Teaching

Rusty Bittermann - Structuring the Course, Part 2

Published on: 27 May 2019

Structuring the Course, Part 2

Following last week’s post, I will conclude by discussing other key decisions I made in organizing my thematic World History courses in the hope that my thinking on them might be of some use to others.

Structuring the Writing Assignment

I usually only had one writing assignment. I gave it out on the first day of class. Over my years of teaching, I had grown tired of dealing with plagiarism, with late papers, with uninteresting papers, and with putting lots of effort into trying to teach writing skills to students who were not particularly interested in improving their writing. It occurred to me, much later than it should have, that I was to blame for most of these problems—but that it was within my power to change things.

My assignments usually required students to provide a short analysis of a newspaper article (of the student’s choice from an array of newspapers) published after the course got underway and grounded in the course readings. That did not leave much space for plagiarism

The written description of the assignment stated that I would not accept late papers. Full stop. A student could provide a documented medical or compassionate reason for an exception, of course, but any appeal needed to take into account the timeline between receipt of the assignment on day one of the course and a due date at the end of term.

I dealt with the frustrations of wasting hours marking and editing prose for students who might not even read the comments by offering multiple options for writing assignments. If students wished, they could submit drafts of their essays for my input, provided they did so by a set date well before the essay due date. Students who took advantage of this option obviously wanted to learn from my input, and I was happy to give them as much assistance as I could. If students wished, they could submit multiple drafts and keep honing their analytical writing skills across the term. I also had two due dates for final submission of the writing assignment. If students only wanted a mark on the final paper, they could submit it on the last day of class. If they wanted my comments, suggestions, and editorial notes, they had to submit the assignment two weeks earlier. This had the side advantage of spreading out my end-of-term marking. But my main motivation was to focus my attention on helping those who wanted to be helped, rather than putting comments on papers for students who would glance at the mark on the last page and then dump the paper into the nearest trash bin.

Class Participation

Crucially, I assigned a major portion of student marks to class participation, as in 35 or 40 percent. Some instructors hesitate to give class participation such a high evaluation profile, as it can be difficult to fairly and effectively assign those marks. But if class participation is not worth a great deal in a seminar-style class, students get the message (in the loudest possible way) that class participation does not matter much. As I saw things, doing the readings and making intellectual use of them in class was the central, most valuable learning activity of the course. And it needed to be appropriately rewarded, even if it did not lend itself to easy evaluation.

My “solution” to the evaluation problem was a broad spectrum one. As a starting point, I passed around a sign-in sheet in every class so that I would have a record of attendance that provided base-level evidence of that fundamental part of the learning—being there. Because of the way the sign-in sheet was passed from student to student, it also gave me a head start to learning all of my student’s names. During class, I was then able to make discrete marks on my attendance sheet that captured the basic quality of what I was hearing in each class: a mark for brilliant, another for okay, and another for blah blah, with some room for variation and nuance. At the end of class, I would write up and/or clarify what I had seen of class performance while my memory was still fresh. 

Critically, my course structure also called for pop quizzes that I would use as evidence to evaluate class participation. On any day of my choosing, I could ask students to put all their reading materials and notes away and take five or ten minutes to respond to one of the reading questions of my choosing. I did not mark these responses and return them to students. I just put them in my files after I had read them and entered an evaluation on a spreadsheet for my own use. I organized the quizzes by student name as the quizzes mounted up and the course moved forward. Students could come touch base with me on how they were doing with class participation at any time they wished. Those quizzes provided a good starting point for a conversation if and when they did.

Not surprisingly, there tended to be a convergence with what these different types of evidence revealed. Though there were always some shy students who did the readings carefully, attended class regularly, and wrote good quizzes, but said little in class, I had tactics for trying to help them overcome their shyness. Having those quizzes in hand let me see who I most needed to assist.

These course elements and strategies helped improve my teaching, their learning, and our understandings of how historical knowledge might help them shape the world they lived in.

 If I had to explain in a few words why my experience as a History teacher was deeply satisfying, I would begin with the two questions that I asked myself when I had the chance to choose what and how I would teach: first, whether the content of my courses addressed matters of significant importance for my students; and second, whether the components of my teaching strategy consistently sustained my teaching goals. After that, it was just a matter of articulating my goals, and working toward developing satisfactory answers to both questions. Thank heavens I had good colleagues and good students who helped me to do so.

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