in and they really want to learn from the assignment and do better the next time. Other students want to have an opportunity to complain. They merely want someone to listen to them. To be heard. I do not blame them–we all want someone to listen to us. It’s like Festivus–the airing of the grievances.

Educators need to remember that for so many of the students coming to office hours to chat with you is hard. Most students are a little nervous to come into the office and it’s best to immediately explain what the process is with the review. The student needs to know that you might lower or raise the grade. The student needs to know that they might have the option to revise and resubmit or contest the grade. The process will vary in different departments or different campuses.

All of this said, what I will do is re-grade the work and then review the graded work line by line or paragraph or by paragraph so that the student has a complete understanding of the grade. I also refer to the university grading system, so that the student understands that I am referring to the standards outlined by the institution. This is actually important as I feel it allows the student to understand that the grade is not personal–it is about the work and the guidelines for the assignment. This is also the appropriate time to review the assignment with the student.

Likewise, during the meeting in my office, I will allow the student to share her or his thoughts. This is the time to listen and to then respond as needed. I always end noting that the grade reflects the assessment of the assignment and not a judgement about the student as a person. I do think it’s important to add this last part, as many students really do think that the grade represents them and their effort. It does not.

Now, the last point that I want to speak to is effort and grade. I am hearing more students discuss how the grade does not reflect the effort that they put into the assignment. I listen to their explanation and think: I deserve to be paid more, but I am not. Effort does not entitlement to a better or strong grade. Some students will spend lots of time (revisions, office hour visits) and earn a B. Others will cram and pull an all nighter and earn an A-. It is not fair, but it happens. In my classes, the papers need to offer coherent analysis and follow directions. The assignment stipulates all the guidelines and some will not do well solely because they waited until the last minute or did not follow directions. Other papers will earn a weak grade due to the poor organization and writing.   Effort does not equal a strong grade.

Now there will be times when you review student work and you think that you might have been too hard. If so, admit it and raise the mark. My dad used to tell me, “I’m not perfect, you’re not perfect, nobody is perfect.” He’s right. Sometimes we make mistakes or are too harsh with a mark. Re-assess the work and move on. Explain why you are revising the mark and change the grade while the student is in your office, so that you don’t forget. Have fun grading and reviewing graded work!

Teaching Peer Reviews

This last week I had my second set of Peer Review for my third year appointment process. I’ve thought about the review process and then read one set of the reviews and have come to a few thoughts about my teaching.

The first thing that I’m thinking about is how important it is to come into the classroom feeling comfortable with your abilities and the material that you’re going to teach. I know that I’ve taught courses that were outside of my major areas of training and the classes have gone well. Likewise, I’ve taught courses in my major area and for whatever reason that particular course was mediocre at times. Many things can make a class successful or weak, however, in my experience the instructor’s attitude is extremely important to the class environment.

The second thing that I’m struck with is my readiness with examples for the students. I find that some days I won’t refer to the extra examples that I have up my sleeve for discussion and other times we’ll review all of them. I’ve taught the same class back to back, but different sections (or groups of students) and the classes are markedly different based on the students. A mentor once told me that she used to come to class with a planned joke. I never tried that—I find that if I have a joke to say it will come to me and there are times when the unplanned joke bombs. This is OK. They usually still laugh, but it’s a kind laugh at me and not the joke. I use American pronunciation for words and at times the Canadian students have laughed or asked for me to repeat a word—this is fine. I’ve never taken offense.

The third thing that might sound arbitrary in some ways, but many students today really expect most instructors to use some sort of technology. When you don’t use any technology or slides, it can come off as endearing or that you are out of touch with their learning needs. Now, whether or not you make the slides, outlines or technology available to them is another conversation! I have mixed feelings about this and will save my comments about this for a different blog post.

In my conversation with students, I have also found that they are not at ease with the instructor who only relies on notes and doesn’t walk around the room some. As a matter of fact, I noticed in my Peer Review that my apparent lack of use of notes was noted. Well, I did have a skeleton outline, but I didn’t really refer to it. I like to walk around the classroom and have heard this “tactic” keeps students awake (!) or focused. I get excited about the material at times and I just need to walk and talk.

As I’ve noted previously on this blog, I also learn from each class and look forward to my continued ruminations about my teaching. My teaching is a work in progress and I’m the first one to admit this.