Greyhounds in the slips
One of the more telling glimpses into my pedagogical future can be found by running a course management report on classes before the semester begins. Our system records student visits and displays them in tables, graphs and colorful pie charts. A quick glance at this data shows me that just under a third of my juniors and seniors have glanced over the course site at least once since it went live a week ago (freshmen and sophomores tend to visit less often).
More interesting, however, are the anomalies in the data. I always notice one or two students who have looked over the site somewhat compulsively. They will have run up an astonishing amount of visits before the first class meeting (the record is 43). This year I even have a first: one student has completed and submitted the first assignment! It's sitting there waiting to be graded in my on-line inbox.
I'm not sure whether I ought to commend her or remind her to breathe. Hmmm...
More and more I find myself looking for ways to slow things down. A race to the finish mentality is really a bad way to approach the next 16 weeks. Everything we know about learning tells us that mental models change slowly. Ideas, new ways of looking at the world, changed understandings of a subject or even yourself aren't items to be checked off to-do lists. They take time and some self-reflection.
I don't worry too much about my clueless students, the ones ambling through with other agendas or no agenda. Sometimes they don't visit the course site until two weeks before finals. Sooner or later they are bound to run into a class, an idea or a discovery about themselves that takes them by surprise. Despite all our hand-wringing, liberal arts education still works.
I do worry about the greyhounds, however. They're so focused on the degree that they often race right by an education. So how do you slow them down?
I wonder what would happen tomorrow (when classes begin) if I taped signs to the four corners of the classroom. One might say "Completely changed my mind about something I thought I knew." Another might read "made a discovery about my own potential or abilities" Perhaps another could read "had one mind-blowing, eye-opening realization." And in the last corner it could read "performed at a level I didn't think possible."
Then I would say "Go stand in the corner of the room that describes what you want from this course and this semester. And, for heaven's sake, remember which corner you are standing in because we're going to do this little exercise again just before I assign the final grade."
Most of my students would likely forget which goal they picked on the first day (although the physical act of standing in a particular corner might help them remember). I'm pretty sure the greyhounds wouldn't forget. They would write it down--word for word-- in their already detailed planners. But if I kept circling them back, asking them to slow down and to reflect, maybe they might actually stop running.
Eh, it's worth a shot.