Thursday, June 26, 2008

Have I ever revised a course effectively?

Earlier today, as I was catching up on last week's e-mail, I took a beta version of a survey about how and why I revise courses. I was supposed to give feedback on the survey questions, but I didn't take much time to mull over my answers at the time. I'm still thinking through it, so I'm going to do what I do with half-completed thoughts: blog about them.

One of the survey questions asked about changes that seemed to improve what students learned. And I couldn't come up with a good answer. That's disturbing, because I've revised a lot of courses over the fifteen years I've been teaching, and I would like to think that the courses have gotten better.

I've changed courses for many different reasons. Structural Geology had to change when I moved to Colorado, because my Vermont course was organized around field trips, and although Vermont is a small state, it is not portable. I've taught Plate Tectonics in a four-week January term, and in a twelve-week semester, and different schedules require different organizations. My Earth Systems Science class has been revised to fit general education requirements. I changed Earthquakes and Volcanoes because it was an utter disaster the first time I taught it. (Perhaps I could argue that I was simply trying to give the students the kind of traumatic experience brought on by mass destruction, but no. I just didn't do a good job with the course.) I've changed my departmental writing class to make it serve double duty, as research preparation as well as a writing-in-the-major course. And so on.

Perhaps none of my revisions has seemed dramatically effective because they've been driven by something outside the course - by location or schedule or departmental needs. Maybe I haven't taught the same course in the same way for long enough to have felt the need for a wholesale revision - I've taught something like fourteen sixteen different courses in the past fifteen years, after all. Maybe I need enough stability to have the teaching equivalent of the seven-year itch.

As it is, the one thing that I think has improved my courses is... experience. I've gotten better at explaining things, better at listening to students about what confuses them, better at letting an uncomfortable silence sit while students think about how to respond to a question that I've posed.

And my attempts at major revisions usually cause more problems than they solve, at least the first time around. (I have a bad habit of creating assignments that take approximately twice as much time to complete as I intended. I do that with exams, too. One would think that experience would allow me to write a 50-minute Structure exam... but one would be completely wrong about that.) That makes me hesitant to throw away things that work, and makes me more likely to tinker than to rebuild.

I'm switching to a new intro textbook this year, though, and moving Structure back to fall semester. This might be the fall for dramatic changes.

And then maybe I'll wait until next summer, and see how my little changes work for now.


Mel said...

Hey Kim, what Structural textbook are you switching to?

Kim said...

I'm not switching Structural texts - I'm sticking with Davis and Reynolds. I'm switching the intro textbook to Exploring Geology (by Steve Reynolds and many co-authors, which means that Steve's an author of both of my books now).

kboughan said...

How to measure "effectively"? Other than being able to say that the course keeps current with the field and literature.

I agree that the best "revision" is the confident and enthusiastic teaching persona (not to be confused with one's 'normal' personality or feelings on any given day) developed over years and specially adapted to the student body at one's particular school.