This Is What Failure Looks Like

American Government is my most frustrating class to grade, because the mistakes some students make are things they should have come in knowing, much less should know after a semester of a college course.

So it was very disheartening on grading final exams to see one student claim that the President appointed Senators, and even more so that another claimed it was Representatives who were appointed by the Prez.

And then there was question 27 of the multiple choice portion of the test, a question that not one single student came up and asked me about, even though I screwed up so that there was no right answer available for them to choose.

I don’t even want to talk about the take-home test from another class where 14 of 17 students failed to make even a vague reference to one of the two chapters the question was asking them to compare.

A recent study found that 45% of college students don’t learn critical thinking skills during their time in college. I admit it. I don’t think I managed to teach any of these students how to think critically.  It’s impossible to do so if they skip class regularly and don’t bother with the assigned readings. I’ve even shown students the percentage of “F”s I’ve given in the same class over the prior two years, and it has no effect on student performance.

I’m going to spend the next couple of months doing a major revamp of some of my classes.  Not just adjusting the syllabus, but radically restructuring how I’m teaching them.  What I’m doing isn’t working.  Maybe it never has as well as I thought, and I’m just now learning how to really recognize it.  But across the board I’m hearing college profs saying students read less now, and studies show they’re studying fewer hours, not just less than my brilliant and hard-working generation (which studied less than the generation before it), but less than just ten years ago…about the time I started working.

The question is, how do I get them to read and study more without doing regular and relentless testing, which will require the kind of grading effort that will completely burn me out?  They have the advantage of numbers–it’s easy to fail a couple of kids in a class, but this term in one class I’m giving an F to 21% of the students, and I persuaded one other to withdraw while he still could because he wasn’t going to pass, either.  I can get away with that this term–I can’t get away with it every term.

I’m not sure what to do, but I feel like it’s crunch time for me.  Either I figure out how to adapt–which doesn’t mean entertaining the students so they give me good evaluations, but means figuring out how to get this generation of students to realize a meaningful college diploma means more than writing the tuition check–or I have to find something else to do.  I have a former colleague who, when he finally retired, was embittered because, he said, he couldn’t “communicate with these kids anymore.”  I don’t want to be that guy.  And on a personal level I’m communicating with my students pretty well still.  But not in all my classrooms. Some, yes, but not in all.  And that’s no damn good for anyone.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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25 Responses to This Is What Failure Looks Like

  1. missprofessorcasey says:

    While it is unfortunate that you’re experiencing this, I think it’s pretty damn fabulous that you’re trying to take the time to reconsider things. I tend to teach more writing-oriented courses (college comp, etc) so, sadly, I don’t have any content-specific advice. However, one thing that worked for me was to up the student-feedback opportunities. Don’t just wait for the end of year semester that your bosses see. I have my students write a discussion board every week that discusses what they liked/didn’t like, and I have them do a more formal survey 4 weeks in. Not all of the students take it seriously, but a good number of them do. It helps me recalibrate my lessons as we go, instead of having to wait until the end of the semester.

    Good luck!

  2. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Several observations: one or two somewhat cynical, the others I hope more constructive.

    First, I doubt the majority of college students are capable of developing critical thinking skills anywhere close to what their professors would have hoped to see by the end of the term or even by graduation. We admit too many high school students to college, with or without the requisite secondary school education once thought prerequisite, and then spend too much effort compromising standards to boost graduation rates. (Of course, when I say “we” I mean neither you nor me but just the current state of the institution of higher education in general as I see it.)

    Second, even under the best of circumstances I suspect a teacher must make some painful trade-offs between covering a certain core quantity of course material and the sort of intense attention to any of that material to the point where at least most of the marrow has been sucked from its bones. What I mean is that, for example, some of my most challenging classes as an undergraduate probably didn’t involve much over a hundred pages of required reading. What was read, however, was analyzed in great detail. Similarly, in my first year law school property class, our professor spent nearly a month at the very beginning on one case. It wasn’t even a particularly important case as far as the law of property goes, but digging deeper and deeper into it, its arcane vocabulary, its historical setting, the policy questions it raised, etc. was a highly worthwhile introduction to what we somewhat pretentiously call “learning to think like a lawyer.” (On these lines, I’ve occasionally toyed with putting together a semester long course just on Marbury v. Madison such that it could be taught anywhere from a community college to law school level.)

    Finally, because it will always be the case in most classes that class participation is monopolized by a small minority of students, get them all to write as much as possible. Not necessarily long term papers but short expositions of the material just covered. My undergraduate Kant teacher took the Critique of Pure Reason, divided it into twelve roughly equal parts and had us cover a part each week, turning in a three to five page paper trying to put what Kant was talking about into our own words. Needless to say, our own words sucked, but it was a hell of a way to get through one of the most challenging philosophical books in Western civilization. More to the point, I have little doubt but that both our writing and our analytical skills had improved markedly by the end of the semester. (Whether any of us understood Kant is, alas, another question entirely.)

    Obviously, these sorts of approaches must be tailored to class size, the student’s level and the subject matter. I have the sense, however, that faculty at many, maybe most colleges and universities believe they both have to play catch-up for most students and still cover the really college level material for the handful of students who can handle it. I’m not sure those goals can be effectively combined. Then again, and here I’ll end on another typically cynical observation, perhaps they can take some comfort from the fact that but for all those ill equipped students, many of whom shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place, they wouldn’t have jobs.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    James,

    Your frustrations are similar to mine, although I haven’t taught since 2009. I’m not sure of what the answer would be. I suspect that you’re probably a better teacher than I am, too. (I’m not being falsely modest, but I have taught only 3 classes on my own even though I’ve TA’d for many others, and from what I’ve seen of your interactions with students, you are both respectful and honest with them.)

    Maybe one possibilty is to have a paper due very early in the course, say, within 3 weeks of the first day of class. This paper should require a good amount of reading and critical thinking, and ideally could serve as a diagnostic for you (where do they need to work the most) and a wake-up call for them when you say you expect them to do the work and to do it well.

    One thing I’ve tried was to have students write a short paper once a week on the reading. This brought mixed results. I wasn’t rigorous about grading them–they eventually became one chore that I dispatched quickly….I graded them, but was not rigorous. Secondly, in a few cases, there was plagiarism: always a potential problem, but one that’s hard to deal with. On the other hand, the papers made discussions of the reading more informed and students seemed to have a greater investment in the reading. I’m not sure how much they improved the students’ critical thinking skills overall, though.

    Another (not mutually exclusive) possibility might indeed be more testing, at least content-based testing, even though devoting the time to grade it will be painful. In my freshman year in college, my biology 101 class (it wasn’t called “biology 101,” but something like it) required us to take a largely content-based test every other Tuesday night (I don’t know how he got away with requiring us to take an exam at a time that was not part of the class hours as discussed in the registration book….but we all did it). He also had Monday morning quizzes based on the textbook readings for that week. All of this was in addition to the final exam (the Tuesday exams were like midterms) and a final project. He even tried to get us to think critically: we read and critiqued then current books that had relevance for the course or for the issue of scientific ethics and we all also had one extra class-session a week with a philosophy professor who introduced us to ethical issues in science.

    I’m no scientist and never will be, but I sure learned a lot in that class. I don’t know how that professor’s strategy would translate to a political science class (or to a history class, for that matter).

  4. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    I have a pile of final exams from the two sections of Pre- Calculus I am teaching this semester in front of me. I’m trying to gin up the energy to grade them.

    I probably should have read your post after I graded them. I fear that the results will confirm your thoughts about the poor critical thinking skills of current college students.

    One thing that frustrates me each semester is that a significant percentage of students, who have two hours to complete a comprehensive final exam that is worth one third of their grade, will turn it in with a large portion of the allotted time remaining.

    I give a little speech before handing out the exams that goes,

    “There are only two types of people that should even think about turning in the exam early. One are the poor slobs that haven’t been to class or done their homework in eight weeks. You are doomed and I understand that you are probably doodling your girlfriends picture and I’ll let you quietly leave, contemplating your fate. Sadly I’ve been there.

    The other group are the math savants that haven’t missed a problem all semester. You are free to leave because those definitely aren’t your underwear and I understand, its fifteen minutes to Judge Wapner.

    Everyone else should use all the time allotted because, you know, we’re all adults and this is going on your permanent record.”

    Almost half the class still leaves early.

  5. Lance says:

    Well, I finished grading the final exams.

    About what I expected. Not as bad as it could have been, but not great.

    The disappointing thing is that I gave both classes a Practice Final Exam on line that was 95% identical to the actual Final Exam. I even spent the last two class periods working those problems with the students up on white boards in class.

    Still the average was 68% in the day class and 78% in the night class.

    Had I given them the same material while asking them to review all the material from the semester I have no doubt that the average in both classes would have been 50% or less.

    There were many students that did very well, but I could have assigned their grades the first week of class. And I could have handed out the “F”s and “D”s the first week as well.

    To quote Eric Cartman lampooning James Edward Olmos from the movie Stand and Deliver,

    “How do I reach these keeds!”

    I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps pushing so many people into college is a mistake? Perhaps the K-12 education system is pushing people through that should be pushed out?

    I don’t have a fucking clue.

    Where’s that bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label?

  6. James Hanley says:

    There were many students that did very well, but I could have assigned their grades the first week of class. And I could have handed out the “F”s and “D”s the first week as well.

    That is so often the truth, and tremendously depressing. I just try to keep reminding myself of my students who actually do want to learn. They’re what make the job worthwhile.

    All done but 20 10-page papers to grade. Would have been done if not for missing a couple of days of grading, one with food poisoning and then yesterday with some damned virus.

  7. Troublesome Frog says:

    When I was in college (~10 years ago), I was amazed not by the lack of preparedness or even the laziness, but the shamelessness of it. I was always a semi-lazy student who got pretty good grades because I had a knack for what I studied. But when a professor called me out for doing subpar work, at least I felt appropriately chastened and upped my game. A huge number of the students around me seemed to be completely unashamed to be lazy whiners.

    It’s like signing up for the Army and then crying like a baby when they make you do push ups at boot camp. I can understand wanting to slack a little bit when it gets tough, but if you act like that, I feel embarrassed on your behalf.

    Keep fighting the good fight. The best professors were always the ones who made a few enemies by making people live up to their potential.

  8. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    …one with food poisoning and then yesterday with some damned virus.

    That sounds nasty. What are the odds that you would get both in a short span of time?

    I just try to keep reminding myself of my students who actually do want to learn. They’re what make the job worthwhile.

    That is especially true for me since as adjunct faculty I make peanuts and get no benefits.

    I did have a decent number of students that did give a damn and appreciated my efforts.

    One young woman had flunked the pre-req for this course, which I also teach, and complained to me that she didn’t like the fact that I had all the students go up to white boards for the last 15-20 minutes of most class periods. She would sneak out.

    I caught her one day and talked to her in the hall. I told her that no one was looking at her work except me, and only to help her. And that everyone feels a bit self-conscious at first but it soon becomes fun working with the people around you.

    As I said, she flunked the course because she was so far behind, but by the end of the semester she was comfortable with the format and was making progress.

    She re-enrolled the next semester and I could tell that she trusted me and was trying her best. She doesn’t have a great deal of natural math talent but she began to see what I tell students, that math is a language and an ounce of understanding is worth a ton of wrote memorization. She pulled a solid “B”.

    This semester she came to all of the classes, did all of her homework and I could tell she was enjoying working with other students at the board. The “light” was on.

    She got an “A” this semester. I’m sure it’s the first “A” she has ever received in a math course.
    She isn’t the type to thank me, although many students do, but it was very rewarding to take someone that “hates math” and have them begin to see it’s utility and perhaps appreciate a little bit of its beauty.

  9. Lance says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    Keep fighting the good fight. The best professors were always the ones who made a few enemies by making people live up to their potential.

    If you go to RateMyProfesor.com you will see that there are five reviews of my teaching. Three say that I am the best and funniest math teacher they have ever had and two say that I am the worst! No in between ratings from any of the students.

    That somewhat mirrors my experience in life. I tend to make very good friends and very fierce opponents. I’m a strong flavor, you either really like it or really hate it.

  10. Lance says:

    Arghh! I spelled “rote” as “wrote” in an above post. Of course the spell check tell’s me that’s OK, not realizing that I have used the wrong word.

    I guess it’s a good thing I don’t teach English.

  11. James Hanley says:

    I like the story. Those students do make you feel good.

    I have a student who’s doing an internship with the U.S. State Department in the Maritius this summer. She’s been a good student from day one, but she had never contemplated anything like this until she took my career seminar class. It’s both gratifying and a bit embarrassing when a student gives you all the credit for a bold move that she’s the one who’s taking, but it’s great to know you did something that led to that outcome.

  12. James Hanley says:

    Then there’s this student. Skipped probably half the class sessions, although he turned in all the assignments that were required to be submitted on-line. Checks his grade on Blackboard and sees he’s barely passing. Notes a few more points will bump him up one level, and reminds me that on one on-line quiz his last score, not his highest score, is recorded. So I change the gradebook to include his highest score and he moves up that one level. Then he notes he’s only a few points from the next level, so he points out that he should have more points for the written chapter reviews that were due in-class, because he had a friend clip them to my office door during my class when he had strep throat. A) The syllabus explicitly said those assignments were due in-class, not during class, and I really have no way of knowing that my original suspicion that student was putting them on my office door during class but not coming down the hall to the class itself isn’t correct. B) Student never previously mentioned having strep throat. C) Strep throat wouldn’t satisfactorily explain why he didn’t show up in class more than about 3 times the last half of the term, correctly submitted only 2 of the required 10 reviews, and none of the last 5, except for the two that showed up on my office door.

    My email response was acceptably civil, but not exactly gracious. Something about showing up for class and working hard instead of scrounging for points, preparation for success after college, etc., etc. If the student had put half as much work into showing up for class as he is into counting up the points he thinks he’s entitle to, he might have passed the final exam and not be worrying about his grade now.

  13. James Hanley says:

    Addendum: I sometimes wonder if the German method of grading everything on a single final exam isn’t actually the best way after all. Learn or die; don’t try to get by by scraping together just enough points on assignments to offset not learning enough to pass the exam.

    But last term I had a student complain in a 300 level class that the grade was based on too few items; only two papers and two exams.

  14. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    Addendum: I sometimes wonder if the German method of grading everything on a single final exam isn’t actually the best way after all. Learn or die; don’t try to get by by scraping together just enough points on assignments to offset not learning enough to pass the exam.

    Although I have been told by the math department at various meetings not to do this, I tell students that if their final exam grade is higher than their average grade I will give them that grade. It is a comprehensive exam covering everything in the course and, as I tell them, “If you show me that you learned the material I don’t care when you learned it.”

    Most students do a grade level lower on the final exam than their average, but a few students get their shit together and pull it out of the fire.

    I had five or six do that this semester.

    Unfortunately, as you experience, I have students who couldn’t perform a single rudimentary mathematical skill if you had a blow torch to their genitalia, that want to “extra credit” themselves to not only a passing grade but an exemplary one.

  15. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    It’s both gratifying and a bit embarrassing when a student gives you all the credit for a bold move that she’s the one who’s taking, but it’s great to know you did something that led to that outcome.

    Hey, don’t underestimate the power of recognizing and nourishing talent. She may have dropped back and become (shudder) a business major had you not encouraged and directed her talents.

  16. James Hanley says:

    “extra credit.” I’ll admit I took advantage of lots of extra credit in my undergrad geography class. My only defense of myself is that for various reasons I was having a bad semester that kept me from focusing as I ought to have and that I am in fact pretty good at geography. But I really don’t like students asking for extra credit, and I don’t encourage it, because in the long run it encourages a non-focused approach to academics. Students don’t recognize it (I didn’t), but it’s essentially saying, “I couldn’t be bothered to learn the stuff you thought was important enough to test us on or turn into an assignment, but I’m willing to put just a little bit of time into learning something else, that you didn’t think was that important.” Or, “I know the course grade is determined on a basis of 200 points, but I’d like mine to be based on 210 points, with the same scale as if it was 200 points.” But it’s a minor irritant, no more. It’s entirely rational for them to ask, especially as lots of instructors allow it. But when I give it, I try to use it as an incentive, such as for going to hear a speaker on campus I think they should hear.

    She may have dropped back and become (shudder) a business major
    I’m more worried about them becoming Soc or Criminal Justice majors.

  17. James Hanley says:

    Re: DAR.
    I doubt the majority of college students are capable of developing critical thinking skills anywhere close to what their professors would have hoped to see by the end of the term or even by graduation. We admit too many high school students to college… without the requisite secondary school education…

    Definitely agreed with the second part, not sure about the first part. I think an awful lot more of them are capable than is immediately apparent. It’s just damned hard to motivate them to do so, and there’s not a consistent demand across the campus (probably true of most campuses). I see students graduating with honors who didn’t do very well in my class, and I know they’re not really being challenged to think critically. And I know some faculty (not just at my school, but everywhere I’ve been) equate a left-leaning point of view with critical thinking–in some ways they’re my greatest bane, because I get students who’ve been explicitly told they’re doing great critical thinking who are just repeating leftist talking points. (I get the same from right-leaning students, but in that case I think it’s their parents telling them how great their critical thinking is.)

    even under the best of circumstances I suspect a teacher must make some painful trade-offs between covering a certain core quantity of course material and the sort of intense attention to any of that material to the point where at least most of the marrow has been sucked from its bones.
    Yep, there’s no getting around that. It’s like a classic indifference curve in economics, except that I find myself dissatisfied at every point along the line..

  18. Lance says:

    James Hanley,

    I’m more worried about them becoming Soc or Criminal Justice majors.

    There is damn little science in what are called the “social sciences”. Much of it is post modernist clap trap. Leftist ideology dressed in a “sciency” pastiche of jargon and novel pseuo-statistics.

  19. Dr X says:

    I haven’t seen much post modernist claptrap in the social science disciplines I have exposure to: economics, anthropology, and several sub-disciplines in psychology. I do know there are stereotypes about social sciences that don’t bear much resemblance to social science as I encountered social sciences. For example, do you really believe that most cognitive research, research on memory, biases and a wide range of unconscious processes is just post modernist fantasy or based on pseudo statistics?

    I can’t speak for political scientists, but in my exposure to social sciences, I encountered disciplined, skeptical, thoughtful people who understood both the strengths and limitations of their work, and some damn good experimentalists and statisticians. And I never ran across anything in the mainstream that could be called post modernist, though I don’t think everything about post modernism is claptrap. What many people think of as reality is social construction, for instance, the Christianist construction of marriage as a metaphysical reality that conforms to their definition limiting marriage to one man and one woman. I do share the criticism of post-modernism as I’ve seen manifested at times in literary theory. but that’s in the English or philosophy department. The idea that there there is no reality except what is subjectively constructed is more accepted in pop culture than the social science classroom. Again, that is different from recognizing that much of the non-tangible universe of human relations is indeed an admixture of reality and mental construction, which is why people disagree on so many things. I do draw the line, however, at the denial of a physical reality apart from the observer.

  20. Dr X says:

    Back to the topic of the post itself, I did offer some thoughts in a more extended post of my own.

    http://drx.typepad.com/psychotherapyblog/2012/04/critical-thinking-skills.html#more

  21. Lance says:

    Dr X,

    As I typed my flip comment I wondered if you would take offense. None was intended, at least to you.

    “For example, do you really believe that most cognitive research, research on memory, biases and a wide range of unconscious processes is just post modernist fantasy or based on pseudo statistics?”

    I certainly should have been more circumspect or at least given examples to support my comment. Lumping all of the social sciences together was certainly a mistake. I was mostly referring to sociology and anthropology, and only a subset of those broad fields.

    Have you heard of the Sokal Affair?

    Or have you read Post-Modernism and the Social Sciences by Pauline Rosenau, 1991?
    It is not a polemic but attempts to explain the influence and effect of post modernist thought on the social sciences.

    I certainly did not mean to impugn all of the dedicated scientists and researchers that are attempting to validly use the scientific method to gain insights into the human brain and the social interactions of individuals, groups and societies.

    Also, I must admit to a bit of hubris that we physicists occasionally display.

    And I, as a particularly unaccomplished physicist at this point, have no right to the criticize the accomplishments or methods of other scientists or science professionals.

    My most sincere apology.

  22. Dr X says:

    Thank you, Lance. No harm, no foul. I’d assumed that you were making a flippant remark and wasn’t actually offended. I have indeed heard of the Sokal affair. The publication of the article, along with the lack of protest from many readers demonstrated that there are quite a few intellectual frauds in academia. My rule of thumb is that if I can’t penetrate the language of a contemporary article or book outside a tech field within about five minutes, I feel safe in regarding it as a fraud. I don’t expect to automatically understand everything I read in other fields, but I do expect to see evidence that the sentences are more than grammatically correct gibberish.

  23. Troublesome Frog says:

    James Hanley:

    I know the course grade is determined on a basis of 200 points, but I’d like mine to be based on 210 points, with the same scale as if it was 200 points.

    I had a physics professor whose response to extra credit requests made good sense: “Your grade is an average. You’ve been doing C quality work all semester and you have a C. Why does it make sense for me to give you a B just because you’re willing to turn in even more C quality work?”

  24. Lance says:

    Troublesome Frog,

    Man, that’s a good response, but in the “don’t upset the little dears” atmosphere of my university I would be called in on the carpet if I said that to a student.

    Oh, that I had tenure.

  25. James Hanley says:

    T-Frog–that is a great response. I have to be somewhat circumspect about upsetting the little dears, but less so than Lance. And of course there are ways to say it that cause the student to think, rather than to just get offended.

    Dr. X–Some social sciences are better than others at being sciency. Psych is probably the best (at its best, at least), with economics second, the better political science tying with economics, and there is some really good anthropological work, too. But the bad side of political science actively disparages being scientific; sociology is largely a joke, not just because it has so many anti-science types, but because most of its types that accept actual methodology tend to focus only on aggregates and base all their analyses at the group level; and anthropology does, unfortunately, have its own very bad po-mo side (the side that flatly rejects any semblance of structural functionalism)–but that’s not a disparagement of the field as a whole by any means; I wish to god I had more time to read good anthopological work.

    Re: po-moism. I agree with you about social constructions. I think where it goes overboard is when there’s an insistence that there are effectively no commonalities across people. I remember a grad school prof who refused to agree with a paper I wrote about property rights as a common institution across cultures, with lots of examples drawn from the anthropological literature. Her response (and I wish this was just a cheap joke) was, “Property rights are purely a western conception. You have lots of good evidence, but I don’t believe it because I have a theory that says it can’t be true.” And I had a grad school friend who was a staunch social constructionist who inclined toward thinking in the same terms, and when I gave examples of common social behaviors across cultures, his response was, “But it’s only the differences between groups that matter, isn’t it?” I couldn’t parse that kind of thought. Why should it be either only the differences or only the commonalities that matter?

    Dr. X–Thanks, I’ll read your response.

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