Help your students stay awake in class

Sean Heuston, writing in a recent issue of College Teaching, gives his students some simple ways to stay awake during class—surely a pressing concern for many students, and teachers. Heuston drove trucks when he was a college student, and learned a number of “trucker tips” that he now passes along to his students. These include lifting a leg three inches off the floor, or an arm three inches off the table, or merely standing up. His main point is that “muscle tension and muscle activity will keep them awake, which is why no matter how tired they are they will not fall asleep while walking to class.”

Heuston explains this concept on the first day of class, and lets students know that he understands that they are often running on very little sleep. He invites them, at any time during class throughout the term, to stand up if they feel like they are getting drowsy. He tells them he’d much prefer a class full of standing students to one full of sleeping, or even just sleepy, students.

The idea is a good one, not least because it takes the stigma away from tired students. And by acknowledging that students may have legitimate reasons to be tired, teachers can establish a rapport between themselves and their students, laying the foundation for a pedagogical relationship that is worth staying awake for.

Source: Sean Heuston. "Trucker Tips: Helping Students Stay Awake in Class." College Teaching 61.3: 2013. 108.

Use "tent cards" to take attendance

Anne-Marie McAllister, of Georgian College in Ontario, writes in with a simple tip for reducing the time it takes to take attendance for a large class. At the beginning of term, she makes tent cards—pieces of card stock paper folded in half so they sit up like tents—and writes each student’s name on the outside of a card. These sit in a box on the her desk; when each student comes into class, he or she takes his or her name card and puts it on his or her desk. Filling out the day’s attendance is as easy as noting which cards are left in the teacher’s box. The strategy has the added benefit of helping the teacher remember the students’ names in the first weeks of class, as each student has his or her name displayed at his or her desk.

McAllister also uses the cards as part of a beginning-of-term introductory exercise. She has her students write important information about themselves on the inside of their cards, and then walks through class and shares some of what she finds with the class as a whole. At the end of the first class, after collecting the cards, she looks through them all to learn more about her students.  -DG

First day of class: Meet Your Teacher

Most teachers, I’m sure, make sure to leave time during the first class to take student questions, primarily about the syllabus and the shape of the course ahead. But it’s worth underlining the importance of student involvement right from the start, letting them know that your desire to hear their questions and concerns is not just a superficial courtesy (“Any questions? OK then…).

Here’s a way to encourage students to take ownership of the course. After a brief introduction, distribute the syllabus, and perhaps highlight a few important points. Then divide the students into groups of four and ask them to take time to review the syllabus thoroughly. Have each group come up with questions for you: about the syllabus, about the subject matter, about your qualifications to teach the course, about your expectations from them. Emphasize that a wide variety of questions relevant to the course are acceptable, not just strict matters of course policy. You can have each group choose a representative to ask their questions, if you don’t want the discussion to become a free-for-all.

The exercise, by insisting upon student questions, will encourage those students perhaps too shy or just not usually disposed to asking questions in class to speak up. It will expose any ambiguities in your course materials pretty quickly. It will, with luck, establish your classroom as a place where students are invited to speak regularly. Ideally, as well, it will signal that you care about their expectations and opinions about the course and are planning to work with them throughout the semester to create a successful course.  -DG

Source: "13. Play 'Meet Your Teacher.'" Robert Magnan, ed. 147 Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison: Atwood, 1990. 5-6.

Gauge student expectations with first day questions

Sarah Neville, West Virginia University 

On the first day of class, ask students to submit (in writing) answers to the following questions:

1) What grade do you anticipate receiving in this course?

2) What will you do if you discover that you are receiving a lower grade than the one you anticipated?

3) Why do you feel these strategies will work? 

Students' responses to question 2 typically vary from the reasonable ("go to the professor's office hours and ask for feedback", "visit the writing center", "complete extra-credit assignments, if there are any") to the deliberately silly ("beg, or possibly cry"). Other students use this as an opportunity to recognize that they may need to cut back on hours at their job if their schoolwork suffers, or that a failure to meet personal expectations might be signalling that they should get more sleep. 

The point of the exercise is to force students to consider their goals for the course at the outset, along with their new plan-of-attack should things not work out as they intended. I hang onto these writing assignments and bring them out when students visit my office hours; students get them back at the end of the term so they can consider how/whether they met their stated aim.