Long time no blog

Well, I fell prey to the scourge of bloggers–the neglect that comes with being just too darn busy to post. I was so caught up in teaching this term that, though I kept thinking I really need to just post even some short thoughts as better than nothing, I instead let it go until the end of the term. Now that classes have finished for the Fall term, I have a little time to post some reflections on my courses.
In my Social and Political Philosophy course this past term, I tried two new things: (1) requiring students to keep some kind of journal over the course of the term, and (2) a new kind of group assignment.

(1) Journals: I required that students keep some kind of record of reflections over the course of the term. There were 3 entries due by approximately the 6th week, and 8 total due by the end of the term. The options were: handwritten entries, typed entries that they printed out and gave to me or sent via email at the two due dates, posting to the discussion boards on the course website, or sending me a link to their personal blogs on the net. There was only one student who had a personal blog, and the rest of the class was split about half and half between doing their entries on their own and turning them into me, and doing them on the class discussion boards. There was one discussion board for the whole class, and then a discussion board for each of the 8 groups to which the class was broken up (see below). Some of the groups had quite lively discussions, but most students just posted their own journal entries in a piecemeal fashion, without commenting on any of the others’ entries. What counted for entries: one’s own reflections on readings, lectures, discussions, as well as comments on postings by others (each had to be about 200 words or so).
This assignment went pretty well, I think. Several students commented to me that they found it useful to be encouraged (heavily!) to take the time to write down their thoughts in a way that was rather unstructured, where they didn’t have to feel like they needed to have a solid argument, but were thinking their way through something. I told them at the beginning of the course that that was the whole purpose of the assignment, that I had found for myself that the best way I come up with ideas for papers is to write my thoughts through. They become more clear and focused as I just continue to write them out in a somewhat unstructured way.
I marked the entries as completed or not, and thus was able to mark 8 entries each for 55 students without too much problem. The main difficulty for me was that I wanted to comment on many of them, to tell students what great ideas they had, or correct problems, and with that many entries to deal with all I could do was skim!
(2) Group assignments: In the past I have had group presentations, where students work together in groups of 3-8 or so, depending on the size of the course, and give a presentation to the rest of the class. This has been a really great assignment in the past, as student have come up with fabulous things to say that I would never have thought of. But when you’ve only got about 12-13 weeks in a course, and lots of students, it can be challenging to find the class time for presentations while also including enough content in the course. So I tried a compromise this term.
I broke the class (originally 60, then went down to 55) into 8 groups of 7-8 people each. These groups met for about 15 minutes or so, approximately once per week (with a few weeks w/o group meetings). During most of these meetings, one person was in charge of leading the discussion. That person wrote a 2-page essay on the reading assigned for that week, with a summary of one of the main arguments in the reading, and one-two questions or topics for group discussion. They were to give a short version of the summary and then give the discussion topics to the group to talk about.
In addition, I required that those doing a summary for the week email me their discussion question/topic the day before the group meeting. I had hoped that I would be able to incorporate these questions/issues into the lecture for that day.
Finally, I required that each student include at least 2 responses to other students’ presentations in their 8 journal/discussion board assignments.
The purposes of these assignments included: (a) encourage students to discuss the reading before the lecture, to come up with their own ideas about it, so that during the lecture they could ask questions/raise issues that they might not have done before b/c now they have had time to think about them before the lecture; (b) encourage not only those doing the summary and presentation to focus carefully on the reading before lecture, but also those group members involved in the discussion to do so–hopefully, if they know they’ll be discussing a reading before lecture, they’ll be encouraged to actually do the reading; (c) give students a chance to teach each other about the arguments/ideas in addition to hearing what I have to say; (d) give me a heads up about what kinds of things they’re interested in the day before the lecture, so I could address some of these in lecture; (e) give everyone a chance to do their own, individual presentation to a group and allow this to work in a big class by having the presentations go on simultaneously.
I am looking forward to seeing what the students thought about this assignment, when I get the evaluations back. No one said anything to me about them during the course. The 2-page essays were generally quite good, though one problem was that some readings were much harder than others for students to understand on their own (they had to do a summary of something that had not been lectured on yet. I’m thinking that if I do this kind of assignment again, I may have students write up comments/criticisms/questions on things we have already discussed to some degree in class, so that this problem is avoided.
I’m not sure that encouraging the other group members to do the reading before the group discussion worked. I think many of them relied on the summary by the presenter and then tried to discuss on the basis of that alone. It was hard to tell, just walking around listening to the groups, if this was the case.
One downside to having the presentations go on simultaneously is of course that I could not mark them on their oral presentation, b/c I couldn’t hear them all! They only got a mark on their written summary and whether or not they sent their question to me the day before via email.
Having them send the question/comment to me the day before via email was a little confusing for them, though the vast majority managed to do it. It didn’t work out quite as I had hoped, in that I just didn’t have time to really address many of the questions in the lecture. I had too much to talk about already, which was my own fault in planning. I managed to address some of them, but not enough to make this part of the assignment work as I had planned.
I had hoped that by starting the class meeting off with the group discussions and then going into the lecture, that students would be more likely to raise questions/objections during the lecture b/c they had just talked about the material. This didn’t happen very much. I think that since they had just talked quite a bit in their groups, and maybe they had gotten their main concerns out already and didn’t see the need to bring them up again, even for the benefit of the rest of the class.
On the whole, though, I think this idea for an assignment is a good one with some tweaking. I think I will take attendance at the group presentations next time instead of just requiring that they have at least two responses to presentations in their journals. Too many students just came for two presentations, and by the end of the term attendance at the group meetings was way too low. I also think, as noted above, that I may have the groups discuss something we have already talked about in class, thereby encouraging them to think further about it and give comments/questions they didn’t have a chance to in class (or hadn’t thought of yet). The idea of having them give me questions/comments before the lecture didn’t quite work out as I had hoped, and thus the need to do the presentations before the lecture is lessened.