‘Final’ Projects & “I’ll finish up…really”

“Oh, and I need (deserve?) an A.”

In most of my classes, I’ve learned the hard way to not give students too many points before they get to a final exam or final project. Yep, in one of my first semesters, I did just that. Students who turned in all the weekly assignments had enough points to get a B in the class. Yikes! Needless to say, most of the student taking the final exam were those who didn’t complete all the weekly assignments. So how do I get students to complete all the assignments and think ‘completion’?

In the “Pathways to Prosperity” study by the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011, it states that only 29 percent of those who start two-year degrees finish them within three years, and just 56 percent of college students complete four-year degrees within six years.

The United States has the highest dropout rate in the industrialized world, according to a Harvard analysis of data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Oh, there are high-profile cases of dropouts-made-good like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, but the majority who don’t finish are not so fortunate.

I’ve tried a lot of things- incentives, including food, prizes, free assignments…it seems if they aren’t going to finish, they aren’t going to finish. So, what to do?

Here’s what I’ve tried this semester:

  • $1 Million Bill (fake) – for being engaged in class and contributing to the discussion (my call). If they get $10 Mil, they get a prize. The prize can be a drink at the snack bar, homemade cookies, YC logo cups – it can even be a kazoo.
  • Late assignment coupons (not new, but Mark Shelley is on the right path). I just want to see the assignments; even if they are late. Yep, some points may be taken off if they are really late, but I’m getting at least something.
  • Early Alert system – this has really helped for students who have seemed to fall of the surface of the earth. One student missed 2 weeks of class, did not respond to any of my emails, or calls. She just had some family stuff and ‘forgot’ to call or email me (!!)
  • Personal notes – One student was quite surprised that I mailed her a note that I was concerned about her. She said it was the first note ever from any teacher (!!). Yep, I felt good about that one.
  • Have fun in class! For one class we went outside. For another class we had it in the snack bar. For another class we took a short walk during class and had our discussions that way.

I’m happy to say that out of 20 students, I’m finishing with 18, and they are all passing at this point. I’m going to stay positive and believe that they will all complete successfully.  I can’t guarantee the “A”, but most will be pleased with their grade.  Did what I do in class help?  Perhaps.



Tangent2Todd’s message referring us to Harvard’s Teaching & Learning last week was interesting – and Joe Blatt’s “Three Puzzles of Pedagogy got me to thinking. He states his second mystery is “the paradox of preparation.  I can’t go into a class session without a detailed map of the points I want to convey, plans for discussions and other activities I hope students will find engaging, and an explicit list of the ideas I want students to leave thinking about.” He states further that this preparation gives him the “chance to be more spontaneous.”

I agree, especially when you have class two times a week for 1-1/2 hours. It goes fast!

Going off on tangents – sometimes – is a good thing. I make detailed notes on each class; then I go back and rank my notes – yes, rank them according to the time I have. What’s the most important topic / things I want students to know when they leave class? Oh, I want to give them interesting content, sure, but also some great resources or links to find out more.

But most of all, I want to give them inspiration to go beyond what’s written in the textbook – what’s on the PowerPoint or Video or Prezi – what’s beyond the discussion in the class or online.   I want to give them a reason to look further – to go beyond that day or class’s learning – to be inspired by a story.

So. Think about “tan·gent”; from the Latin tangent, or “touching; from the verb, tangere. Some definitions:

  1. A straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point, but if extended does not cross it at that point.
  2. A completely different line of thought or action. “He quickly went off on a tangent about wrestling”
  3. Mathematics: the trigonometric function that is equal to the ratio of the sides (other than the hypotenuse) opposite and adjacent to an angle in a right triangle.


 A straight line or plane that touches a curve or curved surface at a point, but if extended does not cross it at that point.

 Think about this in terms of teaching. How many times do we focus on our “point”, and approach it in many ways; bending and curving our way to ‘touch’ students – without crossing – so that they come into their own understanding to the subject. Sometimes when I ‘go off on a tangent’ – I may seem like I’m wandering in the beginning. It may be a personal observation or story. It may be an event that I can then tie back into my subject. I always have the plan to come back to the subject.

 A completely different line of thought or action. “He quickly went off on a tangent about wrestling”

Sometimes, a totally different or new thought expands the subject and the class lesson – Students thing about a topic in a whole new way. For example, if I’m teaching horticulture and the zones of plant species, my tangent may go to farm-to-table, or hunger, and the effects on plant diversity. The subject is still horticulture, but the tangent enhances my subject. In teaching business, my tangents are usually about entrepreneurs and how they change the local economy (for good and bad). I might go off on a tangent – or tell a story of owning my own business – on how certain business changed the economic landscape. Again, the topic is the same; my plan is in place, but the tangent makes is interesting and more in depth.

Mathematics: the trigonometric function that is equal to the ratio of the sides (other than the hypotenuse) opposite and adjacent to an angle in a right triangle.

OK – I’ll have to ponder this one! In Business Communications, we have a ‘trial’ on a current event. SO, I guess I’ll take off on a tangent equal to the “right side” opposite [to the affirmative side] and adjacent to an angle [uncommitted side] in a right triangle [OK, I’m really lost!] Perhaps this one won’t work!

tangentSo, try going off on a tangent in your class. Make sure that class plan is in your pocket, but allow yourself the freedom to be spontaneous. Who knows, your students may just have some fun learning.

We all have something to share – just ask the right questions!

doggy-questions2.jpgYou’ll notice by my picture that I like doggies!   They have so much to share – and they do ask questions of you, but the best part is the unconditional love they always give you – even if you are too busy to take them for that walk.

To me teaching is sharing – sharing is teaching.  We all have something to share – with our families – with students – with colleagues – with our communities.  The sharing becomes part of scholarly teaching.  Most of us are scholarly instructors.  We read, plan, teach, reflect, change and read some more.  It’s when you share those plans (be public) with peer review, discussion, evidence, and evaluation that builds and develops our teaching.

I remember attending a conference on teaching and learning in the late 1990s that talked about a concept, the “Scholarship of Teaching and Learning” (evolving into SoTL).  It was an interesting concept to me because I thought that’s what we all did as a matter of course – sharing – questioning – building – reflecting- and sharing some more.   Teaching is public.  But it’s our sharing, questioning, criticism, and evaluation in a public way that actually creates the scholarship.  So, is there SoTL at Yavapai College?  Yes, I can think of several things:

  • Summer & Winter Institutes – review (and some friendly criticism) and evaluation from peers from which we develop further
  • TeLS and the way we are sharing here – I’m sure there will be some review and (kind) criticism too!
  • Faculty Committees
  • Our Gen Ed process over the past year or so – a great scholarly exercise
  • Free classes we take at YC
  • Our Quality Initiative Project – comparing delivery methods in our courses
  • Sharing in our division meetings
  • Sharing in scholarly journals or at a conference

Some of the best SoTL, for me, begins in conversations in the hallway – questions on a particular assignment, quiz, or project spark conversation and, perhaps, action by both parties.   So, what’s the right question?  It’s the one you really want to know – How did you do that?  What did you use?  What are the resources?  Where can I find more information?  Who else can I speak with?  Once the question is asked I research what I don’t know (and want to know more about), follow up and build my knowledge base and, hopefully, I’m the one that shares next time when someone asks me a question.

We all have experiences – from our education – from our careers – and from life – that gives us gifts to share when others ask – our SoTL so to speak.  So, remember to ask the right questions – share your gifts they are important, and they contribute to the tapestry of life!

-Chris     Chris - Scholar