Friday, January 23, 2009

Ask My Readers: Called Out on Retention

A regular correspondent makes an interesting point about “retention” in a different sense of the word:

Every time you write about remedial classes,
retention, or the K-12 preparation your comments seem
to get thread-jacked with folks who basically say that
the K-12 system sucks...

Maybe it would be worth trying to host a slightly
different conversation on your public forum...

The nugget of my question, "What do you do to ensure
that students retain their knowledge and skills from a

Students place into remedial classes for a number of
reasons, but the most persistent assumption on the
part of college-faculty seems to be that the K-12
system is failing students by either not teaching
appropriate content or allowing them to pass without
demonstrating that they have mastered the appropriate

Let's do a small thought experiment. Let's assume for
the moment that your local school system is staffed
with competent people who know their content, teach
appropriate content, and students who earn passing
grades actually demonstrate mastery of that content.
(I'd suggest that, for the most part, this is a
reasonable assumption given my 8 years of work with
local school districts up and down the eastern

If students show up at college and are unable to
demonstrate the appropriate skill-set to avoid
remedial classes, what should we then assume about
these students?

Clearly, that they have failed to retain the concepts
and skills that they were taught.

So, they place into a remedial class...  My question,
in longer form, is, suppose that they complete the
remedial sequence in one year.  When they return to
school the following August after being away from
school since early May, how much do they retain?
Heck, ask this question about non-remedial courses...
How much do students retain?

4 months after the course ends, if you give students
the exact same final exam that they took at the end of
the course, how well should they do?  How well would
they really do?

What do college-level institutions do in order to help
students better retain what they've been taught?

Figuring out this question, and sharing with the K-12
folks, could do far more to reduce remedial
enrollments than having college faculty endlessly
repeating "K-12 [needs] to do their job" as suggested
in your comment threads...

There's a lot here, so I'll just add a few thoughts and ask my wise and worldly readers for their reactions.

I remember a moment at PU in which I was trying to help a student build his schedule just a few days before classes started. He was supposed to take the second course of a sequence. When I told him that, he demurred, saying it would be too hard. I pointed out that he had taken the first course in the sequence the previous semester, and had passed it, so he should be ready. His response, which I remember to this day: “But that was over a month ago!”

Alrighty then. I guess the moral is never to have a doctor more than a week or two out of medical school.

Surely, we have all taken classes – and passed them, maybe even with decent grades – from which we don't remember much. Most of the foreign languages I've studied are gone. I haven't the foggiest recollection of how to do derivatives. Heck, it gets worse than that. I'm still fuzzy on an embarrassing number of state capitals.

I'm not sure if that's really the issue here, though.

Remediation typically addresses basic reading, writing, and math. (By 'basic math,' I mean up through high school algebra. We don't even test geometry or trig.) These are mostly skills, as opposed to specific facts, and they're cumulative. They build over time, and can be reinforced (or not) outside of school. People who read get good at it; people who don't, don't.

That's why I'm not sure that the analogy to specific course content holds. These skills aren't confined to single courses. They're built, or not, over years.

That said, I agree that merely bashing the K-12 system doesn't solve the problem, and may even make it worse. The K-12 system is tasked with an imposing, and ever-growing, list of goals. Dedicated teachers run into the standard bureaucratic obstacles, plus adolescent hormones, helicopter parents, absent parents, standardized testing, unequal funding, the cult of athletics, and local politics, among other things. Having higher ed pile on isn't helpful, and isn't likely to generate constructive conversation.

And it's certainly fair to ask professors to reflect on what they want students to take away from their classes years later. Many specific facts will simply be lost to the sands of time; there's no way around that. If your course is a gen ed class, or the kind of class that non-majors take, then your class may be the one time the students will ever be exposed to serious inquiry in that discipline. Given that not everybody will become an expert in your subject, what do you want them to take away from it?

I'll admit that it took a couple years of teaching for me to start thinking in those terms. Early on, I made the rookie mistake of trying to 'cover' everything. When I got back bizarrely disjointed versions of the material in papers, I gradually realized the error and started trying to focus more on the big picture. After a while, I decided that what I really wanted the students to develop was a combination of aggressive curiosity and some sense of how to frame questions. If they got that, I figured they were capable of following up on their own. Less 'covering,' more 'uncovering.'

(One of my most gratifying moments as a teacher came when a colleague mentioned to me that one of her students had spoken to her about my class, which she had taken the previous semester. The student said that she had never cared about the subject before, but now couldn't stop thinking about it. I considered that a victory.)

In a discussion last year with a local high school, whose graduates routinely crashed and burned on our essay test, it became clear that something like this was really at issue. The high school taught writing as 'error avoidance,' so the students wrote very simple prose in very simple ways. The college test evaluated the ability to make an argument, which necessarily involves some level of complexity. A student who did reasonably well at the high school rules could flop at the college rules and not know why. We both evaluated 'writing,' but we defined the term in importantly different ways. Once we had that epiphany, the conversation got easier.

There's certainly a lot to chew on here, and I've done my share. Wise and worldly readers, what say you?

Have a question (or challenge)? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.