Friday, November 9, 2012

Loopholes, Rational Behavior, and Learning

Tuesday was the last day that students could either late drop a course or change their grading option to Pass/Fail.  As expected, a handful of students wanted to late drop.  Less expected were their various reasons for doing so.  In about half of the cases, they were in danger of failing and had realized that they didn't have the time to raise their grade in the Rome class while still doing well in their other classes.  This happens.  But then there was the woman who had not taken either midterm nor had she attended a single class.  I didn't know this when she appeared in my office and so, making small chat as I signed the form, I said that I was sorry that the class didn't work out for her.  "I'm just so busy this semester and it wasn't very convenient for me."  This comment was odd enough that I looked up her grade record and discovered that apparently she was too busy to ever show up or even drop the class early enough in the semester that she might have received some of her tuition money back.  Of course, some students do this so that they can claim to be full-time students for various reasons--I suspect that was what was going on with her.

The other 50% of the late drop forms were for students who were earning Bs or high Cs--that is, for students who would clearly pass the class and, in most cases, would have a good shot at earning at least a B.  In some cases, they might even have ended up with an A (but it would have taken a focused effort and commitment to the class).  Several of these students were either Business Honors students or students hoping to transfer into the Business program.  It concerns me that UT enables this sort of gaming of the system.  Certainly, it makes sense for a program to have GPA requirements.  But it is absurd for students to be unwilling to take a B in a class because they feel that it might jeopardize their future as a business student.  This is a terrible way to educate students; and goes a long way to explaining why students don't graduate in four years.  But, as with all things, the students have learned how to game a system that allows them to do that.

I also was made aware of an unfortunate loophole in my current course.  When I redesigned the class, I took out the comprehensive final, in part because I was working on the assumption that most students would be engaging weekly in discussions and it would be enough to test them over each section.  This was a terrible mistake for many reasons and I compounded it by allowing them to count their lowest of the first three midterms 5% (this was a way to avoid make-up exams but also to help students who did poorly on one exam but fine on the others).  These same students who won't do assigned work for a class apparently spend hours figuring out how to get out of work.  Just about everyone who has an A average on the first two exams is completely blowing off a third of the course.  They will pay for this somewhat on the fourth midterm and final writing assignment, but not as much as they should.  As well,  Because I did not directly say in the syllabus that all students had to complete the final writing assignment with a passing grade to earn a pass in the class, I have two students who figured out that they could pass the class without doing any work after the second midterm (they are both earning low As). 

All of these loopholes will disappear in the spring version; and I suppose I should not be surprised to see some students making these choices when the course design permits it.  In a class about ethics, though, it somehow feels like a double-whammy: first, I was a fool for assuming that college students would care about learning; second, I was a fool for creating this loophole.  When I think about the time I spent on the course re-design, and decisions I made that changed the syllabus from my traditional lecture class, I realize that I was operating under the assumption that the students would actually want to learn.  To be fair, many of them do.  And most that don't aren't in a position to simply stop working.  Still, it makes me sick that someone can pass the class without doing crucial assignments and demonstrating the course objectives.  That's entirely my fault and thanks to Texas laws about syllabuses as contracts, there's nothing I can do except fix it in the spring and, in the future, not assume that my students share my values around learning and education.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Quo vadis?

One of my favorite observations about education was made by the cultural historian and media studies scholar (and UT Austin grad) Siva Vaidhyanthan.  He notes, "real education happens only by failing, changing, challenging, and adjusting.  All of those gerunds apply to teachers as well as students.  No person is an "educator", because education is not something that one person does to another.  Education is an imprecise process, a dance, and a collaborative experience."   I love this quote in part because Dr. Vaidhyanthan knows what a gerund is; but also because it captures what I think is the essence of what I want to be doing when I interact with my students.  At the same time, it describes an experience that strikes my students as entirely foreign.  They expect me to educate them, and for many of them, they want this process to be as painless as possible.  Many of them don't want to take part in a collaboration, and they definitely don't want to be made uncomfortable by being challenged or asked to adjust.  In class on Wednesday, the last day that I required attendance, I put this quotation up and spoke about it a bit.  I explained that their learning depended on their willingness to engage.  I described the different kinds of learning tools that I had made available to them--a textbook, recorded lectures, practice questions, a discussion board, office hours, and in class exercises--and then told them it was up to them to decide how they wanted to use these tools to engage with the course content.

On Friday, about 25% of the class showed up.  Fridays have been optional all semester and attendance has generally run at about 175-200 students, depending on what else is going on.  Yesterday, about 100 students were in the room.  I hope that this was a reflection of the fact that it is the start of a new unit rather than a new normal.  I also realize that, yet again, I'd need to make some adjustments to what we were doing in class, to make it clear what the benefit of being in the room was.  I will post some extra practice questions, but in class will be almost exclusively peer interaction.  As I walked back to my office after, in essence, delivering a lecture on content that they should have already watched, I realized that I was still working on the assumption that most of them were unprepared and unable/unwilling to discuss the material.

What also strikes me, though, is the extent to which I feel like I am in a tug-o-war with my students.  The course design is such that it works on the assumption that many of them can participate in a class discussion.  Yet they have figured out that if they simply refuse to prepare--and that if enough of them do this--it clogs up the gears and leaves me in a kind of no-man's land where I am stuck back in some kind of imperfect lecture mode.  I am unhappy and feel like I am just saying things that I've already said (on tape) elsewhere.  It looks to some of the students like they aren't learning anything new or really doing application work (and they aren't entirely wrong about this).  Most of all, I feel like I, too, am lapsing back into what is the more familiar and comfortable mode of large enrollment class teaching: the lecture.  Sure, these lectures are more interactive.  But, really, they are lectures and not discussions.

This weekend, as I prepped class for Monday and Wednesday, I made a concerted effort to change things up.  We will start with a few i>clicker questions that let them test their mastery of material covered in the previous class.  These questions are purely for their own purposes (and to give us a record of who was in the room) and they will be instructed to use them to highlight areas that need additional review.  Otherwise, everything is focused on group discussion and is asking them to think about material they should have learned, asking them to turn it over, examine it, retrieve it, and otherwise work with it.  THIS is what will be most beneficial to their learning and THIS is what makes it worth showing up to the classroom at a specific time.  I am going to be ruthless about not lecturing, about not using class time to simply repeat factual material that is covered in the lectures or textbook.

Teaching really is a dance.  This semester has taught me, as well, that it requires constant adjustments but also mindfulness.  I have to watch what I am doing, and examine my reasons for doing it.  I realized that a big source of my own frustration was that, in effect, I was enabling their lack of preparation by lapsing into lecture mode instead of standing firm and working extra hard to think about interesting ways for them to apply their learning.  I've also realized that I need to work harder on the in-class portion of the class, to make it interesting and clearly focused on application rather than regurgitation.  That way, the clear message is sent that, at least when it comes to the structure of the class, I will not hold their hands no matter how much they kick and scream and refuse to prepare.  I will be better prepared for the resistance in the spring, but also better prepared to stand firm and know that I am well-armed with engaging in-class activities.  Of course, this also means that a big part of the time between semester will be devoted to thinking carefully about how to re-work the in class part of the course.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Tale of Two Classes

The University of Texas System recently created an Institute for Transformational Learning and hired a historian from Columbia, Dr. Steven Mintz, as director.  This roughly coincided with the public announcement that UT had joined EdX and would be getting into the business of creating MOOCs and other types of online learning experiences.  But it isn't all about designing online courses here at UT.  There's also a real interest in using the tools and platform of EdX (as well as home grown tools and platforms) to design and teach innovative hybrid courses.  I sat in a meeting today hearing about some of the plans that Dr. Mintz has for the UT System.  It was hard not to get excited about the future and to feel lucky to be an academic at such an interesting and challenging time.  Certainly, when I arrived in Austin a decade ago I never imagined that I'd one day be standing on the frontiers of pedagogy, trying to figure out how best to teach UT students using the tools that are now available to us.

One thing that I keep coming back to during conversations about innovative teaching, though, is the fact that they always focus on the design side, on the instructor.  Little thought is given to the consumer and the behavior of that consumer.  There seems to be a general sense that students will eagerly embrace the opportunity to study in the learning environments we are being encouraged to create.  I do think that will eventually be true.  But I also think it is going to take some serious effort--and the passage of time--to persuade our students that a blended or flipped class is doing a better job of helping them learn.  In part, this is because some of them (perhaps more than some of them) aren't that interested in learning.  They care about grades, and would prefer to get an A with as little effort as possible (especially in a core course that isn't part of their major and isn't in a field in which they plan to take additional courses).  When I was designing my class, I think I had this idealistic sense that they would share my excitement about learning and just be swept away.

For the first 5 weeks of the course, they seemed to be excited and were preparing regularly for class.  Class sessions were vigorous, engaged, and I left feeling energized--something that rarely happens with a large class.  After the first midterm, and after midterm season started, they reverted to form: perhaps 30% were preparing ahead of class and able to really benefit from the class activities.  The rest took three weeks off and then crammed for the exam.  I could watch this happening with something like a sense of helplessness because I was seeing data from them.  In the end, the exam scores ended up right about where I expected: almost identical in terms of average, median, and grade distribution to the previous two, lecture-based versions of the course.  Their learning behaviors mimicked exactly what I imagine were the learning behaviors of the students in my lecture-based courses.  There were the "devoted" students who came to class, did the readings, and studied as they went.  But most came to class infrequently and didn't bother with the reading until the week or so before the exam.  They then spent a week cramming.  It's not a surprise that the outcome was nearly identical.  One of the notable differences, however, is that I had a lot more students with very high grades.  So, in other words, those taking advantage of all the tools of the flipped class are thriving.  In some ways, that makes it worth it.

One concern I have is a much larger number of Ds and Fs than usual.  These are kids who apparently just totally tuned out.  Didn't really do the reading or watch lectures in a way that allowed them to learn the material; tuned out in class because, well, they were unprepared and didn't feel like exerting the mental energy to try to follow the discussion.  I'm not quite sure what to make of this or how to respond.  It may be that most of these are students who figured they would count this exam for their "5% exam" and so didn't really try.  But, even if that is true, it suggests to me that 20% of my students are totally tuned out for one reason or another.  I wonder if at least some of these are the students for whom the discombobulation of the flip is just too much and they respond by doing nothing?  Or they are students who think they are doing the work but don't really understand how to watch a lecture in a way that will allow them to process the contents and don't have me there to discipline them.

Up to this point, I have a tale of two classes: for the first third of the class, the students flipped.  For the second third of the class, the majority tried to behave as if they were in a traditional lecture course even without the in class lecture (this is a behavior that I will pre-empt with a change in the assessment plan for the spring).  I am curious to see what the final third of the course will bring.  I am announcing today that they no longer are required to attend class.  I expect that many of them will consequently treat this like an online class, rarely if ever coming to class.  I am most curious to see how many will access the recordings of class even if they don't come.  But then 175-200 will come on a regular basis.  And those are the A-B students, on the whole.  I am beginning to wonder if this is just the nature of this kind of course: either I "dumb it down" so that everyone gets at least a C; or, if I keep it challenging, I end up teaching basically half of the enrolled students while the other half refuse to engage.  It seems to me that this refusal to engage--something that outsiders might be quick to see as a failure of the instructor but is in fact endemic to our student population at UT--is something that needs to be taken very seriously as we think about transforming courses and making them more active and student-centered.  Not all students want to be at the center of their courses.  Indeed, a good number prefer to remain on the periphery, well out of sight.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Redefining the Role of the Professor

Yesterday, as I prepared to talk to my Rome class about my job and their job in this thing we call education, it occurred to me that part of the problem is my job title.  I am an Associate Professor of Classics.  I am paid a good salary to profess my knowledge of Classics in a range of environments, including the classroom.  Or, at least, I used to be.  Now, though, I'm not so sure about anything.  In a world where higher education is changing, particularly at budget-challenged state institutions, it's pretty clear that the job description of professors will change no matter how much we kick and scream (students aren't the only ones who resist the changes in learning strategies that blended and flipped classes demand).  We might still do a fair amount of professing, but it will be in recordings for our students to watch on their own time.  Rather, our job will be to create a range of learning tools, including more interactive activities; to teach our students how to use those tools wisely and well; to provide structure and incentives for their learning (i.e. formative assessments); and to give them regular feedback on their learning and learning strategies.  This is an entirely different job description than the one I had when I arrived at UT in 2002, but it's the reality of higher education in 2012 and beyond.

These days I shrink away from calling myself a professor in the context of teaching.  I prefer to call myself a facilitator of learning.  When I'm the professor, students expect me to profess and they expect to passively consume what I am professing, perhaps to write down my professions, and then to  regurgitate them to me as accurately as possible on an exam.  A big reason I started to explore other models of teaching a large enrollment course was simply that I was tired of giving students As for being able to do nothing more than repeat back to me what I said in lecture--but also feeling that I couldn't expect them to apply that knowledge if I wasn't providing opportunities for them to do so in the classroom.  Certainly, I want my students to have a firm grounding in the facts of Roman history and culture.  But, to my mind, my job has to go beyond professing and extend to prodding my students to play with that knowledge, to use it to do higher-order thinking.  It doesn't take someone with a PhD in Classics and a decade of teaching experience to do a decent lecture on the basic facts of Roman history (though, admittedly, delivering an organized, clear, and carefully plotted lecture aimed at an introductory level audience is also much harder than it looks).  It's also the fact that, in the not distant future, someone will make a set of lectures based on our course textbook (Boatwright et al.'s A Brief History of the Romans) available for free--it's just a matter of time.  If all I can do is profess, then I'm going to be out of a job.  Or, at least, my graduate students will be.

Fortunately, I can do a lot more than profess.  I can facilitate learning.  I can create learning tools besides textbook-based lectures.  Really, even though my students don't quite realize this right now, THAT is what they are paying for.  Of course, these radical changes in teaching mean that universities like UT are going to have to invest serious money in retraining their work force.  In re-designing my class, I have worked with a team of learning specialists and IT folks, but have also done an enormous amount of work on my own.  All in all, it will be 6 months of intensely focused work and more time fine-tuning and sustaining the class.  I do believe that the spring version will address the most significant issues that came up this fall.   Of course, to address those issues means spending the break between semesters working intensively to create additional resources for the students to help them manage the demands of the course.  .

For me, it's a really exciting time to be an academic.  I like solving problems, I like teaching, and I am excited about the conversations and changes going on in education right now.  I think there's every reason to be optimistic about the future of higher education in Texas.  At the same time, it's important for everyone to grasp that these changes will also be challenging, for faculty and for students; there will be resistance from both expected and unexpected quarters.  We are entering a period of experimentation and that's a great thing.   It should be encouraged and supported.  We won't get it exactly right the first time, but as more people start experimenting, we will learn more quickly what works and doesn't work in general; and specifically here at UT with our student body and our particular types of courses.

Most importantly, though, we faculty are no longer just going to be professors.  We are going to be designers, problem-solvers, coaches, and facilitators as we encourage our students to become "successful users" of our courses.  What will a successful user look like?  That will be the student whose learning improves and who is able to demonstrate a mastery of the course objectives.