Thursday, November 13, 2014

Don't shift the blame, blame the shift

I groused a bit about students yesterday, which is allowed from time to time.  But so too is asking myself the question I usually ask whenever I hear colleagues grousing about students: How long have you been teaching?  In what world is it that students don't behave this way? 

The truth is that faculty--myself included--don't really understand students today.  I was reminded of this fact while speed skimming something I was to have read before a meeting yesterday (you'll note the irony of my student-like last minute preparation here).   At my institution new faculty are paired with a more seasoned colleague and we meet periodically to share ideas.  Once a month, too, all of the mentors and mentees meet to discuss a book about teaching and learning.  This year's choice was Therese Huston's Teaching What You Don't Know, a wonderfully insightful resource for all faculty, even those who somehow find themselves teaching what they do know. 

Chapter Six of Huston's book was just what I needed after a week of feeling frustrated with my students' lackluster efforts.  Huston argues that there are some good reasons that we don't understand our students.  First, they aren't like us. Research suggests that up to 50 percent of undergraduates operate with concrete/active cognitive styles whereas only 10 percent of faculty do.  We're far more likely to be abstract/reflective in cognition.  In short, we process information differently than half of our students, who are no doubt as frustrated with us as we can become with them.

Similarly, Huston notes that students today are not the same as they were even 15 to 20 years ago.  They spend far less time preparing for class.  In the 1980s, for example, 73 percent spent at least 15 hours per week outside of class on preparation.  Today that number has dropped to 65 percent. 

Why the drop? 

One reason is they are working more.  Financial aid has been cut and tuition has gone up.  So the overwhelming majority of today's students--especially at a blue collar institutions like mine--work anywhere from 25-30 hours a week, and it's not uncommon for them to be full-time employees and full-time students.  Nationwide over 70 percent of undergrads work and go to school.  Indeed, the so-called "non-traditional" student today is not very "non."  This is the new normal.

All this is to say nothing of the greater ethnic diversity of our student bodies in what is still a predominately monochromatic professoriate.  Moreover, our students are more economically-focused and pragmatic about their majors than many of us were. They have to be.  For them college is a pathway to work rather than a period of self-discovery and personal development.

I can lament this sad state of affairs and complain, but the question I should more often ask myself is this: given the world I live in, why am I surprised that my students act the way they do?  As Huston notes, understanding students today is actually the easy part.  All we have to do is set aside our assumptions and listen.  The hard part--and this isn't about to get easier anytime soon--is figuring out how to teach to them.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Pact

A few years back PBS produced a documentary entitled Declining by Degrees.  One segment detailed something called The Pact.  This was the unspoken agreement in higher education between students and professors to place minimal demands upon one another.  Professors reduce their expectations and students agree not to complain about the dumbed down standards.  For both parties, the pact is a pretty good deal.  Professors have more time to do research or complete their other work, and students get the semblance of an education without having to do much.

I used to show the YouTube clip of The Pact in the capstone of our old core curriculum. This was a course in which students reflected on and evaluated the significance, meaning and purpose of their undergraduate education.  I always ended the course with a prosecution of the liberal arts, throwing every argument I could think of into a summation of higher education's shortcomings and sins. 

The little segment on The Pact was Exhibit A and it was pretty damning stuff.  All I had to do was hit pause, turn to room and say, "I defy any of you to say that a lot of your education has not resembled what you just watched.  That's not an education.  That's a swindle."  This was a nice little rhetorical flourish and I always enjoyed saying it.  Even so, I only achieved one conviction in the dozen or so times I prosecuted the liberal arts (and then I think the class was just being ornery).

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the pact and about my own culpability in it.  Have I dumbed down my standards and demanded less from students to make my life a little easier?  I would like to say no, but I think the answer is yes.  The truth is I think we all find ourselves pulled in this direction.  Good teaching that leads to deep learning often requires that we provoke our students into questioning their assumptions, something they are not predisposed to do. 

We can call it "student engagement" or "arousing student interest," but in reality challenging students to put their assumptions at risk means manufacturing cognitive dissonance.  It means not letting them get too comfortable.  Also, if you're like me, you find it unpleasant to annoy people.  Yet that's often what the job requires.  Doing this job well has always been a lot of work and, unfortunately, there are a thousand seductive and readily-available ways to cut corners.

My students have been doing a lot of moaning and backsliding now that we're in the dregs of the semester.  Yesterday, for example, I split a class into groups to work on some small projects and one of the groups did nothing.  I overheard one student in the group say to the others, "Why should we do it?  It's not graded work?"  In other words, I was violating the pact by asking them to do a small bit more than what was necessary to earn a grade.


I feel very tired these days. Colleagues are cross, budgets are tight and students are--well--students.  I can certainly feel the gravitational pull of the pact. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

And may there be "some" moaning of the bar

What to do with students who moan?  Should you empathize, treat their kvetching with indifference or slap it down quick?  Yesterday I got a chorus of how many more papers do we have to write in this class?  This is a lot of work and I've got so much going on.  I said I understood and I try to be reasonable in my expectations, but "you can't see progress if don't do the workouts."
Here's my expectation in the class where I heard the moaning: read the material before class and compose a typed, well-supported response to a directed reading prompt.  This is the ticket into class that shows they are ready to discuss the material.  Readings are selections from primary texts and never more than 8-10 pages in length, often shorter.  They are dense but brief.  The responses are low stakes assignments.  So long as the students are wrestling with the texts and anchoring their summaries and inter-textual connections in citations, they receive full credit.
At the end of each unit (there are four in the semester), students compose a short synthesis paper or what amounts to a five paragraph essay integrating multiple texts read during the unit to support a claim.  I give over one 80-minute class period before each unit paper so we can walk through the evidence, write and critique their theses and begin the drafting process.  I also make myself available to comment on drafts the entire week before the assignment is due and I do my damnedest to get comments back within 24 hours.  Once they receive a grade (which is returned in one week, often sooner), they can revise their effort as many times as they want until the end of the semester.
There are no exams, quizzes or other assignments.  They write, write, write, and I give them feedback, feedback, feedback.  I often allow them to begin writing in class so they are not doing it at the last minute. 
Is this too much?  I don't think so.  Does it require real mental effort?  You bet.  Good, evidence-based writing always does.  And here is the real fons origin of the moaning.  What my students want at this point in the semester is the path of least resistance, and, as John Dewey once remarked, "The path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made." 
On one level, I do empathize with students.  Just as they want to plug in easy answers to straightforward right-or-wrong questions, I sometimes wish I could pass out the Scantron sheets and have the faculty secretary run the results through the grading doo-hickey.  Face it: there are a lot easier ways to do this job than asking students to construct ideas, make connections, do the readings and have personal reactions to them. 
So what to do about the moaning?  I guess you should see it as a positive sign.  So long as you know that the work you are assigning them is actually stretching them (and not just stressing them), the moaning means you're probably on the right track.  It's a good thing.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...