Tag Archives: End of semester

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (May 1, 2017)

(Note: This is a revised and updated version of and article written on April 24, 2014).

“I must finish what I’ve started, even if, inevitably, what I finish turns out not to be what I began” (Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children).

Ann Nooney, "Closing Time," The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

Ann Nooney, “Closing Time,” The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. Public domain.

The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific classroom challenges. Most faculty are rushing to make it through the course syllabus (you remember: the one that looked perfectly well planned in January). And you still have to hand out evaluations (see: “Set for SETs? Student Evaluations of Teaching”), prep students for their final exams, read drafts of their last papers, squeeze all the students who want to present into the available time; and don’t forget the note from the dean’s office asking for fall book orders! The end of the semester is also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester.

All of this can crowd out another important part of the teaching semester: marking the closure of the semester in a way that acknowledges all you have accomplished in the class, all the ground you’ve covered. It goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.

Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your class.

Two aspects of teaching have always struck me as curious, if inevitable. The first is that students are often frustrated at the start of the semester because they do not already know what they will only know by the end of the semester. The second is that students often lose sight of just how far they have come, how much they have learned, over the course of the semester. We can’t deal with the first point, but this is a good time to emphasize just how far you have traveled together. You can synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what the class was able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students achieve the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine the path they have jointly traveled on a broader level.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

George E. Studdy, “The End of a Perfect Day,” George Arents Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Public domain.

After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, allow time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the learning goals set for the course and what they still need to do before taking a final exam, writing their last paper, preparing for recitals, or completing a final project. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation that will allow them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting shortly, and can help them think about their own learning, the next classes they want to take, or how they can apply their learning more broadly.  One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students to think about the following questions:

 

 

 

     Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?

     Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?

     How do you feel you performed in this course?

     What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?

One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.

If you want, you can also add questions to encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.

  • Have students create a concept map of the course they are just completing (for tips on how to do this, see here, and here.)
  • Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it. (And don’t forget to re-read Cortney Smith’s article on “Emphasizing and Evaluating Student Speaking.”)
  • Encourage your students to revisit earlier assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. If the assignment was a paper, you can ask students to bring those papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their work with peers, focusing on what they learned through the writing of that assignment as they look back on it now.
  • In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you). This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.
  • Encourage your students to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
  • By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.

Learning from the Semester

keep-calm-its-closing-timeIn “Learning from the Semester” (November 25, 2013), I offered some ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (once again) are some questions to think about:

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
  • And, as with the strong points, why do you think you weren’t able to reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time? Jot down some notes to yourself to return to when you have the space to think about revising your syllabus. Points like: “Don’t even think about assigning that book again!” or “Student presentations went really well; leave more time.”
  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people you can talk to, and what are the resources you can consult, that can help?

Stress and Anxiety

StressWhile we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind just how stressful the end of the semester can be for for faculty as well as students. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness, some more-than-usually bizarre behaviors, increased illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use extra support. As I noted in last week’s article, the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increased by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health). More than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).

Stay attuned to your students and don’t forget that we provide a lot of support services for students in need. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the student’s class dean.

And don’t neglect yourselves, either: easier said than done when the work piles up, but exercise (even if only a quick walk), a good meal, sleep (ah! sleep!), and talking to colleagues, even if only to moan and complain, all are important.

Saying Good-bye…

.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss (along with relief) as the semester and the year (and for your seniors and for some of you, a college career), all come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be. After all, they get to move on and you stay here!

So, don’t be afraid to share some parting thoughts with your students even though this might sound cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.

I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.

And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed, from donuts to a highlight reel.  I’m not going to go all cultural anthropologist on you, but we develop rituals to serve a purpose, and, at the end of the semester, saying goodbye to students you’ve worked with, whether for a semester or over four or five years, is an important ritual and deserves to be observed. OK, before I get all verklempt, I’ll exit on a (maybe) humorous note. This is the lead graph from a piece by Trish Suchy that recently appeared in McSweeney’s.

Following Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s statement that ‘The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,’ [which, indeed, she did] the department, nervous that our student indoctrinations were insufficiently ominous, hastily formed a committee charged with investigating the matter and making recommendations at an emergency faculty meeting. To our horror, we found that indoctrination ominousness(ity) is not even measured in our assessment rubric! After a long debate over the existence of the word ‘ominousness’ (some arguing instead for ‘ominosity’ — which does sound like it might be a board game) we opted for the hybrid compromise ‘ominousness(ity)’ and propose the following rubric to measure how ominously we are indoctrinating our students. [You’ll find the rest of this delightful piece here.]


The “Article of the Week” will now saunter off for its traditional summer hiatus of travel, reading, and, even some work. May your summers be filled with seemingly endless hours, pleasurable reading, inspired thoughts, rewarding writing, ocean swims, and whatever it is that makes you happy. See you in August.

And the summer night

Endings and Beginnings: Thoughts on Finishing the Semester

Steven Volk, May 3, 2015

Hundreds of silhouettes gradually light up over 90 seconds. Alfredo Jaar, "Geometry of Conscience," Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. Image at: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/the-geometry-of-conscience-memorial-by-alfredo-jaar/

Hundreds of silhouettes gradually light up over 90 seconds. Alfredo Jaar, “Geometry of Conscience,” Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. Image at: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/the-geometry-of-conscience-memorial-by-alfredo-jaar/

A few weeks ago, the Chilean-born, New York-based artist, architect and filmmaker, Alfredo Jaar, was on campus to give a lecture which he titled, “It Is Difficult.” The title comes from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/of what is found there” [Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems: That Greeny Flower].

 

Jaar has often taken on the difficult task of turning news into poetry, and his own poetry into news. He is well known for memorializing victims of the “dirty wars” in Chile and Argentina. He designed a deeply moving installation at Chile’s Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights called “Geometry of Conscience.” His contribution to the Parque de la Paz (Peace Park) in Buenos Aires, “Punto Ciego (Blind Spot),” commemorating the thousands of victims of the Argentine military juntas, is a landmark work among those who labor to construct an architecture of memory that goes beyond history and into conscience.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX

While these are themes Jaar has explored extensively, it was his last project, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, that came to mind as I sat down to write this semester’s final “Article of the Week.” The Nasher invited Jaar to install a work in its garden to mark the museum’s 10th anniversary. The artist contemplated a number of related themes while puzzling over the project: anniversaries and the passage of time, the nature of the museum and its particular (often exclusive and exclusionary) audience, the city of Dallas and its changing populations, endings and beginnings.

With these in mind, he examined a map of Dallas with the Nasher highlighted at its center. He then located all the hospitals with maternity wards within a certain distance from the museum, and underscored those that served predominately African American, Latino/a, and undocumented populations. He ended up visiting three wards where, with the permission of the families involved, he audio recorded the sounds of the babies at their moment of birth – their very first cries.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I learned)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

Back in the Nasher’s Sculpture Garden, he constructed a pavilion of pine and plastic in shades of green, four translucent walls reaching up perhaps 20 feet. Inside the structure, captains’ chairs are placed around the perimeter, and one sits in the quiet, listening to the murmur of the visitors outside until, at the same time every day, there is a sound, recorded and amplified: the sound of a child being born. It is played at the exact time that a specific baby was born. As part of the project, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” all the families that participated in the project were given a year-long membership to the museum. All the new-born babies were given a lifetime membership, Jaar’s way of addressing the fact that contemporary museums rarely serve all the populations that are closest to them.

Alfredo Jaar, "Music (Everything I learned)," Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

For someone whose work has so often dealt with the memories of crimes against humanity, Jaar’s recent (2013-14) project reminds us of that there are no endings without beginnings, all of which is an (admittedly) round-about as well as extravagant way of signaling that as we come to the end of the semester, we also begin to think about new beginnings and where we go from here.

It was a difficult semester in many ways, often demanding that we address issues that were occurring far from campus (as well as some that are very much at home), and it is important not to ignore the toll that these events have taken on us as well as many of our students. So how do we end the semester in a way that also signals a new beginning?

 

 

A previous “Article of the Week” (Closing Time, Managing the End of the Semester, April 28, 2014) offered a number of suggestions for closing out the school year:

  • Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your students, helping students think about why the course was structured as it was and the ways in which they can examine their own learning from that perspective.
  • Encourage students to think about how they have worked to achieve their own goals set at the start of the semester: have your students write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation of their learning, reflecting on their participation in the course.
  • Have students create a summary concept map of the course that visually traces main themes and subsidiary branches.
  • One instructor has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since teaching a subject is often the best way to learn about it.
  • Students in small groups can discuss how their understanding has changed over the course of the semester, focusing perhaps on critical moments in their learning.

David Gooblar, at PedagogyUnbound.com, suggests having students write letters to those who will take the course in the future. They can reflect on its high and low points, offering advice to those who will sit in their seats the next semester, addressing in particular what they wish they had known going in to the class, what they would have done differently, and what future students might want to know about the course and the instructor. As Gooblar adds, “Try including specific questions in your prompt. The idea is to turn the letter-writing exercise into a kind of course review that could be useful in helping students prepare for the final exam. Ask: What are the most important aspects of the course subject? What were the most insightful readings, and why? What remains unclear at the end of the semester? Having students answer such questions is a great way to get them to review the material. Writing the letter naturally encourages students to think back to where they were at the beginning of the semester. It puts into their head the distance they’ve traveled between then and now, asking them to take stock of exactly what they’ve learned.”

uneduex-along the lines of a legacy of goodbyes. CC-Flickr

uneduex-along the lines of a legacy of goodbyes. CC-Flickr

Finally, some advice for you, the teachers:

End of semester reflection from your point of view: this is a good time to write down (while you still remember it!) what worked and what didn’t; what you should reword or redesign in your assignments, what parts of the class produced just the results you had hoped for and what was confusing or disorganized?

Terri Givens, writing in Inside Higher Education, offers 10 points to help new faculty cope with the end-of-semester stress (with some of my own comments added), but they seem just as appropriate for old-timers as well:

 

1: Clearly communicate to others that it is crunch time – some things will have to wait;
2: Relax your standards in non-essential areas of life – let the laundry pile up; let local restaurants take care of your dinners;
3: Say no to every service request from now until the end of the semester – if administrators or chairs haven’t figured out all you have to get done, they should!
4: Every day needs a plan – lists are always great, even better now: checking off tasks you have done can bring a sense of accomplishment – you are making progress;
5: Write for 30-60 minutes each day – don’t drop your writing completely, even if it tails off;
6: Only check e-mail one time per day (max) – OK, you’ll need to pay attention to some student requests, but limit your time answering email.
7: Eliminate unnecessary electronic distractions – unplug.
8: Take care of your body: walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!
9: End every day with gratitude and a treat.
10: Did I say: take care of your body? Walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!

Send me your own methods for closing out the semester.

Closing Time: Managing the End of the Semester

Steve Volk (April 28, 2014)

(Note: This is a revised and updated version of “Topics in Teaching and Learning” written on May 9, 2011).

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end, yeah,” Semisonic

The end of the semester, like the first week, poses specific challenges to teachers. For most of us, it feels like we’re in a head-long rush to complete the syllabus, hand out evaluations [Check back to the “Article of the Week” from December 8, 2010 for tips on how to read your Student Evaluations], and prepare students for final exams or papers, all the while trying to achieve closure on the semester. It’s also a time when both student and faculty energy levels have bottomed out, even more so in the spring semester. It probably goes without saying that the best way to end the semester is the way that works for you. But here are some suggestions that have come up over the years from my own practice and some that I’ve taken from other teaching and learning centers.

Icky List - Wait But Why

  • Revisit the course goals written in your syllabus with your class. This is a good time to synthesize the main points covered in your course by way of a discussion of the goals you established at the start of the semester and what you, in fact, were able to accomplish. It’s yet one more way to help students reflect on the design of your course, why you structured it as you did, and how the assignments they have completed (along with the final assignment) were there to help the students accomplish the course objectives. The review allows students to step back somewhat from the course content in order to examine what they have accomplished on a broader level.
  • After you have revisited the syllabus and the course goals with students, you can open time for student reflection and self-assessment, encouraging them to think about how they have achieved the course’s goals, what they still need to do before taking a final exam or writing their last paper. You can extend this by asking students to write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation. This allows them to reflect on their performance and behavior in the class. Such an exercise goes substantially beyond the self-assessment questions on the Student Evaluation of Teaching (SET) forms which they will be getting, and hopefully will help them think about their own learning and the next classes they want to take.  One instructor (Ted Panitz, a math teacher at Cape Cod Community College) asks his students the following:
  • Has your approach to math changed during this course or compared to previous courses? How?
  • Have your attitudes or feelings about math changed?
  • How do you feel you performed in this course?
  • What would you do differently if you had a chance to do this all over again?

Information Overload - Creative Commons (http://www.principals.com.au)

One question you might want to consider, particularly for a class in which there has been a substantial amount of discussion, is to ask students to reflect on their own participation in the discussions and whether they thought they intervened in a way that supported (everyone’s) learning in the classroom or whether it had the effect of isolating or silencing other students.

If you want, you can also add sections which encourage students to suggest ways you can improve class procedures or ask how they feel about particular teaching approaches you have used that semester and would like to hear specific feedback.

  • Have students create a concept map of the course they are completing. (For tips, see the “Article of the Week” from March 14, 2011.)
  • Student presentations often occur in the last few weeks of the semester. I know of one instructor who has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme that they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since we all know that teaching a subject is the best way to learn it.
  • Encourage your students to revisit earlier writing (or other) assignments in the course as a way to measure their own learning in the class, to assess what they have learned and the areas in which they still feel unconsolidated. One way to do this is to ask students to bring their papers to class and then break them into smaller groups where they can discuss their papers with peers.
  • In a similar fashion, you can have students in small groups discuss how their thinking has changed over the course of the semester. They can take notes for themselves (and/or for you).

This can include new appreciations for the content covered, for their own strengths and weaknesses, or for meta issues as they reflect on their own learning.

  • Students can be encouraged to discuss what they consider to be the critical moments in the course: insights they have had; content that they have found most surprising; highlights in the course.
  • By way of course review for exams, you can group students to collaborate on one or two typical exam questions involving analysis, synthesis, application, etc.

Learning from the Semester

In an “Article of the Week” from November 25, 2013, I offered three ways for faculty to look back and learn from the semester that just ended. Here (again) are some questions to think about:

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?
  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.
  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.
  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?
  • As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time?
  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?

    Procrastination - Creative Common images

Stress and Anxiety

While we all know this at some basic level, it is useful to keep in mind how stressful the end of the semester can be for students – and for faculty. We all have a lot to do, and there are many crunch-time challenges. In terms of students, we all notice a general increase in their tiredness and, often, illness. But we should also be aware of times when stress turns into anxiety and when our usual techniques for helping students regain their footing and confidence could use some extra support. Don’t forget the help that can be provided by the Dean of Students’ office, the Counseling Center, the Dean of Studies office or Student Academic Services. If you are not sure whom you should be talking to, always start with the class deans. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, some 40 million college students suffer from an anxiety disorder and 75% will have an anxiety episode by age 22. For more on coping with student stress, see my “Article of the Week” for September 2, 2013.

Saying Good-bye…

.… can be a lot harder than you imagine, and it’s not unusual to feel a sense of loss as the semester (the year and, for your seniors, a college career) come to an end. Even after many years teaching, I’m often still amazed at how hard this can be.

So, don’t be afraid to offer your students some parting thoughts even though this might sound really cheesy. If you mean them, your students will appreciate them.

I often tell my students that, once they have graduated, I’m happy to have them as “friends” on Facebook and that it actually means a lot to me that they keep in touch, let me know how they are doing and what they’re up to.

And, of course, this is the time for any end-of-semester ritual that you may have developed (donuts, sing-a-longs, poetry reading, etc.).

Finally

From Josh Eyler’s blog (“A Lifetime’s Training: Thoughts on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education”), a post that I included at the end of the Fall 2013 semester, “The Final Class of the Semester”:

On every final exam I have ever given, I have written a note expressing my thanks to students for their work over the course of the semester.  In this note, I also include quotes from two movies.  The first is from Back to the Future, one of my favorite comedies.  Towards the end of the film and after many hijinks have ensued, Marty McFly says to the 1955 versions of his parents, “It’s been…educational.”  I use this quote to inject a little levity into the generally high-stressed atmosphere of the exam and hopefully also to emphasize the ways in which we have all learned from each other.

The other quote that I use is from Dead Poets Society.  Love it or hate it, the movie has some powerful things to say.  The quote that I borrow from the film is not the over-used ‘Carpe Diem,’ but instead the line that follows it:  ‘Make your lives extraordinary.’

Most of all, this is what I hope for each of my students, and I wish them all the very best.

And two end-of-semester haikus from the blogger at “Confessions of a Community College Dean” (Inside Higher Ed.com):

temper tantrums fly

yet are mercifully brief

who has energy?

amazed at colleagues

miracles on a shoestring

take a bow, people

Learning from the Semester

As the semester races (or crawls) to a close, it’s a good time to think about capturing what you (as opposed to your students) learned from the semester. I’ve posted some material on this in earlier “Article of the Week” columns (see, for example December 5, 2011: “End of Semester Self-Evaluation,” and November 28, 2011: “Assessing your own Teaching”). Here are three different ways to track your teaching, each slightly more intensive. For the Shostakovich fans out there, I’ve labeled each so you can plan your time accordingly.

Shostakovich, Gadfly Suite (Amazon.com)

(1) End of Semester Reflections: Short, think of it as the Gadfly Suite, Op. 97a

While you can reflect on your teaching at any point of the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), there are two times that I have found to be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (once you have had a chance to read the student evaluations). Granted that everyone is unbelievably busy right now, try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions (and return to them when you can). It is useful to engage in this process before you get student evaluations of your teaching. You want to think from your own perspective as to why the semester worked out as it did.

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish (think of it concretely: the assignment I designed which was intended to help me evaluate whether students were reading the text closely worked really well; the discussions worked much better than previously; their recall of basic material as shown in their exams was better than I had expected; I was able to establish a dynamic in class where student could begin to talk about extremely difficult topics; etc.).

  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, try to think why that was the case.

  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

What methods of assessment – papers, tests, projects, etc. – do you use that can help you answer this question concretely?

  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?

Think about this in terms of your teaching approach (pedagogy); circumstances (make sure I’m never teaching in that classroom again; avoid 2:30 PM classes; this is a class that works for 20 students but is a disaster for 8; I let one student assert too much control over the other students, etc.); materials and assignments (too much, improperly paced, directions unclear, etc.)

  • As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time?

Readings; the way discussions are structured; adding more active lecturing techniques, dropping a particular content area, etc.

  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?

Talk to colleagues, mentors here or elsewhere, consult with CTIE, find materials that address the topic, at CTIE, or elsewhere, develop an action plan, etc.

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of your teaching. (For advice on how/when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 8, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions. Think about – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities: just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that they should be jettisoned.

Shostakovich, Jazz Suite No. 2 (Allmusic.com)

(2) Annotated Syllabus: Medium, maybe the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1

Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students get to the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides…). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of what, to you, worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The literal day you presented the material (Duh! It was the day before Thanksgiving; what was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. This is a jazz suite, after all, improvise. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (now, where did I leave my hairshirt?) but to begin a practice that can empower you.

(Flickr, Creative Commons – exquisitur)

(3) The Teaching Portfolio: We’re talking Symphony No. 5

When you’re up to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, you’re willing to spend some quality time thinking about your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: I tried a very directed set of primary source readings in my philosophy class to get the students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. I don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class and the papers on the topic which they turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. I’ve thought about what I tried to do in that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s what I’ll do the next time and why I think it might work better (and so on and so forth…).

Again, you may want to simply expand the “dummy syllabus” idea presented in #2 or construct a more traditional teaching portfolio (for more on this, see “Teaching Portfolios” at CTIE’s “Resources” site). But reflection leading to redesign is the key to this approach. It takes some time, but it’s worth it.

The Rehearsal (Flickr-Creative Commons - Steve Bowbrick)

Conclusion:

The main point, and let me stress this again, is to begin a reflective process about your teaching that you feel comfortable with and, most importantly, works for you. Starting with the Symphony No. 5 will make sense for some, but not many. Maybe you work best with études. But in all cases do as Shakespeare suggested and play on.

Steve Volk

Director, Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence (CTIE)

November 25, 2013