Wednesday, October 19, 2016

When Students Don't Get It

In the fall semester 1975, the last semester where I took courses for credit at Cornell, I was enrolled in a course on Philosophy and Law taught by a popular instructor, whose name I can't recall now.  Among our readings were pieces by Ronald Dworkin and John Rawls.  For the most part I enjoyed that class quite a bit and think I got something significant from it.

But there was a term paper that I really mangled.  I was writing on the question - is punishment necessary for the law?  The essay should have focused on the role of conscience.  Where conscience is active external punishment as deterrent is unnecessary.  But for whatever reason, I eschewed the discussion of conscience entirely and instead rendered a cost-benefit analysis.  (I didn't know much economics at the time but perhaps my decision to attend grad school in economics mattered here.)  This was entirely outside the philosophical issues that were important for the course.  I got a poor grade on that paper.  I recall a brief chat with the professor after class one day where I admitted my error and after that may have promised him that it would not happen again.

There are probably many more such incidents in my career as a student than I care to admit.  But I was a pretty good student and for the most part I did get it or I knew in advance that I didn't care about the subject matter (mainly foreign language) so if I didn't get it then I was entirely untroubled by that consequence.  In contrast, if I was stuck on something in my bread and butter areas, math in high school and college, microeconomics in grad school, I was then all in about getting unstuck and I wouldn't let go of the thing till I reached a satisfactory resolution.

Of course, there are also things that I don't get that are more a matter of taste.  For example, my parking spot at the university is behind the Business Instructional Facility and there are a fair number of BMWs in the parking lot much of the time when I get there before teaching my class.  I know that Business faculty are paid quite well, so that they can afford these vehicles is certainly true.  But we are a public university that is struggling to make ends meet budget-wise.  In my view, these personal displays of wealth are in bad taste and I don't get why everyone else doesn't see it the same way.   (Some people do get this, for sure.  But it is definitely not universal.)

Before I turn to students on this score, let me note on these matters of taste more broadly considered that we are all creatures of how we were raised.  For me, while a variety of factors matter, I think they can be broadly summed up in a few considerations.  My family practiced a very reform Judaism; I grew up in New York City where the Catholic kids often when to parochial school, so the public schools I attended had a large swathe of kids who were similar to me in background, and I started college in the early 1970s, where the end of the Vietnam War and then Watergate were the most prominent public events shaping my emerging adult consciousness.

Let me close this section by observing that I believe there is some unity between the matters of taste and the cognitive/intellectual as far as giving purpose and motivation.   Making sense of what is going on is very high on my list of priorities about what we should be doing and what we should be teaching our students to do.

* * * * *

Sometimes it is useful to me to go back and read things I wrote quite a while ago, if only to help me recall that I've been confronting the same issue for much longer than my memory otherwise would recognize.  On the students not getting it front, I wrote the following paragraph about students in our Campus Honors Program. The paragraph itself is an excerpt from this blog post

I taught two more CHP classes after that.   One was in 2006, a repeat of Econ 101.  The other was in 2009 and was not an Economics class.  It was a course on Designing for Effective Change that I wrote about in this piece in Inside Higher Ed called Teaching with Blogs.  After about two weeks of proceeding as I had done in the Econ classes, the students complained that I was monopolizing the discussion and requested that they lead the discussion themselves.  I assented to this request, though its implementation required me to bite my lip repeatedly.  During the next class session I had the urge to intercede, but suppressed that.  The class was discussing Atul Gawande's The Bell Curve, one of my favorite essays.  They never got to the gist of the piece.  They spent the entire time on some of the early facts in the setup and iterated on those.  Afterward I criticized them.  Using the metaphor of swimming in a natural body of water, I told them there was this beautiful lake but they never made it to its center.  Instead, they spent the entire time swimming in the reeds.  This outcome was rather disturbing.  CHP students are the best we have on campus and they weren't making good meaning of an essay that was written for a general audience.  I didn't know if the cause was their individual lack of reading comprehension or if, instead, the group dynamic kept those who did understand the piece from driving the conversation to the meat of the essay.  I never learned the true cause, but thereafter we opted for a mixed mode where sometimes the students would drive the discussion and other times I would drive.

Before moving on, let me make a conjecture suggested by the experience discussed above.  Even very good students nowadays don't read much good writing intended for a general audience.  Among the various problems we have with college education today, this may not be the number one issue, but surely it is in the top five.  And, if the diagnosis is correct, it is not clear what to do about it.  There is some conceit in educational circles to the effect that if only the right pedagogic approach is adopted then meaningful learning will ensue.  My own view on this is that pedagogy can, at best, be part of a mix of causal factors for learning.  The other obvious factors are first, student motivation, students must want to learn and put in the effort it takes for that and second, student agency with regard to their own learning, students must feel that they can get it if they apply themselves.  I don't believe that pedagogy itself can bring forth these other factors from the students.  These factors must be present already as a prior condition.

Students can self-educate this way, by putting in the time reading good general interest writing and then reading related pieces that connect to one another.   It is much easier to make sense of something one reads if the reader already has a good and appropriate context in which to consider the piece.  One might call that the reader's worldview.  I seem to recall watching on TV the playwright David Hare discussing this idea of worldview, how important it is for an adult understanding of things, and that the audience liked his plays because it helped them to consider their own worldview.  Alas, I couldn't find a link to that particular conversation.

I really don't know the worldview of my students, though some of it gets revealed in their blogging for my class and perhaps a bit more of it makes itself known via how the students interact in the classroom and how they handle the other course requirements.  I will conjecture about this below.

First, I want to note that in my class this semester I have witnessed several instances where the class as a whole doesn't seem to get it.  Here are a few examples.  I had the students write a blog post about "opportunism" as well as to provide an example when the student had a chance to act opportunistically but ended up refraining from doing so.  In my course "the holdup problem" is a big deal and provides a rationale for why there is vertical integration been a firm and its input supplier.  So this blog post was aimed at getting students to see if they had any personal experience that would give them some insight into the holdup problem and how it might be resolved.  Alas, many students confounded "having opportunities" with opportunism, and so wrote about something that really wasn't relevant to what the class was discussing.  Only one student had the presence of mind to do a dictionary lookup of opportunism.  For the rest, they simply assumed they knew what they were talking about.  Part of my issue as an instructor is whether it is reasonable for me to expect that everyone in the class would do such a lookup, if they hadn't already gotten the meaning of opportunism from reading our textbook.

Another example happened when we did a bargaining experiment in class, my sole attempt at a real active learning experience for the live classroom this semester.  Students were assigned to either be a buyer or a seller.  Each student was given a slip of paper which for the buyers had their values for buying units of a good and for each seller had their costs for selling units of the good.  Further, the slips of paper put them into a scenario where a buyer was paired with a particular seller in a predetermined way.  They were then to bargain about price, with the goal to maximize surplus on their side of the bargain.  The aim of the experiment was to see if this bargaining would produce the efficient volume of trade.

The experiment failed because most of the students ended up acting in an irrational way - producing more trade than was efficient (meaning producing some trades where both the buyer and the seller were made worse off).  I wrote up my analysis of that experiment and shared it with the students.  I was very disturbed by this outcome.  The students, in contrast, didn't seem to be bothered much by it at all.  I can't really tell if they were actually bothered but didn't want to show that or if they were simply not concerned about it.  I fear, however, that for the most part it was the latter.

The last example happened just this week.  I had students write a blog post in mid semester to do a "connect the dots" exercise with their previous posts and to give them a retrospective on what we had been doing.  In both my comments on these posts and my in class discussion of them, I encouraged the student to take the prompt I give them and ask why that prompt is there and in addition ask how the prompt ties into the economics we are studying.  I encouraged them to make those questions and answers part of their posts.  We've had one additional blog post since.  Not one student did this.  They all wrote to the prompt without inquiring at all why this was a course related thing to do.

* * * * *

Here is a little sketch of my conjectures that "explain" these observations.  First, the college degree is prized above any learning that the degree is meant to signify.  This is education as a passport.  The students definitely want the passport.  They seem much less interested in the personal transformation that the the passport should represent.  They are either unaware or unconcerned with this apparent contradiction.

Second, school is perceived as a bunch of hurdles to get past in any possible way.  If students can get through a tough course with a decent grade (e.g. Calculus) they are satisfied.  In turn, the system lets many of these students through, because high failure rates are intolerable to many and the costs of imposing a high failure rate in a particular class are disproportionately borne by the instructor of that class rather than by the institution as a whole.  This is a national issue, as illustrated by this piece in today's Inside Higher Ed.

Third, the more courses are perceived of as hurdles, the more students experience what should be entirely alienating - getting credit for learning something without really understanding what's going on.  Even if this is disturbing to the students the first few times it happens, eventually they get numb to it.  So they go about their coursework without an expectation that it should produce an understanding and they do this coursework purely out of a sense of obligation rather than for any other reason.

Fourth, and now I will restrict attention to students who are from the suburbs of Chicago, a majority in my class though there is a significant minority of students from elsewhere, schoolwork is subordinate to their social life, which is wrapped up either in the Greek System or in going to the bars around campus and in either case entails quite a bit of drinking.  Just about all my students are over 21, so they are legal this way.  I can't say that I blame them.  In fact, I do think kids this age should have a good deal of fun.  But the way it seems to be happening here, there is too much nihilism and a contributing factor is that the schoolwork produces such dysfunction.

I associate a good chunk of this with a culture that prizes money, which is embodied in the image of the country club as the good life, and is moderately anti-intellectual.   To me, this characterizes much of what upper middle class life in the Midwest is like, especially as it is perceived by someone with my background. 

* * * * *

It is very hard to look at this from a longitudinal perspective.  I don't have data for this that goes back more than a few years.  And I've only taught with blogging since I've retired (apart from that one CHP class).  But my sense is that things have been getting worse.

The reader will note that I have not made any appeal to technology as a driver in the above.  Technology might explain deterioration in student performance in producing understanding.  Consider, for example, this piece from earlier in the year about the perils of multiprocessing.  Students seem to live by staring into their phones.   So that clearly is one possibility.  There are others.  The accountability movement, embodied in the persona of Margaret Spellings and in the law by No Child Left Behind did enormous damage, in my view.   I can't recall hearing anything about K12 in our current Presidential campaign and for college the discussion is all about cost not about learning.  We don't seem to have the mental bandwidth to consider the learning issues now.  Perhaps we will return to it when the election is finally over.

Let me close with my pipe dream hopes for how the issue might resolve. The thought is to marry this social problem of too many students not getting it with another social problem and try to resolve both at the same time.  The other problem is that there are too many people getting PhDs in the humanities, meaning they can't find gainful employment in their fields after they've written their dissertations.

Suppose that students can be coached in learning to get it, but such coaching is labor intensive and should happen in rather small cohorts of students, which persist in the activity for an extended period of time.  In the old days, we would have called this teaching reading comprehension.  Nowadays, there probably would need to a different label attached to the activity to make it more glamorous and meaningful to the participants, so that being part of it is desired and not perceived as a consolation prize.  Beyond that there, of course, would need to many many details worked out.  And as I'm writing this, I've got that old New Yorker cartoon in my mind.   So, if a bet on whether something like this would succeed were placed in front of me, I would surely bet against.  Still.....

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