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Summer classes provide new learning opportunities

Sometimes, change is good.

And "good" is what William McNairy, a lecturer in the physics department, is hoping for this summer when he implements an experimental grading system in his introductory physics courses. But rest assured, McNairy is simply taking advantage of the summer terms to offer his students more options.

"I'm grading in two different ways," he explained. "One way is for students who don't want to participate. I'll grade them entirely just on labs, quizzes and exam scores."

The alternative is a method that gives credit to students who regularly attend class and answer questions through the Personal Response System, an information transmitter that resembles a remote control and affords students the protection of anonymity and the professor the benefits of immediate feedback. McNairy will compare grades from both systems at the end of the term and adopt the more successful plan. "May the best number win," he said.

Grounds for such course experimentation are usually more fertile in the summer, when the regular school year has just ended and faculty have time to mull over course evaluations. Fewer students are on campus, and more professors walk around in shorts--the climate for change is good, in both the sciences and the humanities.

Associate Professor of English Thomas Pfau is also trying something new this summer. An instructor who usually depends more on lecturing than discussions, he has reversed his style for the current term in both his English and German courses. He will also make students responsible for producing questions and comments in the form of an assignment that is due at the end of every other class.

"I thought it would be better to try this so that students would feel more immediately engaged with the material," Pfau explained. "The summer's a good time to try this because the students are not as sure as to whether they should take summer courses at all."

Most students did not note such innovations as classes began. They did realize, however, that while the course work is more intense and fast-paced, summer at Duke is more laid-back.

"It's a less competitive atmosphere," senior Kristen Ladebol said. "There are less people here in Durham, and a lot of them either have internships or jobs.... It's harder to make yourself work during the summer, though."

Fellow senior Jason Stewart agreed that the summer classes were "like a breath of fresh air," but he claimed he was actually more inclined to go to class because the stress level was down. "The only thing is food points," Stewart bemoaned, referring to both the lack of points and food services offered during the term.

Matthew Widham, a senior, pointed out that there were more graduate students teaching courses during the summer--a lack of experience that could potentially lead to a decrease in the quality of instruction.

"I have some friends who had bad experiences asking questions [to their graduate instructors]," Widham said. "They felt their teachers were less credible after that."

The overall consensus among students, however, is that the summer is a welcome change from the more hectic campus life they experience during the fall and spring semesters--but they did not necessarily prefer it over the regular school year.

For many other professors, the biggest difference they have to swallow is cramming an entire course into six weeks' worth of time.

Martin Miller, a professor in the department of history, said this was the only major difference he noted between a regular school year course and its summer course counterpart.

"There's hardly any difference," he said.

In Susan Thorne's class on European colonialization, the associate professor of history prods her students with questions as she scribbles notes on the blackboard, mixing informal lecturing with periodic bouts of student interaction. She said she only alters this method when teaching a much larger class--which is not the case during the current term.

Like Thorne, most educators usually overhaul their teaching techniques when the sizes of their courses change, making class size--rather than the subject--one of the primary dictators of the way a professor imparts his or her knowledge to students. Ron Grunwald, who is teaching a large cell biology course this summer, agreed, although he also said that different goals in different classes lead to different ways of conveying information.

"I'm not frustrated, I'm less satisfied," the biology lecturer said of his introductory courses.

Many professors do not favor one teaching method over another, but some admit that smaller, discussion-oriented classes allow more active engagement and the opportunity to get to know their students better. But no matter how big or small the class, professors across the spectrum reiterate similar expectations for students: analytical thinking, creativity and enthusiasm.

"There's this portrait on a slide I put up yesterday in class," Miller said. "And someone pointed out something and interpreted it in a way I had never thought about before--that's really great. You have to think critically, tear things apart."

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