I read a quote this week that has been following me around. It expresses a view fairly common among faculty, I suspect. The article (D’Abate et al., 2018) in which it appears focuses on the need for teachers to support students’ work in groups. The faculty member quoted observes, “My class isn’t on how to work well in teams, so if I could find some support for teamwork which could be done without taking away from class time, that would be hugely valuable” (p. 94). This view implies that material not related to course content “takes away” valuable class time. I don’t subscribe to that view, but it caused me to reconsider how we decide what we’ll do during class time or that time when students are interacting with our course content online. What criteria do we use to make those decisions?
Even though we make careful and detailed plans for class time or online interaction, they do not guarantee the intended outcomes. In one of my favorite articles on teaching and presence, Jerry Farber (2008) points out how we’d like to have a plan for the day that we could “lock up,” meaning what we plan to have happen for the session actually happens. “But the act of teaching is nothing we can lock up, nothing we can hold on to, nothing we can simply pull off the shelf and run. The very next time I walk into class, I will be, once again, somewhere I’ve never been” (p. 223). In other words, no two class sessions or student interactions with a course module are ever exactly the same. Sometimes what happens differs wildly from our expectations. So, whatever we decide to do in class or online must always be considered a tentative plan—what we’d like to have happen, what in our best instructional judgment should happen.
The fundamental criteria for deciding what’s important for a given session of the course should be governed by what will expedite students’ learning. Usually we start with content. We make decisions about what students need to know and the order in which they should learn it. Many of these decisions are long-standing and strongly influenced, if not determined, by external forces. Do we revisit content decisions made for our courses as often as we should? Are we teaching what students should be learning?
If learning is the goal, then content decisions should take into account what we know about students—how those in the past responded to the content we’re about to teach and how those currently enrolled appear to be responding. What engages students with the content becomes yet another criterion, this one with instructional implications. How we teach spells out how they will learn. If the instructional modes we select fail—if dysfunction overcomes a group working on a content acquisition task, or if the content, delivered in large amounts and at a hurried pace, makes no sense—then learning fails. We can carry on with more content, but we do so with learning objectives compromised.
The criteria that guide our decision-making regarding course activities connect so tightly that they function holistically. Day follows day, one module after another. We make decisions more automatically than consciously, assuming but not truly considering their importance. It’s good to be reminded of the significance of that time students spend in class. A huge meta-analysis (Crede et al., 2010) has explored the relationship between course attendance and grades. The data set contained articles and dissertations covering 82 years, from 1927 to 2009, and consisted of 52 published articles and 16 unpublished dissertations or papers—the relationship between being in class and grades for 28,034 students. And although this review focuses on face-to-face attendance, I wonder whether interaction with course materials in an online course doesn’t contain some of the same significance. The findings themselves aren’t surprising; it’s their strength that’s noteworthy. “Class attendance appears to be a better predictor of college grades than any other known predictor of college grades—including SAT scores, HSGPA [high school GPA], studying skills, and the amount of time spent studying. Indeed, the relationship is so strong as to suggest that dramatic improvements in average grades (and failure rates) could be achieved by efforts to increase class attendance rates among college students” (pp. 288–289).
We need to get students coming to class. Their grades depend on it, and those grades are measures of learning. Yes, we can require attendance. But the meta-analysis found little support for its hypothesis that students in classes with required attendance would have higher average grades than students in courses without those policies.
So how do we get students engaged, either in class or online? The answer rests on the decisions we make about what happens in the course, and we can’t afford decisions that “take away” valuable opportunities to learn.
Credé, M., Roch, S. G., & Kieszczynka, U. M. (2010). Class attendance in college: A meta-analytic review of the relationship of class attendance with grades and student characteristics. Review of Educational Research, 80(2), 272–295. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654310362998
D’Abate, C., Eddy, E. R., Costello, M., & Gregory, P. L. (2018). A next step in student teamwork pedagogies: Teaching and supporting teamwork dynamics. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 29(2), 73–101.
Farber, J. (2008). Teaching and presence. Pedagogy, 8(2), 215–225. https://doi.org/10.1215/15314200-2007-038