Sunday, January 03, 2016

Defining the fundamental learning issue for average students

A few years ago, I had a student who was kind of quiet in class but who had a certain intensity about him.  He was a middling student, ultimately ranking 12th out of 17 students in total.  Because this was the semester that my shoulder got infected, which caused me to stay 5 days in the hospital and then miss a couple of class sessions in the process, I was more lenient with the grading than I otherwise would have been.  This student was given a B+.

The student expressed an interest in doing an independent study with me.  We talked about it and ultimately we agreed to do a readings course.   It was the only time I've taken on a student for an independent study who didn't get an A first in the regular course.  Below is the description of the independent study course that we needed to provide to the Econ department to get approval for the offering, suitably modified to protect the student's identity.  Note that descriptions for some of the readings can be found here

This will be a readings course in behavioral economics and public policy. Initial readings will be taken from Arvan’s Behavioral Econ course taught in spring 2011 but no longer offered as well as pieces from the Economist’s Voice. Further readings will flow out of the early work.  The student, P, is currently enrolled in Arvan’s Economics of Organization class. Students have been blogging on a weekly basis in that course about their readings. This method will be continued in the independent study. P will post at least weekly on new readings. Arvan will make comments about how ideas might be extended or on further readings that might be tried. P will write a response and in that will be embedded the future direction for the readings. In some cases it is hoped that P will find works that neither he nor Arvan have previously read and they read and discuss those together. Face to face discussions will occur bi-weekly and/or as weather permits. (Arvan has an aversion to come to campus in icy conditions.)

The student read just one paper and made just one blog post.  (More on that below.)  I was very unhappy with what he had written.  He trashed the paper.  It was one of my favorite essays and was among those listed at the link above.  The way he trashed the paper showed he didn't understand what he was reading, yet the piece was intended as generalist writing for an educated audience.  Mainly in his blog post, he did not grapple with the ideas in that essay at all.  Instead he simply moved onto something he was already familiar with that he thought relevant.  I thought otherwise. Alas, the blog which this student wrote has been taken down, so his post and my comment on it have vanished into the ether.  I do still have email I sent him about this that accompanied my comment to his post.   (It is reproduced below.)  Upon getting that email he decided to drop the course, as was his prerogative.  That was that.

I am belaboring this story because it is illustrative of what I take to be the key issue with average students. Such students can't make good meaning from text that should be accessible to high school students.  There is the further matter that even when the student can understand the sentences and paragraphs in the text, the underlying ideas might very well require the student to puzzle over them for some time to really make sense of what the author is saying.  Those speed reading tests on standardized exam that students take to measure reading comprehension do a disservice this way, because these tests implicitly communicate the notion that the meaning from reading text is always discernible immediately.  That is simply not true.  Ideas that run counter to our prior beliefs take time to digest, even if those ideas are explained in a simple and straightforward way.   The average student often doesn't perceive the necessity of this sort of reflection.

There might be several possible explanations for why average students lack this capacity.  The explanation I believe best explains this is lack of practice.  For average students, pleasure comes from other sources than reading.  Absent the experience of pleasure reading and getting into the story for the fun of it, such students are at a loss for how to make meaning from text in those few times when they must do so.  Such students will often shirk on assigned readings for courses and/or memorize the instructor's lecture notes on those readings, in lieu of making sense of the readings directly.

Let me return to the example with this student, P. The first paper he read was The Streak of Streaks by Stephen Jay Gould, a piece I would recommend highly if you haven't already read it.  I found a Web site called that allows you to paste in a piece of text and it spits back a variety of measures of how difficult the text is.   Below are the results from the Gould piece, which seem to indicate that this essay should have been accessible to the student.

But I don't think this is the full say on the matter, so I want to illustrate the issues further.  This is one paragraph from the essay.  It happens to be easier than the essay as whole, at least according to the metrics.

Of course Larry Bird, the great forward of the Boston Celtics, will have more sequences of five than Joe Airball - but not because he has greater will or gets in that magic rhythm more often.  Larry has longer runs because his average success rate is so much higher, and random models predict more frequent and longer sequences.  If Larry shoots field goals at 0.6 probability of success, he will get five in a row about once every 13 sequences (0.6^5).  If Joe, by contrast, shoots only 0.3, he will get his five straight only about once in 412 times.  In other words, we need no special explanation for the apparent pattern of long runs.  There is no ineffable "causality of circumstance" (to coin a phrase), no definite reason born of the particulars that make for heroic myths - courage in the clinch, strength in adversity, etc.  You only have to know a person's ordinary play in order to predict his sequences.  (I rather suspect that we are convinced of the contrary not only because we need myths so badly, but also because we remember the successes and simply allow the failures to fade from memory.  More on this later.)  But how does this revisionist pessimism work for baseball?  

In order to make sense of this paragraph, one has to understand where the 0.6^5 number comes from.  (Apologies for use of the carat to indicate exponentiation.  Doing that was easier than figuring out the html for exponentiation and it was unclear whether would recognize the html tags or treat them as part of text.)  One has to make meaning of the phrase "causality of circumstance" and explain the sentence where the phrase appears.  One also needs a prior understanding of Occam's Razor and that Gould is implicitly relying on it when he says there is no need to appeal to causality of circumstance.  

In other words, reading this paragraph carefully suggests that a sequence of questions arise while doing the reading.  Does the student pose those questions?  If so, is the student able to supply good answers to those questions?  Making sense of the paragraph, and of the essay in its entirety, requires this sort of question formulation and answering.  For somebody already conversant with the subject, that may happen en passant during the reading and therefore seem effortless.  For the novice, this more careful type of reading probably requires much deliberation and effort, even if the grade level of the text is not beyond high school.  

There is a further matter with many average students - a complete disconnect with the professor regarding what is expected about student performance.  Many faculty I knew in the economics department 20 years would say that students don't put in sufficient effort, when we would discuss undergraduates over lunch.  The undergraduates, in turn, are dumbfounded about how they might illustrate to their instructor that indeed they are putting in substantial effort.  

Doing this is context specific, on the course in question and how the instructor goes about teaching it.  In this particular case, the student already knew that I write a blog and that I occasionally write on matters that are relevant to my economics teaching.  So imagine that the student, trying to walk the extra mile, goes to my blog and does a search on the Gould paper, The Streak of Streaks.  If he had done so, he would have found an essay I wrote called Small Samples, Hot Hands, and Flow, which gets at many of the issues in Gould's essay.  Reading that would illuminate what the professor thought about the subject.  This student, P, clearly did not go to this length to understand the Gould essay. 

Is it obvious that the student should have done such a search?  Clearly it was not obvious to this student.  I have had other students who have done this sort of thing.  Why it occurs to some to do this but not others is a puzzle, but in my observation it is the better students where I'm more likely to observe this sort of behavior.  In the background of this piece, the question to keep in mind is: what would it take to get average students to behave like better students?

Below is the email message I sent P after commenting on his blog post.  The highlighted paragraph comes the closest to echoing what I've argued above.

Subject: RE: First Post

I made extensive comments on it this morning. You should have a look. In addition to statistical inference, we should talk about inference in communication – you may remember our discussion of signaling in 490. There has been signaling going on back and forth between me and you, some it intended, some of it inadvertent. But I’m afraid good inference isn’t being made.

Let me give a relevant example so you understand what I’m getting at. You initiated communication on this independent study. It seemed to me at the time you were a little reticent about asking me but genuinely interested in doing something that was not so spoon fed in the learning, here referring to your other Econ classes.

I gave you a recommendation of where to start on the readings, by having you look at the page from my Behavioral Econ course. I actually thought you might read a few of those during the Winter break. I know that holiday was shorter than it’s been in the past, but still if you’re at all like my kids, there was plenty of free time. In any event, it’s clear I was wrong in that expectation.

Further, my pointing you to that Web page was an endorsement of the papers linked there. You might then infer that I expect you to “like” the papers there, not the way you like an ice cream cone, but the way you feel when something fuzzy in your thinking becomes clear. It was my expectation before you started that you’d “get” that message.

Apparently you didn’t. If you got the message but nonetheless disagreed with the points Gould makes, you’d have respectfully disagreed. That’s not how the post reads, not at all. You did communicate both indirectly and directly that you’ve been somewhat overwhelmed so didn’t put in much time in this. But, in my opinion, you also communicated that you didn’t understand what you read. The question is why. Is it too little time input, or something else. I had a similar feeling in 490 on occasion reading your posts, but then I wasn’t in a one-on-one situation with a student. Now I am.

Since I’m not time constrained at present, my thought is if you’re not getting it what can be done to change the situation? If you re-read Gould slowly, perhaps a couple of times, do you still hold to what you wrote in that first post? Or does some of what I say in the comments begin to make sense. Think of the part about Linda, which isn’t on the streak at all. What’s that about? How does it tie into the rest of the piece. It does take a while to figure this stuff. It’s not immediate. You have to work it through.

Let me make one other point here. It is easy enough to do a Google search on Linda the Bank Teller or on The Streak of Streaks and get lots of links back, some of which you might investigate – see what other people think of Gould’s essay. You’re free to make your own judgments but you should be somewhat aware of how others think of these things. That might include explanations for why they agree or disagree and why they like or dislike the piece. Doing that should help you come to your own judgments.

Prof. Arvan

It seems to me the fundamental issue is whether a student can make good sense of generalist writing aimed at a well educated audience, on a subject matter where the student has little prior exposure.  One big part of this is attitude.  If the initial reaction to the piece is curiosity, that will go a long way.  In contrast, if the initial reaction is boredom - somebody else must establish for the student that devoting time to reading the piece is time well spent - then the battle is already lost before it has begun.  Another big part is recognition of how limited the rest of the student's education will necessarily be if the student lacks this ability.  A third part of this is essentially ethical.  How is it possible to prevent an enormous amount of cynicism from creeping into the student's mind, if so much of his so-called education is non-functional?

On New Year's eve, I had a discussion about this with my host and good friend, who also cares intently about undergraduate education on campus.  He pointed out that there is a big difference between College of Business students and LAS students (the Econ majors I see are in LAS) regarding their incoming ACT scores.  Statistics on this are given here.   I have no way of knowing how much of what I'm ascribing to average students can be predicted from their ACT scores and how much of it is explained by something else, perhaps an attitude regarding hard work at learning a la Carol Dweck.  (I also don't know how much those two are correlated.)

If there were some agreement about this being the fundamental problem, then maybe we could also generate some agreement that we need to be more knowledgeable about the causes.  In subsequent posts, I will speculate about solutions, though absent this knowledge about causes such speculation can at best serve as motivation to get that knowledge.  There is a tendency in all organizations to sweep bad news under the carpet.  With this inquiry, I'm hoping that this time around we can keep these matters out in the open.

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