Sunday, May 18, 2008

Passing or Learning?

Dean Dad wrote about conflicting issues in his main blog and his IHE blog in the case of a professor denied tenure solely (it would seem) for failing too many students, as reported by Inside Higher Ed. There were also many comments within that IHE article (106 and counting when I started work on this Saturday), as well as a similar story in the Chronicle of Higher Education (40 comments and counting) that has this permalink.

I posted a comment on Dean Dad's blog about a particular usage of the term "greater level of success" to mean passing a class (returning to pay fees next semester) rather than learning the subject matter of the class, in a statement by the Dean at Norfolk State who overrode the tenure vote of the faculty who served on the department and college review committees. I decided to save my broader comments on the many conflicting issues of this tenure decision for later, on my own blog, where I could blather on as much as I wished.

Along the way, much additional information appeared in IHE comments by the professor involved, one of his students, and an Assoc Dean involved in the mentoring and firing process from the very beginning.

There are, indeed, many conflicting issues here. I'm not trying to present a single view here, because I don't have one. Instead, I'm going to interject some observations about some of the events documented here and what they should tell faculty who find themselves working in a "passing college" rather than a "learning college". Number one on that list would be communication of expectations.

My initial gut feeling was pretty much along the lines of what The Little Professor wrote, that the failure numbers are way too high to be explained simply by student quality issues at Norfolk State. There are indications of students being passed on to an important upper division biochem class without the key prerequisites in organic chemistry and biology, but there is also clear evidence of a huge level of mutual animus between the Dean and this professor and there are also indications of an astounding level of egotistic intransigence by the professor when faced with the failure of his approach to teaching low level classes. [Not all that astounding, actually, since I have unfortunately witnessed it at my own institution.]

But there was no evidence in the stories I read that the Dean actually investigated what other factors might be at work or that the professor had been told, in writing, before he was hired that tenure was contingent on achieving a particular passing rate in his classes regardless of student effort or performance on tests like those used by other professors in his department, in addition to research, teaching, and service. I think this goes double when it seems clear from the university's publicity materials that he was hired to advance the research level of NSU.

Factors to consider:

There could be self-selection at work, where the laziest students are last to register and all end up in the class that the more alert students know will require more work than the alternatives. (That would not be the case during his first semester in Fall 2002, but it could certainly apply to later years as he was shuffled into gen-ed chemistry and biology classes, particularly after the first attempt to deny him tenure a year ago was overturned after appeal to a university grievance panel.)

There could be an utter failure on the part of the department's faculty and the college and university administration to define the prerequisite skills to be assumed (especially if they are different from what is stated in the course catalog) and the level of skill expected of passing students. (I suspect that this might be the key issue based on something Dr. Aird wrote on IHE.) However, there comes a point where it becomes his responsibility to seek out that information (particularly after the first year when he was told to do so) even if it is not provided to him by his department colleagues.

Did they tell him, in writing (e-mail counts), that the college attendance policy must not be applied if it results in a high failure rate? (It is bizarre to fire someone if the failure rate resulted from simply carrying out an official policy of the university.) The vast majority of the non-passing students at my college have a terrible attendance record and there are wide fluctuations in "passing success" for the same instructor due to variables such as time of day and whether the section was created just a few days before the semester starts (and hence populated by students who registered very late).

Apparently they did tell him that the biology department had decided to change their common syllabus to adopt a lower percentage passing rate. His ballistic response to this surprises me, since it's not like a "terminal" freshman course such as gen-ed Biology Zero is going to affect the survival of the species. That goes double if they don't offer a freshman study skills class, and raised to the third power if they don't enforce a college-level reading and writing skill level prior to enrolling in a class such as Biology Zero or Chemistry Zero.

Do they have a mandatory study skills class and an intervention program to counsel freshmen who do not attend classes regularly? (Based on their web site, no. Our college is moving in that direction with limited success, but voluntary programs don't reach the at-risk students who cut class.) Did Dr. Aird make full use of the AIM/ACCESS referral program for students who were frequently tardy or had 3 or more absences? (Based on his detailed discussion of classroom management, the answer seems to be no. Not doing so, hence failing to get the administration to face this part of its job, was a huge error on his part if he wants tenure at NSU so bad that he plans to litigate to get it.)

Background information:

It is quite interesting that the School says The strategic mission of the School of Science and Technology is to transform NSU to a "Science and Technology Powerhouse.". That would certainly explain hiring someone with a strong research record but (based on Dr. Aird's professional information on his web site) no indication of any significant teaching experience in the 30 years between starting undergrad school and being hired at NSU.

The stated admission criteria at NSU are a 2.3 gpa in HS and an 800 (on a scale of 400 to 1600) on the SAT or comparable ACT scores. At my community college, students who meet this minimum standard would very likely end up taking several "college prep" classes in math, reading, and english grammar until they met our minimum standards for doing college level work. There is a huge attrition rate for such students, even when they take and pass a study skills class. NSU appears to have a voluntary program of study skills seminars, but no systematic curriculum to address a lack of preparedness among such students. Our college has specialists work on those skills, not the person teaching a sophomore (let alone a senior level) course.

There appears to be some inconsistency in the numbers being reported by various parties. The success rate of 10% cited for gen-ed classes seems to be what some places call the ABC rate: number of ABC grades divided by initial enrollment. This does not mean there is a 90% failure rate, because it also counts students who "failed to pass" because they chose to withdraw from the class. The prof says he had 40% pass (and 60% fail) if they did not withdraw. (That is a really high failure rate given such a high withdrawal rate, but sometimes the kids who never attend class are the ones who also never withdraw and thus earn an F.)

There is also an instance cited of a senior-level class where the success rate was 100% (5 ABC grades and 1 I for a class of 6 students). By 2008, the problem was primarily in freshmen classes, a detail not addressed in the article or discussion by administrators involved in the decisions that affected this professor.

A student view:

Down around comment 101 or 103 (yes, I counted twice) in the IHE story, we see a strong letter posted by "Natalie James, 2008 Biology Graduate at NSU, at 7:25 pm EDT on May 15, 2008" in support of Prof. Aird.

This would be an example of a student who succeeded by an outcomes-based "learning" measure rather than a "passing" measure. Note well that this student did not think much of the attendance habits of her fellow students.

There were numerous other student letters in support of this professor included in the official results of a tenure-related grievance from 2006. There is solid evidence that "student learning" was a priority for him, and that students appreciated his interest in their ultimate (rather than short term) success.

The professor's view:

Dr. Aird also posted a comment and link to a web site with much info from his side of the story (8:15 AM on 15 May), but one thing he said was particularly striking. He wrote "My courses are not really that hard, compared to many that I took", which would be a reference to his undergrad years at Montana State between 1970 and 1974 (where he was a zoology major). It is abundantly clear from the NSU web site that BIO100 and CHM100 (classes of relevance here) are not "majors" biology or chemistry (despite ignorant comments to the contrary in the IHE comments). This is an extremely important detail that suggests to me that he has no idea what level these general education courses are taught at. CHM100 is two levels below the standard introductory "majors" chemistry class Dr. Aird would have taken as an undergrad. This class should be trivial compared to what he took. At our college, its level is somewhere between an 8th- or 9th-grade physical science class and 10th- or 11th-grade chemistry at the worst high school in the state.

I think this raises serious questions about his understanding of the performance level expected in a general education biology class that is often taken by first-term freshmen. As with the chemistry class mentioned above, at my CC these classes are taught at a level somewhat below that of a good 9th- or 10th-grade BSSC biology class in a college-prep sequence at a suburban high school such as I attended. However, the study-guide approach he says he uses in his class is not so different from what is done in ours.

What makes this particularly telling is that he reports a good passing rate in an upper division class. Since I can recall some instances of excellent researchers who were spectacularly awful (words can't convey how awful) in the freshman classroom but tolerable in the senior classroom, some blame goes to the administration here. Why assign this guy to Biology Zero if he belongs in his NIH funded lab working with seniors and masters students?

Dr. Aird also put copies of a university memo and his response on a private web site. It is clear that he created a very bad atmosphere by his school-wide response to a Fall 2003 memo about his Fall 2002 CHM 431 class, taught during his first semester at NSU. [That the official memo refers to PHY 431 as a biochemistry class, when college curricula make it clear that CHM 431 is biochemistry I, shows an astounding lack of attention to detail by the Assoc. Dean.] In my humble opinion, he lost his tenure case right then and there. The time to hammer your theses to the door of the university is after you have been granted tenure, not just one year down that road.

It should have been 100% clear to him that this letter, and followup actions by the administration, meant that he would not get tenure without changing the passing rates in his classes even if it meant changing his standards. He should have started looking for a new job the next day. [Our CC got a really good professor from a university in Texas after they started pressuring faculty to change their grade curves. He saw the handwriting on the wall.] This goes double if he suspected this action was part of a plan to meet the goals of an NSF project without increasing learning by the students.

By the way, if he suspected a whistle needed to be blown about that NSF project, he should have simply changed his grading policies one semester and documented the response of the administration ... and forwarded it all to the relevant NSF office.

As for the letter from the Assoc. Dean, the place for "workshop chemistry" is in freshman chemistry for majors, not the senior biochem class required for admission to medical school. I don't think this administrator knows what he is talking about. Those biochem classes are generally taught in the lecture style of medical school to prepare kids for what is to come, and to ensure coverage of the vast amount of material they need to memorize for the MCAT.

The other faculty:

The article also paraphrased the general comments of other faculty members with the statement Professors said attendance rates are considerably lower than at many institutions — although most institutions serve students with better preparation. There is a major non-sequitur here. Preparation (meaning math and english and reading skills) has nothing to do with attendance rates. Attendance is mainly about self discipline, although it can be about the campus milieu.

Attendance is a problem even at universities where students are well prepared. (I might even go so far as to say it is a bigger problem there, since well-prepared students were never challenged in high school. See the links to Zucker's comments in my article about freshman orientation last year.) It is certainly a problem at our community college. We have the authority, as faculty, to withdraw students who do not attend class per a specific college policy. For those who use it, this makes it easy to separate failure to attend and failure by not taking the final exam or doing poorly on every exam in the class.

These comments from random faculty members do suggest a climate where "lack of preparation" is used as an excuse rather than a challenge to be addressed by the entire institution. In my opinion, the place to address attendance issues for "under prepared" students begins in their "prep" classes and a mandatory study skills class. That is where our college tries to attack it. Based on the sophomores that I get in my physics class, where I get 90% attendance on the day before Thanksgiving or Spring Break, it works pretty well by the time most of them get to me.

Administration's role:

Just as interesting were the remarks posted on IHE by the Associate Dean of Science and Technology, Dr. Mattix, who reports directly to the Dean who denied Dr. Aird tenure and who wrote a memo to Aird "faulting me for the high student failure rate in my senior level biochemistry course" that is shown on Aird's web site (see link above). Mattix basically calls one of his own professors, Dr. Hall (quoted in the IHE article), a liar for saying that faculty were encouraged to pass 70% of their students. His claim that faculty are not required to pass a certain percentage of their students is contradicted by what his own Dean wrote as well as by some of his own comments. When you will be denied tenure for not doing one specific thing, the word 'encouraged' needs scare quotes and a footnote to the dictionary definition of 'required'.

More interesting is Dr. Mattix's rhetorical question "do you really believe that all of those hundreds of students every year in Dr. Aird’s classes, ..., could not succeed." Not only does it lack a question mark, it begs the question. The question is not whether they could succeed, it is whether they did succeed in that particular class. It is also whether a student who fails to attend a class deserves a passing grade simply by virtue of being there more often than 30% or 40% of the rest of the class. And since the student's failure and lack of attendance was never in question, that requires one to ask whether the tone set by the administration contributes to an atmosphere where cutting class, and perhaps even contempt of the teaching faculty, is common.

Even more striking is the naivete of this administrator, who views "teaching best practices, academic integrity, legal issues, grant writing, using Blackboard, ePortfolios, and others" as examples of new strategies to motivate millenials. Blackboard is a "new strategy"? Give me a break! Its an old strategy. (Next he is going to tell me they use e-mail, when the fact is that they use voice and text on their phones much more than they use e-mail. E-mail is old school. Skype is new school.) But this statement is particularly odd given that Aird apparently made all of his lectures available in electronic format on Blackboard, and he got fired. I'd love to see the discussion of academic integrity centered on one NSU student's comment (about being given an A for C and D work without even taking the final exam) as a jumping off point.

Another article on a similar dilemma:

A commenter pointed to an article that
Professor X wrote in the June 2008 Atlantic Monthly concerning "success" in the classroom.

This is closer to the issues raised in my comment on Dean Dad's blog but also has a lot of relevance to questions of adequate screening of students and remediation of their deficiencies in pre-college-level "prep" classes. These classes are not the solution to every problem, but they can address some of those problems. (See some comments I posted last year.) Although some of the problems described by Prof X still exist after those prep classes, they are reduced and the institution has a way of identifying places for improvement.

For example, our humanities classes require writing a paper, so they have a composition pre-req that is supposed to indicate a certain level of competence in college-level writing. It is a simple matter for a humanities professor to refer an example of horrid sub-standard writing to the Dean so the Dean can look into why this might have happened, in addition to referring the student to our writing improvement center for remediation. When I encounter an example of a student who can't seem to do enough algebra or trig to locate the right angles in a paper bag or find his way out, I do the same thing. Often the problem is that the pre-req was met ten years earlier or at another institution, but sometimes it indicates a lack of learning in our introductory math classes.

This does not explain all of the problems Prof X wrote about, some of which appear to be the fault of the professor. If the students are future cops, why not read Sherlock Holmes or something from 60s dopehead/existentialist literature (Been Down So Long it Looks Like Up to Me) - not to mention Letter from a Birmingham Jail - that would get them reading and writing?


ProfSeeman said...

You make some good points above.
However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
Go to:

If you get this book and video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems, [they are in many libraries, so you don't have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and the video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.

[I also teach an online course on these issues that may be helpful to you at: ]

If you cannot get the book or video, email me and I will try to help.
Best regards,


Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus,
City Univ. of New York

Doctor Pion said...

I don't think you have a clue what you are talking about in this situation. Not a clue. Your search for a sales target obviously didn't include reading the article you replied to.

As for classroom management, I've been too busy today to blog about an amusing event in class today, but the real problem concerning classroom discipline is how a female professor can do what I do and not get called a Bitch.

Doctor Pion said...

Two articles by University Diaries related to the Prof X article (mentioned at the bottom of my article) should be linked here:

1) The Sense of College appeared about when my article did, and seems to argue that those students don't belong in college - as opposed to requiring they pass a remediation course first.

2) Article about KNOWHOW2GO, a program to improve student skills while they are still in high school.

This idea is similar to the idea that colleges like mine should push its "are you ready for college math and english" testing into the high schools, so students know they need work before they graduate.