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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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Comment Preferences

  •  I have not made too many changes. (5+ / 0-)

    I am teaching two of my courses on a shorter-than-normal rotation because two of my colleagues are on leave. For my intro. to archaeology, I switched to a take home final as a way of taking stress off both the students and the TAs. The length will be strictly limited, and I will give out the questions in advance. This beats spending all of December 23rd grading as we did last year. It will also be more difficult to cheat on this kind of test. I actually posted my final grades on Xmas eve!

  •  Our classes start Wednesday. (3+ / 0-)

    Syllabi were due this past Thursday.

    I'm teaching Calculus II for the first time since the 1990s.  It will be fun...for me.  Hopefully it will not be too painful for the students.  It will be a small class.  Only 6 students, last I checked.

  •  I'm not teaching this year. (4+ / 0-)

    I appreciate all you do, annette, to understand your students' concerns and also to provide appropriate opportunities for assessment. I agree with you wholeheartedly that the syllabus should serve as a contract of sorts, letting them know what I expect of them as well as what they can expect from me.

    The class I was teaching is a senior-level class. Last spring I had 70 students in one section and about about 66 in the other. Assessment, frankly, was difficult. My strong preference for staged writing assignments was not feasible given the number of students. In my opinion written work demands written comments from me, about both the content and presentation.

    Even exams with part multiple choice, part solved quantitative problems, and part written answer and short essay, was rather burdensome. Again, it's important to me to give relevant and helpful feedback.

    The burden on providing that level of feedback to SENIORS, who are about to go into their first career positions, is ONLY because of class size. They deserve to have one more substantial learning experience through their assessments.

    I put the fault on the ... well, ultimately on us as taxpayers, at my university, for deciding that not funding education at an appropriate level is okay.

    Thanks.

    Best to you with the new school year.

  •  Started another semester in nursing school (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rserven, Vatexia, annetteboardman

    we have quizzes the first day over the syllabus.  We get them on our blackboard so we have to have them printed before we get to class.

    We also get emails with at least 15 chapters to read before day 1.

    And on a side note, my daughter LOVES her school.  She talked about her suite mates and walking around the square last night in the small downtown.  We've talked/ texted everyday.

    Silence is GOLDEN, but duct tape is SILVER =)

    by effervescent on Sat Aug 25, 2012 at 12:09:50 PM PDT

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