Monday, June 13, 2011

Will There Be Anything Else?

One of my colleagues has a teaching philosophy that contains the following principle:

If you do a lot for your students in terms of providing 'extra' materials (study guides, lecture notes etc.), they will ask for more and more and more and be unhappy. If you don't provide them with much -- maybe just some review materials before an exam -- they will be content with what little you give them.

This is a bit cynical, so I hasten to note that my colleague is a great teacher. When he teaches a large intro science class, students applaud at the end of the last lecture. Sometimes when he is in a near-campus coffee shop, former students have the barista send drinks and treats to his table with their thanks. Students know he cares about the course, even if he pours most of his energy into the in-class part and not so much to other parts.

I have always disagreed with him about the "give them an inch.." hypothesis, but I must admit that every once in a while there are some data (or a datum) to support it.

At the moment, I am thinking about a comment on my recent teaching evaluations.

First consider this: After each class, I post questions that cover all the main topics of that day's lecture and I provide a pdf of the presentation file if I showed images during class. During the term, I give the students all the exams from the previous year's class. And, in a new development for me this past term, just before class time I post a file with the images I will show in class that day. I annotate the images in class, and the students who bring electronic devices to class can do so as well if they want. For those who don't access the image file in class, I suggest that they note down the slide numbers in their notes so that they can later match images to notes.

What I don't do is provide the image file well in advance. I am typically tinkering with the images until the last minute, and I explain this to the students when I describe what course materials I provide/don't provide and why.

And yet, despite providing quite a lot, one student wanted more. Not only did this student want me to provide the presentation file (with images) well in advance, but s/he also wanted me to print out the file each day and distribute a copy in class so that students could take notes directly on the images on paper.

OK, no problem. Just let me know how many images per page you would like. Should I print the pages in color? Don't worry about the cost. One-sided or double-sided? Of course I will collate the pages, but would you like them stapled or unstapled? If stapled, do you prefer the upper left corner or the upper right? Just let me know if you want me to punch holes in the margin so it will fit in a 3-ring binder. And just so no one feels bad about all the paper this will require, please rest assured that I will try to find paper made with a significant component of post-consumer waste.

And will there be anything else? Oh yes, OK, sure: I will highlight the points that will definitely be on the test. No problem.

This post is an example of how we focus on absurd little comments that are kind of (or very) negative in our teaching evaluations, even if the overall evaluations are positive. In the class I taught last term, 100%* would recommend me as an instructor! 100%* find me approachable and respectful! 100%* think I know my subject well and present it clearly! All of this makes me happy and I am grateful to my nice students who took the time to do the evaluations and express their satisfaction with the course.

Clearly, even the student who wished that I provided handouts in every class was overall happy with the class, so in this sense my colleague is wrong: students may ask for more, but it doesn't mean they are dissatisfied.

So, my typical approach to these situations is to consider all suggestions as constructive criticism, seriously ponder whether the suggestions are feasible, and use those that are and ignore those that are not. I may get ideas for how to explain my teaching philosophy in a different or more complete way (in this respect), even if I don't change what I do. To the extent that these evaluations by students are any use, for me, this is a good use for them.

* of the 89% of students in my class who did the evaluations


Alex said...

I provide my students with very detailed, weekly handouts that give examples of important topics, and include opportunities for them to work through situations involving these topics. I tell them that if they master the material in these detailed handouts they will be in good shape for the tests, and I even provide references that they can look at to try to understand and work through the exercises on these handouts.

I call the handouts "Homework", and I call the references "books, articles, and other assigned readings". When described in those old-school terms they sound boring. When described as this amazing pedagogical feature that I generously offer, however, they sound very progressive.

Anonymous said...

When you give students evaluation/feedback forms, some of them will come up with suggestions for things that could be made *even more perfect*, even if they think the course was great. By giving them the forms, that is essentially what you are asking them to do.

Anonymous said...

The student doesn't seem to understand how much additional work this will be for you. While this is a mistake on his/her part, I think the right response would be to tell the student why this is unfeasible. Mercilessly mocking him/her on this blog, even though it is pseudonymous, could have been avoided.

If I were the student and I read this blog, I would have been upset for days. I know academics are supposed to develop a thick skin and all that but it's not always easy (or even possible) to control how you feel.

I have been at the receiving end of statements like this and they upset me for a long long time. That's not to say I didn't deserve being told-off, but I do wish the perpetrator had found a less emotionally damaging way of conveying the same information.

Anonymous said...

The semesters I've bent over backward I've gotten worse evals. I don't know if that's because the students are more entitled that semester or if your colleague is right. They also don't seem to have any difference in learning outcomes as measured by the final exam grades (and sometimes it does seem to be a negative correlation). Some minimum is needed but they do seem to get more out of studying "less-efficiently."

Anonymous said...

When I was an undergrad, it would drive me nuts if the course slides were not posted until the last minute, so that there was not a chance to print and bring them with me. Of course, this was several years ago when bringing electronic devices to class would have been extremely rare. I actually think it would bother me even more in this day in age if the slides were available to those who assessed them electronically in class but not ahead of time to those who (for one reason or another) did not have a device to assess them in real time.

I always found writing a slide number in my notebook to refer and annotate later to be quite frustrating.

So although I don't think you should be printing slides for students, I certainly understand the frustration here and probably would have commented on it on a course eval. It give the illusion that there is an unfair advantage being given to those who have portable electronic devices

Anonymous said...

what some see as merciless mocking, others see as gentle humor. Poor sensitive snowflake.

studyzone said...

I feel old for saying this, but when I was an undergrad (mid-90s), we had to go to the bookstore to buy course packets that had lecture materials. Not all profs did this - for some classes, figures were not provided at all (because most were taken from our textbooks), and we were expected to take notes.

Now that I'm teaching, I find myself straddling the line between being reasonable and bending over backward. My own experiences as a student bias me toward providing less, but the realities of my student population propels me in the opposite direction. My compromise has been to provide PDFs of figures the night before class. I do not post full notes after. The only exception has been for ADA compliance. I do provide study and reading guides in my intro classes, because many students at this university are not really college-ready, and need help learning how to study.

Anonymous said...

I've felt this trend about giving an inch and being asked for a mile too. Our department (unwisely, I think) has caved and it's policy, believe it or not, to post all notes and slides at the start of the course! (Obviously this makes it difficult to revise and improve the course content midstream). Then they want error-free slides, and no changes, and problem sets in advance, and solutions in advance, and more practice exams ... I end up semi-ranting about how ALL of their professors went to school with NOTHING ONLINE! We used pencils, or pens, to actually take notes during lectures! And we learned! The horror.

GMP said...

I hand out a lecture notes booklet (handwritten and quite detailed) together with syllabus and post its electronic copy online. I also post HW assignments, HW solutions, and practice tests online. There are also required textbooks. My lecture style is largely chalk-and-talk and I expect them to take notes in class. We go over practice tests before the tests.

Students generally like the lecture notes but I will occasionally receive comments that they would prefer them typed, which I must admit aggravates me a bit -- notes are supposed to be a supplement to their own notes taken in class plus the main text, not a substitute text.

I think your colleague has the right philosophy in that the more specific material you give the students, the more they are reliant on just that material being relevant; it focuses them in the wrong ways and ends up restricting their studying...

mathgirl said...

I understand what your colleague means.

For me the key isn't in providing more or less material to the students, but on being accommodating to new requests along the term. If the first day of the term I make a list of the things I'll be providing and make it clear that I won't do anything else, and stick to it, the students will be happy (this applies to material, but also to deadlines, etc). If, however, I follow the temptation of adding something new because some students suggest it after classes have started, then I know I will be asked more and more and more for the rest of the term and they will "never be happy".

The moral for me is, if you realize that you could be giving something else to the students, write down the idea, and do it next term. Unless, of course, you've overlooked something serious, then just make the change and get used to that idea that you'll have a hard time for the rest of the term.

Anonymous said...

I am not old. I got my BA in 2005. I grew up using the internet. And yet, somehow, I never used handouts. A few profs provided them but I never saw the point. In fact, I hate hate hate hate it when profs give handouts and use powerpoint. I need them to take the time to write down what they are trying to get across on the board.

The weird thing I've noticed is a lot of students don't even write down what the prof writes ON THE BOARD? Somehow they don't realize that the most important stuff is written on the board, for emphasis? It's so weird...

Also I don't understand where they get these ideas from. Most high school teachers still don't use A/V equipment in teaching (my husband is constantly complaining about what luddites his colleagues are). So presumably students should be used to following lectures that are taught using chalk/whiteboard.

John Vidale said...

I post the pdfs of the KeyNotes a couple of days ahead of time, telling them there will be last minute additions that won't be in the posted version. This is one reason they should attend the lectures.

I see no problem with posting the ridiculous request that you distribute hard copies. The class is already over, this blog is anonymous, and I suspect the request is not so unusual - it is just impractical.

Anonymous said...

My sense is that the more in-class notes I provide the less note taking is happening. Of course, their note taking is minimal to begin with.

I have found it useful to provide, sometimes hours before, a skeleton version of my slides. This gives them some structure and limits some of the writing they need to do but does require them to take notes. Many slides are just a topic sentence in the title area.

I am fortunate to teach in a classroom with an interactive tablet that enables me to use PowerPoint's pen mode. They see on the projected screen what I write. Other benefits are being able to go back to a previous annotated slide or introduce new blank slides on the fly questions arise and I need more space.

This approach might be more challenging in more standard setups.

Anonymous said...

How many other profs get asked by students to copy their notes since they missed class?! I have to explicitly state a policy that I will never do this and students should copy missed notes from friends, and have to reinforce it multiple times during the course. Students should understand how crazy I would be to personally copy notes for individuals in courses of 50 - 100 people!

I wonder if this is because I am young and female, or if other faculty get these questions?

Anonymous said...

I have had students ask me for copies of my lecture notes. That's easy for me to provide, since a week's worth of lecture notes consists of 4 or 5 words on a 1" post-it. It's not much use to the student, though. I suggest that they arrange to share notes with one of the students in the class.

For one class, I've had students take turn creating lecture notes on a wiki for the class. It worked well the first time the class was taught, but the second time no one in the class took decent notes.

Anonymous said...

Spoon feeding is for babies, not adults.

Anonymous said...

another possibility to the providing more-demanding more explanation is that when an instructor does not provide material such as lecture notes, they also design the class to not rely on those extra materials. Maybe in a course where noting down slides is necessary, taking notes on printed slides would be helpful, while in another course reviewing material from the textbook is just as good.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anon 07:24:00 AM:

Are you a faculty member yet preparing your own lectures and dealing with students? I would bet not or you would realize how completely whiney and unreasonable your post sounds.

I guess in the end that the provide nothing prof wins.

Anonymous said...

Whenever students would get indignant about trying to copy down images from my PowerPoint slides, I would have to remind them the images were figures from their textbook. *sigh*

Comrade PhysioProf said...

At the moment, I am thinking about a comment on my recent teaching evaluations.

Why the fucken fucke do you even read that gibberish?

Anonymous said...

A late comment, but just wanted to second the previous comment: when some students who are fortunate enough to own electronic devices are able to annotate the note in class, while students without such devices must resort to writing down slide numbers, the students in the second group are put at a (relative) disadvantage. Making the slides available far enough in advance that they can be printed out (say, one day before the class) would not actually require extra work, just different time management, and would help level the playing field for students without tablet PCs.

Anonymous said...

Students who are really smart have an unfair advantage over those who don't do well in classes. Professors need to accommodate this.

Comrade PP: Evaluations are data. They can be quite fascinating and even useful, unlike your comment, since you always make the same one on this topic.

Anonymous said...

Writing down slide numbers always works for me. Then I go back and find the image and study it with my notes. I'd rather do this than have my laptop in class. If I have the presentation on my laptop, I am looking at my laptop instead of up front at the professor and where they are pointing at the screen or annotating the image from a tablet. I think that variations in attention, study methods, note-taking and so on swamp out any "unfairness" in whether a student can or cannot bring a laptop (or whatever) to class.