Friday, February 19, 2016

Better to take the blame than admit we don't matter that much?

Something that continues to baffle me (sorry Hiram!) is the way legislators, pundits, and even universities themselves act like graduation rate is something that universities can dial up or down at will, independent of the students themselves.

Community colleges get the worst of it, as usual, and are routinely beaten up for their open admissions low graduation rates. But four year institutions get pummeled pretty regularly too.

Yet we know that student characteristics account for most of the variance in graduation rate. This is why we have value-added rankingsThis analysis of NCES data demonstrates that graduation rate can be predicted pretty well by mean SAT and percentage of Pell recipients. UCLA's Higher Education Research Institute even has an online graduation rate calculator using student characteristics as inputs.
  
Why the doublethink? Why do we keep accepting the blame for things that are mostly [1] out of our control? Do people think that we profs have secret caches of Magical Teaching Dust, and if they hector us enough, we'll give in and use it? Or would we rather shoulder the blame and promise to do better next time, anything to avoid admitting that we don't affect students' life outcomes nearly as much as we think we do? [2]

What the heck, people?

--Frankie

[1] Reducing class size is one of the few things that actually does improve student outcomes, all else being equal, but it's not "disruptive" or "scalable" or something.

[2] I believe that education is important and valuable, and what we do does matter. But I also think that most of us are already doing pretty much the best we can. Students with low academic preparation and high financial need are more likely to leave college. And for all our talk about "doing better," no institution has beaten the odds .

27 comments:

  1. Good colleges, universities, and proffies do matter and serve purposes. Some of those purposes are critical.

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  2. Uh am I the only one seeing this formatting? Hello.

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  3. It is our responsibility to teach effectively. However, it is a student's responsibility to learn.
    Academaniac

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  4. With regard to teaching effectiveness and student learning, I'm becoming more and more disillusioned with every passing semester. I'm beginning to feel that the students who do really well in my classes were already very good, smart students before they took my classes and that the weak students, who will do all their work and earn an average grade in my classes, are still weak after they take my classes. What I mean more specifically is that if one of the major goals of education is to develop and improve the critical thinking skills of my students, then it seems that too many of my students don't improve in this area. In other words, they were either good critical thinkers before and after my classes, or they were weak before and after, but they're not significantly improving and learning more beyond the level that they were at during their freshman year or at the end of their freshman year.

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    1. This isvexactly my experience. You are not alone.

      Jesse

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    2. I worry about this, too. However, I think there's also some value in saying to students "look at this skill you have. It's useful, and you could use it in these situations" -- in other words, making the skill, and the associated processes, more visible to student who already have it. That requires a particular, slightly meta-/reflective sort of pedagogy that I think is different from what many of us experienced as students, but which I suspect we increasingly use as instructors, and I think it's valuable.

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    3. There are 5% (perhaps 7 or 8% if you have a really good class) of the students who will learn a significant amount no matter what you do and will learn a lot more if you do a good job.

      And there is another (small) tranche who will learn if you teach.

      Then there is the steaming mass ... uhm, "teaming", I meant "teaming mass" ... who are looking to do as little as it takes to get through. They might learn something accidentally along the way but it won't be by any design of theirs.

      I suppose there must be a group of total incompetents buried in there, but I haven't the heart to try to sort them out. They just end up comprising the low performing tail.

      Aside: I've been grading exams, so I'm grumpy. Maybe I'll feel better in the morning. Or after the first couple of shots of espresso.

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  5. I used to not think that faculty had much input to a student's learning, beyond being
    1. responsible and fair to all students,
    2. a good public speaker (lecturer), and
    3. knowledgeable about the subject.

    I do all those things so I'm OK with that.

    Then we hired a new instructor this year. Damn, she is good. She is all of those these things, and she does a bunch of group work, class activities, etc. She teaches the shit out of those classes and the students' grades are about a letter grade higher than most other faculty, including me. I've checked out her exams and they are as rigorous as anybody's. Classes are randomly assigned to faculty so she's not just getting better students. It's all her. The students love her and they do better.

    It's both inspiring that it's possible to do better and annoying that I now have to work harder to be better.

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    1. The trick is figuring what she does that's actually transferable to your methods and style. I can't manage group work, for example, though I really respect people who can make it productive.

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    2. She sounds excellent. I'm curious -- is she an "instructor" as in a non-tenure-track colleague? If so, is there any chance of putting her on a teaching tenure track, and then giving her some release time to do faculty development/grad student training? If she's on a tenure-track appointment, maybe she could still do some of the above (after she gets tenure, and with appropriate credit toward promotion for doing such genuinely-valuable work)?

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    3. The real trick, whatever her rank/status, will be making sure that she gets appropriate compensation/recognition. If you think teaching is thankless/low-status work, try teaching the teachers.

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  6. I agree with the disillusionment and everything said above. I'm a little jealous of Ben (as usual), because it sounds like you have a wonderful local example of what can be done. I'm trying to chart a course into (hopefully) more effective teaching. It's certainly more jargony -- evidence based! active! student centered!

    We shall see. Like Jonathan, I don't feel that I'm good with group work, but maybe despite my discomfort, the students still gain a deeper understanding than just listening to me? I just don't know. It's a journey. At the end of the day I just want to share my excitement about the field...

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    1. I have to admit that I went into group work kicking and screaming, but it's worked out pretty well (even online), thanks to a lot of scaffolding (and a lot of borrowing ideas/materials from colleagues).

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    2. When I was in undergrad, I had a professor who had incredibly clear lectures, but then when we went to do the homework, we realized that we didn't really understand what we had learned. His explanations were good enough that we could follow along as he worked things out on the board, but he wasn't able to anticipate the sorts of problems we'd run into on our own. That's when I learned that it is very different to do something yourself versus watching somebody else do something.

      I have incorporated group work into my classes since my very first semester of teaching. It isn't anything that's terribly well structured: after I give a brief lecture and go through a few examples, I give them a few problems to work on in small groups. They don't have to turn anything in; I just want them to have a low-stakes experience of working on the problems themselves, and doing it in groups usually helps them catch each other's mistakes.

      This helps ensure that a higher percentage of them leave the classroom capable of doing the work I expect of them. It also gives them the chance to critique others' work, which is good on a meta-cognitive level. And it adds to the sense of community, which is helpful when you teach at a commuter school.

      That's it. I could probably look into all of the current educational research, figure out what works best, work hard to incorporate it into my classes, work on amassing data to show that it's improving student success rates, etc. But I do follow the mantra, "Don't care more about their education than they do." I provide very clear explanations of the material (which seems to be one thing that makes a big difference for the students who are struggling but putting in good effort), I give them good conditions to learn in, and then it's their job to do the learning.

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    3. Mathy, I do almost exactly what you describe. I guess it just always feels somewhat awkward. Although I'm trying to do things a little more deliberately (more planned activities with a bigger focus on discovery rather than just practise), as you say, it's not clear that the outcome is significantly better. Accountability of students for their own learning is the key - as well as not creating more work for me with no real difference for the students! :)

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    4. I understand that group work has a point on some level. It's trying to force me to abandon the strategy of unhealthy social avoidance that I've adopted my entire life (successfully, I might add). And I understand that they have very practical applications.

      But I have to actually go to a specific place and meet people to accomplish a task? I'm from the internet. That idea doesn't make sense to me on a fundamental level. The fact that I can't do my assignments at 1am, by myself, in complete darkness while listening to a podcast on the history of cats is an anachronism. We may as well be in the medieval era.

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    5. CC, it's funny that you mention the jargon of "evidence based" in education. We don't say that in chemistry because it's obvious that everything reported in the literature is based on evidence (at least, that's how it should work). To emphasize that an approach to education is evidence based is to (possibly correctly) condemn much of pedagogy as non-evidence based. Like when a politician says, "let me be honest with you," can you assume that everything said up to that point was a lie?

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    6. BB, that was AAA (not CC) who said the "evidence-based" thing. That said, though . . . BB, you still hit the nail on the head.

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  7. There is a very small percentage of extremely bright, extremely well-prepared (or at least well-equipped with good instincts about what they need) students who would do very well pretty much wherever they landed, given decent resourcing. Such students make up a percentage (though only a percentage) of entering classes in the Ivy League, flagship universities, selective SLACs, etc. (and also end up, and thrive, elsewhere for a variety of reasons). Many academics (and highly-educated disruptors/edupreneurs) were those students. One thing that most people who get Ph.D.s, and pretty much everyone who teaches for at least some time at non-elite institutions, is that you can't expect to teach to some version of your younger self, because that's not who is occupying the majority of the seats (even at elite institutions, or at least not in the gen ed classes).

    I'm a pretty firm believer that it is our job to create the conditions for learning, and the students' job to learn. But "creating the conditions for learning" includes providing feedback to current students *and* (the part that gets left out of all too many edupreneurial plans, or tied to some sort of big-data gathering that is far too slow and cumbersome and not local enough to be effective) revising the conditions of learning (materials, assignments, timelines, feedback methods, etc.) to fit the ever-changing needs of the current student body. That, as far as I'm concerned, is what we do, and where we add the value. We can't make students learn, but we can tailor our approaches as much as possible to the people we have in front of us, semester after semester. That doesn't mean sacrificing rigor, but it does mean constantly revising, including working through the frustration that materials over which we labored six semesters ago, and which still worked perfectly three semesters ago, have stopped working over the last two semesters, and need to be revised (along with everything that leads into and out of them).

    P.S. smaller class sizes *are* scalable; they just require scaling things in the "wrong" (i.e. expensive) direction. I know I sound like a broken record, but this could be accomplished by requiring more administrators to teach (and be fully qualified to teach) at least one or two intro/gen ed/remedial level classes per year. That would also give them a new perspective on these issues. I'm tempted to require the same of legislators, but that won't fly for a variety of reasons.

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    1. " you can't expect to teach to some version of your younger self"

      Amen. It's amazing how many times I have to point out to colleagues that we were oddballs when we were students. We actually liked primary literature and discussion groups. Asking the students to do what we used to like doing is likely to backfire.

      Requiring legislators to teach? What could possibly go wrong? (I'm picturing Inhofe teaching geophysics for example - shudder!).

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    2. "Requiring legislators to teach? What could possibly go wrong? (I'm picturing Inhofe teaching geophysics for example - shudder!)"

      In some parts, "The Flintstones" would be a documentary.

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    3. Many--perhaps all--of my students have had things to teach me. Probably none of them have ever known hamsterfurology as well as I do, but they know lots of other things. And somehow the world is all connected. Putatively nonhamsterfurological facts and wisdom can inform hamsterfurology.

      Also, I was pretty naive when I was a student.

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    1. I'm glad to see that drowning bunnies is going to remain in vernacular on this site.

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  9. As some of you might recall, I'm an academic librarian by job title. I started teaching, first a one credit online class, and then a section of remedial (but we don't call it that) writing.

    I've learned more about where our students (rural CC) are and what kind of scaffolding they need from teaching that one class than working for two years previously for the college.

    I have re-worked workshops, flipped instruction, made hand-outs, developed hands-on workshops. It makes a difference. And so I agree. TEACHING is the key to getting our students.

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