By Stacy Palen
Establishing a classroom culture of intention (including routing attendance, handing things in on time, showing up promptly, and so on) starts on the very first day. Students take their cues from me: is this a professor who cares about these things or not?
Because of this, I have always avoided missing the first day (or two!) of class.
Unfortunately, the winter American Astronomical Society meeting almost always overlaps with the first week of class at Weber State University. I usually don’t go to the meeting. But this year I had obligations that put me in a bind, and I felt I needed to be at AAS during the first full week of January.
This meant missing the first day of class in all three of my spring semester courses. What to do?
Somewhat hesitantly, I put together an assignment for each class that I broadcast on Canvas the week before. I made an announcement so that students would know they were supposed to do it instead of coming to class, and then hoped for the best. I promised that I would grade this assignment before we met in class for the first time.
It worked out better than I expected.
The Introductory Astronomy assignment had two parts. Part A was a basic list of vocabulary words like “planet,” “planetary nebula,” and “universe,” that students were asked to look up and define in one or two sentences. Part B asked students to read the syllabus and then answer a few questions.
Part A gave me insight into what students know, what they don’t know, and, especially, what they think they know but don’t!
Students believe they know what planets, stars, and solar systems are, so they did not look up those answers but instead just wrote down what was in their head. These definitions were generally incomplete. For example, the definition of “planet” could easily have described an asteroid.
More difficult terms like “planetary nebula,” they actually looked up. The students were more likely to be correct about the topics they didn’t know as well.
Part B actually allowed me to skip talking about the syllabus during our first in-person class time, except to answer one or two questions about textbooks and the bookstore. This feels like such an improvement that I may institute this assignment every semester!
The mechanics of the assignment were a little bit tricky.
First, I had to convince Canvas to open the course ahead of the official University start date, which I did in “Settings.” I know I was successful because one student turned the assignment in on the Friday before classes started.
Second, in order to keep my promise to have it graded before the second meeting time, I had to have students hand in the assignment on Canvas.
In previous years, this would have been a show-stopper, because I despised typing in comments on assignments handed in via Canvas. But there is new functionality to write on assignments using a tablet, which makes the grading experience much more like giving feedback on paper.
I did get them almost all graded (except for four!) by the time class started on Wednesday. I felt it was really valuable to me to walk into class already knowing something more about their background than I typically do.
And skipping the syllabus discussion? Priceless.