Blogpost 11 - Back to class

A Word To My Students

I have been teaching for a couple of years now and therefore enjoy the change of perspective from student "Uh, so much literature, I'll just read the abstracts :3" to docent "No one here has read the method section -_-".


So I thought I'll put a few words on paper (or the internet) with advise on how to do well in my courses.


Edit: Funny thing, this was supposed to be a 10-things-you-need-to-know-list but turned out to be much longer as more stuff came up.

Read the syllabus


This one is pretty self-explanatory, there's actually ton of memes on this as well. As a docent I try to put all the necessary information in the syllabus, not just to avoid having to answer them ten times in a row, but also to give you a "contract" that determines the bounds of the class and what is expected of both sides.

Not all questions about term papers/presentations that I answer in class are in the syllabus


That being said: It is impossible and quite undesirable to put the answers to all possible questions into the syllabus. Sometimes people ask questions about minor details in class that I cannot possibly have foreseen (and still be a good and reasonable question). If I were to put all of them into the syllabus, the thing would become so long as to be unwieldy. My recommendation: Take some notes on these questions if relevant.


My slides don't explain themselves


I have been asked in class to make my slides more "self-explanatory" to allow for easier learning. I have considered this, but have come to the conclusion that I will not do that. There are several reasons for this, but mostly I want to foster attention paying in class and note taking in order to get a deeper involvement into the material from students, besides avoiding large amounts of distracting text on the slides themselves.


Take Notes


I have observed that taking notes of what the docent says is getting less and less popular, rather students favor getting the text online as slides. While I can certainly appreciate that, together with the reasons above I highly recommend you take at least some basic notes on each class to support learning from my not-self-explanatory slides.


Pay attention to deadlines


All deadlines are in the syllabus and yet sometimes people overlook one and fall behind or don't have enough time to finish an assignment with the care it requires. I realize perfectly well that students have more obligations than my class (this comes from my own deep experience ;)), however a planner, either electronically or analog, will go a long way to avoid problems.


No, the response papers are not just cruel and inhuman (mostly though)


Initially, I did not assign 500 word response papers on the required literature for each class. And then I asked "Who read the assignments?" and got 20% of the class. So I berated the entire classroom and asked again next time with a much better outcome. Then I tested the knowledge they had retained from the text. It was abysmal.


In a case like this, it is extremely hard to have a productive and entertaining class as a docent because the critical mass of students familiar with the material required for deep discussion is just not reached and everybody suffers for it. A short one-page response paper ensures a much better understanding and improves class for everyone involved.


Also, I like to torture my students and feast on their tears. But mostly the reasons above.


Organize your reading in advance


This goes hand in hand with the response paper. Since students have many reading assignments, it helps to make a plan when to read what and how in order to keep up. Sometimes a more cursory reading might suffice (You did not hear this from me!), so manage your time efficiently.


Don't ask for exceptions (unless you have reason)


You're late on your term paper? I would LOVE to give you an extension. I hear your reasons: Lots of work, not enough time, side job, etc. and I have a TON of sympathy for you. However, I cannot in good conscience grant you an exception from the rules because that would be unfair towards the other students who still managed to get their paper done on time. And while I know that not all students have the same starting point (rich parents help), I cannot account for that but only apply the same rules to all students in order to achieve some fairness. So, please don't ask for exceptions because as much as I want to grant that, I cannot.


PS: Of course, some things like illness etc. are perfectly acceptable based on department policy.


Check your email


Sometimes I want to contact students. Either some document is missing our I have to move an appointment or something else. And I have had the case that students didn't get back for a week or longer because they have not been in the habit of checking their emails on a regular basis. I know of other docents who would not care about that, but I do care. If I chose to contact my students it is almost always in order to make sure they succeed in my class.


My advice: Check it once daily and you're fine.


Keep me in the loop, plz!


Dropping out of my class? It happens. Students take on a larger workload and realize mid-semester the cannot keep up and write three term papers at once. So they decide to drop one class. It's perfectly fine and shows strategic management of your performance, well done. But PLEASE let me know. Same goes for longer absences due to illness: If you can no longer visit my seminar and can still write an email, please let me know.


Take lecturer evaluations seriously (we pay attention to it!)


Power to students! The evaluations during the semester are a powerful tool to give me (and other lecturers) feedback. And it matters! First, all evaluations are checked by the department and outliers are brought to the attention of the dean and improvements are made. Second, evaluations are something that lecturers use when the apply for other teaching jobs, so they matter personally! Of course, that does not mean you should ruin someone if he/she didn't deserve that, but take the time and think when you fill out that form. Lecturers pay more attention to it then they probably want you to know.


Remember, I don't just teach and wait for your emails


Something students don't seem to realize (and how could they), is that as a lecturer/researcher teaching is only part of my duties. Teaching two classes a week takes up a lot of time in preparation, that's for sure. However, research also demands enormous amounts of time and then there are many other things to be done: preparation of the chair's exams, administrative tasks, education, contacting companies for data collection and so on. What's my point? Please make an appointment via email and don't just come by. Generally, I will not send you away, but you should be aware that most likely, you're interrupting something and won't have my full attention. You'll get it via an appointment, though.


If feedback is offered, take it (though it makes more work for me)


Feedback. I offer a personal feedback on all term papers where I will again express what could have been done better and what was done well. About 15-20% take me up on that offer and come by my office to talk about their work. While this is more work for me, I wish more students would take up that chance since a direct feedback is extremely important to getting better. And I have observed that it is mostly those students who already have an extremely high grade who want to have more feedback (maybe that's why they have a high grade?). So take the time, annoy me about a feedback ;)


Check your exams (not in my classes, though generally) for mistakes


And in the same note: Only a part of students actually checks their exam results. While I don't have exams in my classes, I have participated in making and grading them and I will tell you that there is always the possibility of an error. For example, on multiple choice students have way to "correct" answers for the optical scanner by filling in the circle they had to make their mark in. This does not always work perfectly! And while it is not unusual to check a sample of all exams for these errors, not all exams are checked that way. Long story short: Technical and sometimes even human errors can occur and influence your grade and the only way to know is to go and check your grade and your answers. Only a very small minority of students do so.


If you can, work at some chair for some time


This is something I did not do in my time as a student and which I regret in retrospect: I recommend that you should be working as an assistant at a chair. Even if you don't really need the money, the experience of working at a chair, making connections and learning about the process of scientific work helps you in your studies and you'll generally always will have the opportunity to get a very good recommendation from that professor.


Methods are important: Knowledge management is king. Visit your university library


Knowledge is abundant. Really. There are so many papers on most topics that it would take a dedicated effort of month to read, absorb and sort those tidbits into any meaningful and cohesive knowledge. I therefore consider the ability to find, judge and examine sources effectively as immensely important. At the same time, not all universities put a strong priority on teaching students how to deal with that, though our department certainly makes a dedicated effort. However! At our university the library offers a range of courses on how to deal with literature search and sorting since librarians are EXPERTS in this area. You should pay attention to them and visit these course (maybe even refresh the knowledge in between) and your term papers and thesis will become much stronger.


Use identifiable attachments


Last, but certainly not least: When you upload or send our lecturer an email with an attachment give that attachment a easily identifiable name. And I don't mean "Aragorn, King of Gondor" but something along the lines of "Lastname_Firstname_TermPaper_Shortitle". For you it matters very little, but the lecturer sorting 50 emails with attachments named "Term paper" this makes live a lot easier.


So that's it for now. Some of these points are particular to my own courses, some of them are advice about college in general. I hope these help you out a little bit and I'll therefore be able to hand out only perfect grades next semester.