Thursday, July 26, 2007


Ask My Readers: First Time Teaching at a CC

A grad student in psychology writes:

I am an ABD grad student and am teaching my first class at a local CC this summer. I am also teaching an upper division class on the same topic at my large state university in 2 weeks. I have a few questions about teaching for you and your readers:

First, what should the difference be in teaching a CC class (that transfers for lower-division units) and an upper division class? Should it be more challenging, more material, more difficult exams, more detail? I asked a colleague who teaches full time at another CC and adjuncts at my university. He told me that he teaches his CC class and the upper division class exactly the same way - down to the same tests. That doesn't sound quite right, does it?

Second, how do I help students who are struggling? I understand and like the idea of "meeting students where they are and taking them where they want to go." But it is difficult to teach a class when I have some college graduates who have come back to get prereqs for nursing school and some students who barely finished high school. How do I put the ideal into practice? How can I reach out to these students without dumbing down the rest of the class?

My last question is indicative of my newbie adjunct status. How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying? I have a student who sits up front, asks good questions, stayed for the optional review session, and seems to put effort into learning the material. But he is still barely passing.

I'll ask my readers to chime in in the comments section, since I certainly claim no monopoly on pedagogical wisdom.

In answer to your first question, as an old professor of mine used to say, nothing is too good for the proletariat. On moral grounds, I'd argue that cc students deserve the same level of care and rigor as do students with more money. On pragmatic grounds, I'd argue that many of those cc students will eventually transfer to four-year schools, where they'll have to compete head-to-head with 'native' students. If they got watered-down preparation at the cc, they will have been set up to fail, which doesn't help anybody.

(I'll add that the first question seems to vacillate between comparing levels of college and comparing levels of course. I'd say that an Intro class at a cc should be comparable to an Intro class at a four-year college. An upper-level class (300 level?) should be more focused, wherever it's taught.)

In answer to your second question, I'll suggest that you have 100 points per student to play with, and you shouldn't be shy about cutting those 100 into some very small bits. Lots of small, quick-turnaround assignments of different genres will allow students with different learning styles and levels of preparation to gain purchase – and therefore confidence – at some point. There's also a weird cultural norm among some students – I saw this in its full glory at Proprietary U – wherein to do any work that doesn't immediately result in points is seen as selling out. If you 'justify' keeping up with the reading by giving quizzes, you'll increase the likelihood that they'll read. It's kind of a pain, but it makes a difference. (The idea, of course, is that once they've actually invested some effort, they'll develop a taste for it. And on pragmatic grounds, the least-prepared students are also the ones least likely to be able to catch up by cramming.)

There's also something to be said for switching styles of presentation. To the extent that you can do this without violating either the content of the course or the nature of your personality, it's good to build in a mix of lecture, large-group discussion, small-group discussion, simulations, presentations, etc. Folks who may not 'get it' in one format may get it in another. Time constraints can't be ignored, and you shouldn't water down the content, but some forethought here can pay off. (I always had great results with mock courts.)

In response to the last question, my personal stand is that sometimes failing a student is the best thing you can do for him. (I'll admit that some colleges have formal or informal 'nobody fails' policies, which I consider a form of prostitution. Try to get a sense of the local culture on this issue.) College isn't the 13th grade. Again, think about transfer; if you pass a kid who was simply overmatched by the intro course, what will happen to him down the line? Better to give the student an honest reading of his performance, even if it occasionally breaks your heart.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

Short and sweet answers:
1. Treat 'em the same.
2. Get a book on learning styles and how to teach to the different learning styles.
3. If you feel the need to give extra consideration to a student who is "trying really hard", give it at the low end of the grading scale. For example, if the student had earned an F, but is very close to a D and exhibits the traits you describe, go ahead and award a D. It won't tranfer, the student didn't technically fail and will probably take it again to improve the GPA.

And remember, you don't "give" grades, students "earn" grades!
Yes, that question does seem to go back and forth, doesn't it? Here's my specific answer:

I have taught physics at both a small two-year college and at a small four-year liberal arts school. I taught physics at the sophomore level at the two-year school and only at the freshman level at the four-year liberal arts school. That's because the students at the two-year school were preparing themselves to transfer to study the full range of scientific and engineering disciplines; the students at the four-year school are, with VERY few exceptions, allied-health prep, secondary-ed prep, and biology. (I did have a freshman-level trig-based physics course I taught at the two-year school as well, for those students who were allied-health and biology; however, it had MUCH fewer takers.)

Honestly, at the two-year school, the students were higher quality, and I could generally cover more material. You dismiss the quality of the two-year college student at your peril.

That said, at neither place would I even THINK about breaking out differential equations or the Hamiltonian or Lagrangian for the full gambit of theoretical mechanics problem-solving. That's best reserved for the junior-level physics majors' course, something that I'll likely never wind up teaching.

My advice: Talk to somebody AT THAT CC and gauge from them the level of students there, and the level of the curriculum, and plan accordingly. And be prepared, when you hit the ground running, to adjust on the fly as you find out what advice was good and what advice wasn't. The more room for flexibility you give yourself, the better you can make the experience for students.
"How do I award failing grades for students who look like they are really trying?"

OK, since I seem to have gotten in early on the comments on this one, I'll go ahead and say it:

You make a vertical line, followed by a horizontal line stretching from the top of the vertical line to the right, and another horizontal line stretching form the middle of the horizontal line to the right. Repeat as necessary.

Dean Dad said the same thing in a less smart-ass way. You aren't doing the students any favors by giving them a grade they didn't earn. I've had plenty of students over the years whom I liked, but who nonetheless earned grades lower than they wanted. And some of those students came back and got it the second (or third) time around.

Work with your student, help him the best you can, but don't change your standards just because he seems to be trying.
This is an interesting question. It's a busy day at work so I can't go into any detail, but the thing I'd like to point out from a sort of studenty place is that if you have a student who is really trying but not succeeding, it might be because the style is wrong for them, not that the material is too hard. I'd emphasize the 'variety of methods' part of Dean Dad's suggestion about quizzes and work. If a student keeps failing your multiple choice tests but clearly spends a lot of time on the material, try an essay test instead, or a project, or an oral presentation.

Not just for that student, mind (though you can do that as an accomodation, if you structure it into your class), but for everyone - it'll give you a better sense of how your students are learning, and where their strengths are.

Hybrid tests are also a good way to do this... if you have multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions on a test, you're likely to see pretty quickly who knows the material and who doesn't, even if the distribution is wonky. That, plus a variety of homework types, should do it.

I don't like the quizzes-for-retention thing just because I don't really learn well that way... but I can understand it. You might substitute journaling for it, particularly in the case of students who seem to have testing-specific difficulties. It's a pain for you, of course, but if you have them do a journal a day on the material (or a journal per chapter, or whatever), you can more easily award hard work and grasp of concept... even if, again, the student can't regurgitate it on command. For a lot of people, it will increase long-term retention a little better than fear-of-quizzes, because it presses you to process the information diferently. Not all people, but some.

If none of this works, and you can see the student really does know what's happening and can't articulate it, you should ask them what's going on and possibly nudge them in the direction of testing for learning disabilites etc. If the problem isn't how they learn or how you teach, then yes, I'd say to fail them (or do the 'soft D for effort', which I think is a better tactic), because they need to be able to master this stuff before they can go any further with the subject area.
I would learn about the support services that exist at the school and be ready to refer students for help with writing, tutoring, learning disabilities, academic counseling and psych counseling. I would also talk to the learning resource center / tutoring center about what kinds of problems they see with students at the college and preemptively address those as much as possible. At my school, that would be using proper citation and choosing a style of writing that is appropriate to the assignment so (even in my graduate course) we address those issues.
I would go ask somebody in that same department all these questions, particularly to see what the "campus culture" is on failing students. If you're an adjunct in a dept. that assumes "nobody fails," you should be aware of this fact, regardless of whether it's a good idea pedagogically.

Also ask about what happens to students with Ds vs. Fs, cause at my school you can re-take an F and have the grade be replaced, but if you re-take a D, both the D and the new grade stay on their transcript. Hence, we would not give "soft Ds for effort."

And I agree that frequent early assignments and assessments will help both them and you get a perspective on how everyone is doing and how far they have to go. Try calling the strugglers into your office and see what is going on with them individually --- perhaps you can help them one-on-one a bit without slowing down the whole lecture.
A fascinating discussion and I take slightly different approach on failing students.

I have failed students and will continue to do so. This, however, is reserved for those who skip class all the time, show me and their fellow classmates little to no respect and have no understanding of the material.

OF COURSE EFFORT COUNTS. Those who claim it does not and therefore we should not do it in the classroom are not being honest. If I have an assignment due at work and I have made a good faith effort to do it but I fall short, people are more forgiving. This is the case if not only have I made the effort, but I have alerted them as to the problem.

A student who is seeking extra help, and trying, is alerting you to the problem.

I do not beleive in a gift of a grade, but in not giving the 'F', that is a different story. Teaching public speaking, my philosophy has always been that speaking is so difficult, just by getting up in front of the class and honestly trying, you are starting at a 'C'. There are obviously other assignments as well which can pull up a grade, or lower it.

Certainly you have the option of assigning the student some extra credit assignments to be able to pass the course.

In terms of the other two points, first I enjoy teaching at a community college and find most of the students to be 'high caliber' ones. I agree that with the other comments that say there should not be a difference in what you teach to students at a CC versus that of a four year institution but there should be a difference between upper and lower level courses.

In terms of learning styles, this is no different at a CC than at any other learning institution. Different people have different learning styles. I have found that the best professors I have had are not the ones that try to adapt to the styles of others but rather know what style is best for them to use when teaching. This way, the teacher is more effective and students are able to adapt to the teacher's style.

Just one person's (long winded) thoughts.
I started to write a comment but then decided I had too much to say. The result is in my blog as advice to a New Adjunct. I ended up writing so much that I won't even try to summarize it.

However, one insight is worth mentioning here so others might provide some feed back on it. I now wonder if the questioner's main concern about grading is due to wondering if his/her standards for a "C" are correct. I suspect that is the case, and it is a very hard question to address. Developing confidence to make that call, and stand by it, will only come with experience. In the meantime, you might err a bit on the soft side at the end of this semester, but stick with high standards at the start of the next one. It is always easier to make a class easier during the semester than to make it harder.

Just to be on the safe side, the link is to
Dean Dad is wise beyond his years & on target. If I could bottle his advice & sell it, I would make a fortune. Folks, this is not rocket science OR brain surgery. We set standards. They should be same standards for all classes at the same level. We should not compromise. We should employ diverse & varied teaching methods. And the student earns what they earn. And you will sleep the sleep of the righteous at night.

a well worn Mighty Favog
Who could argue for lower standards or double standards? Who could argue that we do favors when we pass students who will be transfering credits to a four-year school?

It's just that...I have a lot of traditionally 'bad' students. A lot. If I marched along holding aloft my personal single- standard of excellence, many, maybe most, of these students would fail. So, I have a WayUpNorthCC standard that I measure students against.

If I taught at WayUpNorthUniversity down the road, my standard would be different.

Fact is, CC is not U, just with cheaper credits. Why expect it will be?
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