Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The posting below is by Robert Sommer, distinguished professor of psychology emeritus at the University of California, Davis., and self-described "latecomer" to early morning classes. With keen insight he describes the pros and cons of teaching 8 am classes. He welcomes comments at: [email@example.com].
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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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Teaching Early Morning Classes
I wasn't unhappy when my summer school class in 2006 was scheduled for 8 AM. As a morning person, the hour was not a problem. I had avoided teaching early morning throughout my academic career because this was prime writing time. My head is clearest early mornings and ideas flow more freely. I'd estimate that over 90% of my writing has been done in the early morning. Because teaching an 8 AM class was a novel experience, I kept detailed notes.
An unforeseen advantage of the early morning class was greater thermal comfort. This geographic area has a Mediterranean climate with mild winters and hot summers. It gets very warm during the day in July and August but cools in the evening. Early mornings are always pleasant. Instructors who teach later in the day, especially in the afternoon, must travel to class and return in intense heat. At 8 AM my classroom was cool, clean, and the air was fresh. Later in the day, instructors faced stuffy rooms, smudged blackboards, chalk dust in the air, and floor litter. Teaching the first period of the day allowed me to come early and set up the A/V equipment without needing to rush the preceding instructor and students out of the room. A disadvantage of an early morning hour was difficulty in recruiting a Reader. Most preferred to come to campus later in the day.
Enrollment was significantly lower than in previous offerings of the same course at later hours. This is a popular class, often oversubscribed. Due to its large size, I relied on multiple-choice examinations scored by Scantron machines. My 8 AM class was under-enrolled with only 50 students, a size that allowed me to make the course more interactive and participatory. I included a required term paper and added essay questions to the examinations. Comparing enrollment to sections of the same class I taught the two previous summers at later hours, enrollment was 32% lower, and attendance on the last day (when the teaching evaluations were handed out, providing an attendance record) was 58% of enrolled students, relative to an average of 72% in the two sections of the course taught later in the day. Overall teaching evaluations for the course and instructor were virtually identical (4.2 average on a 5-point scale) in the 8 AM class and the two previous years when the course was
taught at a later hour.
Student numbers in the 8 AM class were even smaller when attendance and punctuality are considered. Although I did not call roll, I counted the number of students in the room when class started and midway through the 2-hour session. Excluding exam days, attendance when the class began averaged 15 students, and midway through the period, averaged 24 students, which represented approximately one-third and one-half the course enrollment respectively. The early birds tended to be the same students every period and I made it a point to know them by name. There was another group of tardy but interested students, of whom I knew a few, and about half the class whom I barely recognized. I should point out that this course is highly structured and transparent, with syllabus, lecture outlines, and previous examinations with answers posted online, and lecture notes from previous classes available through a student-run note-taking service. Based on class evaluations and other indices, I a
m a good (but not outstanding) instructor who teaches a good course, so I don't take it personally when students skip class and pass examinations by reading the assigned materials and archival notes.
I saw myself as having two classes, one of motivated and interested students who attended lecture and a second class of phantoms who showed up primarily for examinations. For the first hour of the two-hour class, I had essentially a seminar with 15 students, and later in the period, a small class of 24 students. This was a welcome change from the large lecture courses I taught for so many years. Still, I was concerned about the number of students who came late or not at all. My laissez faire side said this was none of my business so long as students passed the examinations, but my values as a college teacher said that students who paid tuition should be attending classes. I could not increase attendance and punctuality through penalties, as these practices are explicitly prohibited by academic senate regulations.
My ambivalence about attendance came into play when I requested summer school teaching for the following year. I was torn between requesting an 8 AM class which would mean smaller enrollment and more personal instruction at the cost of poor punctuality and low attendance. For me to request later teaching hours would require other instructors to teach at 8 AM. The campus has room utilization standards and the registrar will not leave classrooms unoccupied because faculty don't want to teach certain hours. I can choose a class time that most instructors avoid in order to receive its benefits (smaller, more participatory class and greater thermal comfort) and accept its liabilities (lower attendance and increased tardiness) or not request the early morning hour and shift 8 AM teaching to other instructors for whom it might be more of a burden.
Accepting the campus prohibition against penalties for absenteeism, there are measures I can legally take to increase attendance. I could give "snap quizzes," thereby penalizing absentees. I could decrease the availability of course material through other channels (put less material online, deny the student note-taking service permission to cover my class; refuse to make previous exams available). I could deliberately introduce lecture material not available from other sources and increase examination coverage of lecture material. Instead of the existing 50-50 split between lectures and readings on tests, I could announce that exams would be based 75% on lectures.
I suspect that any of these measures would increase attendance, and together would have a significant impact. Yet adopting them diminishes my self-image as a college instructor. My role in the classroom has dual objectives- to teach a subject matter and to develop mature, responsible adults. To reduce the transparency of my course by withholding material seems irresponsible and immature on my part. From the start of my teaching career, I have made previous exams available, encouraged the campus note-taking service to cover my classes, and urged students to buy the lecture notes for classes they miss. I choose a comprehensive textbook and evaluate student response at the end of the semester, so I know it is a "good textbook." The idea of reducing coverage of textbook material to 25% of the exam seems poor pedagogy.
I was asked to teach both summer sessions and requested my two classes at 8 AM. For interested students and for me, this will mean a smaller, more personal class with more frequent opportunities for interaction, greater thermal comfort, ease in setting up A/V equipment, and increased use of essay questions and term projects. The 8 AM time will also be a boon to the Registrar who wants to maintain occupancy standards during non-prime hours, and a favor to colleagues who aren't at their best during early morning hours.
Although I have reservations about capitalizing on student aversion to 8 AM courses in order to secure a smaller, more interactive class, my department and the registrar are happy about my decision since it increases classroom utilization. Yet I feel guilty about pandering to motives that I do not respect and choosing to teach at an hour that I know most student will avoid. This decision means less work for me and no complaints. What else should I want or expect?