Reflections on teaching, part 2

Especially for upper-division, discussion-based courses, it’s vital to have input from students on a regular basis in class. In the past, I’ve assessed participation in terms of perceived attendance, recorded attendance, perceived frequency of speaking in class, and quasi-recorded frequency of speaking in class. Obviously, these a) are subjective and prone to bias, b) favor outspoken students, and c) favor quantity over quality. As an introvert who had to force myself to speak up in class once every few weeks, I know that simple measures of participation won’t foster individual growth or make quieter students feel comfortable.

I read a Chronicle article (I think) over the summer about class participation and how hard it is to measure, but how important it can be for student learning. There was a link to a self-assessment rubric from the University of Kansas’s Center for Teaching Excellence (here) and a discussion of how to use it to grade participation. My co-instructor thought this was a fine idea, so with a few modifications, we handed it out at the beginning of the semester, asked students to fill it in, then scanned their responses and returned them. The idea was to have them set goals for themselves and then self-evaluate at the end.

Section of self-assessment rubric, modified from KU’s CTE. As a student, I would generally rate myself a 6 in this category.

What I like about this rubric is that it considers multiple dimensions to class participation. There’s preparing for class, as in doing the reading. (Bet you most people don’t think of that as participation per se, but it is.) There’s being active in small group discussions and the class as a whole, not only in terms of sharing your own ideas, but encouraging other students to share theirs. I added categories here for those who talk too much and don’t give others room to speak, and for those who engage with the material internally, even if they can’t get themselves to raise their hand. There’s also paying attention in class and not being distracted by texts or other browser tabs–maybe a more passive form of participation, but still vital. And finally, I added a category of participation outside of class, which meant contacting other students for notes, discussing topics after class, or coming to office hours.

Unfortunately, we kind of fell through on implementing this. It wasn’t until about 3/4 of the way through the semester that I realized we hadn’t been checking in with the class on how they were meeting their participation goals, and at that point, it wasn’t clear they would be able to make many adjustments. So we asked for a self-assessment at the end of the semester, which wasn’t done very consistently thanks to our late request, so we had to make do with what we had. But we did still get some good feedback from students on how they prepared for in-class participation by doing the readings to a greater extent than in previous classes, or how they talked about concepts with their friends outside of class even if they weren’t confident enough to speak up in discussion, or how they tried to encourage other, quieter students to share their thoughts.

So in Spring 2020, I’m going to try this again with both my upper-division undergrad/grad class and my graduate seminar, and we’ll see how it goes!

Reflections on teaching, part 1

I’m always reflecting on and trying to improve my teaching. I read the Chronicle of Higher Ed, including their weekly teaching newsletter. I pay attention on Twitter to conversations about how to be more inclusive in the classroom and how to make things easier for students while still expecting a lot from them intellectually. I usually teach one large gen ed class in the fall (100-110 students), small-to-medium classes in the fall and spring (20-25 students), and occasionally a graduate seminar. So I have a variety of classes to work with, and a variety of students as well.

In keeping with James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching book and philosophy, I choose one or two big things to try out each semester. (I also make small changes based on student evaluations, like four smaller written assignments instead of three medium-sized ones, etc.) Here’s the first of my reflections on how those changes worked in Fall 2019.

The first big change I made was to team-teach a class for the first time. Our GEOG 412, Geospatial Technologies and Society, is one of very few classes in the U.S. that addresses the political, social, and critical aspects of GIS, remote sensing, and “big” geospatial data. The course used to be team-taught by our critical cartography expert and our spatial analysis expert, until the former retired. I took on the course in Fall 2017 and had a great time with it. Digital geographies might not be my area of research, but it’s a fascinating topic, and teaching it is one way to keep up with the field. But since we have an expert in our department–Dr. Brian Jefferson, whose forthcoming Digitize and Punish is going to be an amazing book–we decided to team-teach the course.

We are fortunate that our department policy is for a team-taught course to count as a full course for each instructor, because a 50-50 split often really means a 75-75 split. (In my case, this class required almost exactly half the time as my other class, but that might be a function of other things…I’ll be posting soon about my hours worked during the fall semester.) This particular class meets twice a week, with the first meeting consisting of a short lecture and a lot of discussion, and the second meeting consisting of lab activities. We divided up the weeks of the course ahead of time and were responsible for finding readings and developing labs for our respective weeks. We agreed that we’d both attend all of the discussions, but that we only needed to come to the lab when it was our “assigned” week.

I would definitely recommend the experience. We each had different strengths with regards to subject matter, but we were both able to contribute to each other’s weeks as well. We have very different teaching styles: I plan out my classes in five-minute increments and focus on the empirical, while he’s much better at explaining theory, as well as extemporizing and getting a lively discussion going. For some people, that might be a source of friction; for us, it meant that we complemented each other well. I learned to let go a little of my need to plan everything ahead of time, which for an upper-division, discussion-based course, is probably a good thing. We were able to negotiate an equitable distribution of grading (group projects, term paper, and class presentation) with little difficulty, although it probably would have made more sense to do the negotiations at the beginning of the semester rather than after the projects had come in. We did have a little confusion with students contacting one but not both of us with regard to requests for extensions or grading questions, but that could be easily fixed in the future. (We’re still waiting on course evaluations to see how well everything worked from the student’s perspective.)

Have you team-taught a course? Or taken one as a student? What worked well or didn’t?