Saturday, January 25, 2014

Teaching philosophy

[This is an oldish post that I didn't publish because I wanted to wait until I'd seen what the students thought about the course I describe. They seem to have liked, i.e. valued, it. Not that that proves its value, but it's something.]

I'm teaching a not perfect but very good course this semester and have been thinking about blogging about it. Recent questions about how to make grades reflect the level a student has reached by the end of a course and how to get students to read comments written on their papers make me think I should perhaps explain what I do, at the risk of sounding smug, in case it's helpful to someone else.

First of all, I should say something about why I think this course is so good. It seems to me that my students are considerably more engaged than they usually are in other courses I am teaching and have taught; that they are producing better work; that they are working harder; and, in short, that they are learning more. They also seem reasonably happy despite all this. Some look a little shocked but none have actually complained about how much work they are doing or how low their grades (so far) are. So what am I doing?

One thing I do is to let them re-write their papers. This means that they have an incentive to read my comments and pay attention to them. I also only count the final grade that they get on each paper, so that at the end of the course their grades should reflect the level they have reached by then and not be lowered because of earlier mis-steps. There is no incentive to feign incompetence in order to show improvement, because I don't reward improvement as such (only a good final product). And I discourage (successfully, so far) slacking off early on by giving a permanent penalty to the grade on any assignment turned in late or that does not get a passing grade first time around. Actually that's not quite true: any student who gets an F on the first version of a paper has one week to bring it up to a passing grade, otherwise they get that penalty that never goes away no matter how much they improve their work. This means that a paper that is revised until it is A+ standard will only get an A; not a crushing penalty but enough of an incentive to make them do a decent job (or try to do so) when the paper is first due.

Another thing I do is grade them on class participation and turning in written summaries of all assigned readings. If they want to get an A then they pretty much have to read and summarize all the readings and make a positive contribution to every class. If they want to get a C they have to do one or the other (or half and half). The only alternative is to write more papers, and of course reading the assigned material and paying attention in class are important for this too. Painfully shy students are encouraged to come out of their shells, but not forced to do so. They can just write a couple more papers instead. Each paper counts for 10% of their final grade, and they can do 4, 5, or 6 of them. Engagement (summaries and participation) then counts for 30, 20, or 10% of their final grade. A final exam makes up the remaining 30%.

The result is that far more of my students are coming to class prepared and are attentive and active in class discussions than I am used to seeing. I grade their papers unsparingly (lots of Fs) knowing that they can re-write them as many times as they like, and they accept these grades because they know they can bring them up by working on their papers more. (They also aren't the complaining type, which sounds good but sometimes seems like despair).

This would be too much for a lot of people, I know, but we have small classes (15-16 in each of my three this semester) and I try to write only a few comments on each paper. I use a checklist to make my grading (seem) as objective as possible and to show clearly where points were earned or dropped (effort, clarity, consideration of counter-arguments, accurate presentation of the arguments discussed, etc.). For re-writes I require that students turn in the previous drafts with my comments, so that I can focus on how they have responded to my comments. I end up having to grade a few papers every day, but rarely more than that.  

I think I have assigned too much reading [this was the biggest complaint on the student evaluations at the end of the semester], which means not enough time for discussion. The course feels a little rushed at times. And maybe some of the material I've assigned is too ambitious (they have really struggled with Kant, for instance, despite my assigning Jonathan Bennett's relatively accessible translation). Then again, they don't have to write about Kant. There are eight essay topics and they only have to write papers on four of them.

The other problem I ran into was that I was too generous with regard to what I counted as making a positive contribution to class, so some students ended up with higher grades than they probably deserved. Still, I'm pretty happy with the way it went.

If the above is too long or confusing, here's the short version: I increased student engagement in the course by grading it; students who did not want to speak in class could write extra papers instead; I got them to write better papers (and to think more carefully about what they were writing about) by letting them re-write their papers as many times as they could stand before the semester ended. They knew they had to be engaged or their grades would suffer, and when they read the assigned material and joined in discussions of it in class they understood and valued it more. The downside for the teacher is that you can only do this with small classes, and it does involve a lot of grading. But the papers are short (a minimum of three pages, though I encourage them to write more); there are eight assignments, of which each student must do at least four (so when a paper is due I rarely get more than about ten from a class of fifteen students); and I write only a few comments on each paper, focusing on the main points I want them to address when they re-write. So far it seems to have worked.

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