Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why So Many Students Are Failing to Gain Job Skills Before Graduation

Here's a possible answer to the Washington Post's question.

First reading assignment of the semester was due Wednesday last week (short chapter). It was 10 pages. It was available for free on the LMS as a PDF because I am trying to be sensitive to the rising cost of books for college, and to the fact that during the first week or two, many of my students' financial aid checks haven't yet been disbursed.

(I do a Classroom Assessment Technique where I give them a 3x5 index card and have them write something specific from the reading they'd like to talk about in class. Benefit is two-fold: I get to see what they found most interesting/perplexing, and I get to see who read. If they didn't read, I tell them to write "DNR" on the card, and not to try to bullshit me. A few of them still do--but through the magic of our LMS I can see who downloaded or even just clicked on the reading for that assignment--and lo and behold, the bullshitters are among those who didn't even visit the link.)

The stats don't lie: 14/48 (29%) between two sections didn't read.

Put this on top of how depressed I was on Wednesday morning--I could barely force myself to get out of my office chair (see my post about the cuts to my system, somewhere below). To be met with 30% of them not willing to work--after I'd spent the first day of class explaining that I have a +/-25% running drop/failure/withdrawal rate, in an effort to scare them straight, I guess--is almost more than I can bear right now.

The auto-feedback I left in the LMS informs them that if it happens again, they'll be removed from class and marked absent for being unprepared, but I suspect that will just up the ante for the bullshitters. Fuck.

Many of them will manage to squeeze a passing grade out of their asscracks. They will go on to squeeze passing grades for other classes, culminating in a pile of dookie/diploma that they will then expect to get them a $60,000/year job right out of the gate. Meanwhile, corporations will hire them (at a much lower salary) to replace a higher-paid and experienced worker who costs them too much--then wonder why nothing is getting done right.


  1. One of the problems is that what one learns while studying for a degree often has little to do with the job one is hired to do.

    When I finished my B. Sc. in the late 1970s, I went to work for a large oil company. I, quite foolishly, was under the impression that I was hired because of what I had studied, namely mechanical engineering. Instead, the reality was that my degree was merely an entry ticket and I was expected to throw away my education and start from scratch as an apprentice company lackey.

    For example, I remember sitting through a boring 2-day course which, quite frankly, was a complete waste of time for me. It consisted of material that I had gone through 4 times before as an undergrad through 2 courses in thermodynamics and 2 in fluid mechanics and which was presented in any half-decent textbooks on those subjects.

    As it turned out, the whole objective in my being on the payroll wasn't to put into practice what I had learned for my degree. Instead, I was supposed to form networks of alliances and to advance myself through the pecking order as far and as quickly as possible, much like Don Draper would have done if he was a real person.

    Knowledge and skill weren't required. Complicity and conformity, however, were.

    I didn't last a year there. A few weeks later, I started with a company where my knowledge and abilities were put to much better use.

  2. I know the feeling. I'm teaching two UG classes this term (one soph-level, one for seniors-grad students). Attendance and turning in HW have been running at 75% on both. A few days ago I sent them a clearly worded email to the effect that I'm taking attendance, and that students who don't come to every lecture and do homework are highly unlikely to "succeed" in the class (meaning pass).

    The reaction? One student wrote back to say "Oh, I thought you had told us homework was optional". And, like you, my typical pass rate for these classes is 65 to 70% (depending on how you define the denominator.) There are always many C's, not all of them earned (just to prop up the "pass rate".)

    I have found over the years it is nearly impossible to scare undergraduates into working harder than they decide they want to. The only effect of a "stern come-to-Jesus talk" (when returning the first test, say) is to hurt student evaluations deeply. Students seem to be aware our administrators (from the dept head on up to the provost) will not stand behind faculty efforts to require work from them. ("Our freshman class is the strongest ever!" is the standard BS from the provost.) Furthermore, the majority of my colleagues don't give a sh*t, and it's not easy to stand out as the only person on the TT faculty expecting actual work for a passing grade.

    What does happen is that at some point towards the middle of the semester a few of them realize it's looking like a C at best (if they start working), and drop the course, formally or informally. In fact, about 20% of each class has done so already.
    I do have to worry about that, since W's and "no-shows" count against me on my annual evaluations. So I've taken to giving them some sort of hope, just so they'll stick around until the final, so I can give enough C-'s that I won't get into trouble. (As I've said here many times before, it's not a serious place, and Ben's rule applies.)

  3. Blogger just ate my comment; tl;dr version: I'm seeing very similar patterns in a 200-level lit class (maybe 75% response rate on easy-A pre-tests worth 30% of final grade. I don't think I'm going to have to worry about grade inflation).

  4. That's something tenure buys you: the ability to record the grades that students actually earn. And the students who put in the work, as well as the employers who eventually hire your program's graduates, appreciate it.

  5. Frankie, not necessarily; it depends on what kind of administrators you have. Did you read my post above? I'm tenured at a land-grant R1, and if I gave my students the grades they earn, two things would happen: no more than about 50% of a typical intro class would pass, and my student eval ratings would be even worse than they are already. That's enough for my dept head to give me a low rating for teaching, rubber-stamped by all admins above him regardless of any evidence I care to present. If that happens enough times, there are mechanisms for a tenure challenge (independently of research productivity, BTW.) That's not theoretical; it happened to me two years ago and I had to spend a whole academic year fighting this process, until eventually two independent faculty committees sided with me, and against the dept. head. and the provost. This means I'm un-promotable as long as this provost is in office.

    So no, tenure is no longer the guarantee it used to be; in particular, it does not always protect faculty who have higher academic standards than the local average (or the local culture.) Of course, there is no comparison with non-TT faculty, who have no protection at all and (I imagine) have to more or less appease students all the time.

  6. PK, that's truly awful. :-( I'm guessing declining state support has made your institution more tuition-dependent, and your provost will do anything to keep the customers from leaving?


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