Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ask the Administrator: My Students Changed! Now What?

An occasional correspondent writes:

Here at Prestig. University, as elsewhere in the northern hemisphere,it's summertime, and that means that my fellow Ph.D. students in thesocial sciences and I are scratching out a living by teaching summercourses. (I used to complain about the fees they gave us, until Ilearned that we were paid more to teach as grad students thanprofessors at nearby,  less prestigious schools.)

This year, my class is relatively small, which is on balance good, butI have zero traditional undergrad students. Normally, I have aleavening of them--folks taking courses while doing internships,transfer students getting caught up, and so forth--which really helpsin imparting the soft skills of being a college student that I'veeither forgotten or never knew (when I began my B.A. more than adecade ago, Blackboard was rare, Google was obscure, and Facebookdidn't exist).

Instead, I have half high-schoolers (mostly 16 or 17) and halfnon-native English speakers. This is good in some respects, but it hassevere consequences for how I teach, since I can no longer assume ashared pool of cultural references or even that the studentsunderstand terms like "in aggregate". The experience hassimultaneously made me pine for the days of being a TA during the academic year, when all the students passed our selective admissionsstandards, and also made me realize that I had been cosseted a bit bylearning how to teach by being selective students' instructors.

All of this is a long preamble to a question that I think dovetailswell with your interests in pedagogy. How much do instructors have toadapt their courses and their styles to the needs of the students? I'mperfectly fine with speaking more slowly, for instance, but I would bemore skeptical of trimming course material from what is already apared-down version of a college course. (Not that I'd refuse to teachthat class--I do need the money--but it would definitely be a case ofneed trumping what I think is best for the material.)

Midcourse corrections are tough, but this is actually a very valuable experience to have in grad school.  

One of the many systemic flaws of graduate education is that it mostly occurs in settings unrepresentative of the vast majority of teaching jobs.  That means that young academics in their formative years can develop some pretty bad teaching habits and get away with it, because their students have been pre-screened to be (mostly) immune to mediocre teaching.  

Then those grad students are loosed on the community colleges and unselective four-year colleges of the world, and have no idea what to do.

The typical community college class might not have quite so many 16 year olds in it, but it may well have a sufficiently diverse group that some of what you might consider common cultural shorthand just won’t fly.  And the levels of academic preparation will vary widely enough that you may find yourself pressed to explain things that it didn’t occur to you you’d have to explain.

You have some choices to make.

If you decide to take this as a challenge, you could make yourself a much better teacher across the board.  (Alternately, you could adopt the crotchety/bitter “students used to be better” pose.)  Your job has changed.  Instead of simply presenting material, you have to figure out how to prioritize it, frame it, and figure out whether/how much the students have absorbed it.  And you can’t necessarily rely on the high schools to have done what you consider groundwork.

Rather than looking at this as “watering down,” which I would find insulting and self-defeating, I’d recommend stepping back and thinking about what you really want the students to learn.  

I had to go through that in my first semesters at Proprietary U.  My graduate institution was selective, so the undergrads on whom I first learned to teach were generally pretty strong (and traditional).  But the students at Prop U were very different.  On the fly, I had to figure out how to reach students of types I had never seen before.

Through some trial and error, I found a couple of things that worked for me.  I hope that my wise and worldly readers who have faced similar situations will chime in with ideas that worked for them, too.

The first change was in how I thought about the point of the course.  Since the students generally had no intention of majoring in my subject, I didn’t see much point in the “I have to cover this and that” approach.  Instead, I focused on getting them to think in ways that my discipline featured.  That required some content, obviously, but it shifted the focus from “here are ten different schools of thought about x” to “let’s try applying this idea to x.”  

The second change was in listening to the students a lot more.  Although their backgrounds and assumptions were different, they weren’t stupid; they just had different frames of reference.  In drawing them out, I was able (sometimes) to find ways to frame ideas that made sense to them.  And I had to let them flounder in public.  In-class exercises -- debates, group exercises, simulations -- helped me find ways to make relative abstractions more concrete, which then gave a point of entry to get back to the abstraction.  

The course became much less about me explaining things, and much more about the students wrestling with things.  My role was to construct the settings in which the students would wrestle with the ideas at hand.

I don’t have a magic way to make that large a switch, successfully, in the middle of a compressed term.  But taking a step back and reflecting on what you really want the students to get out of it -- rather than what you thought you were supposed to cover -- is probably a good start.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Are there other, better ways to shift course mid-semester?  If you suddenly found yourself teaching a different profile of students, how did you adjust?

Good luck!

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

I'm not even sure I understand why this is a question. Teachers need to teach the students they have in front of them.
To Dean Dad: Thank you. ("Watering down" was a bad choice of words--I was thinking specifically of some examples that require math skills that most of my freshmen have had but that you would normally acquire in the senior year of high school; I should have said "adjusting.")

The notion of bringing the course back to its animating questions is particularly useful, as is the even greater emphasis on interaction--something I can, and definitely should, do with a smaller class. I'm grateful to have this experience precisely because it should make me a better teacher over all.

To Anastasia: It's not "teachers need to teach the students they have in front of them," it's "what happens when your students are different from those you've had before?" (And when you have marked variation in their skills and life experiences.) Yes, in nonselective colleges, I'm aware that that's what happens--but by definition, all of my experience to date has been with students in a highly selective institution, which hardly helps in teaching a suddenly diverse and suddenly differently-trained population.
This is one of the most insightful posts DD has ever written, and not just because it gives some background on DD as postsecondary teacher. What makes it so insightful is that this post gives some honestly beneficial teaching advice for graduate students anywhere. A lot of grad students get little to no formal teaching advice, and others have no interest in teaching, let alone teaching well. Even high school teachers often complain that teacher's college of the little practical training they get for in-classroom situations.

Great advice!
I think you are right, on all counts DD, but I'll add two things.

1) The belief that lectures that "cover" the material succeed in imparting that knowledge is mostly an illusion. You might think you (yourself) learned it in class, but what you got was mostly reinforcing what you already knew or had read when preparing for class. This only becomes clear if you either measure learning gains directly or notice that less-well-prepared students are "struggling".

Good pickup there, by the way. "Listening" (including non-verbal cues) is the real key to teaching.

2) My own field, physics, has been gradually evolving away from the "mini PhD" course to one that spends more time on selected topics. Should I spend a day or two "covering" something that I know, with certainty, they will not learn well enough to apply it (or even remember that they learned it) six months from now? No. Topics like that can be picked up from a book as needed, if they are ever needed. Better to select "outcomes" that we know are common to all majors in our intro classes and develop mastery there. This is not watering down the course if the students know more and can do more after a year passes than ones in a traditional class.
This closely parallels my experience here at Proprietary Art School.

My previous teaching experience was at Research Intensive Technological Institute, where the students were highly interested in math and science and were generally well-motivated. At Proprietary Art School, most of the students are certainly not interested in science and math, nor in any STEM field in general.
So I certainly can't teach these students in the same way that I taught the students at Research Intensive Technological Institute.

Many of the students here come from disadvantaged backgrounds, many have families and small children to support, and many have full-time jobs. Some even have criminal records and some have drug problems. They are trying get some sort of education that you get them jobs other than flipping burgers at Wendy's.

I often quip that this place certainly doesn't look anything like Harvard University. And I can't teach these students in such a way that I am pretending that it is.

But I can't look down on these students either--they are facing tough challenges that I never faced when I was that age. Those that do graduate are going to be faced with a tight and competitive job marked and will be confronted with a lot of debt. But I do occasionally encounter students with a spark of intellectual curiosity in them, and this makes the whole effort worthwile.
The posters above are demonstrating a lot of wisdom for the original question-asker (although maybe not enough practical suggestions). On a different, but related, tangent: does the college owe students who actually are well-prepared, and for whom this course is functioning as a pre-rec to upper-level courses, some warning that it will be taught differently and possibly at a slower pace? I can imagine a college sophomore who's taking, say, Introductory Chemistry or Technical Writing so that they can enroll in Chem 2 or the next level of Technical Writing, feeling that s/he has been sold a bill of goods if the course doesn't prepare them for the next level.
I taught per-nursing, upperdivision science and grad classes and had to approach each differently.

I would always start my classes with a short quiz about info I thought the students should know from previous courses (taking basic content from chemistry and other prereqs). This also let me get to know them a little better (I'd ask a few questions about what keeps them busy and how they like to study. One year I asked how much time they had to study - be prepared to be depressed). The results of that quiz told me where I stood in terms of basic concepts and math skills. I also would share those results with the class and tell them that certain skills would be required by course-end if they wanted to pass - so the quiz was a non-graded diagnostic for the students.

I would then look at my learning objectives and plan additional time for background and practice if a particular skill was not supported by the student's previous experience. I also would explicitly tell the students what my objectives were and use them to form my exams. If pressed for time, I would winnow through my objectives and focus most on those needed for the next course(s) in a sequence. I agree with DD in that it is better to teach a handful of concepts well than to "cover" everything and leave your students in the dust.
I have to agree that some adjustment must be considered for each class you teach, just by virtue of different people in each course.

My experience as a student...we'd heard horror stories of a faculty that had come from teaching grad level and was now teaching a junior level course. The previous class said it was horrible, that she was expecting grad level work. After that class the dept chair worked with her and her expectation were toned down for my class. (Many of my classmates still thought she was one of our toughest teachers but I thought it was fairly easy as classes went).

The point? While I have no practical advice to offer, being aware that a different style or different techniques may be needed is half the battle.
Undergrads who complain that I require grad-level work have never taken grad-level work. I am teaching significantly below the level that I got in my own undergrad -- I went to a good undergrad program, and the students here are not at all prepared for that. I still have all my old notes and exams, so I can tell. They usually fail to remember and apply (or learn in the first place!) important principles from the prereq class. How many more times should I re-teach those principles, stealing time from my own class, because they scraped through on the prereq and then forgot it all 2 weeks later? I tell them they'll have to do some work on their own, outside of class, which raises groans.

Don't be fooled; sometimes you have to dumb down your teaching, for real. I did. My evals got way better, my chair got happier, and the students here don't get into grad school because everyone knows this is not a strong program.
ArtMathProf's comments @7:36AM were interesting. They apply just as well to teaching a different class at the same college. Perhaps the correspondent was asking about that situation, but I thought the problem was that it was the same class at the same school, and the students meet the same published prerequisites. The challenge is that it is normally taught with some hidden, unwritten prerequisites that correspond to admission to that college and these students do not have those skills.

If those basic skills are essential ones, you should discuss the problem with your Dean. At my Community College, we use placement tests to exclude students that lack relevant basic skills. If they aren't essential, you do need to adjust your approach to the subject so you can reach the same outcomes without reliance on those skills.

What Ivory writes is what I do to deal with the spread of skills that result even when prerequisites are enforced. If it gets bad enough, we have an interdisciplinary discussion of outcomes, to be sure the prereq expectations are aligned with what later courses expect. Even then, students often actively forget things out of ignorance of even the Concept of Prerequisites.

You can follow the link to my blogs on the topic, but what really works is to get upper division students to talk to the intro students. They believe other students, and the sooner they learn that major classes in Engineering are harder work than my physics class, the better.
I have one piece of practical advice and one piece of conceptual advice.

Practical advice: make every example about food. I cannot emphasize enough how weirdly effective this is. I stumbled across this concept, and now I use it religiously.

Conceptual advise: when I've worked with students who are just not prepared at the level I'm used to, I accept that while I'm not going to get as far in the prepared material as I might have liked, I am DEFINITELY going to teach way more than I planned to. That takes a lot of the sting out and helps get me excited about the challenge at hand.
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