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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Every class is different

I seem to have a lot of friends with two kids and at some point, every single one has said something about how different their kids are from each other - one is shy and the other is an attention-monger, or one will eat anything and the other is incredibly picky, or one seems to have been born reading and the other can't be bothered, etc. It doesn't seem to be a boy/girl thing or older/younger thing; the kids are just different for no reason that the parents can remotely explain.

I'm mentioning this because there have been several times this semester when I have thought that the same goes for classes. All of my classes have a distinct 'personality' that I can't seem to explain. Last semester, it was a lot harder to get anyone in my 11am class to speak up, compared to my 2pm class (and the difference in engagement was reflected in the average grades). The two classes always covered the same material, the teams worked on the exact same application problems, so I thought it was maybe because *I* was smoother in the 2pm class, having worked out some of the kinks in the morning class, or there was something about the morning slot that led to more lethargic students (not that 11am is all that early but...). But this semester, it is my 11am class that is usually more engaged than my 2pm class. My morning class last semester also had fixed seats, which I worried was making it harder for students to really talk to each other in teams and maybe that was why they were more reluctant to talk in the full-class discussion but this semester, both sections are in rooms with fully movable seats so that doesn't seem to matter. Of course, specific individuals can play a role - when there are a few students who are out-going and willing to speak up that usually either encourages other students to also speak up, or it means that other students stay quiet, waiting for the same vocal students to answer for everyone. But all of my classes seem to have a couple of those and there is still huge variance in how much I hear from the rest of the students.

Similarly, my writing class last year was one of the most responsible groups of students I've ever had - every one of the thirty students completed every single assignment (a few were late but they were all completed before penalties set in) and no student missed more than two class meetings. In contrast, I've seen an almost bizarre amount of missing assignments from this year's class and attendance is horrible. The writing class this year is structured quite differently from last year, because of SWoRD and all the major writing assignments being due online, but I can't help thinking that last year's bunch would still have been far more responsible about things.

My point is that every class is different, often for reasons that we instructors have absolutely no control over. Lee Skallerup makes a very similar point, raising the question of how should institutions evaluate teaching when so much is out of our control? I'm less concerned about the evaluation aspect; for me, it's more about trying to soothe that Type-A part of me that gets really stressed out when things aren't going as well as I would like, reminding myself that it doesn't necessarily mean I have done anything 'wrong'. The challenge for me is to keep it all in the proper perspective, still stay motivated and try to work with whatever group walks in the door...