Friday, January 28, 2011

Teaching and Learning

Some days my students leave me wondering if they've gotten anything at all out of class. Other days, they take my breath away. Yesterday was one of the latter. It didn't turn out the way I anticipated, but it was easily one of the best classroom days I have ever had.

We've spent the last two weeks discussing some key Old Testament texts, like the creation stories and the Exodus narrative. Yesterday's plan was to wrap up with the book of Job, one of the most challenging books in the Bible. Toward the end of each session, I tried to bring the class around to a couple of big questions (this is, after all, a reading skills class): how does this text portray God, and why is it part of the Bible (i.e., what are we supposed to learn from it?)?

The second of those questions takes on even greater importance when the text that the students have to wrestle with raises difficult issues or questions. Asking students to think about the significance of the text helps them get past the obvious answers to some of the difficulties they find. Last year's classes were really bothered by some of the things that God does in the Exodus story and by the way he is portrayed in the book of Job, so I was expecting that the two sections I am teaching this year would raise similar issues. Accordingly, I reviewed last year's notes and incorporated some comments from outside discussions into my plans to strengthen the emphasis on the dangers of trying to create for ourselves an image of God that we like and can accept on our terms. After all, I planned to point out, doesn't this process invert the Creator/creation relationship and violate the first commandment? And looking back to the creation accounts, if the Scriptures teach that God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, shouldn't we expect to encounter aspects of the divine nature that are difficult for our finite human minds to understand? Indeed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (which Catholics don't accept, so using this one in class is a bit sticky) says that God has planned everything for His own glory (see question 7).

This was where I expected the class to go. It's not an answer that satisfies everybody--or even most people--but it's consistent with the rest of divine revelation and maintains the distinction between human beings and God. And I'm wary of providing pat answers--I'd much rather see that my students are wrestling with the difficult questions on their own and making the transition from a "borrowed" faith (from their parents, their previous schooling, or wherever) to an owned faith. If some of them radically alter their beliefs in a way that I don't like, at least they are thinking for themselves. I thought I was as well-prepared as I could possibly be, so I braved the elements (5" of snow and limited bus service) and headed off for campus.

I should have remembered the first rule of teaching young adults: never assume that you know where a class will lead.

My honors section was first. As expected, they pointed out all of the difficulties with the text and we had a good discussion. As the end of our time approached, I asked the First Big Question: "Why do you think the book of Job was included in the Bible?" A few students offered their observations: "the problem of suffering is always relevant," "it gives us a picture of what it means to have faith," etc. Then one of my best thinkers said, "I think it makes us ask ourselves why we worship God, and we need to wrestle with the question to make sure that we don't worship an incorrect mental image of God." "Check," I thought, "and I didn't even have to prompt them to go there. So far, so good." I asked the Second Big Question: "What is the image of God that we get from this text?" I expected things would get sticky at this point, but again, they picked up on the transcendent/immanent point right away without any prompting. "Excellent," I thought, "checkmate. But they don't seem to be all that disturbed by the text. What are they really thinking?" The "purpose of God" angle didn't feel right with this bunch--since they weren't really struggling with that issue--so I passed on it and asked instead, "Where do you see the immanence of God in this text?"

I was expecting an answer along the lines of "God speaks with Job at the end of the book," and I was not disappointed. Then came the breathtaking moment that I had not planned for. "I think we see God's immanence in this text because at the beginning of the story, God already knows that Job will pass the test," said The Thinker. "So in the end, it's not as cruel of God as we think it is, because he knows what Job can handle. He knows Job."

I was absolutely speechless.

And it's not even that profound an answer. It's right there, at the beginning of the book, where it's always been every time I've read it before. So why didn't I see it?

Maybe it's because we spend so much time analyzing the theology of Job and his friends in the bulk of the book, or because we tend to write off the interaction between God and Satan that sets up the story as less real or significant. Maybe it's because we get sidetracked trying to explain why the "blameless servant of God" ends up repenting at the end of the book. Or maybe it's because we tend to feel bludgeoned by all the descriptions of God's omnipotence and transcendence. Whatever the reason, I'd somehow missed this one during all my "preparations" for class.

Now I have another question. I get paid to teach the class. Should I share the proceeds of yesterday's labor with the entire class? Good teaching is as much about learning together as it is about preparing (or attempting to prepare) lesson plans, grading assignments, and taking attendance.

It's going to be a good semester. I can't wait to see what my students do with some of our other texts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Breaking News: "College Readiness Test" in California

I have just finished reading an article that appeared in this week's online edition of Education Week that gives some encouraging news about one state's attempt to address the "stubbornly high college remediation rates" that I mentioned in my last post.

To summarize (for those of you who don't want to read or can't access the article): educators in California brought together leaders in K-12 and higher education and came up with a list of the knowledge and skills necessary for students to succeed at the college level. They then devised an "Early Assessment Program" whereby college-bound high school juniors could voluntarily take a test to measure their readiness for college in the key areas of literacy and mathematics. Those who take the test receive their results before the beginning of their senior year in high school. Students who meet the standards proceed directly to credit-bearing courses when they enter a California college and skip the remedial courses that so many of their peers must start in. Students who do not meet the standards are given access their senior year to a variety of online courses that aim to help them achieve college readiness by graduation.

It's not a perfect system. Some high school teachers and counselors complain that students take the test too late in their secondary education for the remedial courses to be truly effective, and that by the time the students receive their test results, it's too late for them to alter their senior-year schedules to accommodate a different or additional English or math course (although I agree with Carolina Cardenas, of the California State University, who is quoted in the article as saying, "When counselors tell us, 'You give us the [test] results too late; I can't change their class schedule,' I get it. I really do. But my feeling is, why wouldn't the student already be signed up for a fourth year of college-prep English? And why wouldn't you get more kids in a fourth year of math?"). It's also still a voluntary test, which means that there are still of lot of college freshmen whose readiness is unknown at the beginning of their first semester. Nevertheless, the Early Assessment Program is a good first step. It has begun a conversation that should have begun a decade or more ago. It appears to have changed the way California looks at continuing education for its teachers, and although remediation rates at CSU have held steady since the introduction of the test, early indications are that the number of students who meet the EAP's standards is slowly rising.

Here's hoping that the dialogue continues and spreads to other states.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Freshman Success: Putting It All Together

So here we are--at last--at the end of this series. Writing it has been a good investment of my time, as it has given me the opportunity to reflect on my adventures in teaching and advising to date, and to try and synthesize some of my experiences. In this post, therefore, I'd like to share a few of those reflections, along with some recommendations that I believe would improve the experience in the long term.


1. Between 30-50% of incoming freshmen need remedial education in critical thinking, reading, writing and/or time management skills. The more selective the institution, the lower the percentage. [Statistics based partially on my own observations and partially on this article from the Denver Post, dated December 29, 2008.]

2. Between 10-15% of incoming freshmen will not succeed at the college level no matter how much remediation or coaching they receive. These students need tutors in more than one subject most semesters, and/or they need "intrusive advising" to keep on task. [Statistics based mostly on my own observations. This blog suggests that while 60% of high school graduates attend some college, only half will graduate with a degree (although note that the author does not cite a source for his statistics).]

3. Between 20-30% of incoming freshmen list their major as "exploratory" or "undeclared." Let me be clear here: registering as an undeclared major is not, in itself, a risk factor for failure in college--although it sometimes signals the lack of ambition that is. It does, however, affect the quality of advising a student receives and, depending upon how things play out, it may result in the student taking so many classes that don't count toward a potential major that s/he gets discouraged and decides to drop out anyway. As far as I have been able to determine, about a quarter of my "undeclared" students actually have a pretty good idea of what they want to study but are afraid of being locked into a decision with no way out--a scenario that is a complete myth created by persons or factors unknown to me. Another 40-50% (my best estimate) are between two or three major possibilities and actually profit by spending a semester trying out courses in their options before they commit to one. The remaining students have absolutely no idea what they want to study or do--which makes advising difficult and can potentially set up the drop-out scenario I mentioned. These are the students I worry about most, as they are the most likely to fall through the cracks or to lack the ambition to get through random courses with no specific goal in sight. I can find no figures to back up my observations, but anecdotal evidence from the faculties at CUA and at my alma mater suggest that the percentage of students who fall into this category has risen sharply within the last 5-10 years, as more and more parents and high schools focus on just getting students through the secondary education system and hope that everything else will fall into place later.

4. Many of the students who arrive at university with a specific career or major in mind are unprepared to begin their prescribed course of study right away. I'm thinking particularly of students who are interested in medical school but who have not tested themselves with a rigorous math and science curriculum in high school and who have no other interests to fall back on when they fail college chemistry or biology, and of aspiring business/economics majors whose last math course was either trigonometry or statistics their junior year of high school, and who don't realize that their chosen major requires a calculus course. Again, the presence of gaps in a student's secondary school curriculum is not necessarily a risk factor for failure at the college level, but it can mean an extra semester or two of remedial course work that some students and/or their families don't want or can't afford to endure. If these students cannot quickly find an alternative interest, they move into the at-risk group.


1. Parents need to help their children learn to manage their own schedules and become independent before they leave the nest. They need to allow their children to fail and gain a realistic sense of their strengths and weaknesses. They need to stop bailing their children out when they are faced with an undesirable outcome and help them understand that some consequences can't be undone after the fact.

2. Elementary school teachers need to encourage children to explore careers early, and they need to encourage students to take the kinds of courses needed to be ready for college work in that major.

3. Secondary school teachers and counselors need to continue this work, and they need to be encouraged to write realistic recommendation letters for their college-hopeful students. "Nice" and "polite" are good character qualities, but they don't ensure college success (and you wouldn't believe the number of recommendations I've read for students who have low GPAs and a slew of C's and D's in their high school courses who are nevertheless "highly recommended" because of their manners, civic-mindedness, or "enthusiasm for learning"). They need to steer students whose career aspirations don't require college degrees (graphic design, sports/music management, etc.) toward appropriate vocational training programs. Finally, they need to meet individually and more frequently with each of their students to assess realistically whether or not they could do college-level work, with or without remediation.

4. College admissions personnel need to identify underprepared applicants before they arrive on campus (Not sure how, but I like the aforementioned blog's idea of creating a "college-ready" certification attached to the high school diploma. Alternatively, we could bring back tracking and replace the existing "general" and "advanced" diplomas with the old vocational/general/college prep high school curricula.) and set up special pre-semester remediation programs for them. These students would arrive two or three weeks before the start of orientation proper and spend 5-6 hours a day in intensive workshops that would teach reading techniques, logic and critical thinking, and pre 101-level writing skills (all incoming freshmen would spend a full week in orientation attending general workshops on time management and study skills). Students who need remedial math courses would be encouraged to take them at a local community college during the summer prior to their first full semester. Students identified as underprepared by admissions personnel could also be limited to 4 courses for their first semester, and, in place of the usual fifth course, be required to meet weekly on an individual or small tutorial-sized group basis with a trained educational specialist to discuss their academic progress and to catch problems early. The educational specialists leading these groups would be trained to help wean students off such assistance by the end of their freshman year.

Of course, none of these solutions are foolproof or easy to implement. Most of them probably have glaring problems that I have failed to see. But the discussion on college and career readiness has to start somewhere. If you've got an idea, feel free to share it--this stuff is my bread and butter.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Freshmen Fail, Part Four: Poor Time Management Skills

In this post--the penultimate of the series--I'd like to explore one of the more obvious factors that contributes to freshman failure: the inability of some students to manage the demands on their time. Be warned: although you won't read anything profound this week (not that this blog is ever really profound), you might have to suppress an urge to laugh or groan at some of the stories.

In addition to arriving on campus un- or underprepared for the academic work that lies ahead of them, many millennials also arrive un- or underprepared to manage their own schedules. As strange as this may sound, this generation has had little to no experience with time management because their parents have assumed this role for them. Parents of millennials have scheduled events and practices for their children, have kept track of tests and assignments, and have generally micromanaged their children's lives. I've even seen parents accompanying their freshmen to "students only" orientation sessions and taking notes for them. Many of these freshmen don't have a clue how to keep track of deadlines when their parents finally leave. Some of them don't even seem to understand what a deadline is.

Poor time management can have a negative impact on academic performance in many ways. Here are four, with illustrative anecdotes from my own teaching and advising experience:

1. Tardiness. Like many other instructors, I dock points from students' final grades for absence and tardiness (3 tardies = 1 absence), and I leave it up to the individual student to keep track of the number of points s/he has lost due to absence, and to obtain excuses from instructors, coaches, or parents when appropriate. Some students, though, seem to think that I am kidding about docking points, while others fail to grasp just how much of a difference those docked points can make. I had two students last spring who each lost an entire letter grade (10 points) because they just couldn't get to class on time, even when others who came from the same preceding class could. One of the two just barely passed the course with a 66% (D). CUA requires all undergraduates to maintain at least a 2.0, so that letter grade drop really hurt him.

2. Late/missed assignments. Some students don't check course calendars and so miss assignment deadlines or even--believe it or not--final exams (and they are shocked that their instructors don't personally remind them of every assignment). Some students wind up with too many deadlines on the same day because they sign up for presentations without checking the calendars in their other courses. The same student who just barely passed my course last spring with a 66% also failed a group project and nearly missed the final exam. The group project was a time management issue because he failed to notice that he might miss class on the day of his presentation because of a major event in his preceding class. His group got up to present without him, and after they had finished, he showed up at the door--in a suit and tie--and explained to me that his architecture class was being juried today and he was still waiting for his turn. He handed in the minimal written work that he had done in "preparation" for the presentation and hoped that it would be enough. Unfortunately for him, I checked with his architecture instructor and confirmed that he had known about the jury from the first day of the semester and had had ample opportunity to approach me about switching presentation days. And, since 50% of the assignment's grade was based on the presentation in class, the only credit he could get for the written work was a 50%. As a final cap to his poorly-managed semester, this same student nearly missed the final exam--he only made it (albeit a good 20 minutes late) because another student in the class happened to have his cell phone number and called him at 3:59, which was technically before the exam started and therefore permissible.

3. Procrastination in dropping courses. Some students wait until 5 or 10 minutes before the deadline to file the paperwork to withdraw from a course they are in danger of failing. In the majority of these cases, the paperwork gets processed without a hitch and the student (barely) makes the deadline, but there are always a few cases in which s/he not only procrastinates but also fails to follow the instructions and so ends up stuck in the class because s/he is left with no time to backtrack and follow the proper procedure. I've never had one of these cases myself, but I did have an advisee who missed the deadline to drop and ended up having to take a W for the course because he not only procrastinated but waited until he'd flown home for the weekend to try and drop the course. He discovered too late that dropping a course can't be done off campus and without obtaining an advisor's permission. He tried to appeal the Dean's rejection of his request to drop without record--he even got his mommy involved in the appeal--but ended up taking the W for the course. I'd like to say that he learned a valuable lesson about procrastination from the experience, but he was expelled a few weeks later for violating the student code of conduct.

4. Plagiarism. Sadly, some students who find themselves pressed for time to complete an assignment choose to plagiarize instead of asking for an extension. These students may think that they are more likely to get away with the dishonesty than they are to be granted an extension--and the internet makes plagiarism so easy that it's sometimes hard to resist the temptation. I had an advisee who failed one of his courses because he had failed to manage his time wisely and ran out of time to complete a paper. He'd already asked the instructor for an extension on an earlier assignment in the course, and was embarrassed and/or afraid to ask for an extension on a second assignment. So, he said, he'd turned in the paper without documenting his quotations, hoping that the instructor would count it as an incomplete assignment. Without looking at the paper, I sent him down the hall to meet with an advisor who was also an instructor in the same department. Unfortunately, the situation was bleaker than the student led me to believe--he hadn't merely turned in an incomplete assignment without citations, he'd actually copied and pasted text from SparkNotes. The instructor had absolutely no leeway here--this was intentional assignment-dodging, and the mandatory sanction of failure for the course had to be imposed. Students plagiarize for many reasons, but this student did so because he ran out of time.

What's really troubling is the number of millennials who somehow (if the stories my friends in managerial positions tell are true) get through college and enter the work force without having addressed deficiencies in this area. I can't change the fact that students are entering college with poor time management skills, but I'd like to think that I can play a role in making sure that students don't leave college with poor time management skills. I'm trying to be more proactive this year by querying advisees about their time management earlier in the semester, and by referring more advisees to Learning Assistance and workshops. I've also taken the advice of a long-time instructor and tweaked my syllabus to make the penalties for poor time management more apparent. This semester, my random reading quizzes will be administered as soon as the clock strikes the hour--not after announcements and homework collection--and no student who misses or arrives in the middle of a quiz will be permitted to retake the quiz. Also, I've changed the grading rubric for the group presentation to make it clear that failure to appear for your own group's presentation (except in the case of an excused emergency documented by the Dean of Students' office) will result in a grade of 0 (rather than the 50% the aforementioned student received) on the assignment. I'm hoping for better results this year on the absence and tardiness front, at least. I'll keep you posted.

next time: some concluding thoughts on the root causes of failure and what educators at all levels can do to address them