Midterm Course Correction (conference TA panel), Oct. 14. 2011

Despite the fact that I look forward to the fall in Houston–that giddy thrill that comes the first time I step outside in the morning and have to race back inside for a sweater–I always dread this time of year: the middle of the semester.

Every year, I tell myself that this semester I’ll be ready for the inevitable rush. This semester I’ll plan ahead. This semester I won’t take up papers when I know I’ll have papers due in my own classes. But this semester, just like every semester, I’ve got a stack of grading in addition to my own work, and because it’s the fall, this semester, I don’t have a week-long break to give me time to catch up.

And I know it’s just as bad for my students, who are mostly freshmen adjusting to college coursework in addition to balancing their own family obligations and jobs. With this kind of stress, for both me and my students, it’s easy to see why disengagement grows this time of year. Students who have been performing very well are overtaxed, and their preparation for class slides downhill along with their daily grades.

Dealing with the middle of the semester is difficult. As we were reminded at the UH CTE Teaching Conference Panel on “Mid-semester Course Correction” on October 14, the middle of the semester is a time when it’s important to keep your head on straight–setting clear, achievable goals to make sure you get everything done. It’s a time to rededicate yourself to staying healthy for the push to the end of the semester. And it’s a time to reflect on what’s going well and what could be going better in the classroom.

Maybe you’ve reached the middle of the semester only to realize that your students don’t know as much as they should. Maybe your students seem to be disengaging, coming to class unprepared, or even not coming to class. Maybe you’re all bored with the same-old learning activities. Below are some of the strategies we talked about with TAs Geneva Canino (English), Al Bernard (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), Chris Nicholson (Political Science), and Veronica Sanchez (Atmospheric and Earth Sciences), along with moderator Dr. James Lang (On Course).

Some strategies we discussed for when your classroom needs a little kick, or even a complete overhaul:

  • Introduce activities that engage students in different ways. For example, try kinesthetic activities instead of lecture and writing.
  • Don’t be afraid to go back over “old” material if your students don’t seem to be getting it. If you TA for a professor who doesn’t want to change the syllabus, tell him or her about the problems you’re seeing and see if you can’t address them in labs or discussion sections. As Dr. Lang reminded us, there’s little point in going forward over new material when the knowledge foundations are shaky.
  • Try some activities that invite easy grading (that can be done in a few minutes right after class) or that get students to grade their own or each other’s work. In-class grading has the added benefit of introducing time to discuss mistakes that might otherwise be forgotten.
  • Remember that studies have proven than minimal feedback, especially on writing assignments, is the most useful. You’ll save time by only writing down two or three things to improve on, and students will get more out of your more focused comments.
  • Hand out a simple mid-semester evaluation that asks students to evaluate and reflect on their learning over the semester–this can help you as you make changes, and can also inspire students to make changes to their own learning habits. Dr. Lang suggested three simple questions for a midterm evaluation: 1) How are you doing in this class? 2) What could you be doing to improve your learning? 3) What could I be doing to help improve your learning?
  • If you can adjust your syllabus so that you’re only taking up assignments when you have time to deliver prompt feedback, both you and your students will be better for it. Remember that the more time passes between an assignment and your feedback, the less valuable your comments become.
  • Finally, remember that taking time to do things you enjoy isn’t a waste of time–it’s necessary for your health.

What are your strategies for handling the stresses of the middle of the semester?

Allison Laubach Wright

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