My students are failing.
My American government students, to be exact: first-semester, first-year, bright, inquisitive, charming, and failing.
A big piece of this is on them. I tell them what will be on the exam (“make sure you study all of the terms which are bolded in the text, and the context in which these terms are used”; “study Figure x.x, as I almost certainly will ask questions about it”), write out the main points on the board, pause often for questions, and still, they fail.
They fail, in other words, because they’re not studying.
But they also fail because I’m doing something wrong. When I taught large lecture courses I always prepared lectures and rarely strayed from the material. My notes were always outlines rather than fully-articulated texts, and I made time for questions and comments every class, so a certain amount of riffing always occurred, but boyo, I kept the trains running on time.
Once I moved to smaller classes, however, I realized this approach didn’t necessarily work; smaller classes, it seemed, demanded more interaction. So I started mixing up my prepped lectures with more open-ended sessions, giving more time over to the students and allowing for a more free-form approach to the material. I hated doing this, at first—when I lectured, I was in control, and independent of students who may not have given two hoots about the material—but over time I learned to ease up, let things happen.
This still works in my upper-division courses, but, man, it is not working for this intro class. I’m not exactly sure how I’ll change things up next semester, but it will clearly involve a tightening of my requirements and a battening down of my presentations. I do think freedom has its place in the course, and will preserve as much of it as I can, but it’s clear that without more rigor, that free-thought is simply frittered away.