The Faculty Lecturer

In writing about Fair Employment Week, a student asked a good question: "What exactly are sessionals?" From a student's perspective, I can understand the question--you come to class and trust that the person doing the teaching is qualified. The thing is, there are different kinds of university teachers...

I am a "Faculty Lecturer." This is a particular title that described my position. That means I work for the Faculty of Science, teaching a certain number of courses for them (in the Department of Psychology) to fulfill the terms of my contract. (Er, except when I teach Arts courses.) Speaking of contracts...

Faculty Lecturers (and "sessional" instructors) at the UofA are known as "Contract Academic Staff" (CAS). This term means that we work under a contract that may be renewed every so often, say every 5 years, every year, or even every term (or "session," hence the word "sessional"). It's stressful to work in a job that doesn't have any guaranteed security--if student enrollments drop, fewer instructors will be needed, and CAS will not have their contracts renewed.

So what? In these uncertain economic times, doesn't that apply to anybody--that they could be laid off at any time?

Let me contrast CAS with "Faculty members." These are the people who hold the title "Professor." (One can be an Assistant, Associate, or Full Professor, by the way.) This term denotes academic rank, and may be called a tenured or tenure-track position. Tenure is the academic version of ultimate job security: you've reached the highest rank, the highest levels of pay, and--unless you do something criminal or otherwise horribly bad--you've got a secure job. No one can come along and tell you that because you haven't published enough papers this year, for example, you're fired. Their workload consists of teaching and research. I have great respect for my colleagues; they work hard to get tenure, and even when they achieve it, they continue to work hard.

Sessional teaching jobs were originally intended to be temporary--you would hire, say, a recent Ph.D. graduate who gained valuable teaching experience while filling in for a professor on sabbatical. (A sabbatical is an academic sort of partially paid hiatus from work, when profs write books or do research.) That has changed, partly due to greater student enrollments; there's a need for warm bodies to do all that teaching! As a result, many "sessionals" work on contract for years--even decades. (I've been a contract academic since 1995--that's quite a few sessions ago.)

Tying this back to where I started... Fair Employment Week is an attempt to recognize the positive impact that contract academics have on students, and to toot our own horns a little bit. Sadly, the capital-U University barely acknowledges our contributions officially in public. And, um, I better shut up now. I'd like my contract to be renewed...

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Structure

You know that it's important to look at your midterms to see where you went wrong, don't you? Just sayin'...

When you look at your exam, there are things you should look for:

  • On how many questions did you have to guess the answer?
  • Which lectures/chapters give you problems?
  • Did you devote less time to studying those? (Were you absent for those lectures?) Maybe a neuroscience chapter was particularly challenging, because of all the anatomical terms. On the other hand, maybe you got those questions all correct because you spent so much time on them--at the expense of other material.
  • What kind of questions gave you the most difficulty?
Let me explain what I mean by "kind of question." There's a way of categorizing different multiple-choice questions called Bloom's Taxonomy. I use a slightly less complex version that has three categories of questions:
  1. Factual: assess your knowledge of definitions, terms, and other facts. Answering these questions requires remembering of learned information. For example:

    Who wrote The Principles of Psychology in 1890?
    (a) Wilhelm Wundt
    (b) Sigmund Freud
    (c) William James
    (d) B. F. Skinner

  2. Application: evaluate your ability to apply learned factual knowledge to a new situation, or to solving a problem. You'll have to have the background knowledge, but also the ability to see how it relates to a previously unseen example. For example:

    Assuming the Weber fraction is 0.03, given a 1,000 g weight, what is the JND?
    (a) 1,000 g
    (b) 3 g
    (c) 30 g
    (d) 0.03 g

  3. Conceptual: tests your capacity to see patterns, relate knowledge from different areas, evaluate evidence. Not only do you have to have the background knowledge, you've got to be able to analyze it, synthesize it with new information, and evaluate what you know. For example:

    Which of the following phenomena of operant conditioning contains within it a form of classical conditioning?
    (a) latent learning
    (b) overjustification effect
    (c) secondary reinforcement
    (d) delay of gratification
Multiple choice exams usually contain a large number of factual questions. There will be a few application questions, and also a few conceptual ones. It's hard to write good conceptual questions, and they can be quite challenging to answer. If you're not doing well on the factual questions, you're probably going to struggle with the other kinds as well.

But problems just with application and conceptual questions reveal that your understanding isn't as...deep as it could be. You may be great at memorizing definitions, but that's not all there is to taking a (well-designed) multiple choice exam.

(BTW, Bloom's Taxonomy can also be used in short-, medium-, and long-answer exams. In fact, I use it in mine. For example, in my "medium-length" questions, I ask students to 1. define a term, 2. give an example, and 3. explain why it's important or what other concepts it relates to. See? Bloom's Taxonomy.)

In case you must know, the answer to all the questions above is (c). When in doubt, pick (c), right? ;-)

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Marking

And...done. Done marking midterms, that is. No, not the multiple choice ones. Actual long-answer, hand-written, sweat-stained essay exams. Exam on Thursday, done marking on Saturday. Not too bad. I once finished them in one day. Ah, but I was younger then, with eyes that focused and no daughter who always wants to play My Little Pony with me (I get to be Pinkie Pie!).

I try really hard to get exam results back as quickly as I can. As soon as a multiple choice exam is over, I walk it over to TSQS (Test Scoring and Questionnaire Services, of course). Many instructors just go back to their office and have their administrative assistant schlep them off via campus mail. Me, I prefer to have results back as quickly as I can. My best time ever was 2 hours, from exam over to results posted online.

I've heard that there should be a "cooling-off" period, but I don't know exactly why. Heck, I know a prof who has exams on which you scratch off your answer, like a lottery ticket. If you're right, you get full marks. If you're wrong, you get to scratch off another answer. Get that one right, and you get part marks. It's pretty cool, but it's apparently expensive to get the exams made up that way.

I like the nice people at TSQS. They've even helped me out of tight spots, when I've needed results back in a hurry. Normally, they promise 24 hours, but they regularly beat that, except at busy times, like during final exams.

Do you care either way? Would you like to have scratch-and-win exams? Or do you prefer to wait, even if you know the results have been posted?

Why aren't you studying?

The Celebration

I'm a member-at-large (no, I'm not that large) and vice-chair of the Contract Academic Staff committee of the AASUA (the University of Alberta's staff association). Every year, we like to mark Fair Employment Week. (Partly, we do this because we'd like to have employment that's more stable--not just year-to-year, as it is for many "sessionals." More on this in another post...) To highlight the importance of contract academic teachers, we ask students to nominate an outstanding contract instructors for a "celebration" we're holding on October 27th. 

Have you had an instructor who has made a difference in your life--one who is a sessional? Maybe they inspired you, guided your career options, provided helpful references or contacts, or otherwise just made a difference in the way you think of yourself and your life as a student or in general.

If so, how about writing a short paragraph about how that person made a positive impact on your education? Not sure if your favourite instructor is a contract academic staff member? Just ask them! Then, send your paragraph to with "Contract Academic Recognition" in the subject line. The deadline was October 15, but nominations will still be accepted. Your paragraph won't be marked for spelling or grammar! Contract instructors work hard for their students; why not spend a moment to see someone get recognized for that?

As a Faculty Lecturer, I am also a contract academic staff member--but I am not posting this to get anyone to nominate me. (In fact, if someone does, I will turn it down.) I was "celebrated" last year, and I'd like to see other excellent contract teachers to get recognized this way.

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Aftermath

So, some midterms are over. When I was a student, I would try to reward myself after every exam. I'd often go and buy a stack of comics, or get a big bowl of Smartfood and watch a TV show I'd taped on the VCR.

What do you do after a big exam is over?
And then...

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Prep: 1

Midterms are fast approaching. Here's some advice that's a bit obvious, but maybe also helpful:

  • Do read the textbook. Stunningly obvious, no? Unfortunately, some first-year students don't realize that at university, you're expected to actually read the textbook. In my course syllabi (academic word for "course outline"), I have a table which lists my lectures by week. There's a separate column for assigned readings. Typically, each lecture topic corresponds with a textbook chapter.
  • Do read the textbook in the right environment. TV on? Rockin' your iPod? Tickling your sweetie? No. No. No. All of these things use up your attentional resources and distract you from reading your textbook. Sweetie will have to wait.
  • Don't use a highlighter. Take a look at past chapters: have you just been "painting" your textbook? Highlighting is laziness; you're just going, "This looks important. I better remember to actually learn that--later." If there's an important term, it's already in bold.
  • Do take active notes. After reading a section of a textbook, try to summarize what it was all about in your own words. Don't just copy definitions word-for-word. Yes, this takes a lot of time and effort. Know what? The learning takes place not when you review these notes, but when you make them. If you also have time to review them, so much the better.
  • Do review your lecture notes. Sometimes things make perfect sense when you've just heard my explanation of it in class. But a month later, you might look at the same stuff and go, "What?" If you don't understand something, your instructors (or the teaching assistants) can help--if there's enough time left before the exam.
  • Do make up flashcards. You may feel like an x-treme keener, but it works. On one side of a card, write an important term. On the other, write the definition. Shuffle the cards, and pick one. Do you recognize the term? Can you write down the definition on a separate sheet of paper? You may be able to do both of these things, and conclude that you're wasting your time. Not so: you added to your learning when you made the flashcards.
  • Do get enough sleep. There are so many studies that show how important sleep is to learning (and other things), it's not even funny. And why are you pulling an all-nighter anyway? Aren't you keeping up with the assigned readings?
These should be enough tips to keep you busy until your midterms. Tips for writing exams are coming up!

Why aren't you studying?

The Exam Writing: 1

Midterms are approaching like a freight train, like a airplane coming in for a landing, like a puppy whose leash has broken. Here are some quick exam writing tips, for multiple choice exams mostly:

  • If noise bothers you, wear earplugs at the exam. (No, not earphones, sorry.)
  • Read the question--no, seriously. Don't skim it, you're bound to miss an important word.
  • Think about the answer. Don't read the choices, not yet--they are sure to distract you. Jot your answer on the exam booklet, if possible. Then look at your choices.
  • Rule out obviously incorrect distractors. (That's what the incorrect choices on multiple choice exams are called. They're there to distract you. Seems kinda mean. Still, it's better than the term, "this'll-fool-'ems")
  • Can't decide on the correct answer? Is it eating you up inside, like last night's extra spicy four-bean chili? Are you starting to obsess over it? You're wasting time. Move on to questions you can actually answer. Come back to more difficult ones later. You can guess on them if you can't figure them out--that's better than leaving them blank (yes, I've seen this happen).
  • Take extra care when questions have negatives; you have to spend more time working out the negatives, or even double negatives.
  • Be careful when deciding to change your answer. Research has shown that changed answers are frequently wrong.
  • Put your name on the exam.
Why aren't you studying?

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