Please Learn From My Mistakes

I have come to the sad realization that many of the innovations designed to keep my course fresh have failed. My memories of failures are so poignant that it may be constructive to share them here. They can serve as warnings to others.

Unstructured chat room discussions don’t work. Chats lack depth. Someone new is always interrupting the online conversation with his or her own topic just when the discussion is getting interesting.

Ungraded assignments are usually ignored. I used to ask two students to search the Web for two or three sites that provided alternative ways to learn the “topic of the day.” They shared information on these sites in annotated bibliographies. An end-of-the-course evaluation, however, revealed that their classmates never went to these sites.

My current practice is to require each student to e-mail me with an evaluative comment regarding the sites. They know that their comments will factor into the participation portion of their course grades. A recent end-of-the-course evaluation now shows that the students regard the alternate Web sites as important and useful components of the course.

Personal e-mails can overwhelm. One semester, I asked all of my students to send me an e-mail answer to an assigned question each time we reached the end of a textbook chapter. The responsibility for reading and evaluating all those submissions just about ruined my family life. Now I have Student A e-mail a proposed answer to Students B and C. Students A, B, and C must settle on a single answer. They teach one another, and I have only one-third as much grading to do.

Students need to know in advance what their responsibilities are if the computer network g'es down on the eve of an important deadline. Networks do go down. Students will panic, unless there are instructions in the syllabus that anticipate forgiveness or outline their alternatives.

Another semester, several weeks before the final, I accidentally deleted all my students’ grades from the electronic grade book. Fortunately, the syllabus stressed that each student is expected to keep a copy of every assignment submitted and also of every grade-related message sent to him or her. With help from the class and substantial effort, I was able to reconstruct the gradebook. Now I print out a backup copy of grades about every two weeks.

I’ve come to realize that students accessing materials from course Web sites using a dial-up modem from a shared apartment off campus cannot, or will not, wait for long downloads. I had the bright—and well-received—idea of personalizing the list of course assignments. For each of our 34 assignment days I added thumbnail photos of the students responsible for presenting their special reports. Although student reaction to this personalization was quite positive, I noticed that they were consulting the list of assignments less frequently. A focus group session revealed that the list was now taking longer than a minute to open. Consulting the list was an increased burden.

My students bring their laptops to class everyday. Even so, I’ve learned that it’s wise to exchange e-mail messages before class when anything out of the ordinary is to occur. If, for example, my plan for the day requires that every student have their computer, I send the class an e-mail message.

I suspect that others have made mistakes from which we can all learn. If you have a brief story you’d like me to share in a future column, please e-mail me. Let me know if it’s OK to mention your name or if you’d prefer to remain anonymous.

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