Thursday, October 22, 2015

Pat From Peoria Doing the Link Thing With Context. What's Happened? How Can I Be Miserable If People Are Doing Things Correctly?!?!?

So, I came across this article a little bit ago and I thought everyone would enjoy it. Well, article is a little too strong a word. It's a blog post at HuffPo. I don't read the blogs at HuffPo much, but if the quality of the typical blog post there is similar to this one, I don't think I'll be back.

The title of the offending post is "Who's to Blame When a Student Fails a Test?" The name says it all, but here's some flava anyway.
"I had gotten a 48%. If I added in the 6% of extra credit, that only brought me up to 54%, which obviously wasn't much better. It brought my grade up from a low F... to a less lower F? To say I was surprised and disappointed is an understatement. I immediately emailed Professor C to schedule a meeting. Like any student who has just been told they failed their midterm, I was secretly hoping she might take pity on me and see that I was making an effort to meet with her (driving an hour from where I lived)."
There were so many tender morsels from which to choose. I selected this one due to its delicate bouquet, a slight whiff of cluelessness, and its subtle taste of entitlement. As they say, please to enjoy.


  1. This was my "favorite" bit (heavy on the scare quotes):

    In May, University of Houston Philosophy professor Keith Parsons said he would be addressing his freshmen students with, "It is no part of my job to make you learn. At university, learning is your job -- and yours alone." He wasn't just speaking to the number of students using his class as social hour to send text messages. This statement was addressed equally to all students, studious or no. I find everything about that statement contradictory to what a teacher is supposed to do: teach.


    But seriously, if the class average was 58%, then surely the author wasn't failing, right? Surely this was one of those tests that was designed to be hard, and the letter-grade cutoffs adjusted accordingly. In that case, it would stand to reason that the exam questions were so much more difficult than homework questions. Anyway, this story is making little sense.

    1. In the words of one alert commenter,

      I would like to point out a problem with your use of statistics here, which anyone who has taken a class in statistics should know. Saying the class average was 58% does not mean that each person in the class made an average of 58% on the test...For all we know, there could have been four people total in that class and aside from you, one of them got a 100%, another got an 80%, and the last one didn't show up at all, and that would get us the same result as 30 students making anywhere between 50-65%.

    2. And, at least in my experience, results in online classes tend to be even more variable than face to face ones (and I'd guess that that effect is multiplied in a low- or no-admissions standard environment such as a community college, perhaps especially when some people are taking stats there in the mistaken hope that it will somehow be easier than at their "regular" college).

  2. Remember the old antiacid commercials?

    "I can't believe I clicked through and read the whole thing."

    I need ibuprofen.

  3. I teach at a preschool and I find every way I can to work with my kids to make sure they take something away from each activity. Why should college be any different?

    Oh dear.

  4. "Like any student who has just been told they failed their midterm, I was secretly hoping she might take pity on me and see that I was making an effort to meet with her (driving an hour from where I lived)."
    Translation: I should be graded on my effort, not on my mastery or lack of mastery of the material.

    "I had hoped that after meeting with the dean, I would be given a chance for a retest on material I was taught in Professor C's style..."
    Translation: I am entitled to an "A" or "B" in this course because I'm paying so much money in tuition.

  5. Many problems with the writer's argument, but if I gave a test and the class average was 58% I'd re-think that test.

    1. That depends; she's given the exact same test many times before. How does this class stack up to the previous ones? Maybe this particular group of students just doesn't cut it. It happens.

      Also: I often teach courses where there are opportunities for easy points but the exams are wicked tough. That could be the case here. In fact, stats is one of those subjects where it's possible to grind through assignments without understanding them completely by following reference materials, but then be unable to understand what you did in a test setting.

      There are bad teachers. But I'm seeing all the hallmarks of snowflakery, and none of the hallmarks of bad teaching.

    2. I just taught a lesson on avoiding overgeneral language and yet I used it in my comment above. By "re-think" what I meant was:

      - I would first ask myself if the test was too difficult. Did it test what it was supposed to test?

      - Then, I would ask myself if there was an issue with the curriculum or the way that I delivered it. Did we need to spend more class time or have more practice on the course concepts that were covered on the test?

      - Finally, I would think about my students' performance in the class. How are they doing on their homework? Are they coming to class? Are they participating in class? In the case of a 58% class average on a test these are the last factors that I would consider because I have never had a class where the majority of students were, for lack of a better term, slackers.

      In a course like stats where students use their book as a reference while doing homework, I would simply provide the necessary references (formulas, etc.) on the test. When I was in school I always did well on tests because I have a fabulous memory, but that didn't necessarily mean that I was any better at applying concepts or formulas than anyone else, just that I was better at memorizing them. For that reason I try to write exams that don't require a lot of memorization of "stuff" and instead require the application of "stuff."

    3. I just gave a midterm in my big section of introductory calculus based physics and the class average was 59%. Last semester, after very similar instruction and almost exactly the same exam (same types of problems, remarkably similar to homework questions, etc.), I had a class average of 73%, which is much more typical of the course. I made sure to check that nothing was wrong/different on my end and I had other faculty in my department check over the exam to make sure it wasn't out of line (most of the comments I got there indicated that, if anything, the exam was too *easy*). And quite honestly, although I've already gotten complaints from students and I'm sure I (and my department chair) will receive more, I won't be curving their grades. I *may* assign extra credit or other extra work, so that the students can demonstrate that they have learned the material and bring up their overall grades, but I don't think it is fair to lower the standard for these students to get the same credential compared to previous, much stronger, students. Sometimes you just get a weaker group of students.

    4. Agreed. I gave a midterm, nearly the same as last year with an average of 71%, with this year's students garnering an abysmal 51% average. Absolutely abysmal.
      As per Debra's suggestions, I had a "re-think", but it didn't last very long:
      Were there any issues with the curriculum, or the test content?
      Student performance? : Just a bunch of lazy dumb fucks this year.
      Finished the re-think, and left the marks as-is.

  6. What about the student's claim that the teacher had taken "exam questions from curriculum already posted online from other universities"? I'm not a teacher, but to me that was the weirdest sentence in the whole article. Is that really a common practice? Why would the teacher not be expected to construct her own exam questions, based on the material covered in the class and the way it had been presented? I'm not trying to be sarcastic or knock anyone here; it's meant to be an honest question.

    1. Borrowing and sharing testing materials, not to mention commercially developed testing materials, are immensely common in higher ed, especially in technical fields.

      And I should confess: while I create my own tests, I recycle essay questions mercilessly. I like my questions.

    2. I don't have a problem with recycling types of questions, or even (on occasion) exact questions. But I would not assign, on a midterm, completely different kinds of questions than I had assigned for homework or on quizzes. I would be happy to borrow questions from other universities and online curricula but I would be sure that they were similar, in kind, to the things the students had already been learning and practicing.

  7. My guess is that this student might actually have one or more legitimate complaints (witness the discussion about where test questions do and should come from above; I wondered about that part, too, and tend to think that students are, indeed, entitled to get their graded tests back, though maybe that's the naive perspective of someone who went to a pretty fancy school with plenty of money to buy plenty of personpower, where final exams from previous years were collected and made available int the library, and who gives few to no tests in her present much-less-privileged environment). The problem with the student's essay is not that she doesn't possibly have a good point or two, it's that it's basically an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink list of complaints, some potentially legitimate, some clearly not.

    Of course I was turned off by her going to the Dean when the professor didn't provide satisfaction (or "forthcoming"ness, whatever that is; in any case, her actions were all too reminiscent of the student behavior that led to Hiram's recent adventure), and I was even more bewildered by the idea that the Dean should report back to her on what is essentially a personnel matter. She does have a right to a ruling on whether she can get her test back (and perhaps to an explanation if the answer is no), and she might learn something if she inquired, with more curiosity and less self-interest, into the systems that lead to the answer being "no" (is the professor paid enough to allow time for generating her own test questions? does the professor even decide what's on the test, and where the questions come from? is the professor and/or the institution bound by some sort of confidentiality agreement with a publisher? all good questions. Given what I know of how online programs often work, I even wonder whether the Dean is making/allowing the professor to serve as a scapegoat for institutional policy.) But whether the Dean is going to "make" the professor write new tests each semester from now on? None of your business, young lady.

    I also find it pretty implausible that the professor (a professor who apparently feels secure enough in her job to say "I'll think about it" to a Dean, assuming they aren't playing parts as suggested above) would jump to "if you want that, you can bring your lawyer next time" without a good deal of provocation. Either the professor is extremely confrontational/defensive by nature (possible), or the author went in there with guns blazing (metaphorically, thank goodness), determined to hold the professor accountable for *her* bad grade, and there was considerable back and forth before the lawyer was mentioned.

    Finally, I'm put off by the author's insistence on receiving questions in a familiar "style." It looks like she's actually a college grad (she's described as a "U of Oregon alum" underneath her byline), so one can't put that down entirely to the naivete of a student who has succeeded in a teach-to-the-test environment, and is now bewildered to encounter test questions that require novel applications of the principles in the homework. Still, it seems to me that one conclusion she might draw from her experience with the first test is that her usual approach to studying isn't working very well for this class. That, in turn, could lead to a conversation with the professor in which she sought to understand where she was going wrong, perhaps beginning with a very valuable clue that she presumably still has in hand -- those 2 3X5 index cards. A conversation aimed at figuring out what she wrote down there, and why, and what was missing, and why, which could easily be conducted in the professor's office with both test and cards available, could be a productive one, and might well help her figure out how to study better for the next test.

    1. (Least) favorite line: "When she finally got back to me a few days later" (of the dean investigating the student's "formal complaint" against the professor).

      Because of course the math Dean, the professor, and anyone else who could possibly provide satisfaction should immediately drop everything to figure out why one student in intro stats didn't do well on a midterm, and make sure to report back to that student within hours, not days.

      Assuming that the author is not such an unreliable narrator that she's misreporting what people actually said to her (as opposed to, say, misinterpreting motives, expressions, etc.), I really do wonder what the underlying situation actually is. It seems to me that the Dean provided the illusion of "customer service" (though not a complete enough one for the author's taste), but, as the author points out, didn't actually change the rules in the student's favor, which is unusual in true "the-student-customer-is-always-right" adminicritters. I can't help wondering whether the Dean has some reason to leave the system by which the tests are created, administered, and kept confidential in place, while leaving the student's assumption that such decisions are entirely up to the professor uncorrected.

    2. I think it's quite possible that the Dean made clear that the professor was doing the right thing. I also think it's quite probable that this student is an unreliable narrator who has paraphrased what people really said or did so as to bathe herself in the most favorable light. The subtext breaks through in phrases such as "When she finally got back to me a few days later."