One of the things I do differently in my First Year Student Program writing course is to use Richard Light's Making the Most of College: Students Speak their Minds. The book isn't perfect, but it's a fairly quick read, sets out some issues I want students to think about, and is a good starter for conversations about the college experience. Ok, it's a quick read for me, but a moderate challenge to many of my students, especially when they know they have to take notes because I do actually quiz them on their readings.
Last week, we read a section on what makes good classes. One of Light's big arguments in this section is that one of the most important factors in student satisfaction is small class size. In my class, we listed out the various classes my students are taking by class size (I always make them exclude this specific class from consideration, for--I hope--obvious reasons). About 20, 20-40, 40-60, and 60+. It turns out that my students are taking almost no 60+ student classes.
Then I asked them which classes were their best, and put plus marks by them, and their worst, and put minus signs by those. And, unlike Light, we didn't find any correlation between class size and their satisfaction with their experience.
Then we talked about what DID make a difference for them; they didn't mind lectures, so long as they were well-organized, stayed on topic, and made good points, and weren't boring. (I don't know how to quantify boring, but I know it when I see it.) They liked professors who answer questions well and patiently, and mostly like discussion classes, but didn't like classes where group work was unfocused because they found themselves getting off-topic quickly. They liked when professors help them make up study groups. They didn't like classes where professors told off-topic stories. (OOPS!) They really liked when professors treated them like a person, especially when the professor actually knows their name.
I don't like to focus on negatives, which professor makes them unhappy or whatever, for any number of reasons. But I like them to start thinking about which classes they might want to take, and from whom, because spring registration is coming very fast, so I asked them about the instructors of their best classes. The idea was to share names so they'd know who to take next semester.
And there was the wonderful disconnect: ummmm, his/her name? Errrr... It's on the syllabus... I could look it up. (Of course, some of them did know their instructors' names, but a surprising number didn't.)
They could tell something was up because I had my big "freak out" face on. (Yeah, so I'd be Robin Williams if I could. Since I can't, I teach.) I said, "you realize, you only have four or five professors' names to learn, and your professor has 70 or more..." They got it and laughed.
Then we talked about how to make classes better themselves. They can actually make up their own study groups! And, happily, we'd read a section in our composition reader about discussion participation, and I had them write out what they thought they could use from that list to contribute to their class discussions. Who knows, maybe something will take?
(I swear I TRY to learn my students' names!)
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