Thursday, October 23, 2014

Allow me to break character. I feel sorry for these students.

Really, I do feel bad for the,.  If they leave college as clueless as they arrived, they have no chance.  Proffie Galore's comment reminded me of a recent conversation I had with a student.

She came to office hours with questions.  In the middle of explaining how to solve a problem, she says, "By the way, I have a question about lab."  she sat back from the table where we were working, making it clear that her mind had fixated on to this new topic.

OK, let's talk about lab.  I started to answer her question but I needed to check the syllabus.  While I opened my file cabinet, she became curious about our final exam (6 weeks from now!), then about something else.  She moved from topic to topic whenever I paused to catch my breathe.  Her body language suggested that she never fully understood what I said, just that her new thought was more important than her previous one.  We ended our conversation with her telling me about a science show she watched (partially, of course) on the Discovery Channel.  I told her that it sounded interesting.  That made her happy; she packed up and left.

We never finished solving the problem that she came to see me about.


  1. Suppose she goes ahead, writes the lab report, submits it, and gets a lousy mark on it. Suddenly, she'll understand *everything* completely and is very focused.

  2. I had this exact conversation except with an English major who wanted to discuss changes to his current draft. We flitted from topic to topic, never ever finishing a single one. It was like browsing online, flitting from link to link, scanning the headlines, then moving on.

  3. I find this is happens with a lot of students. They tell me "I don't understand that assignment", I respond with "Okay, what don't you understand I will help you". Their response is "the whole thing." I always tell them I need more clarification, what do they think the assignment is about, what specific topic do they need help with? I find often they don't want to read the material and want to be spoon fed the information but I am not going to do that for them!

    1. This is the exchange I seem to be having more and more, often by email, with some students. They're still in the minority, but it's hard to know what to say when the answer, at midterm, to "what exactly are you confused by?" is apparently "everything we've covered since the beginning of the term." I'm pretty patient when people have reasonably specific questions (even ones that I'm pretty sure were covered in my extensive written directions), and even when they do something other than called for in those directions (though I make them do it again, right). But it's hard to figure out what to say when they dump complete and utter confusion in my lap, and apparently expect me to do something with/about it.

    2. I had students do that to me at first, but I understood their concern because I wasn't much different when I was an undergrad.

      Unfortunately, though, many of my profs didn't force me to reason my way through a problem as a practicing engineer would probably do it. Several years after I started teaching, I tried a different approach because, some day, they would be working for a living and they needed to be able to fend for themselves.

      When my students told me they didn't understand a particular problem, I asked them to describe it to me, but in their own words. (They didn't like that--that meant they actually had to think about it first.)

      Then I asked them what they needed to solve the problem. In other words, were there any values that weren't specified or was there a force or some other quantity that needed to be identified? (Again, mewling and puking ensued for the same reason as before.)

      Once that was cleared up, I asked them if there was any way to fill in the missing information. Was there an expression that could be used or a reference book where they could look it up? How about any logical and reasonable assumptions that could be made? (Still more muttering, but I wasn't going to make it easy for them. After all, they would eventually have to do that when they went into industry.)

      Eventually, an approach to solving the problem was worked out, not that they liked the way that was achieved or that they were grateful for knowing it. The thing is, they likely knew how to find the answer but hadn't figured out how to organize their thoughts or assemble the necessary information.

      Of course, I wasn't terribly popular for doing that. The students hated me because I didn't give them the direct answer that they wanted or actually do their work for them. The department administrators didn't approve because they considered what I did as being "unhelpful" and erecting a "barrier" to learning.

      Well, you know the saying: no good deed goes unpunished.

    3. Academic Madame LibrarianOctober 24, 2014 at 10:44 AM

      You, gentle person, are my hero. Thank you.

    4. This sounds a lot like my one-on-one sessions. Had I known it would bite me in the evals, I'd have . . . no, I can't imagine just giving them the answers. And fortunately, I've not gotten flak from the higher-ups on this one issue, but I can imagine it.

      "You have to meet them where they are," goes their mantra.

      So how is asking questions to draw from the students what they already know about the subject not meeting them where they are? Or am I supposed to bring each of them the answers as would a server conveying hors d'oeuvres at a reception? If they're to be of any use in this world, eventually they have to know how to feed themselves.