“This is too hard”: Some Reflections on Student Anxiety and Course Content

Today, I want to ramble a little. Apologies to those not in the mood…

The other day a student came up to me and boldly declared: this course is too hard! It wasn’t the first time that I’ve heard that statement, nor will it be the last. In some measure, this student – like all the others who’ve uttered that phrase – was right. I do tend to pitch things too high, and I’ve never been one to search for the golden mean or just say, “to hell with it,” and aim for the bottom. I do horrible, nasty things like introduce my first-year students to at least one post-colonial reading per year; or, in this case, introduce my CEGEP students to Kant.

Predictably, said students lament the horribly complex syntax and abundance of technical terminology. They look at me in exasperation and say: “I just don’t understand.” Hell, even my TA once said that he thought that the post-colonial reading which I’d assigned was a “little much.” But by assigning these readings I force my students to give it a try – and they do try. Whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, students in my class struggle through a piece of text that they would otherwise never have even dreamt of reading. And the really impressive part is that some of them, some of the time, get it! When they do, it can change the way they think for the rest of their lives. And even if, ultimately, students don’t understand what Bhabha or Prakash have to say, they now have the advantage of knowing that there is an entire field of scholarship out there that they don’t yet understand.

If I’m being entirely honest, I don’t particularly like slogging through Kant, Heidegger, or any other abstract philosopher either. And I’m far from enamored with the  post-colonial tendency to rely on jargon (as an aside, I’ve threatened many times to have some sort of public meltdown if I ever have to read the word “interstitial” again.. no really… not OK). So why force myself to deal with this type of text, and torture my students at the same time? And why not listen to my students when they tell me that the material is too hard? After all, I pride myself on being receptive to student needs, and students definitely need to be able to understand the lesson.

First and foremost, I’ve come to understand that the phrase “it’s too hard” can actually mean several things. True, it can just mean that at the most basic level, the course is too hard and students don’t understand. More often, however, what it actually means is: “this is terrifying because it’s really complicated, which probably means the test will be really complicated, and I’m worried about my grade.” Now, on the one hand, this is frustrating because people shouldn’t be intentionally closing themselves off to knowledge, and not everything is about tests, etc… But, on the other hand, there is reason to sympathize.

Maybe it’s because I was a scholarship kid with big dreams and ridiculous standards when it came to my own transcript (yes, I know, getting a PhD was far less glamorous in reality than it was in my mind’s eye oh so many years ago). Maybe it’s because my own employment situation is precarious and I understand why these kids worry – they need to be better than the best, they have been told, or they don’t stand a chance in the modern economy. Or maybe it’s because I’m not really sure what the value of a test is anyway sometimes, at least when it comes to the humanities, so I figure that I would be stressed out by them too. Whatever the reason, something about the version of “it’s too hard” which really means “I’m worried about my grades” always gives me pause.

The result is that I spend a lot of time telling my students that I expect a lot from them, but that I will always give them to tools to be able to do it. I also repeat the fact that just because I ask them to do something, doesn’t mean I expect them to do it right, and I do so until I’m blue in the face. “I know you’re new to this,” I say, “and the idea is to introduce you to a concept or task, so that next time, you do it right – the idea is to give you a leg up, not create a handicap.” But no matter how many times I say this, there is constant anxiety that I will still be looking for perfection, and a persistent notion that a teacher shouldn’t ever push the bounds beyond that which a student can master with ease. Students are afraid to stop thinking about what they need to know for the test, and to just think instead – to challenge themselves, experiment with knowledge, and dabble with being wrong.

Regardless of the fact that my students do just fine, and my tests are hardly as horrible as they imagine, I am haunted by thoughts that I need to do more to explain the value of pushing the limits and making mistakes. That somehow, their anxiety reflects a professional inability to communicate a central humanistic tenet: that we need to ask hard questions, even when we can’t answer them. And so, I can’t help but feel like my students’ concern is tied to the need for scholars to better articulate the value of the humanities more generally. That if we could only convince our students to see past the test, then maybe the next generation would see the value of what we have taught them – unlike the current elite who seem to think that the humanities are antiquated and frivolous. That if we could just articulate what we are doing a little bit better, that students would come not just to defend the humanities, but to celebrate them. Then again, maybe I’m just over-thinking things and my course really is just too hard. Only time will tell.

grumpy cat

From Student to Teacher: Becoming a TA — Guest Post by Bobby Briscoe

Sometimes life feels a little bit like this as a TA

Sometimes life feels a little bit like this as a TA

It’s the first day of class in September, and I’m sitting down in a lecture I’ve been in many times before. But this time I’m in for something very different. I’m not a student at this lecture, I’m there as a Teaching Assistant. This shouldn’t be a problem though should it? I did my undergrad here at this school, and I know what the expectations are and how the grading systems work. It’s also not my first experience on this side of the student-teacher relationship. I did my Bachelor of Education last year. Surely, a Teaching Assistantship will be easy compared to the rowdy and hormonal group of grade 10’s I was teaching last year. This will be an easy opportunity to practice my teaching skills, make some cash, and gain some good experience along the way.

Well, I may have been wrong. Over the past few months I’ve quickly discovered that being a Teaching Assistant presents an entirely unique set of challenges that I certainly didn’t anticipate on that first day of class in September. Before I go any further with this post, I do have to say that TAing is a unique experience. If this article had been written by a TA form another class, or even another TA in the class I am working in, it would probably look a lot different.

Communication

Communication is key. It’s been said countless times, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. The most important line of communication is the one between you and the Professor that you’re working for. It’s important to remember that being a TA is a job. Like in any other job, if there isn’t effective communication between the Prof and the TAs, then everything suffers. Unfortunately, Professors are busy people, so you often need to advocate for yourself. It’s as simple as taking five minutes at the end of each lecture to check in, or a quick email at the start of the week that asks if there is anything to be aware of coming up. Most importantly don’t be afraid to ask questions of your Prof until you’re clear on the expectations for yourself and for the students. Yes, it will seem annoying. Occasionally I’ve needed to ask the same questions several times, but when that pile of essays arrived, I was glad a knew how to grade question #2.

Marking

Marking is probably the most difficult part of the job itself. It doesn’t take very long to realize that a paper that is a B+ for one TA or Professor can easily be an A- to another. There’s really no way to get around this problem entirely, but there are ways to minimize it. First, tools such as rubrics, marking samples, grading schemes, etcetera, ad nauseam, are all extremely helpful in gaining an understanding of the standards and to achieve consistency. Don’t be afraid to the Prof for clarification here, and if you’re really having trouble, don’t be afraid to leave a paper or two for the Prof to mark themselves. Obviously I wouldn’t want to leave huge stack of unmarked papers or questions for your Prof, but in the end these grades are important to the students, and it’s important to get it right.

The best piece of advice I can offer from my experience is don’t be afraid to go with your gut. Often, when you read a paper for the first time, you will have an immediate sense of where it should fall in the grading. As you re-read and re-read the paper however, it becomes easier and easier to talk yourself into assigning a higher or lower grade. I don’t know how many times I flip flopped on grades for some papers. Much of the time, the instinct you had at the outset is the one to go with. This isn’t an invitation to arbitrarily assign grades without carefully reading a paper mind you, but take care not to get too caught up in the details and lose the big picture of the body of the student’s work.

Time Management

Marking might be the hardest part of the job, but balancing your work as a TA with all of the other requirements of graduate course work (let alone a social or love life) is probably the biggest challenge. Work seems to always pile up, and stress naturally comes hand in hand. Everyone has their own individual tricks for managing their time and getting what needs to be done finished on time. One of the strategies that I’ve found to be effective, especially with marking, is spreading the work out. It’s a lot easier to face the prospect of marking four or five papers in a day than it is to sit down in front of a stack of thirty or forty and trying to power through them in one sitting. For me, this has the bonus of allowing me to get course work done on the same day, avoiding the stress of feeling like I lost a day and that I have fallen behind in my own. I’ve also found that using TA work as a break from other course work has been effective for me.  Tired of that tedious Foucault reading? Mark an exam or two then get back to Foucault’s weirdness. Like I said though, everyone has different strategies for managing their time. If getting all of your marking done as a big one day project is what you need to do, then go for it. The important thing is to stay on top of it in a way the works for you.

Again, be open with your professor about you busy schedule. Tell your Professor when the busy times for you are. The deadlines are of course the deadlines and there’s nothing that either you or the Professor can do to avoid that. Having a Professor that is aware of the workload you are carrying can make all the difference. After all, this is a work environment, and it’s important for everyone to be on the same team. In a time of stress, like exams, it’s much better for the Professor to be someone working with you to get the job done than a boss mercilessly piling on the work.

Final thoughts

Like I said at the beginning of this post, my experience TAing is a unique one. I have only been asked to tend the lectures, do the readings and assist with the marking, so I can’t speak to any of the challenges that would come from leading seminars or holding regular office hours. It’s a unique challenge for all of us. One thing I can say is that I was partially right walking into that lecture hall on the first day. Easy is something that this experience certainly is not. But it is a job, and if you are able to treat it in that way, it can become a great experience for you.

Active Learning Classrooms — Guest Post by Iain Reeve

            Can a class of 48 students be engaged in active learning in a classroom setting that also advances desired learning outcomes and allows for valid assessment? Queen’s University is set to unveil three newly renovated “active learning classrooms” this Winter 2014 semester. The classrooms were funded as a pilot project investigating classroom spaces that can allow for a greater degree of engagement and higher diversity of classroom activities in a medium or large class setting. Each classroom has different elements that — for the properly inventive and motivated instructor — allow for an increased level of in-class activity and participation.

As one of the first instructors to teach in these rooms, I want to investigate whether the spaces — and my particular uses for them — are successful. This first entry will discuss my intentions and goals for the spaces, while a second entry at the end of the semester will check in and see just how successful — or not — I was in my goals.

            First, let me introduce the rooms that my class will be taught in. I will be utilizing two of the active learning rooms, an approach that will allow me to utilize the benefits of each to engage in distinct teaching methods from session to session, each week.

The first room — the flexile configuration room — has a 48 seats on wheels that can be easily configured in whatever formation the instructor desires. The room is spacious, bright, and has white board space across the entirety of three walls. This space will be used for the first session of each week and the details can be seen here: http://queensu.ca/activelearningspaces/classrooms/ellis-319-small-classroom-flexible-configuration.

The second room — the interactive display room — sees students seated at round tables in groups of six with one large touch screen monitor per table. By default, the monitor projects the screen of whatever computer is connected to the node at the centre of the table — allowing students to work in groups on content controlled via one student’s computer. However, the instructor may also project to each of the screens from his/her own computer, or display the content of any one table to one or more of the other groups’ monitors. This allows for a significant number of group work/presentation possibilities. This space will be used for the second session of each week and the details can be seen here: http://queensu.ca/activelearningspaces/classrooms/ellis-333-round-tables-and-interactive-displays.

Now it is valuable to discuss the content and desired learning outcomes of my class. My class is a third year class entitled “Canadian Political Institutions and Reform.” The course looks at the formation, history, criticisms, and reform possibilities of five Canadian political institutions  — the executive, the House of Commons, the Senate, federalism, and the electoral system. While most 48 person, third-year courses in the Department of Political Studies are intended to be lectures, in this course I am devoted to the idea that not only can I engage 48 students in the material without using lectures, but that I can do a better job of achieving my learning outcomes if I do so.

The learning outcomes for the course are as follows, in no particular order, and are separated into two distinct categories:

  1. Skills:
    1. Students should demonstrate an ability to critically analyze political institutions, noting strengths, weaknesses, and possible areas of reform or improvement.
    2. Students should demonstrate the ability to perform diverse, substantive research both by reading and understand course materials and by performing their own outside research.
    3. Students should then be able to demonstrate an ability to synthesize this research into clear, persuasive, and well-referenced academic writing.
    4. Students should demonstrate an ability to clearly articulate academic ideas orally, both individually and in groups.
    5. Students should demonstrate an ability to work in teams, balancing responsibilities between team members and building towards strong assignments.
    6. Students should demonstrate the ability to objectively assess their work and the work of their teammates, effectively pointing out both positive and negative elements.
  2. Knowledge
    1. Students should be able to demonstrate an improved understanding of the origins and functions of Canada’s political institutions.
    2. Students should be able to demonstrate an understanding of the common reform proposals for the political institutions studied in the course.
    3. Students should be able to demonstrate a clear understanding of the political barriers and opportunities to such reforms.

Important here is a greater focus on skills. It is exactly this kind of teaching that is most difficult in a standard lecture format. While one could perhaps argue that lectures promote critical listening skills, I’d argue that the only skill that sitting through ten lectures a week promotes is resisting boredom. The rest of this entry will try to demonstrate how I will utilize the active learning classrooms to achieve the learning outcomes — particularly those in the skills category. Since the two active learning classrooms contain drastically different configurations, I will be asking students to undertake very different activities in each of them.

The flexible configuration room is clearly meant for low tech, group oriented activities that fluctuate from week to week, taking advantage of the limitless configurations of the room. This is the room where we will engage with the readings and the core concepts from each week. This will happen in three broad ways: reading presentations by students, topic presentations by the instructor, and in-class institutional simulation activities designed by the instructor and carried out by students. The order of the three possible activities will vary from week to week based on the topic, giving the sessions a free-flowing, active, unpredictable feel. Each session will have a seating arrangement designed to facilitate the in-class activity, which will be unknown to students as they arrive in the classroom. By the end of these sessions students should know the basic content of the readings, some related concepts, and have had a chance to do an activity under the assumptions of the institution being studied. Also, importantly, they will have had a chance to mix and work in groups with different students than the static groups that follow in the second session.

The interactive display room is perfect for group work, with the ability to transmit progress from group to group, leading me to think it ideal for intergroup exchange, collaboration, and critique. In these classes students will be asked to work in stable groups, working progressively on a group project that offers a critique and a reform proposal for each of the five institutions studied in the course. Each week students will focus on group-drafting either a critique or a reform proposal for each of the institutions studied. After finishing a first draft, they will switch with one of the other groups by cross-displaying their proposal to another table. Then feedback will be exchanged and students will integrate criticism. This will occasionally be broken up by small topic presentations or AV presentations by the instructor, but the idea is for these sessions to be more stable, compared to the free-flow nature of the previous session each week.

By engaging students in active, group focused, critical thinking oriented activities as opposed to passive lecture sessions my hope is that I can make better use of the in-class time to encourage the learning outcomes outlined above. Consequently, the outside-of-class requirements are lower, with only the readings, a small bit of presentation preparation, and one research paper to work on outside of class. This both respects the workload of this individual class, but may also help the students achieve a better work balance across their whole course load. This will be an interesting experiment both for me as an instructor, but also for Queen’s as a university, as the outcomes of these rooms will be actively studied in hopes of taking the best examples forward as models for the future.

Whatever the outcome of my approach, I will report on it at the end of the semester, hopefully giving some valuable advice for other instructors seeking to engage in active learning with medium sized groups.

The Teaching Demo

This post feels more than a little presumptuous and egotistical, but I’m going to go there anyway and see what people think. Below, you will find the slideshow from a teaching demo that I had to do at a recent interview. I’m happy to report that, in fact, it was a recent successful interview. My slides are by no means a “how to” manual, but I’m hoping they will provide a starting point for talking about how one navigates the teaching demo portion of an interview, particularly when you know you’re speaking to a room full of professors who are just pretending to be students.

This particular slideshow was produced for a CEGEP interview in a Humanities Department. Interestingly, CEGEPs take history to be a social science, and humanities courses are usually taught by members of one of the other humanities disciplines. Now, I’ve always felt a little schizophrenic as a historian – the discipline is notoriously divided between humanists and social scientists – but the CEGEP application process has really hammered the point home. By subject matter, I’m a historian, and thus belong in the Social Sciences Department; by methodology and self-identification, I’m a humanist and should be in Humanities.

CEGEPS offer Humanities courses in three fields: Knowledge, World Views, and Ethics. I got Ethics. So, if nothing else, this is a good case study in having to give a talk in something way outside your comfort zone. I was given 1 week to prepare a short talk (these things are usually 10-15 minutes) on the ethical issues surrounding minorities within the context of larger social structures. I was told that I could approach it from my own disciplinary perspective, and that PowerPoint would be allowed, but no further instruction was given.

Here are the questions that immediately sprung to mind:

  1. What level should the presentation be pitched to? Ethics is a senior-level CEGEP course, so roughly akin to first-year university students. And yet, CEGEP students are not university students.  And then there’s the problem of the multiple levels of aptitude one encounters in any given class.
  2. How do I deal with the problem of having to talk about something that would come up mid-way through a course without the benefit of being able to assume students know things and still fit it into 10-ish minutes?
  3. How do I deal with the fact that I need to prove that I can lecture in such a way that students can actually take notes, when the people in front of me aren’t students and aren’t taking notes (this is important because if you slow to note-taking pace when there are no notes, it gets very dull very quickly)
  4. What do I do about those places where I usual have a dialogue with the class?

Ok, so… you can see how I decided to deal with all of these issues for yourself. Before you view the slideshow though, I just wanted to mention one last thing. You will notice that during the second slide I whip along at warp-speed. I thought about recording the voiceover again, but then I thought better of it. I decided instead to follow Oliver Cromwell’s example and provide you with a true portrait, “warts and all.” Besides, when I get nervous, I do speed up – I did the day of the interview too, and I still got the job. I guess what I’m saying is this. The key to dealing with the teaching demo isn’t a flawless delivery of whatever you may have planned; it’s an expert recovery when you inevitably mess up. Or, at least that’s my opinion anyway.

Sarah Waurechen_Marianopolis_Guest Lecture

 

The articles I distributed were:

“White Liberal Dude Privilege Syndrome”

“Welfare cut to failed refugees awaiting deportation”