Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Gap Between Student Performance and Faculty Expectations

Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.
          Samuel McChord Crothers
As a word with more than one meaning, "expectations" sometimes confound the layperson.  To an economist, expectations first and foremost refer to forecasts of future variables.  In that flavor they are sometimes modified with other words, such as adaptive or rational.  Adaptive expectations are predictions of future variables based on past realizations, where more recent observations receive greater weight.  Rational expectations have to be consistent with the model in which they are used, so there is no systematic forecasting error.  Either type of expectations can and will be wrong after the fact.  Nobody knows the future for certain, even when armed with a good model for prediction.  But rational expectations must be right before the fact, on average, if the model is correct.  That is their defining property.

Of course, expectations can mean something else entirely.  They can be desired norms of behavior, aspiration levels if you will.  In this meaning expectations refer to what the holder would like to see in behavior, either his own behavior or the behavior of others.  As a teacher, I have very high expectations for my students.  These expectations are neither adaptive nor rational.  We are told, for example by Ken Bain, that the best teachers have high expectations for their students.  Alas, the causality doesn't run in the other direction; necessary doesn't mean sufficient.

Given that, I wonder what the answer to the following is.   After some time in the classroom with a great teacher, do the two notions of expectations begin to coincide, when considered from the teacher's perspective as the teacher focuses on student performance?  For me, they do not.  The aspiration level remains considerably higher than the rational forecast of student performance.  In this post I want to look more closely at why this is and in the process, if I have any students among my readers, give these students some sense of "what I'm looking for" from them.  That shouldn't be a mystery, though it apparently is for students in my class.  Once the students come to understand that there is no teaching to the test and that their performance, particularly as writers, will be evaluated on many dimensions that are other than whether what they say is factually true, they need something else to guide them as to what constitutes good performance.  I also want to observe that I wish it were otherwise.  I would much prefer to see that the two notions do coincide, but only by having student performance rise to my aspiration for it.  I have no desire whatsoever to lower my aspirations to be more in accord with student behavior.

I would like to qualify things before we get started.  There are some students who survive to the end of the semester and are still registered in the class but they seem to have given up long ago.  They stop coming to class.  They don't do much of the homework.  They show up for exams; but that's about it.  In my mind, these students should have dropped the course.  And if the U of I had the same rules in place that Cornell had when I was an undergrad there, they would drop the course.  But the U of I is more rigid this way, so on occasion the sorting of who sticks and who drops has imperfections to it.  In any event, I want to abstract from these students entirely.  I will only consider those students who are sufficiently diligent about their work throughout the semester.  Diligence is a good thing, but it is not enough.   It seems to me that a good number of the diligent students believe it is and/or they believe their "hard work" can compensate for any of their shortcomings they have about insight into what they are studying.   

Let me get to the heart of the matter.  The goal of the academic side of college is for students to develop their own capacity for producing insight.  This development can only happen with lots of practice, where each episode entails student thinking that aims to penetrate the surface.  When I look at student work I want to see evidence of such student thinking.  It does happen, on occasion, but it is much rarer than it should be.  With most of what I see, the student remains on the surface of the subject the entire time and goes no further.

This post by a student in my class (he is writing under the alias Daniel Kahneman), and his response to my comment on the post, are thoughtful and give a sense as to one explanation for the surface learning.  In his comment he responds to mine and in the process reformulates a hypothesis I had mentioned in class.  Further, he provides evidence that is in support of the hypothesis, a signpost that the surface has been penetrated.  He mentions the student as sheep idea, making reference to the recent book by William Deresiewicz.  In the variant on that theme that is applicable to my class, the students perform as if their job is to spit back whatever it is the instructor has spooned out.  This has replaced the main mission with what should be a byproduct attained en passant while in pursuit of the mission.  The trivial gets elevated in importance and then obscures what is actually essential.

A complementary idea emerges that supports the student as sheep theme.  We are all creatures of habit.  Spitting back what the instructor spoons out has become so routine that it is all the student knows how to do.  Students lack the tools for penetrating the surface of something they study, because they haven't previously practiced doing that.  They do what they know how to do.  Mostly, they don't receive feedback that they should do otherwise.  So in the rare instance where they do get such feedback they nonetheless respond as if it's business as usual.  It is hubris on my part to expect the rest of the world to conform to my views on this point.  Hubris or not, it is the primary explanation that I can come up with for why the two notions of expectations don't converge for me and what it would take to get them closer together.

An alternative hypothesis that is also worth considering is that the problem is with the observer (me), not with the students.  Here the thought is that as a so-called expert many of the subsidiary issues one needs to confront when thinking are managed in an autonomous way by me so I can focus on what is important.  Further, this happens in a way where little to no effort seems to be extended to achieve that focus.  So when I look for evidence of penetrating the surface on a topic, I look for rather deep penetration only.  In contrast, the students as novices must devote intellectual energy to matters that for me don't require any concentration at all.  With their attention so divided, they have less to bring to understanding the subject matter.  They do try to penetrate it.  But they don't get very deep in so doing.  I then am overly dismissive of their efforts, because I don't see the progress they do make.

I am mindful of this alternative from time to time.   But mostly I ignore it.  This is where I probably make my biggest error.  I expect the students to be younger versions of me.  I was once a novice too.  And I have some memories of me as a student.  What I tend to do is compare my current students to my recollection of myself. This is how my expectations are generated.  But it is unfair, for at least two reasons.  First, I ultimately became a professor and as an undergraduate there must have been inklings that I was headed on that path, even if it wasn't obvious to me at the time.  It may be natural for professors to expect their students to be professors in waiting.  But that so distorts reality.  One needs a respectful view of the student that is closer to the way things actually are, one where the student's career is not wrapped up in the deep thinking professors do as their life work.  Second, our memories evolve over time and current circumstance tends to cloud what things were like back then.  In doing this my students end up competing not only with me at age 20, but with  me as I am now.

Let me move on to a subsidiary issue though one that remains important.  This is the matter of time and with it the division of labor between the student and the instructor.  With this I have in mind the mantra about the writer and the reader --- The writer does all the work so the reader doesn't have to.  Treat this as a norm and then cast the student as the writer and the instructor as the reader.  This is how the world should be, or so it seems to me.

But this is a far cry from how things actually are.  Students don't have a good sense that thinking takes time.  Further, they maintain a belief that in advance you can forecast how long an intellectual activity will take.  They don't account for the possibility of getting stuck and that getting unstuck can be quite time consuming.  They also don't account for that some thinking is immediate but other thinking is far more deliberate and that ahead of time it is often hard to tell which it is. 

Then many haven't been schooled on the virtues of proofreading and on the further benefit of proofreading after some considerable interval from when the prior version of the work has been completed, so they can come at the work with fresh eyes.  They tend to turn in whatever they just finished typing.

As I write this I must add here that there is a big gap in my own understanding of what students would be capable of if they did proofread their own work carefully.  Would they eliminate much of the redundant verbiage in their own writing?  I don't know.  Would they correct a point they make where the conclusion doesn't actually follow from the premise they maintain?  Again, I don't know.  For me, the distinction between won't and can't is under identified.  Sloth becomes a convenient hypothesis absent data to confirm it.  Sloth probably explains much of it.  But it is also possible that students don't know how to proofread well because they don't practice doing so.

With recent student extra credit projects I have found that a good chunk of what I do is to be their proofreader.  Regarding my ideal division of labor, this is quite wrong.  But without a relatively clean draft to consider for the rewrite, I don't know how the students can make progress. 

Let me make one further observation on this point and then close.  Our current hyper-connectedness makes the above problem worse.  It is far too easy for a student to take an electronic document, attach it to an email, and send it to the professor, irrespective of how far along the document is, with full expectation that this is not the last submission, just a stage in the process.  I have no desire to go back to typewriters and liquid paper, where it was often one and done regarding the number of drafts the student produced, because of the lags in document production and transmission.  But let us be cognizant that given those lags there was far greater incentive for the student to produce a tolerable first draft.

My expectations are steeped in that actual experience.  A decent first draft should be within reach for today's student, the vast majority of them, not just the exceptional kid.

One can only hope.

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