Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More on Teaching, or, Yes, You Really Do Need to Come to Class

Hmmm. How to begin this post?

The semester is off and running (I'm already in my third week) and it's about that time where bigger assignments are coming due in my courses. Not big-big, but formal, graded assignments. And a few students have either missed class, come late to class, or zoned out during class, and this means that they've missed crucial announcements. And it's got me thinking because I'm wondering whether this is a weakness in my classroom administration or whether it's actually not my problem.

I suppose I should give some background. In all of my courses, I distribute a pretty explicit syllabus (course schedule and course policies). Each class meeting is listed on the schedule, and next to each date is the reading assignment for the day (title of text) as well as any out-of-class assignments that are due. As for the course policies, well, I make it clear that attendance is mandatory. I also make it clear that you've got to have the text for the day with you in class, and all of that other neato stuff that you're supposed to put in your course policies.

I don't, however, include page numbers (if we're covering a text over multiple class meetings) nor do I include what exactly we will do in class (because, well, it changes from year to year, semester to semester, class to class). I also don't have a really hard-core attendance policy where after a certain number of absences your total grade for the course goes down or where you automatically fail (though attendance does affect your participation grade). So it's pretty explicit, but not suffocatingly so. There is room for me to move within the explicit course schedule that I design. And I ALWAYS stay on schedule. Not since my first year on the t-t have I deviated either by removing texts or by changing dates on which assignments are due.

I should also say that I hand out all out-of-class assignments with ample time (usually one week, sometimes more (I hand out all assignments for upper-level classes on the first day), sometimes just less than a week if it's an "ungraded" assignment) for students to get going on them, I give out review sheets if we're to have a test or exam (also within 5-7 days), and I always spend at least a little class time before the first graded assignment in any course going over what they need to do and what my expectations are.

So far, so good, right? And remember, I do emphasize attendance and being on time, and so if students just show up on time and stay awake, students should know exactly what we're doing, right?

But the rub is that because I assume that students attend, and by attendance I mean being on time and being there not only physically but also being there mentally, not everything is written out and set in stone on the syllabus. I don't necessarily say on the syllabus when I will go over the first graded assignment; I don't necessarily say what exactly the reading assignment for the next class is until the class before. In my mind, this allows for flexibility. It means that if we don't get far enough in discussion one day on a text that is stretching over multiple class periods (for example) that I can assign a little less reading for the next class. Or, if we cover a lot in a day, we can go a little farther for the next class period. And while my assignments state the basic requirements for what they need to do, on, say, a paper, I do tend to give supplementary information about my expectations in class, if there is supplementary info to give. I don't state "I'll give out the pages to read for the next class" on the syllabus, nor do I necessarily say "I'll be talking about the test or paper or whatever on this date" on the syllabus. To me, this is what coming to class is about - getting this supplementary info. If you aren't in class, my theory is that you should just do all of the assigned reading (or guesstimate about what we'll be able to cover in a class period) or that you'll go it alone on the assignment, which you've already received. If you miss class before a test, you should assume everything we've covered to that point should be something that you study.

Moreover, if I've got handouts or assignments to give, related to course material, I don't necessarily keep them in my bag throughout the entire semester. Sometimes I clean out my bag, so I don't have everything I've ever handed out with me. It states clearly in my course policies that if you miss class you need to ask somebody else in the class what you missed - not me. If a student misses a handout or an assignment, I expect them to ask me for it when they've found out they missed it from a classmate. And if I don't have it with me, I tell them to email me, and I'll be happy to send it to them as an attachment. In some classes I even post assignments online so that they can just go to the website to retrieve them.

So. I've got these students. They've not attended class, or they've come late, or they've left early, or they fell asleep. To me, they're adults. If they miss stuff, they miss stuff. It's their responsibility to find out what they missed. But at the same time, if they're missing so much stuff, and then they don't turn things in when it says that they are due on the syllabus, why are they taking the class at all? What can they hope to get out of it, and what am I supposed to do to teach them if they're not there to teach?

My thought at this point is that it's not really my problem. I'm very clear - from the first day of class on - about what my expectations are and what their responsibilities and my responsibilities are. But I don't know. What if what I'm describing here is not flexibility but rather lack of organization on my part? My preference would be to maintain in the fashion that I've been going, in part because I hated as a student syllabi that constantly changed, that were so rigid that they could not be followed. And I do think there needs to be wiggle room - not only in syllabi, but also in assignments. So my question for you, readers, is whether you think I'm being unreasonable. And if you do, what would you suggest I do to become more reasonable?


Anonymous said...

Dr. Crazy: You are totally reasonable. They are adults. They DECIDE not to come to class, they reap the consequences. In fact, I would say that giving an overly-explicit syllabus or spoon-feeding them would be infantilizing them, which will get in the way of their taking responsibility for their education. Over the years, I have started to be much more explicit about attendance on my syllabus, mirroring my department's commitment to jeopardize grades if they are not there 80% of the time. What happens most often is that students start to panic about their lack of attendance and become pro-active about when they are going to be gone. (I tend not to be a zealot about adhering to the hard-line approach I take on the syllabus, but I'd always rather set out a hardline at first, then allow negotiation later.)

What's more, I write about "engaged participation" on my syllabus (stole it from a colleague actually), so that I had some recourse to people zoning out in class as sometimes happens in even the smallest class.

I will say that even the most explicit statements about contacting others, demanding that they collect each other's phone numbers (not email, because who wants to type out details of what happened in class) during class time, has not been successful in staving off a stampede to my door whenever someone has been absent. Partly, I'm sure, this is because I'm infinitely worse that you, Dr. Crazy. I have no problems changing things up (as I warn them on the first day), and so I don't write everything on the syllabus. They KNOW if they don't come to class, they will not get the whole story.

Put 'em on edge, Dr. Crazy! Do an interpretive dance. Change things up in class. That'll get their attention! ;)

Anonymous said...

not your problem.

Anonymous said...

I'm very explicit about attendance. I don't make a distinction beween excused/unexcused, there are serious penalties against the final grade after "x" number of missed classes, etc. Having said that, I'm flexible for students who have honest emergencies or health issues.

I'm strict about this for a couple of reasons. 1)They are adults. If they skipped work on a regular basis they would be fired or severely reprimanded. 2)I teach writing courses (I'm a compositionist). We workshop a lot. If students miss workshops, they don't just hurt themselves, they hurt their classmates.

I have to say that for the most part, my students have always been pretty good about contacting me if they are absent, asking classmates about work, or meeting with me during office hours about what they missed. I'm not entirely sure why this is - a number of my friends seem to have students wanting to be coddled. Now, these are primarily other female instructors. Unlike some of them, I don't think that I come across as maternal (which is funny since my students know I work with children's literature, and we know the type of associations people can make with that). Anyway, I don't see my male colleagues having to deal with some of these issues. Go figure.

~ us ~ said...

Delurking just to comment on this one. I love your blog. I'm not an academic (this will come through below) but I come from an academic family.

I do totally believe it is not your problem. The policies are clearly stated and the students know them; end of story.

However to take on the unpopular side of things, I do think that it may depend slightly on your school's clientele. One of my family members teaches at a school that does not have vast endowments and which is fairly expensive (and located in an expensive city). The result is that a lot of students have jobs and that does impact on their ability to get to class, and some professors have chosen to accomodate that. Some have not.

The student is ultimately responsible for his or her choices of course and I'm not saying that course requirements should be dumbed down. However, it would be interesting to know if they're missing class because they are just young/lazy/stupid or if there is a larger socioeconomic trend going on. If so, you might want to use the web to post changes that have happened in class if you want to accomodate that, or something.

Hope this is not offensive!

Anonymous said...

Do you use Blackboard or a similar course-management program? I upload every single handout or assignment or whatever onto my class server, and I tell my students that it's their responsibility to check it AND to check in with a classmate if they miss class (my handouts are such that they don't mean a whole lot if a student hasn't been to class or doesn't get notes).

To my mind, this is an easy service to provide (takes all of about 20 seconds per document, and since I usually do it while the hard copy is printing, there's no wasted time)--and it ultimately *saves* me the hassle of emailing documents to students who missed class for legitimate reasons. Using the software also allows me to put up, say, paper topics on a Friday (I teach TTh) if I haven't had time to get them prepared for class on Thursday, but worry that waiting until Tuesday wouldn't give my students enough lead-time.

Are there students who fail to check the server, or who think that absence is an excuse for not knowing something? Of course. And I have chronically tardy students who manage to miss announcements that I make in three consecutive classes (I *don't* post announcements on the server--that's too time-consuming, and I don't think the absentee or tardy students deserve that effort). But that's their problem.

As for the syllabus: I always specify page numbers, again for the reason that I don't want to have to bother about making an announcement every class (and because figuring out page nos. before the term begins helps to keep me on track, too)--but this doesn't mean that we don't sometimes fall behind for a day, and then catch up the next class session.

All of this is to say that I think you're right about students' responsibilities, and I see nothing wrong with the way you run things. But for me, personally, I find it easier to make documents available outside of class, too. I'm still really only rewarding the ones who are conscientious--the slackers don't bother to check the server, and they're penalized for their absences, grade-wise, already. (And it's nice to have the additional ammo when students complain: "Well, I passed out the assignment two weeks ago, AND it's been on the syllabus since September AND it's up on the course server. I really don't know how you couldn't have known about it.")

Anonymous said...

You are being very reasonable. We are not baby-sitters or their parents. When the get out into the real world, they will get a slap of reality when they miss a deadline.

It always frustrates me how student will not attend class, despite the obscene amount of money either they are paying in student loans or their parents have to cough up. This lazy-ass behavior just gets me!

Dr. Crazy said...

First of all, I'm not offended at all US:)

Anyway, I do have a central website on which all assignments are posted (I don't do this on blackboard mainly because the interface is more of a pain than just puttin everything on my main website), and all that isn't posted on there are topic driven assignments in one class, and it tells them on the page to email me if they need the assignment (attempt to ward off plagiarism).

So it's not that I'm not making course materials available.

I suppose my angst today was more related to the fact that this is coming up so early in the semester. In general, my students tend to be on the ball in the first month - it's only after that "conflicts" like work, court, babies, etc. begin to become an issue. This semester, I've just got a few who appear to be checked out. This may just be them, but it's made me notice that I tend to announce a lot of important stuff in class, that they then miss out on.

At any rate, thanks for all of the support, my peeps! I really do appreciate it.

Oh, and US - I actually do teach many students who work. I think this is one of the reasons I'm committed to having a syllabus that DOES NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES CHANGE and to giving out assignments in a timely matter. And I do make basic course materials available online. I suppose that my reluctance to do more electronically is that I don't teach distance learning classes - the whole point, really, is that you show up. If they want to do a distance learning or online sort of thing, then they shouldn't sign up for my courses - they should take courses that fit with their priorities and schedule.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

It sounds as if you and I conduct some basic aspects of our classes in the same manner. I always write the assignment for next meeting on the board before class starts, so the late and skip-out students get the message as well.

I also make all handouts available on a common drive. I also put my powerpoint slides there as well. This gives students the tools to get caught up if they miss a class.

To handle the status of students who come infrequently, I started taking attendance and taking them off the class list after missing 6 hours of class. I keep them in the grade book and I don't withdraw them until nearly the end of the semester -- but, once their name comes off the roster, they'll have to come talk to me about their attendance problems and how they are going to get caught up with the class. I'll also be pretty lenient in terms of what is an excused absence, and excused absences don't count against their 6 missed hours.

Anonymous said...

just putting this out there:

my dean recently held a 2 hour long A&S faculty meeting to let us know that she could not and would not support any grading policy that incorporated mandatory attendance into the grade calculation (the primary context, btw, was in situations where students challenge grades). the meeting was two hours long b/c this declaration obviously ruffled some faculty feathers. the dean made some really good points. in a nutshell: if you're assignment policies make clear statements about how and when work is to be done and how/when it is to be turned in, attendance issues should resolve themselves; students should be not be graded for effort but for the quality of the content of their work; if a student can produce passing work without having her butt in the chair, why should she be penalized for how she decides to manage her time?

to echo what has been said by those above: dude, it's on them! (i think everybody said "dude," right?)

just food for thought. i know i never really thought much about my attendence policy - i always just had one b/c every syllabus i was ever given had said policy on it... the dean's meeting at least made me think about that mysterious/arbitrary 10% of the final grade that i have...

Anonymous said...

I'm with all of you on this one. I have a pretty explicit syllabus as well, and a fairly strict attendance policy, and I get the same kinds of students every semester who don't give a crap. I figure, if they don't get an education it's their loss.

Wiccachicky said...

I actually gave up on attendance policies in general because students have a weird view of them. They see themselves as "paying" for your class, thus, how can they be penalized for something that they are paying for not going to? My policy is written instead as a statement - you're adults, it's your responsibility to come, don't bother me if you didn't show up to class. Then 1/5 of their grade is generally what I call participation and respect -- not only do you need to be in class, but you need to actively participate to earn these points. I'll frequently call on students to explain points from the reading, and if they haven't done it, they lose points. I get far less complaints that way (much like what chris was saying...our school doesn't support blanket attendance policies).

Anonymous said...

k8 said, "I'm very explicit about attendance. I don't make a distinction beween excused/unexcused, there are serious penalties against the final grade after "x" number of missed classes, etc. Having said that, I'm flexible for students who have honest emergencies or health issues."

Until this semester, this was exactly my approach, but I got tired of keeping track of who had five or six or eight absences, and having them come up forlornly and ask how many they had left etc. It's a good policy, but it's not worth my time to track it.

What is worth my time to track is their work and their progress, and so virtually every class, I'm having them turn something in that counts as a quiz, usually something that gauges their comprehension from a previous class or, if I administer it at the end of the class, from this one. I average the quizzes together and let them drop the lowest three--there are no excused quizzes.

I got this idea from a colleague, who swears by it, and so far, I'm liking the effect. My primary quiz form is to give them a passage from the previous class, have them identify it and then do a close reading of the passage for thematic and contextual elements. Students know early and often how well they are grasping major concepts; They are preparing for the midterm, where I use the same format; they are getting lots of close reading practice; and I get to reward good attendance.

It may mean I have more students hanging hopelessly on at the end of the semester, but it also means that I'm not keeping track of which butt is in the seat on which day.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, Horace, I like your quiz format.

I absolutely think it's their choice, their problem (as long as there's some room to accommodate "real" events prohibiting attendance like family illnesses, funerals, etc.) In fact, I tell my studens and state on the syllabus that if they do have to miss class, they need to contact a classmate about what they missed BEFORE they talk to me. I'll clear up any remaining question after that.

Anonymous said...

Horace: Quizzes don't work as well in writing courses. And to be honest, they take time away from the work of writing. Having said that, I have been known to assign a lot of in-class writing. But part of the reason for the attendance policy is because I am required to keep track of absences as part of the program I teach in. According to our division, after a certain number of absences, a student automatically fails the course. I don't actually take attendance, though. I normally pass around a sign in sheet. That way, students can't claim (as one or two have tried) that I "missed" them or didn't mark them as present. But I keep extensive records for a lot of course-related issues (i.e. all of my email correspondance with students).

And yes, I have caught students signing in for a classmate (really, don't they realize that I can compare signatures to verify this). In both cases, I discussed the situation with the whole class (without naming names) as part of a discussion of ethics and students' responsibilities. After class, students approached me and confessed and apologized. So I guess that was an effectiive tactic with those students.

Sorry. that was a bit long.

Eddie said...

Definitely NOT your problem.

MommyProf said...

You are being reasonable, but if you were at PrettyGood, you would not be realistic. Through a series of tuition increases over the last 7 years, we have settled into a type of student who is funding education with mind-blowing amounts of student loanage and not working. They also feel extremely entitled. I actually had a student come to me last semester and tell me "I've decided that I'm just not good at getting up in the morning. And I can live with that." I am pre-tenure, so I can't afford to tick students off and get poor evaluations. So I do coddle them way more than will prepare them for the "real world." I write the upcoming assignments on the board, every class. I have a file box with folders for each student in it and when they miss class, I put their handouts in their folder so they get them. I put stuff on Blackboard. I take attendance on Blackboard so they can look at it themselves. I even make checklist rubrics on assignments where it is appropriate. I hate doing it, but I see the alternatives as either a) dealing with all of the special requests for handouts, repeats of lectures, etc. individually, which would make me certifiable or b) not getting tenure.

Z*lda said...

I think this is a great discussion. What nobody has mentioned yet is the possibility that those "lazy" or inattentive students or no-shows may have learning disabilities which interfere with their academic achievement. I think that life is complicated and full of growing pains for young adults. Not everybody has develops collegiate study skills at an equal rate. Does your skill have a "learning center" or some sort of support service where struggling students can find help & encouragement? Perhaps this is an off the wall idea, and the real issue is that your problematic college students are too busy enjoying the lifestyle to attend to their academic work....