Monday, December 3, 2012

Am I going to have to take more classes like this?

In a class of 387 students, I don't have the chance to talk to many of them.  I had planned to invite smaller groups of them to meet with me during the week over cookies and chat about the class, but the semester had some unexpected challenges from other quarters and I didn't have the time to do this.  It is something I am going to be sure to do in the spring, now that I realize just how skeptical so many of them are of any kind of pedagogical change (especially the kind that seems to require more engagement on their part).  But I do have students come by my office hours from time to time, and I always try to get them to talk about their experience in the class.  Some of them really like it, others clearly don't.  One common question I get is something like "are all classes at UT going to be taught like this?"

Faculty are feeling a bit on edge these days as we hear about plans for extensive transformation of introductory level, large enrollment courses.  The UT System is spending a lot of money on this, and UT's recent deal with EdX is clearly intended to allow faculty to develop a range of teaching tools that can be delivered in a range of teaching environments, from a huge MOOC to a 100 person, campus-based group of UT students.  As nervous as faculty are about what all this will mean for their teaching (and the time such transformation will require), students are perhaps even more nervous.  They may complain about large classes.  They are certainly not learning at the rate one would hope to see from college students, and I think most faculty would acknowledge that there is a "student learning" problem on campus.  They seem to be less prepared for college than ever and even very intelligent students lack basic learning habits that most faculty aren't prepared to teach (e.g. how to read a textbook).  But, if my own sample of students is any indication, students are not going to embrace blended learning approaches without complaint.  They may complain about their boring lecture class, but they complain more about the large class where they are expected to pay attention and stay on task and engage.  From their perspective (and I've heard this from more than one student), they are paying for their college experience and should get whatever they want.  All to say, a significant part of transforming large enrollment courses, at least for the first few, transitional years, will be to also transform the students who are taking them.  In particular, it will require these students to understand that they are going to have to work--and work consistently--in all of their classes; and that they may not always get the A or B that they feel they deserve.

If I am being honest, I expected that the students in my Rome class would be so excited to have the chance to talk and engage that it would motivate them to continue to prepare.  In my head, as I was taping the lectures during the dog days of summer, I imagined them eagerly engaging with the course material.  Instead, they behaved exactly like previous cohorts of students (x2): about 25-30% actually took the class, did the work, and did well.  The rest of the students crammed, looked for shortcuts, and probably retained very little.  We won't know whether that is actually true because there's no comprehensive final, but I'd bet some good money on it.  It was a huge disappointment to spend so much time reworking the class and then have the majority of the students make it clear that they only cared about their grade, not about learning the material.  I am optimistic that I can shift these numbers, so that more like 65-70% are truly engaged.  I accept that there are 30% that probably can't be reached, no matter what I do.  They are the ones who are in college to check of boxes, get a degree, and make a lot of money.  My class is just a box to them and it isn't going to make them a lot of money to know Roman history.  But there's that middle group that I think can be reached, who can be persuaded that they are lucky to be taking a class "like this one" and who will find themselves getting genuinely interested in the subject.  We'll see...

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