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Teaching in LA

14 Jul

Is My Class Just About “Paying Attention”?

Posted in Uncategorized on 14.07.12 by Frank

(Reposted from my Posterous account)

For the past few years, I’ve asked my students to do two assignments.

  • Class survey (anonymous)
  • Letter to next year’s students (name attached)

There is no credit or grading for these assignments. I just ask them to do it and hope they’re not jerks about it. Pretty much everyone’s cooperative. The jerks are absent. (Unfortunately, this does make the data a bit self-selective. Although, I’m kidding about jerks. I don’t think of any of my students as jerks, but the data is self-selective depending on attendance.)

First, a little background on the letter to next year’s students. It’s what it sounds like. There are no strict requirements, but some suggestions on what to put. Students mostly end up putting what to expect, and some advice based on their own experience in my class. I stole this from someone else. Sorry, I forgot who.

What I found most boring, then annoying, then interesting this year was how common students advised others to “pay attention“. “Make sure you pay attention.” “I should have paid more attention.” “All you have to do is pay attention.”

The first few times I read the advice, I thought “woop dee doo, great generic advice everyone…” Then I realized most didn’t offer any advice beyond that. When almost every letter that offered advice only offered that advice, I started getting annoyed. “Is that all they learned in my class??? I thought I was doing inquiry-ish stuff. They make it sound like this class is one giant lecture! What about learning from mistakes? Doing test retakes? Collaborating with other students? Doing the homework because the practice is helpful? Participating in small group discussions? Thinking until your brain hurts? Asking questions???” Apparently none of that mattered. Well, a small handful did suggest retaking tests, keeping notes and handouts, and a couple suggested doing the homework despite it not being worth credit.

I remembered that the reason I did these assignments was partially as feedback for myself, so instead of getting defensive, what does this all mean? Based on this evidence, I might infer several things:

  1. These students didn’t really find anything in my class helpful and found the most success through “paying attention”.
  2. These students did find other things helpful, but just suck at recalling and expressing these things, so they lump everything into the general advice of “pay attention”
  3. These students are conditioned through their schooling and my class that school is about “paying attention”, so when they give advice to other students, they give the advice that’s been doled out to them throughout their schooling career
  4. These students don’t think of other helpful advice because I haven’t emphasized or even gone over what helps them succeed in this class, school, and/or life

These are the things that I could come up with. Could be a combo.

Some of these I can address by altering my directions and questions (“What advice would you give that’s different from what you’d give for your other classes?”), but my intution tells me their responses represent more than lousy communication. I’d say a large responsibility that is within my immediate control goes to #1 and #4, that students didn’t think success in my class depended on anything other than paying attention, and I just plain sucked at communicating and fostering the factors for success I have in my head. In fact, can I even express, specifically, what a student needs to do to be successful in my class?

So… to do: Come up with 3-7 concrete things that will play the biggest factors in a student’s success in my class. Concrete means specific. No broad shit like “try hard”. Also, these should be non-obvious, so not like “show up to class”. Although some students probably don’t understand the connection between attendance and success, so I’ll have to fiddle with my definiton of “non-obvious”. Next, decide how I will communicate these expectations to students and how to most effectively ingrain these through the year in the curriculum and activities.

Let’s take an example. One thing I believe is a key to success in my class: Do the homework. How do I communicate this to students? Tell them. Remind them. Stick it on a poster titled “How to succeed in this class”. Possibly the most important thing I have to do: Make sure this is true. Does doing the homework actually help you succeed in this class? I better damn well make sure it does. Assuming my homework assignments are meaningful and helpful, I may need to get students to reflect on the correlation between their homework completion and their performance in my class. Just because students do things that lead to success doesn’t mean they realize that’s what’s happening.

Mm, sounds like lots of work. I’ll really have to take a look at whether students need to think and ask questions in my class. I’d like my class to be like that (all inquiry-ish and whatnot), but their feedback seems to indicate otherwise.

If you asked your students to give advice to next year’s students on how to succeed in your class, what do you think your students would say? What would you hope they say? What do you do to increase the chances of that happening?

(The class survey and instruction for the letter to next year’s students are posted below.)

Student Feedback – End of Year Letter

Survey End of Year 11 12

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