Monday, January 16, 2012

When teaching works

One of the things about being a teacher is that it's pretty hard to know when teaching works. I tend to believe that the reason things work out is because I have such brilliant students. I am a pretty privileged teacher, I have a lot of brilliant students, they participate, they share, the listen and they learn. It's a wonderful place to be in.

Sometimes, however, I get this sneaking suspicion that I have influenced them. And I am not talking about the many, many students traumatised to the point of never being able to squeeze another ketchup bottle after advertising lectures with graphic images. No, you see, sometimes I do something with my teaching because I want students to get better at one particular skill, and they get better at it!

I have just come out of a marathon of paper grading, the curse of every professor. When the students go on vacation, we hole up with supplies, good reading light and a red pen, and get to it. This is a strange and exhausting process, as it demands intense focus for hour after hour. Luckily the students I grade these days submit computer written papers - when I also have to decode handwriting, this is headsplittingly hard. Anyway.

Going into a long period of grading is like zoning into a very special slice of life. It's just you, the reading list, the course list, the demands to the papers, and this large stack in front of you. It's easy to feel disconnected from reality and worry that you're being too nice or too harsh, or believe you are hallucinating. Sometimes we are. Grading large stacks takes endurance and practice to do well - at the end of day two, the words blur and you turn pages with only a vague idea of what is on them. Again and again you go back, read over, check the notes, worry you may have been in that empty trance state too long, and can't get it all back, but you have to press forwards to the end of the stack.

Then you call the other assessor. You communicate - carefully - your idea about how the grades are this year. Surprisingly often you and the other assessor agree! This is always a miraculous moment. There is something measurable, and you have both sensed and measured it in a manner that is at least comparable!

This year I got this sneaking feeling early; that this was a generally good stack. (Now, if you are a student, no, I am not giving you your grade until all the formalities are in place, and then you have to call the administration. The papers are in the mail between me, the censor and the student administration. Wait for it.) Not that they were all brilliant, some were brilliant, some bad, some failed. It's how it is. But they were on average much better than I have been used to! I thought this was odd, because it's been a rough semester. I had to bring in several external leturers (thanks folks, you did really good by my students!) and rely on the TAs a lot (and they were amazingly reliable). So I started to pay attention, to try to figure out what had happened.

One thing stood out: They papers were organised! They had a strong and clear structure, they had developed the research questions, they had all elements we ask for from a paper, and they used literature well and correctly. I almost wanted to cry. I have been drilling this into student heads all autumn, repeating the structure of a paper, the reference systems, the reason for both and the logic of scholarly argumentation. I have linked reference systems and written outlines, and then repeated it all one-on-one for those who came for supervision. I worried I had overdone it.

If I overdid it, at least the message got through. Even the weak papers were structured. In several cases this saved them from a total crash and burn, as the adherence to structure helped discipline the progress. And this I know is different from the terms before. This one thing was drilled more, and more systematically. The teaching made a difference.

So, now I have that working for me. Tomorrow I'll be at the library, considering what else I need to spend time on. I am thinking of how to tighten up the reading list and the progress of lectures, and couple it better with the exercizes. I can't promise that it will work as well, but I can guarantee that I will try.


Jill said...

Hooray! I want to focus on structure and so on this semester - do you have any good references I should use, or send students to?

Torill said...

No, not really. I have based it on the experience I have gathered over the years, endless repetition, a lecture I wrote dedicated to how to use the theory for analysis, and on making them give feedback to each others through opposition. Very little other references, mainly very clear emphasis on how I want their papers to look, and why.

Peter said...

Well, congratulations! Sounds like a positive teaching experience. Having good students help, but you're also doing something right.

I'm a little curious--how big was your class? At what level? What's the topic? Are you teaching the same class now?

My experience here (US) is very different. I teach typically one low-level UG class (20 students), one graduate (6 students). For the UG, I grade the finals immediately, there is no second grader or TA. It is usually a depressing experience--sometimes more, sometimes less.

Torill said...

Hello Peter, I suspect the situation was pretty different from your teaching, at many levels.

These are master's students, it's a 7,5 points class (out of 30), and there are between 60-80 students in the class. I don't check if they are all there all the time, but regularly there are about 50 present. The topic is digital rhetoric, and I am doing the same class again this year, with even more students.