Friday, April 26, 2013

Stuck in Front of a Blackboard is THIRSTY!

I'm in grading hell right now. I gave a test on Monday in my Elementary Hamster Methodology class. This is probably the most difficult test of the semester because it covers some of the most technical material in the course, and so I decided to stay away from asking harder questions. I didn't give them freebies or anything, but I focused on some of the more straight-forward questions in each topic. I figured that I'd be thrilled if the little snowflakes could just get through the basic procedures, calculations, and problems.

They couldn't. Holy shit, they couldn't. About a third of them scored below a 50%, and only about a quarter of them passed. And it wasn't a problem with students making a few calculation errors here and there. No, students were throwing basic procedures right out the window! You don't feed your hamster by throwing a grapefruit at it! You don't get two hamsters to mate by sprinkling rose pedals in their cages! And for the love of God, when preparing your hamster for a show, the pants go on before the underwear! How do you manage to dress yourself properly but not your hamster?!?!

What baffles me is that they were able to do all of these things correctly in class and on the homework. And when we had a review session, they didn't seem to think they were struggling with the material at all.

So here it is:

Q: How do you teach students to accurately assess their own knowledge, skills, and preparedness?

I know that there will always be a portion of the students who won't care or study or do anything, no matter how we try to help them. I get that. I've written them off. But I've had a lot of conversations with some of the other students who failed, and I know they're trying. Just...not trying the right things. And I want to find a better way to teach them to study, not just so they can do better in my class, but so they can do better in life. Meta-cognition is golden!


  1. This happens to me all the time: I use homework problems or class examples on the tests, solve many of them again in a review session two days prior, and it makes no difference. Grade distributions are bi-modal: about 20% of the students "get it", and get As (> 80%). The rest mostly cluster in the C-minus to C range (50% to 65% in my scale), under very lenient grading. About a quarter get deep Fs.

    I think what happens is they don't understand the difference between watching somebody solve a problem (or reading/copying a solution from a manual or the internet) and doing it yourself. Faced with a problem and a blank sheet of paper in front of them, they are utterly lost, don't know where to start ("don't remember", as they would put it.)

    The process of struggling with a new problem over a period of several minutes (or more), bringing to bear ideas from the theory or from other problems--something people used to start doing in middle school--is utterly foreign to them. Homework solutions are copied, or done by somebody else, or expected to amount to paraphrasing a solution they have in front of them, with different numbers. If I write my own problem sets, or use an unknown text, they get angry.

    There is no painless solution to this, much as they would like. The semester is short, and there is new stuff to be learned on a very porous foundation (sinkholes come to mind). If universities were serious about this, it would be like boot camp: two 90-min lectures per week, and three 90-minutes do-it-yourself problem sessions with "camp monitors" carrying sticks, no food until you turn in your fully solved sets. Universities are not serious about this.

    1. To answer the question directly: I tell them to, when they think they're ready, get a blank sheet of paper and pick a problem at random, from those that have been discussed; then try to solve it without looking at any sources for hints. If they can't, they're not ready. If they can solve a problem they haven't seen before, then they have learned something (but I don't test them on that, I'm not crazy).

      I am sometimes asked "what do the other people do?" Their tests are no easier than mine. I ask them, and this is their answer: "oh, I just basically give them the test during the review session; otherwise they'd all fail." Increasingly, both students and admins expect all of us to do just that; the pretense of intellectual integrity in the enterprise has been abandoned.

    2. I did much the same thing when I was teaching at a tech school. The problems that I assigned would be similar to what the students might do in industry. I'd work out examples on the board. I'd assign problems from the textbook and tell them to solve them. I'd give them quizzes either taken from some of my old exams or, if taken from a different book, similar to what they would be expected to solve.

      Rarely was there more than one correct solution, so that made it easy for me to check their work. I looked for method, logic, and, of course, arithmetic because even a right answer could be obtained incorrectly. I was thorough in my marking and, often, I returned papers covered in red ink.

      That was usually enough for me to figure out where everybody was.

  2. I think Peter K is right on the money, and the words No Child Left Behind come to mind. Problem-solving is a skill best taught from preschool on upward, and it just isn't being taught at all, from what I can tell. Never mind how this plays out in the humanities, where you have to find the problem in the first place (no, I explain patiently for the nine kajillionth time, plot summary is NOT analysis).

    1. ...but so many of them can't even write a proper plot summary!

      When I finally discovered that little issue, that's when I realized there was something very, VERY wrong in Academe.

  3. I do what Peter K does, only I'm in the social sciences. Rather than problems to solve, I provide questions about which methods to apply, or which model is best supported by the data. Otherwise, my instructions are just like Peter K's: do this on your own, without looking it up in the book, your notes, or Wikipedia. If you can't do it, then drill more with flashcards and try again.

    In other words, I provide something long hotly debated on CM: study guides. If the Little Dears use them correctly and bring them to me for feedback, then they'll do fine on similar questions on the quizzes and exams. If they start the process early enough in the semester, they amaze themselves with how much more they understand in class and how much more interesting the textbook becomes. These are the students who email me years later about how much they hated doing so much work for one class, but afterwards they knew they could pass any class, and now they see that this is how hard successful people work.

    Most of them don't even try, of course, and even those who do often are clueless. (See "What I Wish I Could Say to Most of My Students' Responses" on CM today, and my comment.) These are the students for whom I adopt Southern Bubba's approach.

  4. You can't, because they're not interested in knowing. As Branford Marsalis observed, "the only thing they're really interested in is you telling them how right they are, and how good they are."

    Here's the clip:

    1. Really the only way left to do this is to have grad school after grad school, or employer after employer, reject them, as is happening now to my current gradflake. Of course, there's a decent chance you'll be the one who is blamed when this happens.

    2. I dealt with that sort of thing all the time while I was teaching. Often, I had students in a course who had studied the material elsewhere. Whenever their marks on the work that I graded were below what they expected them to be, they never hesitated to remind me that their high school teacher or former prof thought their previous work was excellent.

      That was bad enough. What really irritated me was that they wouldn't shut up about it.

    3. "...they never hesitated to remind me that their high school teacher or former prof thought their previous work was excellent."

      I once lost my patience with this one and just said, "Well, that must have been a fluke, because this is not very good at all." That little comment eventually found its way back to my chair and he did tell me not to do that again, but he was smiling when he said it.