End of Semester Reflections

This past semester was one of the weakest I’ve had, in terms of how well students did (which I could tell as the semester progressed).  Part of that was out of my control, as I can’t make students come to class and turn work in beyond my trying to make class interesting and engaging, in addition to the basic grading structure.  There are a few things I can do, though, to try to make classes better moving forward.  Here are a few thoughts.

Composition:  The spring composition classes always struggle more than those in the fall.  This is mainly due to the fact that the students who enroll in it have had to work their way through the composition sequence, unlike the fall, where students test straight into that class.  That’s a variable I can’t control.  However, one problem with the class is that I end with their longest paper (out of three), which is worth 30% of their grade.  They can revise their first two papers after I return them, but not their third, as it’s due the final day of class.  They can meet with me ahead of time, but few students do (in the spring), either due to the busyness of the approach of finals or lack of interest.  What tends to happen, then, is that students who are close to passing end up doing poorly on the final paper and failing.  While I agree that I’m giving them ample opportunities to do well, I still want to make a change to this structure.

Right now, they write a short, more reflective paper (worth 10%) early in the semester, then two more substantial papers (worth 20% each), and then the final paper (30%).  I’m going to change those assignments to three papers that they can revise for a higher grade, then have the final paper be an extension of their longer paper.  Students at this level have a difficult time writing an 8-page paper (which is what we’re required to assign), so scaffolding the paper might help them do better work.  Also, it will lower the stakes a bit, which should give them a better idea of how they’re doing earlier in the semester.

Also, I’m going to move to some sort of contract grading (here‘s one professor’s description and reflection on the practice).  Mine, though, will have more guidance as to the quality of work, not just the quantity.  I’ll have a brief rubric (of sorts) that focus on the four main areas of writing (thesis, structure, evidence, grammar and citations) we discuss in the class, showing them what they need to do for each level of writing (Advanced, Basic, Competent, and Failing).  The contract will show them how many papers at each level they need to earn a certain grade (three papers at Advanced, one at Basic, and a certain grade on quizzes/daily work to earn an A, for example; I’m still working this approach out, but this is the basic outline).  My main goal in moving to this approach is to help me give them more positive feedback.  Rather than simply trying to justify their grade, I’m hoping to make comments on these areas rather quickly, then make positive comments that will help them revise their papers and make them stronger, something I’m not particularly good at it.

World Literature:  This class is challenging, given that I like discussion in my classes, but there are normally 30 students in this class.  It’s an easy place for students to hide, and many of them want to treat it like any other Humanities elective, where they can come in and take notes off a PowerPoint slide, then give them back on an exam (I don’t use PowerPoint, for the record).  I need to change the culture of this classroom to make it clear they won’t do that in my course.

I don’t know if I’m going to get rid of exams in the class yet, but I’m moving that direction.  I want to make it much more active than it currently is, so I’m thinking of alternative forms of evaluation.  For example, after a couple of weeks discussing poems and stories having to do with love or death, I might have them write a poem or story of their own.  Along with that creative work, they would turn in a short paper showing how they used ideas/techniques from what we’ve studied in their work.  I’m hoping such an assignment will get them to think about the literature in a more creative way, while also making sure they understand it.

I’m also going to make the class more thematic.  I’ve become less enamored with chronological approaches lately, and this class seems a good place to see if a different approach will work, as it’s a general core class.  Most of the students aren’t English majors and won’t go on to take other English classes.  No one can make the argument that I must cover certain material in a certain way, as they often do.  The thematic approach should help with revising the assessment, as well.  If such an approach works, I might be able to apply it to major surveys, as well.

Upper-Division English Courses:  I’m not sure what I’ll be teaching in the spring, and I know I’m not making major changes to the Contemporary Literature course I’m teaching in the fall, as it’s working rather well right now.  I’ll have fewer students, so I’m going to focus on giving them good writing feedback throughout the course.  One minor change I might make, if I can think through it is to put them in writing groups of 3 or 4 for the entire semester.  Then, they’ll get feedback from each other on their shorter writings before the major paper nearer the end.  I’m still thinking through that.

If I have another 400-level course in the spring, which is a distinct possibility, I’m thinking about lessening the reading load and including more reading of theory to help them work on different approaches to reading the same work.  If the class is American Novel, I’m thinking of making it more along the lines of Race and Gender in the American Novel.  Then, we would read a novel every other week or so, along with works from critical race and gender theories to see a variety of ways to read the works.  I’ll think more about that once I find out what I’m teaching.

Despite last semester’s not going as well as I would have liked, I’m excited for the fall.  I think these changes should make the classes stronger and help students better understand what I think is truly important.  I’ve decided that my ultimate goal for writing classes is to make students competent writers on a college level, while, for literature classes, I want students to want to keep reading after they’ve graduated.  There are other competency-based goals for majors, of course, but many of our majors don’t go to graduate school or become teachers.  Thus, I want literature or writing to continue playing a role in their lives, so that should drive how I structure and teach my classes.

I’m sure I’ll write about these changes in the fall and talk about how they’re going.

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