The last-day-of-class student conference: Part 1

Each quarter I try at least one new pedagogical idea in the classroom. Over time, this has given me a wide range of teaching experiences that have helped hone my style and priorities. As I continue this practice into the future, I hope it will also keep my teaching nimble and current.

Last quarter’s “new thing” was the student conference. As is often the case, I looked to my colleagues for inspiration. For this project, I drew on the experience of super-star teachers Ariana Kalinic and Christie McCullen. Thanks, you two! To pay forward their generosity, I share my experience with the assignment here.

The student-conference is modeled after a poster-session at an academic conference. Each student prepares a poster that provides an overview of the work they have conducted for their class research paper. They presents their posters at an end-of-the-quarter event scheduled during the allotted finals period. Students stand by their poster to answer questions for half of the event, and look at their peers’ posters for the other half.

If you’ve been to a million academic conferences already, this may not sound that exciting. But when we tried it in my Nature and Society class last quarter, I loved it!  Here’s why.

  • Students practice describing their intellectual interests in a semi-formal, semi-social setting. The give and take of the conversations that result introduces students to the pleasures of learning and discussing ideas.
  • The event emphasizes active learning by asking students to circulate and ask questions of their peers, rather than passively absorbing information in the form of end-of-the-quarter presentations.
  • Students get to learn from each other. This underscores that the teacher is not the source of all knowledge in the world, and conceptualizes all of the class participants as part of a learning community. Hopefully, decentering the teacher as the source of information positions students to become lifelong learners after they are no longer in school.
  • Students describe their projects over and over again as new people visit their posters. This improves their ability to concisely describe their work as they try new ways of saying the same thing.
  • Our event included not just the students in the class, but a handful of faculty and graduate students as well as some of my students’ friends and significant-others. This helped students meet other people that share their interests. I saw my students engage with these visitors about other writing they might want to read, other classes they could take before graduating, and the political implications of their research.
  • Students get to interact with more than one teacher in the same space. This let them have intellectual conversations with faculty and teaching assistants that cut across their experiences in separate, often siloed, classes.

A note on evaluations.  At my university, our student evaluations happen at the end of regular class meetings and before the finals period. Because we held the student conference during finals period, this meant that students were not able to reflect on the event in their course evaluations. To get a sense of what they thought in a systematic, anonymous fashion, I sent out a SurveyMonkey online evaluation after the class ended. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to it until the students had all left campus for vacation. I also never sent out reminder e-mails after the first request to take the survey. So, only five students completed it. For what it’s worth, they all responded “yes” to this statement: “I would recommend the instructor incorporate an end of the quarter student conference into this class again in future.”

To give you a flavor of the event, I’ve posted photos below with the permission of the people depicted. Click on the thumbnails to see enlarged versions. Tomorrow I”ll post more information about how to set up the assignment.

One thought on “The last-day-of-class student conference: Part 1

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