Two classes, same stuff, vast difference

Every semester I teach two sections of the same class, using the same content and method, just so I can marvel at the differences.

This semester I had the best U.S. history section ever – best grades, most social activity, best learning. Why?

It’s the students. They form their own dynamic, they come in with decent skills, they get into working online, and the whole class takes off.

We don’t like to talk about this. We prefer to think it’s our teaching that leads to students success. Well, up to a point. But I’ve watched this class as I’ve taught it for years, and the main variable is the students themselves, what they do and how they do it.

cc flickr Top Koaysomboon

I can tell by the very first posts. If they’re answering each other’s introductions on their own, we’re good. If I require that, it means nothing. If they just start responding to the prompt, it tends to stick.

And the pattern depends on who posts first. If the first posters stick to a standard intro (name, grade, future plans, work), the tendency is for everyone to follow suit, and they standardize their responses for the rest of the class, regardless of what I model, say, encourage, etc.

If the first posters are original and creative, everyone reaches a higher level.

I wonder if there’s a way to ‘seed’ this. My comments and feedback mean very little, which is how it should be. It’s good that they heed each other. I’m not sure enough research is being done about students setting the tone of a class, but after this class, I think it’s crucial.

4 thoughts on “Two classes, same stuff, vast difference

  1. To me this is a very similar question to that of “how do you inspire the emergence of a community.” In my experience it’s also the great missing link. We see fantastic projects with incredible potential fall over because the group or network dynamic just isn’t there.

    In some ways it seems almost as if the conditions completely relate to the people and not the structures around them and that strong communities can develop in restrictive environments as easily as weak communities can fail to materialise in nurturing ones.

    In that sense it’s really frustrating because so little of it seems to stem from the approaches we take as educators LOL


  2. I guess all we can do is praise and encourage the good community-building behaviors when we see them. But of course it’s the students who make the class. They are the class, they do the class, they perform the class. We’re just there to show them what the class is and could be, tell them stories about what they can achieve if so minded.


  3. Have you ever thought about creating some “sock puppets” that inspire the group to do their best? Granted it is dishonest but if the results are positive, I don’t see why you couldn’t just use some “good” posts that inspire the hive mind.
    I think it would be very interesting to post some question (with an early timestamp) and then seed some sock puppet answers immediately after with the correct time. That way students would come in, read their “responses” and answer the question.


    1. Good idea, but it would probably work best for Q&A type discussions. Here, in a class of 40, it happens in the introductions, and the sock puppet wouldn’t be a real student they could get to know.


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