Saturday, December 10, 2016

What to advise a student who has done poorly all semester, by Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno

Final exams are next week. I am now getting the usual wave of students coming in during (and not during) office hours for the first time all semester. These students have done little reading or homework all semester, and have done poorly on the mid-term exams, and now want to know what to do.

The deadline for dropping classes passed long ago. So, they want to know what they have to do to pass the class.

They seem to expect you to produce a jar of magic beans, and tell them that if you eat one, a miracle will happen. Or maybe they expect me to do the Vulcan mind meld, not noticing that I don't have pointed ears. It's much like when Tina, the technical writer in Dilbert, asked Alice, "Show me how to be an engineer. I don't care if it takes all day."

It does not work to get mad at them, the way Reverend Spooner did when he told a student, "You have hissed every one of my mystery lectures, and have tasted the whole worm." They're not soliciting opportunities for sexual services, either. (Those usually involve a salacious grin while saying, "Isn't there ANYTHING I can do?") Frankly, I can't help feeling a little sorry for them, despite how they got into their sorry situation is entirely their own fault.

This semester, I had an epiphany. I told one student, just before Mid-Term 2, "Take this pencil, and this eraser, and this pad of paper, and do so much writing, the pencil turns into a little stub. If you come to the end of the paper or eraser first, use new ones, but make this long pencil so short, it's no longer usable."

It worked: this student got a B on Mid-Term 2. This pulled the student's overall grade up to a C.

For final exams, I've been giving out two pencils. Mind you, this is for my third-semester, calculus-based physics class for scientists and engineers (on optics, special relativity, and introductory quantum physics). The subject is done with a pencil and paper, since it's very heavy on analytical mathematics (as opposed to numerical mathematics, for which one uses a computer). Nevertheless, this may work for other courses, such as English comp: I learned that in 1976, largely by putting pencil to paper. I think I'm onto something here.

- Froderick Frankenstien from Fresno


  1. Ah yes, the end of semester speeches from the students. They come in 2 days before the final and say they know they haven't done well (actually, they haven't done Jack Shit), but my course is really important to them (actually, that's Jack's friend Bull Shit) and how can they do really well on the final?

    I'm tempted to say "Invent time travel and go back to the beginning of the semester, but one of Frod's pencils and have at it." I'm also tempted to say "The final is in 2 days. It's too late to start to care." What do I say? I tell them if they pass the final, they pass the course regardless of what drek they've handed in (or not handed in) during the semester. If they ask what they need on the final to get a B, I just tell them they have 4 other courses to worry about and that moving up to a B from a 40 average isn't exactly realistic.

    Sigh. Sometimes, I wish my friend Al Cohol would help me grade, but I insist on not drinking while I grade. Perhaps that's not the best policy.

  2. I have done something similar (but I have a 1st semester physics mechanics course). When copies are made for exams and quizzes, I have a few extras made and build folders containing all of those and all the extra review problems. When those students who want to know how to pass come in (provided they can score high enough on the final to pass), I hand them a folder and tell them to do every problem, and that might give them enough of the skills they need to score high enough on the final to earn a passing grade. I also let them know that there are no guarantees - doing the problems will not guarantee they will pass, but will most likely increase their chances. I have kept statistics on all of this, and I will spout them off when needed. In summary, about 76.8% of the students who are failing and utilize the review packet end up passing. Only 12.9% of students in the same predicament who choose not to utilize the packet pass.

    Some students, however, I simply let them know that they will not pass no matter what they get on the final. That is the nature of things.

  3. I like this idea, and think it might work for composition, with the caveat that sustained, long-term practice in reading and writing is really what my students need(so, yes, a time machine would be helpful in many cases -- or, barring that, a summer in one of those video game/internet-detox wilderness camps, assuming it had a decent print library and ample supplies of paper and writing implements).

    I've just had to tell a student who's been trying to catch up that failure to master some key concepts introduced during the first few weeks of the class makes that impossible (and an incomplete, which means completing the course basically on hir own, not in the student's best interests). I wish that weren't the case, since the student's allusions to a difficult semester personally have the ring of truth, but sometimes retaking the course really is the best option.

  4. By the way, RGM: I like the graphic, but to make it more authentic, it needs copious bloodstains all over the lab coat. A couple acid burns wouldn't hurt, either.

  5. At this point, it seems the best thing is to tell them to plan to repeat the course, but continue to attend this semester so they'll have a head start next time.

    1. I've told them to "get a fresh start" next semester (preferably with someone else - anyone else). Most of the time, that works well. They often will ask to sit in on the remaining classes to get that head start, but they usually don't follow through. That's not too surprising. If they were the types to follow through, they wouldn't be in this position in the first place.

    2. I suggest they "get a fresh start" next semester or next year. I cross my fingers that it won't be with me. Some ask if they can attend the rest of the classes, which I'm fine with. Few follow through on that. It's not too surprising, since if they were good at following through, they would have done better in the course.

    3. Oops - I guess my original was inadvertently in the spam folder. Sorry folks. Good luck with finals and have a great break!


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