Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Bifurcated Student Commitment

In the first class session yesterday, there was a reasonably good discussion with perhaps a third of the students participating openly, this in spite of it being quite warm in the room.  Most of the rest seemed to be paying attention, if not joining in with their comments.  I was pleased by that.  But there were a few who seemed otherwise.  This post will focus on them first, then on a different group of students who seem eager but don't quite have the proper preparation.  

First let me note there was an outlier.  I passed around a sheet for registered students to check in and for students not yet registered to indicate their presence.  There were none in the latter category.  Several students who were on the list did not show up.  All but one of them dropped.  That one left had blown off the first class session.  So I emailed him about it to find out what was going on.  He responded that he did plan to take the course and would be in class on Thursday.  But he was still working on fixing his schedule and he had more pressing matters than attending the first session.  You can read that any way you'd like.  In my grand model of all things related to college students, if he had emailed me ahead of class and apologized but said he would have to miss the session, he would be in my good graces.  The way it played out he is not. 

Now to the disengaged students who did show up in class.  We are taught not to read a book by its cover.  True enough.  Yet body language does communicate.   These students, all white males, were slouching in their seats with a pained expression painted on their faces.  The message I got from glancing at them now and then was, "I'm tolerating this class, but just barely.  Either pick it up or I'm out of here."  We'll see if they are there tomorrow for the next class session.  Reflecting about this afterward, I had the feeling of being in a remake of Up The Down Staircase with me in the Sandy Dennis role.  The only thing missing from the original was the threat of violence.

Peter Drucker makes a point that I strongly agree with - the active person in any communication is the receiver/listener.  The sender/talker may believe he has control, but the receiver/listener has the power to shut down intended communication. I'm sensitive on this point so when I'm the sender/talker I look for ways to learn whether I'm getting through.   Indicators, even if far from perfect, are helpful to make some appraisal of the situation.

For my online stuff, usage stats help give the picture.  But at the start of the semester there are some issues in relying on them.  At yesterday's first class session I failed to get the projector to see the signal from my laptop, so I didn't do my normal first day activity of giving a tour of the class Web site.  On Sunday I had sent each registered student an email with several relevant pieces of information, including the link to the class Web site and a different link to a survey done in Google Forms that I wanted them to complete before the first class meeting.  There was a little to do when I mentioned that email in class - apparently many of the students hadn't seen it yet.  Since that announcement several additional students completed the survey.  Indeed for two of them, the time stamp is for during the class session.  Yet there are still many students who haven't done the survey.  I can't tell whether that is because of their lack of commitment or because they don't do email but otherwise are committed.  If the latter is the case, I'm not sure what alternative to try.  The last time I taught the course it seemed that every student did check email. 

I am uncertain about the cause for the lack of commitment, but it seems evident that it precedes my teaching of this class.  In economic jargon, it's exogenous to my teaching model.  You deal with it as you can.  Seeing it has made me mindful not to be the cause of more of it.  It is that thought which drives my thinking about the under prepared students.  The critical issue is whether intermediate microeconomics should be a prerequisite or if concurrent taking of intermediate micro is ok or if a student can take my class without intermediate micro. 

As a matter of fact, there is no prerequisite for my class enforced in Banner, the student registration system.  Whether that is because I failed to notify the department that there should be or because they failed to ask me, I can't say.  The course is still being offered as a special topics class.  I don't know whether prerequisites are appropriate for such classes.  At least in theory, it shouldn't matter whether there is a formal prerequisite or not, if students can petition the instructor to waive the prerequisite.  The same sort of advising/consultation would occur in that case as well.  As a matter of practice, however, the formal prerequisite might discourage some students from pursing a waiver alternative, so it probably does matter some. 

The question, then, is how to respond to students when I get queries such as these.  What would be a fair and considered response?  I took no undergraduate microeconomics whatsoever.  I was a math major at Cornell.   I did get to skip some prerequisites, but that was in political science.  Since I've taught the current course, I've seen students who had intermediate micro, but didn't seem to grasp some of the main lessons from it.  Having comfort in using calculus arguments would be extremely helpful.  But this is almost impossible for me to assess ahead of time.  Under the current FERPA interpretation on campus, instructors can't see student grades in their prior courses.  (Formally appointed advisers can.)   The system seems to want to steer the students toward the formal advisers.  But there are so many students and so few advisers.  Further the advisers don't know the prior skills the students need for particular courses.  The student-instructor communication on this point is more natural.  Indeed, in my course we will be making an argument for decentralized decision making tomorrow for just this sort of local information reason.  Even then, however, the instructor gives advice in a setting largely ignorant of the student's capabilities. 

Let me close.  Those who are aware of Gresham's Law might wonder whether something similar might happen with students, even if on day one of the course the number who appeared disengaged were a small minority.  Will it stay a small minority by the end of the third week?  That's the concern.  It's why even if I can't get the disengaged students to become excited about the economics, can I at least get them to break into a smile once in a while?

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