9 Takeaways From a Very Rewarding Semester of Teaching

This semester was one of the most rewarding so far. Below I share a few things that standout about this semester. 

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  1. Quiz Previews: For a few years now, I have given students written quizzes at the beginning of every class. Yes, these create a lot of grading, but they work wonders at getting students to class on time and keeping them on top of the material. This semester I added a new element that I called “Quiz Previews.” These were posted on the class Facebook page and Twitter feed, and like the name sounds, gave a preview of what to expect on the quiz. Usually, I would post one of the three or four questions that would be on the fifteen-minute quiz (class met once a week for three hours). Quiz previews help students focus on the most important information and help them enter class in a good frame of mind for that day’s lesson.
  1. Social Media: This semester for the first time ever I set a goal of incorporating social media as a required component. The goal was to use social media for class discussions, announcements, and as a way for students to post questions or to share other comments or links. Originally, I used Twitter, but after about three or four weeks of it being under-used, I made a Facebook page, and the results were much more successful. I’m still working on coming up with ways to have more required online discussions without creating too much grading and paperwork. Social media worked best when it came to building a strong channel of communication with students. Students would email on Facebook all the time but not through regular email – to me, any communication is great.
  1. Extra Credit: This semester I offered students the opportunity to increase their grade by 10%. In order to earn these points, students had a variety of options, but all of them required a substantial amount of additional, outside work as to be fair and a meaningful learning experience. Of 50 students, just a handful took advantage of this opportunity, and the projects were, by and large, somewhat disappointing. Partly, some students found the “easy” way to complete one of the options, and partly, I need to make the extra credit options even more rigorous with explicit directions. Also, one new rule I added a few weeks into the course–because some students were planning on using extra credit to purposely skip actual course requirements–was that students can only complete extra credit if they complete all major assignments (so papers and exams) and at least 60% of other assignments (quizzes, group work, etc). 
  1. Quick Feedback: My days as a student are recent enough that I know that the minutes and days just crawl by when waiting for a paper or exam to be graded. I always make it a point to have my calendar complete clear the day of and the next day or two when assignments are due so students can get feedback almost immediately. Quick feedback is so important to students. This semester—without exception—weekly quizzes were graded and posted in Blackboard within 12 hours of students completing them. And exams and papers were graded and posted within 36 hours. I know not everyone can grade this fast, but I think we should make it a point to grade as quickly as possible and to make it a top priority especially when major assignments are due.
  1. Regular Feedback: At the end of the quiz every week the last question was:

    Optional question: The following question is designed to allow students to provide regular input. No need to address every aspect of the suggested question: What was most interesting, least interesting, or confusing, and why about the readings or class last week? Please feel free to share any other questions or concerns.

    This was specifically designed to get regular feedback from students and to make it clear that questions or concerns could be expressed at any time. When students did write a question, I would follow-up by email that very same day because I care and want to do whatever I can for students. This is part of making students feel safe and comfortable in the classroom—which is one of the number one factors that is necessary for student success to even be possible. I also had students complete a midterm evaluation and strongly encouraged them to complete the official UH evaluation.

  1. Re-dos: This semester, like other semesters, when a student made lower than a “C” on an assignment, even an exam (except the Final), and came to talk with me about it, I would encourage her/him to redo the assignment for up to about half of the points back—because teaching and college is about learning. If a student is interested in redoing an assignment and further learning the material, more power to her/him. Only one student took this opportunity this semester.
  1. Reaching out: I regularly try to reach out to students, especially in the beginning of the semester. For the first three or four weeks, I send a message to students who have missed class. If I notice someone has been earning low grades on the quizzes, I message them to see what is going on and if I can help any. If a student doesn’t turn in a major assignment, I message them (even though I have a no late work rule – rules are only meant as starting points) to see what is going on. I always end such messages with, “I look forward to your reply” because I want them to contact me, and I want them to be successful.
  1. Rigorous but rewarding: I don’t want my classes to be “easy” or “fun” – I want them to provide a meaningful learning experiences in new, creative ways. Students learn by readings and writing and thinking like crazy. I don’t overwork students, but I want them to really earn their grades and to get to know and enjoy History. Additionally, as I have said before, students work harder and better when the class is a challenge. Students will rise to the challenge! Details about my assignments for history classes can be found here.
  1. Love teaching: Teaching is always one of the most challenging, rewarding, and enjoyable things I do. Having the opportunity to share what I have learned, help others see the world through all kinds of different lenses, and learning from students is one of the best feelings in the world.

Please be sure and check out my other articles published here and Inside Higher Ed. I have articles about teaching aimed at students and professors generally and more specifically for those in History or Student Success courses.



Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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11 replies

  1. The 36 hour turnaround with grading assignments is a great idea, but not if you have 150+ exams, etc. to grade that require feedback–or even 30 15+ page research papers that require comments on content, grammar, and methodology. My policy has been that students will get back their exams and research papers within one week (possibly sooner, but don’t count on it). And, depending on where you teach, students won’t always rise to the challenge. But they will complain if you assign what they consider too much work or too much reading (or, in one case, that the assigned book didn’t have a Cliff Notes or Classic Comics version that was easier to understand).

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    • I’m able to stil do a 36-48 hour turn around even with 150+ exams because I don’t do anything else until it’s finished. I’ve done it twenty or more times now. It’s hard work but worth it for the students.

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    • You’ll find that it will be different when you are teaching four courses (three different preps), involved in committee work and administrative responsibilities, and also must maintain office hours (which often can’t be used for grading because of the interruptions). Sometimes you don’t have a choice about doing something else if you want to keep your job. You can grade, or you can prep classes, but you often can’t do both at the same time (although one time I did use mistakes found when grading annotated bibliographies when prepping a class on the proper way to cite items in a bibliography). The only time I’ve been able to have that quick a turnaround is during final exam period, and that’s only because I don’t have to write comments and don’t have to keep office hours. Otherwise, it often takes 15-20 minutes per exam (my students often need a lot of comments to guide them on how to improve, especially on the first exam), and I do like to eat and sleep. Unlike some of my colleagues, my exams all involve writing, mostly essays and short answers/analysis. Students seem to like it that way, because they get the opportunity to share what they have learned, even if sometimes their syntax is a bit garbled.

      And I do remember grading 200 essay exams while a TA at UH (often one of three for a course). The profs wanted a one week turnaround, knowing that we were also taking classes–and they also expected us to leave lots of comments on the students’ exams, regardless of the grade earned. When I was an undergrad at SFA, the expectation was a one week turnaround, and we as students understood that. They also had a 4/4 load like I do (and about 200 students per semester), and I have used that as my guide when teaching at a similar university with a similar teaching load. And, when students start to complain, I just tell them I can grade fast and be harsh, or I can grade more slowly and have time to appreciate their effort in preparing their responses. Surprisingly, they want me to take my time…

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    • I know things might change, but I do have experience from a one-year grant funded position where I was a full time graduate student, full time administrator, and taught several courses as an overload, with several different preps. I still got everything graded within 1-2 days because I always put grading as the top priority – quick feedback is so important, and grading is the number one communication we usually have with students.

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    • Grading exams is typically the #1 assessment used for student learning, but it’s not the #1 communication we usually have with students. That actually happens in the classroom, whether you have 5 students or 500. Even in an online class, grading isn’t the main way we communicate with students; that could be through social media, email, Skype, online discussion/chat, or videos of lectures. Plus, there is a difference between grading a 10 question quiz (I could grade 200 of those in less than 3 hours) and grading an exam that includes 2-3 essays that are usually 3-4 pages each and 6-8 short answer (1-2 paragraph) responses (those usually take at least 15-20 minutes each to grade, depending on how many comments I have to leave on the exam).

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  2. Are their certain texts you’ve found helpful and informative to your approach to pedagogy?

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  3. Given our conversations over the semester, it is nice to read your takeaway on use of social media. My experience was less successful overall – only 29 of the 82 students liked the class FB page; only a handful regularly used it. For Twitter, I think there were maybe five students who used it. I have some time off before I teach again next spring, but if you have any ideas about how to use social media in the classroom, I am interested to hear them.

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    • Hey, sorry for the late reply. I too was really hoping they would get more into FB/Twitter or something. I think the key will be–and I’ll try it soon–is to have a few required online discussion where they will see a “0” in the Blackboard (etc) grade book if they don’t do it. Probably once of this would be a good motivator. Please let me know any ideas you have too. 🙂 ttyl

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  4. The problem with requiring students to post on Twitter or Facebook is that not all of them use social media because of concerns about their privacy (yes, I know that may be a shock to read). When I have set up a Facebook page, I give students the option of participating on either Facebook or the discussion board on Desire2Learn (our version of Blackboard), and I have had a 100% participation rate between the two forums when doing this. Some actually posted in both places to ensure greater interaction; they would have received extra credit, except all of them had earned A’s in the course. So, if you are going to force them to participate in social media for a grade, you should realize that there are going to be students who won’t participate as a matter of principle. After all, regardless of your privacy settings, employers can read your posts on social media, and I know of more than one person who has lost a job because of what they posted on Facebook.

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