Classes begin next week and I have been anticipating the day or so it would take me to set up a Moodle page for a new course. I found myself feeling wistful for what it was like when I first started teaching. After completing a syllabus I’d proofread, print, and run copies (I am also old enough to wax nostalgic about the scent of freshly mimeographed syllabi). Then, prior to each class, my prep consisted of reviewing the readings, identifying the key ideas and skills I wanted to develop, and then coming up with a handful of questions or exercises to help us explore those objectives.
Over the last several years, I’ve found my preparation for class has become more and more extensive as I’ve assigned forum posts, social media posts, comments on one another’s posts, reflections, portfolios, and etc. At the very least, I’ve had to record completion, and I found that most students didn’t put much into them if there wasn’t some kind of evaluation and feedback. The thing is, I’m not sure if all of that work improved outcomes. I am pretty sure that it’s wearing me out. I also feel as if I’m the one doing most of the learning–I’m the one processing and synthesizing all of this online work and comparing it to the expectations and objectives.
So this semester, one of my classes will be an “old school” experiment. No Moodle page, just a shared Google folder with syllabus and assignment documents. If I have additions or changes to make to our daily schedule, it’s as simple as editing a Google doc (which will also show when it was last revised).
At the beginning of each class period, students will be asked to turn in a prep sheet (in hard copy, typed or readable handwriting). This “prep work” will take one of three forms: an exercise prep (complete an exercise from the text), a theorist prep (identify key quotations and pose questions from assigned theory reading), or an exemplar prep (annotate a scholarly article). The first time they do each type of prep, I’ll distribute to them my own completed prep sheet and ask them to compare theirs to mine for length, format, and amount of elaboration. Some days in class, I’ll distribute a rubric and have them evaluate their own or others’ prep work.
Each day, I’ll collect prep sheets, skim them, and check off credit for a good faith effort. Efforts that fall short or excel will merit a brief email that says as much. I’ll encourage students to have a checklist in their notes so they can keep track of how many they’ve completed. They can miss four, no questions asked.
The primary way students will get feedback on the quality of their prep work (and their mastery of skills and concepts more generally) will be through in-class interaction in pairs, small groups, and full class discussion. In addition to voluntary participation, I will call on people at random (true draw-names-from-a-hat random to offset whatever biases I might otherwise have). To make this a little less anxiety provoking, my calling out will always give them the option of reading something they’ve written or reporting on a group discussion. At the beginning of the semester, I’ll give each student three cards that say, “Please don’t call on my today” that they can give to me at the beginning of class.
At five points during the semester, I will randomly select from the past two or three weeks one day and I’ll grade the prep work from that day using a half sheet rubric that I will hand back to the students. At the end of the semester, I’ll take this random sample of five, drop the lowest score for each student, and then use their average grade to weight the total credit they’ve earned for all the prep sheets. Stratified random sampling should ensure that these five examples represent the quality of their entire set of preps but if a student believes the sample is unrepresentative, there is an appeal option. They can ask me to do another random selection of five preps, they can grade them using the rubric, and then submit this as a portfolio, along with their argument as to why this sample is a better representation.
If a student desires more feedback than this system provides, I will encourage a visit to office hours with specific questions about specific assignments. We can also have a more wide-ranging discussion about our respective perceptions and possible improvements.
I’m hoping this will translate into many fewer hours spent staring at a screen, uploading, clicking, typing, and submitting. Daily checking off prep work, grading five over the course of the semester, and facilitating deep discussion sounds like reasonable and productive labor. More importantly, I believe it will more equitably distribute the preparation, learning, and evaluating that happens in class. Students can practice important meta-cognitive and interpersonal skills. I suspect this “old school” class will better prepare students for life after college, when I’m told that employers are unlikely to give the kinds of constant feedback that we are training our students to expect.
I’ll let you know how it goes….