Monday, March 16, 2015

No Partial Credit

When I was a kid in the 1960s it was a fairly common practice for kids to skip a grade, maybe even two grades.  The first opportunity for this was to skip third grade and go directly to fourth grade after second grade.  I was not one of those kids who skipped third grade but I do recall when I was in Mrs. Minsley's third grade class and that sometime in the middle of the school year she "inherited" those students who were slated to skip.  So these kids really had part of second grade and part of third grade in the same year.  Looking back at this, I don't know if it was done to ease the transition for these kids or because of some staffing problem at school.  But I do know that for a while we had a very large class.

The other time to skip a grade was in junior high school.  There were two versions of SP classes.  SP stands for Special Progress.  Today you'd call it an Honors Program.  One version of SP was three years and at the time covered grades seven through nine.  The other version of SP was two years.  You covered those three grades in 2/3 of the time.  In other words, students and their families were given the choice either for enrichment or for acceleration.  I was in the three year SP, though my junior high school was converted to a middle school when the new high school opened, so I actually had ninth grade in high school.

A bright and precocious kid might have been able to skip grades twice and still fare quite well with the new cohort the kid entered, though apparently that not happening with regularity was a big reason why acceleration became less common.  But there are also risks with gifted children following an enrichment route only, especially if the way students are assigned for enrichment leads to a rather large fraction of the overall student population being so assigned, with the enrichment itself then, of necessity, targeted toward the middle of that group.  The outlier students may then become bored with school and alienated as a result.  My friend and former colleague, Al Roth, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, who grew up in the same neighborhood as I did and was a few years ahead of me at school, dropped out of high school and never graduated for these reasons.  Obviously, he was able to get on a good path after that.  Not all gifted kids are so fortunate. 

The way giftedness is usually defined, it is unclear whether such children simply develop some of their intellectual faculties early, such as starting to read at a very young age, or if they continue to learn more rapidly than their peers throughout childhood and adolescence and perhaps thereafter as well, indicating a difference in kind in the way people learn.  This suggests possibly confounding the one for the other.  For example, giftedness might actually be reference to a certain personality type.

A number of gifted children develop the INTP personality profile of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): description 1, description 2. The characteristics of this profile include the tendency towards social rebellion, the intense ability to focus etc. Again, these are also characteristics of the Autistic Spectrum. 

I am not a psychologist, but I suspect that reading at a very young age doesn't correlate strongly with any one personality type.  Further, sorting out the effects of parental push versus the kid's own supplied motivation probably takes many years to fully unravel.  Given that the expression Tiger Mom has now entered the vernacular,  one wonders whether the gifted child label is more for the parents than for the kid. 

Thinking back to my own childhood, I don't believe I was ever bored in school.  In high school and maybe in junior high school too, this was because I had a cohort of friends with whom I could have a social life that on occasion had some intellectual aspects to it.  In elementary school, the reason was different.  To a large extent I was able to follow my own inclinations, much of which allowed for a good chunk of the learning to happen outside of school.  (Even at school, some of the time I was allowed to do stuff on my own while the rest of the class did other things.)  I wrote about this several years ago in a post called PLAs Please.

Reading was different. Pretty early on, perhaps fourth grade, we had SRA. This history by Don Parker is a fascinating read, if a little melodramatic. We also had individualized reading. (Those who preach a learner centric approach likely will be intrigued at how early this piece is and yet that its critique is not about “teacher centric” so much as it is about “grouping,” where all students read the same book.) And now I must confess that my memory fails, or that I’m not able in looking backward to attribute cause to school or elsewhere or in some combination.

Elsewhere in this case was the public library, but also books that were at home. I recall a series that I believe Random House produced. The books were numbered, each around 150 pages, dealing with a character or event in American History – Kit Carson, The Transcontinental Railroad, Fulton’s Folly, Appomattox, etc. I’d read at least one of these a week, sometimes one in an evening. And there were biographies by Clara Ingram Judson from the school Library. This was an enormous education. I soaked it in. Once the momentum started it self-sustained. I’m really not sure of the spark. What does it matter?

There is something missing from this description, because it talks about reading only, not about what I did with the information that had been acquired from past reading.  This time in elementary school also marked the beginning of certain habits of mind forming in me.  These habits entailed putting information from different readings together into a more coherent picture and being able to retrieve bits of information from the reading and apply it in context appropriately.   I am unable to say now whether those habits of mind are part and parcel of my personality or something separate from it but which my personality was disposed to develop.

I don't believe anyone ever told me to develop these habits, though it is possible that somebody did and I simply have forgotten that episode.  I do believe it was an advantage that school didn't place too much demand on my time, so I could be freed up to self-teach at an early age.  I wonder if this sort of habit forming was less frequent with the kids who skipped third grade and/or had two-year SP, because they lacked the time for the habit to develop.  The current fashion of giving bright kids mountains of homework has the consequence that the kids don't learn about their own likes intellectually.  Thus, they are less likely to see learning as play, which I think is crucial for motivation. As a consequence, they can't task themselves in the direction of what they should focus on next with their learning.

Every once in a while I contrast myself as I remember to what I see in the students I teach now.  It does seem to me that many of these students, the vast majority of whom are juniors or seniors in college, don't have those habits at all, to my chagrin.  Later in that PLAs Please post, I wrote:

How many kids have a PLA? Do we know enough to say what starts them down the path? I don’t know the answer to either of those questions. Access to plenty of interesting things to read and view would certainly seem necessary. Whether it’s enough, I can’t really say.

I do have this feeling that we’re trying to do in College what individualized reading and the public library did for me in elementary school. And that if the kid doesn’t have a PLA by the time he graduates from High School, it sure will be tough sledding trying to get the kid to establish one thereafter.

In the spirit of imitating The Creator, I believe that most instructors try to recreate in their students images of themselves as learners.  Thus I take it as my primary mission as an educator to cultivate these productive habits of mind and only secondarily to teach the subject matter of my  course on the Economics of Organizations.  I feel that should be role of other instructors as well.   Given that, it is so disheartening to observe that most students don't see developing these habits as their job, not even a little bit. 

But is that the mission?  Illinois is one of the better public research universities nationally.  In the Campus Strategic Plan, the second goal is to provide transformative learning experiences.  As developing such habits of mind would certainly imply personal transformation in the student, it is not hard to see the strategic plan as telling us this is indeed the mission.

Yet a learner's needs are not so generic that they can be fully specified externally. Are most of the undergraduate students at Illinois gifted, in the sense I've described above?  I don't know.  If they are and if school coupled with pressure from parents and peers has forced them into following a less intellectually nurturing mode because the alternative seems more productive GPA-wise, this is a tragedy that we should try hard to reverse.  If many are not really gifted, is it nonetheless appropriate to encourage the students to acquire these habits of mind, or will they end up torturing themselves in so doing because they will never achieve proficiency this way?  This is the $64,000 question.

* * * * *

In much of my teaching over the last few years, I've implicitly assumed the answer to this question is yes.  I've modified my approach accordingly to where it is quite different from what students get in their other Econ courses.  Instead of straight lecture, we mainly use Socratic methods in class, with occasional spot lectures on the math models, though there are also micro-lectures online for that on a good number of the topics.

There are two types of homework.  The first is on the math modeling for the economics and done in Excel, which autogrades the student responses.  If students get an answer wrong, they can change it and continue to do so till they get it right.  The title of my post refers to my requirement that they get all the answers right in order to receive credit for doing the homework.  In my course evaluations, some students objected to this approach.  And some objected to my use of the homework as a readying activity for the in class discussion of the models.  They wanted me to lecture first and only have the homework after that.  I fought that for a while but have since caved in some, which is one reason why there are those online micro-lectures.  The other reason for them is that when I do an extended lecture on a math model with some subtlety face to face, many of the students can't really follow it and their eyes start to glaze over after a few minutes.  With the online lectures, I don't see that look on their faces.

The other part of the homework is weekly writing done online, where the students are supposed to tie their personal experiences to the economics issues we are studying.  They each have their own blog and write under an alias I assign. (You can find the student blogs by looking at the left sidebar in the main class blog and scrolling down a bit.) The students write to a prompt that I provide, though they have the option to write on something else of their own choosing as long as they can relate that to the issues we are studying.  The option is hardly ever exercised.

I will comment on each of the posts, often providing several paragraphs of response, if the students get their posts done before the deadline.  (In my class, the deadline is Friday at noon, but I typically only begin to read the posts over the weekend.  If they get something to me while I'm still reading other posts, then they are fine and I'll read theirs as well.  If they get it done only on Monday, then it is more hit or miss whether I'll read it.)  I have learned that such response is much better if it is reaction, the same sort of thing you'd do in conversation with a colleague, and only very little bit a corrective, or not at all.  Students want their own thinking critiqued.  It is something we faculty can offer them.  But at present it is outside their experience before taking the class.  So it takes them some time to relax in the writing and develop their own voice, because at a first they are very afraid their performance will be judged harshly.  Once they relax, many students who say they otherwise don't like to write do take to the blogging.  That in itself is a minor victory.  But I want more.  I'd like to see the students start to push themselves in the writing and get more ambitious with what they can accomplish by force of their own arguments.  Alas, I don't see this happening at all.

There are two possible explanations for why this doesn't happen.  (There may be other explanations as well, but I will focus on these two as they suffice to articulate my thinking on the issue.)  First there is the matter of incentives.  What does it take to get an A in the class?  While I believe I have quite high standards for what I'd like to see from the students in their intellectual performance, I am not a particularly tough grader.  If I were, with my course an elective rather than required of everyone, most of the students would drop.  If the final enrollments were substantially lower than the 10-day enrollments, I might not be asked to teach the class again.  This is the nature of the beast.  The incentives produce grade inflation and a package of other vices that go with it.  A few years ago I wrote a very long post, Why does memorization persist as the primary way college students study to prepare for exams?  In that post I offered up several recommendations for how to address the problem.  The first was to move to a grading system that I called uniform standardized ranking.  This would eliminate grade inflation as a possibility, but would thereby take away substantial discretion on the part of the instructor in the process.  The latter makes it unlikely we'll ever see something like it as an alternative to what we do now.  I wrote that essay not expecting all the recommendations to be implemented in full.  (Another recommendation, about tenure track faculty mentoring adjuncts, is less objectionable in principle, though it too is unlikely to see the light of day.)  My purpose, instead, was to argue that these issues need a systemic solution rather than adhere to the belief that the high character of the individual instructor is sufficient. 

The other possibility is ignorance.  The students don't know how to drill down with an inquiry they initiate.  They touch the surface and feel they are done.  They don't know how to go deeper.  They don't understand that going deeper requires coming up with questions that don't have immediate answers.  They don't try to generate such questions.   Even when such a question emerges of its own accord, they don't have prior experience of struggling over it and in the fullness of time have some discovery happen which addresses the question, in part or in whole.  As I said above, they also don't sense a need to try this approach out as an alternative to what they've been doing right along.  They are all well aware of the expression, critical thinking, but if tasked to identify in themselves when they practice critical thinking and what they do when in such mode, many would draw blanks.  To be fair, a few students are not like this.  These few have more on the ball.  Yet on the idea that students learn more from each other than from the instructor, it seems to me that the many drag the few down rather than having the few encourage the many to raise their game. 

What might be done to break out of this low-level equilibrium?

* * * * *

How many other instructors have these sort of thoughts?  Surely some do.  In the first year of this blog, when I was working full time as the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies for the campus, I wrote a post, Where is experimentation with teaching happening?

Some time ago I read A Life in School by Jane Tompkins. The book was recommended to me on the particular issue of where instructor ego belongs in teaching. Tompkins was a Professor of English (and I believe is the wife of literary theorist Stanley Fish). The book is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. After being completely miserable about her own teaching, Tompkins came to the conclusion that she was getting in the way of her students' learning. She kept modifying the approach, producing some interesting outcomes but never ones that satisfied her that she had "found it," that right way to conduct a class.

For Tompkins experimentation was a kind of penance. For me it's a form of self expression. I don't think it is fundamentally different for me to scheme up an experiment with teaching method than it is for me to design a module in Excel that presents Econ concepts in a novel way, or for that matter experimenting with a theme for this blog. I thrive on trying things. I'd much rather learn that way, at least at this point in my life, than reading the literature and accepting best practice.

A couple of years ago it occurred to me that I might have more leverage with students about getting deeper into the subject matter if I did so outside the role of the instructor who assigns a grade.  Further, because the way we do blogging in my class is where some trust is built between the students and me, it might be that some would be interested in having such discussions after the course concluded.  So I tried something unusual.  I invited my students to join in a discussion group that would meet weekly, not be for credit or a grade, and would focus on the question of what the students might do to get more out of their own learning.

Such an invitation was extended at the end of the course in fall 2013.  That failed.  There weren't enough takers to make it a go.  I tried it again near the end of the semester in fall 2014.  This time there were three takers.  We have been meeting on Friday afternoons at 3 PM this semester.

No doubt the selection entailed in volunteering to join such a group favors the overachieving students.  That part didn't surprise me.  I didn't anticipate, however, that all the members of the group would be international students.  Two are Chinese; one is Korean.  Also, two of the three were very quiet in class.  One never said a word during class discussion.  (I did not give out points for class participation as this is rather hard to track without interrupting the back and forth.)  It turns out that part of her motivation for joining the group was to have the experience of giving voice to her ideas, doing so in an environment that was safer than the class, owing to the smaller numbers.

Given the makeup of the group, we began with discussion of The University of China at Illinois piece.  Many of the ideas in that piece resonated with the group.  Each of them does spend a good chunk of time at the Library.  Socially, they don't interact much at all with domestic students.  I would characterize each of them as "over programmed."  One is taking 24 credit hours; another is taking 20 credit hours.  The one who is taking "only" 18 credit hours is working two different jobs.  The two guys in the group regularly report being tired from too much work.  Lack of sleep has been a recurrent theme.  The girl in the group is quite conscious of it and tries for at least 7 hours each night.  One of them reports getting only 3 hours a night, on average.  Apparently, that little amount of sleep is common among their peers. They are also extremely grade conscious and have very high GPAs.  We had one discussion about the index number problem, this in reference to an argument from me that they might learn more overall by putting their efforts mainly into only one of their courses, while largely ignoring the others.  On this issue I won the theoretical battle, but lost the war about their actual practice, which remained unaltered in spite of the theoretical argument. 

The overall question that we've been trying to get at is how the students might be more creative as they pursue their studies.  Language being what it is, this morphed into whether the students are finding Flow, and what they might do to encourage flow to happen more frequently.  For the guys, flow seems quite a rare thing.  One reports putting in yeoman's hours debugging a program he has written (he is a double major in economics and electrical and computer engineering), more or less unhappy the entire time but feeling obligated to do this sort of work nonetheless.  The girl, who is double majoring in economics and psychology, with a clear predilection for the latter, reports that she enjoys the challenges posed by a research project in one of her classes, where she must learn by reading some of the literature ahead of time and where she doesn't understand things at first but does make better sense of what is going on over time, especially if she can do this well in advance of any class deadline.  This is better regarding her engagement with the learning, though I am still not getting from her how or if she inserts herself into this reading.  In my view, such insertion is a necessary piece of finding flow.

The entire discussion shows the limits to what Carol Dweck has been preaching.  These kids put in substantial effort.  On that dimension they get high marks from me.  But they seemed trapped in the following dilemma.  Is there any reason to learn the subject matter of a course beyond what it takes to get an A?  They have each mastered how to get good grades.  Does getting good grades mean they are growing intellectually?  Or is there a kind of tyranny of building the great resume, where more lines are better but where what any one line signifies is impossible to determine?  In other words, the current rat race in school apparently produces enormous breadth, but I suspect it does not produce that much depth. Yet if depth is what it takes to get true intellectual growth, then these kids are not really growing or are growing only very modestly, in spite of their impressive set of credentials.  To the extent this this problem is typical, it explains why college is producing a large group of over achieving dullards, something akin to the problem identified in Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

For about two months we've been having a back and forth where from the students point of view the discussions probably seemed they were with a daffy but benign professor, fun for themselves perhaps but with little real take away, while from my perspective the discussions were enjoyable in that I got to understand these kids a little bit beyond what I could ascertain from the class but they were also frustrating in not advancing my agenda at all.  Indeed, I started to feel I was hitting the same wall I had been hitting in my teaching.

We needed to have a different sort of conversation.  Early last week it occurred to me to try to simulate in our discussion what an in depth investigation looks like.  We had this sort of simulation last Friday, spending about 45 minutes dissecting a single sentence that one of them had written.  We did this first from the reader's point of view.  What would it take for the sentence to be true?  The sentence was the conjunction of two overt claims and one implicit claim.  They had read it earlier as a whole for the overall picture communicated by the sentence, but it hadn't occurred to them to analyze it piece by piece.  What does one get out of such an analysis that isn't evident immediately by taking it all in at once?  We also spent some time on potential claims that might have been made but weren't.  This too hadn't occurred to them to consider.  What should one infer from the observation that these claims were not included?

Indeed, that reading is making inference was new to them.  They had previously thought their entire job was to make sense of what was explicitly stated, nothing more. That their job is to find puzzles in what they read and then try to solve these puzzles did became evident to them, after a while.  Then, after we went through that analysis of the reader's job, we went through the thing again, but this time from the perspective of the writer of sentence, who must try to anticipate this sort of reader reaction.  Given that anticipation, what then is the writer's job?  In doing this job has the writer thought through the full set of implications of what he is saying?  For much of the time in this discussion the students seemed engaged in our inquiry, but near the end they started to get bleary-eyed, much like what my students do when I'm giving a math lecture.  Evidently, it was a bit too much for them.  They hadn't expected such an intensive look at the issues.  I want to note here that it wasn't the difficulty of the subject matter that got to them.  What we discussed was plain enough.  Rather it was that I seemed to make so much out of so little.  Couldn't we move onto something else?  Enough is enough, isn't it?

We then started to debrief on what had just happened.  One student said that going after such depth was an exercise in critical thinking and he could see that it could be quite enjoyable, but he couldn't see doing it in his classes, just too time consuming and too risky.  The simulation did produce some results.  But if the the students were to try something like this on their own, they might not get anywhere, especially the first few times they tried it.  Indeed, I amplified this concern by noting that obviously you can't do such drill down on each sentence in an essay, lest you never complete reading what you must.  I followed that up with the thought that you do get better with practice and you develop some intuition about where this sort of drill down might be most profitable.  I should have added that you also get better on the analysis and inference.  You start to see things quicker.

How long does it take to gain proficiency with this?  During our discussion and in prior discussions and in my class too, I've mentioned the work of Ericsson et. al., so the students are aware of the notion of deliberate practice and conversant with the "10,000 hours rule."  Of course, this is why you want to start with such practice in elementary school, so that by the time you've reached college age you are reasonably adept at performing a drill down analysis of some sorts, though still not yet at an expert level.  Starting such practice only in the junior year in college, does it still make sense to try?  On this one, the best I can come up with is - better late than never.

The students did say they would try this sort of drill down in their leisure activities and we briefly talked about watching a film or reading a book and then writing a review of it, where only after that would they read reviews written by experts, and then compare what they've written to the experts writing on the same subject.  This sort of thing, if they kept at it, might be a way to achieve some capability in depth of analysis.  But it does put the effort into the hobby category and outside the work category.  While that is probably sensible for these students, it is disappointing to me that it seems to be the best we can do.

* * * * *

The situation that Illinois finds itself with international students is more than a little odd and uncomfortable.  It is fueled in large part by the decline in state funding.  The steep increase recently in international student enrollments at the undergraduate level (since I started at Illinois in 1980 it has been international at the doctoral student level) the vast majority of whom pay full freight, has provided an alternative revenue source to offset the state budget cuts.  Is this a permanent fix to the revenue problem or only a bubble that will burst in the not too distant future?  How does one get a realistic answer to that question?

It seems to me we should consider the students as grading the institution on the experience they've gotten, with their word of mouth (and the social network equivalent of word of mouth) fueling future demand to attend Illinois or, alternatively, putting a damper on such demand, depending on how that grading goes.  Given that, and given that we'd certainly like to preserve the revenue stream, it makes sense to me we do our own internal grading of that experience, if for no other reason than to shore up areas where we find deficiency.  In such an exercise, I'd encourage us to avoid grade inflation and not give partial credit.

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