Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Passing one class, failing the next

Dean Dad always has great, thought-provoking blog posts, but today's blog rates a double comment.

First, it really shows the importance of having academic leadership (Dean, Provost) at a CC come out of the ranks of teaching faculty at a CC or comparable institution. (The key issues are different at a research intensive university, but the same principle applies there precisely because the key issues are different.) If Dean Dad the Professor had not had dealt with the question of a perceived conflict between passing rates in a given course and weak students who pass that course, Dean Dad the Dean might not have identified the middle ground he so succinctly describes in his blog.

Second, it identifies what I think is a key issue at any college: getting across the idea that prerequisites have real significance. As you can tell if you follow that link, I've written a lot on the subject. A couple years ago we (meaning my blog readers and I) came to conclusion that COLLEGE-LEVEL BASICS is a better term to use when describing pre-req skills. I have started using it, and have found it a helpful way to get the idea across to the upper level students taking calc-based physics, students who don't think of calculus as a basic skill.

I already posted some comments on the blog article itself under my nom-de-comment of CCPhysicist. My main observation is that the best way to define appropriately high standards for a course is by making it your objective that they leave one course prepared to pass the NEXT one.

IMHO, this is partly a matter of setting high standards from the first day of class and partly a matter of conveying (that is, getting them to absorb into their core beliefs) the radical idea that specific parts of the new and challenging material in my course are actually basic skills. Indeed, I think this second part is more important than the first.


One of the things we (meaning me and my colleagues who teach calculus and trig) talk about regularly is the fact that we all know that certain students knew skill "X" when they passed the previous class - including my own - and forget it within a month. We have to do our best to ensure that we each know that such regular occurrences are not the fault of the instructor, since we can't evaluate what happens a month later, and yet work on ways to reduce how often those situations occur. When I have control, like when students from my own Physics 1 class don't remember to draw a free-body diagram in Physics 2, I make it clear that the failure is completely unacceptable. That if they keep up that practice, they will be laughed at as "community college losers" when they get to engineering school.

(Now, I happen to know - from my graduates - that it is far more common that the university students are the ones who show up with heads empty of knowledge that they paid thousands of dollars to allegedly learn, but that is only because the ones who come back and visit didn't screw up less than a month after taking Physics 1. They learned it the first time. I'm working on getting some of them to talk to my class early in the semester. Students listen to other students more than they listen to us.)

It is not an easy battle. It has to be fought anew every semester. I have learned to make it a habit to mention where some skill will be used in a course next year. I have made it my mission to learn where those places are, by visiting my former students at nearby Wannabe Flagship. I share what I learn with my math colleagues. (What calculus did you use last semester?) Now that summer is here, I plan to head over there in my spare time. The people who teach physics at Wannabe Flagship are much closer than I am, but I doubt if they ever see their students again. They are rewarded for that. Well, neither am I (there are no performance bonuses in our pay system), but I get my reward every time I see the success of students who started out at our CC, particularly the ones who started out a year or more behind the kids at Wannabe Flagship, sometimes in developmental classes.

So, if someone at a university is reading this, visit a different building once in a while and talk about teaching rather than research or university politics. Find out what your students didn't retain, and share what theirs didn't retain. It can't be about blame. I've seen cases where you can document that a student did it perfectly on a final exam one week and could do nothing on the same problem a month later. Heck, I've done it. But only once. One thing I tell my students is to pay attention when they see something a second time. If you don't remember it, make sure you learn it permanently the second time. Anything that gets used in two classes is likely to be used in all of the rest.

To conclude, I want to draw on an example from the comments on Dean Dad's blog. Anonymous wrote at 10:30 AM:

the blame falls to the students for their own inability to learn the course material. They had me, a book, and any previous experience to fall back on (including Comp I and possibly II). Some students do not want to rise to any level that requires work.

The last statement is true, but that might not be the problem. Talk to the person who taught Comp I to a particular student. (At our CC, this is easy to look up but YMMV.) Or ask other students what they did in a particular Comp I class. It could be that the reason they can't "craft a thesis statement and defend it with evidence" is that this was not part of their class. Or it could be that they had learned in HS that each class will teach that skill all over again if it is needed, so there is no reason to learn it. That other teacher might not be able to solve the problem either, but together the two of you might effect a change for the better by the time they take a third class. At some point they need to learn we teach certain things for a good reason.

Or you might learn that the Comp 1 prof used oral presentations in class as a substitute for written work. Ah, the stories students tell other students when they think professors are invisible and deaf ...

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