Monday, April 13, 2009

Lecture To Project Disconnect

The disconnect between lecture material and class projects:

In the mass communication program at Winona State University, there's a strong emphasis on both theory and practice. In my courses, a fair amount of time is spent on foundation concepts students need to know to be successful on active-learning projects they will complete as graded assignments.

During the first several weeks of class I lecture more, focused more on base-line information. As class proceeds less time is spent lecturing, and students spend more time working on projects, or peer-evaluating the work of classmates. My pedagogical plan is for students to hear and understand the concepts I share then apply those ideas in their own work. Further, when I get students into peer evaluation sessions, I expect them to apply class concepts as they proofread and constructively criticize the efforts of their classmates.

Unfortunately, there appears to be a real disconnect for many students between lecture and application of lecture materials. Most students listen carefully and take notes during lectures. I drop in pop culture references or humor (admittedly lame humor) to keep lectures interesting and fast-paced. It seems, however, when the lecture ends, students close their laptops and start on projects. They consider the two activities as separate and distinct.

It can be frustrating. In lecture I tell students what I believe to be hallmarks of good journalistic writing, or elements that must be considered in strategic publication design, or compositional elements that can and will make their photographs more appealing and effective. I'm often disappointed when I evaluate student assignments and find few, if any, elements discussed in lectures evident in their completed projects.

I make an effort to provide prompt feedback to students. I evaluate assignments as soon as I receive them and return projects to students with feedback at the next class meeting. I select a number of completed projects to show in class as I discuss their strengths and weaknesses.

Usually, by the fifth or sixth graded class project -- after hearing significant repetition from me about important class theoretical elements-- students begin to understand the value of incorporating these concepts in their own work. By then, there may only be a few weeks of the semester left and only one or two more projects in which they can show their mastery of the course material.

I consider it one of my greatest responsibilities to help students learn class content and develop confidence in their own skills and abilities. I also place a high premium on helping students create and perfect a body of work that can serve as examples of their newly developed skills and abilities. These class assignment projects should result in finished pieces appropriate for a portfolio to help students gain meaningful and rewarding employment in a mass communication related career position, or admission to a graduate school program of their choosing.

It works. I emphasize class theoretical concepts and eventually those ideas show up in student work. What's the problem?

I wish I could be more successful at getting the students to connect the class lecture material with their own projects earlier in the semester. I try to find new ways of helping students understand what I'm looking for in their work, so they can apply the concepts sooner.

I don't want to reduce class projects to mere imitation or replication of my thoughts and class examples. I want students to understand concepts, internalize theory and own and use class terminology in their own words. Most of all, I hope to have foundation concepts of each class show up in student work for the right reasons: to communicate effectively with a target audience.

This semester, I'm experimenting with an idea that came from several student evaluation comments following last semester's classes. At the same time I introduce and explain a new assignment, I show samples of the project that were submitted by students in the same class a semester or two earlier. I show some exemplary pieces and explain how and why they succeed. I also show examples that are lacking and describe how they might have been improved.

Already, after only two or three graded assignments in each of my classes, the work is better than previous classes at the same point in the semester.

I'm certain there are other ways of being more effective at engaging students to synthesize class concepts in their projects. I'm always seeking ways to improve my classes and help students to succeed and produce to their greatest potential.

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