Last Day

December 10, 2003


Yesterday was the last day of classes.

We did evaluations, then finished off reconstruction, then reviewed the exam, then talked about readings. Finally, I gave a brief wrap about hope, the future, and republican liberty.

I have two brief thoughts I want to share from yesterday.

The first is that the exam study sheet I gave them might have been a little too big - it produced stunned silence from both sections. I tried to design it so that the people who have been keeping up with the work will have an easy time studying while the people who have been slacking will get creamed on the final. I told them the first day of class that the final would do this; they have been warned. We will see how they do.

I am not going to post the questions here because I suspect that the kids will do some google searches. I will tell you that they have 67 identifications to master, 30 from the first half, 37 from the second half, and that I gave them the questions for four short essays and four long essays. The exam will have two choices for each essay, they write about one. I design the study sheets this way, and try to write my exam questions, so that they will reinforce the information I want them to take away from the class as they study. If you know that the exam will include the Coming of the American Civil War, you will study it.

I suggested that they: review their notes, brainstorm all 8 essays, review the text, outline all 8 essays, and then quickly review the identifications. If they do it in that order, the identifications should be easy to remember. I fear that some of them will panic, will study the identifications first, and will spend all their time memorizing TOO MANY items and never prep the essays. I try to give too many identifications as a matter of policy - the idea is that no one can flash card them all from scratch, but the people with good overall knowledge will be able to easily review and polish.

The other thought from that class is a more general thought about evaluations. For their last homework I asked the kids what reading we should drop from the syllabus and what material the class did not spend enough time on. I am still reading their answers, but as I expected they want to drop the monograph we started with and they want more women's history. I had not expected to be told that we needed to spend more time on the American Civil War, but looking back I agree that we were a little scant about the war, its conduct, and its consequences.

It is fashionable among many professors, especially on the adjunct level, to say that evaluations are crap. They are not. Or, at least, they are not completely crap even though some evaluation questions are remarkably craptastic. Let me get a little pompous and explain.

At its best, a college class is a community for learning. The professors job is not to impart infallible knowledge - "fact" - in some Rankian sense. Our job is to nurture that learning tendency, guide their readings and writings, and provide the students with the tools and incentives to do that learning. The most important thing I can do up there at the front of the room is get the kids excited enough about the material that they want to do a lot of work. I do that by making the students partners in our learning community.

Making the student a partner means that you have to take them seriously. They know what it is like to take our course - we only know what it is like to teach it. If they buy into the notion of a community of learning, and most college students do at some level, then they can also tell you what worked and what did not work. I regularly ask my students "what works" - sometimes I do a midterm evaluation, sometimes I add a form to the evaluations, this semester I gave them graded homework about which readings to drop. Many students take that question seriously, and I got a good dozen very thoughtful and very useful answers.

I am still digesting their answers, but so far the general trend seems to be that I am good on enthusiasm (I knew that), that my extensive use of narrative and biography grabs their attention, that some of them want more and some want fewer facts, and that I assign a LOT of work. Apparently some "writing intensive" classes give less writing than my dinky little survey, but Urban Research University is still resolving the legacies of its dysfunctional past.

A poorly written evaluation is a popularity survey, and evaluations are correlated with workload and grading policy. There are a lot of poorly written and poorly conceived evaluations being used to make hiring and promotion decisions. Like anything else, Sturgeon's Law applies.(1) But, evaluations are also correlated with teaching ability and, most importantly, the teacher's ability to create the community of learning. I went back to one of those Rate-Your-Profs web pages, I forget which, and looked up the professors at my graduate school. The pattern that I saw there seems about right for a serious academic school - the people with the best ratings and the glowing recommendations also topped the scale for workload. The most common message was "you will work a lot in this class, and it will be well worth the effort." I have to admit, that is the sort of evaluation I strive for. I think this semester went well - I will be very curious to see the official evaluations when they come back from the data service next semester.

And so to work on chapter 4 - FINALLY

(1)Sturgeons Law - Theodore Sturgeon, "90% of everything is crap." He came up with this while reading unsolicited manuscripts at a science-fiction magazine, but the concept is widely transferable.

Posted by Red Ted at December 10, 2003 09:16 AM | TrackBack