This past Friday night, I went out for dinner and drinks with a friend. It was a full week after the last day of final exams here, so we expected our tiny little town square to be free of students. We had dinner at one place, then moved to another location and just took seats at the bar and continued catching up.
And then a student that was in my class this fall came over and gave me a hug. He told me that my class was the first time he had gotten an A (I assumed he meant just in college, but who knows). And that he had asked his mom to proofread his paper, and she was so impressed that she asked him whether he had really written it himself. I didn’t know what to say, except that I didn’t give him an A, he earned that A, and just keep putting in that effort in future classes.
That was pretty awesome. But seeing this student progress through the semester was pretty awesome, even before Friday.
At the beginning of the semester, I warned them that my class would be a LOT of work. I told them that it wouldn’t be hard like calculus, but it would be a lot of work. I built in a lot of small assignments at the beginning so that I could do a lot of formative assessment and have lots of low-risk opportunities for feedback… In hindsight, I did too much of that, because it took up an inordinate amount of my time to give all of that feedback, but it was better than not enough feedback until it’s too late.
My class is capped at 24 students. There were a few who stood out from the beginning as really putting a lot of thought into assignments. They might not have always gotten to the conclusion I hoped they would on the first try, but they were thinking about it instead of just tossing out a simple superficial response. And a few stood out as really on top of this stuff – probably the “over-achiever wonder-weenies” that have always found school pretty easy as they skate through with straight As. They make teaching much easier, though the best part is when you catch them helping a classmate along, explaining things in a different way than how I presented it to help that other student get the underlying concept.
This guy, though, was one of a handful that I had pegged as slackers. I teach information literacy, not rocket science – every single one of those kids is fully capable of getting these concepts, but they have to be willing to put in the time and effort. I can’t just pour the knowledge straight into their brains without their cooperation.
For the first month or so, all of the stuff he turned in seemed kind of half-assed. And then he stayed after class one day to talk about his low grades on some assignments, and I told him what he needed to do to get better grades. I include a minimum word count on each assignment, not because I want to be a bean counter, but because I want to see that they’re actually thinking about the question and trying to apply the concept to the real world. I want more than two basic sentences giving a simple superficial answer. I also gave him a couple of options to go back and add some information to at least one earlier assignment to make up points, but stressed that the most important part was just to meet all of the requirements and show me that he’s thinking about this stuff on future assignments.
After that, he improved, but it was his annotated bibliography that really made my day. Backing up, I suppose I should explain the way I structured my class this semester. I assigned groups in the second week of classes and had each group pick a topic to research through the semester. And then each member of that group had to come up with a research question related to that group topic. I made sure to mix up the majors, so that I could point out the wide variety of ways different researchers could approach a single topic. They worked with these research questions through the semester, culminating in a final project. This includes a “state of the presentation presentation,” an annotated bibliography, a short paper, and a final presentation. You can see more details over here, if you’re interested.
On the annotated bibliographies, they had to do proper citations in either APA or MLA format, and they had to do the standard annotation fodder of telling me what the source is about and how it will help answer their research question. But I also made them include how they evaluated the source. Critically evaluating a source in order to select quality, credible sources is an important learning outcome in my class, so I wanted to see that they actually thought about the author’s credentials or the reputation of the publication or whatever other evaluation criteria applies when selecting their sources. My goal is to teach how to do good library research, so I’m more interested in their process than in the actual information found in those sources.
This kid knocked it out of the park on the annotated bibliography. He had plenty of formatting errors and whatnot, which I pointed out because other profs will take off points for those sorts of errors, but his was one of the best at addressing the relevant evaluation criteria for each source and how he applied it. It seriously made my day.
And, again, on the paper, he did a great job. I gave them a fairly detailed outline to follow, all they had to do was follow directions. I had them include an overview of what they found, but then hammered again on the evaluation stuff – they had to talk about a source that surprised them and how they evaluated the credibility. Is it something that looks credible to begin with, but turns out to be the equivalent of a climate change denier, or it actually good information about some new breakthrough in that field or something? His paper followed all of the directions and he did a great job talking about how he evaluated his surprising source. I really hate having to mark up papers, and I love when students give me A quality work!
This was one really great experience of watching a student turn things around and really get the important learning outcomes in the class. But I love teaching this semester-long credit-bearing class because I get to have little victories like this every week. I have the pleasure of getting to know the students as individuals, and seeing how they progress through the semester. One shots are fun, and it’s great working with smaller departments where you can get to know some of the majors. But having a whole semester with a small group of kids is great.
And to think, when I did my practicum in my second-to-last semester of library school, I wasn’t even planning to include any instruction! My previous experience of teaching was pretty harrowing – basically tossed to the wolves to teach a 200-person lecture course with very little training. I am so thankful to the library director who suggested I include some instruction time in my practicum, too, since I had a fair bit of teaching experience already on my CV. I don’t know what area I would have gone into if it hadn’t been for that, but I’m pretty sure it would not have been nearly as awesome as the job I have now!