Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Honor Thy Father

Ask yourself, what little lessons from childhood stuck?  I have a couple of these that come from the weekends in the fall.  The first - you don't have to do a perfect job.  This came from raking leaves, of which there were so many it was hard to keep up.  Get most of them into a pile.  Then get most of the pile into the trash can.  As for the rest, they'd get picked up the next time.  The second - give him a chance.  We'd be playing association football in the street and when on defense we would want to tag the guy with the ball before the play ever really started.  My dad, who'd be playing along with us, would prevent us from making the early tag.  Give the guy who first gets the ball time enough to get started.  There's more fun in doing it that way, particularly when the players are unequal in skill and one of the less skilled players is the one who starts with the ball.

My dad was no philosopher.  But he had a sense about how to go about doing things that he imparted on his children.  I see him in my own values now.  Though the context is quite different, the issues that pop up are similar.  The students on campus now are like the fallen leaves in our yard from my childhood.  There are so many of them.  Doing a perfect job is out of the question.  Do these kids even get to where they're supposed to go?   Then, when you have a struggling student in your class, do you give him a chance?  Suppose doing so means you break the rules from the syllabus, because the kid only begins to initiate on homework after the deadline.  Which values should prevail?  There is a logic that says enforce the course rules throughout, because if you don't then when some kid is late with homework during the second half of the semester when you no longer want to do accept work after the deadline, don't you have to give him an extension too, out of fairness?   My head understands that argument.  Yet it is not the conclusion my dad would have reached. 

We are in week four of the term.  My class meets Tuesdays and Thursdays. I number my class sessions in the course calendar so I know yesterday was the seventh session.  That's still early in the semester by my count.  I queried my students in class about who was having a midterm already this week.  I tend to ask such questions a minute or two before the real class session starts, hoping some of the stragglers will get there before I really get going.  One student answered that he had a midterm later that afternoon.  Several other students indicated their first midterm would be next week.  I followed up by asking them: do they prefer to have their tests concentrated over a short period of time or spread out?  Among those who responded, they were universal in preferring their exams to be spread out so they could make proper preparation for each test.  It's a small class.  Treat that result as suggestive, not definitive.

Personally, I don't see the point of exams, in an upper level class like mine.  Where is the value add in that activity, especially if you have other low-stakes activities that motivate students to learn and enable them to express their level of understanding?   In my class the students do two different types of homework most weeks.  One is a weekly blog post, supposedly 600 words minimum, so this is in the spirit of "slow blogging," not of Twitter.  I write a comment on each post and then we discuss the posts collectively in the live class session. The other is analytical content done in Excel, where they receive immediate feedback for their answers and where they are instructed to do the homework till they've answered each question correctly.  The spreadsheet then spits out a key which they are to copy and paste into a Google Form and select their class-assigned alias along with that, for further identification.  Below is a snip of the submitted data for the homework that is due tonight.

Reading the comments you can see there is substantial variation among the students in their prior preparation and in their current understanding of the material.  Exams, in my view, measure as much or more differences among the students that were present before the class started than they do value add since the class has begun.  So the rich (academically-wise) get richer and the poor get the C's, or drop the class because they do even worse than that.  The only reason I give exams is because the department has mandated them.  And that mandate, in turn, is to prevent instructor shirking.  That, rather than student learning, is the fundamental reason to require exams.  Even with the mandate some instructors cut corners.  They make their final optional and give a third midterm on the last day of regularly scheduled class.  I don't know if that reduces the amount of grading they do or not.  Clearly, it does allow them to start on vacation earlier than is intended by the schedule.  On can see that if any of this helps the struggling student that assistance comes via serendipity, not intentional planning.

There is similar variation among students in their diligence as to getting course work done and in attending class.  Not enough of the students bring their A game as the norm in their own behavior.  I would much prefer that all the students come to class (except those who are really sick or who have a legitimate reason to be out of town, such as to go on a job interview).  We've been debating this issue about the benefit of attendance ever since I got involved in teaching and learning with technology, 20 years ago.  And I'm sure it was argued for many years before I paid attention to the debate.  Here I simply want to note that it is a different thing blowing off a lecture in Foellinger Auditorium at 8 AM to missing an upper level class with total enrollment of 25 students at 11 AM.  I'm afraid habits developed about the former come into play when making choices about the latter.  Those same habits will negatively impact these kids later, after they've left the U of I and try to make a place for themselves in the world.

Those same habits come into play in not doing the homework altogether or in getting it done late.  I would much prefer that all my students have good works habits.  But as an instructor you have to play the cards your dealt.  The issue is what to do, given that the reality is quite far from the ideal. 

Last week in class we spent much of the time discussing transaction costs (Coase). The blog posts the students wrote were to discuss their own experiences in organizations, with an eye on the transaction costs they witnessed.

I don't grade individual posts.  I do give extensive feedback as comments, but only give a grade at mid semester (and again at end of semester) on the collection of posts within that grading period.  I expect the students to improve in these over time and the grading is meant to take that into account. Yet while there was no grading this time, the posts did serve as a test of student understanding.  Alas, most of the students showed they didn't really get what transaction costs are about.  So we spent much of yesterday's class on transaction costs, again, though this time doing it from a different angle.

Transaction costs are those costs that govern transactions (as distinct from those costs that produce transactions, which we refer to as production costs, though parsing the two is easier in theory than in practice).  Transaction costs include monitoring performance, coordinating activities, and motivating participants to produce high quality.  So we spent some time in class discussing each of these activities, first using our class as an example, then using the content of their blog posts for further illustration.  When it came to discussing motivation costs, we focused on non-wage methods of motivation.  (We'll take up the wage methods in a few weeks.)

In that context I talked about reciprocation, a powerful social method of motivation, one often overlooked in economics courses.  It is the basis of my favorite paper for this course, Akerlof's model of Labor Contracts as Partial Gift Exchange.  We will cover the ideas in that paper later.  Yesterday I contented myself with talking about random acts of kindness and leadership by example. Since both encourage reciprocation they are potential ways to raise productivity in an organization by having the followers reciprocate in kind.

What I do is a meld of Coase filtered through Akerlof and my dad.  My dad would probably have been okay with Akerlof, but not with Coase, who was very Conservative in his views.  But then Coase might disavow what I do as too much wishful thinking, so it kind of equals out.

I try to write real and substantial comments on each of my students' posts, with the hope that the students will respond in kind and do this with real and substantial posts of their own.  Likewise, with the give him-a-chance-approach for the laggards, and note that it is him only and not her in this case, in other words gender does seem to matter on this score, the hope is that these kids will reciprocate by getting their work done on time thereafter and coming to class on a regular basis.

Last year I had mixed success doing this.  This time around I've been more explicit with the class in talking about reciprocation.  Several of those who got to submit work beyond the deadline have thanked me for that electronically.  One student came up to me after class yesterday, expressing his gratitude, saying he was surprised by my comments on his post, and then talking through what his obligations were for the class moving forward.  This kid has spoken up in class before and in my quick calculation he seemed to be among the few who had something on the ball.  (Some kids are diligent about the work but not particularly insightful about what is going on.  This kid appeared the opposite.)  It would be a real shame if this kid didn't engage with the class because he missed some of the deadlines before we really got into the subject matter.

There is another dimension to this issue.  I've got a high proportion of the class being students from China and for some of them their English is rather poor.  The language barrier serves as an additional hurdle and can be the cause of delinquency with the assigned work, even for students who are otherwise diligent.  On Sunday evening I had sent out emails to several students who hadn't complete some of the previously assigned work.  Among these two were Chinese students from whom I had received no work whatsoever. 

On of those responded to my email the next evening and we arranged to meet Tuesday morning at 9:45. (My class starts at 11.)  He blew off the meeting, which irked me.  He also didn't show up in class.  But the other guy (the two proved to be friends) did come to class, late. And after class he came up to me and started to explain his problems.  In the middle of that, the other kid also shows up, deeply apologetic.  As I gather what is going on I propose we find a table in BIF, get our laptops out, and see if I can get them caught up enough so they can do the rest of the catch up on their own.  This is what we proceed to do.

But only one of them has a laptop.  The other, who came to class late, apparently is having trouble with his campus email, so he never received the message from me on Sunday evening.  I resent that message to him from BIF, this time to a Gmail account.  And the one with a laptop discovers that he can't boot it.  The battery has run down.  Further he has no charger for it.  He proposed to go to the Undergraduate Library to get a charger.  I nix that idea, because I don't have the patience for it.  I'm also saying to myself, how can this kid carry around a laptop without also having a charger with him?   Instead, we go to the basement of Wohlers Hall, where CITES has a computer lab.  I get them up and running there.  They are very appreciative of the help and assure me they will get caught up ASAP.

(In the old days, meaning the late 1990s, I used to make it a requirement for my students to do an orientation session in a computer lab so I was assured they all were capable of doing the online portion of the class.  I stopped doing that when I started to teach smaller classes as an overload to my work as an administrator.  There really didn't seem to be a need.  But the reality is that there is still a need for some small fraction of the students to have such an orientation.  The issue, then, is how to manage that.)

Later that afternoon I started to get peppered with questions by email from one of these kids on how to complete the Excel homework.  Now that he has connected with me it is easier to ask the prof than to labor through figuring it out himself.  I did respond to the first few of these but then got the feeling that he has crossed the line in the other direction.  Students need to respect that the faculty member's time is scarce.

My approach doesn't convey that idea well.  In that sense it is not a model of what might diffuse more broadly yet still have some of my dad's give-him-a-chance as part of the whole.  So I've been wondering what else might diffuse more broadly and still embrace my father's spirit.

On Monday evening I went to a reception for the I-Promise program.  The Chancellor spoke and then there were presentations by students, one currently in the I-Promise program, the other an alum who now serves as a mentor to another I-Promise student.  Part of the program is that mentoring is made available to all students who enter the program.  The mentoring is an option the students can exercise or not as they see fit.

Three years ago I mentored an I-Promise student, my first experience doing so.  Two years ago I started out mentoring a different student, but then I had rotator cuff surgery which produced complications afterward.  I had to drop out as a mentor.  Last year I didn't get matched with a mentee.  There were more of us mentors to go around than there was expressed demand.  Part of the reason for going to the reception this time was to meet some of the new students and see if one of them would like to have me as mentor.  We'll see if that happens.

In the meantime a different thought has occurred to me.  The laggard students in my class are emblematic of a population of students who'd benefit from having a mentor, even if they are not from low income families.  That the need is there seem obvious.  How to identify such students surely is an issue, especially when they are freshman, where the mentoring would do the most good.  The campus is probably unable to extend the option provided to I-Promise students to all entering students.  There wouldn't be enough mentors to go around and matching mentees and mentors would be a gargantuan task if attempted at that scale.

So maybe the approach, if it happens at all, has to occur de facto rather than de jure.  Those who confront struggling freshman should embrace a give-him-a-chance approach as best as they can, in whatever context in which they operate.  Yet that does cut against the culture, particularly in the high enrollment classes students are apt to take while they are freshman.  

Do these arguments mean we do nothing?  I hope not.  There is a significantly sized population of discontented students.  And it doesn't have to be a perfect job.

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