Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Early Thirsty: teaching moment or patronising asshole?

I am co-teaching a module which is taken almost entirely by freshers in their first semester at university, so we do provide a greater level of 'hand holding' than other modules, although I prefer to think of it as 'student training' and 'acculturation to the academy'.  One thing we do is give them a mock exam paper, since each year the module content changes to reflect different readings, team members, current issues in Hamsterology etc., so past papers aren't covering exactly the same ground. 

We set 3n questions on this year's material then divide them fairly arbitrarily between the mock paper (given out in December, to help them revise), the main paper (which they sit this week) and the resit paper (for the half dozen or so who will have dead cars/dogs/grandmothers and will need to take the final at a different time), each of which has n questions.

Today's Minor Misery was a deluge of emails from students essentially saying, "We don't understand question A on the mock exam.  We didn't cover this in class.  What's the answer?" 

My response was along the lines of "We covered it in class 14, go to the VLE and look up the powerpoint, class handout and reading for that class and review that topic; if you really can't work out the answer after that, email me with a more specific description of what you don't understand."

My colleague's response was "The answer to question A is X."

I don't like his response (how does knowing the specific answer to a question which by definition won't appear on the final help the student study?).  He doesn't like my response (you contradicted the student, you are playing mind games with them and that's patronising - just answer the question they asked).

Q: Miserians, remembering that these are freshers, how do you approach these sorts of questions?

30 comments:

  1. Opinion: your colleague is being a useless sack of knobs. Sometimes "patronizing" is needed to point out that they should be learning things thoughtfully rather than doing the passive bare minimum.

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  2. That's not patronizing, that's coaching. Your colleague, on the other hand, is on the same level as a coach who ties a rope to the ball and pulls the rope through a basketball hoop, because he can't be bothered to teach shooting technique.

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  3. You're right, he's wrong. You're not being patronizing by telling students they actually have to learn how to do something instead of just providing an answer. It's the only thing that's actually going to help them on the exam.

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  4. I was in situations in which students came to me and asked if I could do a certain problem for them. When I was a rookie instructor, I would have, but, later, I refused and told them that I'd get *them* to do it.

    What I did was to get them to do the work but under my guidance. I'd start by getting them to tell me what the objective is, but in their own words. Then I'd ask questions such as what was known about the situation, what information was on hand, and what was needed to define what data may be missing. I figured they had to do that on an exam and, likely, out in industry as well.

    Did any of them appreciate it? Of course not. One I remember went whining to my assistant department head, who had taught the kid the pre-requisite course. The ADH later scolded me for not "helping" him. The ADH "got" him through the earlier course so, therefore, I was obligated to "get" him through mine.

    No matter what I would have done, it wouldn't have helped. That student simply had no talent for what he wanted to study and shouldn't have been admitted (several of my colleagues said the same thing). That, however, didn't prevent the ADH from raking me over the coals.

    As it turned out, the student failed my course and I never saw him again.

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  5. Not patronizing at all. You are showing them how to find the info and where to find it. That's helpful. What's the point of not using an adage about horses and water if it's not true?

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  6. I hate the old "give a man to fish, teach a man to fish" saying, but.... that's what you're doing. Your colleague is giving a fish; you are showing your students how to get the fish for themselves in the future.

    Siigh.

    Sorry you work with dickwads.

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    1. Build a man a fire, and he'll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he'll be warm for the rest of his life.

      - (Sir!) Terry Pratchett

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  7. Echoing the general sentiment: your colleague is a useless, enabling douchebag.

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  8. In a situation like this one, I'd do both. First explain how to do the problem (assuming math here), then point out that this was covered in topic X, and is very similar to example Y done in class and homework problem Z. This way you show them how to do it *and* let them know it is an entirely fair question. (I include on my tests the number of the HW problem or class example each question is copied from. So there are never open complaints about "fairness"; of course, they can always use anonymous evaluations to vent.)

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  9. He's upset that you're contradicting the students? Your colleague is a tea partying idiot--and a lazy one at that. He likely answers the questions directly because it's the easiest thing to do.

    You are doing absolutely the right thing. I do not answer questions for students when they can and should be answering them for themselves.

    And the last thing Academic Monkey said.

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    1. The thing that surprises me here is not that your lazy-ass colleague is just giving them the answer (which is useless). It's that he is self-righteous about it and is trying to make you feel lousy about actually teaching the students something - how to review, how to go through their notes, how to figure stuff out for themselves. This isn't "patronising"; this is TEACHING. It's what you're PAID to do. (And probably not enough.) Your colleague sees anyone actually doing their job as an implied attack on his own crappy performance. Ignore him.

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    2. While I was an instructor at a tech school, I was told that "teaching" consisted of helping students graduate so that they could get jobs. I wasn't to bother with getting them to think or look up information themselves. I just had to show them the formula and how to use it.

      I spent many miserable years fighting that narrow-minded thinking. Then again, my job really wasn't teaching my students but training them.

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    3. Take care, Greta ...

      While I don't disagree with your message (or Academic Monkey's), I fear what Grumpy Academic has experienced is just the latest evolutionary turn of student consumerism.

      At a recent faculty meeting for a graduate program, we were told to
      "honor the students' experiences" which was edu-speak for "do not contradict their ignorance or snowflakery" because the instructors are not the only experts in the room.

      I can't tell you how many times I read utter bumper stick platitude, old wives' tale mythological drivel from these people who are supposedly moving from entry-level wombat care and feeding to advanced practice.

      Yet, I find myself frozen with self-doubt over setting the invisible Sword of Damocles into motion if I were to honestly and, yes, expertly challenge the darlings' simplistic analyses.

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  10. You are right, since you show the characteristics of a good teacher: you coach your students in how to get the right answers for themselves, by doing their own thinking and work. Your colleague is an educational menace, since he takes the cheap, easy, lazy way out. He should have his dick stapled to the floor, so Strelnikov won't have to chase after him.

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    1. I had a colleague who was like that. His courses were, compared with mine, a piece of cake and he was enormously popular. That popularity was reflected in his evaluations and he was held up as an example of excellence in teaching.

      He, too, was an educational menace because he, too, took the easy way out. What made it worse was that he had a B. Ed., so I guess he knew how to teach.

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    2. Tempting though that might have been, I didn't. The colleague in question was good buddies with the assistant department head, so I had to be satisfied with things like thumbing my nose at him.

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  11. If I think the student has a chance of perhaps becoming a real human someday, I use the 'patronizing' approach.

    If their destiny is to flip burgers I give them the answer.

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  12. At the start of the term I let them know all the ways to find the answer as that is a needed skill. By the end of term, I just give them the answer. If they don't have the skills by that point, they are never going to learn them and I'm too damn tired to care.

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  13. As above. You are right. He is wrong.

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  14. I agree with everyone above. You're teaching (well and respectfully, not patronisingly), your colleague is . . .well, I'm not sure what he's doing, but it's not teaching. Perhaps, as Cambridge suggests, he's broken under the stress, and is under the delusion that he's google. Or perhaps that what customer service looks like?

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    1. At the place I used to teach at, spoon-feeding the students was not only encouraged, but often required in order to maintain the image that whoever gets accepted deserves to graduate.

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  15. As everyone else has said: the way you are doing it is the correct way.

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  16. As above: you are the one with the backbone. He is a dickwad.

    I handle these things just as you did, and I also get accused of being "patronising" occasionally. That used to bother me until I checked with some former students and a couple of colleagues who had observed me in the classroom.

    Now I have a macro to deal with email FAQs like "you didn't cover this." I set up a signature with an answer like yours, though not as specific about which class period. It takes approximately 5 seconds to respond.

    Two side comments:
    1. This thread is another example of CM serving as support of good teaching when proffies lack support in their own departments, contrary to certain trolls who think we're only about complaining.

    2. Thanks to two of Frod's comments today, I'm never going to look at my staple gun the same way.

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  17. If the student in question has spent the last 4 hours trying to hammer out the solution to a problem, then I'd give them the friggin' answer. Otherwise make them sweat for it.

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  18. Thank you all! It was a short essay question, not a maths question, which was along the lines of "define the terms A and B, and use them to explain phenomenon C"

    I like the whinging here, but the teaching discussion/support is just as important!

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