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Student Communication: Pedagogy Musing #2

My self-maintained list of failings as a teacher is quite long. But I’d like to think that communicating with students outside of class is not on that list. I do everything in my power to make sure my students have ready access to me at all times. And yet it often feels like I’m not connecting with students who really need some help.

I use a lot of different means to make myself available to my students. Each of them has its own merits and demerits.

Office hours

The traditional method of student communication is office hours. They’re required by the university, but I’d hold them anyway. In the past, both here at GMU and in the past, I viewed office hours as a time for me to get stuff done, and I spent most of the time hoping that no one would show up. This semester, I made a conscious choice to not endure office hours but rather encourage them. One-on-one conversations aren’t my preferred mode of communication, but office hours aren’t about me.

So this semester I’ve tried to be more deliberate about how I do office hours. I’ve always had the policy that I prefer students to sign up for an appointment, and I kept that policy this semester, but I tried to shift my thinking about appointments from “If there aren’t any appointments today then I get the day off” to “These appointments help keep the meetings on track so both the student and I have a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve also tried to explicitly communicate throughout the semester that office hours are for talking about anything that is even tangentially related to the course, whether that’s grades, personal situations that are affecting coursework, or steps to take after the class is over, or anything else. This new strategy has paid off several times, where I’ve had meaningful conversations with students who needed to just talk through things. I’ve also tried to ask broader questions when they come than just “what problem can we solve right now?” and spend some time on how they’re doing overall this semester or in this class.

Everyone says things like “if you’re getting a bad grade in this class, come see me.” I say that too. But this semester I tried something new in my undergraduate class: after the midterm, where some students did not do as well as they hoped, I offered them a chance to make up a few points on the midterm. The catch was that I wouldn’t tell them how to get those points back unless they came to see me in my office. The allure of a few points back was enough to attract some students who hadn’t been engaged up to that point, and several of those students have since come back to ask questions about other things. So getting them to come just one time helped them to see that it wasn’t quite so scary. (This class has 42 students; it’s not the kind of class where I’d make an office visit mandatory.)

Nevertheless, only a small percentage of my undergraduate students have come to office hours. My graduate students are less reticent, but they have more experience navigating the academic system and they have more complicated problems. So I don’t think I’m reaching all my students where they are just by having office hours.

Email

Email is another somewhat traditional method of communicating with students outside of class. I rarely use email when communicating with students, though. First of all, it appears to be the case that many students don’t check their email with regularity (a mind-boggling concept to me!), so an email isn’t any more likely to reach a student than just making an announcement in class.

I also don’t really like email. It’s at that awkward place where formality and protocol are a barrier to both effective and respectful dialogue. I definitely don’t like getting emails like “Hey Abby!” from students (I’ve never received one of those from a GMU student), but I also don’t want a student to be so concerned with whether they should address me as “Dr. Mullen” or “Professor Mullen” that they never reach out. (And this paralysis HAS occurred with a GMU student.) I struggle enough with forms of address myself that I totally get why students do.

Email is also a very awkward way to have a conversation. Emails like “I wasn’t in class; what did I miss?” can rarely be adequately addressed without multiple emails from both parties. Emails like “I don’t understand this problem” almost never can. But email threads are so painful.

So email doesn’t feel like the best way to have real out-of-class interactions with students either.

Slack

I use Slack every day to talk to the Tropy team. I like it for its hybridity between email and text messaging, and I also like it that (set up right) it can be somewhat asynchronous. So, following the example of some colleagues, I set up Slack teams for each of my classes.

This is far and away MY preferred method of communication. I like it because I can be available to students at times when they’re more likely to actually be doing their work. I also like it because I can share links/show things fairly easily (screenshots are my best friend).

However, Slack has its disadvantages. It does tether me to my students in ways that could get problematic. I don’t think it has done so yet, but I have to be cautious about when I answer Slack messages. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that I will answer Slack questions as soon as is reasonable for me to do so, but in the evenings and weekends, I reserve the right to not be instantly available. I have gotten Slack messages time-stamped 2:00am; I did not answer those instantly. But I did answer them the next time I saw them, the next morning.

Slack is also new and intimidating for some students. In my mind, Slack is a much better text alternative to the more common group-communication tool many students are used to, the group text. But some students have a hard time following how the channels and tagging work.

It’s also true that if you’re not paying attention to the conversations, important information can pass you by as the conversation moves on to something else. And since not all students work on their projects at the same time, sometimes I end up answering the same question multiple times.

It’s hard to get full engagement from the whole class with Slack. I would prefer to make all class announcements, etc., on Slack, but I know that not all students will see those announcements. In my graduate class, I do it anyway, because I think they should be able to handle it, but if it’s something really important, I’ll send an email too. I tried to get everyone to use the Slack interface at least once during the semester—the very first day, actually, where they had to post a meme that they made to Slack. I hoped that this action would demystify the platform for the students, encouraging more interaction, but it really hasn’t.

My ideal Slack community allows students to help each other with questions and pose new and interesting questions to each other, developing a real connection to each other in this online space. I’d love for my role to not be central in our Slack teams. But the reality is that most questions and clarifications are directed at me and I answer them.

Nevertheless, I still like Slack. I like that I can answer questions in public, thus minimizing the number of times I have to answer the same question. I like being able to post new and interesting resources that I find relevant to our class discussions (esp. for my graduate students). I also like being able to have a conversation that allows me to ask lots of questions in order to get to the bottom of problems, without dozens of emails. Since tech support is a large part of my outside-class interactions with students, it’s nice to have a dynamic place to help them work through things.

What else?

Sometimes I think that I’m too available to my students. Am I giving them too many ways to get in contact with me, thus reducing the necessity for them to do creative problem-solving on their own? But then again, very often I’m asking them to do things that are completely unfamiliar to them.

My three main goals for outside-class communication with my students are (a) that they won’t be scared of me; (b) that they’ll get the help they need; and (c) that they’ll make real connections with both the material and the humans they’re interacting with in the course. For many of my students, I don’t think I accomplish any of these three.

What am I missing? How do you handle out-of-class communication?

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Pedagogy Musing #1: Backward Design

[Note 1: Today is the 8th anniversary of my mother’s death. I’ve written about her before, but it seems fitting that I should write about her again as I start my promised series of blog posts musing about pedagogy.

Note 2: This post is called “Musing” for a reason: it’s really just somewhat random thoughts about pedagogy. It’s not meant to be even remotely authoritative; I’d settle for mostly coherent.]

I first heard the term “backward design” maybe a year ago. Backward design is a system whereby you design courses by starting with the learning outcomes or course objectives, rather than the topical coverage. When I heard the term, it confused me: why is it “backwards” to start with the learning outcomes? Doesn’t everyone do that?

It turns out that my pedagogical education has had a different trajectory from many college professors. I started learning about pedagogy by working with my mom, who had a degree in elementary education and wrote elementary-school science textbooks for a living. My first professional job (starting at fourteen years old) included proofreading pre-college textbooks and eventually working with my mom to write materials for her elementary science curriculum.

As a high schooler and then a college student, I saw firsthand the process of designing a curriculum starting with the very big picture (the scope and sequence of the whole curriculum, over the course of several years), then moving to individual grade-level objectives, then objectives and content for units of study within the grade, and then finally learning outcomes for individual lessons within the units. Then, and only then, was it time to write the content, including the activities designed to achieve those learning outcomes.

So I was surprised to find out that college courses are often designed around topical coverage, not around learning. It turns out that the way I’ve been taught to think about curricula and course materials is not particularly intuitive, especially when the courses are being designed by people who have little to no training in pedagogy. Despite all that I’ve absorbed over my lifetime of living in the household of educators (my father, about whom I’ll write soon, I have no doubt, has an EdD and wrote his dissertation about Bloom’s Taxonomy), college course design still proved a challenge for me.

How the learning outcomes matter for me

This semester, I’m teaching two classes—one undergrad and one grad—that both focus on digital methodology for historians. When I was planning these courses, I started with a pencil, paper, and a lot of ideas. I wrote them all down, and then I organized them into categories. I then tried to think about all the things I’d written down, and what I was actually aiming for when I wrote them. I used those filtered ideas as the basis for my learning objectives.

Because digital history can be so many different things, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of doing fun digital stuff that has little pedagogical value. The tools with the most bells and whistles may not have the most value for understanding why that tool or method works for historical analysis. So checking all my activities against the learning outcomes is one way I keep myself from going down (too many) rabbit holes.

I’m also not the best at planning out a whole semester’s worth of materials and activities in advance. I like to change things on the fly, as I see how the course is progressing. So the learning outcomes are my only guide as I adapt to changing circumstances within my courses. Sometimes I have to cut or transform a whole class plan; as long as I’m still achieving my learning outcomes for the class, I don’t feel so bad about losing that “coverage.” I also don’t feel bad about dumping assignments; the students never mind, and if something went badly for them, they probably didn’t meet the learning outcomes anyway. So I have no problem either preemptively or retroactively canceling assignments that didn’t work out as planned.

For my undergraduate course, these are the objectives:

In this course you will:
Learn the varied history of war in the antebellum United States, from the French and Indian War to the Civil War;
Create historical scholarship using varied tools and sources;
Publish historical scholarship on the web.

For the graduate class, they’re similar, but with a focus more on the field of digital history as a subfield:

Our core objectives are these:
Survey the many facets of digital history (through readings)
Create web-based digital history analysis
Practice the nuts and bolts of digital history projects from start to finish

Flexibility within parameters

I recently saw someone on Twitter arguing that learning outcomes were too restrictive and they inhibited student learning by pushing them into paths pre-defined by the teacher instead of allowing the student to guide their own learning. (If I’m mischaracterizing this thread, I apologize—it was just a quick read on Twitter and I couldn’t find it again!)

I disagree with this assessment. When students come into my classes, many of them are there because the course is required in some form or another. They don’t know enough about the course to know what they might want to know. So assuming that they can create their own objectives for whether they’ve succeeded in class feels like it’s setting them up for failure—it’s like asking them to build a house while giving them only the materials they can think of without any knowledge of how a house actually gets built.

So I think learning outcomes serve an important purpose in course design. Students who come into my courses are often skeptical, terrified, or both. Throughout the course of the semester, we work together to build confidence in both history and technology until at the end, the students can look at the learning outcomes and say “Oh yeah, I did learn something in this class!” We judge whether or not they succeed in the class based on whether the learning outcomes are met.

This system gives me a lot of flexibility. The student didn’t get the technology right the first time? That’s ok—we’re still learning, and you’ll have another chance to get it. I did a bad job of explaining something in class? No problem—we can take another run at it next week. If we don’t get to something, we don’t get to it. I worry a lot less about “coverage” when I remind myself of what the learning outcomes are.

But I’m still able to check both my students and myself to make sure we’re all working together toward the same goals. I think that’s the value of learning outcomes; they give the students parameters by which to judge their learning while giving them a chance to do more.

Challenges of teaching with learning outcomes

I believe firmly in the value of having learning outcomes. However, I still find them hard to write and sometimes hard to live by. I struggle to strike a balance between too restrictive and not restrictive enough. I try to write them so that any student who comes into my class can succeed under them, but I also want the objectives to have enough meat to be meaningful.

I also struggle with making sure I adhere to the outcomes. I do think an occasional divergence is fine, even healthy. But it’s really easy to slip back into the “I have to get through this” mindset, even in setting up course assignments and assessments. But I think that’s the key: slipping back into that mindset is the real backward design. I always want to be moving myself and my students forward. But I don’t think I’m quite there yet.

For me, the real challenge is in working within the learning outcomes I didn’t set myself. My undergraduate course fulfills the requirement for the Mason Core IT requirement. A Mason Core course comes with its own set of learning outcomes, created by the Mason Core committee. Courses that fulfill the IT requirement span the entire university, from IT 101 in the information technology program, to my course in the history department, to a music technology course in the college of visual and performing arts.

The learning outcomes set by the Mason Core committee were written with little attention to the humanities applications of technology. (This isn’t a knock on the outcomes; it’s just a fact.) As a result, where the outcomes I’ve crafted myself feel like they fit the course, there are occasions when I feel like I’m shoehorning sessions and activities into my class merely to meet the core requirements. But the benefits of having my course in the Mason Core outweigh the frustrations of trying to adhere to the IT outcomes.

So, how do you use learning outcomes in your classes? How do you keep yourself on track? How do you work with outcomes that aren’t yours by design?

Next time: Analog tools for digital methodology?