Improv Class: Co-Creating the Semester in Real Time

August 30, 2017 Diane Rubino

I limped out of class with a bruised ego. It was an evening of transformative teaching. Sadly, I was the student. I learned I could cling to ideas about how much work students should do, or co-create the course in the moment based on their concerns.

My syllabi include a disclaimer allowing for adjustments. I occasionally used that caveat to switch lecture dates, discuss headlines, or amend an assignment—never anything substantial. But my allegiance changed after an uncomfortable dialogue with students that night.

Unexpected Revolution

The journey began abruptly when a graduate school communications course was serendipitously assigned to me right before the term. This was my first intersession course when sessions are condensed into a shorter period of time. I made a few changes. But I mostly jimmied the lessons into the abbreviated format. I didn’t have a feel for how meeting in two longer-than-usual biweekly sessions with half the time to do the work would impact learning and course dynamics. I now see more revision was needed.

This became obvious early in the course when I noted a sea of blank stares, accompanied by a weird vibe. I asked what was going on, but got no response. I took a break, and the spell lifted somewhat. I lurched through the remaining session, deciding to repeat the material in the next meeting. But something more profound than the subject was amiss.

Stormy Weather

shutterstock_213330322.jpgMore bad weather brewed on the horizon a few sessions later, near the course’s halfway mark. Fortunately, I incorporated some contemplative teaching tools—like creating a pre-class relaxation zone to color or free write while showing tranquil ocean waves videos. (According to Columbia Center for Teaching Learning’s Kenny Hirschmann, adding a brief discussion period after the reflective exercises could have enhanced the value of this exercise.) This made the start of each class calmer and seemed to build community. The students were easier, funnier, warmer to me and each other.

So that night I popped into a chair among them to take the room’s temperature. During this impromptu discussion, they described their struggles to keep up with the course.

This wasn’t news. Teaching in multiple graduate programs revealed I’m somewhat of an outlier, tending to give a bit—or a lot—more work. But this conversation was different because classes never gave me this feedback in person during the term. They saved such opinions for anonymous student end-of-semester evaluation of teaching (SETs)

This moment was also striking because the majority of students were international. Most grew up in a politically authoritarian environment that usually fostered quiet respectfulness toward hierarchy. This time they spontaneously spoke up, revealing almost a fixation on the amount of reading and the time spent doing homework. As a result, the content and intellectual value of the resources and tasks diminished. To be clear, this was no rebellion of the disinterested. It was a serious talk with primarily hard workers who wanted to excel. They were fearful of falling behind.

I dodged their critiques because I thought I was right. I also felt defensive and embarrassed because my teaching style was challenged. Though upset, I also listened.

An idea floated into my head: Was my vision of what idealized students could do more important than the concerns of the real people in front of me? I chose the latter.

Steal From the Best

Although I rejected criticism from previous semesters about the workload, I was fascinated to learn a respected colleague cut her syllabus after multiple “too much reading” choruses. Her comments were revelatory. If someone of her stature adopted this approach, I should too. Someday.

I’d reached that day.

I needed to re-calibrate the course with student input. This might allow us to co-exist comfortably. I studied the learning outcomes, key ideas, and skill-building goals, considering what could be taught through lectures, in-class discussions, and activities. Then, I did the unthinkable: I cut the readings to the bone. I carefully selected the required resources. But they weren’t sacred texts.

Also, I changed my grading technique. Until that point, I returned work with a grade and suggestions for future tasks. I was proud of the effort I put into feedback. But some students didn’t read my remarks and kept repeating their mistakes. So I inverted the process. I provided comments without a grade on the first draft, gave students time to review and incorporate my commentary, and graded the revised version. This approach was more positive and resulted in higher-quality outcomes.

Survey Says…

On the last day, I let the class work on SETs without me around. Walking into the room a student grinned while saying, “We gave you terrible reviews.” We laughed. I knew she was teasing.

The class had coalesced by then. I attribute the positive interactions and attitudes to course co-creation. I’d heard about this technique but hadn’t made wholesale changes in real time before. However, the moment felt right for that group.

Based on that experience, I learned:

  1. Some situations and syllabi call for more flexibility than others. In this case, it was necessary to adjust the material to meet the students’ needs.
  2. Virtually nothing on my resource list is so sacred it can’t be cut to make the course more reasonable. This can be done without lowering the course’s level or quality, which is what I feared.
  3. Feedback on draft texts and presentations before grading offers additional teaching opportunities if it’s possible. My small class made reading or listening to two rounds of the same assignment possible.

In the end, everyone lived happily ever after. Just kidding. The students complained about the workload on their evaluations anyway. I shudder to think what they might have written if I let my ego get in the way and clung to my ideas as if they were the holy grail.

Image Credit: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock


About the Author

Adjunct Instructor, New York University & Fulbright Specialist //

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