Friday, April 16, 2010


Epic Fail

What should a college do when a professor fails 90 percent of the students in an intro class?

Apparently, at LSU the answer is to remove the professor unilaterally, mid-semester. The comments to the IHE story are about 90 percent from faculty trading in the worst anti-administration stereotyping, laced with an intoxicating brew of outrage and moral superiority. But they really miss the story.

Based on the article, I can see heaping piles of wrong on all sides.

Professors have every right to expect that their grading decisions will be afforded tremendous weight, and will be questioned only in exceptional cases and through due process. In this case, there's no sign of anything resembling due process, and the degree to which the case is exceptional is hard to discern. Was she planning to curve at the end? Who knows? If deans go around raising grades just to pacify annoyed students, there will be no end to it, and the highest grades will go to those who whine the loudest. In the absence of a nearly unimaginable smoking gun, the dean was clearly in the wrong in unilaterally overriding grading decisions en masse without an investigation. No argument there.

But that's only a part of the story.

The article also mentions that the professor hadn't taught an intro class in 15 years. From a workload perspective, I find that literally incomprehensible. It could also explain a certain detachment from the reality of what can be expected in an intro course.

More to the point, though, there's no mention of departmental norms for intro courses. While it's easy to retreat to 'academic freedom' and stop thinking after that, we need to remember that there's a legitimate expectation among students that variation among professors' grading standards will fall within a certain range. If a particular professor decides to take it upon herself to become a one-woman generational avenger, then the students who had the rotten luck to get her class will suffer long-lasting damage to their academic careers through no fault of their own. The students who took the exact same course in any semester over the last 15 years -- cough -- will have higher GPA's, and the opportunities that come with that.
Assuming that hers was not the only section taught that semester, another student taking a different section of the exact same class at the exact same time could have a dramatically better chance of a higher grade. Some level of variation is to be expected, but a 90 percent fail rate in an intro course for non-majors fails the plausibility test.

In my time at Flagship State, I was frequently advised to grade harshly in the first month of a class to drive away as many students as possible; the idea was to get my grading workload down. The subtext of that was that teaching generally was to be considered a time-suck, something to be minimized in the name of a research agenda. I never liked the idea -- it struck me as selling out the students -- but it was hard to miss.

I don't know if the professor in this case was trying to make a point, was intending to curve, was wildly out of touch, or was just trying to thin the herd and got carried away. (The fact that she gave multiple-choice tests suggests that reducing the time on grading wasn't the motive.) Maybe she thought of herself as a champion of academic rigor.

The comments to the IHE story frequently fall into the simpleminded trap of equating high fail rates with academic rigor. They are not the same thing, and one does not imply the other.

For example, at my cc, remedial algebra has a much higher fail rate than pre-calc, which in turn has a higher fail rate than calculus II. Does that mean that remedial algebra is more academically rigorous than calculus II?

Of course not. And the same inverse relationship between course level and fail rates holds across the curriculum; it's not confined to math. The lower the course level, the higher the fail rate. My cc has a much higher fail rate than does Harvard. Does that mean my cc is more academically rigorous than Harvard? (Okay, bad example. Let's go with Swarthmore instead; the argument still stands.)

Students fail classes for all kinds of reasons. Obviously, what the students bring with them matters a great deal. Strongly-prepared students will generally outperform more weakly-prepared students. Students without full-time jobs will generally outperform students with full-time jobs. And students of effective teachers will generally outperform students of ineffective teachers. If a professor simply can't teach her way out of a paper bag, her students won't do well. Assuming that this year's students aren't meaningfully different from last year's students, but the teacher is, there's a certain surface plausibility to the idea that she is the critical variable.

I'd suggest that the missing link here is the academic department.

As long as the issue is understood either as "heroic prof faces down lazy students and corrupt dean" or "heroic dean protects innocent students against crazy prof," we won't get anywhere. What's missing here is any serious sign of engagement by the academic department in defining its own expectations.

Here I have to give kudos to the English and math departments at my college. Both of them have "grade norming" workshops for faculty -- both full-time and adjunct, and the adjuncts get paid for attending -- in which they go over papers or problems and discuss how they ought to be graded. Although an absolutist might view this as a violation of academic freedom, I actually see it as a fulfillment of academic freedom. Academic freedom in teaching is not an individual right; it is an institutional right. It is up to the college as a whole to determine what is or is not to be taught; that's why colleges have curriculum committees, and it's why departments are free to choose standard textbooks to assign to every section of a given course. (Academic freedom in research is another matter.) When a department sets about defining its courses and its standards, it is not infringing on the rights of its members; it's living up to the responsibilities inherent in owning curriculum. When a department chooses not to bother, and to cede its collective responsibilities to its individual members, it makes a category error and loses the ability to corral outliers.

This is why my preferred method for addressing grade changes is to have a faculty review committee empowered to make the call, under guidelines voted on by the faculty as a whole. As an administrator, I'm happy to stay out of it; besides, nobody can be a content expert in everything. Better to allow the faculty collectively to exercise its institutional academic freedom. In practice, I imagine that this would result in very, very few changes, and that's as it should be. In this case, the dean made the colossal error of substituting his own personal judgment for that of the faculty, and to do so impulsively.

But the better response to a correct revulsion at that dean's action is not to fall back on student-blaming or absolutist (and incorrect) claims of academic freedom. Students deserve some level of protection against arbitrary and punitive grading, which implies that professors do not -- and cannot -- have unlimited power in grading. The college as a whole is allowed to define what shall be taught. Boiling this down to two individuals misses the point. This case suggests strongly that LSU is missing that crucial space in between, in which faculty act collectively to define the academic mission of the college and to uphold standards of professionalism precisely to protect the students. The missing piece is shared governance, properly understood. With that missing, this is just an epic fail all the way around.

I've been teaching freshmen for 9 years. I suspect that students taking my class now -- and getting decent grades -- would be earning at least a letter grade lower if they were being compared to students I taught my first year.

Sadly, I've adjusted many of my standards and practices in light of the decline in educational preparation. Point being, this prof may be teaching the intro class like she did 15 years ago and current students can't pass it -- while students 15 years ago could.
Let me suggest another reason the LSU prof might have failed everyone -- she was peeved that her dean had the temerity to assign her to teach an Intro class, and she either (1) retaliated against the dean, or (2) calculated that failing everyone would get her out of teaching the course.
I had a professor for Rigid Body Dynamics announce after the first test that we had to study harder because he didn't want to fail another entire class. We checked. He wasn't kidding. 8 years earlier he'd failed 20 students.

But my bet is that this prof didn't want to teach an intro course and was trying to get out of it.
"But my bet is that this prof didn't want to teach an intro course and was trying to get out of it."

I don't think that's true; the prof was doing things like giving 10-answer multiple choice questions, which takes a lot of work (coming up with even 4 plausible multiple choices can be a pain sometimes). What I got from the article, for whatever that's worth, is that she was working very hard at the course, which seems inconsistent to me with wanting to just get out of it.

Most importantly, the marks were trending upwards. This happens to me, too; a course I teach often has a much lower first assignment mark then later marks as student expectations are re-normalized. And apparently there were enough marks left in the course that no one need have failed if they pulled their act together. (But then again, what does that mean; would they have needed 100% on all assignments and exams?)

Obviously the prof was grading well outside the norms of the department, so something had to be done. Even then, my sympathies probably naturally are with her at the moment; the way to deal with this was either milder, earlier, intervention, or forcibly rescaling the marks at the end of the course; this pulling her out of the course half-way through isn't going to work well for anyone, students included. (Now the new instructor comes in and the students all know that this new instructors whole purpose is to give easy marks; why bother working for the rest of the course?)

I agree with DD that everyone involved in this failed, but I'm inclined to see the departmental and dean-level failure as more egregious than the profs in this case.
Let's say the instructor in question hates formal curves. (I do.)

If the grades on the second exam have improved as much as Prof. Homberger says, then it would seem fair to congratulate the students on that and say that it's persuaded her to to alter the weight of the different exams. If they can maintain the same standard of work for the rest of the course, the first exam will have much more limited impact on the grade. If you're going to defend yourself by saying that it's taught the students a lesson, then give them credit for learning the lesson.

But of course, we don't know enough. Was Prof. Homberger clear about her expectations before giving the test? Also the role of the class in the university ecology - is she approaching a gen. ed. science requirement class for the general population as if its goal is to prepare majors?

Which is not to disagree with what Jon Dursi says - more moderate intervention would have been a better solution.
You write: "Academic freedom in teaching is not an individual right; it is an institutional right. It is up to the college as a whole to determine what is or is not to be taught; that's why colleges have curriculum committees, and it's why departments are free to choose standard textbooks to assign to every section of a given course. (Academic freedom in research is another matter.) "

I think you're making a false distinction between academic freedom in the classroom and academic freedom in research. While it is true that there are bodies that regulate what courses get taught (curriculum committees) or oversee how particular courses are taught (programs assigning common textbooks, requiring a certain amount of writing, etc.), there are also bodies that regulate research (editorial boards, peer reviewers, etc.). That makes academic freedom no less individual for the researcher, so why would it make academic freedom in the classroom somehow an institutional right? The AAUP says this about academic freedom in the classroom, and this statement has held since 1940 with only slight clarification : "Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.[2] Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.[3]" That sounds like an individual right to me, and let me tell you, it's one that I count on because I teach material to which some (students, parents, whatever) would object.

Standards (for the classroom, for publication) to me do not violate academic freedom. But to claim that academic freedom is the institution's and not the instructor's/students' does seem like a serious misunderstanding of what academic freedom is and why it's important - even in the classroom.
I think you're right on target, Dean Dad. As sometimes is the case in controversies in life in general - whether it is in the educational domain, business world, or personal world - people form strong opinions about situations without doing the due diligence to understand everything that's going on. We can hypothesize and speculate until the cows come home, but fact of the matter is, we don't really know why things transpired the way they did in this situation.

With that said, I am in agreement about an institution's right and responsibility to ensure a consistent educational experience across all instructors and classrooms. This doesn't mean that institutions need to start providing a literal script that faculty have to follow word-for-word, but I do believe it means that faculty, and administration, need to work together to ensure that they are all consistently pursuing the same learning goals and that they have the same expectations.

The institution I work for is undergoing a change in the way courses are taught in order to better ensure a consistent student experience not just across instructors but also across instructional delivery methods (i.e., classroom-based, online, and hybrid). The goal is not to hamstring faculty so that they feel stifled and stripped of their individuality or freedom to teach "differently" than each other. Rather the goal is to ensure that no matter which faculty member a student takes a class with and no matter what instructional delivery method is being used, students are encountering similar learning expectations and experiences.
I just read the IHE article, and red lights flashed (and the klaxon horn sounded) at several points. Homberger volunteered to teach the class, so it was not an issue of her being forced to do so. On the other hand, she seemed to be totally out of step with the expectations of students, faculty and the administration.

Giving multiple-choice tests with 10 potential answers must be a nightmare for students. Could you imagine trying to tease out the correct answer from 9 other distractor answers?

It also sounds to me like Homberger was utterly rigid in her approach to the course, her students, and (I would bet) colleagues and administrators. As a Math & Science Dean, I have been through this scenario before, at least 5 times in the last ten years. In each case, the teacher portrayed the issue as, "Lazy student-enabling Dean disciplines teacher for imposing rigorous standards". Too often, in my experience, a teacher who has not done a good job of facilitating student learning and/or does not even come close to approaching the grading norms for a course, falls back on the 'rigor' defense. I am not intimately familiar with the LSU case, but that's where I'm thinking this one is ending up.

I must admit that I have never been in the situation of replacing a teacher in the middle of a course (although it has crossed my mind). It strikes me that there must be more background than the IHE article reveals, in order for such a precipitous action to occur.

We can all decry the decline of overall academic standards and the spectre of grade inflation; no doubt both have occurred to some degree. But that does not entitle an out-of-touch professor to flunk most of her Into Biology class students with outrageous tests and then hide behind the rigor defense.
This quote at the end of the article is MOST telling: "But many other comments about the course standards were positive, with several students specifically praising Homberger's advice that they form study groups. One student wrote: 'My biggest AHA‐reaction in this course is that I need to study for this course every night to make a good grade. I must also attend class, take good notes, and have study sessions with others. Usually a little studying can get me by but not with this class which is why it is my AHA‐reaction.' "

I've been accused of having high standards by my peers but NEVER by my students, who always say "I actually have to work to get a grade in your class unlike [someone else's] class." Or "you don't treat us like idiots, you think we can actually handle the work." So let's consider that the LSU prof actually had the students' best interests at heart and want them to actually learn. I remember enough of my college experience to know there were plenty of classes when you could get an A and hardly do anything. With so many people complaining about the low standards in education it's a shame we react so poorly to someone who actually gets students to work.
Not having read the article, but from reading the comments, I agree the Dean did no good for the students and the professor who will now have to take over her class.

I would like to suggest that she was not in touch with other adjuncts about grading and students. I was there once as a new adjunct a few years ago.

I was so into academic rigor and worrying about my reputation for teaching that I followed the department course syllabus and requirements for grading very closely. But my students were not doing well according to the dept syllabus although I felt they were making real progress in learning the material and I felt they would do well at the end of the semester. They just had a slow learning curve.

I talked to another experienced adjunct, whom I admired, about giving a certain required test at that point in our semester. I didn't feel my students were ready for the test yet and it would make them look awful and be dispiriting to them.

He told me that none of the f/t instructors took grades on that test. Just to look at it as a formative evaluation and let the students know that. It was to let me and them know where they were still weak.

Well, that is not what the dept chair and syllabus said, so I took advantage of academic freedom and followed the trusted colleague's advice and did not take grades on it. I could picture my whole career being ruined by that action on my part. I pictured that only students who expected easy A's and didn't want to work would take me. But I followed his advice.

My students and I used the test as a formative test and during office hours I helped them decipher the parts of that test and plan out their areas of where to study more. I also gave them supplemental material to study. Very intensive work on my part and their parts. We began working together to make them successful.

It was an awesome experience. I was actually teaching. Heady stuff. My students did well on the Final Department test at the end of the semester. I gained a reputation among students as being a teacher they could go to for help and my class filled up early each semester.

Students do want to learn. Teachers just need to learn new ways to teach the present students. I teach students, not subjects.

My trusted colleague is now f/t and a beloved teacher in our cc. The dept syllabus and requirements have been rewritten to allow in reality what had been done by teachers in practice.

I left cc teaching and entered another field (not because of failure or burnout), but my adjunct experience was a wonderful time when I discovered that students wanted to learn and I could teach them.
Rick Bales and Joe:
In the story, it's made clear that she asked what she could do to help her department. When the chair said something like, "Could you teach an intro section?" she said something like "Sure." She was not coerced into the class.

As Joe Dursi says, she does seem to have been working at it, with scores trending upward.

Gavin: And she made it clear to her students that *improvement* through the semester would count (unclear how much) in her grading.

All that said, I'd have to agree with Al that MC quizzes with 10 choices is slightly weird. Having spent 30 years writing my own MC questions (the ones in test banks are generallt either too easy of too generic), I often find it difficult to come up with three decent alternative answers. (Sometimes, with questions that involve calculations, it's easy to do rearrangements of the correct formula and get a fair number of alternatives; when I do that, I give both the numerical answer and the arrangement of the formula that gets you that answer.)

On the other hand, it would (perhaps) achieve her objective of reducing the reward for guessing.

As I read the article, I had to conclude that she could have used some assistance in re-adapting to teaching an intro class, and neither asked for it nor was offered it (and it's unclear whether her class had any TAs, who might also have been in a position of suggesting adaptations to her, or getting the department chair involved). It seemed to me that the responsibility for this disaster was about 60% administrative over-reaction, 20% deartmental administration obliviousness, and 20% the professor not doing some of what she might have done in teaching a course for the first time in 15 years.
I thought I saw someplace that the administration made the decision based on the on-line course management grades.

The problem is that they didn't even seem to ASK her if she had plans to adjust the grading scheme.

I don't have this problem and (for now) I generally trust my administration not to do something like this -- but, it's plausible that those conditions will change -- and if they do, I'll stop using the on-line grade book.
You only have to see a heaping pile of wrong on the side of the alleged professional managers whose job it is to defend the accreditation and reputation of an allegedly flagship state university to reach conclusions that do not require any stereotypes at all. The most salient fact is that she was pulled out of the class AFTER the second exam but BEFORE that exam's grades had even been reflected in (say) midterm grades, grades that might have shown that flagship students can perform at the same level they did 15 or 20 years ago.

My perspective is that I teach a gen-ed class where students come in expecting pablum only to encounter solid food. Many of those who don't drop at the first sign that they might need more than a spork to consume the course content end up getting a D or high F on the first test, but almost all of these improve to reach a C by the end of the course and leave knowing something about science.

I also second what ItPF said to lead off the comments. The quality of freshmen students, particularly as regards their ability to do anything other than regurgitate off of a "study guide", appears to be declining as NCLB expands in scope. It wouldn't surprise me one bit that she could given the same exam from 15 years ago and see a marked decline in performance simply because the students never open the book.

Then there is one final factor: quality of the football team. LSU has always been a party school, but winning football seems to attract more of a particular type of student. Fifteen years ago, LSU had seen a run of REALLY BAD football teams.
I am an adjunct professor at a community college, and I have worked at four different schools. None of them have given me specific guidance for how to grade. Some of my classes have higher fail rates than others in spite of the fact that I teach them basically the same way. a 90% fail rate is clearly ridiculous, however. The teacher should have made adjustments after the first test, or should have at least gone to the school authorities when almost everyone flunked that first test to see if the grading standards were reasonable
I totally agree with CCPhysicist. I doubt my university would step in like that, but it's a good reason not to use the online gradebook.

I'm a very tough grader - but I make it clear to students that they're graded based on where they are at the end of the course. A lot of students used to easier courses get D's and F's on their first papers (and I warn them ahead to expect it). The ones who want an easier grade drop right away; the ones who really want to learn the material stay and mostly end up with A's and B's. But I have to be very clear in communication and make sure that the course is tough but not traumatic. (Mostly I teach upper-level course, but I use the same technique with freshmen, just as successfully) I have a reputation for being a tough teacher, but I get a lot of repeat students.

In 12 years, I've had two formal complaints: a student with alcohol issues who complained unsuccessfully about his D to the department chair, and a student who stopped attending halfway through who convinced the dean to change his F to a W by claiming seasonal affective disorder (much to the disgust of his fellow students who he bragged to about it after he stopped attending).

I take a lot of pride in my teaching results, but if the LSU administrators looked at my first paper grades they could easily boot me as well.
Anyways, would they have needed 100% on all assignments and exams?
This episode is an epic fail on the part of the institution, the professor, and frankly the students. I agree with the commenter who blames HS for not adequately preparing students to critically problem solve, conduct analysis, and apply learning to various situations. In HS I was a a straight A student. It was all memory regurgitation. Honestly, even my CC years did not prepare me for the academic rigor required of my BA and now MA programs. HS and many CC's do not teach the process of "how" to get from point A to point B.
My husband encountered a problem with a professor during his CC years. He followed the chain of command and grade dispute policies which required that he wait until final grades were posted before he could file a formal complaint. While his grade stood, three department faculty agreed with many of his other complaints on the workings and policies of the professor.
In my graduate program, I was recently switched to a different section due to lodging a complaint about my professor. It was a bad situation all around. I failed the first assignment submitted to the new professor even though, my writing and analysis did not change. There is no standardized grading even though all other portions of the course remain the same between sections. This is parallel to removing professor mid-term. It sets up completely different expectations to the students, who have to learn the nuances of a different professor. I would love to have a professor work WITH me to learn material and be successful (as the annon. comment above). The attitudes I have encountered demonstrate that they have no intention of doing anything "extra" and that it is my responsibility to make sure I understand and meet the expectations or be harshly graded. Cooperation would go along way to helping students step-up to the appropriately rigorous expectations of college academics. I don't think the answer is lowering the bar. I think the answer is taking the time to teach differently (and even put in extra time and energy) to raise students up.
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