Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Failure, mine and theirs

It is that dreaded time of the semester when students in danger of failing the course (but for various reasons unable to do a late drop) come to my office to plead for mercy.  They ask for opportunities to do extra credit (there have already been several during the semester) or for a change in how their grade is calculated (utterly oblivious to the fact that I can't give them special treatment without offering the same treatment to every other student).  Rarely do they take personal responsibility for their failures unless I ask probing questions that force them to confess their lack of study, class attendance, etc.  Often, they will assert that they can only learn in a "normal" lecture format and that the flipped classroom harmed their ability to learn the material.  This might be more persuasive if I didn't also have a lot of data about these students and their learning habits.  After they leave my office, I look at their attendance; I look at the specifics of their i>clicker answers.  What I see confirms my suspicions: they didn't do well because they missed a lot of classed and, when they were in class, they clearly had not prepared and missed most of the i>clicker questions (and surely were not able to make heads or tails of the discussion questions).

It also frustrates me that they wait to come see me until the point in the semester when, in fact, I can do nothing for them.  It is too late to change their learning habits (at least for my course). It is too late for me to suggest that they work closely with me or a TA in the weeks leading up to the exam.  Indeed, I suspect this is precisely the point.  They come to ask for special treatment and favors, but they don't want to be asked to do anything in return.  The same lack of effort that got them in the position of risking a poor grade is precisely what drives them to take action only when it is too late for me to do anything to help them.  They leave my office feeling dissatisfied and I am left feeling disheartened and frustrated (and telling myself that I need to stop taking their failure to engage so personally). 

As classes wind down and the final exam looms ever closer, I feel nervous for them.  The final is worth a significant amount (25%) of their final grade.  I am sure that many of them are counting on doing substantially better on the final than they did on earlier exams.  If history tells me anything, it's that they will do worse.  Students almost always end up doing worse on final exams because they get distracted with end of semester festivities and blow off studying--despite the best intentions.  I've seen this repeatedly over 10 years of teaching at UT and it's one reason I only reluctantly give final exams during finals week to large enrollment classes.  The final exam isn't difficult.  It will be an abbreviated midterm (albeit covering some pretty complex content) and then a set of ethics-related activities, including an ethical analysis.  If they put in the work, they should do extremely well. If they wait until the night before the exam, they will not do very well.  I am letting them talk about the ethics part with one another and I expect to get many exams that are ok but largely students trying to repeat what they read from a Facebook group but didn't really understand.

I worry that I am going to end up failing more students than usual in a class that is supposed to improve student learning.  The reasons for this are clear--they didn't hold up their end of the deal.  They didn't learn despite an abundance of learning tools at the disposal, largely on demand.  The exam questions are handpicked from in class discussions, which are based on the recorded lectures and textbook readings. There are no curveballs.  Still, I can't help but feel like I also have failed as an instructor and motivator every time I fill in that F bubble on the grade sheet.  Rationally, I know the argument about leading horses to water; but it is difficult not to feel that I should have been able to find some way to make them want to drink that water.  Hopefully, once we do all the math, it will turn out that most of them were able to squeak by with Cs or Ds.  I also suspect that it's generally true that, the larger the class, the higher the failure rate--another reason I don't really like teaching 400 students.

As I worry about their grades, I have also been thinking about how I'd grade my own performance.  Perhaps I am being hard on myself, but I'd say an A+ for effort but about a C- for execution.  I made several rookie mistakes in the class design, but the most significant was designing in class activities around the expectation that the students had done their assigned homework but with no grade attached to that homework (and no way of checking, even with a quick i>clicker quiz at the start of class). I assumed an ideal, self-motivated student as my audience (aka me when I was in college).  Of course, that vast majority of my students didn't behave that way.  This meant that in class review and discussion was virtually impossible and led me to eventually remove the required attendance policy.  It was a disaster to have 400 students, 300 of whom were unprepared and totally lost, sitting in a room.  They chatted with their neighbor, left to get a snack at the student store across from the classroom (and then returned, sometimes bearing ice-cream cones), and were generally disruptive.  I felt like I was teaching 9th graders.

In retrospect, I was totally unprepared for the audience I was teaching.  In earlier, lecture-based versions of this course, I could envelop myself in a bubble of denial.  I could focus on the students who had genuine interest in the course and ignore the fact that most of the class was there to get an A or B and check off a core curriculum requirement.  I persuaded myself that I could get these students to engage simply by providing opportunities for engagement.  I didn't grasp that I would have to force that engagement, at least at first and probably for much longer.  I did not understand that many of them would take pride and pleasure not in learning but in bragging on Facebook about how little effort they are putting into the class.  I was utterly unprepared for their strong reaction against change (never have I heard so many praises of the class lecture; typically I hear students say that they CAN'T learn that way because they can't follow the lecturer, etc.).  I was  caught off guard by the way they used the flipped model as an excuse for not working.  It seemed to me that they decided that they couldn't learn from watching pre-recorded lectures and so therefore didn't need to watch them.  And when they subsequently did poorly on the exams, well, that was the fault of the course model and not a consequence of their study habits and lack of preparation. Over and over again, they are given opportunities to improve, but many of them would rather complain that my expectations are ridiculous (I mean, who can expect a lecture class to include discussion?); that the grading is to harsh (because we expect the actual, correct answer and not some vague approximation of it); and that they should be doing better--even when some of them are also proud of how little effort they are expending. The logic baffles.

I couldn't make the kinds of mid-semester adjustments that I wanted to make (and that the class needed) thanks to the Texas legislature, which demands that syllabuses be published on the first class day and remain unchanged.  This is largely a good thing; but it does mean that, when instructors are testing out new course designs, we are stuck with a flawed design for the entire semester.  This is tough on instructors as well as the students, especially the students who wonder why I am not making changes to a model that is clearly not working for a lot of their classmates.  I was motivated to change the structure of the course in the first place because I hated feeling like I wasn't really teaching them much of anything; and they certainly weren't learning to do more than memorize a bunch of facts and then dutifully spew them back to me on exams.  I totally failed to understand that I couldn't force students to learn anymore than a coach can play the game for her team.  All I can do is create a learning environment that motives student learning.  On the whole, I didn't do that as effectively as I had hoped, in large part because I failed to understand how much structure and grade-incentivized assessments would be required to get them to abandon their "cram for the exam" mode.  On the bright side, I have a very good sense of what steps need to be taken to shift the focus to daily preparation and away from exams.  It remains to be seen whether this shift will lead to increased student participation in and enjoyment of class discussion.  It also remains to be seen what it will take to persuade students that, to do well, they will have to actually put in some work and perform at a reasonably high level.  To my mind, these last two issues are probably much more deeply rooted in pre-college preparation and are going to be much more difficult to change.

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