Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Can we do this better?

Today in my class I had the lowest attendance of the semester and subject-matter-wise this might have been the most interesting stuff.  I asked the students who did show up what's up.  One student offered up the weather as explanation.  I stared at him in disbelief.  It was raining lightly early in the day but temperatures were in the mid 50s.  Weather couldn't be the reason.

Other possible explanations include illness, my previous lecture was a bomb, and the schedule - this is the season for the second midterm of the semester.  Mine is a week from Thursday.  I'm going to assume that the last possibility is the most likely one.

In Econ, most if not all undergraduate courses are 3 credit hours.  So a full load is 5 courses and some overachiever types might take six.  I should also note that many students seem either to have double majors or are minoring in an area outside of Econ.

While midterms are typically not as long as finals (my midterm is 80 minutes while the final is 3 hours) and in many cases midterms are not comprehensive while the final is, there is nonetheless sever stress placed on the students during midterm season.   To the extent that students skip their other classes while getting ready for a midterm in a particular class, this seems like there is more stress than is good for them.

What can be done to reduce this stress level?  The obvious answer is that students should take fewer courses at any one time.  Here are two different ways that might be achieved.

Way one is to change courses from three credit hours to four, so four courses would be a full load.  The fourth hour could be for small group work and/or office hours held in the actual classroom. Students earlier in the semester have told me that scheduling group work outside of class time is difficult.  This would partially address that issue as well.  I have no idea how how accrediting agencies would react to a suggestion like this, but I've got a vague recollection that when I was an undergraduate at Cornell a four-course load was the standard.  It's the public universities that are chintzy on the credit hours awarded.   Why?

Way two would be to divide the semester either in half or into thirds and have courses run only for those shorter periods - more intense bursts rather than long hauls.   I know that the academic calendar is a kind of sacred cow, but by keeping a sense of the full semester there should be a way to do this that is not otherwise too disruptive.  I do know that now there are some eight week courses, particularly in the second half of the semester, made available in part for students who have dropped a course or two, so they can get closer to carrying a full load.  But it is not a standard practice.  I'm suggesting it might be.

If college is supposed to be preparation for the world of work and one hidden lesson that students learn is to drop some balls so they can keep others in the air, it seems like a bad lesson to deliver.  Better would be to assign them only as many balls that they can keep all of them going at once.   

No comments: