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.


I've got a slight change in wording that you may or may not agree with, but you wrote:

These are mostly skills, as opposed to specific facts, and they're cumulative.

The problem seems to be that many students don't see writing or algebra as cumulative. They see them as this huge set of separate skills that are related to each other under the heading "math."

It's partly related to the 'coverage' phenomena. HS math teachers are expected to teach, on average, one new procedure per day every single day of the school year.

The Calc class I just taught at Eastern State University was the same way... We covered 1 section of text a day.

When would the students develop this integrated and cumulative understanding of the subject?

It's a somewhat trite observation but, "kids generally learn what you teach them" is a pretty decent phrase, and if "skill 1, skill 2, skill 3..." is what they're taught, the big picture isn't what they're going to learn.
I have taught English comp, research, and business writing. Now I teach in another subject area. Writing skills at the college level are not cumulative. I personalize writing skills instruction in all subject areas based on what individual students need to learn. Some may be horrible at sentence structure and others may have no clue about punctuation. Others may need significant remediation on paragraphing and cohesive content. Whatever they need, they get. Why waste time their time and mine on progressive writing skills instruction? It's best to focus on what individuals need. That's when you start seeing real improvement. I don't "do" math so I have no idea if this would an effective "remediation" technique in those subject areas. I just don't believe in wasting time. Teach what they need to learn. And since everyone comes into class with different knowledge and skill sets, you have to start where they are individually and move on from there.
This does get at another central issue: to what extent do students bear responsibility for retaining information, skills, etc.?

I am always surprised at how many of my colleagues at the SLAC where I work use very old-fashioned testing models (including matching, multiple choice, etc.) that seem to encourage cramming over big-picture applications. But then I read my student evaluations and the administration's response to them--the students don't all grasp that what I'm trying to do has lingering and lasting import, so they criticize a model without tests, so the administration criticizes me. And slowly, my idealism is beaten out of me . . . .

It takes a radical reorientation of our entire educational system to emphasize the value of skills like basic math (for carpentry! for taxes! for reading the newspaper! for grocery shopping!), writing, public speaking, hey, even a basic sense of American and world history, cultural history, civics, philosophy, science, information literacy, etc., etc., etc. We desperately need to return to an idealistic understanding of the educated electorate that supports, values, and rewards the retention of skills. It will take a generation, but I do believe we can turn this ship around.
@Anon: My students get a big ol' idealistic lecture on the liberal arts being the "arts needed to be free" and why Thomas Jefferson wants them to take philosophy and be better Americans. :D They think I'm a bit of a dork, but they participate with better grace after that.

I know there's a lot of stuff that goes on, but from my own experience, I had a very difficult time learning and retaining math and science in high school (and by "very difficult" I mean I was in honors classes, so doing fine by their standards, but I knew I was just cramming and vomiting facts and had no idea what they meant, and none of it stuck). In later years I realized the reason for this was it was SOOOOOOO disjointed and I had no idea what any of it was FOR. Story problems aren't exactly the same as real-world applications, and it turned out that I just couldn't learn math and science in that disjointed fashion. "These are the parts of a generic cell. Here is what they do. Memorize, label, spit back."

It wasn't until I started gardening, got curious about why my squash/tomato/lily/whatever was doing that, and took a botany class that I suddenly went, "Holy shit! This stuff's interesting! And means something! And relates to something!" That was all I needed and cell structure was suddenly the most fascinating thing I'd ever heard of.

Which I think means at base that students learn different ways, and some of us are ill-served in some subjects by the standard curriculum.

Re: dumping on K-12 ... yeah, I got bored of that, so I decided to run for school board.
I think I've blogged quite a bit about what I do, but I should probably do more of that.

What I want to say quickly here, however, is that I am not "assuming" certain things are taking place. The problem is documented in the case of our local schools. The measurement instrument is administered during the school year, after extensive preparation of the students, and has been normed against our placement test in two ways (statistical analysis, and me looking at it and classifying the level of the problems against our curriculum).

What is clear is that "math" is a disaster compared to "english". Lots of kids fail both, but the kids who pass "english" have a fighting chance on our skills placement test unless they get the lowest pass scores. That curriculum is pretty well aligned with our needs. Math is an entirely different story, both in terms of alignment and in terms of the result of the emphasis on testing.

I believe that the "high stakes" tests in K-12 have led to a spectacular increase in "cram and forget" learning being emphasized as the norm in that system. When I was in school, we just took the normative tests. Today they prepare for them (and their specific odd content) for months.

I also think that HS is way too late to fix the problems these students have with math.
High school after sophomore year is utterly pointless as currently constructed. To understand this, you only have to look at the proliferation of AP exams for bright students; we've gone from silly college prep to just teaching college courses outright.

In addition, most colleges only really want skills that are supposed to be fully transmitted by the end of sophomore year in the standard sequence for most schools. If you look at the SAT, for example, there's almost nothing there that wasn't discussed by that time.

Inference: "High school," as such, should end after sophomore year. Junior year should be some kind of catchall event that integrates the various skills into a coherent whole and demonstrates relevancy. Personally, I suggest a small business simulation -- students' brains turn on when there is money involved, every major skill in life is required to run a small business, and households are small businesses, so the simulation is directly relevant to an activity which students will be undertaking constantly for the rest of their lives.

Senior year should be either "college prep" which includes APs and other whatnot or "co-ops and internships" which prepare the one half of all students who don't go to college for entering the workforce by letting them try a few different things without too much penalty for screwing up. This would require a much beefed up guidance counselor staff, but you'd save on teachers anyways, so it'd probably be a net positive. Also, you wouldn't be wasting quite so much student time.

This is all in service of the gorilla in the room: relevance. People forget things that don't matter, and they remember things that do. Why can't DD retain a skill as fundamentally straightforward as derivations? Or as inherent to the human brain as an extra language? Because they were totally irrelevant to his life, as demonstrated over time. Teenagers may not know when something is going to be useful, but they tend to be keenly aware when something is going to be totally useless.

We've gotten into this habit of thinking of high school as non-terminal. Which means it's a complete waste of time for anyone not college-bound after sophomore year. Which also creates the impression that education is not about actually acquiring knowledge, but merely jumping through entirely useless hoops for the sake of doing so. That attitude carries. I cannot count the number of students I've had in my classes who are actually baffled by the notion of coursework having relevance to their work after college or the real world. The idea is totally foreign.
Note that this is probably only useful for students within a couple standard deviations of the mean in academic talent. The top and bottom sections are going to need different things, another idea which has become foolishly lost.
I teach in the visual arts and see a lot of students entering college unprepared. Aside from poor writing skills I am astounded that many of them don't know how to research and interpret different opinions. The also don't understand the structure of technical elements such as bibliography and footnotes. I learned that in 5th grade. So I am guessing it is not being required in the high schools around me. This is not something a student should learn in college. I am guessing K-12 is so overwhelmed with just teaching them the basics that the other elements are being omitted.

As far as art specific, so many students lack knowledge about basic art history, which I assumed was being integrated into studio high school courses. In my discussions with students, I have learned that many of them have taken extensive h.s. classes in Photoshop and other computer software, but can't identify a Picasso or Mondrian. Sad.

The only positive note in my experience is that students have an increased interest in the material. I relate history and contemporary artists into every topic. Since they most likely are visual learners this is effective.

If the material in foundation courses relates to more advanced courses then retention should not be an issue. I view retention as a sequence and this should work on the K-12 level. I have had students tell me senior year that they were able to understand advanced topics because of things learned in my foundation courses.
Could the structure of courses in K-12 be disconnected?
Sorry, but I'm not letting the K-12 system off the hook that easily.

I teach chemistry at a cc. We pull most of our students from one of four local high schools.

At those four schools, chemistry is taught by two coaches, a BS-level biologist, and a BS in science ed.

My first-year students don't know any chemistry because the people teaching them in high school had no idea what the hell they were doing. It has nothing to do with retention... it's the "garbage in, garbage out" principle.
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