Playing catch-up

In northeastern Pennsylvania, we expect to lose a class day or two to weather at the beginning of the semester–the spring semester. Losing two days in early September is something else entirely. The flooding did tremendous damage to many homes and businesses upriver and downriver from us. In light of that, it can seem trivial to devote much thought to the cancellations’ effects on our classes’ schedules. Still, there’s no denying that losing class days does affect how we will teach, and how and what our students will learn, the rest of the way. No, it isn’t a life-or-death issue, but no one reads this blog looking for discussion of those issues, anyway. (At least, I hope not.)

Faculty now have to address the humble matter of how to make up for lost class time. College closings matter because, as one professor at Yale said last February (and Yale proudly has not had a snow closing in 30 years), “Semesters are ridiculously short as it is. Every day counts.”

So how do we catch up? Do we pick up today where we left off on Wednesday, forcing us into a late-semester content crunch? Do we forge ahead with the schedule, giving last Friday’s material the short shrift? Do we use Moodle creatively to hit some of the missed material? Do we even attempt to cover the same amount of material in an abbreviated semester?

Obviously, it’s hard to cover everything you’ve planned to cover once you lose a class session. But maybe teaching isn’t supposed to be entirely about coverage. If coverage were the sole aim of our teaching, then we could simply conduct class about three percent faster for the rest of the term and “cover” the same amount of material.

Moving more quickly solves the coverage problem, but as anyone who has ever tried to keep up with a fast lecturer knows, it doesn’t do wonders for students’ learning.

Maybe classes aren’t primarily about coverage. Over at the ProfHacker blog, Mark Sample discusses his approach to teaching, which is less about coverage than it is about “uncoverage.” To teach for “enduring understanding,” says Sample, you have to set up conditions in your class conducive to students making important insights. As he describes it, doing so isn’t easy.

The difference between coverage and uncoverage, at least as Sample talks about it, runs parallel to the difference between instructor-centered (or perhaps topic-centered) and student-centered learning. “What am I going to cover today?” is a different question from “What do I hope students will discover today?”

Of course, you can’t recover the lost class day through any means short of calling students in on a Saturday. But by taking Sample’s approach, maybe a missed day doesn’t matter quite as much. If the goal is to train students for lifelong discovery, then the real value of a class is projected beyond the semester’s schedule anyway.

What do you plan to do, to make up for the missed class days? Will you sacrifice coverage in any way? If so, will you sacrifice material at the beginning, middle, or end of the term? Could an “uncoverage” approach to teaching get past the problems caused by snow/flood days? Let us know what you think, in the comments.

Photo by stock.xchng user mzacha / Creative Commons licensed.

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3 responses to “Playing catch-up

  1. Yes, reduced coverage. I’m not even talking faster (ha ha). But going out of order and skipping material…that is anathema. So I renumbered the syllabus dates. Same order…just won’t get as far by the end of the semester.

    As to important insights, I’m not sure about that Discovery model. I think that they will discover or not, depending on their interest level. We can’t REALLY make them think. Sometimes alot of data helps thought, as much as hurts it. As a college student, I personally loved writing down as much as I could in class. I got excited and happy. Wow! More Knowledge! Although, sadly, look where I ended up…Still in School.

  2. I will be using Blackboard to post some material and get some student feedback. I also plan to weave references to that material throughout the course: it’s difficult to get a sense of the trajectory of Modern Poetry when you miss the day devoted to Walt Whitman.

  3. My policy is generally to stick to the schedule and try to address two days’ worth of issues in one day. Today, for instance, I sacrificed last Friday’s in-class activity of cataloging titles attributed to Jesus in Mark’s gospel by simply showing the students the catalog of titles (thus, they didn’t have to do the work of discovery), and then I gave them a worksheet for analyzing the data in that catalog. (I’m learning to love worksheets; they worked in 3rd grade, why not college?) We ended up not hitting one or two points I’d hoped we would, but maybe I can steer discussion to those points later in the week. Or not. The thing is, there’s too much later in the course that I don’t want to give up.