Teaching updates: intro course and small classes

Before my Spring responsibilities become too involving, I wanted to check in here on the two main teaching issues I have writing about: my Introductory Cultural Geography course and managing my very small classes.

During and after Fall term, I was optimistic about the changes I had made to the syllabus to intro cultural geography. In Winter, I learned that my caution regarding the reasons for that optimism was well founded. My Winter class did not work as well as Fall.

My main index of this is how the students in the two classes made use of Question Time, which is a period I have every meeting wherein students can ask questions about the syllabus, about assignments, or about class material, both current and from prior sessions. I also have Question Time entries each week on the class blog. Participation in Question Time is a minor, one-tenth, part of the grade in the class.

In Fall, I had a number of students earn full credit for Question Time, and an even larger number who were one or two points away from full credit. In Winter, no students earned full credit, and while that came as a surprise, it was also consistent with the fact that many days, Question Time would go unused, and while some of that time was made up on the blog, most of it was not.

More to the point, is the quality of the Question Time periods in the two classes. In Fall, we often had lively, relevant discussions about class material, both from earlier classes and from what was due that same day. In Winter, students, rarely, if ever, used Question Time to initiate discussions about material. Virtually all uses of Question Time were directed at the syllabus and related issues like assignment deadlines and requirements.

In short, my Winter class was much less engaged than my Fall class.

On the other hand, what I learned from students is that my new book selections worked in both terms, if not quite to the same effect. In both terms, students conveyed an appreciation for the Anderson text in terms of its accessibility and ability to hold their interest. And in both terms students also found the secondary text I chose to be useful in better understanding how to use concepts from the main textbook. The main difference is that in Fall I also saw these findings in action, while in Winter I did not, at least not to the same extent.

Students also continue to indicate that learning by doing is preferable to learning by exam. Again, I saw this, as well as heard or read it, from students more in Fall than in Winter.

I am often surprised by what students will connect with in a course. What seemed like disaffection to me during last term, apparently was a very different kind of engagement from the perspective of many students.

Early into the quarter, Spring is more like Fall than Winter.

Last term I wrote additionally about a couple of very small, less than ten students, classes, that I decided to run like tutorials or readings courses. On balance, those experiments ended up working well.

Students reported to me that being fully responsible for completing the reading compelled them to engage more closely with class texts, and also encouraged them to make their own meaning of the material. I saw this reflected in the weekly work students had to submit related to the readings as well as in end-of-the-term assessments. Most students also indicated that they liked the freedom and responsibility of the tutorial format, even where they were not initially comfortable with having to manage their own work to the extent that they had to in these classes.

On the other hand, virtually all students expressed that they would have liked more frequet meetings of the whole to discuss the material and reconnect as a class. This seems consistent with my experience regarding how often individual students chose to consult with me about the reading. Early in the term this happened more frequently and with more students than it did later in the term. Student desires for more meeting times suggests a high degree of self-awareness regarding their work habits. Whether that awareness was cultivated during these classes, or these students were already aware that they would be less likely to participate in discussions absent regular meetings , I don’t know.

Next time I teach a course in this way, I will likely either build in more class meetings, or try schedudling consulations with individual students to address these kinds of concerns about feeling adrift or missing out on opportunities for discussion.

I am, however, not sure when I will next be confronted with having to manage a small class like this. I have one this term, but the material is too complicated, and the role the course plays in our major is such that I did not think that the tutorial or readings structure would be appropriate, so I am running it more like a traditional seminar.