One thing I do in my classes on a regular basis is administer short “learning assessments”, which sometimes focus on content, along the lines of a “one-minute essay”, and at other times on process.

I routinely get fascinating data from this question from Stephen Brookfield’s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (pdf):

“At what moment in class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?”

Students admit to all kinds of things in answering this question, from not having gotten enough to sleep to not having done the reading or being distracted by their phones. One intent of a question like this is to encourage students to reflect on how they learn and to make adjustments that would, for example, lead to feeling less distanced in class.

This past week in reading over some of my assessments something clicked that I had been puzzled by before, which is the way in which students will often write that they felt most distanced when we talked about something that they found to be alien or uncomfortable or that they don’t like talking about.

Previously, for some reason, maybe in response to how students articulate their answers to this question, or maybe from being unable to get out of my own frames of reference, I thought that students who wrote about feeling distanced by discomfiting or unfamiliar material were just being incurious or were unsure about the question.

As I thought about one of the assessments I got back this week, I realized that most of the students who gave that kind of answer were likely addressing the question directly and understood it quite well.

From my perspective, one of the points of getting an education, of going to college, is to encounter the unfamiliar and to be made uncomfortable by what I don’t know or understand or have not yet experienced. This would (and did) make me feel less distanced as a student.

Of course, and I have known this for awhile, many of the students I have in my classes don’t look at their educations that way. If one wants an education to be credentialed or to affirm ideas and choices already made or already learned, then it makes sense, now at least, that unfamiliar or uncanny material would lead one to feel distanced by what was happening in the classroom.

Here’s thing I am left with: this looks like it should be an opportunity, not a barrier to learning. It seems unlikely that students who express feelings of being distanced in this way aren’t also learning at the same time (and, in fact, that could be part of why they feel distanced; if they were simply resistant, then whatever was bothering them about class would be just as likely to be deflected or written off as nonsense as to be getting under their skin).

However, I’m not sure how to turn this kind of data to my advantage. I should, maybe, start keeping track of what students say makes them feel distanced and see if I can notice any clusters around certain topics or activities. Or maybe I am seeing how some students natively process new or unfamiliar material or ways of learning, and I should re-interpret some of these answers as positive indications of what’s happening in class and not as problems to be solved.

In any case, it’s gratifying when these exercises seem to produce actual insight or meaningful results (as opposed to, say, our institutional evaluations. Ha! I kid because I care).

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.

On managing my small classes

I have two very small, five to seven students each, upper division classes this term. By itself this is not that strange. As a department, geography contributes more in service to other programs than it does in majors. As a result, we usually have one or two sections of upper division courses that enroll slow or low, which administrators tend to measure as below ten or below twelve depending on context and what kinds of pressures are being applied from above. My areas, political and cultural geography, tend to be the least popular among our majors (and minors), meaning that it isn’t unusual for me to have smaller classes than my colleagues at the 300 and 400 level.

What is unusual is just how low my enrollments are this term (also that they have been allowed to run despite their sizes, but that is side topic which I will skip here). To be honest, in one case, a course on U.S. and Canadian geopolitics, I am not that surprised at the small number. I can track a clear downward trajectory from the first time I offered it to now. In the other case, a course on nature and the American West, I am surprised. That course is part of a “suite” of three that I offer on the West, and all have been generally popular, not for any mysterious reason, but because they fulfill requirements in a number of programs across campus and also address issues that are real to many of our students.

I will have to give some more thought to the “why” of my numbers this term for when I next offer these courses, or related ones, but in the meantime I needed to come up with a strategy for teaching them at their current sizes.

That small classes are “good” is taken as a given almost in higher education, but I don’t think I am alone in finding that there is such a thing as a class that is “too small”.

From my perspective, a class is too small when you need almost 100% attendance to have a chance at a viable session, or, put another way, a class is too small if its absolute size is effectively equal to its relative size. What I mean by that is in most classes you’ll end up with a critical mass of engaged students who make the course work. Ideally, in my experience, that should be at least a third of total enrollment, but you can get by with fewer. As you slide down that scale, though, the harder it is to have a good meeting if you have absences. If the critical mass of engaged students is too small, the wrong absences can kill a session. The smaller the class, the smaller your margin for having a good meeting. Essentially, if you need to count on everyone in attendance to be fully present and making contributions, productive class meetings are going to be nearly impossible to hold.

To manage this problem with my classes this term I made the decision to run them as tutorials or readings courses. The syllabus is structured around a reading list, which I have broken into weekly assignments. Students stay in touch with me through writing on each and every reading each week, to which I provide follow-up questions that students have to answer and submit with the following week’s reading and writing. Unusually for me, I decided to have a traditional mid-term, final structure, too, as a way to prompt students to do some synthetic work with the material. Each class also has an additional small assignment that uses the class blog.

The blogs are one way I give students an opportunity to communicate with me about material. I am also available in my office, and on IM, during scheduled class hours. However, students need to make their own decisions about when to come talk to me and take advantage of my availability.

It’s early in the term, but I have some initial thoughts on how this arrangement is working.

To begin, I have been gratified at how many students have, in fact, consulted with me about the material. I have rarely, if ever, had students at this university contact me as individuals to talk about readings. I doubt very much that this would be happening if we were having regular meetings. In this context, students are forced to think about the material on their own, and that has, so far, prompted some interesting dialogue.

The way that reading assignments are working I am also giving more intensive individualized feedback and follow-through than I normally do when I am otherwise preparing for class meetings. In fact, it seems likely that the time I am devoting to dealing with students one-on-one this term will be equal to or in excess of the time I would normally devote to class prep, especially with established courses like these.

I am concerned about the students I have not, and probably will not, hear from during the term. Where I am getting good written work, I guess that is less of a concern, but students who are turning in work that I have doubts about are ones I worry about. The follow-up question assignment gives me one way to address this concern, but that only goes so far.

During the early add/drop period I picked up a few additional students in the American West class and was tempted to call everybody back to the ranch so I could start holding regular meetings. That course, and its companions, as well as similar offerings I have taught in the past, have to led to some really interesting classes and I do feel that I am missing something by having a structure built around individual study. The U.S. and Canada course I am more at ease with in terms of teaching it this way. Even though it is at the upper division, there is a lot of basic material I need to cover in order to make up for how little my students tend to know about Canada. If anything, teaching it the way I am is forcing students to address those deficits in an active way.

In a couple of weeks, I will be meeting with both groups to talk about the mid-term. It will be interesting for students to see each other, and for me to review with them to get another sense of how well they are learning.

Why my intro class has been so good this term

Before Fall started I posted on changes I have made to the syllabus for my introductory cultural geography course in the hopes of improving the experience of the class for both myself and my students.

So far so good.

I have an enrollment of about forty and on any given day twenty-five to thirty show up, which, historically, is very respectable for this course. More importantly, I have a critical mass of students who act fully engaged, who do the reading, and who ask questions and are interested in what we are talking about and learning. That is not a luxury I often have at this level. I think that there are a few reasons for why this class is working so well, at least thus far.

My new main text, Jon Anderson‘s Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces (Routledge, 2009), is a selection I was optimistic, but wary about at the beginning of the term. It is more sophisticated than the average basic text for cultural geography. One reason for that is that it was written with British college students as the models, and, for the most part, those students are further along in their geographic educations by the time they reach college than are their American counterparts. So, I was also concerned that some of the language and many of the examples would be alienating to my students.

Not only has neither issue been a problem, but students seem to be enjoying the book. Certainly, on the whole, they seem more intrigued by it than I have seen from any other standard text I have used. I am gauging this from what happens in class, from assessment tools I employ weekly, and from comments to the class blog.

What accounts for this I think is that Anderson uses a consistent, accessible, but still robust theoretical framework, the ‘places and traces’ of the subtitle, throughout the book. I think that this is more effective for intro level students than is the traditional survey approach where you spend a few paragraphs on a lot of ideas. Regardless of what additional topics Anderson brings in, he always pulls it back to people, animals, things, and forces making places by making/leaving traces through their actions and relationships (where ‘action’ includes doing, thinking, sensing, and feeling). I think that this consistency gives students a clear sense of building a body of knowledge.

Anderson’s framework is also easy to translate into activities that students can do, and I have designed a series of ‘field exercises’ for the class to apply what they’re learning from each chapter. This helps me show how relevant cultural geography can be, and makes it easy to mix up my teaching for students with different styles of learning. I have not had a chance to see any completed exercise yet, those come next week, but the initial experience appears to have been nothing but positive.

It may also be the case that I simply have an exceptional group of students this term. I am teaching at 8:00 am, and based on past experience, many students who choose early classes are often more serious about being present, in an attention sense, than are those who opt for more comfortable start times. But there’s clearly more going on here than just that, maybe something that won’t be replicable.

On the other hand, Western students have been getting ‘better’ over recent years. Admission standards have been raised (still in the sub 3.0 gpa range), and there’s more of an effort to exclude from admission those students who show little promise for succeeding in college. The unversity has also been expanding its recruitment well beyond the local region which, if nothing else, means that you get a more diverse mix of students in terms of their high school experiences and preparation for higher education.

So, maybe this will be a good year and not just a good term. For now, I am enjoying having an intro class that I don’t see as a chore.

What do students want?

I am one of those university faculty who rarely leave their course syllabi alone. After a few years of teaching any given class, I usually find something that needs changing. The course that I change most frequently is introductory cultural geography.

The reasons for this are clear enough. I teach it every term. It is my biggest class in terms of numbers of students, and they come from all corners of campus. The challenges in finding an approach that works for everyone are endless (which, of course, makes the question in the title essentially unanswerable, and yet here I am).

The past couple of years I have built the course around a set of books written not for the geography classroom, but for a wide, albeit educated, audience. My thinking was that students would be excited to read books that had some life and personality to them, and I could use the texts as a way to draw attention to the relevance of cultural geography to daily life, or to unexpected aspects of the world.

The results were mixed.

Yes, some students were excited, happy to get something interesting to read and talk about. Another swath of students really did not care much what happened in the class, something that seems universally true for courses that fulfill gen ed requirements.

The most bothersome reaction, and the one that led me to revise the syllabus for the coming year, was from students who felt cheated by the class. Time and again I encountered students who thought, maybe felt is the better word, that I was not teaching them cultural geography, but some other idiosyncratic and arbitrary subject. Once I began to realize how deep this reaction went, I looked for ways to frame my choices for the class better, but still, the level of frustration I perceived on the part of students reached a point last year that I decided I had to make a change.

So, this year, I am holding onto one book from the past couple of years and going back to using a text that is more traditional, though having been written for the British market, probably a little ahead of where my students will be when they start my class.

The ‘hook’ that I am counting on this year to excite my classes about learning cultural geography is the incorporation of fieldwork into many, if not most, weeks. I had made small moves in that direction the past few years with mostly positive feedback from students, and maybe, in making this practice more central to the course, I will, finally, unlock the geographical imaginations of the majority of my students.

Or, at least,  following last year, I hope to have fewer students questioning whether what they’ve learned is what they should have learned.