Working through “the blahs”

The first weeks of a semester can be like a dream. You’ve set your goals, and you are confident that you and the students can achieve them. The students are confident, too. There is a lightness in the classroom’s air; there have been no assessments yet, so all are free to think that everything will be just perfect.

Then comes Week Five or Six. The first major paper or exam comes in, and the results were not what you had hoped for. They weren’t what your students had hoped for, either. You all begin to realize that, no, this semester won’t be much different from the previous ones. There will be friction, and you’re all going to have to do the same kind of unpleasant work you’ve had to do for classes in the past, in order to make them successful.

In the few weeks before mid-semester, a class can easily go either way. It is a good time to do what we can to push the class in the right direction. It is often said at King’s that a D or F on a mid-semester grade report can be “a good wake-up call” for a student who hadn’t been putting in a really solid effort. But by the time a student gets that report, there simply aren’t many opportunities to turn things around. Necessarily, many of the available points have already been banked (or, in the case of the D or F student, not banked).

So what can you do this week to help make the rest of the semester go the way you hope it will go?

One of our colleagues wrote in a comment on CELT’s Facebook group that while her classes were generally on a good track,

it is wake up time for a few students. Something new I’m doing this semester is posting attendance and assignment credit for daily work on Moodle, intending that they will see tangible rewards and penalties as they are incurred. Next week, I’ll give students self-assessments along with opportunities for anonymous feedback on the course in general. I try to emphasize that I welcome feedback for meeting my responsibilities while asking them about how they are meeting their responsibilities. I make changes from that point while asking them what changes they will make. It’s a crucial time in the semester.

If a low mid-semester grade is a wake-up call, then seeing one’s overall grade, day by day, including grades for such seemingly nebulous areas as class participation, can be the neighbors’ dog barking all night. (Though in a good way.) But as our colleague shows here, it’s not just students who need to know where they stand in a course at this crucial time. Inviting feedback not only helps you to locate aspects of the course you can tweak mid-semester but may also have the side-benefit of improving students’ perceptions of the class in general and of you in particular. According to one study, 72% of students surveyed reported that the “ideal professor” solicits feedback from students more than once per term. (Summary of the report here.)

In my own classes, I am very happy to see a large percentage of students keeping up on the (daily) online quizzes and the preliminary components of their first paper assignments–in one case an outline and in the other an interview. But about 20% are lagging. Their attendance is spotty, they aren’t keeping up with the quizzes, they haven’t turned in their outlines. By these measures, such students are disengaged. And disengaged students tend not to learn much or get good grades. Maybe I should take the advice of another colleague, who wrote that she recently “had one-on-one meetings with all my core students to get them focused on their first paper, contacted and reported and communicated with the non-attenders. This at least got them all talking to me.”

Even putting the laggards aside, some of the better-performing students may be getting tired of the course’s routine. Maybe this is a good week to try something new. The author of this article describes an approach to shaking things up during “the blahs” of a semester. Maybe it’s time to consider posing a striking problem for students to work through in multiple ways and help them narrow their focus to a single means of answering it. There may be no way to recapture that first-week magic, but no one has to accept nine more weeks of “blah.”

Do you feel like your class is at a crossroads right now? Do you plan to do anything this week or next to bring disengaged students into the fold? Or to solicit students’ feedback on the course? If so, what form will these take?

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