Last Class

May 03, 2004

Today was the last class for the semester.

It was a grey rainy day. I was tired. The kids were tired. My conclusion was something of a downer. Now I feel tired again.

I think the final exam study sheet stunned them. I will blog it after the exam.

I forgot to talk about the homework with the first section, instead I let them go early. The second section gave me some useful feedback about what worked - they want more use of the board, more visual learning opportunities, and to replace Rights of Man with a selection of readings from Burke and Paine. I can do that. I can also buy a box of laser-printer acetate sheets and make my own display pictures to use on the overhead projector. I might well dig through Project Gutenberg and put together a reader next time I teach Western Civ. If nothing else I will trim the readings down and offer a few more things outside the textbook.

One of the really striking things all semester long has been the difference between the two sections. I think that everyone who teaches multiple sections of the same class notices this - each section has its own personality, and often one will emerge as the "smart" section. But what is the difference between a "smart" and a "dumb" section?

For this semester, at least, it appears to be a mixture of the room, the instructor, and a few key students. The first class is dumb - literally they don't talk. The second section is more lively in class and does better on papers and exams.

The first section meets in a small amphitheater. There are only about 50 seats but they rise up in tiers through the classroom. The room has a complete multimedia instructional setup, which I chose not to use because I chose not to put the time into building multimedia for only one section - it would have doubled my prep time at least. The room is optimized for teaching where one person stands up and imparts wisdom to a receptive audience. It does not have to work that way, but that is the tendency of the room.

The second section meets in a ratty upstairs classroom. The room seats about 40, and the overall dimension is wide, not deep - the farthest student is only about 30 feet from me. It is easier for me to fill the room with my voice, and instead of being on stage I am simply at the front of the room. As a result the room encourages more intimacy and conversation between teacher and students - I do think that the first room is a little intimidating and frightnening while the second room is more emotionally comfortable despite being cinder blocks and a blackboard. It is just a classroom, and there are loads of those.

The instructor also differs. This is my first time teaching these lectures. In fact, I generally write the draft lecture the day before class, refine the draft the morning of class, and rewrite the class as I deliver it. What this means is that the second class gets a much more polished and refined product. It also means that, for some reason, the second class always takes longer to cover the same amount of material.

Finally we have the very important role of sparkplug students - the folks who are always willing to talk and often have something good to say. The first section had one, and he is probably going to flunk the class because he has not yet written his papers. The second section had two, and both are perfectly understanding when I call on "anyone but the usual suspects" or when I ignore their hands and urge the rest of the class to speak. But, they do a good job of priming the pump and, after I spoke briefly with them the fourth week they do a good job of helping keep the class moving.

Let me explain that last. When I was an undergrad I realized I was a big talker, so I would talk three times at the start of class to make my own points, then would only talk the rest of the class if it would advance the discussion - I talked to other students but not the professor. The pump-primers in second section are not that focused on other students - it is hard to talk when folks are all in a row and the reading is mostly textbooks - but they do help keep discussions moving.

So, what makes a smart class? I think it is the three-way combo of room, instructor, and students. What does this mean for me, the instructor?

Firstly, remember that the more polished classes tend to run better. I don't expect to be teaching from scratch until I get a full time job, although I now feel a little more willing to tackle Western Civ 1 especially in a weaker academic setting.

Secondly, I need to think about ways to make dead classrooms more lively - perhaps I should have tried the Phil Donahue approach, re-arranged the chairs so that I had clear walking aisles, and taught the first section from the middle of the stands and not from the lecture pit at the front of the room?

Posted by Red Ted at May 3, 2004 09:13 AM | TrackBack