I love it when a course comes together

I’ve turned in the last of my grades, and the semester is over. I was pretty happy with all my courses this semester, and particularly with one of the two versions of the “Introduction to Interactive Communication” seminars I led. It made me think a bit about what makes a course go well or poorly. This is especially acute because I taught two versions of what was essentially the same course–one entirely online, and one mostly in person. And I was surprised at just how different the experience of an online course was in comparison with the off-line course.

ICM 501 Fall 08Ask any professor and they will tell you that some classes just “click.” When I was a TA, a decade ago (yikes), I would teach discussion sections–the same lesson plan four or five times a day. Sure, there was variation according to the content and the process, but there were also glum, depressing sections and sections that were lively and engaged, and it seemed to have very little to do with me. Sure I wasn’t the same person from section to section, but I was (I think) close.

So, what are some of the ingredients? Well, there are some things I might be able to control. For example, the room really makes a difference, I think. I hate the fact that we don’t have enough real seminar rooms to do seminars in. But this year’s course was in a room that I don’t like–tables bolted down and facing front–and that has hosted two of my favorite courses since I’ve been at Quinnipiac.

As much as I hate to say it, size matters. Despite my preference that seminar courses be around 12-14 people, the best grad seminars have always been those with around 20 people. I think that 19-21 range might actually be a sweet spot, though I have no idea why. At that size, I am unable to really give a lot of personalized feedback on the students’ work, but that doesn’t seem to hurt the learning environment as much as I would like to think.

It helps to have some really brilliant people in the class. That seems obvious, but it isn’t. I mean, logically, it would be good to have people all at the same “level,” but in my experience so far, the best classes are those in which there is a small number–3 or 4 people–who raise the level of discourse in discussions and set the bar for other students.

It is good to have “characters,” those who are interesting and throw a curve ball into the room. They don’t have to be the brightest students, necessarily (though often they are), but they need to be willing to inject themselves into the conversation and give everyone a bit of a kick in the side of the head now and then. I don’t mean a class clown–not exactly–but I do mean people who are showmen or women, who can carry an audience and know it, and who are also engaged in the material of the class.

It’s good not to have people who are either really stupid, but more importantly, best to avoid those who really don’t want to be there. I choose not-too-bright but engaged over bright-but-disengaged any day. It only takes one or two people who just obviously don’t want to be there to ruin a class, and I have rarely been successful in motivating these folks to jump in with us, at least beyond short periods of time. I don’t know what to do about this, but I need to review my strategies.

Ideally, the class feels like a group from an early stage. There are ways we could encourage this (expose them to an extremely stressful event, require a jumping in, or something like that) but it’s hard to know how to do this ethically. I’ve always been a proponent of something like a paint-ball day or skydiving early in the semester–some sort of physical, bonding experience. Short of this, it’s difficult to know how to get students to come together. Actually, a poor classroom experience does a great deal to create an esprit de corps, but that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. Maybe we could have a sacrificial course at the beginning of a program: a really bad and demanding course taught be an adjunct that would require students to band together out of sympathy and survival. Maybe not.

I’ve always thought food helped to bind students together into a group, but this semester was pretty foodless, suggesting this is not the case.

I’ve also assumed that group projects had an impact, and they can, but students often seem to do better work and learn more when working alone than they do in a group. Let me reiterate: in my experience group work is not as good as individual work. I think in future courses I will encourage single-person projects, but will also group folks into peer support groups, who are charged with reading each other’s stuff, and the like. Not quite sure how to make the mechanics of that work, but it might be a good alternative to group projects.

So, how do you get a class that meets these requirements. One way is to cancel classes smaller than a dozen, even at the grad level. Actually, this is something the dean is pushing us to across the school, and it is particularly difficult in our program because we need to provide enough required classes to allow people to graduate in a timely way. It also plays against my own gut feeling that the smaller the class the better–a feeling that has not born out empirically.

Perhaps it’s a matter of just being thankful for a strong cohort, and for getting to work with a great group of students in all three of my seminars this semester. Hopefully, this does not portend an outlier on the other end any time soon.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted 12/20/2008 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Glad you had a good experience in this course!
    I’ve often wondered (like most teachers, I’m sure) what are the ingredients of a successful class. Why some groups laugh at the same joke and others don’t. There probably are too many variables, and with experience you learn to control them, even if only subconsciously. One thing that freaks me out, though, is that my mood and energy level seem to be contagious. Even when I try really hard to fake a good mood, students seem to “read” my energy level and in some weird way, it becomes contagious. If I’m pumped, excited, and full of energy, so are they. If I’m not, even if I fake the behavior, it doesn’t seem to work. Have you noticed anything of the sort?

    It makes me think of the emotional labor required of the teaching profession. There’s a lot of literature on emotional labor in customer service, where people are required to smile when they don’t feel like it. But what about teachers? Smiling doesn’t seem to be enough, you have to LIVE that mood for the entire thing to work well. Now, that’s emotional labor!

  2. alex
    Posted 12/20/2008 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Mihaela:

    Yes, I agree. The factors are both difficult to measure, difficult to replicate, and difficult to pass on to other teachers. That’s not to say teaching cannot be learned, or that we cannot improve as teachers over time, but there does seem to be something deeply emotional about it.

    Now, I’m not sure a faked smile isn’t really a real smile. It’s a thin line, I think. Yes, customer service people are required to convey joy when they may just be thinking about how much their feet hurt. But as someone who has done time in customer service, I fully recognize that the faked smile often becomes real. And this idea is backed up by the science. I don’t think there is any explicit requirement that I smile when I teach–and I think I would quit the minute there was. There may be an implicit requirement, as measured by student evaluations, that I am friendly and well-dressed. But I think the reason I smile is because I want my students to learn, and I know that by getting them into a good mood they will learn more.

    I will note that my best classes (not necessarily courses, but individual classes) are invariably those for which I feel unprepared. By coming in on shaky ground, I usually translate nervous energy into more energy generally, and students react well to that. That would suggest I should spend less time on class prep (something my last chair at an R1 impressed on my many times), but it is also the case that some of my worst classes were ones I was ill prepared for. A bit of a U-shaped curve, I’m afraid.

  3. Posted 12/26/2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    I really enjoyed the Intro class but hated the classroom we were in. It would be nice if the McMahon Center was expanded, but, I doubt that will happen anytime soon.

  4. Tarleton
    Posted 1/5/2009 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    Alex… I love the idea of individual projects but students organized into peer groups. I did group projects last semester, and I had a similar impression; the groups with good interpersonal dynamics had a good experience, those with tough group dynamics hated it, but I just don’t think the quality of the projects matched what individuals can do on their own. I don’t know how to make this work either, but I’d love to hear if you come up with something. …Tarleton

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