…It Happened Anyway

Teaching two sections of the same course has turned out to be a really positive experience. And even though I’m teaching the “same” course to different groups of students, I’m teaching it in two different ways: face-to-face (F2F) with weekly class sessions and a hybrid class (on-line infused with semi-monthly face-to-face sessions). Each format presents its own set of teaching challenges (and opportunities). The course is a lot of work for students (and teacher) … there is a lot of reading, writing, and interaction. The success of the course relies on good preparation by all members of the learning community.

Overall, the classes are going pretty well: The students seem engaged and are eager participants. The article critique exercise presents the most challenges to each group … In the F2F class, students have now written and discussed two article critiques. In the second discussion, I asked them to work together in class to develop a wiki that combines their shared results. This requires discussion, negotiation of the content, and participation by all members. What I noticed last week was that even though students didn’t finish the wiki, the discussion about the article was better. There were wrestling with the components of the article & working to identify the problem statement, purpose of the study, research questions, and implications of the study. I did notice also, however, that not everyone was participating in the discussion. Perhaps the groups are still too big for this approach and I need the students to work in groups of 3 or 4 rather than 6. Working on the wikis is a nice iteration in the evolution of this assignment and I’m glad it’s working.

In the hybrid class, we had a few more challenges with the assignment. The article critiques are entirely on-line and composed via the wiki tool. The students have been reluctant to edit one another’s work, but have agreed instead for one person to post an assigned portion of the critique and post comments, revisions, & additional ideas below the original post. While not exactly collaborative writing, this approach works for this group which is, afterall, the beauty of the wiki tool: Each group develops its own norms for working collaboratively. After the first article critique some students indicated frustration that not everyone had posted by the agreed upon deadline  … collaboration collapsed.  We attempted to resolve this via email and a discussion forum which more or less worked, but in unanticipated ways. The proposed resolution that emerged from the discussion forum helped students see what they didn’t want to do even if they hadn’t reached complete agreement on what they did want to do. I talked things over with Bill (my sounding board in times like these) and he encouraged me to go back to the learning outcomes for the assignment. The learning outcomes are related to cultivating students’ analytical and writing skills — and also to develop their leadership competencies. I then asked the students to collaborate as educational leaders and resolve this issue at their next class session. By odd coincidence, this was a session I wasn’t attending so it provided the opportunity for the students to discuss the assignment, develop commitments about the deadlines for the assignment, and reach agreements about their approach to the assignment. In the end, I think it was better that I wasn’t at the session as they had to rely on one another (rather than a perceived arbitrator/final decision maker) to resolve the issues.

The final resolution extends the timeframe for completing the assignment, but the extension is one I can support (especially since I want to validate & support their decision). What it did require, though, is a series of adjustments to the syllabus: the extended deadline and, in turn, the deletion of two articles I wanted them to read. But it also gives them more time to work on other assignments, such as a research proposal, that is due at the end of the month.

I’ll keep the experiences with both classes in mind as I prepare the course syllabus for Fall 2012: I’ll continue to review the readings and related assignments, update them as needed, and see which, if any, readings might become optional next year.


Resisting the Urge to Change the Syllabus

In student evaluations at the end of a semester, I frequently see comments such as, “Thanks for being so flexible with the syllabus” and “Please do not change the syllabus — it’s confusing and frustrating.” The latter comments have outweighed the former, so beginning with Summer Session I (2011), I committed to maintaining the syllabus regardless of any perceived need to change it. While planning for the Summer course, Applied Inquiry III, I prepared the syllabus as I always do then asked myself, “Once the class begins, where might I be tempted to change the syllabus?” I noticed a couple of areas in relation to reading assignments and project due dates. I reflected on the purpose of the assignments, the due dates, and my teaching schedule for the remainder of the summer when some of the projects would be due. I linked the reading assignments to the course learning objectives which helped clarify that the readings were both reasonable and appropriate. I did adjust some of the due dates and committed myself to keeping these dates firm once the class started. I’m happy to say this approach worked very well and increased my self-confidence in relation to the syllabus and expectations for the course.

This Fall (2011) I’m teaching two sections of a course called Applied Inquiry II. In each section I conducted an anonymous formative assessment to allow students an opportunity to comment on the course. The assessment was simple, just four questions: What is working well for you in the course? What would you change about the course? What questions do you have about the course that you would like me to address? and What comments, if any, would you like to share?

In one of the sections a student asked if it rather than preparing both a qualitative and quantitative research proposal, could students just do one? And rather than write critiques of the six articles assigned for class, could the students write article critiques of articles they select?

I’ll confess that I did give the first question some serious thought. I wondered how this could work: Perhaps the students could choose either type of proposal and write a more in-depth proposal than the one required for the assignment. Students, I reasoned, could choose to do either the one long proposal or the two mini-proposals as originally assigned. Then, the universe knocked me upside the head and asked, “What are you thinking?!?” After reflecting on the assignments, I’ve decided to leave them as they are for several reasons. The two proposals are aligned with course learning outcomes, there are benefits to taking a topic and crafting both a qualitative and quantitative research proposal, students need to understand both types of proposals to develop their skills as both producers and consumers of research, and selecting only one type of proposal would provide only limited benefits & undermine the learning outcomes for the course. So, while I did initially wander toward changing the syllabus, I appreciate that I spent time really thinking about the assignments and their purpose in the course — and feel confident about not changing the syllabus. What I will do, however, is discuss the student’s question in class and explain in more detail the purpose of the assignments in relation to the learning outcomes for the course.

In terms of the second request from the student (about changing the article critiques), I’m proud to say that I didn’t consider changing the syllabus at all. As with the other assignment, however, I will review the assignment with students, its purpose, and its relationship to the learning outcomes.

Another response on the assessment addressed the amount of reading for the class. The student was concerned that they’re reading material we don’t always discuss in class. I thought about this comment also and will make one article optional (the next time I teach the course) and I’ll have a conversation with the students about the reading. In a doctoral seminar, we don’t always discuss every chapter, article, blog, or study that is assigned for reading. I do anticipate that we’ll integrate the articles in class sessions and some of the articles will have increasing relevance as they continue their studies. One of our learning outcomes for the course is to develop a disposition toward scholarship, which means deepening our understanding of topics both in the seminar itself and on our own. I do find it beneficial to discuss readings in class and will encourage students to bring questions about the readings so we can be sure to discuss areas that particularly intrigue/mystify them.

Holding on to the original assignments in the syllabus has helped remind me that I’ve given a lot of thought to the syllabus, including carefully linking assignments to learning outcomes. There are specific reasons for the assignments that we may have reviewed on the first night of class, but six weeks into the semester merit additional discussion.

Working through the Up’s and Down’s

I’ve been thinking about the last three weeks and would guess they’re fairly typical in the life of a faculty member: teaching, getting ready to teach, reflecting after teaching, advising, a dissertation proposal meeting, submitting an article, collecting data, contacting research participants, reviewing IRB applications, and being a good colleague to the faculty in my department. The array of work we do is quite interesting and each requires a particular skill set. Some days I’m good at some things, other days … well, not so much.

A couple of weeks ago I had one of those moments where faculty have to balance good news and bad news. The good news was that my class sessions the previous Saturday and Wednesday went very well. The students are engaged, the materials are working well (frankly, I think I have too much material for the classes), and in-class experiences seem to be right on target. That same week I had a student preparing for her proposal meeting. I felt confident about the proposal and optimistic about the committee. Like most dissertation chairs, I expected to leave the proposal meeting with some revisions for the student and we’d be on our way. But, somewhere, somehow, that’s not how the proposal meeting went. When the committee members got together, it turned out they had a lot of questions about the study. In retrospect, I think the committee members had questions but didn’t think they were “deal breakers” so they waited until the proposal meeting to raise them. When people started raising the same questions, though, the questions turned to concerns about the overall focus of the study. We left that meeting with an agreement that the student would “revise and resubmit” the purpose of the study statement and research questions as well as a revised methodology chapter. Not at all what I expected. After working to reassure the student after this disappointing turn of events, I went to my office, checked my email and found a message informing me that an article I submitted had been approved for publication with minor revisions. Such are the up’s and down’s of faculty work…some disappointments, some triumphs.

The next week of work with the student on her proposal turned out to be productive, if not challenging. I continuously reflected on the proposal meeting wondering what in the world went wrong and asking myself how/if I could have managed the meeting differently. The student, let’s call her Debbie, ultimately followed my advice to put her manuscript away for a few days. When she got back to it and we met (at a Starbucks — a good place to work on manuscripts), she walked me through her manuscript and proposed changes. She indicated areas where she could see that the advice from the committee would improve her manuscript and she confidently took a stand on issues important to her. In the end, we revised her purpose of the study and research questions to our mutual satisfaction. We then spent some time reflecting on the proposal meeting. She talked about what she might have done differently and very, very politely told me where she thought I could have better supported her. Humbling feedback, but I agreed with her. I shared with her that I think I made a mistake in asking her questions during the meeting. Once things started to unravel, I wanted to be sure I understood the issues and how I might help, so I began asking her questions along with the committee. This, I believe, may have led the committee to conclude that I didn’t support the study — certainly not the case and not the impression I wanted to create. This honest conversation and our shared reflection will help me be a better chair to her and to future students.

When I emailed her revised purpose of the study and research questions to the committee, one member responded immediately with positive comments and a recommended revision. Later in the week, I sat down with another committee member who had printed the email out and to my horror, it was completely covered with revisions. I sat down with him and nearly cried. But, when I listened, I could hear that he shared a concern with the other committee member and that they were right. The purpose of the study and research questions were not quite broad enough (odd, since often students’ questions are too broad) … and as a result, had an embedded bias that would have ultimately limited the study. Incorporating the feedback from the two committee members, I suggested a revised purpose of the study to the student. When we discussed the suggested revisions, it seemed that the revisions would still allow Debbie to conduct the study she wants to conduct and investigate the issues that matter to her.

So, even though the proposal meeting didn’t go quite as I had hoped (or expected), the results have been positive. The committee members are clearly committed to Debbie’s success and Debbie has a Purpose of the Study/Research Questions that will lead to a study that has great potential to contribute to the literature on teaching in career academies. What did I learn from the experience? (1) Don’t assume that just because no one has shared a concern that they don’t have one. (2) Keep at it — don’t give up. (3) Don’t rush a student to a proposal meeting. (4) In the meeting, ask questions of the committee members — not the student. The committee members are thoughtful, deliberate, and purposeful in their work. I appreciate their dedication to the process and their ability to help shape a stronger proposal than the one we had initially crafted.