Revisiting the Syllabus in Week 8

Prologue: I’m in a teaching circle on “student success and retention,” and while I have the same qualms that Leigh Blackall notes, nevertheless I am interested in the success of students, and I am interested in their getting a college education, if that is what they want — as we all are. I opted to join this circle instead of the teaching circle offered on the book Teaching What You Don’t Know, because I’m in our German program, it is very small, and we will eventually face losing the German major if we don’t “recruit, retain, and graduate” more German majors. (I think that some of the languages will go the way of Latin and Greek — still there 100 years later, at least for awhile, but very small. I foresee the continued need for languages we have taught, as well as languages we have not taught, but I see them morph into different kinds of majors.)

Heart of the Post: This is what I wrote my teaching circle this morning:

Barbara Sawhill, who runs the language lab and teaches Spanish at Oberlin College, suggests regular mutual assessment. She assesses her students’ work every 3 weeks — and — she has them assess the course every 3 weeks! She says:

“Our job, I believe , as teachers, is to map out a series of trails that could lead towards learning…but not just one trail. On those trails, yes, there are stopping points, assignments, deadlines… I think students expect that we will provide guidance on how to get started and nudging during the different points that they might get lost or confused or start veering away from their learning objective. …

Formal assessment is one thing. Informal assessment is another. Once every three weeks I ask the students to give me an anonymous evaluation of the class, my teaching, their learning. And then I report back ( immediately with the results, and make changes as needed by the evaluations). I mention this as a way to say that yes, I believe in assessment, in feedback, in evaluation…but it need not be graded and it should go BOTH ways.”

I don’t know that I’ll do it every 3 weeks! I often revise my syllabus as the semester progresses. And I’ve sometimes asked students for feedback midway into the semester. I’m trying it again to see if it might be something to implement more regularly. I got student feedback yesterday on a course I’m teaching, and the student suggestions were “right on.” I agreed with everything they said, and they were responding as well to my reiteration of my goals for the course. So I’m going to implement some changes, and we’ll see how it goes from there.

What does this have to do with student success and retention? Well, I’ve noticed some absence problems with a few students, and I’ve noticed that some are not doing some of the blogging. In addition to their suggestions, they also told me what they thought was their problem (a couple stated that not doing the blogs was due to their own time management issues), and what was going well, as well as what they would like to see changed and why. So I’m hoping that my working with them in mutual respect will increase their chances for success — and retention.

Postscript:
I absolutely love Barbara’s post, “Why Taking Attendance Doesn’t Matter.”

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