Category Archives: challenging classroom situations

Hiding the Vegetables? On explaining your pedagogical choices and teaching philosophy to students

I don’t have children, but on my Facebook feed I often see my ‘parent friends’ posting articles about how to get their children to eat more vegetables.  Many tips seem to focus on somehow managing to hide or sneak in vegetables into foods their kids otherwise love—‘add carrot juice into fruit smoothies’  ‘blend up spinach and put in pasta sauce’.   In other words,  if you want them to eat their brussels sprouts, do everything you can to make sure they do not know they are eating brussels sprouts.

What on earth does this have to do with teaching, you ask?  Bear with me.

The necessity of ‘labelling’ my pedagogy this semester

Several of my upcoming blog posts will focus on a funded research project I did this semester on active learning in large undergraduate classes.  The research project did not require any change to my pedagogy or any redesign of my course.  I taught my Introduction to Comparative Politics class exactly as I had four times before in previous years.  Other than updating a few case studies, fixing typos in my lecture slides and nixing a few activities that just didn’t seem to work,   there were no changes to how I taught the course or my general teaching philosophy.

There were, however, two significant changes that seem to have come back to haunt me.  The first is that I added what I called an ‘Active Learning Journal’  where students had to upload some evidence of their engagement with class debates, activities and simulations (very small-stakes—a snapshot of a completed worksheet or their notes capturing both sides of the debate in class would suffice). Secondly,  because I was conducting research on my teaching,  I of course was ethically obliged to inform my students of the research project, its aims etc.  My Research Assistant also recruited students to participate in focus groups to help me gain further insight into my teaching (warts and all).  The ethics requirement and the methodology thus required students to be reminded several times this term that I was using ‘Active Learning’.

I actually thought all of this would be a good thing.  I thought being more transparent and open about my pedagogy and teaching philosophy would diminish the small amounts of resistance to my teaching style that I’ve encountered in the past (which I would stress has been up until this term minimal—some students would just prefer I stand up and talk at them for 3 hours a week).  Oh, how naïve and wrong I was.

The curious case of my teaching evaluations in this one section

While I admit there are things that I can and will change regarding my use of active learning based on some of the qualitative feedback from my focus groups, other types of feedback from students have left me more generally torn and confused.  Having reviewed my formal course evaluations, it appears that the labelling of things as ‘Active Learning’, signaling to students that ‘I am doing things differently’ has possibly backfired.

My numerical scores are pretty much unchanged (in fact they have gone up slightly since last year, despite it being a larger class and me having health issues near the end of the semester that led to a delay in getting grades out).  However, the comment section was filled with notes about students’ dislike of active learning.  There were positive comments too of course, regarding my skills as a lecturer, my being available and helpful to students, and some students were positive about my pedagogy—but  the comments regarding active learning were roughly 75% negative.  This is quite surprising given very good scores on all of the quantitative elements of the evaluations which measure students’ assessment of the quality of me and the learning experience as a whole.  It also does not match (at all) with the incredible evidence of learning that I saw in their reflective writing on active learning.

Now, the reason this is so interesting to me, is that I have NEVER had these comments (or at least so many of them) in the 4 others sections that I teach the course—even though the course and active learning elements are unchanged.  In fact, I taught two other section of this same course in the same semester (with pretty much exactly the same pedagogy and exercises) and the comments section was overwhelmingly positive regarding the activities that I did. The only substantive difference in these other two sections being that I was not explicit about my active learning pedagogy/philosophy in any of my other courses.

Moving forward:  what are the pros and cons of sharing your teaching philosophy with students?

So what to make of all of this?  I’m not sure.  I’m still processing the whole experience.  I had a good group of intelligent students (many, though certainly not all) engaged with everything I threw at them during the term.  The reflective writing that they also did on some of these activities also generally showed thoughtful engagement with the aims and lessons of these activities.  So in terms of student learning, I’m still confident that the course works.

The experience certainly hasn’t shaken my teaching philosophy, but it has made me think about if it is necessary (or at all beneficial)  to share your teaching philosophy with students.  Does holding something up as different create resistance from the start?  If a set of pedagogical tools are shown to be effective for student learning through research, should we just use them and hope for buy-in from students?  Is active learning the carrot juice or brussels sprouts of the pedagogical terrain— good for you, but best kept secretly mixed in with the things more familiar and liked?

I’ve no clear answers for these questions, but despite my experience this year, I think I will still be explicit at some stage with my students about my approach to teaching.   However, perhaps I won’t give it a label, won’t characterize it as ‘other’.  I do want to have my students reflect on the process of learning, take ownership of their own education, so I still believe that being open about the aims of and rationale of your teaching approach is important for students’ intellectual development.  Perhaps the answer lies in more subtly inviting students who are interested and intellectually curious about teaching and learning to have these conversations with you, without belaboring the point and just allowing the pedagogies to work/speak for themselves.

 

There’s no crying in academia! On emotion in the classroom and our profession

In the 1992 film A League of Their Own, a film about the creation of an all-female baseball league that was created in the US during WWII whilst many men were off fighting in Europe, Tom Hanks’ character (used to coaching young men but now adjusting to a team full of athletic young women) bellows at one of his young players who has not taken to his coaching style particularly well— ‘There’s no crying in baseball!!!!’.

Whilst playing on a dangerous gender stereotype of the ‘overly emotional female’ which I don’t want to perpetuate (all genders are emotional beings for goodness sake!), this moment in the film occasionally pops into my head.   For in moments where either the demands of my job or the topic of my study (political violence, injustice and peacebuilding) strike a particular chord—I do occasionally become emotional.  And although I have had (and still have) wonderfully supportive colleagues of all genders who act like ordinary (emotional) human beings on a regular basis, there are times where I become paranoid that any displays of emotion on my part will be met with a Tom Hanks-esque response!  I then attempt to quickly push those  emotions aside and get back to my rational, objective status quo.

Now of course, our profession is open to discussions of many emotions ‘on the job’: fatigue induced exasperation (ie I had to pull an all-nighter to get that conference paper in. This was one of those 70 hour work weeks. Thank god it is the end of term!  I need a break!);  student or colleague induced frustration (ie why don’t they just read the syllabus!  Why are we dedicating another staff meeting to this issue?’  Why haven’t they responded to my emails on the proposed policy changes!) and last but not least  moments of  joy (ie My article/book/chapter got accepted!  I received a huge research grant!  My grad student landed a tenure track job!).

However, in many (if not most) situations, emotion is frowned upon in our profession.  We are expected to ‘objectively reflect and analyze’ in our research and act rationally (or even coldly) in the face of specific policy changes  that affect our jobs.  This focus on objectivity and rationality that is so central to our jobs is transmitted to our classrooms, where we encourage student to focus on the empirics of a situation, not be clouded by personal opinions or normative statements of what ‘should be’.  Students are welcome to opinions, but these must be prefaced by an objective, verifiable set of rational arguments.  Emotion, if permitted at all, must first be mediated by these non-emotional filters.  And of course, in most cases and in most situations this is perfectly fine and desirable, but what are the limits of this strict adherence the rational/unemotional academic mode?

Without going into too much detail, the stark reality of the limits of the non-emotional approach to knowledge, service and leadership that are dominant in our profession came up and smacked me across the face a few weeks ago.  A deeply personal situation intersected with my own field of research and teaching (peace studies specifically and politics more generally).  Every cold hard fact and every abstract theory that I have used over the course of my scholarly career failed me.  Failed me in terms of my ability to understand the situation I found myself in, failed me in terms of understanding what could be done, what should be done to resolve the injustice and suffering that  political violence creates.  In that moment I felt that my life’s work and the knowledge I  would be imparting to my students in the coming days and weeks was insignificant—perhaps even counterproductive in the way it tried to quantify, qualify, explain and examine in a detached, objective  or ‘rational’ way.

My reaction came as a shock to me.  I have studied and spent time in conflict affected zones for over a decade.  I have met and interviewed countless individuals who have experienced the worst that political violence has to offer.  I have felt with my own hands, seen with my own eyes and heard with my own ears the realities of war.  The problem(?), I now realize, is that in all of these cases I then filtered my experiences through an objective set of frameworks (liberalism, hybridity, agonism) via accepted  social scientific methods (interviews, coding, software packages).  In doing so, it appears that I was able to shelter myself from much of the reality of what I had learned—the emotional, the struggle, the tangible and often unresolvable injustices that human beings are experiencing daily.  Self preservation some might say, shoddy scholarship in the sense of failing to capture a significant reality of the situation I might say!

The collision of what was fundamentally a personal issue with my professional life (and in particular, how and what I teach) led to tears.  Yep, I said it.  I cried about my research, cried about my teaching, cried about the tangible situation in front of me, all together, all wrapped up into one.  Perhaps this will make me seem ‘silly or weak’ in the eyes of some students or colleagues.  So be it.

But I know I’m not alone. Talking to others and engaging with my students, it is clear to me that learning is often deeply emotional.  I watch my students, international and domestic, struggle with heightened emotions when the topics we are covering force them to consider sometimes uncomfortable truths about their own countries, or what they were taught as children.  I watch my students respond emotionally to comments made in class that are occasionally based on racial or gender stereotypes, that go against their core beliefs or personal sense of ethics.  I watch students try and find the words to express their opinions only to find that the academic  language I have provided them with often fails to sufficiently capture the core of their debate and their concerns (which are often deeply personal and emotional and  therefore easily dismissed as ‘subjective’–which seems to have become quite a pejorative term)

Education is not therapy, but the issues we explore with students (in all disciplines) often evoke an emotional response. We can ignore them, wish them away and consider emotions as ‘un-academic’.  But I believe we do so at our own peril as it detaches their understanding of the ‘topics’ we are teaching our students from how these topics are actually experienced by the vast majority of the population.  If we want students to understand anything, from identity politics to the science behind vaccinations, I believe we must equip them with the tools and language to understand the emotional responses and realities that these topics evoke in the general population.  Otherwise, the knowledge that students gain will only allow them to uncover part of the story in their future professional lives and limit their ability to enact change that is meaningful and desired by large segments of the population (for whom issues of conflict, identity, decisions on drug treatments and investment options are not merely academic puzzles, but lived realities with tangible consequences)

I’ve no easy answer to how we deal with emotions in the classroom.  I feel like our current default is to shy away from these.  When students get emotional, we try to ‘bring it back to the theory/concept/framework’–  I know I certainly do this.  In future iterations of my classes I hope to draw on and introduce more readings on political psychology, emotions in IR and the growing literature on aesthetics as starting points.  It will certainly top my summer reading list and goals for course renewal for the next academic year.

Forget it, I’m not following the lesson plan today: An unscripted conversation on violence, terrorism, religion and fear

Things were ticking along nicely during my Monday morning lecture. Short reading quiz—tick. Get up to Slide 5 in powerpoint-lecture on IR Theory by the first break—tick. Start prepping TAs on logistics of running the post-break simulation on sovereignty during the break—ti…. Interrupted by lingering student who clearly had a question to ask.

The question of course was about what happened in France over the weekend. The attacks that killed over 100 (mostly young) people doing things that my students do on a regular basis without any fear—drinking at a bar, eating at a café, going to a concert, attending a football match. As I talked about the different ways we could address his question and noticed the other students who had begun to linger as we talked, I realized this was a conversation I should be having with the whole group, not just the four or so who were now stood around me.

I looked at my remaining slides, I looked at the simulation on sovereignty/humanitarian intervention I had so carefully crafted and printed for them.   I realized that as much as I needed to ‘teach them the basics’, there was a potential for them to learn a lot more about the world today by have a totally unscripted conversation. So, in both my classes that day I ditched the last half of my lesson plan and my TAs and I simply answered questions the students had about what was going on in the world.

I have to say, I was a bit nervous. The attacks, terrorism, religion, military interventions, immigration—if my Facebook page and the conversations (nay I say, fights) that were happening there were anything to go by, this could get messy, and fast. But it didn’t. My students asked incredible questions focused on understanding the situation not simply reacting to it. My TAs responded with honesty (some things we just don’t know) and a recognition of the deep divides that exist in our field and in the public domain about many of the questions the students had (often noting things were ‘just their opinion’ and pointing to a range of ideas and arguments that exist, without judgement of those ideas).

But it was more than just a QnA. Reflecting on this after classes were done for the day, I realized how much students had learned about the social sciences more generally—the kinds and types of debates we have that they are now participating in.   They came to realize how global problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, how evidence for ‘competing truths’ can be found. In terms of learning about politics, they came face to face with so many of the issues we’ve been talking about this term—power in all its guises, authority, freedom, sovereignty, civil society.

It has made me question the whole way I have approached teaching this course. I teach it thematically, Week One: Power, Week Two: The State and so on and so forth. Would it possibly make more sense to teach politics through real political events? The ‘themes’ would likely expose themselves regardless—though it would take more time and care on my part to really draw these out each week and to ensure students were not only learning about the event, but also the crucial ‘political science canon’ that I am supposed to be providing them with. It would mean a rewrite of my course and an acceptance that these unscripted conversations might take us to places my powerpoint slides are not ready to take us to!

Below is just a small glimpse of the questions asked along with some bullet points on political themes and debates that we were able to have because of those questions. I’ll be looking back on this experience to consider how I might bring in more current events to my teaching in a way that is meaningful and doesn’t take away from the other ‘content’ that they also need to learn. While the timeframe didn’t allow me to go into great detail on any of the below— it did allow me to introduce new concepts and debates and make links to a wide range of concepts we’ve already covered during the term. For me, it really taught me the value of unscripted conversations with students.

***

  1. Is there going to be another World War? This question allowed us to talk about who has the power to define and label political events; the criteria used to classify wars; the shift in thinking about war as something between states as opposed to something that also involves non-state actors; the difficulties political scientists have in making predictions
  2. Why did they (ISIS or the extremists) do this? What do they want? This question allowed us to talk about religion/identity and politics (what different theories tell us about the role of religion and identity in relation to war); the heterogeneity found within all religions; Islamophobia; the central role that power has in political science and the understanding of different ways of acquiring it—both legitimate and illegitimate; the politics of fear.
  3. Why are we seeing so much about France!? What about what happened in Turkey last month, Lebanon the night before etc etc etc? Why don’t people care about these other cases?  Probably one of the most difficult questions, this discussion helped students recognize the importance of being specific in our questions—the reasons individuals vs the media vs states ‘care’ about a political issue is quite varied. It also allowed us to raise issues of power, wealth (and the connection between the two), the salience of our different identities as well as difficult questions regarding stereotyping, racism and ‘othering’.
  4. What will we can we do to stop ISIS? This question was probably most clearly linked to our topic of the day and we tried to answer it by bringing in theories liberalism and realism in IR.   It also allowed us to again think about the nature of state vs non-state actors (and the relationship between them); I was also able to introduce ideas found in strategic studies—(air campaigns vs ground campaigns, counterinsurgency) as well as my own research interests of peacebuilding and pacifism.
  5. What can we do to stop Islamophobia? My students are rightly disgusted by the recent and ongoing attacks they are seeing around the globe but at the same time many voiced fear over the Islamophobia that is also emerging (there is nothing contradictory in holding these two positions at the same time). This was one of the harder ones for me to talk about for personal reasons—and was actually a great opportunity to frame my own thinking on the problem rationally, conceptually, without flying into a blind range. My TAs took the lead and handled it like stars—linking it to conversations around domestic politics, elections, ‘othering’ and civil society movements.

 

 

Would you like to supersize that? On active learning in large classroom settings

When I first arrived at UBC one of the first classes I taught was a 200 level comparative politics class. For whatever reason (I don’t take it personally) I only had 40 students in a class that is normally capped at 150. Hurrah! It was a new course for me and the average size of my cohort at my last gig was around 35 so my ‘new job and new course’ stress was somewhat reduced.

Having 40 students allowed me to do all sorts of active learning activities in my class: gallery walks, student presentations, small group work/breakout sessions, simulations, debates etc. It also meant that I was able to learn nearly all of my student’s names and engage with them one on one in lectures.  There were also many small assignments that allowed me to gage their performance nearly week by week; I could be responsive with written feedback and my time. For me, teaching this new class was a lot of work but a wonderful experience. Hurrah again!

Then. Reality hit. For another variety of reasons, the size of my 200 level class has pretty much tripled. Last year I had 100 students in this class. When I teach the class next term I will have 150. Comparative politics with Peterson has been supersized. I already learned from last year that active learning activities with 40 students do not translate well to 100 student cohorts—it is not just a matter of needing more handouts or more TAs. The class dynamic changes, the logistics change, the personal touch that makes active learning so valuable seems to diminish as you can’t physically get to the students in the middle of the room, and you simply don’t have time to engage meaningfully with everyone.

Passing a colleage today, fatigued by my current teaching and feeling a bit anxious about next term I joked (?) that I might just go back to ‘chalk and talk’. Well, of course I won’t but I can’t keep doing ‘active learning’ the way I am doing it. I’ve already had a chance this semester to think about how to make my active learning work for a bigger cohort. My Poli 100 (Intro to Politics) cohort has also doubled in size since last year. Here is what I have learned so far.

Make use of the natural leaders in your cohort and nurture new ones

For active learning to work in a large cohort, you need at least 80% of your students totally on board. Because you can’t be everywhere at all times making sure everyone is being ‘active’, peer pressure and accountability to each other has to be built into the activities themselves. Assign already and emerging strong students as leaders or discussants to help you keep everyone on track. Mix students up so these leaders (who often work together) are dispersed throughout the class.   At the same time, don’t rely on them too much. They might relish the challenge but they deserve a break– though they will learn so much by helping other students, they also should be allowed to work with their own peer groups regularly. Also be sure to not to have the same mentors all semester. Try to give as many students as possible this opportunity so they can see the benefits of leadership, grow in confidence and become more likely to ‘buy in’ to active learning in general

Save a tree, use the internet

Nearly all of my active learning pedagogies involve handouts. Often several. With 40 students I could come with a neat little ‘activity pack’ for each group of 5—a few short essentials readings, photocopies of some data, worksheets, paper/pens for post presentations. No biggie! Photocopying, compiling and then dragging 20+ activity packs to class just isn’t an option. Put anything that you would normally put in an ‘activity pack’ for students up online ahead of time and encourage students to bring their laptops to class so they have the materials for the activity already.   Handouts or activity sheets that need to be completed can likely be made as e-forms, that students can complete online and store in their own ‘my grades’ tab. This of course will require more prep time and last minute activity planning will have to go out the window… but that is likely a good thing in and of itself.

Insist on better spaces

Now, UBC has some wonderful learning spaces. But, the class-room-assigning gods were not smiling on me this year. I have tiered lectures theatres with terrible lighting (honestly, one of my rooms has the lighting of an old-school British Pub—think the ‘public toilets bar’ in Manchester on Oxford Rd for those of you who have been there. This room pretty much induces sleep from them moment I walk into it!). I digress. Neither of my rooms this semester have tables to make group easy. My students have to twist and contort to hear and see each other. These rooms are also built on the premise that ‘everything important happens at the front of the room’—meaning all of the wonderful knowledge be produced in every corner of my classroom through my students’ active learning is nearly impossible to share.

Space is a problem at all universities and there is often very little we can do about infrastructure. But we can be advocates for ourselves. Visit other classrooms, make lists of the ones you like and try and insist to the ‘powers that be’ that your pedagogy relies on better space. I haven’t always gotten the ideal room, but I have gotten improvements. Computer systems might do the scheduling, but there is generally a friendly human behind the screen who can help you find something better.

I’ve recently been awarded a small grant to conduct research on active learning and its effectiveness more generally, so if it is a topic that interests you—watch this space!

Providing advice to students on requests to ‘bump up my grade’: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 2)

Following on from my last post, I want to be clear. Students absolutely have the right to discuss their grades with their professors. There are a variety of legitimate reasons for students to contact professors regarding their grades (the most central one being that students should talk to their profs about their grades and feedback with the aim of learning and improving for future assignments). One thing I think I can do better next year is make it much more clear to my students from day one what is and is not acceptable in terms of discussing grades with me (and other professors). This is particularly important in the intro classes.

Students: Below is a list of issues which I think are legitimate issues and questions to raise with your professors and advice on how to approach these issues.

Colleagues:  Perhaps this is a list you can adapt/share/discuss with your own students to save some of the stresses around requests for grade ‘bumps’ in the future and to try and encourage more fruitful and efficient discussions about grades more generally.

  • Questions about how the grade was calculated and a possible mistake (mathematical or otherwise) in this calculation. Note: If you are a student, make sure you have your maths right too before you approach your professor. Be specific about where you think the flaw is.  Did they forget that they gave you an excused absence for a quiz? Did they accidentally input 67 instead of 76 for your midterm? Do not send general emails saying ‘Did you calculate my grade right?’.
  • Questions about an inputted grade for which you did not receive feedback. I have had a few students request to see their final exam or discuss the participation grade they received for their tutorial—grades that are traditionally given without feedback being provided to the student. I feel students have a right to understand why they were given a grade so that they can understand what went wrong and how to improve in the future: Note: If you are a student, ask to come discuss your grade with this reason in mind. Do not send an email asking ‘did I really get that grade? That can’t be right’.
  • To inform the instructor of any extenuating circumstances which may have impacted your grade. This does not mean that a professor will automatically change your grade—but they can put you in touch with services on campus to offer you further support and ensure that you receive accommodations available to students in your situation.
  • To discuss legitimate concerns or confusion about a grade you feel is substantially lower than you deserve. If you feel you have a legitimate complaint about the grade you received, come prepared to have a reasoned, academic, intellectual discussion with your professor. Be prepared to respond directly and specifically to the feedback/critiques you were given. A student coming to a professor and simply saying ‘I don’t agree with the feedback’ probably won’t get very far. A student who comes with a specific concern will be taken seriously. For example, this year I had a student come to me concerned about feedback she had received on an essay that said she had not provided adequate case study material.   She had taken the time to go through her essay and highlight the places she had done this AND she had taken the time to explain to me in further detail why she thought that case study material had effectively proven her conceptual arguments. Through our discussions the student realized that these ‘further details’ should have been included in the paper itself—a good learning moment for how to improve on future assignments.
  • If after speaking to your professor (if you feel comfortable doing so) you are still unhappy and feel your arguments hold still, most universities will have appeals processes that you can look into—wrongs are sometimes committed.  If you are going to take this track you will need to put in the work to justify your complaint.   Your students’ union, student advising office or ombudsperson can provide you further advice. Your TAs and professors should always be your first call, but these offices listed above can also be consulted if for some reason you are unable to approach teaching faculty directly.

Can you ‘bump up my grade’?: dealing with grade complaints and requests for extra credit (Part 1)

Weeks of intensive lecturing, writing, marking, examinations etc, whilst often rewarding is, well, just hard.  Even after a successful semester with few problems, one can’t help but take a few moments to do a wee dance (either in your head or in your office) after that last lecture is given.  There is often a huge sigh of relief, especially at the end of semester two, once those final grades are submitted, when one feels their summer work agenda can really begin.  I’m pretty sure my students feel the same. And whilst I too did a little jig at both of these moments, my transition into the summer term wasn’t without its own frustrations.  For a few days after the grades were submitted, I actually dreaded opening my email, which slowed the beat on my post-semester dance.

I’m not alone (I checked) in receiving emails from students who are upset by their final grade once these are posted. They often feel these are unfair (for a variety of reasons) or they are desperate (for another set of reasons) for their grade to be ‘bumped up’.  Sometimes I get a straight up, no holds barred ask for an increase in grades.  This is often the case if a student has just barely missed out on a pass, though I’ve also had this request from students who were sat just below an A-.   More common, however, are the requests from students to be allowed to do ‘extra credit’ in an effort to get the grade they really wanted.

In this first of two posts, I will explore this problem from the instructors point of view, with my next  post offering advice to students on how to deal with grade concerns professionally  (while the blog is primarily aimed at teaching staff, I know some of my students sometimes peruse the blog).

Prevention:  modelling and encouraging self-reflection and accountability

I’m not one for sporting analogies, but in this case I do think that the best offence is a good defence.  I think there are many simple things that we can do to reduce the amount of grade disputes and complaints we receive in a way that also improves student learning and accountability.  Yes, students earn the grades they are given; they are adults and need to take responsibility for their own learning.  However, most of are these are young adults and part of our role could (should?) be modelling/teaching what accountability for one’s actions looks like in a professional setting.  The term ‘life skills’ makes me squirm, but is apt here I suppose.

  • Do ‘progress’ check-ins with students throughout the semester. This need not be laborious.  Encourage students to calculate their grade for the class at pivotal moments during the semester.  Take these times as opportunities to invite students to your office hours to discuss any grade concerns.  Of course students should be doing this anyway, but I’m often shocked by the number of students who don’t seem to have a clue where they actually stand in the course going into the final and then come to me at the 11th hour shocked that they might possibly fail the course!
  • Have students set learning goals at the beginning of the semester via a self-assessment form*.  Collect these and return to students mid-term, after they have an assignment or two in.   At this stage ask them to reflect on whether they are meeting their goal, if they need to set new goals, why they have achieved what they have, and what they can do to set a new course at the mid-term.
  • Identify students at risk and reach out to them personally. This takes more effort than the above to options of course.  It may be something that a senior TA could do.  Students with poor attendance or a failed assignment could be emailed directly and asked to discuss their progress with you or the TA.  If this seems too ‘hand-holding’ for some, another more feasible option is to have whoever is marking simply write ‘please come see me’  at the end of any assignment that is below a certain grade.   I will say that this tactic has both worked (and slightly backfired) for me this year.  After taking this track following one the intro writing assignments I ended up having weeks where I was holding upwards of 12 ‘office hours’ as students took me up on my offer!  Whilst time intensive (and something my TAs will help more with next year) it did lead to improved performance (and thus less frustrating marking) on subsequent assignments.  It also helped me identify a few student wellness/mental well-being issues that may have gone undetected otherwise.

Responding to requests for increased grades and extra credit:

Many of the requests I have received for increased grades come with a back story that often pulls at the heart strings.  I’m not going to write here about perceptions of if these are legitimate or not—I’m rarely in a position to judge the veracity of these.  The point is, even at my  most crankiest of ‘cranky-professor’ moments (which I like to think are actually pretty rare, but maybe ask my students) I’m also human being, and saying ‘no’ to a student who seems to be writing from a place of total desperation can still be tough.

The pressures students face from family and society may be very real or FEEL very real to them. We don’t know their mental state, their financial situation, the list goes on.   Plus, whilst we know that failing Intro to XYZ  is not going to dramatically change their life course,  to some students a failure or not getting that A is the end of the world to them, in that moment.  I’ll never forget the student who upon getting a respectable B+ in a challenging course said to me ‘getting that grade made me feel like a horrible person’.  Dramatic?  Yes, from my perspective.  But it is easy for me to say that from the position of secure tenure track job in which I get to spend most of my time doing interesting things I want to be doing.  For a young person, uncertain about their future, unsure of what their skills actually are and what they even want to do with their lives,  a ‘bad grade’ (particularly on an assignment they were excited about) can be a blow.

Again, whilst we are not trained counsellors, there is much we can do to support students in taking ownership of the grades they have earned, and reflecting on their own behaviour.  Hopefully if we teach this to them at early in their undergraduate degrees, they will carry it forward with them.  Here is are some of my strategies for dealing with requests for extra credit or grade ‘bumps’.

  • Request, when possible, that the student come to office hours to discuss the issue face to face (perhaps with the exception of them pointing out a minor typo/grade calculation via email). This generally means that I am only discussing grade issues with students who have a legitimate concern—who are prepared to have a reasoned discussion with me.  I still get students coming in who don’t really have a reasoned argument,  but these students are generally highly stressed or very desperate so they are willing to make the trek to my office, which allows me to then direct them to other support mechanisms if needed.   Sometimes this can be assessed via email of course—I do send some students straight to student services depending on the content of their original email.
  • Help the student make a plan on how they will deal with the wider problem. Sometimes this is a simple academic issues that I can provide advice on (study habits, writing structure, time management etc).  However,  grade requests are often coming from place of panic or because a student has not made use of services that support mental/physical health issues faced by students.  I remind the student that problems that have impacted their grades in my course are probably affecting their grades in other courses, so the best course of action is to get professional advice on how to deal with their academic/health/financial problem holistically.  I’m not in a position to do that, the best place they can get help from these other student services.   Whatever the problem, make sure the student leaves the office knowing what they should be doing to rectify the problem.
  • Remind the student that there were multiple opportunities and supports in place to help them improve their grade over the semester. Talk to them about this—did they make use of the resources available to them? If not, why not?  What lessons can they take from this moving forward?
  • Remind the student that it would be unfair on their peers if their grades were simply ‘bumped up’ or only they were given extra credit opportunities. Ask them what they would think if it was the other way around—if they were in a class where only a small number of students were allowed to improve their grades, or the Prof simply raised the grades without extra effort. A simple ‘logic/fairness’ check usually works on students—and this technique can also sometimes lead to students opening up about issues they hadn’t raised before.  I had one student say to me ‘Yes, that would seem unfair to me, unless I knew that they had been looking after a sick parent all semester’.  Again, this allows me to move into a conversation directing students to the appropriate support services.
  • When in doubt, ask a senior colleague. Sometimes you just need a reality check.  I had a request this year to which I repeatedly said no.  The student kept protesting and emailing.  I started doubting myself.  ‘Am I just being totally heartless, unreasonable jerk here?’ I asked myself.  A two minute chat with a respected senior colleague saved me hours of self-doubt and stress.
  • Related to the above (note: I did not on the above occasion feel threatened by the student), don’t be afraid to tell you department head/line-manager if you are being harassed or threatened by a student. I don’t think this happens very often, but it did happen to me once to me early on in my career and I have heard some pretty upsetting stories from other colleagues. Sometimes we suffer from a ‘I should be able to handle this and if I say anything I will look weak’ mentality—especially as untenured faculty.  Frankly, that is garbage.  If you at all feel threatened or bullied report it immediately and be insistent on support and action from your institution.

* I have a form that I use with my first year students for this—please email me if you would like to see a copy.  It is by no means perfect, but I’ve found it useful.

Guest Blogger Audrey Tong, UBC Political Science: ‘Encouraging Student Participation’

As one of Jen’s undergraduate teaching assistants, I had the welcoming challenge of contributing to Jen’s lecture activities in the second term of the school year. Whereas Jen and the students have already established a working relationship and good rapport from first term, January marked the first time I was meeting the students – and being a teaching assistant. As a senior undergraduate student, I have had plenty of good and bad professors, lab instructors, and teaching assistants. I found that having a good teaching assistant that I could go talk to and ask for advice really made a difference in my learning, especially in grasping new concepts. As such, I was motivated to be an active, empowering and encouraging teaching assistant. However, I found that this is a big responsibility, and one that takes time to grow into.

One immediate challenge that I faced was keeping the students engaged and getting them to talk. Jen always prepares carefully planned classroom strategies and lesson plans that prompt lively student discussion. However, what I’ve come to realize is that active learning strategies is completely dependent on active student interest and participation, and thus, are particularly vulnerable to student apathy. As an undergraduate teaching assistant, I have the opportunity to observe class discussions, facilitate discussions, and try to engage students. Sometimes I am simply greeted by blank stares and silence; for reasons beyond my control, students just refuse to talk at times. As a TA, I was motivated to minimize these occurrences and crack the cycle.

As I walk around the classroom to listen in on discussions and chime in at the appropriate moments, I do my best to create open, safe, and supportive spaces where students can feel comfortable speaking up and voicing their own opinions. One major concern that students usually have is saying the ‘wrong’ answer. Students perceive this as an outright negative phenomenon, so they tend to remain silent. This results in diminished participation through fewer responses, and responses of lower equality that lack critical thinking or analysis.

To model the type of participation and curiosity I would like the students to exhibit in class, I tried a couple of strategies. During in-class discussions, I would go around the groups and if students have trouble grasping the question, I would rephrase the question and give an example by thinking out loud. Since the students are often discussing in pairs or groups, I would ask them for their ideas and ask a follow up question that would lead the student to further develop their answer. I then go over and repeat what they just said to demonstrate what a full response would look like and offer a positive piece of feedback. Finally, I encourage them to raise their hand and speak up when the professor is asking for student examples. If it’s a great point and the student is still not willing to convey their point (ex. shyness, English barrier, not sure if it’s the ‘right’ answer, ‘too cool for school’), I have the ability to give them a voice on their behalf (“Student X had a great point, and I would like to share what they said to the class”).

Over time, the students got the hang of active learning and participating in group discussions. I think another big piece in motivating student participation is how a TA or professor responds when students speak up, either in lecture discussions or in office hours. It’s a two way street: if you want students to participate seriously, you have to take their contributions seriously. By being an active listener and seeing things from their perspective, I always try to provide specific and thoughtful responses to a student question or comment. What I found interesting was that once a student sees that I’m making an effort, they would make an effort and try harder too. I had a group of students who voluntarily came to my office hours today to share their case study progress. By creating a safe and encouraging environment and nurturing a positive TA-student relationship, I have seen signs that the wall of silence is breaking and that the groundwork for voluntary participation is slowly building up.