Saturday, March 1, 2014

Adjustments and Impacts of a Heavy Teaching Load

This quarter, due to some unforeseen circumstances, I am teaching more classes and a lot more students than I normally teach during a given quarter. The increased student load in particular has been a major challenge. I am teaching three sections of the same class in the morning everyday. The course capacity is 35 so I started the quarter with about 105 students and 3 straight hours of class in the morning. Twice a week I have my clay class in the afternoon with an additional 20 students. The clay class is 3 hours long, so twice a week I teach for 6 hours with a half-hour for lunch and switching buildings.

The teaching itself has actually not been too much of a challenge. For a few days I would forget to prepare for a later class and have to run back to my office (in a different building) between the morning classes or hurry to prep something while the afternoon class was getting their wheels ready, but now I am fairly adept at packing up everything I need for four classes right when I get to campus.

The major challenge has been getting all the non-teaching work done. I have taken over department duties in the wake of my colleague's retirement. I have also started the tenure process, which requires meetings and writing from me. I am now doing the departmental scheduling and planning a trip in March. I supervise four student workers in the clay studio and my office was moved to a different building last week. On top of this I have also worked fairly diligently to find and hire new faculty to make up the shortfall from a retirement, an illness and a general lack of depth in our adjunct faculty pool. These, and a variety of other minor duties, tend to consume much of my time in the office but I also have roughly three times the grading I would have during a "normal" quarter.

Sadly, the fact that I seem always to be rushing from meeting to meeting, obligation to obligation, means that I am not very accessible to students in my office. I think I have only talked to three of my advisees this quarter, probably because they can't find me when I am not teaching or at a meeting. I get the sense, from my Art Appreciation students, that they wish I had office hours in the morning between classes, because they aren't always on campus in the afternoons on the days I am in my office hours.

There are limits to how much energy one can sustain and how many hours one can stay at school. I have always been pretty strict with myself about not bringing work home. I try to reserve grading and paperwork and class preparation for school hours. I might stay a bit later, but I won't bring it home. This approach works well with a limited number of students, say 40 some students in studio classes and another 35 in Art Appreciation. This quarter, however, there has never been enough time at school. I had to make a decision between staying at school for hours into the evening (my home schedule doesn't allow me to go in earlier) or bringing work home.

For most of January and February, I have been grading for an hour in the morning before my daughter wakes up and an hour in the evening after she goes to bed. I still try not to grade when I am with her. Sometimes I'll sit with my husband after her bedtime and grade while he watches TV.

I wouldn't want to repeat this quarter--like, not ever--but it has been an interesting quarter for comparison and I've noticed I have developed an efficiency in grading that I haven't needed to have before. When there is a manageable amount of grading, I am very careful about checking and double checking answers and considering every possible nuance the student was trying to communicate. This quarter, I have changed a few assignments to be faster and simpler to grade. I can also grade some of them quite quickly because I don't pay attention to nuance; if the answer is mostly right, I give them the point.

Another major change I made this quarter was in the structure of my tests. In the past I have always sent the students to see public art on campus or art shows at Larson Gallery. The tests were done in the gallery but the students could also take them home to finish or type their answers. The questions were all short answer, requiring the students to identify and explain or describe their answers based on works they were seeing in person. I've used these tests for several years and I find they give me a pretty accurate view of what students know and how they understand it. I can sometimes get to know individual students better as I read their answers. This type of tests privileges complex, thoughtful answers but allows the students some flexibility in knowing exact terminology. These tests also require a great deal of time to grade and usually I need to go back to the gallery to check answers. It probably takes most of a week to grade a set of 35 tests and students often write about things I didn't notice when I first wrote the test (since the tests are written anew for each changing show in the gallery).

This quarter I was loathe to change the tests, but it was clear I couldn't spend three weeks grading each of the three tests--at least not if I expected us to do anything else in class. So I compromised. The tests this quarter were done in two parts. The first part is a take home test in the gallery with a limited number of short answer questions. The goal of this first part is to encourage the students to look at the works in person. The next day they have a multiple choice Scantron test asking questions about the work they saw in the gallery. Pictures of the works they saw in the gallery are projected on the classroom screen to accompany their questions. After the students are done with the test, I can quickly run the forms through the machine to grade them.

The test is efficient and approximates what I want them to get from a written test in the gallery. It is an assessment of what they know, but, unfortunately, I don't like it as much. One problem is that students misunderstand the questions more often in this type of test. Writing the test is a little trickier, since I have to try to anticipate how they might misinterpret my phrasing. I have thrown out a couple of questions after the fact because I could see how they might be misunderstood. But beyond the potential mistakes, my gut feeling is that students, overall, don't perform as well on multiple choice tests as they do on written tests. It seems counterintuitive, since communicating through writing should be an added challenge for the written tests.

I have trouble articulating exactly what it is about a multiple choice question that causes problems for students. Not knowing the exact problem makes it harder to adjust for it as I write the test. A piece of the problem may be that they don't understand the terminology or phrasing that comes from my example (or the book's example), but, since I want them to know the class terms and understand what they read its hard to know how to account for discrepancy between Scantron test results and written test results.

The current classes have one more test this quarter. It will be interesting to see if more practice will improve either the way I phrase the questions or the students' ability to approach the test questions. Teacher friends, what do you do to create efficient, useful and accurate tests in your classes, especially when you have a lot of students.

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