Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Is a break a vacation or an opportunity for more study?

A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education discussed Cornell University’s faculty senate’s creation of a policy to help reduce student stress by discouraging surprise homework assignments before an academic break. The policy is meant to encourage faculty members to describe in detail large assignments on syllabi at the beginning of the semester and not to assign previously unannounced large homework assignments a few days before academic breaks due only a few days after them. The policy is currently being revised to emphasize that what is being discouraged is only “surprise” assignments. The decision to work on assignments over break can then be left up to individual students.

I think the policy is a wise one. Some students will work better on assignments spread out over long periods of time. Others prefer to work uninterrupted through a break. Having the entirety of spring break to work on my comprehensive exams made the process a more productive and enjoyable one because I could plan to be in the library all day every day of break. Some of my colleagues preferred to take break as a time to relax and reflect and either completed the majority of their work before or after the week off.

Cornell is cited as being a leader among colleges trying to identify and support troubled students, especially after several students died in apparent suicides in a short period of time. This policy is meant to be a step in the right direction toward helping students deal with stress by measuring out their workload in a way that works best for them.

The policy is not meant to force faculty one way or another according to Dr. William E. Fry, dean of the university faculty at Cornell, but instead to promote best practices. He also emphasized that academic breaks existed to allow students to relax and recharge. If faculty plan out major assignments in advance, students can plan their work accordingly and prevent the stress of last minute assignments. This should be considered best practices because highly stressful study is rarely productive in products or learning experiences.

Mr. Bruce Levitt, author of the policy to discourage surprise homework over breaks, hopes the faculty will continue to “focus on ‘specific and targeted ways’ to reduce some of the stress” and that the real core of these issues will need to involve a conversation at the administrative level of the university.

Student leader, Vincent P. Andrews, commented in an editorial for the campus newspaper, that though this is a step in the right direction, more will need to be done to address the root of the problem of student stress levels. He worries that this policy may encourage faculty to cram additional work into the weeks before and after break instead and, in turn, to cause students more stress. One other option Mr. Andrews addresses is the possibility of faculty within colleges collaborating on dates for midterms and major assignments, as there is currently no school-wide date for midterms.

I think it is important for faculty to be cognizant of breaks when working on curricular planning. For example, I schedule my classes so that students have almost no work over midterm break. I also attempt to organize my schedule so that the last week of classes is spent on review with no new material to be learned as students are completing final projects. It’s also been my experience in the higher education program that faculty tend to plan well to give students ample time to complete assignments as they see fit. I'm curious how other educators handle the issue of scheduling academic work around school breaks.

Rae, T. (2011, March 2). Cornell Faculty Senate to Consider 'Strongly Discouraging' Surprise Homework Over Breaks. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://0-chronicle.com.wncln.wncln.org/article/No-More-Breaks-Ruined-by/126562/

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Do We Have To Go To Class?

“Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century.: New learning technologies prompt a rethinking of traditional course structure,” Jeffery R. Young, February 27, 2011.

This article explored the problems many faculty have of student attendance in a face-to-face classroom and how different types of technology are affecting this issue. The author cited that much research has shown learning outside of the traditional face-to-face classroom has the potential to be more deeply engaging for students. He also pointed out that traditional lecture and testing in classes often leads to quickly memorized, and soon forgotten, facts. Students are also cited as valuing learning outside the classroom. So Young asked “Why even have a traditional college course?”

Young touched on the controversial new book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses and the accusation that traditional college education asks little of students and produces small efforts from them. Throughout the article, research and examples promote the idea of linking skills learning in classes to efforts outside the classroom.

Much of my research and experience reinforces the idea that learning must become relevant to students in order to engage their interests. The article discusses an evolution in education that is being driven by student demand, a better understanding of how students learn, and a new generation of faculty members trying tech-infused teaching methods. I would also emphasize that simply using technology is not enough to engage students; these technologies must be used well.

The article cited one professor who uses an anonymous pop quiz, asking students questions like whether they discussed the homework with a classmate and how long they spent on the reading, to demonstrate that class discussion only works when students are prepared. This professor wants his students to see him as a guide, not a gate keeper of knowledge. This is what is essential, instructors simply reading a textbook that students are perfectly capable of reading on their own is not engaging learners. Students need to be co-creators of knowledge, not passive receivers of it. Some other ways this professor used to engage students to collaborate with one another included encouraging them to pass notes in class on Twitter and to create blogs to share their insights on the course material. He then created a “mother blog” to house and link to each student’s blog. This allowed the students to collaborate with one another and engaged them to such a degree that they wanted to continue to use these tools after the course ended.

Another school created 7-week immersion programs with no lecture component that brought students together to collaborate and create. The article expands on one undergraduate student’s efforts to create a social network for “unstudents” to connect to mentors and learn by modules at their own pace, completely self-directed. Online classes that essentially provide the same content that professors regurgitate in lectures are accessible to students seeking alternatives to traditional college settings.

So what is the point of going to class when instructors are forced to use attendance policies and pop quizzes to keep students in their seats? Will the traditional college environment cease to exist? Young argues that colleges will always serve to bring smart, motivated students together in a single community. However, as one professor from Virginia Tech warned, if instructors do not expect much from students, they won’t complain. As educators, we must be facilitators of learning seeking to engage students, not just founts of knowledge now easily accessible online.

Young, J. R. (2011, February 27). Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century.: New learning technologies prompt a rethinking of traditional course structure. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://0-chronicle.com.wncln.wncln.org/article/Actually-Going-to-Class-How/126519/