I wrote a diary a few weeks ago that discussed senior freakouts. There seem to be more of these this year than there have been several years and it worries me. If you spend four years miserable and angry, what are the possibilities of things getting better for you when you leave?
My job is to teach things and ways of learning. A student's job is to learn things. How to do things, yes, and how to think. And what to think about. The world is a much more interesting place than anyone can imagine at age 18. Or even age 20. But if I haven't managed to both provide skills that are transferable and knowledge that is applicable (in work and in the broader world), am I a failure? Or is the student? It is easy to say that success for one means success for both, but does failure for the student mean failure for the teacher?
Yes, these are rather depressing thoughts, but on this bright sunny (and temporarily warm) day, I thought it would be a good thing to consider these issues. Follow me below the labyrinth of orange goodness for more.
It is easy for a teacher to be a success in measurable ways when a student is successful. I am talking about not just students getting good grades (I am told, although I do not know for sure, that people who do not ask much from their students and are not particularly interesting but give good grades do not particularly get rewarded on student evaluations. I wouldn't know as I have never been accused of not asking much from my students). The sorts of questions one ranks highly on when giving easy bubble exams (gets tests back in a timely manner, for example) may not be the ones that show learning (tests measure what is taught in the classroom, instructor gives meaningful feedback). But when a prof does give meaningful feedback, measures what is covered in the class (both classroom and outside assignments), and is available for consultation outside of class hours, and that is at least somewhat reflected on measures used in instructor evaluation, it seems those are more important things to keep in mind than average of student grades. I am talking about college here, as that is my own teaching experience, but it seems applicable to secondary school as well (does anyone have students evaluate teachers in elementary school? are the evaluations only test scores?).
How do we define student success? By learning something from the beginning of the semester to the end. I hope it will be both content and process/skills. I have structured my classes to focus on both aspects, but more on content in some and more on skills development in others. I think I am somewhat successful and I can give you a list of outcomes that will back that up.
Even in this (depressing, frustrating) semester, I think I am having some successes. In one class, it is clearly because the engaged students are making themselves do extensive work to succeed in the class. I congratulated one student on getting the highest score on an exam, and he said he studied really hard for it, and I told him "It showed." He had clearly not only learned the objective material, but could rearrange the things he had learned to construct a convincing argument in a short period of time on an essay. He wrote good identifications of pieces of art he had never seen before, which is one of the ways I measure students' ability to apply what we have learned in class and not just regurgitate facts. That is a success, and I would be willing to argue that no matter what class he took this student would do pretty well. The fact that he would love to be an archaeologist and we are covering archaeological material in this class is a bonus, yes, but certainly not the only reason he is putting the requisite time into studying. He is an older student, and has really got a clear idea of what he wants out of college and what he needs to do to get it.
But on the same exam, I had grades that were well below failing. By any stretch of the imagination, this is not success for either the instructor (i.e. me) and the student. So who is failing? And whose responsibility is this lack of competency? I would like to think the students who are not doing well are having issues because they have decided not to dedicate the time required to study (and indeed some have told me as much when I have asked what they thought went wrong). But even that implies some issues that are not completely the students', doesn't it? They may have jobs or social lives that take them away from studying, but no one in the class is working a full-time job and the ones I know who are working up to 30 hours to support themselves are not the ones who are not studying (perhaps because they realize that part-time work at low-wage jobs is not the trajectory they wish to follow and see a university degree as a way out of that?). The ones I see struggling. They clearly are not just hanging out because they have nowhere else to be.
I even see some of these studying on their computers as I walk past the tables in the building that are set out for students to work at between classes. I don't go by and see if they have other windows open on their computers (something I have a tendency to do at times), but many have their phones sitting on the tables in front of them. Maybe they are listening to music, or waiting for a text. This may mean that the time they are spending studying is not really productive time? I may spend a bit of time in the fall at the beginning of my classes talking about ways to study that students have found effective and ways that are not (i.e. multitasking beyond all reasonable expectations of productivity).
So that is their contribution, maybe, to our mutual lack of success in their performance.
But maybe if I were more inspiring even the material that they are really not interested in when entering the class would be more engaging to them? I try to be entertaining in lectures, and do get laughter when I tell jokes or am particularly irreverent toward some pompous ancient king or more modern archaeologist. So I do think they are listening in class. They just do not seem to be learning beyond the time in the classroom and the time spent working on their individual papers and sometimes not even then.
I try to have at least one question on one of my tests that will connect with each person's paper topics so everyone will have at least one gimme on an exam over the course of the semester. When someone doesn't get a question that is related to his or her paper topic I feel like hitting my head against the wall. Whose failure is that? Is it the student's, for not applying what he or she has been working on to an exam? Or is it me, because I couldn't write a question that would be clearly relevant to the student's research? I get the paper in stages, and change the topics every year, so I don't think it is because students are buying ready-made papers in stages and simply don't know anything about what they are writing about. And honestly the papers are not phenomenally better than exams in terms of competencies and grade results. So I think the students are writing their own papers so that isn't the problem (or it is such a small component of it that it really isn't going to solve this dilemma).
As an instructor, it is my problem that these students are not doing well. But is it my fault? And how should I apportion the blame? The reason for this question is that if I don't figure this out I will have the problem again. If it is (for the sake of discussion, not reality, as I know things are not as black and white as this) all the students' "fault" because they are not studying effectively or are compartmentalizing their knowledge so completely that they cannot apply it when asked on exams, how can I change the way I guide them in learning? What should I tell them that might help. I try "review a bit each night" and "read the textbook before coming to class and review it after the lecture to reinforce the information covered that day." What other guidance should I offer them that might help? And if it is me who is responsible, how should I structure class and assessment so the information is clearly communicated, students are challenged but still able to both learn and show that they have learned?
This has been a difficult semester for students in many ways. I ran into one of the people who deals with student success (and those who are not being successful) as I went in to the building the other day and he said he had heard from many faculty members that this was a particularly bad semester, uncharacteristically so. He had no idea why. I have no idea why. It may be that this anomalous semester is what is making me think that I need to change something more dramatically in my teaching. And perhaps that is an overreaction to this particular spring. I am still reaching some of the students very effectively and I can rationalize away some of the "failures" I have had, but that doesn't seem like a very effective strategy for a teacher. I think it is good to reexamine things on a regular basis. But maybe I need a more dramatic redesign of some aspect of the courses I teach.
I would love to hear your thought on the issue. Thanks.