Friday, February 6, 2009

Physics Teaching and Retention ...

I'm posting this as basically an open thread, triggered by this comment on Dean Dad's blog.

I'll quote the comment below the fold:

My fiance teaches physics full-time at the local CC. He's very concerned about maintaining standards, so students transferring to study engineering at the local mammoth midwestern u (MMU) can hold their own in the cattle pens they call classes there. I teach at MMU, and I know what he does is effective. A student we've both had in common told me that when MMU eng. classes are tough, my fiance's former students get together and use the methods they learned from him to figure out how to understand the difficult topics.

Here's the dilemma he's in right now: how to deal with mixed messages from CC administration emphasizing 1. the importance of student retention (hint hint) 2. bringing this CC to back above average for its size in terms of student math performance. On the whole this CC has a very good reputation in science and eng. prep. Still, I hear from my fiance (a LOT) about his frustration with what he perceives as instructors lowering their standards. It's hard to know how to read this. But if you get a student in your calculus based physics course who doesn't remember how to do derivatives 1 month after taking calc, what's going on? Also, if the physics instructor at a satellite campus of this CC regularly has an A- average in his classes (my fiance's is more like C, and that's in step with chem/bio/otherscience instructors there), how do you respond? This calculus student isn't an isolated case.

There's a lot going on here, but even without identifying all the causes for it, it's important to know. To what extent are standards already shaky here? What are the true priorities?

This CC isn't in immediate trouble, but like everyone else, is looking at major economizing. They're also in the position of getting much less funding from the state than MMU, but charge about 1/2 the tuition MMU does.

Yes, there is a lot here, and some of it has been touched on in past articles that might be filed under "teaching" or "education". Here I will quickly single out two of them for possible future discussion in more detail.
  1. Increasing retention (of students) by lowering standards: I am fairly direct when dealing with this. By direct, I mean I have publicly asked the Provost and President what they want. Do they want me to pass students who cannot do the work at the level needed to succeed in engineering school, thereby increasing my "success" rate at the expense of students who will fail after they transfer? Their answer is an emphatic "No" because we measure learning by success after transfer in our internal re-accreditation studies.
  2. Not remembering material from a previous class (retention of knowledge): Some of this is to be expected. Fighting it is also something that I actively (and I mean REALLY actively) push. I alluded to this issue in my John Updike article, and so intend to blog about it 'soon'. Our math department is taking it on as well.

By the way, like your husband, I revel in the stories my former students tell about kicking butt at Big Dog U. Their stories are a big part of how I sell item 2 to my current students.

1 comment:

Astroprof said...

Same here. I uphold standards, while another campus gives away grades. And, my students return to tell me how thankful they are that they got the preparation that they did from my much tougher class. So far, our campus has backed faculty maintaining standards. However, on the horizon, we see the state getting ready to tie funding to the number of students completing classes instead of the number enrolling. Once that happens, you can bet there'll be a lot of pressure to ease up on the students so that the students don't drop.