The end of each academic year brings fatigue, a one or two week break, then a return to the classroom for the summer session. This has been my schedule for a large part of my academic career, mainly out of necessity. I’ve written about the struggles and problems with contingent faculty before, and I do not want to dredge up that discussion here. Rather, I want to take a moment and highlight the things that keep me going year after year after year.
This semester, I have had a lot going on as I prepare to head to Norway next year for the Fulbright. As such, my head has been semi-scattered at moments to the point where, for the first time in a long time, I did not learn all 110 of my students’ names. This has continually frustrated me this year, and I tell my students that as hard as I try, this semester has just been difficult in that respect. I had students start out with name cards, but that did not seem to help much.
Along with not learning all of my students’ names, I constantly struggled with the thought, as I do some semesters, that I was not getting through to students and they were not responding. This always occurs at points in the semester. I would stand in the front, say something, and then we would all sit in silence for what seemed like an eternity. I would look over papers and see gaps, and I would think, “Do I ever get through to anyone?” These thoughts wormed their way through my head at numerous points this year; however, in the end, I found that the students were learning more than I thought they were.
At the end of each semester, I usually get a couple of students who say they really enjoyed the course. This semester, though, I have had numerous students comment on how much they have enjoyed the class (composition or literature) and how much they have learned. I am not sure if this is an anomaly, but it has gotten me to start thinking about what makes this semester than other semesters, especially considering all of the things that I have been working on over the past few months in preparation for next year.
Right now, I seriously think that the student responses to the courses have arisen because of some of the pedagogical techniques I have started to take use since I am teaching in a active learning classroom. Research shows that active learning fosters collaboration and increases students’ academic achievement. These two aspects appear to be why students have responded so positively to the courses this semester.
By incorporating active learning assignments more frequently in my classes, I have stepped back from the center stage and allowed students time to grapple with the issues and concepts that I want them to learn. Typically, I would stand in front of the class and lecture from a Prezi, occasionally having students work collaboratively on assignments in class. However, this semester, especially in the literature courses, I had students working collaboratively almost every single day.
The courses met twice a week for one hour and fifteen minutes at a time. In each class, I would prepare a set of about six to ten questions from the students to answer. (I have written about this type of assignment before.) The questions may pull from other short readings they could read in class, from literary scholarship, or just from topics we had already covered. I would then separate the class into six to ten groups, typically about three people in a group. I would give the groups about twenty to thirty minutes to answer the questions, and they would write their answers on the boards. After that, we would reconvene and go over the questions and their answers. This would be the time where I would move into lecture mode. This part of the class would take about thirty to forty five minutes, thus leading us to the end.
Students enjoy this work because it allows them to work together and to share ideas that may have had when reading the texts. Even though the students may not nail the answers, they still take part in critically thinking about the questions and how to approach them. As they work, I walk around the room and help to guide the students towards the ideas and themes that they need to consider. Even with this, they sometimes miss the mark. The lecture period at the end of the class is where we can correct any of the answers that not address the points proposed in the questions. (I do similar types of assignments in my composition classes for readings.)
Since I have cut down on lecture, I decided, early in the semester, to supplement what we do in class with memos for each reading. I saw a colleague do this, and I decided to try it. So, if we run short on time during the discussion/lecture portion of the class and I do not get to mention all of the information that I need to convey, then students will have that material in a memo form on the course management system. They can look at it any time and use it for their essays or exams. Typically, I would write these memos before class, as sort of lecture notes, because I already know what information I want students to take away from the readings.
Every student did not get an A in these courses, but what has surprised me this semester, even amidst the emails asking for higher grades, has been the students who have emailed or told me that they enjoyed the class. One student told me she had to take two histories and a literature course. After having to get up at 6 am every morning for practice, she felt like she would not want to come to a 2:00 pm class and learn about literature. Yet, she informed me that she enjoyed the course and learned a lot. Notably, she commented on the archives project that I usually do each semester. She commented that seeing these materials and holding them affected her and caused her to think about history and the present. These are the moments I want students to remember.
Students, myself included, will not remember half of the stuff they learn in class, especially in undergrad. The last research I saw says that about 50% of what students learn is in classroom and the other 50% occurs outside of it. Students probably won’t remember the “Vanishing American” trope or the characteristics of the slave narrative a few years after graduation. They may not remember Sarah Kemble Knight or Jonathan Edwards. They will remember collaborating in class and engaging with the material. They will remember the tools they learned to critique and analyze the present through the lens of literature and the past. They will remember working with documents that create a tangible link wit the past. They will remember these things.
If my students remember these things, then I have succeeded. If my students, no matter what grade they end up with, take away things from my courses that they can use in their everyday lives, I have succeeded. If my students walked into my course expecting to be bored and walk away excited, I have succeeded. Even though I don’t succeed all of the time, I always like to think that at the end of each semester I have become one point in a cluster of influences on my students’ lives and that that point will help them become citizens of the world when they exit my classroom.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.