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It is the start of the school year.  We taught on Thursday and Friday.  The students look well-rested and enthusiastic and the professors seem to be the ones who are stressed!  

This semester, in addition to the usual very small capstone research class, I am teaching two large survey classes (large for us is 45) and one that is usually 18-20 (25 seats are available, but they never fill for that class).  I spent the last week working on syllabi and doing the first intro of material and classroom requirements and me to students. My two large classes are covering largely the same material and have similar requirements to past years' instantiations (with one exception discussed below the squirrelly orangey thingamajiggy), but I completely threw out the scheduling of the upper level class, and will be trying a new arrangement.  We will see how that works.  

Each year I spend a lot of time thinking about how to make the experience of learning and studying both more effective and pleasant for my students.  It starts from the syllabus and goes on from there.

The first part of the class is a contract, essentially.  A syllabus should tell students the fine print as well as the broader strokes of what is going to be required for success in the class.  It should.  There are a lot of required parts of a syllabus, and many of them are exactly the same from class to class and even professor to professor -- the statement of accommodation for disabilities, a relatively consistent statement about academic integrity, office hours, outcomes, course requirements, etc.  I am surprised that some things are not consistent -- some professors don't tell students in advance when the tests are (well, they tell them the day or the week before, but not at the beginning of the class); some people don't have a clear indication of when the reading assignments should be completed; some don't have deadlines for papers or other assignments.  My advisees express their frustration with this and I can only be a sympathetic ear.  It frustrates me as well -- if a student has issues with organizing his or her time, not knowing when things are due does make scheduling very challenging.

We start the academic year with a "Strategic Planning and Assessment Workshop" at which we hear about the results of the previous year's assessment projects (yes, at my university there are several projects).  I specifically set myself out to figure out why my students last year were so incredibly stressed.  We do worry about our students generally, but this past year I was confronted by several students who dropped out or perhaps should have, in a more dramatic fashion than I had ever seen before.  For each one there was a clear reason, but anecdotal evidence as to the cause of stress wasn't helping me help them, and it wouldn't necessarily provide me with guidance as to how to offset this stress for this coming year, one in which I wanted to begin (and have them begin) with a good attitude and a method for coping with stress.

So one of the sessions I attended was about interviews done with students about their experiences at my university (the students are randomly selected and there are over 100 interviewed in all classes).  The focus of the session was on the causes and responses to stress as an undergraduate here.  What was interesting at the beginning was that there was no one cause of stress that was cited by more than half of the students.  The most commonly mentioned was time management, dealing with academic requirements that pile up all together, etc.  Other causes cited were interpersonal relationships (other students, parents) and financial pressures.  I cannot really help with the relationship issue, and the financial pressures are also pretty well outside of my ability to control.  I do try to cut textbook costs by using fewer, encouraging students to share and pass on their textbooks, and more and more use electronic submission and grading of papers so there are not high printing costs.  

I have always dealt with the "everything is due at the same time" issue by giving students a schedule at the very beginning of the term.  The rationale is if they know everything is due at certain times they can plan ahead, or will know that they are screwing themselves if they don't plan ahead.  When I was an undergrad most of my classes, if I were lucky, had a midterm, a final, and a paper, and that was all.  I don't know if that would be nicer for my students, but the problem with limiting yourself to these three assessments only is that each one is very high stakes.  The in-between periods would be comfortable, but tests would be awful, and I had no guidelines for most of my paper assignments so I had to guess what a professor wanted.  So in the past several years I have tried to give students more practice on testing by giving them quizzes that they can use as practice and know better what they will be asked and how.  I also benefit from this practice in that I use the quizzes to test-drive questions, making sure that my questions line up with their knowledge base.  But it means there are a lot of small "piddling" assignments.  The paper, likewise, is done in stages or there are multiple approaches to a project, due as steps toward a final.  I worry that this is not doing them a favour, but it does seem to work better in improving the final outcome.  

This year I am trying to space things out differently, too.  In one of my classes in which there is a midterm (after multiple quizzes), I pushed that test to the end of October, well after the expected point for a midterm.  It both fits better with the revised curriculum (this is the class with the major change in arrangement of content delivery) and will (I hope) not overlap with other relatively high-stakes tests.  It is still early enough that I am also hoping it does not overlap with paper deadlines.  In another class (one of the two larger surveys), the three short papers are now all that is asked (I cut out the final, more integrated, paper, in part because the stages will accomplish everything the final paper on a different topic is designed to do, but also because it is going to be easier for them to just focus on the stages), and the last of the three is due in early November, well before Thanksgiving.  I am hoping that these changes will help to alleviate this stress of things piling up in all my students' classes all at once and help them cope better with the stress of being in college.  

These are some of my thoughts at the beginning of the year.  Each year I change some things and sometimes they work and sometimes they don't.  In the long run, I am hoping these changes help some stressed-out students.  

What are you doing differently this year?  And why?

Originally posted to annetteboardman on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 09:47 AM PDT.

Also republished by Teachers Lounge.

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