Monday, June 21, 2010

Summer Classes

I've been busy commenting on my fave blogs for the last few months rather than post here, but it is time to correct that oversight.

There was a great question, about teaching summer classes, posted Saturday in the unbalanced reaction blog:

Some of my colleagues complained nearly nonstop through the first summer term. I wonder, is summer teaching REALLY that bad?

No, but it is different. To elaborate on my comments on that blog, I'll start by saying that I just got done teaching the first half of summer here at good old Ishkabibble Community College, and it went well. I didn't quite match the overall success rate of some past summers, because more than 15% withdrew, but everyone who took the final exam got a passing grade in Gen-Ed Science. My success rate in summer is higher than it has been when I taught the class in a regular semester, and higher than the norm for this particular class. Which is not to say that it is actually easier in the summer, just that teaching can be more effective in a short semester. And a few even learned something.

The key?

This wasn't my first summer rodeo, so I started the semester off with a WARNING, some lecture material, a bit of active learning, some demonstrations, and a homework assignment. I gave them two days to do the homework, not because I am a softy, but because students could still add on the second day. I wanted to be able to treat them fairly without having to keep track of exceptions.

The warning is crucial. I share it with new faculty at this CC, just as it was shared with me, although the first time I taught in summer I didn't have enough experience to make the warning as effective as it is now.

I don't pull any punches, but I also don't lecture. Once everyone is settled in and has turned in the information sheets that tell me what I have to work with, I outline the high points of the schedule, and get down to business. I put the course calendar up on the projector and ask a simple question: Who has taken a class in the summer before? (Oh oh, only a few hands went up. If none go up, you have to make the sale on your own.) I ask the rhetorical question "Summer classes go pretty fast, don't they?". Or maybe I snark it with a touch of irony, saying something about how slow and easy they are. Either way, I get a dialog going with the experienced students, and let them warn the others.

That done, I point out that every two class days is like a regular week. Every week is like two and a half regular weeks. If we read two chapters a week in a regular semester, we read five of them in the summer. If we had an exam every 4 weeks or so in a regular semester, we have one every 1 1/2 weeks in the summer. If you normally do about 3 or 4 (rather than the expected 6) hours of homework a week for a regular class, you need to do 8 to 10 (and maybe 12) hours in a summer semester.

It's like drinking from a fire hose.

So what, you ask, makes it easier? The intensity. The final exam is only about a month after the first exam, and only a few weeks after the midterm. Less time to forget. If you review the stuff you missed when you get each exam back, you are halfway to doing really well on the final exam. For most classes, students do less well on a comprehensive final than on the hour exams. In summer, most do better than their exam average would predict, and some do a LOT better.

There weren't as many examples this summer as in the past, but I had one student fight the good fight and go from a low C - high D to a solid B after the final exam. Best of all, none went down.

There are other things I do differently. Like Unbalanced, my summer class is small. I take the time to give them a full grade estimate (exam plus homework) after the first exam rather than wait for the midterm. I point out how the homework partly makes up for low exam scores and remind them that the final exam is just 4 weeks away so they should review right now to be sure they can get those same questions right if they show up on the final. There is an element of coaching involved to keep them motivated in a class as challenging as mine is.

A few closing thoughts.

Some colleagues complained. Yep. Some of mine do, too. (I try to stay away from the ones who always complain. Bad vibes are infectious.) SOME. The others make it work. Talk to the happy ones more than the Complainers, although it never hurts to ask the Complainers what, specifically, the Snowflakes were up to. Your students are different from mine. Mine have jobs and kids, and one texts so much that she had 3 traffic accidents during the semester, but they are generally VERY motivated.

Your class is "just" over 2 hours long? Now I have no doubt that YOU are ready to handle it, but don't assume that they are. (Ours are only 80 minutes, about the length of a normal Tues-Thurs class.) I'd treat it like two classes. Or five or six, since I never stick with any single style for more than 20 or so minutes. Ask yourself, how long before you zone out in a faculty meeting? That would be about the time that you add NaOH to Al foil, trap the H2 in a balloon, and see what happens when you put the balloon near a candle. Then have them work out the reaction at their desks while you circulate to coach them when they get stuck.

Also, even if the class looks like it is long enough to have lots of spare time, you don't have any time to waste. Add them up to be sure, but you probably don't have any more (and might have fewer) minutes in the summer than in a regular semester. You also have to figure out how to handle exams so you don't blow off any of those valuable minutes. Students like to walk in and write an exam, but they hate to come back after it is over. One solution is to work the exam right after they take it, but some might find that depressing since they don't know they will get partial credit for their silly errors.

Finally, use the fact that the class is small to work on any teaching techniques you tend to avoid in a larger class. Work one example like you normally would, then start the next one and have them finish it, then have them try the last one themselves. What I do is wait a few minutes and then wander around, telling people when they have the first step right (or wrong) and giving individual or group hints - or have the ones who have finished give a pointer to the entire class.


Unbalanced Reaction said...

FANTASTIC! I'll let you know how it goes. I really like how you engage the more experienced summer students in the first syllabus reading. I'm definitely going to use that one.

Can't wait to read others' advice, too.

GMP said...

Great post, Dr. Pion!