Thursday, December 15, 2005

The twelve o'clock scholar

False starts
A dillar, a dollar
A ten o'clock scholar
Why do you come so soon?
You used to come at ten o'clock
But now you come at noon
The fall semester is over and it's time to file the grades. As a diligent pedagogue, I always make a point of checking that my grade spreadsheets accurately represent the handwritten records in my gradebook. Once again, I see an unmistakable pattern. Eight of my students' names were originally entered into my gradebook by hand because they did not appear on the original print-out. They were neither pre-enrolled nor on the official waiting list on the first day of class.

Seven of the eight students are gone. The one survivor squeaked by with a C. The others dropped the course (or I ended up dropping them for nonattendance). The moral is clear: It's a waste of time to add "walk in" students to your roster. If they didn't have their act together sufficiently to register before the beginning of the semester (or at least get on the waiting list for classes that are fully enrolled), they aren't going to pass.

If anything, my gradebook understates the magnitude of the problem. As a rule, I do not take a student's name the first day he or she happens to show up. Instead I give each one an enrollment card to fill out and tell the student to bring it to the next class session. Often I never see them again. Absent the instant gratification of an add-slip signed by the instructor, the student goes searching for more immediate rewards. No doubt this simple mechanism is sparing me from quite a number of foredoomed students, although I don't like stating it this way. It just seems to be the truth.

Perhaps I should have a short informational handout for next semester's late arrivals. Will it do any good? Only if they're able to learn a lesson from printed material, and I'm afraid the evidence for that is slender. In any case, here goes:

Dear prospective student:

Thank you for inquiring about openings in my math class. You are welcome to add your name to the "late add" list tomorrow if you fill out and bring back the student information card I gave you. If you had remembered to bring a pen or pencil, you might even have filled it out today.

No, I will not sign an add-slip for you today. I understand you think this is an urgent matter, but in that case you should have signed up for the class in advance. If this class is full, you could have added your name to the waiting list even before the semester began. We can put up to twenty names on the waiting list and there was room for yours, but we did not see you till today.

I'm sorry you think it's unfair that we begin our semester earlier than other colleges. We are an open-admission community college and we have a longer semester than the limited-admission state university. That's why we start earlier. For that matter, the university doesn't even offer the courses that you need, while we can even instruct you in the high school courses that you shirked.

Thank you for informing me that you're going to work really hard and do really well if I let you into this class. Such a result would be contrary to the bulk of the evidence I have seen in my years as a teacher, yet hope springs eternal.


Dr. Z


Zeno said...

Thanks, Vito. I should look at some of my previous semester records to see if they confirm my general impression. I had three classes this fall semester and the eight students I talked about were in precalculus and calculus. I can't say anything about my intermediate algebra class because it was completely full, with a long waiting list, and I didn't take any walk-ins at all. However, it's in algebra classes in the past where I've seen some of the biggest attrition among late adds. Perhaps I'll add an update if I run across my old semester grade records during the holiday break.

Anonymous said...

It has occurred to me to keep track of these things in order to check for such trends, but at the beginning of the semester I'm always trying to be chipper, so I don't let myself indulge in such cynicism. I guess I could still ferret out some of the data at this point, only now I'm embracing my cynicism so fiercely that I don't care enough to make the effort.

Grumpy, grumpy.

Anonymous said...

Just when I was thinking 90% of bloggers are young people, I see some adults. Anyway, I was going to give you a link to a college-level math instructor blogger friend of mine, not realizing you had a few such contacts already. Since I'm here...
He also has a math blog.

Zeno said...

Thanks, dus7. I'll go check it out.

Anyway, if only 90% of bloggers are youngsters, that still leaves 10% for us grownups (if I did my math right).

Anonymous said...

Dr Z!

I am worried and confused. (Not really, but I pretend to be to throw off my students.)

You may want to add something to the letter along the lines of:

You should also be aware that adding a class and passing it are two entirely different things. Even those who successfully avoid the obnoxious hassle of pre-enrolling in a class will not be able to avoid the work involved in passing the class. In fact, you may consider adding this class as a liability... a potential F for a potential student.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... do you have sufficiently yellowed grade sheets to compare grades across the decades. Were students better when they waited for hours in the rain (or sun) to enroll for their classes?

Amazingly, I was once a student who did this. Enrolled in classes the personal way, that is. It was always the same. I would stand in line for hours being ignored by the others in line and then at the moment of truth discover if I got the professors I wanted. There were always enough sections, but never enough seats for the, shall we say, desirable professors. This was something of a reward, I guess, for them too. No one happened into their classes by chance.

I ramble... perhaps a result of waiting in too many lines without people to talk to. Of course, had I talked to them they might have talked me out of taking so many math classes. Now that is circuitous reasoning.

For the younger 90% among us... this isn't a myth. People really did enroll this way. Some even camped out, literally with tents. I kid you not.

Zeno said...

Well, Anonymous, I am certainly of the era when class enrollment was a personal instead of a digital endeavor. In the days before on-line enrollment and computerized waiting lists, you had to be prepared to get in line early during the registration periods (usually outside the college gym—one of the only reasons I'd ever go inside those noisome places). Failing that, you could end up in line again on the first day of class in hopes of snatching an opening or getting the instructor to allow you to sit in the aisle or stand in the back of the lecture hall. Ah, good times.

Those strenuous efforts bespoke commitment and I was as dedicated as any when it came to getting into classes that were supposedly closed to further enrollment. Today, though, enrollment is a pretty simple business for even slightly computer-literate students, who can click on the classes they want at any time of the day or night during the open enrollment period. The ones who stroll in late have not, in my experience of the past handful of years, been successful students. The exceptions seem unfortunately few.

Maybe we should bring back in-person registration and tents.