At WCSU, and many of the colleges and universities in the Northeastern US, this is just about the fifth week of classes. Faculty have found the rhythm of this version of their courses, having had the chance to get to know a new group of students. Students have grown accustomed to the expectations of this semester’s professors, and most are busy juggling those expectations in four to six classes. In other words, we have settled into the fall semester.
As always, the launch has been a whirl. As an administrator, I too face the long to-do list and I have to adjust to the rhythm of due dates and meetings. There are new curricula and policies to review, organizational practices to reconsider, and a looming crisis or two always lurking in the wings. As I consider the best way to accomplish all that is on my plate, I wonder, can I do less?
This is a question I learned to ask many years ago when I was still teaching. One particular lesson comes to mind. In 2004, when I moved from teaching undergraduate to graduate students, I carried with me a set of assumptions about graduate level work that focused on quantity. My assumption was that we should cover a book per week and write reflections on them at the same frequency. This was what I experienced in many of my graduate classes, so I was just building on that experience. It was awful.
In trying to replicate the experiences I had in graduate school, I had not taken the time to evaluate the lives of my students and my ability to support them. I had allowed an imagined ideal graduate school experience to drive course design, rather than weaving the goals for learning into a series of well-constructed assignments and conversations. It took about three weeks, but I learned the error of my ways and regrouped.
The process of discovery went like this:
- Students were providing responses to discussion prompts that revealed a less than careful reading of the material. I suspected this was because there was not sufficient time to complete it.
- Students were having trouble meeting all but the most high stakes deadlines (turning in weekly reflection papers). Again, there was not enough time to do everything, so the students were prioritizing based on weight of the assignment in relationship to the grade in the course.
- I was unable to give feedback on the reflection papers before they were finished writing the next one. The turnaround time was too short. This did not seem fair to the students.
Observing all of this, I reconsidered the whole experience. First, I reduced the assigned readings. When I was in graduate school, I think the assumption was that students were not working, so completing that weekly reading load was achievable. The conditions of students in graduate school have changed, and now most are working. If I wanted true engagement, I could select only what I thought to be critical works and then provide a list of recommended readings related to the course. After all, the books were readily available and the critical works would provide a framework for any follow-up reading they might engage in later. Now we could read less and discuss more.
Second, I reimagined the writing assignments. Instead of weekly reflection papers, I constructed more focused assignments to help students develop the critical reading and writing skills I felt were essential in a foundational graduate course. In other words, I scaffolded the learning goals of each assignment, building new skills with each one. This allowed me to reduce the number of assignments and gave me the chance to provide clear and timely feedback, so that students could incorporate that guidance into their next paper. The reflections were reserved for our discussions.
In the end, I cut the reading and writing lists for this graduate class in half. I believe our ability to meet the learning goals for the course doubled. Instead of skimming, rushing, and reacting, we all had a little more room to think, reflect, and ask the questions that would help us grow. Simple, right? Starting with the end goals in mind is certainly a basic idea in curriculum design. Considering the environmental influences that might get in the way of those goals, also just a good idea.
But can we go a little further? Have we designed for the end goals of a university degree from this perspective? I know we do it in places – majors/programs have learning outcomes, general education has learning outcomes, career services has internship targets, academic success programs are focused on retention as some measure of impact–but is the whole thing woven together around some coherent goals? I am not so sure.
So today is Rosh Hashanah, a time to reflect on the year that has passed and the year to come, and although the academic year has just gotten into full swing, I see this day as an opportunity to pause and refocus our efforts. In its simplest sense, this turning of the year asks us to think about how we might be a little better. As I take this pause, I want to be a little better at looking at the whole of the university experience and think clearly about the goals of that whole. I suspect that if we work together to define our overarching goals, we may find that we can develop plans to meet them by doing just a little less. We’ll see.
Shana Tova everyone!