There’s been a discussion about teaching going on at Dr. Crazy’s, Mano’s, and Dean Dad’s blogs, and if you haven’t read it I encourage you to check it out. Here, inspired by that discussion, I want to raise a deceptively simple question that gets at many of the issues that arose in the cross-blog discussion:
How do we ensure that students come to class prepared?
This, for me, is one of the essential questions of teaching, because – as Dean Dad points out, and join the noise confirms in a comment to that post – we are generally not teaching ourselves. Those of us who end up on the other side of the classroom were probably generally interested in learning, wanted to do well in our courses, and did the assignments as a matter of course. (I’m not going to claim this was the case all the time – I know I had my days of going to class under- or unprepared, or of not going to class at all, and I know people follow a wide range of paths to this occupation, so may not have begun as eager-beaver students. But in general, our behavior as students was not typical of the students we teach.)
Crazy and Mano take different approaches to the question of student preparation, due partly to different personalities, different goals for the classroom, and different student populations (I won't try to summarize their points - you should go read). But I think that they would agree, as would most everyone reading this, that student preparation is crucial to classroom success – both for students and professors: if students are unprepared, they will be unable to take advantage of the opportunities that the classroom provides, and professors may be unable to provide those opportunities to the best of their abilities (I know, for instance, that there are days when I can’t do anything in class if the students haven’t done the reading).
So, what do you consider the best means of ensuring student preparation?
Personally, however successfully, I try to combine the carrot and the stick. In general, my approach to the classroom is that it constitutes an intellectual community, and that one of the expectations of such a community is that everyone contributes to it. Only then can everyone benefit from the fullest range of perspectives and knowledge. And I tell them this, at the beginning of the semester and in the syllabus. When I talk about their papers, I talk about them writing as historians for other readers, and I explain footnotes as a necessary part of sharing in an intellectual conversation, to make sure that other researchers could find the information they refer to if they want to pursue the topic further. I also try to find ways to give students some control over the classroom, by requiring them to write agendas for a given day, to come up with discussion questions, or to make brief presentations – all of which are designed to let students talk about what they find most interesting in the course material.
I also make sure that what they read is directly relevant to what we do in class. If they read it, we talk about it. (This is hardly news to most people, I’d imagine; but I know that depending on what you’re teaching or the conditions under which you’re teaching it may entail assigning some material that does not get discussed as directly.) The idea behind this is that if the experience of class is pointless without having done the reading, then students will do the reading. Okay, this doesn’t always work – believe me, I know. The biggest flaw with this approach is that you often end up with a few engaged and active students, and a larger proportion of them who sit and gaze at you. The best-case scenario in this category is something I see happening in one of my classes this semester: the rest of the class is interested and happily watches the discussion going back and forth between me and a smaller group of regulars. They take notes and do well enough on the exams/writing assignments, but they’re kind of piggy-backing off the work of not-so-many. It’s better than having the bulk of them visibly checked out, but is by no means ideal.
The kinds of sticks that I use vary. I don’t generally give pop quizzes. Actually, skip generally – I can’t even remember when I last did so. I think, however, that this is less because I have a moral or pedagogical problem with them (especially if the professor makes clear at the beginning of the semester that pop quizzes will occur), than that I have not taught a student population that would really benefit from them. I’ve been able to use other techniques just as effectively. Which include? Well, usually the kinds of things I noted above – class agendas, discussion questions, or presentations. So for me, stick = some kind of assignment they have to prepare before we get to class.
These don’t always work brilliantly, of course. First, there’s no guarantee the students will write good/useful responses. Usually, making them write about something makes them read it, but some students won’t be able to pick out useful themes/points, write useful discussion questions, or present their way out of a paper bag. So it’s important to model this kind of stuff. And it’s also important to recognize that those students who blow everything else off aren’t going to magically come up with insight and analysis when it’s their turn. So you have to be willing to accept a certain percentage of dross along with the gold.
Second, I can use these because I have a pretty humane workload – three classes a semester, none over 25 students. If I were teaching lecture classes to crowds of hundreds, and didn’t have TAs, I wouldn’t use these kinds of assignments in quite the same way I do now. I think they can be modified (grade them on completion, not on content; select 10-15 at random each time or every other time; get the students to do some of the grading/responding), but it’s certainly harder. Even now, I don’t have every student prepare something before every class. But my hope is that even some students doing this kind of thing some of the time gets across the importance of their contributions. (An additional benefit is that they can be used quite effectively to help me plan class, if they’re submitted online or via e-mail ahead of time!)
I also tie longer assignments into the course readings/class discussion. For some papers, students get assigned to write about specific readings and turn in their papers on the days that we discuss those readings in class. If they’ve had to write a paper about the readings, they’ll certainly be able to talk about them in class. This also runs into the number-of-bodies problem: if you have 200 students (and no TAs), you probably can’t assign enough formal papers for this kind of technique to help the class dynamic much.
The reverse of this technique is to take class days when students talk about their own projects – not necessarily as formally as in an actual presentation, but getting students in groups to talk about how their own work outside of class is going can work well.
And some days, I don’t fight their lack of preparation. I have a number of conceptual kinds of questions that I raise in my courses: “what does history mean? what is the difference between history and story?” “what is the difference between religion and myth?” “what defines a community?” “what does ‘home’ mean to people today?” “what defines adulthood today?” These are my “cheating” questions, because they don’t require students to have read squat to make a contribution. And in fact, almost everyone usually does contribute – class usually gets pretty lively because everyone feels that they know something about these things. Then I switch gears and head back to the Middle Ages (“what about medieval ideas of community? how did they compare to modern ideas?”). Usually enough people have done the reading to be able to follow me, and those who may not have done the reading have at least become more engaged in the question through their participation in the discussion. And they know what “big issue” the reading is supposed to address, which they may not have realized if they just skimmed through it anyway.
Finally, the last stick is the class participation grade. I’m sort of amused by people who complain that students don’t participate in class but who’ve only assigned participation, say, 5% of the final course grade. (I do realize that not everyone has complete discretion over such decisions.) It seems to me that this kind of grade distribution sends a message totally at odds with any instructor’s expressed desire for students to speak in class (and hence be prepared). For those who complain that students shouldn’t have to be motivated by the grade to do something like prepare for class – well, yes, it would be nice if grades weren't a motivator. But then, it would be nice if they were inspired to find out about (say) medieval history by reading on their own in their spare time, too. I’d rather deal with reality. And I find it completely reasonable of students to prioritize based on what’s the most important to them, and if they have a paper that’s worth 35% of the grade versus participation at 5%, well, I can’t blame them for putting more effort into the paper. I have to admit, one of the best classes I’ve had for participation was a seminar in which participation was 40% of their grade. It’s true that grading participation can be hard, but that’s another post for another time.
So, these are my not-so-brief thoughts on the subject. What about you? I’d especially love to hear from people who teach larger classes, where it’s harder to gauge students' preparation simply by making them talk.