Friday, February 17, 2006

Lesson plans & pans

Inmates and asylums

It's a very ancient saying,
But a true and honest thought,
That if you become a teacher,
By your pupils you'll be taught.

The King and I, Oscar Hammerstein II

Like most of my colleagues in the teaching profession, I don't really think that I have all of the answers. In general, though, I'm pretty sure that I have more of them than my students do. One of teaching's most fascinating aspects is the teacher's constant interaction (and occasional combat) with the many-headed beast known as the classroom. After a couple of decades, I think I've met most of the student archetypes, but there's still room for the occasional surprise.

Several years ago, a calculus student patiently explained to me that he did not need to do homework. After all, if I did my job right and provided good examples in class with lucid expositions, he would understand the concepts and procedures of the subject without any of that tedious grubbing about with homework problems. I heard him out as patiently as I could. He really seemed serious about it, although I had entertained the possibility that he was a more subtle joker than I usually encountered. I asked him if he could ride a bike. He thought about that for a while, seemed to get the point, and didn't press his argument.

Another student habitually made many small errors on every quiz or exam, losing lots of points for forgetting basic steps or using formulas incorrectly. When we discussed his situation, I suggested he take more time working on the notecard I permit my students to use during exams and quizzes. (I do not emphasize memorization, but prefer to reduce test anxiety by allowing students to refer to a handwritten notecard. Some of them realize that they actually learn the material while poring over their text and notes for material to write on their cards. I do not always warn them about the potential for inadvertent learning.)

My student explained to me that he did not have a notecard. That was unfortunate, I replied, because he had lost several points by confusing the point-slope form of a linear equation with the slope-intercept form. If only he had written them down and labeled them properly, he would not have gotten as confused during the exam. He agreed that I had a point, but he informed me that it was not right to use a notecard during exams because that was cheating. “It can't be cheating if you have your instructor's permission. It's cheating only if a notecard is not allowed and you use one anyway,” I explained. No, he insisted, he just didn't feel right about it. I agreed it was his choice. Later, after complaining that I expected them to remember an unreasonable amount of material on each exam, he dropped the class. Oh, well.

The boycott approach

This semester I am experiencing something new in student behavior. It's not uncommon for students to complain about some aspect of a course and express a wish that it were different, but one of my elementary algebra students has gone quite a bit further. She has adopted the novel approach of boycotting the class until I mend my ways. As you might imagine, I feel an intense pressure to capitulate so that this particular disagreeable student will once again grace the class with her presence. She has been sending me daily e-mail dispatches from her stronghold (the college library) while waiting for me to snap.
I am in the library using the time constructively to move myself ahead so I will no longer feel like I am being pushed by your incessant daily quizzes.
My algebra class stumbled rather badly on the second exam of the semester, which was devoted to linear graphs and their equations. Since my students will be doomed in intermediate algebra if they don't master linear equations in elementary algebra, I recycled some of the exam problems into quizzes that I give each day while continuing to progress through the syllabus.
I simply feel it would be more constructive if instead of so many quizzes, more time was spent reviewing the homework problems in preparation for WEEKLY quizzes and the tests. It has only been one month since this semester began. Already there has been 10+ quizzes. Quizzes that have achieved little more than an approximate 50% failure rate.
The “10+” is strictly correct: There have been 11. However, she exaggerates the failure rate on the quizzes. I wish she had noticed that she was doing better on the quizzes than on the exams. I posted averages for each.
Instructing on the current daily homework lesson problems before the homework is done, then going over the problems in class the next day would do alot [sic] in promoting student/teacher relations. What goes on in class is a rapid-fire hit-and-miss construct of the homework that has already been assigned leaving no time for instruction on the current daily homework assignment and review. It is like putting the cart before the ox.
While that's an interesting variation on the theme of carts and horses, the curious fact is that my class periods routinely begin by my taking questions on the previous day's homework assignment. Until she began boycotting the class, my unhappy student was frequently the first person whose question got answered. And so far this term I've been pretty successful at covering all the new topics each day, complete with worked examples. Oh, well.
More emphasis should be put on helping students understand the current daily homework assignment problems than on your perceived goal of higher daily quiz grades. The grades you posted for the two classes you teach show approximately half of the students in each class FAIL. The only constant in those statistics is the common factor of having the same teacher; the same instruction construct.
She exaggerates the proportion of failing students on the roster, but I'm glad she picked up on my goal of getting their quiz scores higher. Frequent quizzes are a great device for determining whether students are staying caught up with the material (and I've learned that some of them are decidedly not), as well as an effective means for letting students know what to expect on exams. The exams are weighted much more heavily in the grading system outlined in my syllabus, and I pointed out to my students that the low weight of the quizzes means their mistakes on initially encountering quiz problems can be offset when they meet similar problems on the tests.
Perhaps some serious consideration should be given to reconstructing instruction techniques that achieve greater student understanding of the daily homework problems in preparation for tests, improving student/teacher relations, than attempting to achieve statistics using problematic methods.
My student's writing is fairly competent and peculiarly euphonious. I've written back to thank her for her comments and to explain that (a) the class is not going to be restructured to suit her preferences and (b) the one certain result of not coming to class is a failing grade. Some interesting thought processes are going on here and I confess that I do not understand them. I wish I did.


Big Bill said...

You must be joking. You don't understand the thought processes? By any traditional rational male standard she is deranged, yet you write her back and explain things, and you don't understand her? What about yourself?

She is awoman raised in a molly-codling age in which girl professor get to swoon when htey hear Larry Summerssay unpleasantthings. They see Larry Summers get fired for hurting girls feelings. They know that hurt feelings rule, particularly if you are not male, and not white.

I would suspect that for years she has been able to stamp her pretty little foot and get the approprate male responses. Why should you be any different? She will go home after a semester, stamp her feet in ffrint of her daddy and tell him why she could
NEVER go back. He will blow his stack andd her momma will wring her hands nervously. And she will live off daddy for another two or three years before he kicks her ass out. Pity he didn't kick her ass ten years ago, but in this feminist age that would be not nice.

Zeno said...

Hi, Big Bill. Thanks for your comment. It's pretty ignorant, but thanks just the same. You know nothing about my student except for the few sentences that I quoted, but you quickly leaped to the conclusion that she is a spoiled little Daddy's girl. Wrong. She lives on her own, in straitened circumstances, with no one to spoil her and fuss over her. While I think she is sadly mistaken over how she should deal with her education, I do not believe that an ass-kicking would be a good solution. You could probably use one, though.