Friday, July 17, 2015

Behind the Door at The DERP -- The Summer Persuasion

Yet another session of perhaps several. (An earlier session was published here.)

[Lights up. Profs. Feta and Stilton are already seated.]

Stilton: How many more today?

Feta: This will be our last one.

Stilton: This could almost be a full-time gig.

Feta: I know, right?

[A knock is heard.]

Feta: Come in!

[The door opens; a student enters.]

Feta: Good afternoon, Student Diagnostician Camembert. Please sit.

Camembert: Hey Doctor Feta . . . Doctor Stilton.

[Stilton nods as Camembert sits.]

Feta: I suppose you're wondering why we called you in to meet with the Diagnostic Educational Review Panel today?

Camembert: Yeah. Wha's up?

Feta: Let's start with how you're doing in the curriculum.

Camembert: OK.

Feta: And? How are you doing so far?

Camembert: OK.

Stilton: How do you mean, “OK”?

Camembert: I mean I'm passing all my classes, except I'm still waiting to hear back on one where I just took the final this morning, but I'm sure I'm OK there, too.

Stilton: So that's OK, then? Passing all your classes?

Camembert: Yeah.

Feta: Let's cut to the chase. I have your transcript here. One year in, and you've managed to crack a B minus in one course -- that was in the first term. Everything else is in the C range.

Camembert: I guess that's right.

Stilton: You guess . . . so you don't know?

Camembert: OK, it's probably right. I just didn't remember exact grades, although, I thought I had some C pluses.

Feta: And this is why we called you here. Because of your exact grades, we have reservations about your education situation.

Camembert: Wait, what?

Stilton: We are concerned that given your marginal performance this year, you are facing failures in the coming year. Or, should you manage not to fail but merely continue at your current level, your GPA would still be low enough that you'd be mathematically excluded from attaining a B average, which would mean that you couldn't graduate, unless you did some extra or remedial work.

Camembert: What do you mean I wouldn't graduate!?

Stilton: You need a 3.0 to graduate, so if next year were like this year, you'd need almost straight As in the third and fourth year, which is far beyond what you've demonstrated to date. You can do the math, right?

Camembert: Well, yeah, but you don't have to be so negative!

Feta: Negative?

Camembert: Yeah, you're totally buzzkilling me here! You're supposed to be supportive! You're supposed to be helping me succeed!

Feta: In fact that's why we're here -- to help you succeed.

Camembert: Yeah, but you're just being negative! You should be telling me things to encourage me!

Stilton: What we're telling you are facts. We can sugar-coat things only so much.

Camembert: Wha . . . ? I can't . . .

Stilton: Here's what it looks like from where we're sitting -- students who fit your profile, as manifest from your transcript, typically have a two-in-ten chance of actually graduating.

Feta: Unless . . .

Stilton: Unless extra steps are taken, which we'll get to, but . . .

Camembert: How could you just let this happen?

Feta: Just . . . let?

Camembert: You let this happen by waiting too long to meet with me! When were you going to do something?

Feta: We're here now, yes? You would prefer that we had called you in after just your first term, the one with the B minus?

Camembert: Yeah!

Stilton: There was no basis for that. Lots of students have a rough first term, and lots of them figure out what's in their way and turn it around without any intervention from us. Others reach out to us voluntarily, and we gladly meet with them, and they often turn it around, too. Was either of those how it happened for you?

Camembert: No.

Stilton: And so here we are.

Feta: We think it would be in your best interest to take a selection of remedial courses over the summer, a “boot camp” if you will. Your record suggests that you are lacking in certain foundational concepts that you'll need going forward if you want to improve your performance.

Camembert: But my family is going Nantucket this summer!

Stilton: Life is a series of trade-offs, isn't it? You could take your vacation, skip the boot camp, and try your luck with next year's classes, and then your whole next summer after that you could spend trying to get into other programs because you failed out of this one.

Feta: OK, my colleague describes a worst case scenario, but an all-too-common one nonetheless. Now, the boot camp. Some of the content is online. Maybe you could discipline yourself to do those parts while you're out on the island. I know I'd have a hard time doing that myself -- I imagine it's very nice there in the summer.

Camembert: Yeah, that's why we're going. So if I do this course, what's in it for me?

Feta: Gaining better mastery of foundational concepts so that you can hopefully improve your performance going forward isn't enough?

Camembert: I mean, my odds -- how does it improve them? I go from two in ten to, what, specifically?

Stilton: Well, now, this is an interesting topic. Here's what we know -- of the students who did the boot camp when advised to do so, eight in ten finished this program successfully. But just from that, we can't necessarily say that your odds would go from two in ten to eight in ten.

Camembert: Why not?

Stilton: Population statistics are tricky when you try to apply them to individuals, because “the average person” doesn't really exist. So when we find that one in ten individuals got a certain outcome, does that mean that all ten had a ten percent chance of that outcome, or that one of them had a hundred percent chance and nine had zero chance?

Camembert: I don’t know.

Stilton: Exactly! How would you or anybody know? There could be lurking or confounding variables. Another way to look at it is, how likely is it that you're one of the two out of ten individuals who skip boot camp but finish the program anyway? To answer that, we might look at those who have successfully taken that path, and we have some anecdotal data on that. But first, I'll ask, and you don't have to answer if you're uncomfortable, but . . . do you study primarily by just reading the textbook, or are you currently in a rocky relationship?

Camembert: Uh, a big no to the second thing, and I'm more of an auditory learner, so I usually listen to the lecture podcasts instead of reading the textbook.

Feta: Hmm. One student was going through a messy divorce her first year. She got her own place by the summer and spent a few weeks of it reviewing areas she was weak on, and the next year, the divorce was final and that big-time distraction was gone. Another student, before he came here, had gotten by on reading the textbook and doing the bare minimum of practice problems, which is how he approached his first term here. In the second term, he switched to reading the textbook twice, but his scores improved only a few percent. Over the summer, he worked through a whole bunch of practice problems, and he made that part of his regimen from there forward. 

Stilton: But you already said that doesn't apply to you. Can you come up with some other external cause for your difficulties?

Camembert: Maybe I didn't listen enough. How about I read the textbook and listen to the lectures twice?

Feta: No! I mean, it's not that simple.

Stilton: If you look for trends, those two students got caught up over the summer, which they have in common with the boot camp students. But they also increased their time commitment and incorporated new strategies for the next year. They didn't just do more of the same thing.

Camembert: So I can take the boot camp courses now in place of electives later on?

Feta: Actually, no. They're remedial, so they're not for credit and you'll still have to do all the electives.

Camembert: Well that kind of sucks.

Feta: On the flipside, the university only charges the audit rate, and the grades won't affect your GPA.

Camembert: Yeah, but I'd still be paying something and doing the work and not getting any credit.

Stilton: Consider it an investment in your future, like an SAT prep course at Kaplan.

Camembert: I don't want to be in a remedial class with a bunch of losers.

Stilton: Those “losers”, as you call them, have made a very grown-up decision to do better with the cards they've been dealt, and are even taking steps to re-stack the deck in their own favor. None of them were forced to do it, by the way.

Feta: You seem worried that you'll be seen as a loser yourself, and that you'd be throwing time and money into something with no benefit. We can't guarantee that doing boot camp will get you through the program, but statistically, it does seem to help. And you might ask yourself, if you fail a course next year, what about the time and money you spent on that, and how would you feel then?

Camembert: Well, I kind of see your point.

Feta: Good! So you'll seriously think about it?

Camembert: Yeah. I guess.

Stilton: That's all we're asking now. Do you have any questions?

Camembert: Not really. I have to think about it some more.

Feta: Naturally. Please don't hesitate to give a shout if you think of anything else or even if you just want to talk it through. Are we done here?

Stilton: I got nothin'.

Camembert: Thanks for your time. [Standing] See you both later.

Feta: Cheers.

[Camembert exits, closing the door behind him.]

Stilton: In retrospect, I think the statistical stuff may have been a bit much, and I shouldn't have gone there.

Feta: I disagree. We need to get across that we're not just guessing, in which case they could think their guess is as good as ours -- better than ours, actually.

Stilton: We need better data. We could have increased our sample size for the non-boot-camp cohort by just ending the conversation when he got all pissy.

Feta: Hmph. I confess I was sorely tempted to just let this case go post-mortem so we could do the autopsy. You think he'll do the camp?

Stilton: No.

Feta: Now you're just being all negative!

Stilton: I can't deal with all this negativity! You need to tell me something positive!

Feta: You want positive? I'm positive that if he doesn't do boot camp, we'll see this one again in the fall and then we'll dismiss him next spring.

Stilton: I'm positive that before I die, I'll see Nantucket, at least once, maybe, from an airplane window.

Feta: You could go there on your sailboat!

Stilton: My “sailboat” is one step up from a bedsheet tied to a broomstick stuck into a surfboard, and if I could fit it out for a trip as far from here as Nantucket, I wouldn't end it there.

Feta: Where would you stop?

Stilton: Hunh. I hadn't got that far in my thinking -- the dream never survives the crash with reality. Maybe Cape Breton or Prince Edward Island are not too unrealistic? What do you know about them?

Feta: I know that I've seen them once, from an airplane window.



  1. As always, the conversations between daculty are far more interesting than anything that stdeunts have to say. Well done!

  2. Wow. This one has all kinds of intriguing and amusing layers, including some commentary on the likely actual effects of those increasingly-popular student-"success"-tracking programs. It does, however, leave out the really scary part: in practice, the output of such programs is highly unlikely to be interpreted by faculty trained in, or at lest cognizant of, statistics; instead, it will interpreted by staff/lower-level administrators with little to no such training -- and/or who squeaked through their statistics classes by reading things 3 times and copying the answers to homework problems off the internet -- who have power to require faculty to spend time randomly doing stuff that sometimes works, or they think ought to work, or whatever, but at least they/we have gotta do something, preferably something that costs us time and effort, but puts no such demands on the students (who are struggling already, remember).

    There are also some good study tips (I think somebody's been reading Making it Stick," or something based on similar research).

    P.S. For a compilation of linguistic disquisitions on "derp," which I'm just discovering (yes, I know, I'm late to the party), see

    P.P.S. Now I have a strong urge to go to Nantucket. Or maybe Cape Cod. I've never been to either, but would like to visit, though maybe not in high season. Right now, even my childhood summer haunt, the (crowded) Jersey Shore, sounds pretty good. Actually, anywhere without good internet access sounds pretty good (but if I want to keep my job, and I do, I need to wait a week or so before I detach from the internet).

    1. Exactly, CC!

      Those “losers”, as you call them, have made a very grown-up decision to do better with the cards they've been dealt, and are even taking steps to re-stack the deck in their own favor. None of them were forced to do it, by the way.

      But for some reason when you bring up self-selection, it's all "does not compute" and smoke curling out of the ears.

    2. I followed your link, Cassandra. I must say, I wasn't expecting a discussion of Bayesian priors, but then I guess NOOOOOObody expects a discussion of Bayesian priors.

      Badum Bum.

    3. Uncertainty is their greatest weapon. Uncertainty and changeable assumptions.

    4. Uncertainty, changeable assumptions, and random variables . . . and an almost fanatical belief in the non-binary probability of the hypothesis -- OH DAMN!

    5. This is some interesting discussion about use and misuse of statistics. Self-selection definitely factors in here. In a later sitting, Feta and Stilton riffed on how the effect might be teased out, such as by removing the "optional" nature of the boot camp, but also retaining data on whether the students would have voluntarily done it if they hadn't been compelled. The alternative hypothesis is that the two groups will have differing success rates.

  3. I'm actually on a committee like this one. It's my favorite committee. It's the only one where we get any real work done or do any actual good.

    1. Same here. It's the Pareto principle of committees.

      Always nice to see the DERP in action, OPH.

    2. Maybe the reason the committee works is because the faculty are united in their shared mission to change things for the better, in a quasi-adversarial relationship with the student. In many other committees, the faculty have only each other to undermine.

      I hadn't thought of the Pareto Principle in this context. I think it applies in myriad ways. It's probably not far off that 80% of the academic problems are caused by the bottom 20% of the class. This committee does 80% of its good work in about 20% of the time it actually spends with students, and 80% of its time is spent with students.

      The danger is that in dealing so much with the bottom 20%, the committee can be tempted to believe that 100% of the students are like the ones they see.


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