Tuesday, July 1, 2008

CC Students

The students at my community college are nothing like those that Professor X described in the June issue of "The Atlantic". Although I commented on one aspect of that article earlier (see below for the link), two recent articles (part 1 and part 2) by Female Science Professor took on Prof X's inaccurate view of the differences between CC students and university students, a topic I had ignored. I figured I should elaborate here because it is also relevant to those looking at a CC job. Our students are different, and those differences pose some challenges, but they are not necessarily inferior to those at, say, a large state university.

That article in The Atlantic generated a lot of discussion back in May. It first came to my attention in conjunction with a denial of tenure case at Norfolk State that I blogged about in the distant past. At that time my thoughts were mostly about the effectiveness of pre-college skills classes (the old prerequisites issue) as well as the role of the administration in fixing a college culture where attendance is not thought to be important to success in class. I am tempted to attribute all of the differences between Prof X's students and ours to the effectiveness of our pre-college "prep" classes, but I don't know if the CC or "last chance" private college s/he teaches at has such a program.

So how do CC students compare to university students?

By way of background, I taught quite a few classes at a major R1 university as a graduate student a few decades ago, and also taught a few classes at another R1 university while in a research position. I also know the faculty in both physics and engineering at nearby Wannabe Flagship, so the current state of their students is no mystery to me.

Like FSP wrote, our students are not that different. In particular, the engineering students I had in my physics class at a major R1 were no more (and sometimes less) motivated than the ones I have at this CC. I certainly have more students at this CC who have actual hands-on experience with things ... engines, a machine shop, home-built electronics, maintenance of modern weapons systems, operation of a nuclear reactor. The students at my grad R1 were invariably straight out of HS, usually a suburban HS, and had never taken anything apart. Dealing with that really prepared me well for my current job, since there are still plenty of students in my classes who want to be engineers but don't know how things are made or buildings built. Now that I am in control, I have lots of demos that use regular items to illustrate what is going on for those who don't know, say, that a solenoid is inside the "relay" that is one possible point of failure in their car.

And that identifies one major difference. Older "returning" students were very rare at my undergrad and grad universities. If not for CC transfers, they would be quite rare at nearby Wannabe Flagship. They are not rare at my CC. Recent combat veterans were more common, by total numbers, in the early post-Vietnam years, but rare at my undergrad school and essentially unknown in the dorm. Veterans are not rare at my CC. I've had an entire study group in my physics class made up entirely of Marines! The person with experience running a reactor came out of the Navy submarine service, and is pushing 30.

This "re-entry" role that our CC provides can also create unique problems. I will have a student in Physics 2 this fall who took and passed Physics 1 more than 20 years ago. I also encounter more problems with work conflicts, sometimes even work-related travel, when the student has a full-time job.

And work is another difference. Most of my students work a lot, often as much as 20 hours per week (which means full time on the weekend) and sometimes full time or more. You just don't get a student at a university who works all day as an electrician, then comes to college at 5 pm. He will have to change jobs to go to engineering school, but we accommodated him. [He is also a good example of why federal graduation measures just don't work at a CC. He got out about as fast you could for someone who had to take calculus one year and physics the next.]

Comment added: My view here is wildly different from that in an article that views night classes solely as a way of increasing the efficiency of the educational factory by adding a second shift. Most of our students who take classes during the day will be working at night, not playing beer pong.

Then there are children. Very few of your students have children. Some of my students have two or three, and some are pregnant. Some have teenagers. Most of these are single parents. A few have children at our CC. Child care problems and illnesses are not an unusual excuse. Although our CC has a day care center, they can't all afford it.

But there are some similarities, including one that I blog about a lot. Retention of knowledge, or lack thereof, is the big one.

It was at the grad R1 that I got the most eye-opening teaching evaluation form ever. One student wrote on the back, in the free response area, that s/he (but the odds are that it was a "he", particularly given the studious young women that semester) didn't like physics and didn't think he should have to take a physics class because he wanted to be an engineer, not a physicist. [The class in question happens to be the one where we cover the basic mechanics that their first junior-year engineering class will build on.] That stayed on my office wall for years, but now appears lost forever. Again, thinking about that every day went a long way toward developing my approach to teaching with its emphasis on why each topic has to be learned and remembered as a prerequisite for what comes next. Before that note, it had never occurred to me that a student wanting to be an engineer wouldn't know that forces had something to do with whether a building stands or falls.

This is very hard to deal with at an R1, because those students did really well in an environment where they were told what to memorize for the next test and could then forget it and move on. My colleagues at Wannabe Flagship complain regularly about the slippage in critical thinking (mostly critical reading) skills needed to be good problem solvers.

In some respects, my students are better to work with. They are under no illusions that they can cruise easily through each class in college as if it were still 10th grade, even if some of them can do so. I can use the inferiority complex of coming from a CC to advantage, like the coach of an underdog team in a tournament.

And yet, my students are not inferior. I once looked up their SAT and ACT scores and discovered that the average (about 1150, for those that have scores on record) is not that far off of what shows up at lots of universities. The ones without those scores have similar skills. My colleagues have done a pretty good job getting them up to speed in math and writing skills, and in their initial exposure to problem solving in chemistry. Of course, its not all wonderful. There is a substantial tail to the distribution (I've seen a total SAT of 700) that varies a lot from year to year, and the intensity of our pre-calculus classes is not high enough to prepare those students for the level of effort required to take both calculus and physics at the same time. Quite a few have to drop physics, but some of these come back when they get their act together.

BUT, you object, those are PHYSICS students. What about the rest?

A valid point, but it also applies at a university. Engineering majors tend to stand out in many ways. My observation is that our remediation and selection process produces juniors who are ready to compete with those who started in engineering at Wannabe Flagship. These students did not, on average, start out in calculus as freshmen. We get those, but we also get ones who started at the very bottom of the curriculum, taking what amounts to middle school math. What I don't see is what Prof X described: students in a freshman class whose skills are still in middle school.

I also teach a general education class that draws students from every major. These students come in with a range of experience and a range of preparation. Some are business majors who have had basic calculus, and some are freshmen or sophomores who have barely completed its minimum math requirement, which is (technically speaking) probably below the level required to know everything on our high school exit exam. The minimum english skill is the same as is required to take Comp 1, although most have passed a composition class (making them like the students in the Comp 2 class Prof X taught). It is rare to find more than one student who struggles to write a decent sentence or paragraph, although they are there. Some of our comp teachers (or our placement tests) clearly let some things slide, but these cases are rare. From where I sit, grading lab reports or a homework essay, students who enter our composition classes have had the most glaring problems fixed ... but they are nothing like the students at a SLAC (selective liberal arts college) or a highly selective university.

So that is one lesson for someone thinking about teaching at a CC. You cannot assume that these students are your peers. Unlike you, they are not hanging out with other people who are going to get a PhD and go on to an academic career. They did not read the New York Times, even on the web. The top students are as good as those found at any big state school, but the average ones need pointers on what to look for, what they need to learn, what they need to retain, what they need to relearn. Every day. (I guess you can say that they need to be taught! Most of my peers really didn't need much in the way of teaching, and could thrive even with the worst professors.) You can't assume that a class you are teaching is quite like the one you took.

That last sentence is particularly true with regard to what they know coming in.

For example, they quite likely have not had any physics (maybe not even a decent physical science class) worth talking about. Some of those that had a physics or physical science class need to un-learn crap they picked up from an under-qualified teacher pushed into service when there were no qualified Science Ed graduates to be found. They know the math we have taught them at the CC, but you can't assume they know anything else. (They score quite low on the Force Concept Inventory, for example.)

Finally, the weakest link for these students is reading. (Hence my great interest in how Dr. Crazy and others teach the skill of critical reading. I need to help them with it for problem solving in my physics class and the more challenging questions in my gen ed class.) Its also not surprising that vocabulary is a weak point, since it just takes a lot of reading to build up that skill. Its not something that can be rushed. And, of course, it is the biggest challenge for foreign students as well.

Sure, some of our students come in thinking that engineering is the career for them because it pays well. They don't know that it also requires hard work. Similarly, there are lots of kids who want to program computers because they like playing games. They haven't written a program, so they don't yet know that these are two very different things. But these problems are not unique to us. Conversations with an engineering prof at Wannabe Flagship indicate that this is a problem for them as well as us. A large fraction of their students change major when they find out how much work engineering is. I'll wager that LOTS of kids drop out of computer science at any university simply because they had no idea what it entails. Certainly I see evidence in some of my favorite blogs to indicate that these are problems at many universities - and even in some grad programs.

We all have to deal with students that don't know what it means to learn on their own. Students who don't follow directions all that well. Students who drink or smoke instead of studying. We may have a few more than you do, but the biggest differences are in age and their original high school preparation. The people who do the most important job at our CC are the ones who deal with remediation and get them ready for my classes. They do a good job. If Prof X taught here, the problem was with expectations, not the preparation of the students.

With one exception. If you get a section that was opened at the last minute, filled with students who just decided to go to college on the first day of the fall semester, look out. Even a good placement test can't measure how much a student wants to get out of bed and come to class. Those classes are usually a disaster. Maybe Prof X got a few of those.

One article by University Diaries related to the Prof X article (mentioned in a comment to my earlier article) should be linked here: KNOWHOW2GO is 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. This is important because we have excellent evidence that students who pass the HS exit exam will only be guaranteed placement into a middle-school level algebra class, and maybe not even that.

There was an excellent article on an alternative scheme for writing remediation (hat tip to Sherman Dorn). It was based on an approach that does not dumb-down the material being written about, so (as was once pushed in "Cultural Literacy") students build college-level knowledge while working on specific writing skills. That is not unlike the way we continuously repair very basic algebra errors (and I mean basic, going back to 7th grade) while teaching calculus or physics.


Dr. Lisa said...

Well said, Dr. Pion. I agree with many of your points. In particular, I also find vocabulary to be a weak point for my CC students. It seems to be less of an issue that the large state R1 institution I used to teach at. However, I found that overall class performance was the same or better at the community college. (The courses taught at both were astronomy and physics courses.)

For anyone who loves to teach, the CC environment is a great one, because all the effort you put into your teaching will be appreciated by staff and students alike.

plam said...

I wonder about the difference between R1 students, CC students, and my students.

Electrical and Computer Engineering at my school used to be highly selective; I'm told that around 2000 it was even hotter than med school (!) among students at my CEGEP(*). It is still selective (mid-80s high school marks, whatever that means), but much less so---everywhere else, CS/EE programmes have had shrinking enrollments, and I think we avoided that here by no longer being ultra-selective; and still I don't think we're less selective than other schools, so we shouldn't complain too much.

In principle I think that a school tends to lose out by being ultra-selective, because the best students are not necessarily those with the 95% averages.

But the consequence of being less selective is a higher failure rate; our first-year engineering failure rate has gone from 0% to 30%, which causes some consternation among faculty.

Unfortunately I don't have anything interesting to say from personal experience, since I've only taught one elective class for fourth-year students so far. I suspect that these days, the students are like the ones at your R1s. They might have used to be more motivated.

(*) - I'm from Quebec, where high school ends at grade 11; pre-university students study at a CEGEP (junior college) for two years before doing a 3-year B.*. The rest of Canada has a system like the US system.

Doctor Pion said...

Update from 2010:

I had a student this summer who could not write a coherent multi-paragraph essay. He was straight out of our "prep" classes and had not had our Comp 1 course. So I still haven't seen a case like "Prof X" describes, but I do have more respect for what our Comp 1 instructors have to deal with!