Monday, March 21, 2011

Coming to America

This question came over the wire from one of our colleagues across the pond:

I'm an early career UK philosopher, and I'm extremely lucky to be taking up a TT position in the USA in August. My campaign for employment was greatly helped by reading the Smoker, so many thanks for that.

I'm writing to ask for you and your readers' advice about some cultural differences in teaching practices, in the hope that a bit of crowd-sourcing can help me to adjust my teaching style to better serve my American students.

Many of you may know that the way classes are taught in the UK is quite a bit different than in the US. Over here most courses involve a lecture component (usually two 50 minute lectures a week, all students present) and a student-centred discussion/tutorial component (usually one 50 minute session every week from week 3 onwards, with anywhere up to 20 students in each group).

At my new school in the US, I'll be teaching two 75 minute sessions per week, both of them with all of the students present (with about 40-50 in each class). Now, I'm acutely aware of the need to keep things lively and dynamic. Talking at students for 75 solid minutes is bound to be pretty useless, pedagogically speaking, never mind deeply exhausting for me. I'm told and have often read that most people's attention spans are between 25 and 45 minutes, and that active learning and participation generally works a lot better than passive. So here's my basic question: how do you carve up those 150 minutes a week? How do you keep things active, lively and interesting with large groups and long classes?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not entirely clueless, presumably one can break the class up into small groups for discussion (then have them report back), stage debates, give in-class tests or writing assignments, have a break half-way through, stop regularly for questions, etc. Is this all there is to it? Or do people have other innovative techniques for keeping students engaged and learning? Is there a particularly good way to structure long classes, to string together these sorts of techniques? And finally, are there perhaps any fellow Brits with experience of both countries who can advise me about adjusting to the US M.O.?

I really appreciate any comments, even if it's to say that my question is somehow ill-founded - as a metaphysician, I'm more than accustomed to that sort of response.

Thanks for your time and all your inspiring contributions to our profession.
There's no mention about whether these are undergrad or grad level classes.

Jump in.



Anonymous said...

Stay home Limey! Stop taking our jobs!! They're scarce.

Asstro said...

"At my new school in the US, I'll be teaching two 75 minute sessions per week, both of them with all of the students present."

My italics.

Best laugh I've had all night. Good luck with that one.

Anonymous said...

There's no mention about whether these are undergrad or grad level classes.

If there's "40-50" students in each class, then I'm willing to bet these are undergrad courses.

Anonymous said...

It's undergrad, obviously. Even in the bigger programs in the US, you won't be teaching a class with 40-50 grad students in it.

zombie said...

If the 50 minute lecture plus discussion sections model works for you, seems to me you could adapt that to your 75 minute classes.

You could, for example, start each class with 25 minutes of directed discussion, or guided group activity, perhaps reviewing the previous class session. Then break for five minutes, then proceed with the lecture for the remainder of the class.

The trick will be to get students to show up on time (as always). But it strikes me that if you held the discussion section in the second half of class, some students would see that as an opportunity to leave early. So, obviously, you need to make it clear that both parts of class are required.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations on the job! Some schools in the US do use the kind of course structure that you described -- two 50-minute lectures and one 50-minute, smaller group discussion. You may find that you have the option of scheduling your courses in three 50-minute blocks, if that's more to your liking.

Since I have no special advice of my own, I'll just refer you to the blog In Socrates' Wake. It's a blog about teaching philosophy, written (mainly?) by philosophers in the US.

Drew said...

These are undergrad classes - sorry I didn't state that in the original query. And thanks for posting it!

DR said...

All courses at my school used to meet three times a week for 50 minutes each time. Now some courses use that model and others meet twice a week for 75 minutes each time. If you have the choice, I recommend the former model, although it depends what your students are like. Engaged, hardworking, intelligent students can easily keep a class going (as long as you give them a chance to ask questions, etc.) for 75 minutes.

As you say, "Talking at students for 75 solid minutes is bound to be pretty useless, pedagogically speaking, never mind deeply exhausting for me." The question is what else you can do that will not be pedagogically useless. You mention a few ideas, most of which sound worth trying. I would avoid taking a break in a class of that length, though, because it might seem a bit unprofessional to some (it's OK in classes lasting two hours or more, I think) and because some students might not return from the break.

Anonymous said...

I, too, loved the "with all of them present" remark--if I ever walked into my classroom to find all of my students present I think I'd die of shock.

Probably, you just meant that there are no discussion sections, just the two long-ish class meetings each week. But just in case you're assuming all those students will actually show up regularly, you might talk to faculty at your new department to find out more about what attendance is usually like in their courses. If students aren't big attenders there, then you might ask your new colleagues what advice they have for encouraging attendance and what attendance policies they adopt.

Also, knowing what to expect, attendance-wise, can help you think about how to spend class time. You might feel comfortable organizing meetings around a lecture/ discussion format (no small groups) if only 25 or so of the 40+ seats are filled on a typical day. But if you really do have 50 butts in seats, and if they really do show up on time, then you might want to start thinking about what to do.

Anonymous said...

This is general advice for anyone starting a job: ask for sample syllabi from your new department. This will give you a sense of the variety of ways your colleagues handle the course structure. It also gives you a sense of what you can expect your students to have studied in their other classes, and the kinds of assignments they have completed in other courses.

In this case, also ask for syllabi used by your predecessor. See what has been done in the past, which can give you an idea of what to do and help you figure out what you may need to alter.

DR said...

There are more ideas here:

Anonymous said...

My classes normally meet twice a week, for 75 minutes each. It can take some work to come up with material for the whole amount of time. I haven't found it unmanageable, though. It helps to assign readings that (a) are accessible to the students, and (b) relate to things they know a little about. This makes it easier for them to contribute to discussion during class. My typical approach is to divide the time into short periods. Lecture on topic A for 20 minutes, and then stop for discussion. Is this plausible? Can you think of objections to this view? etc. Then repeat for B and C. This usually gets me through with a mixture of lecturing 70% and discussion/questions from students 30%. I don't do any of the group activities or such since I always found them unhelpful myself. Also, one thing I notice which is different from graduate school: undergraduates need to be motivated and enthusiasm helps. They are impressed by this, regardless of the content of your lecture.

Anonymous said...

I read this thread earlier and Anon 3:39 beat me (for the most part) to the punch, because like her/him, I don't accept the fact that attention-span stats should drive pedagogy.

First, go with your best pitch. If you can effectively use group discussions during the class to break an otherwise unilateral presentation, then by all mean do so. I've tried them and I simply cannot make them work.

Second, I do not accept that student's attention spans are as short as reported. It depends. They can certainly play a video game for hours because they are in control and have self-expectations about success. In class they can only be in control (as they may think) of questions and discussion. You as prof can help them in that regard by leading them to ask questions and make them want to discuss issues. My experience is that you must be somewhat confrontational in order to elicit such responses. I do not mean to get personal with particular students, mind you. Any such confrontation must be generalized. Example: in a recent class about free will I posed the point that determinism of human nature is rather a forceful view. I asserted that the seat they occupied in the class was a possible demonstration for it. They--like most students--sit in the same places day-to-day despite the fact there is no seating chart. It is dictated by habit and social reinforcement. This challenged them to reflect on why they do the things they do without thinking about them. As they left class that day, and before anyone left the room, I predicted that at least one student would sit in another open seat the next day. In the next class they could see the perplexing place the remark put them--either way their behavior might verify the claims of determinism.

Third--I have taught a 150 minute once-a-week class every semester for the last 25+ years. I get very good evals; I have won state and national awards for teaching (I only say that for getting some cred; I do not and cannot reach every student and frankly am no guru about how to do so. I just try to reach as many as possible and make that my mainstay of effort.) This has been my greatest challenge. And since I can't effectively do group work, it's mostly laid on me otherwise to try and get students' attention. So generally let me recommend:

Fourth and foremost. Teach yourself. Every class, try to teach yourself. Not them. Above all, keep yourself interested. Challenge yourself to greater insight, better examples, and make yourself part of your audience. If you can't interest you, why would anyone else care? (Assuming you want to be interested in learning--and make no mistake about it--profs should learn more than anyone else in the class.) If you leave a class bored with yourself, then you can probably assume the class was as well.

Fifth. Every day is a challenge. Colds. Your spouse left you. Bad knees. Back spasms. And much worse. I've found that so many times the classroom is the one place I can try to assert one last power of self--to think past me, and try to get to bigger truths that might matter to someone else. Solid teaching is day-in, day-out courage--don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Best of luck my friend. Your inquiry itself speaks volumes about your dedication--would that I were so reflective when I took my TT job.

Anonymous said...

It depends on what the students are like. I did my undergrad at a US college where the students were by and large extremely motivated, intelligent, and willing to take part in discussions. I had classes that had two 75 minute sessions or even one 170 minute session, and none of the professors I had had problems with keeping the class engaged. They'd occasionally throw out questions that would start discussions at the appropriate points in the lecture, or the students would voluntarily ask good questions. And our classes were typically about that size, too.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that, unless you're coming to a top-notch university, the average level of reading comprehension among first-years here in the States is going to be lower than the average level of reading comprehension among first-years in the UK. The same probably goes for writing and critical thinking. Our schools simply don't do as good of a job of teaching those skills.

I don't have any personal experience to back this up -- just second- and third-hand reports. I'd be curious to know whether people who've taught in both places can confirm or refute this generalization.

Anonymous said...

I'm a fellow-Limey who's been in the US for five years. I came from a top UK institution, and am now at an outstanding US one. My classes have been smaller discussion seminars (around 20 students), so I can't offer as much on the mechanics of teaching, but here are thoughts on cultural differences:

First, Anon 6.23's claim that US students are behind UK students in reading comprehension - I definitely haven't found that to be the case. Admittedly, I'm at a place where the students pride themselves on academic rigour, but my students here read much more closely and thoughtfully than my students back in the UK did. They're also more engaged with the questions we cover: there's much less of that clich├ęd ironic uninterestedness that a lot of UK undergraduates adopt as a shield against possible failure.

Secondly, I've found that a higher proportion of US students actively make the most of you as a teacher. The ones who are really interested will seek you out in office hours with questions. They'll want a lot of guidance with papers. This isn't true of all students, but it's my impression that more US students than UK students will be like this, and those that are, are more so. Perhaps this is due to the grading system: my UK institution used end-of-year exams, so papers written during the year were only useful as dry runs for the exam; here, it's all about continual assessment, so every paper counts. It might also be the cost of a decent US education - if they're paying so much, they want a lot back.

As a result, I'd advise you to set clear boundaries very early on. This way you can be firm-but-fair: I've found that, if students know the limits you've set, they're happy - but if you (apparently) arbitrarily withhold help, they get jumpy. Say when you'll be willing to help them, and when "your time" is. And never, never, never let them know your phone number.

Thirdly, I think students here are more comfortable confronting the professor with their own opinions. Politics is one way this comes through: whereas the overwhelming majority of UK students seem to tilt to the left, there's a significant number of conservative students here, many of whom are better-read and more articulate than their progressive peers. (This might not be as much of an issue in teaching metaphysics, but it's worth being aware of.) Find non-confrontational ways to deal with this: don't come in and harangue US students about how much better it is to have the NHS than the privatised healthcare system here, for example.

Fourthly, feel free to play on your foreignness. It's a cheap shot, but it'll get you good evaluations. If you're English, you might be the genial, slightly absent-minded type or the bone-dry wit, for example. Make a joke of it; mock yourself gently for your foreign eccentricities. It shouldn't be overplayed to the extent that that it gets tired, but you'll find it gets a good response. This will also help rescue you in any early slip-ups, while you're settling in: they'll attribute it to foreign ways, rather than incompetence. Our accent is inexplicably prestigious: students comment on it as a "strength" in my teaching evaluations. (Also, if you're single, then you'll find it a handy little boost.)

Finally, classes. I teach 80 min classes, and use a lot of small-group discussion. I prepare three or four questions to discuss in groups - giving them chance to hammer out details - before reconvening to summarise and take the discussion to more complicated levels.

Overall, I think you have every reason to be confident. Americans, in my experience, are much more welcoming than Brits, and I've found my time teaching here to be a real pleasure: stimulating, engaged students, and departments with less paperwork and oversight than in the UK. You should look forward to it eagerly! Congratulations on getting the job, and good luck!

Anonymous said...

I am making the opposite move: from USA to UK, and need advice from Drew and other UK philosophers. How on earth do I lecture for 50 minutes without any discussion? It is an honest sincere question. Do I really just keep talking all this time and they keep listening? Do they ask questions at least? Do you pause to ask them questions? As you see, I am a bit intimidated by this prospect.

Intimidated and alarmed. Right now teaching is one of my greatest pleasures - I get "flow" out of interacting with students during class. Will I get flow out of lecturing for 50 min? I worry that I won't...

I'd be really grateful for any advice...

Anonymous said...

11:31 (the 'fellow limey') is my nominee for Best Comment of the Year. Actual concrete, useful help in a comment, and lots of it!

Ben said...

"How on earth do I lecture for 50 minutes without any discussion? It is an honest sincere question. Do I really just keep talking all this time and they keep listening? Do they ask questions at least? Do you pause to ask them questions?"

Having been in the UK all my life, it's difficult to understand this, because I don't really understand the American system. Still, here goes...

Here there's generally a clear diving line between lectures, in which students are expected to listen and take notes, and seminars (tutorials, discussion sessions, etc) which are supposed to be participatory dialogues. You're probably more likely to find that students will want their seminars to become lectures, rather than vice versa, in my experience.

It's not that difficult to talk for 50 minutes, but it may be harder to maintain student interest. In general, yes, keep talking - though not too quickly and don't be afraid to pause or repeat yourself while students are taking notes.

Do they keep listening? Well, maybe, but some of them probably weren't listening to begin with, so that may be a bit optimistic.

As for questions, in my experience you're not likely to be interrupted unless you invite it. You could begin by telling students to raise their hand if they have a question and/or promising time for questions either at the end or perhaps a break in the middle.

I've found the latter strategy can work well in breaking up the monologue, splitting the lecture into two blocks of 20-25 minutes, which is a reasonable attention span. That said, it works best with audiences of around 20-40, not so well with 200-400.

Drew said...

I second Anon 2:28's view that my 'fellow limey' (do I count as a limey if I'm Scottish?) has offered unusually valuable and comprehensive advice and probably deserves a small prize of some kind. Thank you all for your thoughtful and generous comments. I'm looking forward to my big move even more now.

As to Anon 11:39, who is in the opposite situation - I agree with Ben's advice. In my lectures in the UK I've found you only get questions and discussion if you actively and consistently encourage it and/or if you're in a particularly good institution.

I've tried two methods for doing this, one less successful, one more so.

The less effective way is explicitly to signal a pause for questions during your presentation, with an appropriate powerpoint slide (a colleague of mine puts up an image of two paw-prints, how droll) or by asking for questions. (There was a helpful thread on here a while back about better and worse ways to ask for questions, I seem to recall.) You'll probably get one or two questions every so often doing it this way. But not much more than you'd get anyway in my (admittedly limited) experience.

The more effective way is to encourage students to interrupt you - this does not come naturally to most Brits, as interrupting people is generally considered rude, esp. if that person has some sort of authority over you. This combined with a bit of shameless provocation ('you don't all really think this theory works do you?') tends to work quite well. The students will still raise their hands before speaking of course, rather than jumping right in, but I've found more of them do so if you let them ask questions as they come to mind.

(By the way, even using the latter technique, on a good day, with good students, I've found you'll still spend only about 15 minutes max of your 50 minute lecture discussing questions.)

In theory, the real discussion happens at the tutorials (intro level, usually run by TAs or 'tutors' as we call them here) and seminars (upper level, usually run by the lecturer). These sessions, in theory at least, consist almost entirely of students talking about the work they've done on their own at home (there are usually specific readings set in advance and students are *supposed* to have done them before the meeting.).

Most schools I've taught at (I've taught at 4 different UK ones of varying standards) strongly encourage a pretty passive approach to tutorials/seminars on the part of the lecturer, or to put some spin on it, a 'student-centred' approach. In other words, the point is to get students talking to one another, not to get them talking to you. I do this by having students sign-up to start off each session with a short (5-10 minutes, non-assessed) prepared presentation. On a good day you get a really nice lively and interesting discussion, in which your only role is to keep people on point, maybe clarify an issue or two, and then offer up a summary of what's been covered at the end. In other words, you'll only end up talking for 5 minutes or so in total. This is only when it's working really well. Most of the time, as Ben says, students just want another lecture and it's a constant struggle to get them to address their questions to one another and not to you.

I guess the theory behind this whole approach is that students learn more, or learn more effectively, when they talk to one another and actively hash out ideas in their own way and at their own level. I gather there is some evidence out there for this, though I haven't had a chance to research it for myself as yet. It will be really interesting to compare it first-hand with the more hands-on approach to teaching required at my US school. If I have any revelations perhaps I'll send a follow-up email to the blog at some future date.

In the mean time, thanks again everyone, and best of luck to Anon 11:39 and to all the other Smokers.