The Mixed Classroom

NOTES FROM THE FEBRUARY 23, 2010 BROWN BAG DISCUSSION ON

“THE MIXED CLASSROOM”


Classroom Atmosphere

  • One faculty member who has developed programs and special courses for adult learners said he has learned the most about teaching by working with them.  He learned to be more courteous, generous, nurturing, and supportive.  In other words, he learned to treat students as he would want to be treated.
  • Non-traditional students are balancing a lot, but even traditional students are often balancing family, a social life, athletics, clubs, etc.  So treat them with the same courtesy and understanding you give to the non-traditional students.
  • A faculty member recommended Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, which stresses hospitality in the classroom.  Palmer also says that what you model is what they take away, so are you a stand-up comedian, a talk-show host, etc.?
  • Be understanding when a non-traditional student has to miss a class because of a sick child, a car that won't start, flooding, snow in the driveway, etc.  They are paying for their own classes so you can generally believe them when they say they had to miss a class.
  • If you assign quizzes to test that students are keeping up, try dropping the worst one or two quiz grades.  This practice gives a break to the non-traditional student who, due to work or life issues, did not have time to prepare but did show up.
  • Older students can provide a perspective that the younger students do not have.  It is also invaluable for older students to get the perspective of the next generation (or two) down.
  • One instructor's wife who took VU classes was gratified to find that her much younger classmates accepted her as a peer and valued her insights.
  • However, if your younger students are making fun of a non-traditional student, take them aside and talk to them about their immature behavior.
  • Give everyone a "voice" in the classroom by mixing non-traditional students up in peer groups.  Mix sexes, writing levels, age-levels, etc.

Tests and Exams

  • Test Anxiety:  These students are particularly prone to worry about exams.  Sometimes they change initial right answers to wrong ones through over-thinking.  Reassure them as much as possible about tests/exams.
  • Give them pre-test examples so they can practice the style of questions that will be on the exam.  Give them examples of "best answers" to questions from a previous exam, examples of an A answer, B answer, etc.
  • Talk to them about how to take a test.  For example: Outline your main ideas for essay questions first, then answer the multiple choice questions, so that when you go back to the essays you can flesh out your outlines that have been brewing in the back of your mind.
  • Help for students with test anxiety:  According to Stewart Cooper, Director of Counseling Services, they continue to run outreach programs on Test Anxiety Management on occasion.  It is typically a matter of getting a request from some unit or department.

Writing

  • Some students have never written a term paper or major paper in high school.  Be sure to lay out the basics for them, step-by-step.  Possibly include a library instruction session on doing bibliographies?
  • International students:  There is a lot of guilt around giving these students extra time on papers or letting them revise and revise.  To be fair, let everyone do multiple drafts?

Adjustment Period

  • International students:  Some arrive at VU for the first time in January, so they may still be learning the culture of our classrooms through osmosis, even second semester.  Give them time to adjust.
  • Non-traditional students need positive feedback early on.  Use the first paper or assignment to encourage them while still indicating what they need to do better.  For some this will be their first college assignment ever, and they can be really intimidated by it.  Even if you have trouble finding a positive, you can always say "I can see you really wrestled with this" if they really tried.
  • Some of these students could really benefit from the VU class on study skills ("VU Strategies").

Graduate Students

  • Graduate students:  Expect more from them.  They should write a longer paper or a different kind of paper and/or give a presentation to the class.  Sometimes extra reading can be assigned to them.
  • If you do not ask for extra work, be sure to take graduate students aside and explain that you still expect more depth and sophistication in their work.  Let them know that there is a double standard.
  • With international students, teachers sometimes have to wrestle with double standards among students of the same classification; in other words, between undergraduates as a group and then between graduate students as a group.  It seems okay to have a double standard between undergraduate and graduate students but not within those categories of students.  That is to say, it just seems wrong to have double standards for one's undergrad students because some are international students.  This is a tough issue for many faculty.
  • Even among graduate students there can be a great difference in skill level.  On team assignments, one instructor partners with a newbie so she can teach them the basics.

Internation Students (Graduate and Undergraduate)

  • Some will have to read the assignment 4 times just to understand it.  This problem is compounded when they also have technical language to contend with.
  • Because of the extra time required, some of these students have no time to participate in the life of the University.  They spend all of their time outside class studying.
  • Some of these students can understand the teacher, through practice, but do not understand remarks made in class by peers.
  • Study buddies:  some professors pair an international student with another student in the same class.  This often helps both students.  Before exams, working with a study buddy increases information sharing, cuts down on test anxiety.
  • Do we have enough support services for international students?  At what point do you send them to get help from, for example, the Academic Success Center?

Characteristics of Non-traditional Students

  • Older students in particular need reassurance that their maturity will pay off.  They often have a steep learning curve, so they start out behind but end up ahead of their classmates.
  • Sometimes we can be more flexible with non-traditional students because they are mostly responsible.  Undergraduates, however, need deadlines.
  • Commuter students:  They can feel somewhat disconnected to campus life.  Try to make assignments that get them on campus for a play, dance ensemble, lecture, etc. to make them feel like they are a part of campus.  Mention that they can even bring a date; with their free ticket it can be a 2-for-1 date night.  Do not assume they can come to events 9-5.

Future Steps

  • Will the Strategic Plan take sufficient account of the extra help these students need?
  • Could we hold a pre-semester or "J-term" that is mandatory to help these students jump-start their studies?  Departments could offer a session on the basics and nomenclature of their field.
  • We now have Interlink sessions specifically for law, engineers, etc.  Could we expand this to other disciplines?  (Could be challenging for some disciplines.)
  • How about a one-year "get ready for college" curriculum for students who need it?  This would be available (or required?) for any international, non-traditional, or traditional but poorly prepared student.  All three national service academies have prep schools like this.  This prep year would avoid students having to catch up while they are also trying to keep up.
  • During this "pre-college" year they could perhaps take one actual course such as Core so they would still end the year with 10 credits.