Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Preparing for a new semester

Microcosms.  Ruth Davidson Abrams (1912-1986)
Welcome back!  The start of each semester is a time of optimism and vision, and for those of us who are consummate planners, the beginning of a class is an important start for our vision.  We know that building relationships is important for student learning--students want two things: to connect with their teacher and to connect with their peers. We want our students to learn, and we have a mental image of how this will happen.  I suggest cultivating a second, connected vision, one that extends our image of student learning.  Can you envision what you want your students to be able to do at the end of class? This is an important shift in our thinking process.  After all, learning can be very private, very individualized.  When we talk about what we want students to be able to do, we often use phrases like, I want students to think critically, to analyze situations, to problem solve, to apply solutions, to gather new information and use it.  We want students to use what they learn.  And to learn best, students are essentially creating their own understandings of the information that we give them in ways that are workable for them. 

On the first day, we can make stronger connections with our class if we think through how people connect.  Although the default for the first day is to "go over" the syllabus, this is not the best way to start.  Save the syllabus for the second half of class or later.
  1. First, get them involved immediately by having them do a short activity that gets them thinking and talking with their neighbor.  This can be an opportunity to find out about their previous knowledge of your subject.

  2.  Introduce yourself  in a way that not only establishes your credentials, but also makes you human to our students.  Tell them something about yourself and explain your philosophy of teaching and your goals for the class.

  3. Let the students introduce themselves, with a focus on why they are in your class and what they hope to learn.  Give each student an index card to write out their basic information and list of their goals.  You can use the card to help you remember names and to recall students from previous semesters. Since they can also fill out this information on Blackboard, you could ask them speculative questions about your subject matter and have them introduce themselves as they answer a question.

  4. Since there are barriers to our vision of student learning, of course, it helps to be realistic and confront these barriers with your students from the first day.  On their card or online, have them list their other obligations.  This keeps us from making assumptions about their work loads and helps us identify those students who truly have a lot on their plate, such as those students with families.

  5. A lot of us have read our syllabus out loud to students.  An alternative is to give them five minutes or so to read it silently, telling them that you will ask them to explain sections to their peers in their own words. Let them know that this is not a way of wasting time but it is a check on their interpretation of the syllabus.  You want everyone to be on the same page.  For instance, you can ask them to identify the most important section for their peers--and then tell them what you identify as the most important section.  Usually, my students will talk about the assignments or the grading system.  I point out that the course objectives or my statement on class participation are the most important for me.

  6. By soliciting feedback from students on the first day, you set them up to expect this kind of interaction.  Regularly asking them for feedback on the class and their understanding of the subject matter lets you know how class is going and it gets students into the habit of thinking seriously about the class and their learning.  Then they are more prepared to fill out end-of-semester evaluations thoughtfully.
Want to read further about the first day?  Dee Fink has a good list of ideas for starting class, developed from faculty input.  

James Rhem, The National Teaching and Learning Forum editor, talks about friendliness in class and how that impacts the quality of a class.  It's a good article, provocative reading, and towards the end, he describes a study on students' feelings about faculty at Miami University in Ohio.  This study lists items that are "most likely to enhance or detract from the student-professor relationship versus those that were not as likely to enhance or detract. In the group that mattered a lot were such items as:
  • Shows patience in explaining points to students
  • Treats students as equals
  • Smiles and displays a friendly demeanor
  • Speaks politely to students
  • Is accessible to students outside of office hours
  • Conveys the desire to have each student learn and do well"
Rhem continues, "You begin to see the pattern here. I have drawn on the concept of friendship to inform our understanding of what authentic friendliness might mean, might look like, and it is precisely that which most students are looking for."

Enjoy your first day back in class.

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