Saturday, September 17, 2011

Clairvoyance: the real thing

My colleague knows the future

Deliveries from the college's repro services ramp up in the days preceding the start of each semester. Our course syllabi and first-week handouts begin to appear in our campus mailboxes. The initial trickle turns into quite a flood as the first day of instruction approaches—and woe betide those who submitted their print-jobs too late to ensure delivery before the semester begins. (You could end up on the doorstep of repro services, hat in hand, while disgruntled employees poke among the just-printed but undelivered jobs to see if your syllabus is ready for the class that's meeting in thirty minutes.)

In our math department, the deluge of printed matter is always punctuated by a singular event. During the last week of summer vacation (or the last week of winter break), a heavily-laden delivery cart arrives from repro services, groaning under stacks of boxes of shrink-wrapped bundles. This particular shipment stands out from all the others because it is addressed to one person, a colleague who always submits her entire semester's worth of print-jobs in advance.

The entire semester. On the first day of instruction her office is stuffed with every handout, worksheet, quiz, and exam that she intends to use in her courses for the duration of those courses. She will not have to write or copy a single instructional document during the entire academic term. Despite having witnessed this for several years, I am still unable to fully grasp the concept. It's quite foreign to me.

I know what lesson plans are. Why, I've even used them. Or, rather, tried to use them. I confess that my “lesson plans” have eroded over my years of teaching. Careful outlines with boxed examples and key concepts have withered away to Post-it notes containing pre-cooked problems with the kinds of results I want. (Well, sometimes. In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that my cluttered brain contains many memorized examples that I can call on at will, or reconstruct on the fly, depending on what comes up. I mean, how hard is it to cook up on the spur of the moment a quadratic equation with complex roots? Who needs a Post-it for that, right?)

Moltke's dictum that “no war plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy” applies to the classroom as well as to the battlefield. I simply cannot imagine following my colleague's example of preparing every quiz and exam in advance of meeting my students and then managing to stick with my original plans. In fact, I prefer to hold off on writing my exams until after holding a review session with my students, which usually means writing the exam the night before I administer it. It's not procrastination. It's how I find out what I need to test them on. It's a process of reacting and adapting to each class at each moment of time during the semester.

There's a neat counter-argument to my mode of instruction, and I presume it's the one my colleague would use if we were to discuss our differing approaches. She could tell me that course content is pre-determined and learning outcomes are pre-defined. (She's right, of course. All classes have official definitions that can be found in the college catalog.) One can then reasonably focus on those pre-ordained objectives, testing students to gauge their mastery and ensuring a kind of standardized approach that avoids subjectivity and random variation from term to term.

I don't, however, think that I am capricious or random in my instructional approach. I have the prescribed goals carefully outlined in my syllabus and I certainly test student mastery of desired learning outcomes with my exams. But I do not try to anticipate in advance whether a particular class needs more or less emphasis on a particular concept or set of concepts. Every sample from the student population is different in some way from every other. Every semester I need to find out their aggregate strengths and weaknesses and attempt to direct my instructional efforts in the direction that seems the likeliest to do the most good. It's not exactly a science, of course, and it's certainly not predictable. My crystal ball is way too cloudy for that.

I have a grudging admiration for my colleague's industriousness in generating all of her course material so far in advance, but it's mostly the credit one gives to prodigious labor, whether or not the result strikes one as praiseworthy. In addition to being awestruck when I witness the massive delivery from repro services, I also shudder with horror.


Kathie said...

I suspect my high school Latin teachers printed up their entire semester's assignment handouts and biweekly exams in advance. Then again, I doubt the curriculum had changed much in the previous 20 centuries or so.

Sili said...

"I don't, however, think that I am capricious or random in my instructional approach."

I am, unfortunately.

Karen said...

Having some spontaneity in your classroom, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a particular group of students and focusing on where you can do the most good is characteristic of all the good teachers I've had in my college classes. When thinking of my least-favorite professors, two in particular come to mind who had fallen into terrible ruts. They'd been teaching their classes for years, they didn't engage with their students, and they seemed to be just going through the motions, not really teaching.

Zeno said...

In your case, Sili, I recommend using the word "spontaneous" to describe your teaching style in any discussions with your instructional supervisor. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I'm trying to picture the reaction of my professor who taught assessment to what you wrote. It's somewhat like watching a car crash...

How can you test student mastery of desired learning outcomes with your exams if you base your exam questions on what they know rather than the objectives? That is contradictory.

Based on what you wrote, I would question whether the same grade from different classes reflected the same achievement.


Zeno said...

Try reading it again more slowly, MV. I do test the desired student outcomes, just as I said. (I know what they are and I know how to draft exercises to test them.) Some classes, however, are weaker in certain areas than others and I need to challenge them appropriately so as to direct them toward the specified goals. If an algebra class, for example, turns out to be weak in graphing linear functions, they get tested on them more until they get the message.

I never said that I limit my exam questions to "what they know." That's your misinterpretation.

Anonymous said...

I have a colleague who is exactly like that. He even has his classes planned to the minute. Of course when we have a blizzard (or a hurricane, like a couple of weeks ago) and classes get cancelled, all his planning goes to waste and he goes into a panic.

Faegan Harti said...

When you say “they get tested on [those areas]more until they get the message,” are you referring to using the actual exams or to using the in-class and homework exercises to give them the message? Or both?

Also, I’ve long been troubled by the use of grades as competitive markers as opposed to their use purely (or primarily) as assessments of strengths and weaknesses. I remember knowing students who were dedicated to their studies, worked very hard and were passionate about their subjects but just didn’t perform well on tests, so their grades suffered, as did their subsequent career and/or academic opportunities. And there were those who could memorize a text book nearly overnight and were very adept at test-taking, and they reaped the rewards. What’s your view on this?

Zeno said...

Memorizing the textbook is a good path to a passing grade in my class (provided they memorized the examples, as well), but not a sure route to a good grade. That requires more in the way of understanding and students who rely on rote learning are defeated by problems that ask them to explain what's going on. My main instrument for probing weaknesses is frequent quizzes, which are not heavily weighted in the grading but provide many opportunities to practice solving problems under short-term exam conditions. We also have some ways to ameliorate test anxiety to some degree, depending on how badly a student suffers from it.

Crockett said...

Moltke's dictum that “no war plan outlasts the first encounter with the enemy” applies to the classroom as well as to the battlefield

... is very nice. I will use this at my next staff meeting (I am a public school math teacher in Ohio, and had forgotten it).

Care to further define "good" grade (from the latest post, above?) Are we talking letter, or a more subjective Pirsig good? ... or something else, entirely?

Great blog, by the way. I don't know if you care or not, but I'm Easter-egging the heck out of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline and stumbled on your blog. Happy to be here, now, though.

Kathie said...

Strictly out of curiosity, Zee, after so much teaching experience, do you ever find students making types of mistakes you've never seen before?

I'd think it unlikely, unless you're teaching fairly new knowledge (which I doubt happens in high school and lower division-level Math courses).

Zeno said...

Kathie, students seldom surprise me these days with unique new kinds of errors. Most mistakes are things I've seen before. It's quite the occasion when a "new" error occurs, and that hasn't happened lately.