Semester End Reflection Leaves More Questions than Answers

This is a meta-reflection rather than my more traditional course reflection.

Well, I’m embarrassed to write it out loud, but I think one of the biggest things that I learned this Fall is that after 12 years of teaching these wonderful students, the process of taking my teaching from a B+ to A level takes just as much work as it does to get it to a B+ level to begin with.  In other words, if it takes me 10 hours a week to get one course to a B+ level, it probably takes me 20 hours a week to get it to where I really feel good about it. I’m embarrassed because let’s face it: B+ isn’t good enough.

Or is it?

That’s a really tough question for me that I just don’t know the answer to. For my students this semester, B+ was good enough. They learned what they needed to learn, I *think* they have a really good chance at retaining what they need to retain, they had a great attitude about the work, they were open to my leadership, they took ownership when asked, they developed skills that I think are important for musicians, and many of them loved me to a point that was embarrassing. Part this success probably comes from the way the class was cobbled together (see here for a summary)–the cards were already stacked towards creating fertile ground for bonding opportunities.

How important is that extra 100% effort on my part?

For me, it is part of what makes me happiest.  Teaching well and having the time to do my best is a luxury I didn’t appreciate until I started juggling a massive number of other things at the same time.

For most of the students, what I was able to accomplish was more than sufficient. For all of my students, I am incredibly proud of what they learned while maintaining enthusiasm for the subject that they were so worried about on Day 1.

For two of my 17 students, however, I think I could have made a difference in their academic lives if I had had more time to invest in them. For one, it might have resulted in passing the course. For the other, it might have provided a kick in the pants that would make the rest of college a little bit easier. That’s depressing.  Two is a lot.  It’s not that I didn’t try, but it’s that I could’ve tried harder and perhaps my efforts would have been more fruitful if I had tried harder to get these students into my office for some very honest conversations about ability, work ethic, student skills, etc. (on the flip side, through my deanly work I made a difference in far more than two students’ lives, albeit in a far less personal way…).

I remain troubled about what this realization of the pay-off for my investment of time means. When I return to teaching full-time, should I put those 10 hours a week into my research instead of my teaching? I sure do like putting them into my teaching, but it’s probably not going to make a long-term difference to my career (and my career goals) if I put them into teaching.

Does that mean I need to re-evaluate my career goals? (ya know, full professorship, maybe doing a visiting professorship abroad with the family in tow, etc.)

A wise colleague spoke of how awkward the 12-year point of an academic career is. Indeed, this moment of my career leaves me with far more questions than answers…

My Scoff-able Final Exam

So, I can tell I’m getting older.  I used to scoff at all sorts of ideas that I thought were simply way too lax (P/nP grading, redos, singing on neutral syllables, journals). As I accrue gray hairs, I’ve adopted many of these formerly uncomfortable ideas–with my own twists, of course–because I think (I know!) they effectively forward my course goals. So, this semester I tried another scoff-able idea. Co-writing the final exam with my students. I know this is hardly a new idea, but it’s the first time I’ve been brave (or stupid) enough to try.

the fears:

  1. the exam will be too easy;
  2. no one will need to study;
  3. some people will earn higher grades than they really should, especially unfortunate if it ends up impacting their course grade;
  4. class time could be better spent on review and answering questions; and
  5. a few voices will control the entire exam.

the reality:

  1. The exam was fine. It absolutely tested what I wanted it to test.
  2. The people who needed to study did.  And what studying happened was definitely directed toward what the exam was testing.
  3. A few people earned grades that were pleasantly surprising to me.  A few people earned grades that were unpleasantly surprising to me.  This situation strikes me as no different from any other semester. The pleasant surprises often were directly related to someone trying really hard for a stretch (but possible) grade.
  4. I was extremely happy with how we used that class time (described below)
  5. And the way we handled class time guaranteed that all voices took the opportunity to contribute to the exam.

Here’s how it all got set up:

In the last week of classes, we put together the review sheet in about 15 minutes on Monday.  We divided the sheet into two lists: Content and Skills. Students took the lead on the Content part; I took the lead on the Skills part. Here’s our review sheet.

On Tuesday, I gave them the typed up version.

On Wednesday, I saved a few minutes for questions, but there weren’t many.  And we did course evaluations.

On Thursday, our final day, we were supposed to have our normal Thursday quiz.  I forgot to write it (DOH). I had them put themselves into small groups and come up with exam questions based on the SKILLS page of the review sheet.  After 7 minutes, we reconvened and started to write the exam together (yay Elmo projector).  After an individual contributed, I gave them the final handout for the class (a reminder of redo policies, 3 final sessions of office hours, and yet another reminder of the exam time and place). To pass the I-forgot-to-write-it quiz, they had to earn a handout.  Essentially, once they made a meaningful contribution, I handed them the handout. When I had zero handouts left, I knew everyone had contributed.  And, I was stingy about what it took to earn a handout.

After class, I typed up their suggestions and posted it to blackboard.  You can see it here.

I finished grading the exams today. In the official version of the exam I ended up expanding the voice leading portion to three very short progressions because I couldn’t test enough of the content I wanted to test with their suggestion. And, the writing about a favorite spot in the musical excerpt (the opening parallel period to the Clock movement of Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony) wasn’t optional. But the rest paralleled their very good suggestions.

The class averaged a B+ on the exam, which strikes me as too high, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  No one bombed the exam, no one got everything perfect.  (63.5 to 99 were the scores).

My biggest takeaway?  I think my process worked because I had students emphasize skills, not content, as they thought about the exam. They understood how to review the content because they were preparing to demonstrate the skills…