Mixed Feelings at Midterm

It's midterm. The grades had to be turned in by noon today. In my Humanities course about half of the students have figured me out and are now starting to look for that sweet spot where they can get the grade they want for the least amount of effort. Another 25 percent are still getting up to speed, and another is just now figuring it all out.

We had to have a little "Come to Shakespeare" moment in which I reminded them of the standards I was expecting in response papers, the need to actually read the play (yes, I know it's a difficult text) and not to turn in sloppy, unproofed work. We did practice exercises all morning, making generalizations and summarizing textual evidence for events in Act IV of King Lear. This was all stuff we covered the first two weeks of class, but sometimes you just have to double back.

In my first-year honors seminar, on the other hand, I tried a different kind of midterm reality check. I had the students divide a blank paper into three sections. In the first section they were to write down the personal learning goal they selected the first week of class. Some wanted to improve their critical reading ability, others their writing and still others time management. In the second section they were to evaluate their effort in achieving their goal and list the obstacles or successes they had experienced. In the final section they were to suggest ways that I could do things differently in class to help them be successful. I asked them to share what they felt comfortable sharing in small groups of three. I also asked them to tear off the third section and turn it into me (but with no name on the paper). Here were the results:

8 said don't change a thing.
5 said more student-to-student interaction (small group tasks and discussions).
3 said a bit more time on task for in-class writing assignments. (I usually give them 20-25 minutes.)
1 said more historical background on the texts.
1 said reminders about what's due at the end of class.
1 said a chance to note down ideas after large-group discussions.

It's really important to respond to student requests like these. Sometimes you can't because there's a sound pedgaogical reason that prevents it, but you can always honor a few requests. And you really should. Why waste their time if you aren't going to change anything?

So, after putting the requests on the whiteboard, I promised to add a few minutes to the weekly in-class writing assignments. I also promised to build in more student-to-student discussions. The ironic thing is this actually creates a lot more work for me. Setting up meaningful small group tasks is tough to do well and easy to do poorly. Believe me, students know "busy work" when they see it. Still, they're right. I need to talk less and get them talking more.

I also agreed to try out the last suggestion. I have students write in class, share in small group, and then report out during all-class discussion. This takes most of an 80 minute period. I said we would try saving five minutes at the end of class to note down all the points that were made. I like the idea. Let's see if it can be squeezed into an already-crowded period.

And what about me? What was my personal learning goal this semester? Didn't set one. How am I doing? Hard to say... need to talk less. What are the obstacles that are holding me back? Lack of pre-planning, lack of time, lack of innovation and creativity. And what would I like to change? Not sure, but if nothing else I've at least done some clear thinking about mixed feelings.


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