Sunday, December 2, 2012

A late drop

I hate the last few weeks of the semester when I am teaching a large enrollment class.  The third midterm has finished up and, finally, students who are doing poorly are forced out of their state of denial.  Mad grade calculations ensue as they work out exactly what grade they need to make on the final exam to get their desired grade in the course.  They finally come to my office to express their concerns about their performance and to ask how they might do better (they have been encouraged to do this since the first midterm).  A few of them realize that they either can't get the grade they want; or don't want to put in the work to get the grade they want, and so do late drops.

I had one of these students in my office on Friday.  I didn't recognize him, but that just means that he doesn't sit near the front and probably doesn't attend class all that regularly.  He had done fairly well on the first exam--a B--but then had earned Ds on the next two exams.  He could still get a C and possibly even a low B if he did particularly well on the final, but it was clear that he just didn't want to invest the time.  I signed his form, but also started a conversation with him about his experience in the class.  In particular, I was interested to hear why he felt that he didn't do as well as wanted.  Part of what stimulated my questions was his own: "Is this going to be the way all lecture classes are taught?"

I hear this a lot from my students.  I have to confess that it comes as a shock to me that so many students have reacted so strongly to the decision to use class time to review and discuss content delivered outside of class.  They insist that they "learn better" when being lectured to in class (something I find difficult to accept when I sit in on other large enrollment classes, focusing entirely on the behavior of the students, and observe that almost nobody is engaged in the lecture; many are texting or playing games on their phones; and they write down only what appears on the Powerpoint).  They say that they can't learn from lectures they watch at home--lectures that are about 20 minutes long and based closely on the textbook.  I suppose what I find so bizarre about this is that, for generations, students have been asked to read textbooks outside of class.  I fail to understand how it is particularly different to read a textbook or view a textbook-based lecture.

As I probe more deeply into these complaints, the truth emerges: it's just too much work and effort to do assigned homework and then come to class and think about and apply the knowledge gained.  As I realize this, I feel incredibly frustrated.  Certainly, I will be making some major design changes to the class for the spring to address the most significant issues that came up this fall.  But I can't force students to work.  One of the "complaints" of the student who was late-dropping the class was that I had so many different ways to try to get students engaged and he didn't really want to engage.  He just wanted to come to class, be told what to learn in a clear and uncomplicated way (he mentioned another lecture class where the professor put up an outline and key terms so that students knew what "mattered" in the lecture), and the regurgitate it on the exam.  This was what he told me.  I wasn't surprised, but I was pretty sad.  He was clearly an intelligent person; but he was also a transfer student who didn't have great study skills and struggled to learn more than 2 weeks of material at a time.  The new course design will help some with this issue (this student isn't the only one who struggles with it), but I also believe that one of the missions of a college education is to teach students to take in and digest large amounts of content.

Students are going to be doing a number of different surveys about their experience in the class.  But it's clear that the majority of them would have preferred a standard lecture class.  By this, they mean that they would have preferred a class that couldn't deliver as much content or hold them responsible for knowing that content.  When I designed the course, I assumed that most students would care about learning.  What I have learned is that, in this particular class (a core requirement), most don't.  They just want a grade (that is, an A or B).  The challenge going forward will be to see if there are ways to get them to care about learning at least as much as they care about their grade.  I think I can do it, but this semester has definitely provided a wake-up call of sorts.  In the past, I wasn't as tuned in to the students and their learning habits.  What I've seen this semester has highlighted just how great a challenge it will be to transform larger enrollment classes at UT.  It's not just a matter of getting faculty on board.  Teaching the students how to take such classes, and designing courses that force them to do the assigned work, will be key.  I suspect that there will be a lot of kicking and screaming during the transition period and faculty are going to have to learn to tolerate that (it sucks, by the way).  Those who evaluate us are going to have to understand that flipped and blended courses are not going to please students who expect a large enrollment class to require little effort or engagement.

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