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The new semester will be starting in a few weeks, and I will be teaching a course which starts on the first day of the semester.

The goal of the course is to teach students how to use the R programming language to clean and analyze data. I will teach the course using a flipped classroom format:

  • To save time (both my own time and students' time), I will record video lectures and write lecture notes, which I expect the students to watch or read before each class. It should take the students about 1–2 hours to watch/read before class.

  • The class meets 1 time per week, for 3 hours at a time. During the class time each week, students will be in the computer lab, where they will complete data analysis tasks on the computer. During the class time in the lab, students can ask me to clarify any questions they may have.

Question: From the second class onward, I will be expecting students to watch the lecture videos and read the lecture notes before coming to class. However, is it a good idea to have the same arrangement for the first class? In other words, is it unreasonable to ask and expect students to read the lecture notes for the first class before coming to the first class? My plan is to post the lecture notes online, and to notify students that they should read the lecture notes by making an announcement using the course LMS system. (In my university, students are automatically signed up to the course learning management system when they register for the course.)

Some clarifications:

  • What types of students will be taking the course?

    The course is a course for undergraduate students, with most of the students are in their 2nd or 3rd year of study.

  • Is the course listed as a lab or as a lecture course?

    The course is listed as a lecture course. I am teaching in the business school, where lab courses are extremely uncommon. I believe that courses which are taught as lab courses, say by teaching them in a computer lab, are still listed officially as lecture courses.

  • Will I be giving the students too much work?

    In my university, courses meet once a week, for 3 hours at a time. My plan is to give students either some notes to read and/or videos to watch, which they should do before class each week. This should take about 1-2 hours of time each week, which seems to me to be quite reasonable. Students in my university take 5 courses a semester on average, which is 15 hours of class time each week.

  • 18
    Does the university's first day of classes occur before your first class meeting? – Elizabeth Henning Jan 1 at 18:17
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    If you're doing this before the first day how are you going to ask it? – candied_orange Jan 1 at 22:32
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    "The lecture notes are quite short... 1-2 hours to read them" I'm scared for what your long lecture notes are – alexdriedger Jan 2 at 1:28
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    At my uni we had 3 or 4 courses each days. If all of them had supplied 'quite short' lecture notes, that would have set average students back up to 8 hours after classes, each day. – DonFusili Jan 2 at 13:22
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    You can argue about whether it's unreasonable or not, but at a certain point what matters is whether it's unrealistic or not... and I would think it is. – Ask About Monica Jan 2 at 22:47

15 Answers 15

76

Yes, it is unreasonable to ask and/or expect students to do 1-2 hours of reading work prior to coming to the first class of the semester. It’s not just that, as others point out, your expectations will surely not be met, but, equally importantly, that such a request is unfair to the students.

What’s reasonable is to expect the students to come to the first class knowing the officially advertised prerequisite material. Requiring more knowledge than that is effectively moving the goalposts, a kind of false advertising, and a (mild) abuse of your authority. In addition to most of the students ignoring your request, even the ones who do the reading may still resent you for this misrepresentation, and for trying to monopolize a part of their time that is not yours to monopolize - the time before the beginning of the class, when students may well be busy with other things they had planned to do.

At the end of the day, it’s worth remembering that it is your job to teach the material, and that the time between the start of the class and the end of the semester is precisely the time scheduled by the university for the students to learn that material. Assigning independent reading, while certainly acceptable, is something that should be done sparingly, and not before this official time period. Your intentions seem good and I sympathize with the general idea: I may also wish that if I’m teaching, say, a complex analysis class then students should read at home the basics of contour integration before the course starts so that I can cover more advanced material. But that’s my problem, not the students’.

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    With due respect: I do not see why it is unfair. Your line of argument would suggest it would be unreasonable for a student to have read material of any class since, in principle, you have not yet covered this material. What would be unreasonable would be to expect students will have mastered the material ahead of class, but prepared for it? I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree. – ZeroTheHero Jan 2 at 3:04
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    I know this isn't the point, but expecting students to have bought the textbook before the first class is a little much in some situations. The students may not yet know whether they want to remain in the class until they've come to the first session and received the syllabus, they may not know whether the book will be used extensively or is optional, and the book may be quite expensive. There are a number of situations where it could make a lot of sense to wait on getting the textbook (of course, the student bears the risk of any downsides that may result from this approach). – Zach Lipton Jan 2 at 5:23
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    @ZachLipton good point, I edited out that parenthetical remark. – Dan Romik Jan 2 at 8:01
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    @ZeroTheHero my answer (and OP’s question) concern only what is reasonable or unreasonable for the instructor to do, not what is reasonable for students to do, so I’m not sure what you mean about “your line of argument would suggest [...]”. Thanks for your feedback though. – Dan Romik Jan 2 at 8:06
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    @Ben thanks for your opinion. In my humble opinion, professors need to respect the boundaries of where their authority lies. Expecting students to study before the class has started, even if motivated by good intentions, falls on the wrong side of that boundary. So yes, it is an abuse of authority - a mild one, as I said, but an abuse nonetheless. – Dan Romik Jan 5 at 22:31
145

In my opinion, yes it is unreasonable.

Disclaimer: I am a student in the Netherlands, different universities and countries might work differently.

In all the courses I've followed I can't remember a single one that expected me to prepare for the first class. Usually the first half of the first lecture of a course is dedicated to explaining how the course works, what is expected of you, and anything else related to organization. Most students, including myself, usually don't even register in the online environment where the teaching material is posted before the first lecture.

You could argue that maybe this shouldn't be the case, and that students should be more diligent. And naturally, it is up to you whether you want to take this view and potentially punish students who didn't prepare. Practically though, most students are probably just going to miss it, or skip it.

If you do decide to have students prepare for the first lecture, make sure to clearly note this in the course guide/emails/online announcements. And also note the potential consequences for students who do not prepare.

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    Nothing in your answer tells me why it would be unreasonable to ask students to be prepared for the first class. Yes, students may not be used to it, it clearly requires communication, and it may practically not be the best idea didactically speaking, but nothing about this is unreasonable. – xLeitix Jan 1 at 20:53
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    @xLeitix, if a single course has stricter requirements about things that should be done beforehand, and there's no practical way for the usual student to even find out about those requirements before it's too late, then yes, it really quickly starts getting unreasonable. – ilkkachu Jan 1 at 21:56
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    The one exception in my experience has been set up (ex: signing up for Github, installing IDEs, etc.) . However, these were not mandatory to be done before the first class but recommended to save you time later – alexdriedger Jan 2 at 6:55
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    @xLeitix what makes it unreasonable is your highly nonstandard definition of what it means to “be prepared for the first class”. I’ve never seen a university where it is expected that students should have read the material for a lecture before attending the lecture. Students go to lectures to learn new material, not to be reminded of things they already learned at home. The only possible exception to this rule is the flipped classroom format, but even then it is inappropriate to have such expectations before the class has even started. – Dan Romik Jan 2 at 21:01
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    @JanusBahsJacquet I too am Scandinavian. Before university I was never asked to prepare for a class. At university we were often recommended to read some material before class, but I only encountered one in which it was actually expected. For the remainder it was more a case of "lectures are a good introduction of the material, and the material exists for you to study in case you don't already get it". It may be more a matter of subjects, specific institutions, and individual teachers or learners, rather than broad geographical differences. – Jacob Raihle Jan 4 at 15:40
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I think that it is reasonable to ask that they read the notes. But I suspect that you will get about the same response that you would get to any similar request during the term. Some will do it - most likely those who need it least - and others won't. There are a lot of reasons beyond slacking why they won't. They have other commitments for their time and effort between terms.

So, my advice would be to make the request, but don't assume that it is honored. Find a way in class that you can proceed without disadvantaging some of the students. One way is to start out with pairing in the first exercises. One member of a pair might be able to bring her/his partner up to speed. Another way is to spend part of the first class discussing the notes explicitly. If the scale is reasonable, make this an interactive exercise.

Another way is to provide an ungraded quiz that you use solely to let the students know if they have any gaps that they should fill quickly. Make it clear that if they do well on the quiz they are prepared to continue, but otherwise they need to quickly bring themselves up to speed - via the notes.

Actually, maybe the response would be a bit less than normal, given that this is, to them, an unusual request.

If you are a relatively new teacher, I'll note that your students are not like you, unless this is an advanced graduate course. Very few of them, anyway. You are who and where you are because of certain characteristics and habits that the vast majority of your students don't share. It is always a good idea to remember that. You are not teaching people just like you. They probably don't learn in the same way that you learn. Explore Learning Modalities for a discussion of that. You have succeeded. They haven't (yet). Moreover their success won't be like yours for the most part.

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    Disadvantaging is fine, so long as it's not to the point of being irrecoverable (For example, if students do not understand the first lecture because they aren't prepared, they still can study and learn the material themselves to catch up). Setting the precedent of rehashing the assigned reading during the first class, when the intention is not to do so throughout the whole semester, sounds a lot more problematic, because students will assume this will continue. – Ben Voigt Jan 1 at 21:00
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    @BenVoigt, easy enough to clear up any misunderstanding or misplaced assumptions. Also, asking about questions on readings may be a good practice in many situations. But yes, irrecoverable should be avoided. Minor annoyances shouldn't figure in to the calculation. – Buffy Jan 1 at 21:07
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    +1 for the answer, especially this comment: "You are who and where you are because of certain characteristics and habits that the vast majority of your students don't share. It is always a good idea to remember that." – J. Chris Compton Jan 2 at 17:18
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You want the students to read the lecture notes prior to the first meeting of the class, but you do not appear to have a method of communicating this requirement directly to the students. Without a way to ensure that your announcement is read by all of the students in the class you cannot assume that any of them will read it, and thus in my opinion your requirement to spend multiple hours preparing for the class prior to the first meeting is unreasonable.

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    The OP said the school uses an LMS, which probably means it's possible to send out an emai directly to each registered student. The problem, as pointed out in another answer, is that some students may not have registered by the first class. – Elizabeth Henning Jan 2 at 4:22
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    @ElizabethHenning Even if they have, they might be on holidays, summer work camp, who knows until the semester starts and either not receive the mail in time or not have the time to get hold of the lecture notes and read them / make notes etc. – Frank Hopkins Jan 5 at 17:51
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This is actually a form of blended learning called the flipped classroom. This approach involves studying the material before classes and using the class period for activities and assignments to better understand the content. As such, this is not an unusual request.

The only thing that makes this unreasonable is the timing. If I understand the question correctly, you are trying to have the students read lecture notes before you even met them. Before the very first class is strange in my opinion. However, if you have a prior relationship with these students and have taught them before it may be more reasonable but still unusual. Often the first class is used to explain expectations for the semester and not so much on learning activities.

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    +1, but note that the regular extra reading between classes needs to be counted by the "system" towards the amount of academic credit for the course. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 2 at 16:40
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    @einpoklum no, there is not extra reading, reading outside of class should be the expectation of any class. What happens with flipped is that the time previously spent listening to lecture is now put in outside of class and the time doing problems, some kinds of writing, etc that used to be done outside of class is now done during class time. That's what flipped means. – Elin Jan 2 at 22:31
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    @Elin: Reading outside of class (call it "preparatory reading") is one thing - which should also be accounted for beyond a certain volume; reading lecture notes in addition to attending lectures is another thing. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 2 at 22:35
  • @einpoklum In a "flipped" environment the time spent in the classroom is generally not time spend listening to lecture: it is spent on activities in which the skills and information int he reading (or videos or whatever) is applied and placed in context. You ask the student to do more factual learning out of class, but less simple drill and practice out of class (i.e. the traditional "homework" is moved into the supervised environment). Or that is the theory. My applications generally ended with me doing some "review" at the beginning of each class before getting down to the applications. – dmckee Jan 5 at 19:51
  • @dmckee: IIANM, the question regards a regular (i.e. non-"flipped") environment. In a "flipped" environment, the classroom activities you describe would probably not be called "lectures". Regardless of which environment it is, the credits should be counted based on all activity types and a reasonable estimate of the time they involve. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 5 at 21:57
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Not all your students might have fully enrolled by the first class. They might not have access to the course announcements or the lecture notes, and therefore they can't read the material even if they want to.

Beyond that though, what someone considers reasonable and unreasonable will vary from person to person, so I'll sidestep that discussion (the comments to one answer already quotes from dictionaries what this word means) and say, chances are:

  • Most students will not read the lecture notes before the first class. Only the most dedicated and diligent of students will.
  • Most students will not complain if you make this request. Some won't even be aware of it until the first lecture.
  • If you go ahead with this and stick to your guns, the most common reaction will probably be surprise. "Wow, this course / professor is not easy".

Personally, I'd skip the requirements in the first class and impose them beginning in the second class. That way, everyone (those that come to the labs anyway) will know what you expect of them, and ignorance is no longer an excuse.

8

Everyone is focusing on the fact that you want to have this done before the first class and casually glances over the fact that you are effectively doubling the amount of time necessary for your class.

You don't mention a location, but at every college I know of, course credit values are assigned depending on a loose estimation of the expected number of hours a student puts in before voluntary extra work. The way you want to structure this, the credit score would have to be doubled.

If the credit score isn't doubled, you should either halve the number of classes or abandon the idea of not actually teaching the lecture altogether.

In order to make this an answer to the question as posed: I second all answers that point out that you have no reliable channel to make your expectations known to the students. As such the specific expectation as asked is unreasonable.

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    Expectations regarding the student's time tend to be optimistic. We once calculated that, after doing all assigned reading, preparations, exercises etc., we'd be able to sleep for 8 hours - per week. – user24582 Jan 3 at 13:09
  • We don't know how the OPs system works. In our university a 10 credit module is expected to involve 100 hours of work, but even the most intensive 10 credit modules only have 18 hrs of class time. You are expected to do at least 5 times as much work outside class as in. – Ian Sudbery Jan 7 at 13:44
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You don't say what level of students or what any prerequisites are for the course, so my comments are based on the idea of a fairly low level undergraduate course. If it were an honors course for senior majors I might answer differently.

1-2 hours is way too much to expect before the first meeting. At least in the US, students may not even complete registration before the first class and some may not be back to campus until the day of your class meeting.

Also you are using the term lab notes and lecture notes interchangeably, but they are not the same. Are you talking about lab instructions? Or were you planning to lecture for two hours? At most, you might ask them to "skim" instructions but don't count on them doing it.

That said, I do often email students before the first meeting and ask that they do something. For example, send me an email introducing themselves, post a self introduction on a discussion board, complete a short survey or pretest assessment, read a related newspaper article or watch a related video (since you mention data analysis I'll say that for my into stats class I sometimes use one of the Gapminder videos). Or make sure they know how to login to some system. Also remind them to bring anything they need to bring if you are doing a lab. I also post this in the LMS so that students who don't read their email will see it. That makes possible to have a more engaged first class meeting even if only half the class did it, and students can email me with anything I need to know before class. Also students who didn't read the email get a reminder that they need to do that and also can still do it after class.

What are you going to do about the students that didn't do the reading? What about visually impaired students who didn't do the reading? It's already a classroom management problem just thinking about it. There's nothing worse for a course than a chaotic first meeting. It gets the whole thing off on the wrong foot.

I would think that for the first lab you would want to plan it out carefully so that it takes a reasonable amount of time (leaving time to review the structure of the course and expectations) and right away start showing that class time will be used for active learning. That is do not lecture for more than you plan to lecture during the rest of the semester. That means you will have to assume nothing for that first class and plan a lab that does not require student prep and is either very self explanatory that you will actively facilitate. It will be better to have it be too short than too long.

I don't know how much experience you have in teaching or in the flipped model, but I can tell you that it requires meticulous planning. It's definitely worth it to put the planning time in. I have students doing data analysis with real data in R the first day they walk into my room; it is very do-able with good planning and thoughtful approaches.

  • Would it be possible for you to share a little bit more about what you do in your first lecture/lab? For example could you share lecture notes or lab problems? I would like to learn from how you get students up and running with R in the first class. – I Like to Code Jan 2 at 4:26
  • Curious--what percentage of response do you get if you ask students to do something (e.g. send an e-mail) before the first class, and what level are your students at? – user3067860 Jan 2 at 14:53
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    @user3067860 My students are usually mid to upper-level undergraduates (not freshman or first semester sophomores). I would say about half would usually do what I ask them to do. -- I-like-to-code happy to share some things .... are you going to be using RStudioServer/RStudio, working in the console or something else? Also are you making a course package? – Elin Jan 2 at 22:22
  • @Elin I am teaching them R using RStudio, so they will work in the console and the code editor in RStudio. Can we discuss this by email? You can find my email address at my Academia Stack Exchange profile. Thank you. – I Like to Code Jan 3 at 6:17
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One big problem could be students who add the course late. You can post the assignment on the class management software, but if some student adds the class the day of or the day before or the day after the first lecture, then he won't know about the assignment until it's too late.

If this is a large lecture course, this is guaranteed to be a problem. More so because large courses are usually populated by immature students. If this is a small, graduate course, then it's much less unreasonable.

3

It is highly unlikely that more than 10% of your students will read the lecture notes prior to the first lecture, and that's being optimistic. The beginning of the semester is fraught with logistical issues. Often, students drop a course after looking over a syllabus. The students then spend a little time registering for new courses. More time is spent purchasing required textbooks at the beginning of the semester, then during. A student may spend a few hours moving their belongings into a dorm room or apartment instead of reading the lecture notes. Once things "calm down" a bit, students will have more time to read such things. However, I would plan for failure. Design your lectures to be effective even if none of the students have read the notes beforehand.

3

First day of class? Forget it. Class hasn't started yet. Second (and maybe 3rd) day of class? Depends on when drop/add ends at your school, it is likely the first day of class for some.

But you must hammer on the necessity of coming to class prepared, and you need to have consequences of not being minimally prepared pre-class.

Since you are using the LMS, I recommend the way I operate for a "flipped" classroom.

I have 15% of the final grade coming from "readings quizzes", which are short 5-10 question auto-grading (multiple choice, many choice, matching) quizzes over the materials needed to be prepared for class. These quizzes open 5 minutes after class ends, and they are all due by 5 minutes before the next class starts (1 day per week night course), and have no real time limit. I encourage students to start the quiz, and start reading, and answer the questions as they go.

I teach IT stuff, so by having these quizzes as 15% of the grade even if someone already knows my subject area (Linux & services administration) from hobby use, work experience, etc. they can blow off these quizzes but the highest possible grade is a middle B. Even if they are getting 100% on labs and projects, it means that they must do very on the unit exams (which come from both pre-class prep content and labs/project content) in order to maintain that B. Even the students who know it all already and are just chasing that degree end up taking the quizzes just to give them that extra breathing room on their final grade.

The biggest issue is that some students believe that "Cs earn degrees" - so they do the least possible to maintain that benchmark.

Just remember - you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it a duck. Good luck!

1

Yes, this is unreasonable. However, what I'm not saying is that you definitely shouldn't do it.

Yes, it is unfair. Some people may finish some stressful classes the prior quarter, and went through the effort then to register for this quarter's classes, and then pursued some other activities in life (which might be serious, or not; either way should be at their personal discretion) and then not even think about your class before classtime, except maybe to swing by the bookstore to buy books. That is the standard expectation, and so they may not even know about your additional "requirements" until they show up to your class in order to start learning what your requirements may be.

I read your question carefully enough to see that you may use your LMS system, which may inform students. However, they may not be checking their E-Mail. Even if you sent that E-Mail before the prior class ended, they might not pay attention to E-Mail about upcoming courses. As some other answers mention, there are some boundaries, and they might not believe there is any expectation for them to engage before day number one.


All that said, perhaps the answer (as to whether you should do this) depends on just what your goals are. Here is a solid example showing the other side of the coin.

I've been a college instructor and I recall a college President telling me (and some other staff) about something he did. In prior years, he was a college instructor who had a Statistics course. One thing this instructor was evaluated on was the course completion rate. The only students who affected the course completion rate were students who registered and remained past the brief initial re-scheduling period (for the first few days, maybe week or so, of the quarter). So, if a student dropped the class during the initial few days, that person was no longer considered a student of the course and didn't affect the course's rate of completion/mid-course withdrawals.

He had a requirement of completed homework due on day number one, and providing a negative grade for those who didn't turn that in.

He got a reputation of being extremely unfairly harsh.

This tactic also resulted in him scaring away the slackers, so the remaining students (who did put up with this "nonsense") were the truly dedicated, or at least the students who wouldn't shy away from some work.

As a result, anyone who was going to drop his class because of workload typically did so during the first three days, or even before his class started, which didn't count against him. By getting his "drop outs" to drop out so early, they didn't count against him, so even in a typically less-popular course, this instructor enjoyed some extremely high course completion rates.

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    OMG this sounds to me like the ultimate example of a bad teacher! A teacher should want to teach as many students as possible as much as possible instead of trying to get them to drop out as early as possible. – Stijn de Witt Jan 6 at 23:23
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    @StijndeWitt : As I recall, he said that his classes did fill up (with the motivated and dedicated, since the lazy dropped out). So, "want to teach as many students as possible" didn't really apply, since his classes were full up. In part, there might be a humane aspect to this, as the students who dropped early wouldn't be penalized for doing so, and wouldn't get the bad grade that they would be more likely to get if they stayed a while first. I'm not actually trying to take the stance that this was a good decision overall; just showing some different sides of a different approach. – TOOGAM Jan 7 at 0:58
1

We do a very similar arrangement for the small amount of R teaching we do. Students are asked (via email) to do some preparatory work before the first class. This involves two things for this class:

  • a video (and written up notes) on how to install R and R studio
  • A short video and set of exercises on finding their way around the R studio window, using the console as a calculator, learning what a variable is and assigning values to variables.

I wouldn't expect them to read but they do seem to watch the videos, or at least, say 75% of them do. This allows us to concentrate the the others during the class.

I'll note that our class is compulsory for everyone that does it. There is no signing up late or dropping out. And our students are used to being communicated with via email - any student that doesn't check their email at least once a day will have found themselves dropping quite a lot of credit in their first year.

0

Don't even tell them. Just give them a pop quiz on the first day. This will send the lesson that they need to pre-read the lessons. Try to be like John Houseman in The Paper Chase.

(This answer is not entirely in jest. I think an adversarial teacher is entertaining. And it can drive learning. It's actually a topic that I would enjoy in a question.)

-2

It is not unreasonable to ask students to be adequately prepared before they attend any lecture: first, second, third etc. What is unreasonable on the part of the instructor is to expect the students will behave reasonably.

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    While I appreciate the phrasing for rhetorical effect, wouldn't it be more fair to replace "unreasonable" in the 2nd sentence with "unrealistic"? – Yemon Choi Jan 1 at 19:50
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    @YemonChoi hmmm... interesting observation. Googles defines “unreasonable” as not guided by or based on good sense - which is what I mean - but Merriam-Webster gives not conformable to reason : ABSURD, which is too strong. MW defines “unrealistic” as inappropriate to reality or fact, which is more practical than “unreasonable”. – ZeroTheHero Jan 1 at 20:11
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    It is not unreasonable to ask students to be adequately prepared: this looks like a straw man argument. Being “adequately prepared” does not mean to have already studied the content of the lecture. Before the first lecture, being “adequately prepared” means precisely to have the official prerequisites advertised in the catalog/syllabus, nothing more. – Dan Romik Jan 1 at 22:50
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    -1: It is absolutely unreasonable. The prerequisites of a course is one thing; but asking students to study during a time when they may not be in the same country or even have internet access is obscene and a gross assumption. In addition you can not assume when people actually signed up for the course. If the lecture doesn't cover the lecture notes, they're very poor notes indeed. – UKMonkey Jan 2 at 12:46
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    Reading the notes for a lecture is not preparing for the lecture, it is what you do if you've missed the lecture, or you want to go over the material again. – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Jan 2 at 16:38

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