Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Is Tolerance Possible?

The Wind and the Sun

The WIND and the Sun were disputing which was the stronger. Suddenly they saw a traveler coming down the road, and the Sun said: “I see a way to decide our dispute. Whichever of us can cause that traveler to take off his cloak shall be regarded as the stronger, You begin.” So the Sun retired behind a cloud, and the Wind began to blow as hard as it could upon the traveler. But the harder he blew the more closely did the traveler wrap his cloak round him, till at last the Wind had to give up in despair. Then the Sun came out and shone in all his glory upon the traveler, who soon found it too hot to walk with his cloak on.
          Kindness affects more than severity. 

This lesson, which we were all taught as children, doesn't appear to stay learned when we become adults.   The contest between the Wind and the Sun gets played over and over again, now largely via social media.  Particularly notable to me are the comments on opinion pieces I peruse in the New York Times, Inside Higher Ed, and elsewhere.  Those readers who disagree are quick to abandon reasoned argument and instead write with cynicism and hyperbole.  The authors of such comments appear to be very angry.  I don't keep a scorecard, but if I did I'd guess that the Wind is winning and the contest is not very close at present. 

In our national politics it now appears a given that the populace is angry, very much so.  It is near impossible to reason with an angry person.  The person must calm down first.  If the person is also intolerant it is far from clear whether even when calm the person would change his or her mind and embrace people who are unlike himself or herself.  What would it take to change somebody's point of view in this case?  We should be asking that question.  

There is also the logical conundrum of how people who consider themselves tolerant react to those who are apparently not.  Does outrageous behavior by the intolerant warrant a tit for tat response?  If it does, it explains why the Wind is winning.  

That a tit for tat response is the immediate visceral reaction to the outrageous behavior goes without saying.  The outrage is intended to provoke just such a response.  What would a more disciplined and reasoned response look like?  Would it be silence?  Or a thoughtful argument?  Does anyone have the patience to follow along with a well reasoned argument anymore?  Is there a way for silence to distinguish itself from capitulation?  I wish I had answers to these questions that I could rely on.

There is still a further complication to consider as the question offered up in the post title plays out on college campuses.  Freedom of speech is a value, one that can be at odds with tolerance.  Let us recognize that in this case people will disagree as to which is the higher value.  Yesterday I became aware of Inclusive Illinois and their Diversity Statement, an articulation of the goal that tolerance on campus be the primary value and that there are certain processes which need to be embraced to achieve that goal.  

For those who think that freedom of speech should be the primary value, will there nonetheless be respect for this Diversity Statement?  Or will they treat it as little more than rubbish, because it tramples on the First Amendment?  I don't want to presume the answer to that question, but if it does cause the latter reaction doesn't it then follow that the statement itself will do little to nothing to move us from the status quo?

On a personal level, I feel I can make some progress on these matters when in a one-on-one conversation and possibly in a small group setting (five or fewer).  In the discussion people have to support the positions they hold and as a result of that imperative we can negotiate our way to something sensible.  At least that has been my experience most of the time.   In other settings, it is far easier for people to maintain their previously held views, because they don't need to listen to views that disagree with their own.

It is not that hard to envision a world where tolerance is the norm and where free speech operates within the confines of tolerance.  However, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to understand how we might get from here to there.   At present, we seem to be standing still or maybe moving in the opposite direction.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

People who are interested in undergraduate education at Illinois should read this.

This is Hanna Rosin's latest, about the suicide problem at Palo Alto's public high schools.  It is not elevating at all.  Indeed, it is very frightening.  But is has the ring of truth and suggests we really need to hold up a mirror to ourselves. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

R̶i̶s̶k̶ Uncertainty Assessment

Today I should be grading, but human nature being what it is I'm procrastinating on that task, though I hope to get to it shortly. Here I want to put a few things together that have been on my radar that last few weeks.

The first is about something that Richard Levin said in his lecture on campus last week. This was one of those statements that can be taken as a stand alone point rather than as part of his larger argument.  (I wrote about Levin's lecture in my previous post.)  This point is about the quantitative reasoning piece of general education.  Levin said students should take probability and statistics instead of calculus, as all students need to understand and perform assessments of uncertainty based on available data, while most of them will rarely if ever use calculus once they've graduated from college.  I previously read about this point in a column by Nicholas Kristof, so I gather the view is making the rounds.

Before taking on the argument, let me observe that the economist Frank Knight is associated with this distinction between risk and uncertainty that has found its way into my title.  Economists embrace this distinction, but to my knowledge it has not yet found its way into common usage by the population as a whole.  To avoid philosophical issues, let me give a working definition of these ideas.

Risk is when there is a frequency notion at root, so one can look at historical data to assign probabilities.  Consider a flip of a fair coin, the first textbook example a student gets exposed to in a course on probability.  It has a probability of .5 that it will come up heads.  Underlying this is the Law of Large Numbers, which for the coin flipping example says the ratio of the the number of heads to the number of flips of the coin will tend to .5 as the sample size gets large.  That there is risk in the world provides a rationale for why there are actuaries, who examine the data and assess probabilities based on that.  Insurance premiums are driven by such risk assessment. 

Uncertainty is when the situation has novelty to it, so one needs to make an assessment based on the situation alone.  If you think of this from an evolutionary perspective, the canonical question is: fight or flight?  And one of the big points here is that you can't totally divorce the assessment of the uncertainty from the consequences.  In other words, fear can manifest when danger is perceived, even when the situation is benign in fact.  Further, past negative experiences (trauma) can alter the uncertainty assessment.  For a trauma victim it becomes plausible that lightning will strike in the same place again.

A different sort of assessment happens for upside consequences, where because after the fact we tend to impute causality even when randomness was fundamentally at play, we feel we are deserving of our own good fortune.  I wrote about this a while back in a post called Pluck or Luck.  There I made reference to something called The Just World Theory, a certain type of cognitive bias.

Behavioral economics takes as its basis that human beings are not rational and instead possess a variety of these cognitive biases.  For example, Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, talks about WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).  This means that people make their assessment of uncertainty based on their own experience, but ignore the information that might be garnered from the experience of others when that information is not immediately at hand.

If you look at two of the more hot button issues in the news now, that plight of the Syrian refugees and the matter of racism on campuses around the country, and you look at how different are the proposed ways of addressing these issues, depending on whether the proponent is Liberal or Conservative, underlying this has to be significant differences in assessing the probabilities.  One might therefore be hopeful that if the population as a whole had a better sense of probability and statistics, that some of these differences in how to address social issues would erode.  Alas, I think we should be skeptical of this hopeful view.

There are two big issues to confront here that don't have easy answers.  First, many students get through math courses without ever really internalizing what is supposed to be learned there so it becomes part of their own thinking.  This starts quite early in school, when students are first exposed to algebra and geometry.  These kids know that they don't know the math, so they look for alternative ways to get through these classes (memorizing homework problems and lectures) that are entirely dysfunctional for producing understanding.  How much college math, whether calculus or probability and statistics, really gets learned by students who have such a shaky foundation in their prior math understanding?  Indeed, early probability courses are based on counting and approximation, to a large extent.  Many students are not good at these matters.

The other big issue is that probability and statistics are typically taught in a way that is pretty technical but also divorced from decision making.  So while a student can become familiar with the mechanics of a probability calculation, they may never learn when to use such a calculation in practice or to trust that calculation for making a decision.  More importantly, the students are not made to confront their own cognitive biases.  If they were, they might actively resist these courses rather than embrace them.  (There is resistance to these courses now because they are hard.  But there is not resistance because the subject matter would make students uncomfortable.)  Most of us don't like to be told that we're prejudiced and in need of awareness training to alleviate that.

Let me close with a mention of this piece about how ISIS became a force.   It is an interesting read.  There were many unanticipated consequences from past action. 
One wonders whether it would have been possible to be more prescient than we actually were, but we opted out of doing that because such actions, "didn't fit the current narrative."  You are supposed to learn from your mistakes, but on this matter one senses there is a lot of willful blocking of learning, precisely because the narrative prevents empiricism from occurring.

It would be delightful to discover that I'm wrong here and that teaching probability and statistics broadly would improve matters significantly.  In the absence of evidence to contrary, however, I'll stick with my skepticism.  More than the appropriate subject, the key issue is whether the student is open to what is being taught. If the student is not open to really engaging with new ideas, the subject matter counts for naught.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

When Time Passes You By

I walk slowly these days. Things appear different that way.  On Friday morning I went to a talk at the Library School given by Richard Levin, President Emeritus of Yale.  It was the second of the Prioritizing Undergraduate Education Talks.  Here's the blurb for it.  Later in this piece I'll say a few things about that talk and the Q&A that followed, because that got me thinking.  But let me continue my story about walking first.  I didn't stick around for the reception that followed since I had a meeting scheduled with my mentee and we had to push that forward since something else came up for her at noon.

When that meeting concluded I walked back from the Espresso Royale on Daniel to BIF.  It was near the lunch hour so a lot of other people were out then as well.  Very soon I became aware that people were passing me by.  I was going at roughly half their pace.  So before long I would fall way behind them.  I was still moving forward, but relatively speaking I was moving backward.   This happened repeatedly and became an image I couldn't get out of my mind.  I am going to use that image now in articulating my head scratching about undergraduate education.

Let me return to Levin's talk.  He championed general education, two full years of it, but now with an additional wrinkle beyond the usual critical thinking goal attained by reading and debating great works in a common curriculum.  This other goal was to produce cross cultural competency, mainly via developing a sense of empathy rather than by learning specific facts about peoples elsewhere.  Much of the tone and substance of this talk appealed to me.

Yet it was extraordinarily normative, with the focus on the Yale model as it manifests at a version of Yale in Singapore.  As I've been struggling with the class I've been teaching this semester, I asked myself whether my students were ready for or inclined to participate in the kind of general education that Levin depicted.  My answer was a resounding no.  Here is my forward movement with this head scratching.  It is to ask, what might be done to get these students ready and so inclined?  It seems a necessary question to pose.

But before taking it on, let me pose another first.  Is what I'm seeing in my current students typical of the general student population or not?  During the Q&A the discussion followed along the lines of whether some variant of the Yale model might be possible at Illinois.  One requirement of the Yale model is small classes to facilitate a seminar approach instead of a lecture. An English professor offered up that she is increasingly teaching small classes, so if the students are looking for that experience it is not hard to find on our campus.  Apparently, not too many are looking or, if they are, they want it only in their majors and not in English.  This is certainly not a full sampling of the student body, but it does provide at least a bit of corroborating evidence that what I'm seeing is not so aberrant.

During Levin's presentation he talked about Lincoln extensively, noting that even during the Civil War, with its massive claim on the nation's GDP, Lincoln still had his eye on the nation's future and the need to to make the proper investments to keep the country growing strongly.  Specifically mentioned in this context were the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which brought us the transcontinental railroad, and the first Morrill Act, which established the land-grant colleges, Illinois included, also enacted in that year.  Part of Levin's argument is that we need to be making 21st century investments of the same type, college education being one of the primary areas where such investment is needed.

Lincoln himself serves as an interesting example of the learner, as he ended up such a visionary thinker and leader, yet he did so with very little formal education.  Instead, he was largely self-taught.  Lincoln's example should get us to consider self-teaching and it's role today, though Lincoln was clearly an outlier among the citizenry in this regard.   Below is the first paragraph from an essay by Saul Bellow from the NY Times series, Writers on Writing, to demonstrate the point.

When I was a boy "discovering literature," I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T. E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln as a young frontiersman read Plutarch, Shakespeare and the Bible. But then he was Lincoln. 

I marvel at the phrase "refractory to high culture" in the sentence highlighted above.  There is such economy in word usage while at the same time the phrase perfectly illuminates the issue.  And now, given that issue, let me begin on the walking backward part of my head scratching.  Usually that involves me reflecting on my own college experience.  Because I did my first year and a half in college at MIT, I got essentially none of the humanistic part of general education, the part I believe Levin feels is the core of the experience.  Further, I was and still am largely refractory to high culture, if choices in pleasure reading are any indication.  I've never read Shakespeare just for the fun of it, nor Plutarch at all.  Proust is still on my imagined to do reading list, but there is no urgency whatsoever in my getting to that.  Partly that's because there are some great works that I've tried but couldn't get through; Gravity's Rainbow was my first such experience.  And the only thing I know about T.E. Lawrence is from the movies, ditto for Pasternak.

Yet I do believe I did quite a lot of self-teaching in college, before college too, and have done so throughout my life.  I discussed this at length in a post many years ago called PLAs Please, where I posed the following question. What is it that school did for me that I couldn’t have done on my own?  Note the bias in this question.  My assumption is that the burden for learning is not on school.  The burden for learning is on oneself.  School should only fill in those parts where you can't learn on your own, though perhaps there should be some overlap between the two.  (At the time of writing that post, there was a lot of attention within the learning technology community about something called Personal Learning Environments, PLEs, so with my title I was making a play on words, coming up with the acronym PLAs, Personal Learning Agendas, to represent the self-teaching part of learning, though I was careful enough to say there really is very little planning with that.  The key is simply to engage with the self-teaching on an ongoing basis.)

At the heart of self-teaching is reading, the type of reading that challenges the reader to think about matters in a different way, or to inform the reader about issues that engage the reader but where ahead of time the reader was largely ignorant.  In other words, there is something transformative that happens to the reader simply as a consequence of reading and reflecting on what has been read.  And it is the individual learner who directs this activity, in large part by making the choice of what to read.

After I transferred to Cornell, particularly starting in my junior year, two other outside-of-courses experiences supplemented the reading.  One was seeing foreign films with subtitles.  I did that quite quite a lot and continued to do so in graduate school (though not the first year at Northwestern where there wasn't time for this leisure activity.)  At Cornell there was a lot of Truffaut and Fellini, and I have a distinct memory of seeing Closely Watched Trains.  Mostly I did this on my own, so only rarely talked about these films with friends.  The real virtue of this film viewing was the variety of stories and different points of view one could get exposed to in a comparatively short period of time. 

I did have rather intense conversations with housemates on issues in the news.  (Nixon resigned during the summer before my junior year in college.  Ford's pardon of Nixon was something we talked about an awful lot.)  Those conversations really helped me to make sense of things.  And they satisfied a hunger for good discussion that ably served me 20 years later when I started as a learning technology administrator by talking with faculty around campus about their teaching and about how they might utilize the Internet to improve learning in their classes.

Levin noted in his talk that the subject matter of courses changes from time to time to reflect new developments and to abandon more traditional approaches that no longer seem as relevant as they once were.  That makes sense.  It probably makes sense for something similar to happen with individual self-teaching activities.  Does this include diminishing the role that reading plays in self-teaching?  Or does it only mean that the sort of non-course reading college students do today should be different from the type of reading I did back in the middle 1970s, which centered on a daily go through the NY Times?

These questions did not come up during the Q&A after Levin's talk, where the focus was on how we faculty should conduct general education, not on how students should ready themselves for that.  I confess that I did not have these questions framed in my head then.  All I had was my sense of struggle teaching this semester and I didn't know how to ask a question about that without seeming to whine, so I didn't raise my hand at all.

For the last 20 years or so, not just this semester, I've had the feeling that our students don't read nearly enough.  I used to joke with Dick Brazee about this, since he and I agreed that many of our students couldn't make good meaning out of a piece on economics found in the NY Times.  Yet most faculty discussions about undergraduate education that I've been part of don't include this issue of limited reading comprehension in many of our students.  And among both instructional support and learning technology staff, it is taken on faith that an appropriate intervention can promote deep learning, though there does seem some disagreement as to whether it's entirely a matter of the right pedagogy or if effective use of learning technology also matters.

That student reading outside of school doesn't often get discussed may be because there is not much we can do about it.  This morning a friend alerted me to a piece in the Chronicle entitled Higher Ed Has Always Been A Mess.  (You need to subscribe to the Chronicle to have access.  People at Illinois have access if they are on the campus network.)  Apparently my predecessors among the faculty from 150 years ago were complaining about similar matters.  Perhaps that is illuminating, though I don't find it comforting at all.

Here is one more look at the matter and then I'll close.  I recall that Frank Mayadas, who then worked for the Sloan Foundation administering their ALN (online learning) grants, referred to Lincoln as a 6-sigma person, though precisely what the random variable he had in mind was never specified. (Perhaps it was intelligence or the ability to self-actualize. )  In any event, on academic performance in school most faculty at Illinois and comparable institutions are probably 2-sigma or 3-sigma people, which puts them in the 98th or 99th percentiles in these measures.  One might guess that if academic performance is not explained by raw intelligence, then it is explained by expertise at being a student, which itself develops from certain types of habitual behavior, the acquisition of which begins well before college.  (Reading may be one of those habits, learning to make quick penetration into an idea others find difficult another.)  The college students we teach, in contrast, are mainly one-sigma people.  Their habits are different.  The program to remake our students in our own image is likely doomed for failure, for this very reason.

Yet I, for one, keep on trying.  It seems to me what we should be doing, even if the likelihood of success is extremely low.  If that doesn't make me a dinosaur, what else will?

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The quiet story

I now have two student mentees as part of the program that supports Illinois Promise students.  The older one is currently a junior and in the process of transferring into Economics.  He became my mentee in an unusual way.

Most of the pairings between mentor and mentee happen in the fall semester of the first year. The thought being that getting through the first semester and then the first year at the university is where the big risk is as to whether the student will make it all the way through college.  Help the student get over those early bumps and get acclimated to the place.  Then the rest of the time on campus is not such a struggle and may even become a source of enjoyment.  And while the official relationship between mentor and mentee need only go for that first year, after that they may continue in their conversations and related activities, all the way till the student graduates if that is mutually agreeable.  When the official mentoring goes well the relationship then continuing becomes a real possibility.

Many of the Illinois Promise students do not opt for a mentor.  I can readily imagine why.  If you already feel uncomfortable, why go through the awkwardness of talking with a stranger who expects you to open up and discuss your travails?  Most of us keep our inner doubts bottled up unless we already have a trusted friend to share them with.  The premise of the mentoring program is that this sort of trust can be built along the way.  But surely it is a risk whether it will really happen.  It is a brave thing to take on such a risk ahead of time.  I count myself as someone who is not so brave.

With A., I first met him in the late spring of his sophomore year.  The issue of the moment was to find a suitable internship.  He had an expressed interest in doing import-export work and possibly being located abroad after graduation.  He had done an internship in Shanghai the previous summer via the Illinois Bureau of Commerce.  He wanted to do something similar in that vein this time around, but not a repeat of the same thing.

Then practical reality intervened.  A. had been a Music major.  He didn't yet have the requisite math course to transfer into Economics.  So he ended up taking Calculus at the local community college in the summer instead of doing another internship.  I had informed A. that I was a Math major in college and knew Calculus quite well.  I told him that if he wanted help with it I was happy to provide that.  Tutoring is not mentoring and indeed, much of what I did wasn't even tutoring, since that part happened via email.  He had homework or practice problems given to him by the instructor, some he could do on his own but others he didn't know how to solve.  In some cases I offered up full solutions.  In other cases I talked him through getting at the solution himself.

Implicit in the willingness to tutor is the hope that trust is built by having regular ordinary transactions that go reasonably well.  So there was a need to somehow find a way to have those sort of interactions.  Tutoring was something possible under the circumstance.  I'm doing something similar now with my other mentee, S, who is a first year student, this time focusing on microeconomics rather than math.  But with S. she was wanting the mentoring at the outset and has been more open to it.  We've already had several different sorts of conversations. She clearly welcomes these talks and the variety of our subjects.  And I think that with S. we may do more of the tutoring part online, now via texting rather than email (I use Messages on my iMac), so that the face to face time can be for other things.  We'll see how that plays out.

A. and I met earlier this week, at his request.  He told me he had been accepted by the department, his pride evident by the smile on his face during the telling.  It had been a struggle, one that he had finally overcome.  Ahead of time such a struggle can seem daunting.  Our meeting was largely a celebration of his accomplishment.  After that announcement he told me he was looking forward to taking my class next fall.

When that summer Calculus class had concluded he asked me about taking my course this fall.  If memory serves, at the time my enrollment had maxed out, so he wasn't able to register for it immediately.  Rather than make an exception for him so he could add the class, I told him I thought he wasn't yet ready.  He had not yet taken intermediate microeconomics.  (He is taking that now, this fall semester.)  And he had struggled with the math during the summer, while my class is somewhat demanding math-wise.  So I believe I gave an accurate assessment in suggesting that he wait till next year.  Nonetheless, afterward I regretted offering up what might seem a discouraging message.

I may have disappointed A. for real when I told him I was considering not teaching my class next fall.  I told him it has been a struggle for me this time around.  Attendance has been very low, much lower than in recent past offerings.  A. offered up that in his international trade class, a 400-level class like mine, attendance was around 50%, except during exams.  I told A. that I stopped teaching in the spring semester, because I found the senioritis too great then.  Now it looks like that problem is creeping into the fall.  I hypothesized that before too long second semester juniors will also be plagued by the problem.  This got a chuckle out of A. since he could see the point.

What I did not tell A. is that the attendance issue is only one component of what is now bothering me in my teaching.  Perhaps my greatest lament is that I don't seem to be connecting with the students during class.  Most of the time I can't get a conversation going.  A few students do come to office hours once in a while.  I can connect there.  But in class, I don't seem able to do that.  And there is evidence that the students are not getting it, much at all, where here it means the subject matter of my course. They do a homework in Excel I assign, indeed one that I made from scratch.  When a week later I ask the class about conclusions that were to be derived from that homework, nobody seems able to offer them up.

I want to offer up a tentative explanation for why this is happening.  I call this explanation the Disconnection Conundrum.  (A couple of Google searches revealed that the terms Disconnection Hypothesis and Disconnection Syndrome have already been taken by the neuroscientists.)  The rest of the piece will describe what the Disconnection Conundrum means, why it is plausible to believe it is happening at scale, and then to consider what might be done about it. 

* * * * *

Let me begin with some other evidence to consider.  My students write blog posts on a weekly basis and over the course of the semester two of them have written about having difficulty in their apartments.  Part of the explanation for their problems is that they didn't know their roommates ahead of time and put their trust in the market, to provide a decent match for them.  Here we are not talking about first-year students.  We're talking about sophomores, or juniors, or seniors.

I can't imagine being a student on campus for at least a year and still not knowing somebody else to have as a roommate.  This is a sort of disconnection we don't talk about much at all in considering teaching and learning issues.  If a student is socially disconnected from potential peers, what impact does that have on learning?  In this case one of the students was an international student.  The other student was from in state.  The international student comes to class most of the time.  The in state student always comes.  Indeed he is often in the classroom before I show up.  These students are not blowing off my course.  Yet in spite of their personal commitment, they seem socially disconnected on campus, now or in the recent past.

Six years ago I wrote a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which reflected on experiences I had while teaching a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  At the time it was a surprise to me that I had so many gifted students who were reticent to speak up in class.  That surprise helped me to reconsider the student perspective.  That the quiet student is now the new normal among an increasingly large subset of the student population is part of the precondition behind the Disconnection Conundrum.

Not all quiet students are socially disconnected.  They may arrive on campus already having good friends from high school who are also attending the university.  Alternatively, via a wide variety of serendipitous interactions, they may make new friends once at college, their quiet nature notwithstanding.  If that is right, the socially disconnected among the quiet students constitute the residual who are not in either of these other two categories.

Mentoring is a potential solution for socially disconnected students, but (a) mentoring doesn't scale particularly well, (b) it is not so clear how one can identify socially disconnected students from the overall population, and (c) that socially disconnected students would not willingly embrace mentoring is something to be anticipated.   What alternative is there then to address the issues?  Let's hold that question for a bit and then return to it. 

The other part of the Disconnection Conundrum is intellectual/academic.  The academic part is simple enough to describe.  Students don't make connections to what they are supposedly learning in their classes with what they already know.  This is the old critique that there is much surface learning but not much deep learning in college, such as offered up by Ken Bain.  Intellectual disconnection extends this idea to include experiences outside the classroom.

My contention is that while social disconnection may not be one and the same thing with intellectual/academic disconnection, they do share certain common elements.  Among the most important of those is that the student becomes accustomed to being disconnected, so auto-correction isn't built into the process.  A further common element is that the student is likely to become disenchanted and frustrated by his or her own situation.  Pessimism then becomes the persistent frame of mind.  This blocks risk taking by the student, so it is not hard to envision disconnection as the consequence of a vicious cycle.  If that is right, the issue then is how to break the cycle rather than merely treat the symptoms.

* * * * *

In considering how to measure the pervasiveness of the Disconnection Conundrum, it occurred to me that the first step might be to inquire about it among caring instructors, rather than by directly trying to observe it among the students.  I say this based on a meeting of CHP instructors I attended in spring 2010, after I had written that post about Teaching Quiet Students.  At that session I heard my observations echoed by several other instructors; one teaching history I seem to recall saying that this was his toughest time teaching a CHP class because so many of the students were quiet. I do not know what other sort of congregations of the faculty would produce such a discussion, but it seems to me that is the sort of place to look for some corroborating evidence.

Let us assume that this sort of looking produced evidence that did support the ideas behind the Disconnection Conundrum.  What would next steps be after that?  It seems evident to me that whatever is done needs to happen in the first year of college.  In other words, it is preferable to break the cycle before it has a chance to harden, a variant of the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure idiom.

One way to do this would be to make first year seminars taught by faculty a commonplace.  Others have argued for this but for different purposes.  (For example, consider my post Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report.)  If the seminar were offered in the fall, then the instructor might invite some candidate students into a non-credit discussion group in the spring.  If the students bonded some with the instructor during that seminar they might then be receptive to participating in the discussion group.  There the students would be directly encouraged to make intellectual connections and might be indirectly encouraged to make social connections with one another.  At a minimum, the experience should show the participating students that the institution cares about them.  Now I fear that many disconnected students come to the opposite conclusion.

An intriguing additional possibility suggests itself should the above produce promising results.  Students who have benefited from the first year seminars and subsequent discussion groups and who have transformed from disconnected to connected, may be in a position to help other students do likewise.  Even if they remain as quiet students, they will have the perspective of understanding the value of connection and may be able to communicate that in a more credible way to other students than the faculty can.  I know it isn't right to count your chickens before they hatch, but this possibility seems evident to me.

Let me close with one other point.  The mentoring program for Illinois Promise students is premised on the idea that low income students have certain disadvantages in attending college so need something to offset that.  That premise makes sense to me.  Yet it might inadvertently lead to the conclusion that all other students are well situated for success in college.  That would be wrong.  Disconnection can block success and perhaps leave a permanent scar on the student.  We should find ways to remedy the problem, if we can.

Thursday, November 05, 2015


At issue in this post is what should be done when a student has had the appropriate prerequisite courses but remains incompetent in the subject matter that those courses teach.

Let me begin with some recollection of my own incompetence as an undergraduate in select areas of study.  Cornell had a foreign language requirement, which could be satisfied either with proficiency in one language or qualification in two languages, proficiency being a sterner requirement than qualification.  I had 3 years of high school French, which gave me qualification in one foreign language coming in.  My options were either to take another year of French, to achieve proficiency, or take some other language for a year, to achieve qualification in that.  I had pretty low regard for how much French I had retained from high school.  If asked, parlez-vous fran├žais? I could respond, un petit peu. (Or is it une petite peu?  I really don't know.)  This to show I thought I'd get clobbered with another year of French, so I opted for German instead and took what they referred to as a reading course.

I should add here that my mom was a foreign language teacher in high school and ran a tutoring business on the side that was quite lucrative.  She mainly taught French and was a native German speaker.  She and I didn't get along so well during my high school years.  My aversion to foreign languages was a reflection of that.

I did okay in German in the fall semester but the following spring the class met at 8 AM and I blew off many of the class sessions.  At the end of the term when it was time to take the exam to prove sufficient mastery, I ended up coming up short on that.  So I took German again in a 4-week summer session.  I was no genius in the subject after that, but I easily crossed over the bar for earning qualification in the subject.

The thing is, my limitations in foreign language did not impede the rest of my studies one iota.  I did take a course on Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, which had single sentences over a page long.  But it was translated into English and if I recall even native German speakers often read the English translation instead because it was just too hard to make meaning of Kant's original writing.  Other than that, foreign languages were something that every educated person should know, but ignorance would not really be tested in school outside the foreign language class.

What happens when students have gotten through a prerequisite course in the same manner that I got through German, but where the downstream course does expect real knowledge of the prerequisite?

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The population of my current class is bifurcated in its math competency.  Here I'm referring to knowledge of high school analytic geometry and algebra as well as a little bit of calculus.  One bit to illustrate this can be seen in the comments to this post, which is where my students pose questions about the Excel homework, this one regarding the simplest possible version of the principal-agent model. The students posting these comments are for the most part perplexed about what they should be doing.  I met with one of them on Tuesday.  He's a good kid, always comes to class, and gets his written work done early.  But he is math phobic.  He told me he memorized his way through calculus.  It is not the first time I've heard students say this.

In contrast, there are other students in the class who said the video they were to watch before doing that Excel homework was very helpful to them in understanding how to do the homework.  These students have the requisite math skills.  I find it comforting that there are at least some students in this category.

I wish that were true for the whole class, because the issue is more than just math.  Microeconomics utilizes math modeling throughout.  If students have at best a shaky understanding of the math, then their understanding of the underlying microeconomics will also be shaky.  Building a structure on a shaky foundation, is a risky proposition.  When a storm comes along the entire edifice may tumble.

* * * * *

I really don't know how particular this issue is to the study of economics.  Might it generalize to a good chunk of undergraduate education, particularly for students who study in the social sciences?

Let me assume for the moment that it does generalize.  What is to be done about it?  In looking for answers, let me suggest two places that campuses offer as solutions but really aren't.  One is pedagogy.  The other is online technology.  Each of these might be useful if there are very specific gaps of knowledge that need to be filled.  But we're talking about here is what is now being called numeracy - quantitative reasoning skills.  It takes enormous amounts of practice to develop these skills.  The kids who got through their math classes by memorization bypassed all that practice.  To expect that these skills can be acquired on the cheap and in short order is an act of denying reality.

The realistic possibilities are (1) take the math parts out of the course as much as possible or (2) force the students do redo the prerequisites but in such a way where memorization won't work for them so that this time around they really learn the stuff.  But (2) will take quite a long time - years probably.  This is what makes (1) so tempting.

I stopped writing for a while after finishing the above paragraph. Then I went into school to help another student out with the homework.  After some coaching, the assignment becomes understandable to her.  I doubt this helps much with teaching the student to make good meaning of such assignments in general, but it does suggest a third possibility, which is to keep doing things as I'm doing them now and simply vigorously market in class and online coming to office hours for those students who are challenged by the Excel homework.

I want to note, however, that as a retiree I'm somewhat time abundant and can schedule these outside of class sessions to meet when the student can make it.  So while this third option is a possibility in my class, it doesn't really cut it as a solution in a generic upper level course.

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I want to close here by noting that some of the prerequisites for taking a course like mine are not to be found in prior courses taken, but in what the student learns about markets and particular companies, from their reading and from their hands on experiences as interns.  The students do reasonably well on the intern sort of of experience, but I doubt they do much reading on their own in what I'd term Economics In The News.

Again harking back to my own college experience, I bought the NY Times most days and would read all the articles on the Front Page plus related pieces found inside the paper, the Editorials and Op-Ed pages, and the Sports Section, though not necessarily in that order.  I think that would take the better part of an hour.  At that time, I typically would not read the Business Section of the paper.  So if Economics In The News was part of the general news, then I'd be aware of it, otherwise not.

I really don't know the newspaper reading habits of current students.  The campus distributes paper versions of various newspapers around campus so they are freely available to students.  But I have no sense of the utilization rates.  It's also true that nowadays you can read from a variety of sources online and thereby get writing on current events more in tune with your own interests.  It is impossible to know how much of this sort of thing students do.

I do on occasion reference such pieces on the class site.  Those posts get rather few hits as compared to the posts about the homework, which in turn don't get as many hits as the post giving last year's midterm as practice for this year's exam.  I'd like to appeal to student intrinsic motivation for the subject, if I can.  Yet most of the students don't seem prepared for such an appeal.

When I was an undergrad I took quite a few courses without having the official prerequisites.  This was true both for political science classes, where for the most part that was probably the right decision and philosophy classes where I was in over my head much of the time.  Ultimately, I suppose, it is the student's choice to determine the level of prior preparation for taking a given class.  I just wish that the student makes that choice wisely.