Making Choices and Explaining Them to Our Students

For every teacher out there doing cool things in the classroom and blogging about it, there must be another hundred doing great work and not shouting it from the rooftops. Julia Kregenow from the Penn State Astronomy and Astrophysics Department is one of those people. She thinks deeply about teaching and has taught a wide range of classes in astronomy, math, and physics including several geared toward freshmen. I love how she has reasons for every choice she makes, and explains these choices to her students. Today, Julia is letting me share excerpts from a recent syllabus where she does exactly this.

III. Participation & Engagement
Research has shown that you can only learn a limited amount from lectures alone, no matter how clear or entertaining. People learn much more from being actively engaged and grappling with the material while learning. Therefore, active participation and collaboration is an integral part of your learning in this course, and will be graded.
Participation includes (a) in-class activities and worksheets, (b) responding aloud in class when your name is randomly drawn and called (typically after deliberation with your neighbors, so you are actually speaking for several people around you), (c) answering in-class questions each day via multiple-choice voting cards, and (d) discussing your answers with the students sitting around you when asked, and (e) posting to online discussion boards on Angel with your classmates. In addition to helping you learn, these participation activities provide vital feedback to me about how the class is going, and what everybody is understanding so I can adjust instruction accordingly. If you are sick and have to miss class once or twice, don't panic -- 20% of in-class participation points may be missed with no grade penalty. (See below under "attendance policy" for more details.)

I love how attendance and participation are required, but they are also flexible.

Items to bring to class every day: your in-class activities workbook (described above under "Required Text"), voting card (described below), a pen or pencil, and note-taking material.
Voting Cards: A multiple choice voting card will be provided to each student at the beginning of the semester. If you forget yours one day, please feel free to ask the instructor before class for a spare "loaner" card for the day -- and be sure to return it after class to ensure that there will always be loaners available. A PDF copy of this card will also be posted on the course website here so if you lose your card entirely, you may print another copy for yourself IN COLOR. While your responses are not recorded or graded for correctness, it is to your (any my) great advantage to try to answer each question to the best of your ability. The responses provide both the students and the instructor with valuable feedback about what the class is understanding.

Voting cards are far cheaper than clickers, they don’t “fail,” and they’re easy to replace.

Names from Hat: For the verbal responses in class, please respond when I call your name if you are present. Responding gives you participation points, gives the instructor valuable feedback, and saves the class's time so the instructor doesn't have to read through extra names to get a response. If you suspect that you will have undue anxiety about responding aloud, please see the instructor privately in advance to discuss alternative options.

Cold calling is random and not dependent on technology. If some students are extra-sensitive to being cold called, they can opt out.

Electronics Use Policy: Research has shown that using an electronic device with a screen during class distracts other students around you and hinders their learning**. To eliminate the screen distraction "halo" effect on neighbors, we will have two different zones in the classroom to accommodate both those who want the freedom to use electronics, and those who wish not to see any electronics.
Students who would like to be guaranteed a "screen free" environment should sit in the LEFT half of the classroom (as you are facing the front). Students sitting in this area have committed to not using any electronic devices with a screen, of any size (laptop, phone, table, iPod, etc.) for the entire 50 minutes of class. It is fine to use your devices before class starts, but students in this zone have agreed to put them entirely away when class begins and leave them away until class is over.
Students who will or might be using any electronic devices that have any kind of a screen, or who don't mind seeing others use such devices, should sit on the RIGHT half of the room. This applies regardless of the reason the student is using the device, whether it is goofing off or not -- even if it is a legitimate educational reason or an extenuating personal circumstance (e.g. laptop for notetaking, or checking texts for family emergency). This also applies regardless of the frequency and duration of the electronics use (e.g. glancing at just one text message or actively taking notes for all 50 minutes).
Students are free to change which zone they elect to sit in on any given day, depending on their personal circumstances and preferences on that day.
Note: Any kind of multitasking, including but not limited to electronics use, also hinders your own learning. So those wishing to optimize your own learning may want to consider ways to keep any kind of off-task personal distraction to a minimum during class and while studying.

This strikes me as a smart middle ground between an electronics free-for-all and an outright ban. Julia also has an amazing hand-out she distributes to her students that goes into detail about the science behind the negative effects of distraction and multi-tasking on learning.

IV. Course Etiquette
In order to create a harmonious and orderly class environment that is respectful to all and conducive to learning, especially in a large lecture classroom, we all need to act with extra consideration. The following guidelines for students will help us to maintain our positive learning environment. Please see the instructor privately if you have any schedule conflicts or any other personal circumstances or concerns that you think might make it difficult for you to adhere to any of these:
  • You will arrive on time.
  • You will stay to the end of class (not leave early).
  • You will respond when called upon so the professor doesn't have to waste the class's time calling multiple names.
  • You will not talk during class except as part of an activity -- large lecture halls are designed to amplify small sounds, so even whispering is disruptive.
  • You will not begin packing up your belongings until class is over to avoid the resulting disruptive noise and distracting movement.
  • You will keep your phone set to vibrate, silent, or off for the duration of class.
  • You will respect the electronics use policy set forth in the class (see above)
  • I will start and end class on time. I will not keep you late, past the scheduled class time. I will be respectful of your time.
  • I will break up periods of lecture with other activities to help keep your attention and alertness.
  • I will incorporate lots of pictures, movies, demos, and other multimedia where appropriate to help you visualize the material, and to try to make class more interesting and fun.
  • I will give you frequent opportunities to discuss concepts with each other.
  • I will ask you questions in class that are designed to help improve your understanding of the material.
  • I will provide a welcoming environment for you to ask questions both in and outside of class.
  • I will display the course announcements on the projector before class each day (though I often won't talk about them; you can read them on your own), which will include reminders about upcoming due dates.

It’s so clear this class is a team effort. If I’m a student, I’m excited to follow these rules because (a) they are designed to help everyone learn and (b) because Julia is doing her part too. She doesn’t have to do any of this stuff, but she’s doing it because she cares. That’s powerful. I will certainly be incorporating a few of these ideas in my classes next year.