Do we get the students we deserve?

Hypothesis: If you assume that students are trustworthy, independent learners, then they will behave trustworthily and learn independently.

Corollary: If you assume that students are always trying to cheat and cut corners, then they will cheat and cut corners.

Experimental method: Last semester I taught an evening section of my standard, gen-ed level Theology of Work class. There were 19 students from a good cross section of the college, though theology majors were disproportionately represented (because three of them needed the class to graduate). During the semester, the class seemed fine, neither unusually good nor unusually bad. Our in-class discussions were fairly typical for a Core class: some nights they were lively, other nights they had no spark.

Then we came to the final exam. In a stroke of either insight or madness, I decided that in a course in which I argued strongly for the value of leisure and contemplation, I could not legitimately demand that students answer a long list of sharply-defined, rigid questions for the final. (In the terms of one course author, I couldn’t demand ratio on the final when I had been arguing all semester for intellectus.) So I decided I’d open things up for them. I gave them an essay to read and a question to prepare to answer. This was the complete exam:

CORE 269: Theology of Work                  Spring 2014

Final exam

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” –Matthew 11:28

In the blue book, write an essay in response to Tim Kreider’s essay, “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” drawing, as appropriate, from concepts you have learned in this course. Do not assume that your reader is familiar with the concepts.

Write from your moral, spiritual, and intellectual convictions about work, leisure, and the spiritual life. Say how you want to live your life, or how people in general should live their lives, given what you know about the theology of work and in response to what Kreider is saying in the essay. If it helps, you can imagine that you are writing your response also in the opinion pages of the New York Times.

Do your best. The exam is worth 50 points, about 17% of the course grade.

It is worth noting that there was no midterm in this course, because I didn’t want to use up a whole evening just proctoring an exam. This means that the students went into the final with no idea how I would grade their work, what I was “looking for” in their answers.

To be honest, I didn’t know what I was looking for, either. I planned to grade leniently, in case the students interpreted my lax instructions as signifying low expectations. I figured most of them would write a few short paragraphs and finish in a half-hour or so.

On exam night, I reiterated the advice: “Do your best.” In fact, I said that when they turned in their exams, I’d ask each of them if they did their best. They wrote for a long time. No one finished in under an hour, and a few took longer than the allotted time. Each student told me they did their best. I told each one I was proud of them. But I still didn’t know what they had written.

Results: Then I graded the exams. They were magnificent, without question the best batch I had ever read. Even the “worst” ones were well-articulated and explained in detail the key concepts the students used. I didn’t say how many theorists to draw upon, but most students drew upon more than I would have demanded, had I asked a more traditional essay question. The students wrote from the heart as well as the mind, with true conviction.

The grades were embarrassingly high. Higher even than the students said they expected, based upon their answers on the course evaluations. (In my experience, students are more typically too optimistic about their final grades.) A part of me wondered if I had done something wrong, if I had gone too easy on them.

Or maybe when you just ask someone to do their best and nothing more, they do their best.

Discussion: If the hypothesis is true, it’s because our assumptions about students shape how we behave toward them, including how we design assignments. And your behavior in turn helps determine their response to you. If you project hostility toward someone, you should not be surprised if they get defensive. If you come across as welcoming to a guest in your home, then they will act like a good guest.

Limitations: The sample size is small, just a single class. Maybe there really was something exceptional about this collection of students, some hidden variable. When I was tallying the final course grades, I noticed that every student had completed every assignment. Attendance was very high. No one turned in major assignments late. This group had done the work all along; I just hadn’t noticed. Maybe it wasn’t that I trusted them on the exam. Maybe they were ready for it anyway.

But the results were so good, it seems like it’s worth trying again.

Do you find that your assumptions about students shape students’ behavior? How have you displayed those assumptions? Have students ever defied expectations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Stop marking papers; start responding to student writers

I led a short workshop earlier today on how my approach to commenting on students’ papers shifted after I read Nancy Sommers’s handbook, Responding to Student Writers. It was while reading that book that I realized that my students were not just writing in order to produce “what I want.” They were sharing their ideas with me. Crazy as it sounds, I began to think of it as a privilege to respond to them.

In practice, my new outlook meant downplaying “marks” and marginal comments on papers in favor of a written dialog with each student writer, a dialog that continues throughout the semester, as students tell me about their writing and I respond to them, coaching them on how to build on their successes and improve as writers.

Two resources I referred to in the workshop were the Harvard Writing Project and an illuminating video produced by Sommers on how students respond to comments on their papers. (Sommers has links to several other videos on that page.) What I learned from the video was that students do not always know what we mean in our brief marginal comments. Even “Good,” a comment I have written at least a thousand times on papers, is pretty opaque. What is good? Why is it good?

If you want to talk more about effective strategies to respond to student writers, say so in the comments or contact CELT.

Up to you

“Some things are up to us and some are not up to us.”

These words, which open the Handbook of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, are among the wisest ever written. (They find an echo in the “Serenity Prayer” written by the great theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.) The words are tautological but hardly trivial, because if we cannot distinguish between what is up to us and what is not, then we are likely to waste much effort and opportunity. And, Epictetus thinks, by pinning our happiness to things that are not up to us, we set ourselves up for misery when misfortune strikes.

Epictetus’ gnomic wisdom is something that the anthropologist Kate Clancy is getting at in two recent blog posts on “The Sports Psychology of Academia.” Clancy, who plays roller derby, notes the psychological importance of (a) not being upset by and (b) planning for aspects of the match that are not up to her: the quality of the playing surface, the officials, injuries, etc. She then applies this insight to her career, which is determined by countless factors she has no control over. She is resolved to improve as a scholar and mentor, but to do that, she must first figure out what about herself and her environment she can and can’t change.

Clancy’s focus in these posts is mainly on research, but her insights are immediately applicable to undergraduate teaching, too. College faculty have a lot of control in the classroom: our preparation, what activities to do in class, how to grade student work, etc. But we do not have total control. In fact, we have hardly any control over the most indispensable ingredient to education: our students. Their parents raised them, previous teachers taught them, the admissions office brought them into the college, and they enrolled in our classes. Given all of this, there is little point in railing against what students are like when they get to our classes. But we do it anyway.

I was slow to realize that my students are not up to me. For years, I was frustrated by students’ failure to live up to my expectations for them. At some point, I realized that the failure was mine. My classes were set up so that some idealized, imaginary student could learn, not so that any real student could. I like to think that once I realized that I can only ever teach the students actually enrolled in the class–with all their peculiar abilities and shortcomings–I taught, and they learned, more effectively. I certainly found teaching much more satisfying.

Given that our students are (mostly) not up to us, how do we shape what is up to us, in order to foster students’ learning?

First, we need to know what our students are like: what they can do well, what they cannot, their attention span, their general cultural literacy, their assumptions about the course material, etc. Doing this on a fine-grained level would take a long time; only the truly heroic teacher can know all of this information about every single student. But we can certainly learn all of this about student cohorts. And we can learn a little about each student by asking them about their assumptions coming into the class (indeed, doing so is the first step in a constructivist pedagogy). Once we have this knowledge, we can tailor a course to help these specific students learn. Certainly, that much is up to us.

But even then, so much is up only to the students: whether they do the reading assignment, whether they do their work on time, whether they think coming to class is more important than playing video games. Now, I can certainly do much to encourage them to read, to train them to read more effectively. But to do this, I need to have already recognized–and communicated to the students–what is up to me, what is up to them, and what is up to people not in the class.

Faculty invest a lot of ourselves in our teaching. And rightly so: students deserve our best efforts, just as much as they deserve their own best efforts. But our best efforts have limits. Discovering what they are, working honestly within them, and not being bothered by what falls outside of them are major elements to professional success and satisfaction.

What else is up to us, or not up to us, in our teaching? What aspects of teaching that are not up to you nevertheless cause you stress and dismay? How do you think faculty can best deal with the things that are not up to us?

Photo by stock.xchng user pcaputo / Creative Commons licensed.

Faculty Focus special report: Effective Strategies for Improving Teaching and Learning

Faculty Focus always has a wealth of information and suggestions for improving one’s teaching. This new special report includes several short articles that address constructing an environment in which you can teach most effectively and your students can learn most effectively. Check it out:

EffectiveStrategiesImproveTeachandLearn.pdf (application/pdf Object).

What strategies in this report will you consider as you plan your teaching for the fall semester? (Or is it too early even to think about that?)

Coverage vs. uncoverage: A perspective from history

The CELT blog has addressed the challenges of “coverage” a few times this year, particularly in relation to active learning, making a case for thinking of courses in terms not of “coverage” but of “uncoverage,” training students in the thinking, researching, and communication skills they need to make their own discoveries about the course’s subject matter. Most basically, we can think of these two models as the “give someone a fish” vs. “teach someone to fish” schools of thought. (Whether the CELT director practiced, in his history of Christian thought survey, what he preached here in the blog is another matter entirely.)

Faculty Focus recently gave an award to an article that argued for the “uncoverage” model in that longstanding staple of “coverage”: the history survey. The authors, Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker of the University of Wisconsin system, make the case for survey courses to help students to “think like historians” rather than master a set of facts. According to the authors, it is the disciplinary thinking skills (and not, I’ll add, simply “critical thinking” skills) that will best serve students not only in college but as citizens.

Maryellen Weimer describes the article’s findings here. The article itself, “The end of the history survey course: The rise and fall of the coverage model,” can be accessed via Academic Search Premier, ERIC, and other databases.

As you plan your courses for next year (that is, when you’re not relaxing in a hammock), how are you thinking through the tricky problem of coverage? Do you think Sipress and Voelker have a useful approach?