So, my first term teaching a computer class is complete.  I think it is the most challenging class I have ever tackled, and I know that I made a lot of mistakes.  I feel bad that this group of students were my guinea pigs.  But in the end, I think that everyone got the grade they earned, and that makes me feel okay about the whole thing.

I have never taught a computer class before, so while I knew I would be able to handle the material (an introduction to Microsoft Word, PowerPoint and Excel), figuring out what my class could do and how much time everything would take was the biggest challenge as I was planning out my syllabus.  And it showed.

My biggest mistake was that my syllabus was out of sync with what we actually ended up doing in class, which made things much more difficult for my students who were trying to make up work.  There were several reasons for this.

  1. I didn’t realize how few students would turn in their homework.  So I built a PowerPoint exercise on homework that should have been completed a few weeks before; when it turned out half the class hadn’t done that assignment, I had to improvise.
  2. Sometimes I didn’t read through the labs in the book carefully enough, or I overestimated my students’ abilities whle planning, and I didn’t realize until we got to that chapter that a different assignment would be a better fit.  So we did something different than what was on the syllabus.
  3. I only put the Lab or Exercise number and page number in the syllabus, but that was extremely confusing as I was grading.  So I used the titles in my grading sheet.  But that meant that, when students asked which assignments they needed to make up, I would give them the title, not the Lab or Exercise number, and they often didn’t know what page to find the assignment on.
  4. They had a crossword puzzle from the book assigned for each week, but I discovered after the first week that these puzzles were extremely difficult to complete.  It took me a few weeks to start making my own and handing them out in class, so students were always confused about whether there was a puzzle to do for homework or not.

Another big mistake I made was not using the proper names for icons and menus as I walked students through assignments.  Instead of saying, “Click on the Sum Function button” in Excel, I’d say something like, “Ok, you’re going to click on the Sum button, which is this button up here that looks like a weird E.  Yes, the button that looks like a backwards E.  The one over here.  Got it?”  This meant that, when it came time for students to follow the directions in the book in order to do their assignments, they didn’t know the proper terms and often had a hard time figuring out the directions.

I’m also unsure about whether or not I gave them too much work to do.  In each class, I would first walk them through the assignment that was described in the book chapter.  Because we did this together, they didn’t turn this assignment in to me.  Next, there would be a lab that they needed to do in class, where they would follow the directions in the book step-by-step on their own, to reinforce the tasks we had just gone over.  This was followed by a homework assignment with less specific instructions, where they had the chance to be a little more creative in how they applied what they learned.  In theory, a great model for reinforcing tasks.

But I didn’t realize how many of my students were going to not only have no computer at home, but also no time during the week to come in and use the computers at school.  And even if they could make it to the library on the weekends to use a public computer, it might not have Microsoft Office 2007 on it, which would make it impossible to do the work.  I often felt like I was rushing through the example in class, so that they would have enough time to do both the lab and the homework in class as well.  Perhaps getting rid of one of these assignments and taking more time to explain new tasks, and having more time to complete a single assignment in class, would be the way to go next time around.

by art around

Another challenge was the fact that I have never taught this population of students before, and I wasn’t prepared for the kinds of obstacles they would be facing during the semester.  As a TA, I was usually responsible for 100 or more students, and there could be upwards of 300 students in a class.  Most of them got their work done, and while I might recognize their writing style, that was pretty much all I knew about them.  The occasional student who came to see me might have a question about something we covered in class, or might be struggling with a diagnosed learning disability.  But the students were predominantly white, middle class, had done reasonably well in high school, had decent reading and writing skills, knew how to write an essay, and the worst challenge they might have during a semester would be a death in the family, or a bout of illness.

With only 4 students in one class and 13 in the other, I know a lot more about my students’ lives than before.  At this college, I would say less than half the students are white.  Many speak English as a second language.  Most don’t know how to write a grammatically correct sentence, much less a 5-paragraph essay.  I had two students struggling with homelessness during the semester, one of whom was constantly sick and exhausted from living at a shelter for months; one student without medical insurance whose toddler was ill, but her boyfriend isn’t the child’s father so only she could take her child to the emergency room; a student who will be spending 4 days in jail in order to get back her license because she can’t afford to carry car insurance; students who want to start their own business because they can’t find jobs as ex-cons; a student with serious medical problems who was on oxygen; a student who is still recovering from being the first one on scene at a parent’s suicide; another student who had been her dying mother’s full-time caregiver for the past 5 years, to the detriment of the student’s schooling and career; another who was in an abusive relationship and came to school with bruises; students without cars who need to travel 60 miles or more by bus and train to make it to class; students with work schedules that conflict with class so they are consistently late or having to leave early.

These students often barely graduated from high school, or perhaps they got a GRE.  They are trying to make a better life for themselves while working full time and juggling families, poverty, poor schooling, and other problems I have never had to worry about.  I give them a lot of credit when they are willing to work hard and give up on sleep or time with their families to overcome all kinds of odds and make a better life for themselves and their families.  These are not the kids who miss class because they are hungover from last night’s frat party.  So I let them make up assignments at any time without any penalties,  offered to tutor students outside of class, and I did what I could to encourage those who were interested to do some extra credit work to bring up their grades.  And I let the student who was so frustrated with the final exam that she actually walked out and disappeared for an hour come back and finish it for full credit.  Maybe that makes me a pushover; or maybe it makes me willing to give my students a chance to learn from their mistakes.

When all was said and done, I had a rough bell curve of grades in my class, which reassures me that I did an ok job of teaching these kids.  Three As, four B, and two each Cs, Ds, and Fs.  The students who were failing a week ago but worked hard and got their assignments in to me at the last minute all passed.  The students that I offered help or tutoring to who didn’t take me up on the offer, or who half-assed their first few makeup assignments and then gave up, failed.  And I think that’s the way it should be.

But I have so many ideas for how to do it differently next time, now that I have learned from my mistakes.