Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The "Hold Up the Sky" Post & A Timely Response

I teach at a highly selective liberal arts college in the Midwest known for its academic excellence. You'd think that would be a dream job right? Bright and motivated students who not only complete course readings and take their written assignments seriously, but are also seriously engaged in class discussion. Wrong!

With the exception of the dedicated few, most come to class without having read the material and sit passively in their chairs. I've tried a host of approaches to engage them in discussions from providing them with questions to think about as they complete their readings to bribing them with candy. Nothing seems to work.

This wouldn't bother me so much if I I wasn't evaluated at the end of the term for my ability to lead discussion. Indeed, in their evaluations students typically refer to the discussions as "the professor's discussions" as if they were a solo activity like lecturing. I dedicate a lot of time and energy to my teaching and place it above all else that I do, but when students don't hold up their end of the bargain and if this in turn affects my evaluations the issue goes beyond lack of respect to issues of career advancement.

Are we supposed to go back to old school teaching where the teacher dominates and the students sit quietly and obediently, taking all the information in? How can we promote intellectual exchange and critical thinking when students don't 1) complete their assignments 2) view participating in class as a worthy endeavor.

Why do we need to hold up all the sky?


i immediately empathized with today's "hold up the sky" post. i taught a discussion-based course my first semester at a new university, and got many blank stares. here are some things i've learned to get students talking since then. many of them were suggested by colleagues who were sympathetic to my plight:
  1. assign more than one student to be "discussion leader" for that day. more than one, so that more than one student is talking that day. give them discussion leader grades for this.
  2. include participation in their grades. be compulsively clear and strict about how participation points are given.
  3. get students to do the readings ahead of time by including pop quizzes on the readings for the day.

in other words, hold out carrots and threaten with sticks to get them to do the readings ahead of time and to talk. yes, this is depressing in that now it will seem like your talkative students are all grubbing for grades, but at least they are talking.

and, there will be the few that you can pick out who talk because they find the readings interesting and want to learn. the others will learn as we beat them over the head with their grades.