Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A failure to communicate

She said ≠ She heard

My colleague and I were making light conversation in the faculty room as we checked our mail-boxes.

“I see you have a clique of my former prealgebra students in your compressed algebra class,” Professor Turin observed. “I saw them hanging together before your class.”

“Oh, were they yours last semester? Most of them are doing pretty well,”

“I'm not surprised,” she said. Then she hesitated. “But how is Kara doing?”

I sighed.

“Poor Kara. Not well. The pace of the class has her quite stressed and she makes lots of mistakes. She really should have picked a more regular schedule.”

“That is exactly what I told her,” said Turin. “She was keen to take your class because of the compressed schedule and I warned her that it was a bad fit. She freaked out several times during my prealgebra and it was always about her fear of falling behind. I wish she had listened to me and enrolled in a regular section.”

“Yeah, well, what can you do?”

It was less than a week later that Kara read the handwriting on the wall and visited my office hour to inform me that she was cutting her losses and dropping my compressed algebra class.

“I could really use the time better on my other courses, Dr. Z. The class goes too fast and it's hard to understand.”

“That's a perfectly reasonable decision, Kara. It's important to make the best use of your time. You should do better next semester in a regular section of algebra.” I paused before asking her a question. “Did you talk to your prealgebra instructor before enrolling in my class?”

I deliberately did not mention my colleague's name or otherwise indicate that I had already discussed the matter with her. Kara brightened up immediately.

“Oh, yeah! I did! Turin said I could definitely do well in your class. She said I was all ready for it, but I guess things just didn't quite work out as we had expected.”

My eyebrows wanted to go up and my eyeballs wanted to bulge out, but I think I managed to control my facial features and maintain a mien of serenity.

“Well, yes, Kara. Things didn't work out this time. Better luck next time.”

After Kara left my office, I stalked the hallways looking for my colleague. Turin was in her office. I recounted my conversation with her former student. She was dumbfounded.

“That doesn't sound anything like the conversation we had. I tried really hard to warn her she was making a mistake!”

We considered the matter for a while. Clearly Kara had a ferociously effective data filter that allowed only good news to impinge on her consciousness. Since it is Professor Turin's nature to be encouraging and as positive as possible, I was certain she had sprinkled her cautions with snippets of praise that had been the only things Kara had heard. Eventually, Turin reconstructed her comments and we identified Kara's post-production editing.

What Turin said:

“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara, but Dr. Z's compressed algebra class would be a tough challenge. I'm certain a regular algebra class would be perfect for you.”

What Kara heard:

“You're a good prealgebra student, Kara, but Dr. Z's compressed algebra class would be a tough challenge. I'm certain a regular algebra class would be perfect for you.”

There's no simple cure for this. Certainly Turin isn't suddenly going to stop offering her students positive feedback, even if only as mitigating factors in a negative review. Equally certainly, Kara is not going to stop selectively hearing what she wants to hear. I fear the set of solutions may be the empty set.


Karen said...

I've had a rare opportunity to see into the minds of undergraduates as a graduate student (with years of professional work under my belt), as I have changed fields and was required to take most of the undergraduate upper-level classes in my new field before I could take the graduate classes.

The optimism of the struggling students is astounding. I've heard multiple excuses as to why a particular student wasn't doing well in class. Never did I hear, "Well, this stuff is really difficult." It was the professor's fault, or the timing of the class, or the commute, or something. (I'm deliberately excluding parental problems here, because they're legitimate game changers, and more than one struggling classmate was a parent of a young child.)

But I came away with the notion that we're asking too much of our younger population, expecting them ALL to go to college. For some folks, it really is too difficult -- and that doesn't speak to their intelligence, just to their learning ability in a classroom environment.

João Paulo said...

When I tried to see the video, I got this message:

"You've reached this page because we are currently not allowed to share our videos across United States borders.
It sucks. We know.

If you're in Europe or the UK, try

Otherwise, why not play a game on the main site or log on to our message boards to tell us how much you hate us now?


This is new to me. I thought the UK was in Europe. On the other hand, they already know I hate them, so I will not bother logging on to their message board to repeat it. Or play a game on the main site. Still, it was more fun than the simple message "you cannot see this video in your country bla bla bla..."

Oh, and I feel sorry for Kara. I really do. Having that kind of data filter is not good for you.

Zeno said...

Crazy optimism does seem to flourish among my most challenged students. In one developmental math class, the semester had gotten to a point where there was little time in which to make significant repairs to one's class standing. Nevertheless, students with no realistic chance of passing showed up for the penultimate chapter test. I had even posted minimum target scores on the classroom bulletin board for their information, but the student who needed 99% on all subsequent exams (including the final) to squeak out a semester grade of C was there, taking a test that she was doomed to fail. So were half a dozen less dramatic cases, all of whom needed to start racking up solid scores in the middle to high 80s to pass the class (scores unlike any they had seen to that point in the semester). Some of them might just be going through the motions so as not to become disqualified for financial aid, but most of them were somehow thinking that they just might pass. Wow.

Tualha said...

Kara clearly has a great future as a GOP candidate.

Jake said...

She might have a filter... or she might have been lying. Maybe she was afraid of getting an "I [or my colleague, as the case may be] told you so!" admonishment, and made up her excuse on the spot. Not saying this is definitely what happened, just offering it as an alternative interpretation.