Thursday, July 26, 2007

New Adjunct

This post was motivated by an "Ask My Readers" entry, First Time Teaching at a CC, in Dean Dad's blog today. I started to compose a comment and decided there were enough topics to blog it here instead.

The question came from a person in Psychology, so my comments are more general than if I was talking to someone teaching physics. However, many things (such as grading standards) are fairly universal.

200 level versus 300 level

I'll assume we are talking about Psych 200 (general psychology taken as a required course for nursing and education, as a general education course by anybody, and as a first course by psych majors) and a Psych 301 course (intro to psychology for social science majors). The former would definitely be consistent with the situations raised in the letter to Dean Dad and addressed below. Understanding where both courses fit into the curriculum (who requires it, and why) is also crucial when it comes to grading decisions. That is why I put this first. You need to read the catalog and talk to faculty and students at your university about this issue.

It is entirely plausible to me, in my ignorance, that both classes could cover essentially the same material. This would be especially true if the majors did not explicitly require Psych 200 as a prerequisite for Psych 301. The difference between the classes would be in your expectations, not in the material "covered". The grading standards in the 300 level class would be higher (since a D is unacceptable and even a C might be considered a problem if you need a 2.5 to stay in the program). You would start signaling that they should retain material from test to test and from class to class. Your exam questions would feature more critical thinking and integration of ideas from different parts of the course, but those main ideas would not change very much. You would start to go deeper in the course that has Psych 301 as a prerequisite.

There is also a possibility that the number system is totally artificial and Psych 300 is identical to Psych 200. The university might be saying that this class is mostly taken by juniors (or simply charging upper division fees for it) or flagging it as a required course in the major, while the CC is saying that it is taken by sophomores because they don't have any juniors. Reading the catalog and asking questions will clarify the situation in a few minutes.

These observations have nothing whatever to do with teaching physics, which generally puts a really big step between introductory and majors classes. I must say, to be fair, that physics separates completely the highly mathematical introductory course for engineers and physics majors from the non-mathematical introductory science course for psychology majors. Psychology does not do that. However, even in physics there is some truth in saying that we teach the same material in first semester mechanics, junior mechanics, and graduate mechanics. What changes is the expectations for performance on the same groups of problems (perfection at the higher level), a hope for deeper conceptual understanding, and the introduction of new methods and problems that require greater sophistication to solve them. Students don't usually notice this from "inside" the system if it is done in a seamless fashion so you may need to learn about it as a teacher.


There was a discussion about teaching summer session in Dean Dad's blog at the end of May. If your current class is in a compressed 6-week session in the second half of the summer, your class could be particularly diverse. Kids fresh out of high school, who might be taking their first college composition class at the same time, will be in there with 3 time losers who just need this class to graduate and excellent students who put off an easy required course until the very end. Talking to people at this particular CC about this particular semester is very important, given that you don't have experience there (or anywhere) to use as a reference point.

CC versus Large Uni versus Selective

Almost anyone can be in your class at a CC, as others noted in the discussion of the original article. However, there is also quite a spectrum at Enormous State University, where I went to school, even though its graduate program is in the top quartile in a number of areas. They are very selective at the grad level but not so selective at the freshman level. Still, you are more likely to find poor performance due to drunken partying every night at your large state university than simply poor reading and writing skills. You will have much more diversity in basic skills in your classroom at either of these kinds of schools than at a highly selective institution. A high cut for minimum SAT scores results also reduces the standard deviation, making the teacher's job a lot easier.

Dean Dad's questioner observed "it is difficult to teach a class when I have some college graduates who have come back to get prereqs for nursing school and some students who barely finished high school." My answer is "yes", and "that is why we get paid the small bucks to teach at a CC." It is also why I don't envy those, like the questioner, who teach a gen ed course that might be taken by a first-term freshman, whether at a CC or a large university. Even a well-prepared HS grad is still thinking they are in a HS classroom.

Back link:
See my comments about orientation for new students, some of which can be used on the first day of a freshman class (since that is where Prof. Zucker first used them at Johns Hopkins).

Your consolation is the realization that your student who "barely finished high school" was above average in motivation and academics in high school. Remember, only about half of HS grads go on to any kind of college, and lots of kids don't make it out of high school. Imagine what it is like teaching 10th grade!

The way high school teachers got that kid to pass their class was by offering, maybe even requiring, extra credit work. That is why you will regularly be asked about what can be done for extra credit in those classes. Be sure you have an answer, and be sure it is offered consistently as part of a fair grading system. (I know one HS teacher who only offers extra credit as a way of passing his required "government" class, but not as a way of raising a C to a B or a B to an A. He will not fail any student who will put in the effort, but has more academic standards for an A.)

Gen Ed versus Core Course

Any general education course poses serious challenges. If, as is usually the case for Psych 200, students think it is an easy class for the first semester because they had a "psychology" class in high school, the challenges get bigger. In a "core" course, your students have passed a year of composition and can write an actual paragraph or three that present a coherent idea. I have the distinct pleasure of teaching students who have not failed an entire series of math classes, including trig and sometimes calculus, but there are still serious challenges.

The biggest challenge freshmen face is the need to learn outside the classroom. They just don't believe you when you say they need to read the book before class and review it after class, because they never had to do this in high school. It was all spoon fed. Even many college classes have a "review sheet" that is really a list of all 50 questions that will be on the test, so all they need to do is cram that subset of information and then go to work (if at a CC) or out drinking (at the university). The only effective way to attack this has to start on day 1, so it is too late to do much about it now. However, you can experiment now and develop some ideas for the next time you teach the class.

Your 300 level core class will likely offer a different challenge: the poor retention of knowledge we all seem to see today. That may be why your mentor teaches the same subject matter as in the 200 class. They didn't remember any of it. And I do mean any of it. I have close ties to faculty at a neighboring university, so I know it is not a problem unique to CC students. [Indeed, one of my minor triumphs has been to convince many of my students that they need to still know some physics next year, with the result that they kick ass after they transfer. The person next to them had no idea physics was required because it would be used in their engineering classes, so they cleared their mind and sold their book as soon as they passed physics.] In my opinion, the cram and forget approach in high school, particularly for "high stakes" graduation tests, is a big contributor to this.


My first thought when I read "I have a student who sits up front, asks good questions, stayed for the optional review session, and seems to put effort into learning the material. But he is still barely passing." was quite simple. A student who is barely passing is passing, so earns a C. The harder question is "How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying?" but it also has a simple answer. You award them what they earned. What the questioner might really be asking is, How do I know if my standards for a C are correct? That is a different, and very hard question that I will not try to answer here. I featured it in my comment on Dean Dad's blog, for others to talk about.

The zeroth thing you need to know is whether your school has a de facto policy that everyone passes this course if they attend every day and work hard. I don't think I would ever teach at such an institution, but I know they exist. (I know they exist because I have seen the product of such schools transfer into mine, and because we just got what looks like a really excellent "senior" hire who was quite clear that he was leaving his current position - at a 4-year school - because its administration is now pressuring faculty to pass a larger fraction of their students regardless of performance.)

Note added:
Grading criteria and passing regardless of learning was a major issue in a recent story about denial of tenure for a low passing rate. (See my comments posted in May 2008.) The question of whether comparable evaluation methods were used so the poor passing rate resulted from poor teaching remain unclear, as they were not addressed in the materials made public.

The first thing you need to know is what grade constitutes passing. Our system considers a "D" to be a passing grade in that you get college credit for it even as it lowers your GPA. You can, of course, repeat a class where you earned a "D", but you don't have to repeat it. However, although a "D" will count toward graduation if you are in building construction, it might not count if you are in education or psychology. On the other hand, a business or nursing major might consider a "C" to be the worst possible grade in your class and finagle a way to fail. If you need a 3.0 average (or higher) for your major, a "C" could be fatal. It lowers your GPA but cannot be repeated.

The second thing you need to know is what the consequences are if a student "barely" passes your class with a "C". They might be minimal for Psych 200 if it is not core prerequisite course for that major, and might even be minimal if it is required. (With grade inflation being what it is in the social sciences, a "C" might not be enough to get into that major.) In physics, we always ask ourselves if we would want to drive across a bridge designed by that "C" student, just as anatomy instructors ask themselves if they want to wake up in an emergency room with that "C" student standing over them. You might ask yourself if you want that student teaching your kids or taking the 300 level psychology class you are teaching next semester.

One bit of advice is that there is only a minor penalty if you start out with a first test that is a bit too hard and make the next one easier. Students will work harder after that first test (although some will quit), and then feel rewarded on the next test. This is all for the good if you give them positive feedback about the results of studying. They might even keep up those study habits if the third test is in the middle for difficulty. You might even find that this is an ideal approach in a freshman class. The other way, an easy first test followed by a harder test, is a terrible approach that will always backfire.

Finally, you should discuss grading policy with some other faculty at that school. You do have the authority to include subjective criteria to decide that 69.7 is good enough for a C, just as you have the authority to decide that it is not. The important thing is that you give the same consideration to every student who is similarly situated. Ideally, you have this information in the grading section of your syllabus (and if not this time, next time), but no document can cover every possible situation. If you find that the student says useful things in class and can discuss the subject in your office but does badly on tests, you have a sound basis for giving a passing grade (but also counseling them that they need to improve their test taking skills).

Side comment:
You did notice that I said you have the authority to decide grades? Yep, you are now an authority figure. It is a new experience the first time you teach. You really are in charge of your classroom. You have the authority to tell students where to sit during an exam, if you think some arrangements look a bit too cozy. You probably have the authority to tell a student to leave the classroom for answering their cell phone, and the authority to use your cell phone to call the campus police if the student will not leave. You certainly have the authority to deduct points for texting during class. It is quite interesting to be a teacher and a student at the same time if you have a tendency to do things as a student that you don't want to see in your own classroom. Psychoanalyze that!


The questioner has one mentor, giving reasonable advice, but needs more. Get a second opinion about the 300 level class from a regular faculty member at your university as well as your thesis adviser. Similarly, chat up someone who teaches your 200 level course at the CC for specific questions on grading policy, but you can also talk to the person who hired you (or even the random odd faculty member wandering the hallways) about the characteristics of students at your school.

The faculty at a CC are committed to teaching, not research, so you will find them much more approachable on this subject than at a university. Just introduce yourself and go from there.

Comments on comments

As Dean Dad and others put it, watering down courses at a CC by offering lots of extra credit options and having a soft grading scale compared to the situation at a likely transfer institution is setting those kids up to fail.

I also like using a journal as a learning and evaluation technique. You might learn that your weak student has a mangled view of what is going on, so it is not just a problem of "testing poorly". Many weak students have poor reading skills, or simply don't read the book at all. Many have spectacularly bad note taking skills. Others just have trouble with the foils on multiple choice tests and can give a reasonable answer on a short answer or essay test or in a journal. You can only find out by trying.

As someone noted, some have true learning disabilities that should be addressed by specialists at your school and accommodated (often by extended testing times) accordingly. It is too late to do much about that now, but it is something to be aware of. Talk to your dean about the college policy on referrals, etc, if you suspect this might be a problem.


Anonymous said...

I would echo many of the points discussed above, all true gems. Another way to think about this is to consider your class from the perspective of its culture. You are the authority in your class and, as a byproduct, have the opportunity to exert a great deal of influence on its culture. Often, culture comes as a byproduct everything else. I’ve found it helpful to work backwards from an idealized culture to pragmatic rules, expectations, and communication channels. Ultimately, I want a culture that encourages learning, the sharing of ideas free of negative consequence, and promotes self awareness.

Also, following your lead, I've created a post on my blog to discuss further.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Pion,
Thank you so much for your thoughts on this topic. These are all great tips for a professor teaching for the first time. I especially liked your advice about grading: "In physics, we always ask ourselves if we would want to drive across a bridge designed by that "C" student, just as anatomy instructors ask themselves if they want to wake up in an emergency room with that "C" student standing over them." Interesting questions!

Thank you for your advice!

Sarah said...

I find myself scribbling notes down! This is the stuff they do not tell you when you get your first full time teaching gig!

The issue of grading i find to be very difficult. As a new teacher I get the intro courses and I understand that these courses are stepping stones and so they should not be easy but at the same time they should be encouraging grade wise to encourage students to carry on? So hard to find the balance.

A very interesting site you have here!

Doctor Pion said...

While looking back a year's worth of comments to see what I might have missed, I realized this article should have a back link to an earlier article about the Grade 13 view of a CC (or first-year university, for that matter) education.

I was also stunned at how clear and coherent I was ... a week or so before the start of the academic year!