Thursday, October 29, 2015

The good examples among college students

Few things are harder to put up with than the annoyance of a good example.
Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894) 

Is it them or is it me?  That's the question that vexed me when I got started with learning technology more than 20 years ago.  The question has now returned with a vengeance.   But it is different now.  Then I was teaching intermediate microeconomics, a course that most Business students despised but was required of them.  (The situation was parallel to what happens in organic chemistry, the make it or break it course for pre-med students.)  Now I'm teaching an upper level course in the major, the economics of organizations, and the vast majority of students are in fact econ majors.

But if attendance is any measure of student engagement, then many of the students are not very engaged at all.  In yesterday's class we were at or below 50%.  That's been the norm the last several weeks.  Once in a while a student will alert me ahead of time about having to miss class to deal with an emergency or health problem.  But most who miss do not let me know in advance.  Among the seniors, they may have an interview for a job, which under the circumstances is a legit reason to miss class, even if the university doesn't recognize it as such.  I have no way to tell if that is what's going on.  My ignorant prior is that most of the ones who don't show are blowing it off.

I need to say here that I don't require attendance.  Back in spring 2012, the first time I taught this particular course, I only had 8 students, which was far below the expected enrollment.  So a week or so into the semester I negotiated a deal with the class that we'd run it as a seminar, part of which meant that attendance was required.  The students agreed to this.  But after the first several weeks attendance was abysmal; one student simply stopped coming during the last third of the class.  I vowed to never teach again in the spring.  The senioritis is just too great then.  And though I didn't make the analogous vow regarding taking attendance, doing so when it doesn't happen simply by my eyeballing the class (when there are fewer than 10 students) cuts against the grain of my core beliefs.  These kids are in that gray zone between being a teenager and being an adult.  My belief is that they should be treated as adults and then see if they can respond accordingly.  That is what I try to do. The good examples among the students show some responsibility in this circumstance.

Apart from attendance, the good examples also do the homework in a timely manner, show some diligence in completing that work, and on occasion speak up in class.  (Though, this semester there are not enough of the students responding to the questions I pose.)  Focusing just on such students, I'm mindful of something that Gardner Campbell tweeted yesterday.

In keeping with treating the students as adults, this is an issue that these students should confront themselves.  I will try to initiate that in my next class session and do so along the following lines.  About a month ago there was a piece in Inside Higher Ed called Are They Learning? which discussed an effort by a Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment.  That group produced a set of rubrics which is reproduced here.  (The font is larger so the document is readable.)  I will share those with my class on Monday, encourage them to scan through the document, and then survey them on whether their courses are helping them to develop these skills as well as on whether they themselves perceive the need to do that.

I do not want to anticipate in advance what that survey will show, but I do want to note that in prior inquiries of my class several of the students who are in this "good example" category have indicated dysfunction in the way we go about things on campus.  One example is students writing about group projects in other classes, where they ended up doing the lion's share of the work because other team members shirked.  (This is a very common complaint, one I've heard repeatedly over the years.)

Another example was provided yesterday.  I did a little experiment in class where for 5 minutes near the start of the session I asked the students to put away electronic devices.  Afterward I surveyed them about it.  I got a reasonable number of responses to that survey among those who were present in class.

Several of the good example students (they identified themselves via their aliases) indicated a preference for a policy where no devices in class would be tolerated, though they also indicated that such a policy was now the exception rather than the rule.  I gather that these good example students perceive disengagement among their classmates and they'd rather see their peers more fully engaged.

Engagement would seem to be a necessary but not sufficient condition for students to perform at a high level in accordance with the set of rubrics linked to above.  There is a tension between learning in a deep way (what those rubrics demand), which might take a lot of time and struggle in the process especially if the implied habits in learning are not already ingrained, and getting a high GPA, which the students perceive as necessary to land a good job.

My sense is that most of the good examples are playing a game of paper chase, which in itself may block deeper learning.  They really should confront this issue when they are first year students rather than right before they are to graduate.  If the institution were able to make such first year students aware, could that be done in a way where students rise to the challenge and where the courses they take support them in doing so?  I don't know if that is possible or not.  But it does seem to be something we should be asking.

We should also be asking whether we are short changing the good examples because they are a minority among the overall population of students and our approach to teaching must be for all students, not just the good examples.  I don't know what the answer is on this score, but a way to get at it would be to do a study about attendance in first year and second year courses and relate that to grade performance.  The scuttlebutt I hear is that attendance is down across the board.  We may not want to own up to that, even if we knew it was true.  It is not the type of information you want to publicize when you are seeking additional funds for the institution.

Yet if you want to address these matters that will have to be done openly.  My aim is to be a prod for us in doing so.  I hope I can get at least a few folks to listen. 

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