The responsibility

For the first time, this year’s class was almost entirely first semester freshmen. Much to my surprise, I felt an immense responsibility to set these students off on their Penn State careers the right way. That meant trying to impart more than ‘just’ course-related skills like critical thinking, the evaluation of evidence, distinguishing a reasoned argument from baloney, and empowering students to question what they hear from professionals, professors, peers and parents. It meant trying to get across additional things like study habits and time management, honesty and integrity, the ability to learn from failure (or low grades) and the importance of class room discipline. In email correspondence, it often also meant advocating the merits of developing a decent work ethic; or put another way, how to get an A without trying to bullshit or bully the professor.

habitsHow well did I do on any of that? I’m not sure. There were signs of serious integrity-failures. There were three plagiarism cases, despite my best efforts; I hope I handled these in a way that taught the students to never do it again but without my ruining their College careers from the get-go. I was ruthless on people who missed deadlines. I talked endlessly about the need to manage time. I am not sure if that worked. Many still left their blog posts to the last minute and it showed, just as I told them it would. I talked of the benefits of attending the voluntary review sessions. Most did not bother. I implored students to come to class and played with attendance grade algorithms to try to make that happen (I’ll evaluate whether that worked in forthcoming post). I stood up to the pleas, begging, and bullshit demands for a higher grade. I truly believe students need to earn their grades. Anything else cheats them (for the most part, life is not like that) and all those others who work honestly and hard. But I also tried to be sympathetic when students with dire personal problems reached out. It’s amazing how a little understanding from faculty, the right word at the right time, can transform a life’s direction.

The most useful question on my SRTE questionnaire is: What three things have you learned? In terms of these non-content ambitions for the course, here’s what students’ said they’d learned.

  • time management [several comments along these lines]
  • I learned how much better my learning experience is by being mindful of people around me
  • don’t sit by someone who talks
  • the impact of talking in class
  • read the questions in tests carefully
  • Andrew isn’t as scary as he seems
  • better note taking [several comments along these lines]
  • how to blog better [many comments along these lines]
  • writing takes practice [oh so true!!]
  • the importance of having an engaging instructor who was willing to help and wanted his students to succeed
  • the importance of avoiding procrastination
  • learn from mistakes
  • different study methods
  • always go to class [many comments along these lines]
  • pay attention and listen to what the Professor says
  • I learned to write better
  • that it takes work to improve your grades
  • that its ok to need help but you aren’t going to get it unless you ask (the revision sessions proved this)
  • improvement is key if you want to learn
  • how to right (sic) fantastic blogs
  • don’t just focus on the examples, but the concepts within
  • the importance of getting help when you need it instead of sitting around watching your grade plummet
  • take advantage of the TAs [I assume this is meant in a good way…]
  • the importance of weeding out people who are talking in class at the beginning of semester [said as a criticism of what I did not do well enough]
  • 1. I will not automatically succeed. 2. If I put in the work, I will succeed. 3. I don’t need 8 hours of sleep.

Most of which is gratifying. But from the responses to the question ‘What changes would improve your learning?’, it is clear I have some way to go on getting students to seize control of their own learning. That’s surely one of the most important life skills we need to get across in Higher Education. After graduation, it’s rare to have someone offering homework or review sessions or changing the algorithm to suit your time management ability. But in meaningful work and for a meaningful life, learning remains critical — indeed it might be more critical than at College. How do we better encourage students to self-teach?

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