There is no substitute for individual meetings with students. This semester I teach three sections of an all-freshmen introductory philosophy/theology course. My students wrote passable papers last year, when I taught the course under similar circumstances , but I realized that most of them consistently made the same mistakes: lack of cohesion; a tendency to summarize the texts rather than use them to illustrate points in their own arguments (something which I am especially keen to point out, knowing that I, too, struggle with this in my own writing); and, generally, lack of a clear and well-structured plan.
This semester, I retained the same the final paper assignment. My standards of grading have not lessened. I have the same high expectations for the finished product; but I have taken preventative measures for helping the students meet them. I told them the common pitfalls, both in print and as a class; I required them to produce an outline and draft of their thesis statement a week in advance of the paper’s deadline; and I required each of them to meet with me in person to discuss his or her outline.
I was impressed with the results—or, rather, the lack thereof. Even though I told the students what not to do, both on the syllabus and aloud during multiple class periods, the vast majority of them made the same mistakes in their outlines: lack of cohesion, lack of argumentation, and lack of a plan. By the time they meet with me, my students know what the pitfalls are in general; what they do not know and have difficulty discerning is that they have personally fallen into these traps in a number of specific ways.
Learning is a mysterious business and we do ourselves a disservice when we pretend to have too much insight into the mechanics and motivations of the young adult mind. I am still new in this enterprise of teaching; I know that I still have much to learn. There is much of which I am uncertain; but I am certain of this: nothing matches the effectiveness in an educational context of telling someone personally, gently, compassionately, and specifically, “Here are some ways that you could have done better and here are some suggestions for fixing those issues.”
Communicating that same message en masse, whether in a lecture hall or online, cannot match the power of office hours. The reason is that communication to large groups cannot be personal or specific, due to its scale; it can only possess the vaguest of compassion, for similar reasons; and, if it is to be effective at all and not be drowned out amid the humdrum of other stimuli, it can hardly be gentle.
It is not always the most convenient or the quickest, especially compared to electronic alternatives, but face-to-face communication may be the single most effective tool we have as educators.