Wednesday, November 2, 2011

From twice per week to once per week?

A longtime ISW reader writes seeking counsel about how to move from more frequent, but shorter class meetings to a single long weekly class meeting:
I am a graduate student who has only taught courses that meet twice a week for an hour and a half. I am getting ready to teach my first course that meets once a week for three hours, and it is not an advanced seminar but an introductory class for first-year undergraduates. I am unsure how to think about changing my approach to course design in this context. How much reading should I assign for each class meeting? How do I keep things moving along and change up the class activities during the three hours so that I don't lose everyone and don't get caught in the quagmire of directionless discussion for hours on end? I'm particularly lost on reading assignments -- it's much more intuitive to me to assign bite-sized articles or chapters for classes that meet twice a week, and much less intuitive how to cover roughly the same amount of material when meeting once a week, without worrying that my students will not pace themselves and will find the workload to seem like it has doubled. I could go on, but I hope this indicates some of the questions that are floating around in my mind.
 Advice for our correspondent?


  1. When I had a two-hour logic seminar, there would be a coffee break half-way through. The teacher actually had coffee delivered to the room, so we could have five minutes relaxing, talking and, for those who drank coffee, building up caffeine levels.

  2. Depending on the class size, one option for getting students to "pace themselves" with the reading is to give them assignments that are due during the week. (See the section on accountability here for ideas for such assignments.) So, if the course meets on Wednesday, and you assign two readings, have them turn in one assignment (by email or Web) on Friday and one on Tuesday.

  3. I've taught many weekend 3-hour courses. You kind of have to find your own groove and have the autonomy to pull it off, but I found several things fit nicely with my own teaching style:

    1. One 10 minute break every 50 minutes helped out tremendously. Set a timer, when it dings just stop cold. When the break is over start up without waiting for people. They eventually get back on time. Like Ben pointed out, the breaks really help get people relaxed, then tanked up on caffeine.

    2. Less lecture and more discussion. Keeping the students active helps keep them awake, paying attention, and less bored.

    3. More "in class exercises." Sometimes I would try to make the first hour the review/lecture hour, second hour was some sort of exercises, then third hour a debrief discussion. This didn't work with every class, but sometimes worked out well, especially if working on logic problems or writing. I like David's suggestion, will have to check into that myself.

    4. I became a fan of videos. It's a great opportunity to do "Philosophy through Film" types of courses, or "The Ethics of Star Trek" where you can show an episode and really discuss right away.

    5. I also had a pretty liberal food/drink/get out if you need to policy. I told the students that they should bring food and drink as needed, but don't bother people when they eat. If it became a problem I talked to them. Likewise, I told them if they find themselves nodding off they should go for a short walk.

    6. Reading load. That's the hard one for me. The dynamics of learning change when you jump from 3 lectures per week to 1 lecture per week. Understanding one article may critically depend on understanding several others read before it, so students might miss out on significant aspects of the course as they try to read a week's worth of material.

  4. Excellent suggestions, anonymous.

  5. I've noticed that one thing which always helps is acknowledging that you feel their pain as things tend to drag on in hours two and three. (And everyone else is right, don't try to do it without breaks.) Granted, I do feel like since I'm the one doing most of the work up there, and I'm surviving, that they should be able to as well. But I don't mention that. I just prime them at the beginning of the semester and the session that it's going to get rough. But knowing it's going to get rough makes it easier to handle it when it does.

    I actually have a favorite line too. I tell them that it's a little nuts to expect someone to pay attention to a professor for 2-3 hours because, heck, people get bored of *good* stand-up comedy after an hour. So professors don't really have much of a chance of keeping it interesting the whole time. Thus, both sides need to be prepared for a fairly dramatic act of willpower in order to learn what's being covered.

  6. I agree with the ideas presented by anon1. I like 3 hour classes. It allows for a more in depth analysis of an argument, or thought experiment, or paper. It allows for more nuances to be brought out in the normal course of a discussion. I would not lecture for that amount of time. When I lecture (whatever time format I am in), I break my lectures up into 10-15 minute segments and then move into short discussions. This helps to reinforce the learning of the material. To Anon1 suggestions, I would add that utilizing youtube and pod casts can be very helpful in providing alternative perspectives and to provide a foundation for discussions. This time frame also would allow for debates on issues. For example, take a issue in medical ethics, for example the Baby Theresa case from Rachels, and have them make the case for/against killing Baby T to a 'judge' or an ethics committee. I have used this approach a number of times and have found it very productive.

  7. All great suggestions so far. I would just like to add one more. In my three-hour 4th-year seminar, I rely heavily on student presentations, which works well for philosophy majors. But I have also started doing this in first-year courses (e.g., in summer courses that meet for a long time per day). I just scale down the presentations, and I have them give presentations to small groups. Instead of having them do a "reading" of a text and give a formal presentation, I ask them to come up with a few discussion questions for a small group, related to the readings/lectures/issues being discussed, and be prepared to say a few things about why they think these questions are important, what their own views are, how they are related to what we're discussing (if not obvious), etc. Then their role is mainly to facilitate discussion in the small group.

    Sometimes, depending on the size of the class, I break the big class up into small groups early on, and those groups remain together for the whole term. That way, students get to know at least a few people in the class and feel more comfortable doing their presentations. Some course website programs will create groups for you "randomly" (I don't know how they do it, or how random it is), but sometimes I do it myself through the Excel program (can explain this procedure if anyone wants to email me (see email on my webpage by clicking on my name). The main problem is when people drop the course you have to redo the groups! But basically it works, and keeps people from just staying in groups with their friends (which tends to happen if you ask people to separate off into groups of their own choosing).

  8. Thank you all for suggestions, they are really helpful for me as well!


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