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Making “Course” Corrections

November 4th, 2010

Navigators use the phrase “course correction” to describe the accommodations necessary when a vehicle or aircraft goes off trajectory and the pilot has to take control of the steering wheel to get back on track. Teachers — especially those of us who use an intricately designed class calendar on the syllabus to guide most of our decisions — sometimes need to do this too. But sometimes we don’t realize it. We get caught up in the routine of instruction. We get too focused on the moment and forget the objectives that launched us on this journey or the end point we originally had in mind. Or maybe we get swept away by the tides of facilitating change and get caught off-guard by approaching deadlines or final exams coming right around the corner.
We need to make course corrections.
I did this recently in my first year Composition course. Every course in Seminar in Thinking and Writing at SHU contains an oral presentation assignment — a formal speech — that students are asked to perform in order to develop their communication skills. I always enjoy these and I am strong believer that practicing public speaking can help make a student a better writer. But the problem is that this assignment risks crowding out the attention to other issues in the class, like a research project. So I’ve always combined the two, and asked students to give a speech that shares their current research with their peers, under the assumption that they can kill two birds with one stone.
But this term, I was getting the feeling that my students were feeling worn down by the onslaught of short paper assignments. Their writing was becoming less genuine, and as I reader I was more and more feeling like many in the class were “phoning it in.” There’s always a degree of that in a “required” course like freshman comp, but I usually have success in getting students engaged and exciting about expressing their ideas through writing. In this case, I got the sense they were feeling midterm exhaustion, not just from my course, but from their entire raft of courses.
So I decided to make a course correction. I loosened up a bit. Instead of asking them to speak about research I made it easier: I asked them to simply tell us a story. They haven’t really done much narrative writing in my class, so this would give them the opportunity. The revised assignment asked them to share a personal anecdote related to the class readings and themes so far. I still wanted them to do research of a kind, so I made it mandatory that they had to interview one of the people who were involved in the story. “And if you don’t know what story tell, interview your mother or father,” I told them.
The speeches so far have been phenomenal. Depressingly, most of the tales are about personal tragedies — death and loss and health issues and victimization from crime and bullies — but I really am happy to hear students speak honestly about a topic they’re passionate about, and to trust the space of my classroom enough to share such touching personal matters. While I am not always satisfied with the connection they make to the class themes, I’m still learning a lot about my students (if not just “students today”) and they seem to be engaging with one another more often and honestly now (since every speech is followed by a mandatory open-floor Q&A). And if the class has given them an outlet for “being heard” or better understood by their peers, I am pleased. I still grade them the same way I normally would, and I challenge their assumptions in the Q&A, but I’m glad I made this decision. If anything, I think it fosters bonds, but it also cultivates the vibe of genuine honesty that I will expect from students when they do their research to come.
Course corrections can be hard to make, but often I think it is important to “reconnect” to the students. To step down from the podium, and sit around the table with them. To take a quick survey or have them reflect on an assignment. To take a step back from the grading pile and think about what didn’t work as expected, and whether it would be worthwhile to change the syllabus now rather than just next time the class is taught.
In my online graduate course in the Teaching of Writing as part of our MFA writing program, I have used a midterm evaluation (an online survey I build through qualtrics.com) to get the kind of feedback I need to know about their sense of workload, assignment foci, and what they feel they need to know to become good teachers. I feel this is necessary, because every group in this course includes a mixed level of experience when it comes to teaching, as some in our program are currently teaching high school, or have experience training others in some non-English field. So I solicit input on the syllabus and test whether they think changes or needed or if there are topics I didn’t plan that they think they might need to learn. As graduate students, they are very forthright in expressing their desires as well as their feedback and I find it helpful. It also raises the course to a “meta” level since it is a course ABOUT teaching. Then I do what we so rarely get to do with end-of-year student evaluations (and something I think is a bit risky, actually, but what the heck): I post the results. Sharing like this lets them compare their own assessment of the course with their peers, in addition to asking them to do a little role reversal with teacher. I have done similar “polls” with students in other classes, and then used the results for a class discussion, while also delivering my own “evaluation” of how the class is going. I think these kinds of reflexive practices — in concert with the students — makes everyone more accountable and invested in the outcomes that stretch out on the horizon. And they generate a shared sense of agreement in making course corrections, as everyone now has a hand on the wheel…
Teachers always make little micro-changes that adapt to the flux of their classes, but if students aren’t involved in changes somehow — even if they trust the instructor’s experience and expertise — they can seem arbitrary or capricious to the students, and can backfire. I recommend working together with your students to determine the direction of the vessel, even if you are the one doing most of the steering, and plotting the outcome of the journey.

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