Epic failure? Or just one bad night?

Based on the two [polar opposite] feedback notes I received last week, I decided to do things a little bit differently in class on Monday. My attempts bombed. Or at least it felt like they did. I kept having the sense that everything was going badly. Sure, I’ve had a couple of moments like that each week so far, but this whole session felt like a train wreck from the get go.

Here’s how it started… There was an accident on the interstate, and at least a half dozen students were late. I waited almost 10 minutes, but then decided to start class anyway. I began reviewing measurement by talking about the feedback I had received and how I needed to know whether most of the class felt confident that they understood the concepts we had covered so far (like one student did) or if they were all wallowing in confusion (like the other student seemed to be). I had created a 22-item self-assessment questionnaire to collect quantitative data, and I included open-ended space at the bottom for them to tell me anything else they wanted me to know. I told them they could include their names if they chose, but it wasn’t required. I told them to hold onto their surveys and give them to me at the end of the class. As the latecomers trickled in, I gave them a copy of the survey too, but they didn’t get to hear why they were completing it.

After the survey, I wanted to address some of the issues raised by the student with the complaints. In other words, let’s assume that this student’s comments reflected the central tendency of the class and try to do something about it. One of his/her complaints was that the small group activities are ineffective when the group members are clueless. This student suggested that we should be discussing the examples as a whole class. So… instead of breaking up the class time into blocks of interactive lecture and small group activities, I rearranged the desks into a circle and tried to conduct class more like a seminar. It didn’t work well. I just couldn’t seem to get a dialogue going.

There are 22 students in the class, and, although two were absent, it was a big circle, and it was awkward. I also couldn’t abandon my PowerPoint slides. I needed them to keep me on track and make sure we covered all of the important concepts, but because we were in a circle, some of the students had their backs to the screen and had to keep turning around. I also had to keep getting up to advance the slides. More awkwardness!

The worst part was that some of the topics we had to cover are difficult concepts. It took me several classes before I really understood measurement validity and reliability, and I was trying to introduce these topics during the last hour of class. It just didn’t work. Even the topics that I thought would be easy (reviewing things we had already covered and discussing data collection strategies) seemed difficult. I could sense the frustration and the confusion throughout the evening, and I felt myself getting more and more flustered and uncomfortable. I have never felt so relieved when time ran out. The evening felt like an epic failure.

As I collected the self-assessment surveys, I prepared myself for the worst. I stacked them and put them in my bag and didn’t look at them until I got home. When I finally had time to scan the quantitative data and read the comments, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the complaining student’s perceptions do not seem to reflect the central tendency. Most of the students seem to feel confident that they understand and can apply the concepts we have covered so far. There are a few areas that I will need to review and give some additional practice, but not as many as I thought.

Although I did not ask specific questions about the format of the class sessions or the materials, students commented positively about them (without any prompting) in the open space I provided. I decided that the class format that was comfortable for me is also working for the majority of students. I am still worried about the one student who won’t identify himself/herself, but I’ll have to figure out another way to address that. Thankfully, I only needed one glass of wine to recover from the disastrous evening.

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