Monday, November 17, 2014


Reaching the Range

In a group discussion recently, several professors brought up the challenge of teaching a class in which the range of student preparation levels stretches from “coulda gone anywhere, if not for money and family issues” to “not yet reading at a college level.”  When you have students at either end of that continuum, and at all points in between, in the same room at the same time, reaching all of them isn’t easy.

College professors traditionally aren’t really taught how to teach, except by example.  But the examples are usually drawn from graduate school, in which you can usually take a certain level of academic preparation and interest for granted.  (At least, I hope so!)  I recall some very talented lecturers in grad school, and some competent discussions, but I don’t recall ever being taught how to reach undergrads who struggled to read the text, when they bothered to try.  That does not seem to have changed in most fields.  (I’ll tip my cap here to the rhet/comp folk, who have made a point of reaching students where they actually are.)

Some of the academic departments try to attack the issue by gatekeeping.  Putting prerequisites on courses is a way to screen out the most academically challenged.  But outside of courses in which the content builds in a linear way, like the algebra sequence, it’s gatekeeping for the sake of gatekeeping.  It tends to create certain academic ghettos into which developmental students are herded, because they still need full-time status and they still want to make progress towards graduation.  It often starves the walled-off courses of the enrollments they need, if they’re going to run.  And based on both anecdotal feedback and pass rates, it seems to make much less difference than its proponents want it to make in the classroom.  Besides, if we want to speed up completion rates, gatekeeping is the last thing we should be doing.

Ideally, some targeted professional development to help faculty work more effectively with the students they actually have.  That way we wouldn’t have to choose between open access and high success.  This is where I’m hoping my wise and worldly readers can ride to the rescue.

We’ve all endured professional development workshops or events in which the living envied the dead.  The usual sins run the gamut from “field-specific to a field that isn’t mine” to “irrelevant for the students we actually have” to “would be nice, if we had triple the budget we have.”  And that’s without even getting into the more reductive versions of The One True Faith or There’s An App For That.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen, or found, or developed, a professional development resource that was actually helpful in the specific challenge of reaching students across a wide range of preparation levels?  Ideally, one that isn’t specific to a single discipline?  I’d love to provide faculty access to something that would actually help, and that would help across a wide spectrum of disciplines.  We aren’t moving to selective admissions, and the range isn’t getting any narrower, so anything that’s actually useful would be appreciated.

Nope, never seen any professional development for faculty that was remotely close to being useful. What I've learned, I've learned on my own.

I think that your criterion of it no being discipline-specific is a guarantee of it being useless pablum. The only chance that faculty development has of being useful is if it is tied to the specific pedagogy of the field. Physics teachers may benefit from learning the model-based approach to teaching physics, but it won't so any other teachers any good.

One reason that comp/rhet folks have focused more on teaching students where they are at is that their faculty development has been specific to freshman writing classes. Of course, one consequence of the "teach them where they are" approach is that students coming out of freshman comp often still can't write at a college level.
I semi-agree with the "not discipline specific" criteria being pretty limiting. By far the best professional development I've had as a high school teacher was the Modeling Physics approach. On the one hand, it's "just" the Socratic approach tied to designing labs, collecting data, analyzing the results for general rules, and then applying rules. And it does a decent job of trying to reach students where they're at, in a mixed motivation and ability classroom. On the other hand, a lot of its power is dealing specifically with the specific misconceptions and types of labs that are great for physics.

Have you tried talking to an Education school near you? They spend a fair amount of time trying to teach strategies for differentiation and reaching a broad range of preparations and approaches to learning. I've got a Ph.D., and while the level of material varies from K-12 to undergrad to grad school, at some point the strategies are somewhat universal.
My SLAC had a great faculty development series this past year -- the key to success was focus on an issue which, while appearing in many settings, is itself rather narrow.

In this case, the topic was "reading". The facilitator (a philosophy prof at a state school) did a great job of identifying ways in which students get hung up over reading... and identifying various interventions, most of which apply across disciplines. I came away with great thoughts for my mathematics students about how to read proofs!
I think -- with all due respect! -- that you misstate the purpose of gatekeeping. For one thing, there's quite a bit of research from our K-12 friends that shows advantages to separating out both ends of the bell curve. While I appreciate that students in longer developmental tracks often don't complete college, well, students in foreshortened developmental tracks often emerge without "college-level" skills. Open access is wonderful. No question. But college is supposed to be challenging. Saying "The deep end is a great place for you to start!" doesn't help weak swimmers. Pass rates aren't the only way to measure success; I've definitely had students who weren't writing or reading or presenting or test-taking at even a high school level, and who nonetheless had passed every college class they've taken. They find four-year colleges to be a sharp shock.

Gatekeeping is also helpful at addressing differentiation. I never learned how to teach! If I wasn't married to a K-12 teacher, I wouldn't know a dang thing about teaching! And that's a problem at an open-access school like mine. If the institution isn't willing to invest heavily in teacher training -- and will any of 'em be willing in this economy? -- where do we pick up the skills needed to teach remedial-through-gifted simultaneously? I'm pleased that you're looking for answers to this question; you have a long reach. However, this is a fundamental feature/bug of open access schools. If institutions (and governments and taxpayers) aren't willing to invest in ongoing training of their teachers, we'll adopt heavy-handed solutions so our classes can function.

TL;DR -- sometimes you use a club because there isn't a scalpel.
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