The Syllabus

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I know that syllabus creep is what everyone is talking about these days, but if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to ruminate on a different issue: whether students read syllabi at all. This is more of a problem on some campuses than it is on others, but the constant refrain of “it’s on the syllabus” can be heard throughout most North American colleges and universities.

The syllabus, as you know, is the critical document in any given course. This is where students learn what material will be covered in the class, what their homework is, when tests take place, the value of every assignment, and course and college policies. Many institutions consider it a legally binding contract, and once it has been distributed to the class, no changes can be made without the consent of the students in the class.

The syllabus therefore serves as a way for the professor to describe their vision of the course, but it also offers protection for students against disorganized instructors who might want to change deadlines or add assignments after the fact. It is a document to be loved and embraced – something that establishes rules that preside over the practical mayhem that inevitably occurs from time to time as a course unfolds.

Despite this, an astonishing number of students don’t read syllabi. And I’m not talking about the usual questions about what citation format an instructor would like to see, or how many sources are required in Assignment #2. I’m talking about basic syllabus literacy. Has student x even looked at the document? Do they understand how information is organized and what all of this means? And do have any concept that a proper understanding of the syllabus will help them succeed?

Unfortunately, in a large number of colleges and CEGEPS (less so at the large research institutions), students are not reading syllabi and definitely don’t seem to understand them even if they do take the time to take a peek. I think part of this is that shrinking budgets and environmental consciousness encourage instructors not to print and distribute paper copies of syllabi in class anymore. Instead, we talk about what’s on the syllabus, and ask students to make sure they’ve read the document over on their own time. Don’t get me wrong, saving all that paper is a good thing, but it does come with a few problems.

In many places, students do have laptops in class and can pull up the syllabus and follow along on the first day. However, I think it’s deeply flawed to think that they always do so. Here’s why:
1) Even the best lecturer has a hard time making the syllabus interesting and dynamic, so if ever there’s going to be a time when those rocking a laptop are looking at Facebook and/or shopping on Amazon, this is the moment.
2) Not everyone has a laptop in class, so you’ve completely lost any luddites in the room.
3) Half of the class either doesn’t show up on the first day or “add-drops” in and out, so they aren’t present when you talk about the syllabus anyway. This makes it seem like just one more piece of bureaucratic nonsense that they have neither the time nor the inclination to read on their own.

One of the only things that truly floored me when I made the move to CEGEP was that the students neither read nor cared about the syllabus (the other was the R-score, but I’ll save that for another day). Even at a very good school, the majority of them just didn’t see the point of this document when studying in a system where most of the information traditionally found on the syllabus is mirrored on the online classroom forum. The problem is, not all information found on the syllabus is reproduced via the online forum and so, for the first 2 weeks of class, I had a constant flow of students asking me how they were supposed to know what to read for which day. My move to Moodle has helped a little bit with the readings, but I still have some students who are confused about whether or not “that thing under today’s date” is the reading.

While I never encountered this sort of thing while teaching at the university level, it does seem similar to many of the problems I’ve heard about from friends who teach at small American colleges. I’d therefore like to think that I’m not alone at banging my head against a desk here.

I’ve tried combatting syllabus illiteracy by discussing what the syllabus is and why it’s important on the first day of class. I explain everything to my students that I just laid out for you. Despite this, absence and add-drops tend to mean that the students who need this talk the most are precisely the ones who don’t hear my shtick.

I’ve also tried reinforcing the message by making regular reference to the syllabus as I move forward throughout the class. Similarly, I reiterate that the syllabus is available online when I send out that first class-wide email reminding students about our readings (another CEGEP-specific practice that I’ve adopted to help students make the transition between high school and university).

So what do I propose we do about this? Well, first and foremost, I do think it’s important to keep trying to explain how a syllabus works and why it matters on the first day, and to do so explicitly. There’s still going to be that age-old problem with absences and add-drops; but if enough of us do this, theoretically students will learn syllabus literacy somewhere, at some point.

Also, I feel like we need to keep tweaking our online classroom model. Either we need to go all the way, and convert that online forum into something that fully replaces the syllabus – links to college plagiarism policy and all – or we need to make it look less like it contains all the course material a student could possibly need.

The most common online platform used by CEGEP instructors is something called Lea. Lea not only puts assignment due dates automatically onto students’ calendars, it also sends them a reminder when something is due. It does the same when a test is coming up, and it tracks students’ grades in real time.

All of this is great, but it seems to lull students into a false sense of security that they know everything without ever having to actually think about any of it. This is manifestly not the case, and lecture readings are a prime example of the type of work that students’ won’t be reminded to do without looking at the syllabus. So, if the online forum can’t outright replace the syllabus, then I think we need to find a new template that reiterates the absolute centrality of the syllabus as a course document. Maybe force students to click past it when logging on, or even just changing the default template so that it looks less like a syllabus?

This is one of those issues for which I lack a good solution, but it is something that I am determined to keep thinking about. In the meantime, until that epiphany comes, I will keep plugging away with my reminders about how important it is for students to be familiar with their syllabus, and I’ll keep fiddling with Moodle. I’ll do this until I’ve either figured it out… or, until I lose my mind. Given the ever-increasing levels of absent-minded professor syndrome from which I suffer, it may just be the latter. So if this blog randomly stops publishing, you’ll know what happened.

Moodle

There are definite benefits to using Moodle, especially at the CEGEP level, where something called Lea is much more commonplace. Lea is great if all you’re going to do is post a single slide show every week, but you’re in trouble the moment you want to distribute more information. Lea isn’t all that powerful (that’s my personal opinion, so feel free to correct me if I’m wrong); and although it handles the basics very well, it’s not the best tool if you want to make full use of your online space. Moodle is much more versatile and you can organize documents, links, folders, and assignments via a more user-friendly interface.

The thing about Moodle though, is that “generation tech” doesn’t actually know what the hell it is. Which brings me to the latest fun fact I’ve learned while teaching: young people approach technology differently than I do, and not always in predictable ways. Those who grew up with cell phone technology – and who are now completely habituated to smart phones and tablets – all have the same reaction to hearing about an interface that they’re not familiar with: they go to the app store. I didn’t see that coming, even if I probably should have.

Unbeknownst to me, there is indeed a Moodle app, but why anyone would want to use it remains a bit of a mystery. Viewing documents and PowerPoints on an iPhone seems tedious and probably a little nausea-inducing. Moreover, the trouble one has to go through to download said app, link it to your school, and then to your student ID seems like more trouble than it’s worth. Not to mention the fact that, in an ideal world, students should read documents in settings that allow for more concentration and reflection than they are able to achieve while glancing furtively at their phones. I suspect that I’m just getting old, but I am strangely uncomfortable with the idea that my students are reading all their documents on screens that are roughly 2.5”x 5.”

Anyway… this means that if you do choose to use Moodle, you will have to explain not just what it is, but where to access it. Most students will need you to tell them that they should go to their student homepage (via the college or university website), and then to click the link for Moodle from there. They will be required to verify their email address, but it should be smooth sailing after that. Once on Moodle, students can do all the usual things – including retrieve readings, submit assignments, and post queries to the wiki.

What I like best about Moodle is the ease with which it lets you combine different formats. I can place a PowerPoint, a PDF, and a link to online content under the same heading, while stacking the syllabus and assignment sheets at the top. This keeps all class documents in the same place and reduces the number of student emails you get about lost syllabi; it also prevents students from complaining that they haven’t yet had time to purchase the course pack and/or that the Book Store is sold out. Moreover, it opens up the possibility of assigning video content in lieu of traditional reading materials from time to time, as you can link to YouTube, or upload a video file of your choosing. You can even use it to give quizzes, although that’s not something I’ve done as of yet.

Moodle, like all online tools, is also instantaneous. I can upload PowerPoints immediately after class, as promised – a habit I’ve taken because I strongly believe that students need to learn to take notes without having pre-printed slides in front of them. I can also hide assignments or readings if I want, revealing them only as they become relevant. And I can see who has logged on (yes, I know this is evil, but it’s still useful information), so I know going into the first real lecture who has accessed their readings and who has not. True, I don’t know if the people who’ve logged on have actually read anything or not, but at least they’ve made the token effort of stopping by.

Don’t get me wrong, Moodle isn’t perfect. Despite being an online interface, it doesn’t actually let you do much of anything via the internet. That’s why my Gendered World Views class this year will be using Newsactivist.com – a website that facilitates student communication between classrooms and across countries. Unlike Moodle’s wiki function, Newsactivist.com lets my students post things to the public (which includes their peers in other classrooms), while restricting comments to other Newsactivist users. It also protects my students’ anonymity through the use of pseudonyms. And, since it’s run by a fellow educator, I happen to know that it avoids the sort of data-collection and possible abuse of said data that one has to consider when asking students to join Facebook groups or use Twitter for similar purposes.

Using Moodle also means dealing with students who can’t be bothered to do their readings or look at their syllabus when they have to click through several screens (I guess this is where, maybe, I shouldn’t be so cranky about the app because it makes retrieving information a bit faster). For some people, multiple clicks is always going to be too much work, and this means that any online forum can cause a bit of trouble. Some students also still hate reading on screen, and thus have to find a way to print material, which is time consuming and irksome compared to purchasing a course pack.

That having been said, Moodle just seems better organized and more accessible than old-fashioned paper tools or other online systems I’ve used like Lea, WebCT, or MyCourses. It’s also a lot easier to use now that Moodle has finally adopted the “drag and drop” interface for uploading files. Pretty much the only thing that’s going to slow you down is modifying whatever template your school has put in place to help get you started.

Most importantly, students seem to like Moodle – at least once they’ve managed to find their way there for the first time. The interface is relatively intuitive for them, and collecting and returning assignments via Moodle also appeals because it creates more flexibility regarding the due date and even the hour at which the assignment is due. It also keeps students from having to struggle through the hand-written comments I used to leave on paper copies.

I would be curious to know how other people feel about online class forums. Do you have a favourite? And for all its pros, what do you think are Moodle’s biggest cons, and how do you work around them? Let me know in the comments below!

5 Questions Posed by an Itinerant Professor to the Universe

Ok, I admit it. I’ve been bad and neglecting my blog. In my defense, I’ve moved schools yet again and my schedule has been up in the air. I also took a vacation this year (*gasp*). That’s right, a bone fide, no-laptop, no-work, no-conference vacation. And I don’t even feel bad about it. So there!

Anyway, I hereby pledge to do my best to better maintain this site with my usual balance of sarcasm and the occasional sincere reflection. Today, I’m leaning towards sarcasm, so here it is: the five questions I have for the universe after my first day back.

  1. Why is the computer console in every classroom (not to mention every school) different, and why can I never find the sound?

No, really. WTF? There is absolutely no way not to look like the stereotypical, absent-minded professor on the first day of class unless you have come in the day before, broken into a classroom that should be locked, and dissected the AV equipment while anxiously checking to make sure that security isn’t about to throw you out.

“Where is the remote? Oh wait, this one has no remote! Ok, well, how the hell do I turn the projector on?” These are the words I mumble wildly to myself while randomly pressing buttons, like a group of children who’ve found an unknown object and decide to poke it with a stick. “Oooohhhhh… that’s how it works,” I mutter, until I realize that I still don’t know where the volume is. This scenario inevitably continues to play itself out, until some kind soul in the back row shouts: “the volume is on the wall!” I say “thank you,” humbled, and defeated. So why, dear universe, can you not standardize this things, or at the very least, send me a manual in advance?

  1. Who designed this building, and why do I feel like I’m in a labyrinth about to be eaten by a Minotaur?

Ok, so, technically I already know the answer to this question. In some cases (and I will pretend to be the mature adult and not name names), buildings were actually intentionally designed to confuse people. In the wake of the 1960s, and the eruption of student protests that characterized those years, some campus buildings were actually created with riot control in mind and designed to divide people and keep them disoriented. In other cases, like a medieval cathedral, the school just kept adding more and more wings as they got more money and needed more space… until all hope for sanity or coherence was lost. Either way, every time I start somewhere new I feel hopeless and alone, and I can never find the bathroom.

  1. Why are there so many lost people (other than me, of course)?

Ironically, despite being a teacher and loving my job, I don’t really like other human beings a lot of the time. This is particularly true when I’m already stressed, lost, and seriously under-caffeinated. So tell me, oh powers that be, why there have to be so many other people in my space while I turn in circles trying to distinguish the F-wing from the A-wing and wondering why I can’t find either one.

  1. Is there something special about my clothing on day one that guarantees that I will drop coffee and various foodstuffs all over myself?

Confession time. I’m teaching night school this year, so I have to eat dinner before I run off to class, and I may have eaten the most offensively garlicky meal ever in a small, communal office this evening. My office mates probably didn’t appreciate it, and if I recall, I don’t think I had the forethought to warn them or the grace to apologize. So to anyone else who was in my space at around 6pm today: I’m sorry.

But, just because I am an ignorant sod, with no regard for those working around me, do I really need to wear the remnants of my meal as a badge of my shameful behavior, so that all the world can judge? Granted, I end up dribbling things down the front of white blouses with amazing frequency all the time, but it seems like the odds of me wearing my latte are unusually high on day 1. So, I would like the universe to explain if there is indeed a special magnetic attraction between any outfit worn on the first day of teaching and the food or beverage I am trying to get into my mouth.

  1. Which codes get me into what system, and what am I even doing right now anyway?

This year I have a door code, a computer code, a copy code, and a variety of other numbers attached to my name: significantly fewer codes than normal but enough to drive me insane nonetheless! And since I’m an historian, I simply cannot content myself by putting all these things in a note on my iPhone –let’s face it, I’m never going to remember all that shit – so I have a series of post-it notes attached to my phone, wallet, laptop, binder, and whatever else has a reasonably inviting surface. My things look ruffley, and may even take flight. So really, at this point, all I want to know from the universe is what numbers and letters you would like me to input because I’ve long-since lost track? Well, actually, I also need to know where? And maybe when?

Asking the Right Questions

There are so many reasons that I want to talk about this, but I’ll stick to two. First of all, as many of you already know, I run an interactive classroom and I’m always tossing out questions for my students to think about. Whether it’s in a small classroom of 30 students, or in a large lecture hall that seats 150, I’m involved in a constant exchange of information and never simply monologue for the full period. The types of question I ask vary based on the subject matter and class size, but I like to pause and see what students can tell me every now and again instead of just yammering away at them. I’m a huge fan of peer-to-peer learning, but I’m not above admitting that I take breaks where I can get them as well.

In order to facilitate a conversation effectively, I come prepared with a set of questions that I want to ask my class. In a large lecture setting, these tend to be fact-based questions, which allow students who have a personal interest in the subject matter a chance to shine. Now, I know what you’re going to say: I can’t expect people to always know what a word means, or to have heard of “the Other.” Don’t worry, I don’t, and my students are told at the beginning of every semester that they are not expected to know this information in advance. Rather, I acknowledge that some of them will already know things from other classes or from personal reading, and explain that class is more interesting if they’re allowed to share their knowledge than if I simple continue to talk at people.

Fact-based questions break up my lecture into more manageable pieces, and tend to be peppered throughout the class. When I ask my lecture classes about the “big picture,” I wait until the end of class, or sometimes pause in the middle. Again, I have 1 or 2 carefully thought-out questions, which I include as part of my slide show; students get 5-10 minutes to discuss these issues, and if I’ve managed to grab their attention during lecture, the conversation can be quite interesting. If not, well, let’s just say I can tell and I try to revise my lecture accordingly.

In seminars, the goal is to construct a meaningful narrative from a series of unique documents, each of which views the topic through a particular lens. Part of this process means discussing the methodology used in secondary sources – what works and what doesn’t – and the goals, limitations, and subject position of the authors who wrote the primary sources. If the class is going to achieve its goal and make sense of all of this information, my individual questions need to be properly conceived. More importantly, however, they need to be ordered correctly. Therefore, sometimes I start with the details and build towards the general, and sometimes I start from the general and work towards the precise – but I always have a plan.

All of this works very nicely since students receive and react to my questions in real time, and we work through the material as a group. This gives me the opportunity to adapt to the needs of each class, and to rephrase a particular question or rethink my line of approach if need be. Let’s face it, if the ups and downs of my academic career have taught me anything, it’s how to think on my feet. And so, at least half of the time, I feel like asking the right questions is a skill that I most definitely possess.

And yet, I’m not always as successful as I would like to be when posing questions. And this brings me to the other reason that I really wanted to write about this topic: sometimes I suck at asking essay questions, particularly when I’m teaching a course for the first time. One memorable disaster of an assignment resulted in this end-of-term evaluation gem: “Assignment 2 was evil! DO YOU HEAR ME?!?! F*cking Evil!!!” Yeah… I hear you. In fact, you didn’t even have to tell me (although I genuinely empathize with your need to scream it to the hilltops), since I’d already figured that out on my own. Assignment 2 – of which I will spare you the details – was based on a poorly conceived question, and I have nothing left to say to my former students other than: “I am so, so very sorry.”

The problem I have in these situations is not that the idea at the heart of the question is flawed, but rather that the question itself has come out garbled in some way. Choose one wrong word – or omit one – and you’ve created the conditions for the perfect storm. When teaching a lesson, things always go relatively well because I have a chance to react, reformulate, or explain. But when asking a question that I wish the students to answer on their own time, that opportunity is taken away from me. In essence, I lose control of the question, and that has a tendency to burn me if I haven’t had the chance to try it out on real, living, breathing, human beings before.

My most recent failure occurred in my Media Ethics class when I asked students to write a position paper based on newspaper articles about Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal. What I really meant to say was: “Was it right for the mainstream news media to publish the materials Edward Snowden gave to them, exposing the NSA’s bulk collection and storage of personal metadata? Discuss with reference to journalism ethics, the need for community safety, and the place of individual rights.” What I actually wrote was: “Should the media expose all government actions in order to keep that government honest and to ensure the protection of individual rights and freedoms; or, should information be censored to protect the community as a whole? Discuss with reference to the readings in your Course Pack.”

In this instance, aside from the obvious awkwardness in the way that the question was phrased, it was the “all” that got me. Despite the fact that I had clearly asked them to answer with reference to the NSA – since the readings in the Course Pack had to do with Snowden’s revelations – students focused on the word “all.” It wasn’t their fault, and I realized my error the moment I marked the first paper. But it was too late. Instead of being able head off trouble as it began, I was left regretting my word choice and faced with the fait accompli of a mountain of papers arguing that military secrets of various sorts need to be carefully guarded and kept out of the public sphere. The bulk-capturing of metadata faded away into the background.

In the end, I wrote clarifying remarks in the margins of all the papers that wandered away from the mainstream news media, Snowden and the NSA, but I had no choice other than to evaluate them with reference to the question that I had actually set, as opposed to the one I wish I’d assigned. As long as students made some reference to materials in their Course Pack, I had to accept submissions that focused more on Chelsea Manning and Wikileaks – albeit usually in vague terms – as legitimate. I therefore assessed each argument based on its internal coherence or lack thereof, and not on its proximity to the question that I really wanted them to discuss.

As I mentioned above, this is not the first time things have gone wrong, and I’ve tried a number of tactics to avoid poorly worded questions. I always have someone outside my field read over my assignment sheets before I release them at the start of term; however, the education gap between my “test subjects” and my actual students tends to show on judgment day. Like all of my peers, I also introduce the assignments and the questions that they pose on the first day of class. Moreover, we talk about these things briefly throughout the semester, and I always hope that students will ask for clarification. Alas, since they do not know what I wanted to ask – as opposed to what I did ask – they have no idea that something is wrong and tend take the question as it stands and run with it. Finally, if students who start early show up to my office with questions, I have taken to sending out emails that attempt to clarify the assignment guidelines. The problem with doing this is that I often can’t see where the real confusion lies until I have seen at least one completed paper.

So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that while I feel like I know what I’m doing half of the time, the other half, I really sympathize with my colleagues who have confessed to struggling with this part of their pedagogy. Asking questions is bloody hard, and every time I think I’ve figured it out, the universe reminds me not to be so damn cocky. I’m going to continue experimenting with how to avoid the “poorly worded question” scenario – I think my next move will be to ask former students to look over new assignments instead of my friend in law school – but I suspect there are more train wrecks ahead. Thus, I might also ask students to paraphrase assignments back to me when we go over everything on the first day of class, but I worry that such a strategy would be condescending. As always, I welcome ideas in the comments thread below. If you’ve got solutions, I’m sure I’m not the only one who wants to hear them.

newsactivist.com – A Conversation with Gabriel Flacks about Technology that Could Change Your Classroom

My move into the CEGEP world has exposed me to some really amazing teachers, and I’ve been humbled by the pedagogical commitment I see around me on an almost daily basis. I’ve had English teachers walk me through incredibly thoughtful assignments that teach students to see past the trappings of a book and really get at the guts of a text. I’ve also had a colleague in the Social Sciences department invite me to be a “guest specialist” in her class – she brings faculty members from several different departments into her classroom on a semi-regular basis to offer criticism and support as her students compose their major research papers, which at the college level, are interdisciplinary in nature. Most recently, Gabriel Flacks, who currently serves as the Coordinator of the Humanities Department at Champlain Regional College, St. Lambert, has introduced me to a website that he created. It’s called NewsActivist.com and it has a wide range of applications, but for now, I want to let him introduce it himself via a brief Q&A.

 

1. What is News Activist.com?
NewsActivist is a website built to support courses that are supplemented and enhanced by students writing collaboratively across campuses and borders. Specifically, it was built to support my college-level Humanities course about contemporary issues by getting students to write and think critically about the news through the lens of volunteer work, academic research or entrepreneurial endeavors. The website grew out of a desire to get my students talking with students in a sociology classroom that was run by a colleague who teaches at a university in New York. The idea was to facilitate cross-cultural understanding, to note the effects of “the framing effect” in mass media, and to make writing assignments more meaningful by providing students a broad audience. We therefore organized a set of asynchronous writing assignments that encouraged students to consider how social issues in New York and Quebec are often both similar and dissimilar all at once. However, when we attempted to implement this course work, we had difficulties integrating our classrooms using any and all existing web tools. After our attempts to use numerous sites for cross-border collaboration fell short, I approached the director of Champlain College, who, seeing the value of our cross-border approach, supported my desire to create a website built specifically to help our students collaborate. NewsActivist.com was quickly built from my design, and it went online in 2012. In that first semester, it was used only by my colleague and I to allow our students to dialogue; since then, the website has been attracting new users very quickly. It has been used by over 2000 other students enrolled in over 50 different courses in the disciplines of Humanities, Sociology, English, Psychology, Business, English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL), and more. The teachers using the site have discovered, as I did, that many types of courses can be supplemented, internationalized, and enhanced by using newsactivist.com to support collaborative cross-campus writing.

2. Why does it work better than other technology that allows for long-distance multi-user communication, such as Facebook or Twitter?
Twitter does not encourage academic writing as such; its microblog format is simply too short to help students develop their writing skills or communicate ideas that need more than a few sentences for complete expression. Further, for teachers and students, tracking the work of the students from individual classes is difficult using Twitter.

Facebook is equally non-academic in design and is not a “writing platform” per se. It allows each teacher and student a limited range of options in how each class’s “activity feed” can be presented. More importantly, privacy settings are limited. This lack of control creates limitations in how individual users can exert control over the visibility of submitted content. So, although it appears open, Facebook does not offer a safe, academically-formatted, open exchange across campuses; unlike NewsActivist, it just isn’t designed to facilitate the transmission of academic assignments or submissions between teachers and students, while offering the opportunity for students to have control over these assignments’ visibility across a network.

For teachers, NewsActivist is built to make one’s class easy to manage. It’s easy to find students’ work and it is quick and simple to engage with them. There is also a “Collaboration Planning Forum,” where teachers can find collaborative partners, track their collaborative schedules and share ideas and resources. Approved teachers are able to easily add classes, invite students to these online classes, and make these classes private, public, or semi-private. They can then use the site in many different ways, from a regular ongoing aspect of the course, to a single assignment which moves academic work into an authentic cross-cultural setting; teachers can use the site as it suits the pedagogical goals of the course.

NewsActivist also provides a number of student privacy options, giving students control over who can see each piece of their work. Each student is given the option of making each piece of his or her writing visible only to their teacher, restricting it to members of their class, or electing for it to be fully public and accessible to anyone online. Regardless of what option a student chooses, only approved users – that is, other students participating in an authorized class – can submit or comment on work at NewsActivist. Students therefore have an audience, but are also in a safe academic environment, with complete control over their work.

To give a specific example, this month, my students are using the site for collaborative writing with a Sociology class, an Entrepreneurship class, and a Business Communication class. All four teachers involved use the Collaboration Planning Forum (only teachers who have registered at the site will be able to see this forum) to communicate and are able keep their partner classes apprised of what assignments will be submitted to the site on any given week. This allows other teachers to assign feedback-focused work in their classes; they ask their students to write a specific number of constructive comments under newly posted work that has been created by students in a partner classroom. On NewsActivist, students are always teaching other students and teachers can manage otherwise unwieldy course planning for collaborative coursework using features that facilitate marking and organizing assignments. And all of this happens in an organic way.

3. What have students had to say about the website?
There are several journal articles in press, written by professors who have used the site, attesting to the fact that students love it (see the list below). They learn about issues they wouldn’t have considered before, and start reading, volunteering, and even voting more. One of my students puts it this way:

“I was much more motivated to write my blog posts then my regular essays because I knew some people would actually read it and my opinion could have a voice.  We could also see what other students thought of what we were doing or give our opinion on other people’s posts whether we agreed or disagreed, which motivated me to write better posts.  I got to work on a subject that really matters to me and it made me care about it even more.” – Natalie Geukers

Below are some other anonymous testimonials, and more can be found at the site:

“Getting to choose my own topic and commenting on other people made me feel like a journalist and that my opinion mattered.”

“English is my 2nd language so I liked being able to take my time and come up with an answer.”

“We are a technologically advanced generation and the education system should recognize that”

“I liked seeing what other people thought…  it helped me understand issues in new ways.”

“I took more time thinking about what I was writing because I knew people could check my facts…I don’t usually worry about that.”

I think it is a great way to encourage students to participate since you get lots of comments and feedback. It is also great because you can see others people work!”

4. What is the most unexpected thing that’s happened since launching the site?
The most surprising thing was discovering just how many teachers have been looking for a site like this, and so the process has been very rewarding. Demand has led the site to be translated into French, has allowed me to work on the project as part of an existent Entente Canada Quebec grant that supports cross-campus pedagogy, and allowed me to give my students access to more perspectives than I could ever have hoped. In April 2014, several classes from Japan and Florida will be sharing academic-style writing about current events via NewsActivist, providing my current class a completely new set of peers with whom to exchange information and collaborate on assignments.

5. How do you see the site developing over the coming years?
I try to just go with the flow. I’m doing my best to continue to improve the site by considering both teacher and student feedback. The more teachers and students use the site, the more exciting my classes become – and so, I hope that the network of teachers and students using the site continues to grow. I ask students to comment on writing shared at the site, and as disciplines and institutions multiply, my students are constantly provided with fresh content to interact with. In the process, I’m learning more about my students. One of the great surprise benefits of using the site to support my classes has been that otherwise shy students are often more open and engaged in a safe, academic, social network, and so I’ve found ways to expand use of the site into other classes that I’m teaching. Hopefully, people will continue to see value in the project and it will continue to diversify.

 

NewsActivist has already been used by teachers in a variety of different disciplines. My immediate reaction to hearing about this technology, however, was that someone should use it in a historical context. Being a British historian by training, I thought it would be really exciting to pair an undergad class in North America – studying, say, Tudor-Stuart history – with one in the United Kingdom that was looking at similar material. I would absolutely love to see how students from such different backgrounds could learn from one another. More specifically to the Quebec context, there also seems to be a lot of potential when it comes to teaching either Quebec History, or Canadian history more generally. Given the cultural divide that separates Canada from the “ROC” (that’s “Rest of Canada” for those of you who don’t know the lingo), I thought it would be a great idea to pair a Quebec classroom with a class in Ontario, Alberta, or British Columbia. Sparks may fly, but that would be a conversation worth having!

 

To learn more about NewActivist, click here and check it out.

For academic articles commenting on the project see:

Flacks, G. and Eric Kaldor(in press) “Facilitating Globally Networked Courses with Newsactivist.com: Student Blogs, Social Networks, and Collaborative Pedagogy.” Canadian International Journal of Social Science and Education. June 2014

Thomas, T., Fournier-Sylvester, N., & Venkatesh, V. (in press). “Citizen in/action: Analyzing online forums for pedagogical insight. “In V. Venkatesh, J. Wallin, J. C. Castro, and J. E. Lewis (Eds.), Educational, behavioral, and psychological considerations in niche online communities. Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Fournier-Sylvester, N. (in press). “From the chat room to the voting booth: The potential of using online discussion forums to develop civic skills”.Citizenship Education Research Network.

Flacks, G and Lynn Reid. (in press) “Blogging Democracy: Reconsidering Community Engagement with Web 2.0.” Fourtheenth International Conference on Education and Social Sciences Conference Proceedings. ISBN: 978-605-64453-0-9

 

Teaching and Mental Health: Part I

Sometimes life can feel a little bit like this

Sometimes life can feel a little bit like this

As is so often the case, I feel like I need to start out with a disclaimer. I have absolutely no training in psychology, psychiatry, or social work. In fact, I have never even received official guidance of any sort from my various departments when it comes to handling students with mental health issues. Sure, I got the standard “we are not trained for this, so don’t try to take it on – send them to counseling services,” but that was it. The only substantial piece of advice that anyone ever did give me was off the record, and it was this: “Students tend to want to talk to women, and young women in particular… so make sure you have a box of tissues in your office.” This turned out to be very good advice, and I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Everyone is always saying that there seems to have been an increase in mental health issues among the undergraduate student body in the last 10 years or so. I’m not sure if this is true or not, and I’ve never actually seen any statistics. I am, however, always at least a little skeptical and here’s why. When I was doing my BA – from 2000 until 2004 – I already knew of several people going to counseling services, so clearly there were people seeking help 10 years ago too. At that point in time, the stigma surrounding therapy wasn’t as strong as it was for my parents’ generation, but it’s not like it was something you wanted to openly advertise you were doing either. Which is to say, I’m pretty sure that there were plenty other people around me who were going to counseling services and just didn’t want to admit it.

On the other hand, the years during which I did my undergrad also witnessed the infamous “double cohort.” For those of you who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Ontario used to have something called OAC, or Ontario Academic Credit year – this is just a fancy way of saying grade 13. In 2003, OAC was eliminated and so Ontario students graduating from both grade 12 and OAC had to compete for an only slightly increased number of seats in Ontario universities in 2004. My university, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, received an influx of students who were academically brilliant – and I mean really really good. But emotionally, many of these students were initially unsteady. Sure, they figured it out, and many have gone on to become incredibly successful young professionals. But everyone noticed the initial spike in demand at counseling services, and the line-up of students who were waiting to see their professors in tears after receiving a poor grade.  Many also went to get a pep talk from our department’s particularly wonderful administrative assistant.

As the economy has become bleaker, the same pressures that burdened the double-cohort seem to be dogging everyone. You have to be the best if you want to succeed – better than the best, in fact – we are all told. Everyone knows what youth unemployment stats look like, and we all know how much a house costs. The competition has gotten so fierce that undergrads now give and publish papers, albeit at undergraduate conferences and in undergraduate journals. A lot of them also do internships, both paid and unpaid, in an attempt to get a “leg up.” And so, as you can imagine, stress levels have increased, and yet the potential of a payoff for all of this remains uncertain. When combined with the dwindling funding bestowed upon public universities, and dramatically increased enrollment without a similarly supplemented faculty and staff, it is hardly surprising that counseling services at universities across North American have been run off their feet by a flood of desperate, anxious, depressed, and even sometimes suicidal youths.

University and college instructors get to see all of this, up close and personal. Whether or not we care (and most of us do, although unfortunately there are still some who prefer not to recognize the problem), we notice the students with severe behavior problems, those who spontaneously disappear, and those whose demeanor slowly changes over the course of the year. And that’s not to mention the ones who end up in your office and breakdown in tears. Some of these people have problems that are long-term and clinical. Others are adapting poorly to the stress of a highly independent learning environment. And others still are simply dealing with shit that no 20-something should have to deal with: they are the primary caregiver for a sick or elderly parent, have children of their own or have inherited care of younger siblings, or they have been the victim of an assault. These sorts of things cause entirely normal bouts of anxiety and depression that get in the way of academic productivity, and I hear about them all the time in my office.

I hear so much of this because I am young and female. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, age and gender matter in this regard. I’m not sure if this is because students mistakenly assume that these traits make me maternal, or if they think these things make me easier to relate to or something. But it is definitely a factor. My male colleagues (senior professors through young male TAs) have generally confessed that they too have noticed this phenomenon. Although some of my male friends and colleagues were presented with a few student crises at the start of their careers, the older ones all say that the number of students who come to them in tears has markedly declined. Almost none of them have a box of tissues in their office. So yeah, thank God somebody had the good sense to warn me about the age/gender factor when I was just starting out.

And yes, I have considered that perhaps the number of teary-eyed students in my office is the direct result of my evil assignments or tyrannical grading, but over the years I have had too many people come to see me – in various states of distress – about things that have had nothing to do with my class at all. So it can’t all be my fault. I give them a tissue and try to listen. I then send them to counseling services. Over the years, I have even developed a process. A student who comes in and starts crying gets a tissue, a piece of candy (I always have a pot of it on my desk), a sympathetic ear, and then they get referred to my colleagues who are more qualified in these matter than I. The candy is a little weird, I know, but I can’t help it. My mother’s larger-than life hospitality means that to this day I feel the need to feed people, particularly when they are upset.

The problem is, counseling services is full-up, and many of my students get there and are told they have to wait for weeks – or even months – before they will get to talk to someone. Many times, an office will have a triage counselor, but this is not suggested unless a student is noticeably in crisis (for understandable reasons). Unfortunately, people in crisis are often the least likely to push the matter, so many people who need immediate help aren’t referred. This is where I confess that I’ve actually told one student to make a scene in order to access this service. She came to my office in tears, and I offered her the usual tissue-bonbon-counseling services thing. She just looked at me and said “I’ve already been there, they won’t see me,” and then started crying again. So I went off the record and I told her to pitch a fit. This is hardly a systemic solution, but it worked in the moment, and the episode has haunted me ever since. What are we supposed to do if we aren’t trained to help these students, but there’s no one available in the department that is?

Taking all of this into account, here are just a few things that I think need to happen. Instructors need to receive better training on how to deal with the quantity of students we see who are in distress. I don’t mean coaching in how to counsel them – I realize that is a liability nightmare – but some sort of information session about the number of students we should or shouldn’t expect to hear from in the course of a semester, and where to send them (both on and off campus) would be good. A more formal warning that women will bear the brunt of this, and young women in particular, also needs to be issued. And we all, collectively, need to agitate for more funding to be allocated to counseling services and staff in general.

In the meantime, I’ve now passed on the advice that was given to me way back when. Get yourself a box of tissues, and maybe some chocolates, and learn how to listen. Sometimes that’s all that people want.

Preparing Your Students for the Final Exam

All of what I’m about to say works a lot better if you have a somewhat systematic approach to lecturing, and you’ve drafted a thoughtful final exam that reflects this. But if it was your first time teaching and you didn’t quite have all your ducks in a row yet – or if you just had one of those semesters – all of this still applies. You may just need to provide more sample questions and work a little harder to explain what the exam will look like so that your students can predict what’s coming. Since most of you have already had to submit your final exams to the exams office, I’m going to stick to preparing your students for the moment of truth (I promise I will write a post on drafting final exams early next semester).

1. Be explicit about whether or not the exam covers all the material from the class.

As some of you may know, I love guest lectures. They expose my students to leading lights in the field and give them a better glimpse of people’s different perspectives. They also provide a chance to have some really interesting Q&A sessions. But this raises the issue of whether or not guest lectures are fair game for the final exam.

In my classes, material from guest lectures never shows up on the final exam in a significant way. Everyone has a unique teaching style, and I don’t think it’s fair to force people to try to guess about what I found most important in a lecture that I didn’t write. What’s most important for our present purposes, however, is that I’m very upfront with my students about this fact. And yes, they do still come to guest lectures even so. I think part of this is that I intentionally hype guest speakers – but the other part is that they know that I come to these lectures too. Students are therefore aware that I will know if nobody shows, and they also know that I will lose my shit the next day if this is the case. This seems to act as a deterrent when it comes to truancy.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I am also upfront about whether or not I will be testing material from the whole course, or only from the midterm forward. This varies from course to course, and semester to semester, but I always let students know. What I tell my students about exams is this: “My goal is not to trip you up – it is to let you show off.” My own memories of exam anxiety are vivid enough that I figure I have a karmic duty to the universe not to be too evil.

2. Think about how your slides/presentation style matches up to your exam questions, and then communicate this to your students.

Here, I want to go back to guest lectures for a moment. I don’t test on the material presented by my guests because it’s usually delivered in such a dramatically different way from how I teach the rest of the course. The result is that students are often panicky when it comes to guest lecture material because they can’t tell what bits of the lecture to focus on. They were, after all, only in contact with the guest for an hour or an hour and a half.

How dramatically different could my lecture style really be though? Um, yeah. This is where you’re all going to think that I’m more than a little OCD. As I’ve explained in the past, I always lecture to a question. As the lecture progresses, I have between 3 and 7 slides (skeletal, I know), depending on the length of the talk. The title of each slide refers to one broad theme which I am using to answer the question, and the bullet points beneath it are particular points of evidence. Unlike a written essay, I’m not clear from the outset how all of this material will come together and I encourage student to draw their own meaning as we move along. That said, we do tie it all together when I conclude, and students are asked to decide how they would answer that initial question in a 5-10 minute discussion period.  Since we talk about historiography as part of the process, students have several ready-made answers at their disposal, or they can create their own argument.

Too structured? Alas, it gets worse. My exams very carefully reflect my lecture format. They’re usually composed of a series of short answers or IDs, and choice of essays (plus something from tutorials – often a document analysis). Essay questions come from my lecture questions, short answers are drawn from slide titles, and IDs come from those bullet points. I know, it’s a bit much right? And it’s hardly going to work for everyone, but this is how I role.  Judge me if you will. I am a huge fan of spontaneity in other aspects of life, but I can’t shake the anxiety caused by being in charge of people’s grades, so I do everything I can to give them a fighting chance.

As I said, there is absolutely no reason your lectures should be as uniformly formatted as my own. But try to figure out, in general terms, how you present material and then communicate this to your students so that they can better prepare for your exam. Part of what they’re learning in university is how to differentiate the most relevant material from the rest, and then to predict what tasks they might be assigned based on that information. When you’re trying to pinpoint your style – and how it translates to exams –you’ll also need to think about the broad themes of the course. Make sure that you’ve explicitly discussed these themes with the class, as your exam is going to emphasize your narrative arc, and the questions that you set will no doubt be shaped by it.

3. Tell them what the weighting will look like so that they know where to concentrate their efforts.

Each one of us has a different approach to exams, depending on our time constrictions and our pedagogical outlook. Most of us will mix formats: essays, short answers, IDs, document analysis, multiple choice, etc… Tell your students what formats you’re using, how many of each type of question will be present, and if there will be choice. But most importantly, tell them how much every section will be worth so that when they’re studying, they know where to focus their efforts.

Personally, I put the most weight on the essay questions. The essay section is therefore usually worth at least half the value of the exam, and I repeat this information several times as we approach doomsday. I thus encourage my students to spend most of their time studying for this type of question. This makes sense in the broader scheme of things too because the process of studying for essays simultaneously prepares students for the IDs and short answers. The down side of essays, however, is that students are faced with an enormous amount of material that they need to master.

But there is a solution to this problem as well: with essay-based exams it’s often possible to completely ignore several lectures. If I am giving smaller essays based on single-lectures, students always have a choice. If they have to answer 2 out of 4 questions, then that means they can automatically ignore at least two lectures. If the essay question is a large-scale, full-course reflection piece, the same principle actually still holds true. Since students can draw from almost any lecture in the course, they will naturally have to focus somewhere, and so they can still avoid some lectures based on what material they felt was least relevant to the course as a whole.

I also tell my students the number of points that will be awarded to each section. From there, we discuss what this means in terms of how they should manage their time. For example, if the essay section is worth 50% of their exam, and it’s a three hour exam, they should spend roughly 1.5 hours writing that section. I guess what I’m trying to say is: make sure you teach your students to study strategically.

4. Give sample questions.

This is self-explanatory. It’s not absolutely necessary, but I’ve found it really helps students to prepare. This is especially true if you didn’t give a midterm because, if this is the case, students don’t know what your tests look like. When I do my exam prep lecture, I always provide sample questions that will not be on the exam (conveniently eliminating some more study material for them as well). I use these questions to illustrate where the material is being drawn from vis-à-vis the slides, and we workshop the answer as a group.

By doing all of this, I reduce student anxiety and my own. As I said, I find it unnerving to be in control of something as important as someone’s GPA, so I want to be as fair as possible. I really do design my exams and exam prep to allow students to “show me what they’ve got.” I want each and every one of them to do well, and I give them the tools to be able to succeed. But if, after all of that, things still go wrong at the exam, I feel a little more confident that it wasn’t me. Sometimes students are a sick, having a personal crisis, are sitting my exam last, or just hated the course. This will be reflected in their grades, but at least they had a fighting chance.

My students seem to sense my level of investment in their learning, and many are grateful to have an idea of what they are walking into when they enter the exam hall. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written some bad exams – and graded some really problematic ones – but I find that a good exam prep class helps ward off disaster.  As always, this is hardly an exhaustive list of strategies, so please leave comments below. And good luck to everyone in the exam hall!