JBFC: After the End

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Sure, I called my last entry "The End," but that last JBFC entry was not, in fact, my last.  This time, however, I mean it:  The final grades have been entered, the dorms left empty, the student evaluations returned.  The quiet around here borders on spooky.

Why one more?  Well, I think it's worth spending a little time on this last bit.  (No, not the spookiness, but the student evaluations bit.)

Reading student evaluations usually proves disconcerting when they should be useful.  We've got some advice as to how to use this feedback, and it's worth mentioning here.  It almost goes without saying that students will often have idiosyncratic reasons for approving or detesting a course, and there's little that can be done about that.  Patterns, however, can be really instructive.  Do several students remark about the difficulty of the assignments or ambiguous expectations?  One or two of these is probably something personal; more than three, and you've probably got a problem worth addressing.

If you do decide to change a course based upon student feedback,* direct is not always best.  If several students do remark upon the difficulty of the readings, for example, the solution may not be to look for alternative texts.  Instead, you might consider filling out the skills side of your teaching, such as spending some time talking about how to actually go about reading in your discipline.  Even some older students won't be all that sensitive to disciplinary differences when it comes to core activities such as reading and writing — reading a neuroscience journal article differs dramatically from unpacking an epic poem, but in both cases students will be asked, simply, to read them — and they would benefit tremendously from having those skills revealed and perhaps modeled for them in class.**

Similarly, you might consider what prior knowledge students brought to your course and how that effected outcomes.  Prior knowledge has a powerful influence over the kind of work students produce and even how they interpret and assimilate what they hear and read.  In my own course, I had a student remark that she didn't know how to write a philosophy paper because she'd "never written a paper without facts before."  After I stopped shuddering, we were able to have a meaningful conversation about what instructors mean when they ask students to write a philosophy paper, and how that differs from a psychology paper, a history paper, etc.  In general, prior knowledge can be a powerful teaching tool, particularly if confounded.

Finally, still on the change theme, I would also suggest keeping a running log of your course (not unlike this one, though perhaps less public) in which you track what worked at what didn't.  The very exercise of writing these entries fairly regularly has given me specific ideas for adjusting my course tactics throughout the semester and for the next go around, should there be one.  (Note to self: more classroom opportunities for students to talk, such as board work, discussion groups, presentations earlier in the semester, and so on.  Sigh.)

At the very end of a semester, I almost always find myself wondering how I could ever teach again, how I could ever find the will and the way to carve such a crooked thing out of libraries and students and chairs that don't sit neatly on all fours.  But after a while, that wonder inverts, and I begin to think about when I can next clap chalk dust off my hands after working through a new student's great question.

Until next time perhaps.


*That's a good thing to do, by the way.
**Bonus:  By better balancing skills and challenges, you'll also produce better flow, and, honestly, who doesn't want that?

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