As the run-up to the school year begins, professors everywhere are preparing their syllabi. If you're a new--or even not-so-new--professor, here are a few rules I always included that made classroom management much easier.
1. I do not accept calls, e-mails, or office visits during 24 hours before an exam or paper/project is due. I was a very accessible professor and more than willing to review material with students, look at first drafts of papers, and the like. But I discovered that if I didn't impose a lockdown the day before exams or due dates, students would e-mail me questions at 1 in the morning and then stay up all night expecting to hear from me. Going incommunicado for a day before forced the students to organize their time better, and communicated my boundaries to them clearly.
2. Don't come to office hours empty-handed. Students had to bring their notes if they wanted to review material, or a draft or outline if they wanted to talk about their own projects with me. For one thing, I wanted evidence that they'd done some work, at least, in grappling with the material, and weren't just coming in like a blank slate for me to write on. And for another, it can be hard to talk about anything--especially someone else's writing--in purely hypothetical terms. Much better for you to sit down together over an outline to ensure that you are, literally, on the same page. (Obviously this rule didn't apply if students just wanted to stop by to chat, or discuss post-college plans.)
3. E-mail is considered professional communication and will be assessed as such when calculating your grade. Bad e-mail manners prejudiced me against students, so I figured I may as well alert them to that fact. Plus, learning how to communicate appropriately via e-mail would be important to them in their future careers. You do not send an e-mail to your boss that reads, "Plz explain taht thing u said in teh staff meeting beettr? It wasnt clear. thxbye."
4. Act like you care. Yes, I put this down as an actual grade requirement, right up there with exams and papers and projects. Because, let's face it, it is a grade requirement. Just like it's a job or relationship or overall life requirement. Putting it on the syllabus just made it explicit. I was careful to tell them that they didn't actually have to care--I have no interest in controlling their minds. They were free to be completely bored by the class; there are many worthwhile things in the world that I find boring, too. But when in class or any dealings with me, they had to be attentive, prompt, responsive, and demonstrate a desire for mastery and a pleasant countenance. Which like good e-mail etiquette, preparing for meetings, and giving people adequate advance time, are skills that would do them well in the workplace, too.
The first time I put that on the syllabus I thought students would be irritated by it, but as it turned out I think they were both relieved and amused that someone finally came straight out and said it.
The Angry Professor has an interesting post about her grading system--the formula she gives her students for how grades will be calculated (95-100 = A, 90-94 = A-, and so on) is a couple of points lower than the actual computation she uses. I've never done that, but she makes a good case for it, albeit somewhat sarcastically:
So suppose you tell the students they need 91% or better for an A, 81% or better for a B, etc. It is important to maintain this fiction throughout the quarter/semester. If the student shows up during your office hours and asks you how well he is doing (and you feel so inclined), compute his grade, make a big show of pulling out the syllabus and looking up the scale, and tell him that you're very sorry but it looks like, with a 70% going into the final, you see no way that he could do better than a C as a final grade, and only then if he works very hard and aces the final. The student will leave in tears, and sit in the front row staring at you with puppy-dog eyes for the remaining two days of class.
When it comes time for determining final grades, toss that syllabus in the trash. Pull out your double-super-secret scale which differs from the syllabus in that the grade boundaries are at least a point or two below the boundaries in the syllabus. Puppy-dog eyes, who studied his ass off and aced the final, gets a B-! Imagine how happy he is!
But here's the best part: Suppose your cutoff for a D- is 57, and Lori Loser finishes up with a 56.99. Guess what she gets? An F. You don't have to agonize about it and she doesn't ever know that she was only .01 percentage points from a D-. A computer can assign the final grades for you and you can walk away without wasting precious minutes of your life struggling with the decision to bump her up or not.
College teachers and students, what classroom practices have you found to be especially helpful? (I'll be soliciting comments from elementary, middle-, and high-school teachers, parents, and students for a big "Back to School" feature in the first week of September, so your time will come--or you can e-mail me if there's something you want to get off your chest right now.)
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