In Praise of… Student Retention

Every semester students drop out of our classes.  That’s okay.  Some of them should drop.  They have had health or family problems beyond their control, and they are better off starting fresh the next semester.  Others have put themselves so far behind the curve in our class (and probably other’s classes as well) that they should cut their losses and try to pass one or two classes, instead of failing four.  I can live with drops like this.

What hurts are the students who drop because they have developed an unrealistic picture of what is happening in the course during the semester.  They could have passed, maybe even with a strong grade, but at some point became convinced that they were irreparably behind their classmates, and gave up on keeping pace.

How can we encourage these students to keep going in the course?

1. Have a lowly weighted test early in the semester (HT: McKeachie) – By giving a test after the first or second week of courses, the students need to start their studying early, and it gives the instructor a chance to correct problems before they mushroom.

2. Have students grade the work of other students – This gives students a chance to see what their peers are turning in, which usually encourages students, who assume their friends are writing at a peer-reviewed journal level, rather than just like them. To keep your headaches to a minimum, have this be a rough draft that is graded and worth only a couple percentage points of the final grade, then grade the final draft yourself (or via TA), so as to minimize complaints about uneven grading.

3. Have a group project later in the semester – If students feel like they are abandoning their group, they will be less likely to drop out.

In Praise of…. Incarnational Appointments

I love social media.  Blogs, email, podcasts, facebook, YouTube, Skype, even Twitter (in moderation, of course).  With all these tools at our disposal, is there any reason to maintain traditional concepts of office hours?  Wouldn’t it be more efficient to simply create a knowledge base or FAQ section of our course website, as is standard practice in corporate customer support?  While these aren’t bad ideas, there are distinct things that only incarnational meetings can accomplish.

1. Encouragement – While supportive notes on an email can be meaningful, there is simply no replacement for having a mentor look you in the eye and being told you have what it takes to make it.  When I met with Mick Boersma recently to discuss new media and Talbot alumni, his concern was rooted in the irreplaceable role face-to-face meetings play in encouraging students and alumni.  Wise man.

2. Real-life training – While it is helpful to offer shy students some non-intimidating opportunities to express themselves, at some point we are coddling, rather than protecting, students.  If students graduate from our school unable to speak while looking an authority figure in the eye, they will fail in the marketplace.

3. Small group discussions – Often, the best office hour discussions are with two or three students at once.  While there are chat-rooms and forums that can replicate some of this experience online, the digital communication lacks the feeling of reality at times, without the excitement that can build in real-time.  Further, incarnational office hours helps students learn to disagree without being disagreeable, another important real-world learning need, and one that rarely develops on message boards.

In Praise of…. Quick evaluation

In my day job, I teach without ever getting to administer one test, quiz, or term paper.  I preach a thirty minute (okay, sometimes I go over) sermon, laying out a variety of insights from theology, biblical studies, archaeology, psychology, and sociology, and I have to rely on body language and vague comments at the door (“Good sermon, pastor”) to try to figure out if they “got it.”

While preaching is different than the academic classroom, there are a few tips of quick evaluation that are transferable.  Here are my three favorite:

1. Poll Everywhere – This is a simpler, quicker version of the classic, “Everyone take out a sheet of paper and answer this question…” version of the pop quiz, which is cumbersome and impractical in a church anywhere.  If your goal is to find out quickly if most of the students are tracking, using Poll Everywhere is unbeatable.  Concerned about not all students having a cell phone?  I would bet that more of them have a phone than a sheet of paper when they come to class.  (As an aside, Poll Everywhere is free for classrooms up to 30 students).

The downsides of this method of evaluation are that the nature of it is multiple choice, which may or may not be useful, and that it is anonymous, meaning you don’t know who is off the mark.

2. Graphic Representations of Concepts – This is a little more complex, but it helps to know if students understand the relationships between ideas, and develop hierarchal thinking.  In preaching, this works well while exegeting a specific text, with a hierarchy based on syntax.  In a classroom, it helps students to put concepts in context.

3. The Two Column Method – Another McKeachie special, the Two Column Method gives the students a chance to advocate for two competing positions, and helps them see the strength of the opposite position.  This reduces the shame experience of being told they are wrong in front of the course (or congregation), without creating the confusion of “everyone’s right.”

In praise of…. Personalized Course Goals

The beginning of the course creation process involved the selection of goals and learning objectives for our students.  Sounds simple enough. But what do you when you’ve come up with 14 potential goals for a semester-length class.  How do you choose just 5 or so of them? 

There might be a temptation at this point to choose goals that allow you to simply keep your head down.  Vague sounding, academically respectable, and dull – the sort of goals neither your department chair nor your students will even notice.  While this may be the more vocationally safe route, there is a way to write course goals that are compelling and meaningful.

Here are four questions I use to determine course goals:

1. What are students expected to be able to know when they come out of this course? Here’s a conversation I never want to hear: “How on earth did you take Bob Wriedt’s course on _________ and not learn ________?”

2. What are the students expected to be able to do when they come out of this course? This is especially important if this course is a prerequisite for future courses.  I want to cultivate students who are well-prepared for their next step in the process.

3. How does this course fit in with the general curriculum of the school? Is this the students’ writing requirement course?  I better get ready to grade a lot of papers.  Is this their humanities elective?  Their only Bible course?  Knowing these things will help me design the course accordingly.

4. What do I love? – This may sound selfish, but the simple reality is that students will learn best the things I am most excited about.  While not every course is my dream to teach, there are always ways to accent the course in ways that reflect my passions.  When I do this, I enjoy lecture more, and the students feed on that.

Of course, this can be manipulated.  Some professors ignore questions 1-3, only lecturing on what they want to.  That is neither inspiring or helpful for the students.

Finally, it is worth asking whether we are passionate about the right things.  Don Carson recently was speaking about the importance of maintaining enthusiasm in the gospel.

“If I have learned anything in 35 or 40 years of teaching, it is that students don’t learn everything I teach them. What they learn is what I am excited about, the kinds of things I emphasize again and again and again and again. That had better be the gospel….Make sure that in your own practice and excitement, what you talk about, what you think about, what you pray over, what you exude confidence over, joy over, what you are enthusiastic about is Jesus, the gospel, the cross. And out of that framework, by all means, let the transformed life flow.”  HT: CJ Mahaney

May our classes be enthusiastic about pointing students back to the cross.

In praise of…. Conclusions

I love the Southern California pier culture.  Walking to the end of the pier is a journey with a clear finish, a satisfying conclusion.  How many of my lectures can I say the same thing about?

How do you know when you’ve reached the end of the lecture?  Is it as simple as being out of time?  In the academic context, the default way of knowing when we’re “done” is when the students start packing up to leave.  But is this the best way to enhance learning?

There is an old adage in the field of homiletics: “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em.” It’s the third part of this equation that I want to highlight today.

Reframing the content from the day’s lecture in the final five minutes can help the students answer three key questions:

1. What did the professor expect me to learn today? Though repetition of key words and concepts, the student can understand what they should have learned that day.  This will not be a replacement of the lecture, but a brief diagnostic for the student.

2. What was today about? Sometimes even the most enthusiastic students lose the forest for the trees.  Having a clear period at the end of the lecture that keeps the main thing the main thing can clarify what this lecture was about.

3. What do I think about this? A good psychotherapist will have a brief, five minute emotional wind-down at the end of each session, giving the client an opportunity to emotionally “pack-up” before leaving.  While few of our courses are as emotional as a therapy session, giving students a few minutes to pack the ideas away before being dumped back into the cacophony of a college hallway will aid in their digestion of the idea we just presented.