Friday, February 15, 2013

Friday Thirsty: Scaring Them Off

Four weeks into the semester, I finally feel like things have stabilized a bit (and the big papers haven't hit yet, though they're looming on the horizon).  The first 2-3 weeks were pretty chaotic, and, in all likelihood, it's partly my fault: as one student who added on the last possible day said when I remarked that there had been a lot of adding and dropping: "you scared them off."  That's probably true; because I've taught the class before (and because two of my sections are online), I had all the major assignments ready and posted ready before the semester began, detailed instructions for everything on the course calendars, etc., etc.  The course involves a shitload of work, and that's perfectly obvious from the course materials (in fact, I deliberately try to discourage any online students who think the course will be easy with a "welcome" letter that contains as much warning as welcome). I had more than a few students in my traditional sections attend only one class meeting before they dropped, and some online students came and went before I even noticed they had registered (apparently they took one look at the LMS site and fled screaming into the night).

In some ways, this is a good thing.  I've probably got more students who are aware that the course will be hard, and willing to do the work involved, than I would otherwise.  (I've probably also got a few who simply got caught with a seat in the class when the music stopped playing -- i.e. add/drop ended -- and know that many of them will also drop or simply stop coming, forfeiting part of all of their tuition depending on when they take stock of the situation and whether/how they act on their conclusions).

On the other hand, even with a shortened add/drop period, dealing with all the coming and going is a real pain in the neck.  Realistically, they have to take this class, many of them will find it harder then they expect/think it "should" be, and it's not as if the majority of my colleagues are pushovers.

So, I'm wondering,

Q.  To what extent do you "scare students off" during the add/drop period, deliberately or by accident? Have you consciously tried to manipulate this phenomenon, and, if so, how and in what direction? Do factors such as trying to meet enrollment and/or retention targets, or trying to keep students from wasting tuition money, play a role in your decisions?  Do your tactics vary by level or kind of course (e.g. introductory/required vs. upper-level/elective)?


Extra-credit question (I don't believe in extra credit, but I'll make an exception in this case, since I've been wondering all week): what's the picture we've got in the background these days? Is that Ogden, UT?  The place where the rogue L.A. cop holed up?  The location of Frod's observatory?  All of the above?  None of the above?

38 comments:

  1. I try to present an accurate picture of the course during the add/drop period, making no effort to hide how difficult the material is. My hope is that the people who feel unprepared (or who don't like my style) will make the right decision early. After add/drop, I try to keep them in the class. But I usually get no warning before somebody drops.

    There are two types of students I find puzzling: the people who show up sporadically, never turn in homework, and yet don't drop the class. They know they'll get an F in the end. I don't know if this is due to perverse incentives in the uni's fee/financial support rules or simply complete indifference (or cluelessness.)

    The second is the person who is coming to class, doing well on the assignments and suddenly (after add/drop) stops coming and drops the class without warning. This happened to me today, so I emailed the student asking for a reason. The reply: "I'm taking too many hours and working, had to drop a class, this is not in my major".

    Fair enough, but when "success rates" are computed both types of "melting snowflakes" will be counted against me.

    (I thought of Boulder at first, but it is probably Utah.)

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    1. "the people who show up sporadically, never turn in homework, and yet don't drop the class."

      You retake the class and then have all the course material / solutions. It's smarter to just audit the class instead.

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    2. But this assumes either the same prof will teach the class in the near future, and use the same text, picking the same homework problems; or that other profs teaching the course will (again) pick the same text, same emphasis, same problems. For the courses I typically teach, neither is true. The same course taught by somebody else (or by myself on another year) could look very different. When I suspect people are using prepared solutions, I write new problem sets, not occurring in any text. (In violation of Beaker Ben's cardinal principle, I know.) It makes me real popular with the engineers.

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  2. I don't think there is any shame in scaring them off. In fact, I think it is the more honorable course.

    You have certain expectations; they have certain expectations. If those expectations don't sync up, they shouldn't be there. You are only personally responsible for maintaining the integrity of your course, and "scaring them off" in this context really means "give them an accurate representation of the amount of work and level of content mastery that they will need to demonstrate in order to be deemed competent by an expert." I think we all have an ethical responsibility to do exactly that.

    The resulting problems, if they occur, are much broader: if some students always withdraw from hard-looking classes and their degree requirements are sufficiently lax that they could always take easy-going profs, then they may come out with a degree that doesn't reflect them having done any actual work.

    What that implies is that if only everyone was a hardass about meeting expectations/deadlines and doing rigorous work to get an A, there wouldn't be any problems... one can dream, I suppose.

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  3. Lots and lots of quizzes, make-ups not allowed.

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  4. For what it's worth, I would typically load up on 6 classes knowing that I would pick the 4 I like / could do well in, and drop the remaining 2. "scaring off" is pointless: usually the meanest professors were the ones with the biggest curves anyways, but maybe it's different outside engr.

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  5. My first class lecture always includes a little warning.

    "If you are here because the material we are going to cover fascinates you, then you in the right spot. If you think it's beneath you, then let's talk because I can get you around the pre-req if you are advanced in this material.

    If you have a clear interest in the subject but little knowledge this is still the correct class. If, however, you got your advising from the campus bar and enrolled in this class because you were told it was easy with very little work, then you do not belong here. You will be miserable and you will fail. Go enroll in a class you will enjoy."

    The sections are still full, but several have stopped showing up and many others have been told their work is far below university standards. They just won't go away and I refuse to lower standards.

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  6. This is the first semester in recent memory that my sections of comp have not been full up at the very beginning. I had one opening in each--and added students as they asked. Some of the ones I added then dropped when they saw the syllabus, or whatever.

    I am willing to add them, but usually only through the first week (our add/drop is 10 days, so most students looking to add at the every end have already missed almost 2 weeks' worth of class lecture and reading discussion). It's difficult for them to get caught up (unless they are very, very motivated), and last fall, every single student I added during add/drop ended up failing outright or stopped showing up for class midway through the semester.

    This tells me that this kind of crap is happening because they aren't prepared in the first place. Many are registering for classes 2 days before the start of the semester. Apparently, the "prior planning" adage is something they haven't heard.

    Coincidentally, CC, I have an add/drop story this week, too--just posted it.

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  7. I make every student write in response to a prompt on the first day of class, and if it's a literature class, I make them analyze a poem they've never seen before. If that won't scare them off, nothing will.

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  8. I do scare a lot off. Typically about 1/3 within the add/drop period. Sometimes more. I do this for one reason. I don't like slackers. Meatbags. Wastes of space. Be ready to do the work or go the fuck home. I don't give a crap about enrollment/retention. What happens to my drop students is that they go and pick some other core course they think is going to be easier than mine. And I can say that about 95% of the time, they are right.

    I don't consciously try to scare off my upper-division students, mostly because I can't afford to or the course won't make. There is only one course that upperclassmen "have" to take that I teach. It's hard as old shit but they have to take it. I don't so much "scare" those off as watch them drop away as they realize they actually have to work hard just to get a "C". As many of the students are ed majors, you can imagine how difficult it is for them.

    The tactics I use for underclassmen are simple. Zero technology. Stealth absences if I see you doing anything not related to the class. Pointing and demanding answers from specific students rather than letting the class "flow". Not letting them float out of class and float back in. Demerits from their final grade if they're too fucking lazy and stupid to prepare for class. Tests with no matching, no T/F, no multiple choice, but rather quotes from the actual texts that must be identified, so if a student is not reading and only glancing at sparknotes, they are fucked.

    I am an old angry bitch and if they don't want to read and study, fuck them. Fuck them sideways. Here's your "F," stupid.

    Yeah, they leave. And I am glad to see them go.

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    1. "I don't so much "scare" those off as watch them drop away as they realize they actually have to work hard just to get a "C". As many of the students are ed majors, you can imagine how difficult it is for them."

      I love you for this. Fortunately, I don't get an abundance of Ed majors - just the smattering here or there - but my undergrad program was RIDDLED with them, as with an infestation. Most of them cheated on every test/assignment in every class and still managed to pull the lowest grades in the department, many of them failing required classes. Since then, perhaps unfairly, I've come to have significantly lowered expectations from my Ed majors (and that goes double for Elementary Ed folks).

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  9. We used to give our first exam over three chapters of general chemistry. That's the only exam grade they have before midterms. The first two chapters are a review of high school science. Chapter 3 is challenging. Students used to do ok on the first two chapters' exam questions and poorly on the chapter 3 questions. They'd get a 70% and tell that they would work harder next time.

    Next time, after they can no longer drop the class, they get a 40% on the exam which is full of hard stuff. They'd be screwed.

    We changed our format to two exams before midterm. The first is easy. If they can't pass that exam, I tell them they should drop right away. If they fail the second exam, I suggest they drop because it won't get any easier.

    This gives them a realistic view of where they stand in the class. They have enough data to make a reasonable judgement about their future success. Some still wear rose-colored glasses but it's harder to lie to themselves.

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    1. The late, lamented Yaro of my department deliberately used the first strategy. He'd give them an easy test before the drop date, and then they'd have no choice but to work hard to pass. Somehow they did.

      A much younger colleague deliberately does the opposite: she assigns reading the first day and gives a hard quiz the second. Students hoping to add the class have to pass the quiz. Those already enrolled get a fair dose of what's expected, and have time to drop and find a different class. She is not beloved by students, but I think her approach (and your new one, Beaker Ben) is more humane and helpful.

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    2. Thank you. In many ways, students are uninformed consumers (pardon the inappropriate analogy). They don't know what they are getting into. Just like a bank loan officer should tell loan applicants what the monthly payment will be, professors should tell (and show) students what the work load is. I'd rather that they jump ship early than be stuck in my class, endlessly complaining, when there's no change for them to pass.

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  10. I let 'em have it the first week with a barrage of my expectations, rules, classroom idiosyncracies, and relevant opinions (about science vs pseudoscience). Usually a few enrolled students and half the wait list don't show up the second day. Then I fill the class past capacity to the limit allowed by the college. After the second day, I turn away people trying to crash because (a) they've missed significant material and (b) the class has started to gel as a social group.

    On Day 1, the Little Dears get an assignment to write up their schedule including all their time commitments, work, and adequate study time for my class. Worth full points for following all the directions, it's due when class starts on Day 2. As in the syllabus, I don't accept assignments from latecomers, who sometimes stomp out. (Buh-bye! Don't let the door hit you in the ass!)

    I also make them write answers to prompts, in complete sentences, and wander around the room asking quietly for more details and examples and checking for cell phones and web surfing. If the Little Dears haven't started writing yet, I wait next to them until they get something on paper. If I take their electronics to the front, they may not come back the next time. (Buh-bye!)

    As an untenured proffie at Dysfunctional U, I couldn't do these things for fear of not meeting retention benchmarks. Thank Thor those days are long gone, and I'm in a division with rigorous colleagues who don't micromanage.

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    1. All my classes are introductory. I'd do it differently if I taught upper division.

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    2. "write up their schedule including all their time commitments, work, and adequate study time for my class"
      Love, love the idea. Let nobody say that we don't get anything useful from this page.

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    3. I haven't tried this, but I have responded to emails begging to force-add my section "because it's the only one that will fit my schedule" (there are over a hundred sections many semesters) with an email expressing concern that the student may not have scheduled enough prep/homework time. I've never heard back from one of those students.

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  11. The current background is indeed CM's home at Weber State.

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    1. Thanks! Nice to have it confirmed. It looks like an attractive, if rugged, landscape; I'll have to come visit the compound some time.

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  12. Replies
    1. I am also deeply ashamed of what a cream puff I had to be, in order to survive before I got tenure. Never again!

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  13. When I was an engineering undergrad, I didn't have much choice. Most of my courses were required and there was often just one section, so I couldn't switch to another. No matter what my profs did, I was stuck with them.

    A few came across as intimidating at first. I think they did that deliberately to see who was serious about learning the material. Since I knew I had to take those courses, I saw what they did initially as a challenge which I had to overcome if I was to earn an engineering degree. It was a test of character and I'm pleased to say that I passed.

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  14. It is said that at a certain Canuckistani university the prof would began the first lecture with:

    Let S be a spacetime equipped with a pseudometric dee tau squared ...

    The engineering students who believed for reasons incomprehensible that they knew some math and physics would promptly drop the course.

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    1. I know an engineering school where freshmen are greeted by the dean with a lecture on nonlinear elasticity, in its full tensorial glory; they make sure to have graduate assistants planted in the audience, who occasionally pipe in with a smart question.

      At a certain point the dean stops, lets the class in on the joke, and then delivers the real message: "look to your left, look to your right: one of these two people won't be here next year".

      And he's right, it always turns out that way.

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    2. Peter K:

      That used to be the case when I was an undergrad nearly 40 years ago and, as it turns out, it wasn't all that far-fetched. Courses like statics not only served as introductory engineering courses, but they also weeded out those who decided they were better off studying something else. I heard that the dropout rate of those who start studying engineering was on the order of 60%.

      I completed my freshman year at a junior college in a university transfer program. Of the 9 who wrote the final exams at the end of the second term, one disappeared and I never heard from him again. A second one transferred to a different university than the rest of us and he likewise vanished.

      The rest of us ended up at the same campus the following academic year and there was even further weeding out. One decided to go back to being a tradesman. A second one decided he'd rather be a teacher. The rest of us eventually finished our degrees.

      By the time I started my junior year, the dropout rate had largely stabilized. Most of who I started with graduated with me. Those who didn't delayed by a year at most because they failed a course or two.

      Unfortunately, dropout rates like I described are no longer permissible. Post-secondary institutions would rather one complete one's degree in a discipline one either hates or aren't suited for. One can always study something else later, right?

      It's all a matter of how much money they can make off a student.

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    3. There's a story about J. R. R. Tolkien that dates from the fifties/sixties, after LotR was published. Apparently he began getting extra attention in his classes because of the popularity of the book (he's famous amongst medievalists for being an authority on Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight--his edition of the latter is still the standard text).

      He didn't want fans as students, so for the first couple of weeks basically he'd just stare at notes, refuse to make eye contact, and mutter his disorganized lectures under his breath. Then, after the first couple of weeks, when all the fangirls and boys withered away because they were afraid of actually having to be tested on a bunch of incomprehensible material mumbled by an old man, he began actually teaching.

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    4. NolongerAnAcademic, the story I related is very recent, but non-US. My source tells me that by the start of sophomore year 40% of the freshmen had disappeared.

      Clearly tolerance for low retention rates will be different in a system with free (publicly funded) higher education, combined with entrance exams and/or rigorous high-school graduation exams. (As is common in Europe, Latin America and China). In the US, where universities increasingly have to generate their own income from tuition, there are strong incentives to admit students who are not ready. And, once you admit it, creating a situation where large numbers of them won't graduate becomes ethically questionable.

      The American tuition-based model is at the source of many of the tensions we talk about here (basically, administrators with an eye on the finances allied with students vs. faculty worried about keeping standards.) I don't see us moving towards a different model anytime soon.

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    5. "[Tolkien] didn't want fans as students..."

      Isaac Newton was similar. He had no patience with pretenders, so he made no effort at what today would be called science popularization. He wrote the Principia in Latin, even though it was a full generation after Galileo wrote his books in the vernacular. Ever since Andrew Motte translated the Principia into English, it's been said that parts of it are so mathematically dense, they're easier to read in the original Latin.

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    6. "Clearly tolerance for low retention rates will be different in a system with free (publicly funded) higher education, combined with entrance exams and/or rigorous high-school graduation exams."

      That, as well as systems who have any regard for the skimpy job markets their students face after graduation.

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    7. Peter K:

      My comments were about the Canadian system. My Ph. D. supervisor once told about his early days when he could make that statement but, by the late 1990s, that was no longer permissible.

      Several years ago, I was interviewed by a junior college for a position to teach engineering in a university transfer program. When I hinted that there should be a high failure rate, I was given dirty looks by the interview committee. I figured, after all, that if I was to teach engineering courses that I, a practicing professional engineer myself, should do so with the requirements of the profession in mind. It's the same profession which has a code of ethics, with the first clause containing the statement that the public welfare comes first and foremost.

      Evidently, there are some academic institutions that have no regard for the public whatsoever except when it comes to having that same public fork over money.

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    8. Froderick:

      Haven't you heard? We need even more engineers, even though there are many of us who can't get jobs.

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    9. NLAN: the same seems to be true, to some extent, of nurses (it's not as easy to get a job as the Labor Department predictions would make you think). Of course, the Labor Department has also taken to describing college professor as an "in-demand" job, and reporting median salaries that sound way high even for tenure-track proffies, all of which suggests that whatever predictive/statistical method they're using, it doesn't work very well.

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    10. CC:

      I heard that. Much of the discrepancy comes from the outsourcing of many occupations, such as engineering and nursing, or, alternately, bringing in contract workers. However, where I live, even certain trades are affected, not only to pay lower wages but also to get around the unions. Union-busting is a pastime in this area.

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    11. FFfF: In Never at Rest, a biography of Newton by R.Westfall (1980), one finds the following comment attributed to Humphrey Newton (no relation), Newton's assistant when he was Lucasian Professor at Cambridge (1669-1696):

      "So few went to hear Him, & fewer yt understood him, yt oftentimes he did in a manner, for want of Hearers, read to ye Walls."

      Something to keep in mind if I ever walk into a classroom and find myself "reading to ye Walls". (It has come close.)

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  15. I have sometimes joked with students who survive to the end a course with me that I would be happy to write stellar recommendation letters for them if they will help me scare incoming students - either scare them off or scare them into submission/cooperation.

    "Just joking, of course," I say. Still, some of them take the hint: I hear fairly often from incoming students that the previous year's crew scared the fecal matter out of them regarding the course.

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  16. Ever since I got tenure, during the first week of class, I have done my best to let as many students as possible know what they're getting into, in all classes. For the general-ed, intro-astronomy course, I tell them on the first day of class what the observing schedule will be and how it's determined by weather and when the Sun sets, and so may not fit with some students' schedules. I also tell them that I can't provide transportation out there. For the physics for engineers course, I tell them that this will be a rigorous, mathematically intensive, demanding course. For the upper-level astrophysics courses, I do the same. I also give them a copy of Ed Nather's "Advice to the Young Astronomer." Rule 1 of this is "Go into some other profession," since astronomy is so demanding and family unfriendly, and there are so few jobs.

    None of it appears to make any difference whatsoever.

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    1. I tried similar methods with my students only to be reprimanded for scaring them. But, if I didn't tell them what they were getting into, the kiddies would later whine that they weren't warned earlier.

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