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Anatomy of a Learning Opportunity or So THAT’S How Much Rope I Need to Make a Noose…. During the first year of my contract at Concordia University, I was teaching two sections of research methods and one section of Juvenile Crime and Delinquency. Although I had taught methods for many years, this particular version was proving to be a challenge because rather than teaching the course during only 1 academic term, the course was to meet for an entire year. At first, I was very excited at the prospect of being able to really get into some of the more complex issues that the class covers. My goal was to have them work from the very beginning of the year, on developing a project proposal. This proposal would be “complete” at the end of the academic year (during the second term); however, we would work all year on each phase of the assignment. I structured the assignment in this way for two reasons. First, I thought it would be a good exercise in the importance of revision. Second, it seemed to be a good way to design the course given the year long timeline. I conceived of the proposal as having the following general sections: statement of topic (including justification, theoretical background, etc…), ethics, sampling, measurement, data collection, data reduction/management, analysis, interpretation and dissemination. Throughout the year, we would work on developing each section. They were allowed to submit one rough draft of each assignment to me for feedback. They were also encouraged to exchange their work with a colleague for feedback as well. Classes started during the first week of September and met 1 time per week for 3 hours. They received their 1st assignment on September 13th with a due date of September 28th. Class lectures during that time focused on defining “science”, issues of epistemology, objectivity, and the importance of considering alternative perspectives. The assignment guidelines can be found in Appendix A. I received a total of 5 rough drafts out of a combined student enrollment of more than 100. Most of the students submitted work that troubled me for several reasons. First, there was almost no reflection of almost a month’s worth of discussion, reading, or lectures. Second, most of the papers failed to address the specific questions asked in the assignment. It was almost as if the students had collectively decided to do a different assignment than the one I asked them to complete. Finally, the quality of the writing was very low. Student’s clearly had not taken the time to proof their assignments before submitting them to me. If I were to have graded the assignments as they were, the result would have been disastrous. Almost ½ of the students would have received a failing grade.


Needless to say, I was devastated. As I reflected back on the assignment, I started to think critically about what went wrong and more importantly how I could address the situation. My biggest concern was not that students will receive poor grades, but that they would receive such poor grades on an assignment that was intended to be the starting point for the entire year. I was concerned that the results of this assignment could spread and infect the entire year. The last thing I wanted as a new, albeit contract, faculty member was to turn students off to the subject matter. I have provided the anatomy of the whole sordid affair in the Appendices that follow. They include:

Appendix A.

The Original Assignment

Appendix B. Grade Distribution and Illustrations of Student Work Submitted Student paper earning a grade of B Student paper earning a grade of D Appendix C.

The Proposed Solution

Appendix D.

Student Reaction and Feedback

Appendix E.

Reflection


Appendix A: Guidelines for 1st Assignment

SOCI 310 Research Methods REACTION PAPER #1 Due Date: Friday, September 28. 2007 by 5:00 pm Later papers 5:05 (grace period) will incur penalties as stipulated in the syllabus. Format: Typed, double-spaced with 1” margins Length: Not to exceed 3 pages, including references. Instructions: The purpose of this assignment is to get you to start thinking about your topic that you will work with for the rest of the year. Our goal is that by the end of the academic year, you will have completed all of the practical steps required to execute a “doable” research proposal. For our purposes, “doable” means that you will select a topic that is empirical, sufficiently broad in focus to be critically analyzed and well defined while at the same time being specific enough to be manageable in terms of time and resources. The first step in this process is to write me a paper, not to exceed 3 pages, typed, double-spaced, in which you do the following: 1. Identify and discuss your topic as succinctly as possible, without resorting to generating hypotheses, variables, or “scientific” baggage. 2. Justify your topic as “scientific” as opposed to “common sense” a. What does this distinction mean to you? b. Using the answers from the exercise we did in class about whether sociology should be considered a science or not, justify your selection of topic/idea. 3. What is your relationship to the research topic? In other words, how might your address issues of “objectivity” as they relate to this topic? Is objectivity possible/desirable? 4. What assumptions are you making about your topic? Are there any competing explanations that you should take into account?


Appendix B: Grade Distribution and Illustrations of Student Work Submitted A total of 97 assignments were handed in. The grade distribution (under the old rules) was:

A+

C+

2

A

C

12

A-

C-

27

B+

2

D+

29

B

3

D

16

B-

1

F

5

Reaction Paper 1 30 25 20 15

Reaction Paper 1

10 5 0 A+

A

A-

B+

B

B-

C+

C

C-

D+

D

F


Student Submission #1 Grade: B (without my comments) After much deliberation, I have decided that I would like to research homeless adolescents. I would like to learn more about the various circumstances that led them to be in the situation that they are in; the quality of life for them on the street; the obstacles that they face in the struggles of their everyday life; how they cope with these obstacles and problems; etc. I am sure that answers to these questions will only provoke more curiosity and therefore generate more questions in the future. There is much common sense, taken-for-granted assumptions about street kids. For example, many people assume that they are all delinquent runaways. These assumptions are most often uninformed, prejudiced, and lacking any empirical evidence. “In order to qualify as scientific knowledge, an inference or assumption must be derived by the scientific method. Proposed testimony must be supported by appropriate validation – i.e. ‘good grounds’, based on what is known.” (Shrike & others, what is Science? Ohio Journal of Science, 2006) Using a rigorous scientific method to learn more about the circumstances of these kids will (hopefully) clarify things for us, and put to rest those common-sense assumptions about them. This requires that the information be collected and analyzed using a standardized tool and that said information can be validated by further research. If we sit down with these kids and let them tell us their stories, we could pinpoint the common variables in each of their individual lives that led them to the life that they have in common now. As for objectivity, I do not believe that there is such a thing as complete objectivity. We are all socialized to believe in certain things, we all have our opinions, and we cannot merely erase them from our memories or completely ignore our standpoints on an issue once we begin


research on it. My relationship to the topic of homeless adolescents is that I used to be one. So, no, I cannot be 100% objective on the subject. However, one of the reasons why sociology interests me so much is that I feel that with a combination of a good education and first-hand experience, I might be able to transcend to a better level of verstehen (Max Weber). I do not fear these people. I do not judge them. I may very well be able to understand them better than someone coming from a more “objective� standpoint. I believe that in order to be good at something, you have to have a passion and curiosity for your topic. Homeless people in general are the subject of controversy. The dichotomy of the opinions on homelessness could be described as laziness vs. need. On one side of the coin, we have the people who assume that homeless people are all lazy or crazy; they should be locked away or at least kept out of sight. Homeless children, from this point of view, are uncontrollable delinquents with no ambition or future. The opposing argument would be that these are people that have been wronged by society in some way, that have not had some fundamental needs in their life met and that they need our help. Homeless kids are children who have run away from bad homes where they were probably abused. I, personally, tend to lean to this side of the argument. I believe that homeless children are escaping from a situation that they see as being worse than living on the street. They escape from a very dysfunctional family to find a new family in their peer subculture, other street kids like them, who have been through much of the same things and who they feel understand them. Reference(s) What is Science? Shrake and Others, Ohio Journal of Science, 2006.


Student Submission #2 Grade: D (Without my comments) My chosen topic is women in Islam vs. women in traditional culture. In my research paper, I want to discuss the differences between women’s rights according to Islam, vs. their rights in the traditional culture, which in many cases; the so called religious people name Islam... Researching about women in Islam can be considered scientifically, because in traditional society, gender roles were very defined, as well as any sort of emotional feelings was not considered. In that time period, defined gender roles were seen as inherit ant. In the traditional society, men and women had their own role according to society, where the roles are seen as scientific rather than common sense, since emotional well being was unknown, scientific background was an important issue. Sociology should be considered as part of science, because we can talk about it as a global issue. Women in Islam should be considered scientifically as well as morally, since women are human like men are, there is a biological as well as moral issue to consider in order to be well adjusted to society. I have a close relationship with my topic, since I am a Muslim female, and I always wondered why such a peaceful and just religion turned out to be like a prison for Muslim women. I hear stories all the time and I am sick of seeing such disaster of human rights. We can consider objectivity when we argue about human rights because there are some rules to follow in order to live in a civilized society. Other than that, as part of humans, civilized humans have morals and values, such as no willing to give pain to others purposely.


I am willing to research step by step the reality of Islam, the difference between Islam and the so-called Islam, and the reasons behind all that mess, as that why such a peaceful and just religion that has created by god, where men and women are 100% equal, turned out to be prison for women. References Kamala, A. (2003) Women in Islam. N.Y.Cuatro Forum


Appendix C: Discussion and Series of Choices for Student Comment and Selection The text in Appendix C is my attempt to summarize the issue before the class and provide a series of possible solutions. I made sure to allow for a public comment period of 5 days so people could ask questions, debate, propose alternatives, discussion positions, and not feel they were having choices made for them.

Hi everyone This is my take on things. Please feel free to add your corrections or your own thoughts--to facilitate this, I have made a group discussion board on Moodle under our class that you can make anonymous posts to. Please, be respectful of each other in this environment. No final decisions will be made without a democratic and open vote of the class. What happened? There was a failure on several levels regarding the first reaction paper. Perhaps I was not clear on the guidelines. I also failed to, as a result of technological and communications problems follow through with feedback. It is also possible that some responsibility rests with students who failed to make a concerted and good faith effort to attempt to do the assignment posted. The result was a complete disengagement with both the purpose and scope of the assignment. If you remember, I had intended for this year to proceed incrementally. That means everything builds off of this assignment. With the majority of the class failing to meet to standards established in my instructions, my concern is that so many people would be “hobbled” from the outset in terms of the class. It isn’t so much about grades, but about effort and a sense of “yes I can” when it comes to this class. We all know from class discussions that many of us who major in sociology suffer high rates of math and science phobia (myself included) and I do not see the benefit in increasing that anxiety when I think reasonable solutions can be achieved. In order to fix things, I suggested in principle, (and was supported either though agreement or lack of participation) that we amend the syllabus and the structure of the assignments.

This means: 1. The current syllabus is dead. Long live the syllabus. 2. The points expected for this term are no longer up for grabs and a new grading scheme (to be determined by you) will be devised that is clear, reflects the amount of effort required to complete assignments and is responsive to your other classes, schedules.


3.

As it stands now, the assignment completed in question will not count toward your grade. Rather, the SUBSTANCE of this, and the comments I made on them will form a significant portion of your next (and subsequent) assignments. 4. This assignment, and the others for this term, will be decided when the new syllabus is presented. I would like this to include your input by various means (direct conversations, emails, postings, messages through the class reps, etc) 5. The total amount of work that is expected to be completed this term is AT LEAST no more than was agreed to in the old syllabus. 6. It seems rather clear that the amount of work will be less than that expected under the old syllabus, but still will reflect the total content expected in the completion of the course and its objectives. 7. In discussing the situation and suggesting alternatives with the students in class, during office hours, and from feedback received from the class representatives and forum posts, two solutions have been identified so far. (This is not to mean others cannot be entertained). They are presented below. Before discussing them, however, let me finish some other thoughts. 8. There is NO FREE RIDE. People who failed to meet the objectives assigned for assignment 1 will essentially have to complete this work (although not redo it as it stands) in order to be able to complete the next assignments. This gives you all an equal opportunity to succeed (and fail) on subsequent assignments. 9. Please check the website regarding some teaching changes that have been suggested and my responses to these. 10. I propose that we vote, as a class, no later than next Thursday. The vote will determine the changes to be adopted. 11. We will MOVE ON--understanding that our flexibility and adaptability is what makes us uniquely human and hopefully provides us the kind of education that is valuable, rather than a one sided approach where I make decisions because I am in a perceived position of greater authority. 12. Questions should be addressed to me personally or through the class reps. Questions for class consideration should be posted through Moodle. The message boards will be available after 12:00 midnight tonight (Thursday night, or Friday at 12:01 if you prefer)


GENERAL PROPOSALS FOR CONSIDERATION a. The 40% scheme (40 % of the total grade will be the "final proposal") Accordingly, your work for the Fall term (completed by the end of exams in December) will be around 20 - 25% with the remained of the total evaluation to be spread out over the Spring term (roughly 40 to 35%) though various assignments, allowing students to rack up points though smaller assignments. I had proposed 15%. Students thought this was not sufficient and my proposal failed to be adopted b. The 30% scheme. (Which also suggests a 20-25% contribution from the Fall term). This results in a higher percentage of your grade earned in the Spring term, most likely with a greater number of assignments (again to reduce the relative impact of one assignment having disproportionate weight) My Thoughts: My choice is to select option a. It is more reflective of the weight I think is worthy of your efforts on a larger proposal due in April. It also requires fewer assignments for you to complete and increases our flexibility in terms of scheduling.

So that is where we stand. I welcome your thoughts, comments and suggestions. I especially want to say thank you. I do really value your positions (collective and individuals) and hope you understand the events that took place in light of the fact that I never purported to have all the answers, just maybe some tools to help us along the way. Thanks again Alan


Appendix D: Student Feedback Received During “Discussion� Period

1.

Comments from an Anonymous Student The text below is my posting to the class public forum am email I received from an anonymous student shortly after opening up discussion concerning the best way to address my concerns with the assignment

******************** *****Begin Posting**** ******************** Alan Brown - Friday, 26 October 2007, 03:01 PM Hi everyone. I received this email today. My comments follow the original email ******************** *****Begin Email***** ******************** Hi, this is an anonymous e-mail about research methods. I'm a quite upset that an assignment I spent so much time working on won't be counted towards my final grade. (Whether I did good or badly) I understand some people did poorly on it, and they do deserve a second chance. But what about the people that did it correctly? Shouldn’t some people get some credit?? I don't think it is fair that I worked so hard, literally for nothing. Sure it might help me in the future assignments... but that wasn't the point of the paper. I worked hard knowing it was for 20% of my mark. If I did bad, I would like to improve. Not forget about the paper completely I think its okay to change the syllabus on future assignments, but not on past ones that have already been completed. Perhaps we can have an optional bonus assignment to up our grades on the paper?? Thanks, Anonymous student


******************** *****My Response**** ******************** Hello Anonymous, I will post this right away. Thank you for your comments. My reactions: 1. You say "if I did bad, I would like to improve, not forget about the paper" If in fact you did do badly, then you will improve it, because there is no way that you will be able to complete the next step in our process as we keep working toward the goal of doing our research proposal. I won't ask you to redo it, per se (meaning to redo the original assignment) but I will insist that the next assignment show me a mastery of the skills that I thought the assignment sought to test: picking a topic, justifying your choice within a discussion of how and why it is appropriate for sociologists to be concerned about it and finally locating yourself in terms of objectivity and standpoint and illustrating to me that you have considered the issue of bias and how that might affect how you see things. I don’t see any use in going BACKWARDS and redoing the first assignment completely when we can achieve the goal of it while also moving forward. I thought that made more sense. 2. I never thought about the possibility of finding a reward scheme for those that did well on the assignment and I think that might be something to consider. Can you think of some SPECIFIC approach to this? How would react if I proposed this: In the WINTER term, students who received a good grade on the dreaded FIRST ASSIGNMENT d'enfer...may elect to pick ONE assignment that I think is equivalent in terms of weight and significance (i.e., requiring a similar amount of effort that should have ideally gone into the first assignment) and chose to COMPLETE THE ASSIGNMENT WITHOUT IT BEING GRADED. In other words, you would complete the assignment, submit it to me for evaluation (perhaps with a more relaxed deadline) and have me comment and work on it as I would any other paper, but NOT give it a grade and simply apply the points from assignment 1 to this one. I think this serves a couple goals:


a. You really HAVE to do it. I cannot have you just take a pass on it because, as you point out above, all of the assignments really depend on the previous ones to put the final pieces of the puzzle together. What my proposal does is takes off the pressure for you in terms of getting graded. b. You get a "strong" grade which values your effort you have already put into something, you also get the full benefit of my commentary and suggestions for improvement on the Winter term assignment, which is important for you in your continued progress without sweating negative consequences. (I wish ALL of our assignments could be like this and we could just ditch grades all together) This is different from what you propose in that I hear you talking about "extra" points or something like that--you use the term "bonus" assignment. I guess I hesitate to give you a bonus assignment because it requires you doing more work, my proposal requires no additional work on your part--you simply get credit for past efforts. Also, in my proposal, you simply exchange points, rather than having to chase more points that, quite frankly, would not be as many as the original points you were already chasing, i.e., An optional assignment might only be worth 5% or so. I cannot really justify a "bonus" assignment that is worth 20%. The key issue I see you bringing up may be restated in a few key points: 1. I did my work and followed the rules while other people didn't 2. I am not being given credit to acknowledge my hard work 3. They are not being penalized (or suffering "consequences") for not following the guidelines. 4. I get no points (neither do they), but my efforts deserve recognition. In my reaction above, I hope you can see that I tried to address this by: 1. Emphasizing that we really do need to see this as a process that is incremental and not like tiny individual tasks that are not related. Therefore, I think your argument focusing on not wanting to "forget about it" isn't very strong from this perspective as it fails to address the substantive goals and interrelatedness of how I see all of the assignments. However, from a purely instrumental perspective about grades and points, I see how your position can be defended. 2. I think you offer an interesting opportunity to achieve both substantive and instrumental goals brought out in point 1 above. My recommendation would have you exchanging one set of points for another--sort of like a bank. You still have to do all of the work because it is all related and doesn’t really help you by skipping something, but you don’t have to do it for points (or worry


about hurting your GPA). This is preferable to a "bonus" assignment for two reasons. First, it doesn’t generate EXTRA work (*for you to do, or me to grade) and Second, as I will chose the assignment (perhaps even offer the possibility on more than 1 assignment and you can chose), I feel like it is a way to fully recognize your effort by matching the "magnitude" of the assignments to swap or apply points. Related to the notion of "extra" work--it also gives you MORE credit (magnitude) than what would be up for grabs on a bonus assignment (you get 20% worth of credit as opposed to having to do the bonus assignment for say 5% of credit). Perhaps this addresses your issues or opens us up to new directions for discussion. I encourage students to comment on these points. Thanks again for the time you took to write me (and create a new email account!) and to share your concerns with your colleagues. Best Alan Ps--I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t at LEAST add a PS about the beginning of your email (being "upset") First, don't be upset, it is bad for your skin and makes you look grumpy. No one likes grumpy--just look at all the other Dwarfs--he was not even CLOSE to being popular. Second (and more seriously): I would really encourage you to step away from this as a discussion surrounding grades and points. IN all honesty, it is really the least important part of the problem. I know it is hard to see that from where you sit, but trust me, or don't. I won't ever disregard your stress about that, but I would be so very happy to see you realize that once you make the switch from thinking about grades and outcomes to the process of active learning you will have really figured it out. A liberal arts education is about learning to learn, not mastering a skill or a trade. Enjoy the journey. I sometimes think back on this quote when I feel frustrated about a particular outcome: A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Lao Tzu


2. Comments From a Second Anonymous Student The text below is my posting to the class public forum am email I received from a second anonymous student in response to the first posting. ******************** *****Begin Posting**** ******************** By Alan Brown - Friday, 26 October 2007, 05:06 PM I received this today from another student I agree with the possible solution you have come up with for the anonymous email. I believe that those people who have done well on the assignment and have followed the guidelines should be entitled to some type of benefit. I think your solution of allowing for an assignment to go ungraded but with corrections is a good idea. And I also like option 1 from your list of possible syllabus changes.


3. Email from Student to Professor The text below is an email I received from a student in the course concerning the proposed syllabus changes. The email was not anonymous and was signed. In the interest of privacy, I have stripped the email of all identifying information. ******************** *****Begin Email**** ******************** Email from student to professor show details 26/10/2007 Reply Hi Professor Brown, I'm in your night research methods class. I really want to tell you not to DESPAIR! It really was not your fault that people did not follow the guidelines that you CLEARLY wrote out and explained. My guess is that those people who gave you 3+ pgs for the assignment just didn't go to class or were jaded by other detached profs. Seriously, most other professors like to have a great distance between them and the students. It was funny how when you were up there telling us that WE are going to be completely revamping the syllabus, the anxiety in the room rose. The image of a child seeing their parent cry came to mind....ok, maybe that's exaggerated. Anyway, you make me less disenchanted about university. I think we all needed a BIG reminder that learning is the most important thing here, not grades. I'm so glad you have the passion, hope and guts to scream it out at us. When you were talking about how absurd grades are, I was like, 'Yes! Finally, there is a professor who gets it and wants to run his class with that in mind.' Oh ya, I 'm choosing plan A. Also, I cannot go to your office hours on Monday, so when can I meet you to pick up my paper?

Take care!


4. Email from Student to Professor The text below is an email I received from a student in the course concerning the proposed syllabus changes. The email was not anonymous and was signed. In the interest of privacy, I have stripped the email of all identifying information. ******************** *****Begin Email**** ******************** Hi professor: I'm studying for an exam right now and I just received your email from the anonymous student and I couldn't help but respond to you about that email. Firstly, I'm sorry to the student that wrote this email but I personally think it is a little ridiculous to have to make up an email address just to send you an email like that. This is my 4th year at Concordia and I have never come across a professor like you. What I mean by that is how comfortable and welcoming to our opinions and beliefs (as crazy as some may be) you make me feel. You truly bring a welcoming and 'free to express our own opinion" into the classroom. I wish others, such as the anonymous person felt this way as well. I was a little surprised to hear that someone had to make up an email address just to express their opinion when I feel the complete opposite. You bring the presence of a very non-judgmental teacher (which is not usual!). To be completely honest with you (please don't take this to heart), after our first class you taught (I can't really think of a word here)but I was a little 'iffy' (for lack of a better word) about you as a teacher for the only reason that your teaching style was different from the rest (i.e. not a cookbook style, we are free to express ourselves, and I talked to you after class about this on Thursday but the fact that we are allowed to use "I" when writing a paper unlike other teachers (who I have a lack of respect for) who are 'academically way above my intelligence level' to allow me to use first person in a paper and don't let me express 'my own' opinion in papers). Anyways, the whole point of this email is that right now I am applying to teachers college in Ontario because it has always been my passion to pursue such a career. I admire your teaching and you have (as corny as this may sound) truly inspired me to be a teacher like you. I never want to be the type of teacher that does not allow room for self-expression/opinion and create the uncomfortable 'I'm better/smarter than you because I’m a teacher and you’re a student' type of environment. All in all, THANK YOU! xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx


***************** ****My Reply***** ***************** To say anything much more than thank you would be silly. I can’t 'even describe how much your comments mean. Thank you so very much. This is why I do what I do. Alan PS--and about your colleague and the anonymous email--it isn’t for us to define their experience in the classroom (or anywhere for that matter). All we can do is provide the opportunity to be heard (which they may not have felt if not for the anonymity) and to take their comments as they come. Keep what is useful and leave the rest. I’m glad they got heard. Maybe next time because they didn’t get shut down or silenced, they will feel stronger and more confident to voice their views. I think there is an educational lesson to be had in that all by itself. PPS--good luck at Teacher's College. Sounds to me like you are finding your place. It may not be the think you want to do with everything else going on in life, but, if you ever do get a chance, I think you will enjoy the science as a vocation article link that I posted on the message board. Sure Weber may have been a little “odd”, but WHOA. That article is really been the guiding principle for me in terms of how I think about teaching. I re-read it all the time!


Appendix E. Reflection No one likes to have a bad classroom experience. As my portfolio I hope shows, I take my time in the classroom very seriously and understand teaching to be an integral part of my scholarly activity. Whenever possible, I attempt to use the following principles i as guideposts in reflexive development as a scholar and teacher. • • • • • • • • •

usefulness validation of quality work forum of mutual respect value of critiques from other experts need for willingness to take risks/expose work to scrutiny two-way dialogue as more effective than one-way communication potential for mentoring, guidance value of feedback evaluating clarity of work (writing, claims, evidence) enhances objectivity of work (from convergence of multiple perspectives)

In the case of this assignment, I can confidently claim that my actions and choices in the classroom were consistent with these principles: • I promoted a forum of mutual respect by creating interactive channels of communication. Not only were students given a range of communication choices to discuss ideas with me or other members of the class, I also ensured that students were afforded a chance to maintain anonymity by posting comments from unidentified parties. Doing this reinforced how seriously I consider student participation and feedback. • I treat students with whom I work as junior colleagues who are developing their own tool kits. Reducing the social distance between us, I treated their input about an event that impacted directly on them as expert testimony. In addition, I also sought out solutions from my mentors and colleagues and shared their insights with the students. • Transparency was the organizing principle of the changes to the syllabus. I made clear that my comments were suggestions not commandments. In those cases where I was not successful lobbying for my position, I made sure that this was clearly stated. This reinforced two-way dialogue in the classroom. • In looking at the comments received from students, two tentative conclusions can be reached. First, the number of responses versus the number of enrolled students could indicate that this was not as traumatic an event as I perceived. However, those students that did take the time to reply clearly were in favour of, or at least indifferent to, my decision to open the debate to change the syllabus. Second, the responses to which I composed replies were used as an opportunity to both elicit more concrete input, but as also as a mentoring opportunity. Despite these successes, there are also many instances where I can clearly see that I failed to meet these standards in the classroom: • In looking back at the assignment, I question how useful it was as a tool to encourage critical thinking. I have significant retooled the course and have had much more success this year with student engagement and increasing the quality and quantity of debate and discussion.


I was shocked at the poor quality of the work submitted. This definitely impacted on how I approached evaluating the assignments. I was forced to reassess my criteria for evaluation throughout the year to make sure I wasn’t suffering a hangover effect from this first assignment. Assessment of student work in a way that provides valuable feedback is a constant challenge. Especially given the structure of the assessments I use with students in an environment that lacks sufficient resources for assistance. I refer specifically to the level of teaching assistant support provided by my current department. With not enough sociology students in the graduate programme, professors often work with students that have no background in out subject matter. Although I always welcome opportunities to engage with graduate students, I can see their anxiety and stress and having to negotiate the uncomfortable role of student/mentee when dealing with me and lecturer/expert-in-training with undergraduates. I have begun to explore the Web 2.0 environment as a potential tool to address these challenges. In addition, I always try to find ways to include peer assessment and reflexive practice as part of student evaluations. Finally, I missed an opportunity to introduce the growing literature on active learning and problem-centered pedagogy. I should have reminded myself of the quote from Gandhi I put on my webpage: “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If I expect to make an impact on students, encouraging them to shift from passive to active learning, then I should have taken this chance to not only change the syllabus, but also give them a chance to understand the ideas that convinced me that such a change was necessary.

As the goals statements on my portfolio indicate, I am already searching for new tools to make each experience in the classroom better than the last. i

Allchin, Douglas "Teaching as a Scholarly Activity.” CETaL: The Center for Effective Teaching and Learning at the University of Texas at El Paso. Aug. 1998. University of Texas at El Paso. 26 Oct. 2008 http://sunconference.utep.edu/CETaL/resources/portfolios/profess.htm.


Anatomy of a Learning Opportunity