Difficult Conversations: The Sprint to the End

fail-forwardWe are near the end of the semester – it’s the part of the term I call the ‘sprint.’ There is one more major test, one more group project due, and then the final exam. Office hours have been lots busier lately. Most student-visitors are struggling, not just with their grade in our Sociology class, but also their student identity. Lots have told me that, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I was an “A” student in high school and now I am barely passing several classes.” One went so far as to say, “How did I get so stupid over just one summer?”

For lots of reasons, these are difficult conversations. I want to hear their stories; I want to help them to process what is happening this semester. But I also want to challenge their assumptions. One question I ask is, “Tell me how you studied in high school for your most difficult subject?” And most answer, “Oh, I never really had to study before.” So we talk about how college and high school are different, and not studying will not work in college. That gets to talking about what kinds of changes to their study habits they could start implementing – immediately.

But that’s part of the issue—it’s late in the semester to change habits enough to make a difference in their course grades. So for some students, the best conversation I can have involves getting them to pull up their grades, get out the syllabus, and help them to see their percentage in the class. Then, we do the math together. And sometimes, I have to say, “No, it’s not possible to convert a ‘D’ to an ‘A’ when there are only 50 points left out of 500.” It’s not easy when they see the impossibility of that. But I deliberately choose the class with the lowest grade, according to them, so that the hardest news is first. Then we calculate the classes where their grades are higher. Once we’re done, we roll up our sleeves and strategize: how to work on the classes with the best grades and the class with the lowest grade and see how much a few weeks of new study habits can help. We also talk a lot about where they study, and how much procrastinating v. studying gets done.

Luckily, our campus has a host of resources we can marshall to help students: our Student Success Center has tutors in nearly all the first-year core curriculum courses; I ask if we can loop their professional advisor into our planning; and we practice how they can talk with other faculty about getting help. In our own class, there are two graduate assistants and an embedded undergraduate peer tutor, along with my own office hours and time before and after class. Overall, we have nearly 30 hours a week between the 4 of us for students to seek help. So we make a contract: weekly meetings with at least 2 of the 4 of us; creating self-quizzes and then showing us the results, and so on.

But this is the time in the semester when students have to decide: are they willing to focus in the short term for long term success? If they make the choice, then almost any grade can be raised at least a bit. Helping them to make that choice can make this part of the semester better for those of us who are their professors.

How do you encourage realistic analysis of their grades? What are your best study tips for students, near the end of the term?

Tech Tip: Color coding presentation slides

We all zone out sometimes. Whether its sleepiness, romantic fantasies, or thinking about the next great invention, faculty know that students’ attention span varies from minute to minute. Here’s a tip to help plug them back into class content quickly and easily.

Build your slide presentation as if it were an outline and color-code the background of each slide according to its location in the outline. Here’s my outline color codes:

Topic of the day:  black background with white font

I. First main section: dark grey background with black font

II. Second main section: dark grey background with black font

Subsection 1: light grey background

Subsection 2: light grey background

Subsection 3: light grey background

III. Third main section: dark grey background with black font

    1.       Subsection 1: light grey background

Example 1: white background (or Application 1, etc.)

Example 2: white background

Subsection 2: light grey background

I teach this background color-coding often in the first few weeks of class. Periodically, I will stop and ask students to explain the level of significance of a slide. Once they understand it, they love it. Many compliment it on student evaluations, saying it helps them and prevents them from having to ask another student, “Where are we now?”

I use a system based on the book, Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson, to craft my slides and the outline for the class; it makes it easy to color code slides. But if you are creating a presentation from scratch, it is still easy to color code. In PowerPoint, go to the slide sorter view and hold down control and click on all the slides you want the same color and change the font background. Then do the same for the next color, and so on.

Do you have other tech tips like this which can help students to stay engaged in class? Please share them in the comments.