Monday, December 23, 2013

Brain damage!

Explaining students

Two of the greatest minds in pedagogy recently came together to ponder some of the profoundest educational conundrums of the era. Or, to put it more prosaically, I called up a former student of mine for a chat. I, of course, hold a prestigious tenured professorship at a California community college. He is a lecturer in English at an out-of-state university. No, we are not universally recognized as the leading experts in our respective fields, but we figure that's mostly the fault of other people. Whenever we talk, we quickly reach agreement in our perspectives and opinions. It immediately follows that the many deficiencies in modern education must stem mostly from a failure to sufficiently adopt our preferred policies and emulate our instructional practices. Just listen to us! It's really quite a pity that so straightforward a solution to so many problems continues to languish unrecognized.

However, we should accept the need for a modicum of caution. There is an unfortunate gap in our grasp of the educational enterprise. Upon comparing notes, PiD and I have come to the unhappy realization that our immense intellects have yet to figure out what makes our students go. (Or not go.) It's perplexing!

For example, I told my entire algebra class that our mastery of the quadratic formula meant that we would never again face a quadratic equation for which “no solution” was a satisfactory answer. Solutions would always exist, whether rational, irrational, or complex. Always! Yet on the next exam several of my students labeled some of the quadratic equations as “prime” and solemnly wrote “no solution” in the answer blank.

PiD advised his English composition class that rewrites were a fundamental component of composition and that course grades would rely much more on their diligence in rewriting and improving their essays than on generating sparkling first drafts. As the academic term progressed, several students asked him how to get better grades. “Have you submitted rewrites of all of your essays?” he asked. “We didn't know we had to do that!” they told him. “But the due dates for rewrites are on the syllabus and I send out e-mail reminders as the dates approach!” “Yeah, but we can't know those unless we look at the syllabus or check our e-mail. You should have told us in class.” “But I did tell you in class!” “Well, maybe. But did you check that we were in class that day? I'm too busy to come to class every day, you know.”

A student wrote me a note in response to a problem on the calculus final exam. The problem asked, “What is the area inside the circle r = 3 and outside the cardioid r = 2(1 – cos θ)?” My student wrote, “Failed because I forgot the eq. for a circle in polar coordinates.” Um. Did you notice? The problem said, “the circle r = 3”?

The great minds of the age crumple in defeat.

Perhaps I did not sufficiently recognize a learning opportunity of my own from decades ago, back when my intellect was forming and a famous educator was trying to teach me some vital lessons.  William H. Cosby, Jr., Ed.D. (1976, UMass, Amherst), discovered these clues during highly personalized field research on his own family. Perhaps our students, like Cosby's children, are led into irrational, disturbing behavior by brain damage. It would explain so much!

If only I had paid more attention back then.


Karen said...

Zeno's alive and has survived the semester!

Seriously, you really don't want to get into the minds of some of your students. It will only reduce your understanding of the world, without increasing your understanding of them.

evlunclbud said...

One of my more legalistic students racked up an 88%. Rather than cave in, I awarded her a B, knowing it is not over. I'm sure the dean will be speaking to her.

Nullifidian said...

It's not just the greatest minds of pedagogy who are puzzled by students. Sometimes students are puzzled by students as well.

My favorite example of the kind was from a "British Literature I: 800-1800" class. Part of the course requirement was that we do an oral report on an author or work that fell within the scope of our class, preferably a work or author not discussed in the course. Our class had Blackboard and we laid claim to our preferred works on one of the forums, so that others could see it and avoid duplications. Therefore, I was privy to the discussion that took place when one of my classmates floated Dante as an author he'd like to cover. We were nearing midterms, so for about two months this idiot had been going to classes and not realizing that we were reading a strangely high amount of British literature for a general European or World Lit course. When my professor tactfully pointed out that Dante was slightly outside the class' purview, he posted another reply asking the professor to come up with some names for authors he could study, because according to him there was no way he could possibly find this information on his own. *headdesk* I resisted my first inclination to flame him, though it was a struggle, and instead told him how he might find this information on his own. I pointed out that Wikipedia was always available, but if he wanted an offline method of finding potential authors and titles, he could take his syllabus and the table of contents of an anthology of British literature like the one assigned for the freaking class and compare the two, then pick a name or title that wasn't duplicated. I was tempted but didn't ask if he needed someone to deliver the oral report for him because I feared being taken up on the suggestion.

Perhaps I was just raised differently, but whenever I've gotten a bad grade my first thought wasn't that something was wrong with the professor and I always thought it was my obligation to think up ways of doing what the professors wanted me to do on my own, assuming that the professors wouldn't require things of their students that were beyond the ken of humanity.

Visions of that student in an office job just flashed in my head. A hastily scrawled memo arrives in the inbox of his manager titled "Urgent: Need Clarification" and reading as follows:

"You asked me to compile and create charts of our productivity figures. Do you want me to turn the computer on first? Could you show me the right way to turn on the computer and compile the information requested? Please forgive the handwritten note, but I can't use e-mail until I know whether it's okay to turn the machine on."