Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Class in Class

I discovered yesterday that my college is even more representative of its community than I had thought.

I knew that enrollments were way up -- and they are -- and I knew that the biggest gains were among lower-income students, particularly men of color. What I didn't know was the degree to which we're also expanding our reach on the upper end of the income scale. If you were to plot our enrollment gains this year with 'class' as the x-axis -- okay, I'm a big nerd -- you'd get something close to a u-curve. The big gains have been in students who otherwise wouldn't have gone to college, and among students who otherwise would have gone to more expensive places. Facility in class largely correlates with parental income, so we're getting more students on both extremes of the ability scale.

Some professors who were in on the conversation said that they're seeing the tension in their classes. In the disciplines for which there are no developmental courses, the range of drive and talent in class is usually quite wide. The professors reported seeing an even wider range this year, with more people on either extreme. In some cases, it's actually becoming a class management problem, since the top students sometimes lose patience with the bottom, and vice versa. And there are enough in each camp that it's hard to write the tensions off to the stray outlier.

The growing disparity of ability probably explains the newfound enthusiasm among some professors for prereqs. Over the years, more intro-level courses have specified something like "English 101 eligible" as a prerequisite, on the grounds that the course assumes college-level reading and writing ability. As more courses have built those walls, the great waves of students who don't qualify instead hit the remaining courses in larger numbers. Those professors note with alarm the declining ability of their classes, so they, too, campaign for prereqs. It's individually rational, but it creates some weird side effects.

Among other things, it makes group work much harder. When the disparities within the group are just too wide, the students on each extreme can start to resent the others. In a perfect world, of course, everyone would appreciate everyone else's unique strengths, but it doesn't always work that way.

Although we have developmental classes on one end and honors classes on the other, most of the courses here aren't 'tracked' in the K-12 sense. Intro to Psych is Intro to Psych. If you've just come from a K-12 system in which most of your courses were 'tracked,' the sudden change of approach is probably pretty jarring. From out of nowhere, you've got peers who are much farther away from you on both ends of the scale. And the teaching challenge, which is substantial in the best of times, is that much worse as the extremes expand.

I'll admit being of divided mind on this one. On the one hand, I'm glad to see that we're offering something of interest to the entire community. Part of that is out of fidelity to the mission -- the college is supposed to serve everybody -- and part of it is out of self-preservation. To the extent that the middle and upper middle classes see the college as partly theirs, we're in a better spot politically. But it's still frustrating to see the increasing class polarization in the larger society -- which I generally think of as negative -- make itself felt here, too.

Wise and worldly readers who teach: have you seen the u-shaped curve develop lately in your classes? Have you found an effective way to deal with it?

Hi DD:

To the extent that my (public, soon-to-be-R1) university has always tended toward a regional, middle-to-working-class clientele and economic profile, and given that our recruitment varies from major TX and OK cities to quite small towns, as well as within the county, we have always experienced the u-curve you describe: that in itself has not changed.

The graduate population and profile are different--many more national and international recruits there--but the undergraduate population tends to show differing levels of skills, preparedness, and (for lack of a better word) maturity according to their widely divergent secondary-school backgrounds. I'm in music, so our UG population tends to show profiles based upon three different source groups:

1) students from relatively small rural towns; typically with very narrow experience, of the world or of "difference"; excellent work ethic; often challenged by college's expectations of "critical thinking and critical writing", after NCLB-oriented secondary schools' bias toward teaching to the test (e.g., regurgitation). They are usually quick studies but need a good deal of remediation.

2) students from middle-class economic backgrounds, typically Dallas, Austin, Houston, El Paso; usually reasonably well-prepared with basic entry-level college skills (aforementioned critical reading/writing, etc), but wild divergence in their levels of independence and initiative depending on the calibre of their (typically public) high schools. In this large group we will have (a) students from good high schools, with many AP courses, lots of critical thinking skills, good work ethic, desire to do well and grow; versus (b) students from underserved or -funded schools who need massive remediation.

3) home-schooled. This third, in this part of the world, is a not-small group. Motives for home-schooling parents may differ widely--the commonest here is the "I don't want those Secular Humanists at that public high school teaching my kid about evolution!" social and intellectual conservatism; these are typically what we would think of as white working-class. But we also have a substantial portion of home-schooled kids whose parents took this own in order to compensate for inadequate public school options; typically white middle-class. These third group tends to be very well-educated, with lots of individual initiative, good work ethic--but can also be quite undisciplined if subjected to the "you're going to do the same task as your classmates, at the same *time* as your classmates" necessary in groups of up to 100.



We have found that it is a huge problem if we subject whole groups to the remediation (reading, writing, thinking drills; English composition; library skills; etc) which only a portion (say, group 2b above) most need: if we do this, group 2a and ESPECIALLY group 3 will scream bloody murder with impatience.

We've had far better luck when we identified particular skill areas in which all 3 populations agreed that they needed remediation (in music, it's "critical listening"--the ability to listen to a piece of music and have good tools for hearing and articulating what makes it sound the way it does), and emphasized those skill areas during classroom work. So we'll spend a lot of time in the classroom on those areas for shared remediation; this tends to level the playing field: all are challenged, no-one is frustrated or bored.

In contrast, we "chunk out" those areas in which prior preparation and resulting facility are most divergent (basic reading comprehension, library skills, note-taking skills, etc) into outside-of-class assignments, typically delivered via Blackboard and often only "spot-graded." By making these homework assignments, we are permitting (or requiring) students to allocate the time to them which the students individually need. In effect, we can say to the AP and home-schooled kids, "If this assignment takes you 5:00 minutes, you'll be done in 5:00 minutes and it's an easy A," while conveying to the more skills-challenged kids, "OK, this is obviously something on which you might need to spend an hour or two, in order to catch up in your skills."

Overall this has worked very well: classroom efficiency, satisfaction, and group cohesion have gone up, as has the median acquisition of skills, while frustration, boredom, objections have gone done. It took us a few iterations before we hit the right balance and we're always tweaking.
I've been seeing this for a while, but it's accelerated lately.

The most obvious place is in my logic course. It satisfies a math transfer requirement, so many folks take it instead of the developmental sequence (yes, the math folks hate it). My solution is the use of a tutor. The first half of the class she meets with students individually and helps me with small group work. The second half of the class she takes a small group of students and helps them learn what they need to in order to get a C.

I also think this contributed to the 1/3 of my Ethics students not doing basic citation in a paper. I decided to permit revision for citations only -- and pointed them to the writing center etc.. for the information.
Science is taught so poorly in high schools that we don't see this problem as much at my college. The persistant difference we see isn't in preparation but in a student's ability or willingness to devote time to school. Unfortunately, this is stable over time in most cases. The best advice I can give most students is to find the highest paying job you can and work as few hours as possible.

We have a "how to do college bootcamp" class that we track our remedial students into that helps some, we have unit bearing tutoring classes for our entry level math (calculus), biology(Bio 1) and chemistry (Chem 1A). But we experience a divide twice - once in our freshmen weeder courses and again in our upper division entry level when the transfer students arrive. We encourage students to buddy up in studying and avoid group projects in entry level courses to get around having one group coast along on the efforts of another. We also beefed up prereqs which shifts the problem to other people to solve - students in our entry level bio now have to be co-enrolled in English 1A and Chem 1A. This eliminates 90% of our entering freshmen from taking Bio their first semester.

Not exactly "solutions" but it does mean that for math and english skills, students enter on a level field.
Last year I taught this kind of mix, plus about 1/3 international students (99% Korean and Chinese), at a large urban Canadian university. All first years, 1/3 of them in culture shock and homesick. It was a design course so we had to deal with radically different ideas about design, art and aesthetics (lots of learning for me to do!), I had to teach critical thinking skills across the board and many of the international students had drastic problems with english - couldn't write well and could barely comprehend the readings in the first-year-level textbook. The class differences mostly spanned the home-country differences, the international students came from wealth, the Canadian students were the usual mix but mostly from the lower-middle and middle.

What worked? Forcing them to mix and mingle with each other, to talk and practice english, to read together and write together. Lots of structure in the group work! I often had to direct who was doing what, and break things down into the smallest possible units: "Wen is reading and summarizing section 1, Anthony is reading and summarizing section 2...".

One thing that really worked was getting them to design research questions for their final projects together. They all helped each other tremendously and, with a lot of guidance from myself and the TA, actually were very successful with these projects. I think they really took to the collaborative spirit in the end and I am pleased to know that cross-cultural, cross-class relationships grew out of this environment that are still going strong this year. They managed to meet each other as human beings just by having to spend time together doing stuff.

It was a hell of a lot of work and I could have used more support (a second TA would have been invaluable). But it was very rewarding and I learned so much as a teacher and as a person, things that I will carry with me for a long time.
Usually my students are right out of high school, but I have noticed the huge divide this semester. Classroom critiques have been divisive and unproductive. Basically, I am giving a lot of extra reading to help some students "catch-up" so to speak. The writing center is a must since it is an art class. Quite frankly, I do not feel qualified to teach writing skills more than spelling and basic grammar.

In the past, older or more knowledgable students assisted the others, but lately I find they either don't have the patience or want to get the most out of the course themselves. The economy could be playing a major factor.
Some should learn also the way of perseverance so that they can make it in class.
for Anonymous 7:11: Can't really blame them, especially if there's a U-shaped distribution. If the bottom half of the students are so far behind that helping them would be tantamount to paying tuition for the privilege of being a tutor, then it's not surprising that the better-prepared students would buck. As well they should.
For quite a while, I've been calling this phenomenon "the bactrian curve," for the double-humped brand of camel. The downturn might be exacerbating it, but it's nothing new.

In my writing classes, it poses a bit of a problem when competitive disadvantage leads to discouragement. It's worse in literature classes, though, since in-class discussion is at the heart of my teaching there. Much depends on the personal chemistry among the students--often the more mature will help me out, but if there's obtrusive arrogance on either end of the spectrum, we're usually in for a bumpy ride.
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Inside the Philosophy Factory,

What do your colleagues in the math department have against your logic course. I teach math, and I would gladly sign off on a student substituting the Intro to Logic course for a gen ed math. We do it all the time. We also teach a quantitative literacy class with a unit on mathematical logic and its applications. Do your math colleagues want everyone struggling through College Algebra or Calculus, where this divide that is being discussed can become even more pronounced (even with prerequisites and developmental courses available)??
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