Halloween is over, Thanksgiving is coming, and the big box stores are pumping out Christmas tunes and sales galore. Meanwhile, our students are beginning to see the end of the semester. The pre-holiday distractions combined with the inevitable conclusion of the course often result in disengaged students. Some are thinking about family time and fun winter activities. Others are panicking about assignments and too focused on their grades to actually learn. The rest have either done their work and are no longer worried about grades, or have given up at passing the course or improving before finals.
So what are we to do as teachers to keep out the holiday noise while bringing the attention away from grades and back to the value of learning?
One of the most challenging and engaging parts of being a professor is the new dynamic of the class as a group every semester. Things that worked in the past might fail because of the different learning styles or the mix of personalities in your new class. I have noticed some patterns that do occur within every class I’ve had that deal with the time of the semester. For me, the most difficult is about 5 weeks in when the students have finally settled into their schedules and think they have figured out how to do the minimum to get the grade they want. Discussions falter, students are distracted, and I usually end up giving out a round of poor grades on an assignment that the class has collectively slacked on accompanied by a stern reminder in class that I’m paying attention and work must be done.
Then we hit a sweet spot for a few weeks when the group is committed to the class, focused on schoolwork, and not too worried about that final grade mark since several assignments are still ahead. Around the second or third week of November the class mood shifts again. Students think: The end is in sight! Holiday fun is ahead! I think: Ummm…there is still 1/4 to 1/3 of the semester left. And I am two days behind the syllabus so we need to stay focused here people.
Every fall semester this happens to me. It also comes in spring around the same time of the semester when the weather is nice and summer break is ahead. Each time I struggle to get the class back on course and student minds back in the classroom. And each time I feel like I could have done it better. Here are a few things I’ve tried in the past, always with mixed results.
1. More lecture, less discussion. Not as fun or engaging, but at least I know class time is being used productively since discussions are often not as intense or revealing toward the end of the semester. This is also a useful way to get back on track in the syllabus, which I’ve usually fallen behind regarding material. Discussions in the last weeks of class are usually better if I have the students do more written responses and by this time in the course I’m also able to ask them more complicated questions on those assignments to start out.
2. Pad the syllabus. I try to put in some extra time in the last week or two of November when I make out the syllabus. I will reserve one day for a small topic, knowing that I’ll likely be spending classroom time playing catch-up with myself. I have never regretted working this time in and have never had a problem filling up that extra day or two of padding.
3. Show a film/go on a field trip/have an activity/. Changing up the daily routine is always helpful to get students refocused and engaged on the material. I almost always show a movie the last class meeting before Thanksgiving. I choose one that is easy for the students to get access to so they can watch on their own time if they are planning to travel that day. (My personal favorite is the first half of the ’90s version of Little Women because it fits into the time frame of the course, goes beyond the story of the novel to show some pretty accurate scenes of 1860s domestic life, and it has several holiday scenes so it is rather festive). I think family is extremely important and often found it very stressful as a student when I had to choose between my schoolwork and family activities. This doesn’t mean that traveling students who miss the class are excused from an absence (I have offered an extra credit to make up this absence before in certain cases). Nor does it mean they are not required to watch the video. I make a small writing assignment connecting the film back to the reading and lectures, and the movie quite often ends up as part of the final exam questions.
4. Less full classroom time and more small group or individual meetings. These I have found to be useful during the time in December when Thanksgiving is over and students are gearing up for final exams and busy with big projects. It allows more flexibility in their schedules and I think they get more value out of smaller meetings at this point. I almost always have a large project toward the end of the semester, usually some sort of longer paper. Meeting with small groups or one-on-one allows the students to spend more time on their paper (which they most likely have not started yet even though I’ve told them to do so weeks ago) and in the end I tend to get better work, which turns into less time spent grading sloppy assignments. It is perfect for demonstrating the importance of drafts and careful editing. And because I have given this step extra time I tell my students up front that I expect extra effort from them in the final version of the paper.