Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Charge of the Wrong Brigade

Theirs not to reason why

Consider, if you will, the following numbers: 108, 111, 126, 128, 134, 150, 161. Notice anything special about them?

Technically, they should all have percent symbols after them, as they are target scores from the most recently posted rankings in my elementary algebra class. These scores are accompanied by a bit of text explaining that each student's number is “the score you need to earn on all remaining exams (including the final) to get the indicated grade.” The “indicated grade” in this instance? A letter grade of C. The minimum passing grade that secures academic credit for the course and meets the prerequisite requirement for subsequent course work.

That's right: seven of my students must earn more than 100% of the points on all remaining semester exams—including the final—if they are to eke out C grades. Do I give that much extra credit? Don't make me laugh. (Or cry.) Extra credit is a scam by which meaningless grades are earned. I don't play that game.

It's not a large class. The seven doomed students signify that this semester I have one-third of my algebra students irredeemably on the road to failure. It is not mathematically possible for them to pass the class. Although we have weeks to go in the term, they have already dug heroically deep holes.

For example, the student who needs to score 108% on the remaining chapter tests and final exam has, to date, averaged only 55%, approximately half of what she needs to accomplish in the future. She is, by the way, the only one of my seven predestined failures who has stopped coming to class. While she hasn't officially dropped the course yet, she at least has stopped spinning her wheels and I hope she is using the time to good advantage in some other class. (It took me a while to be sure she had really stopped attending, since she is my notorious Tuesday-Thursday girl.)

The other six, however, still come pointlessly to class. Their attendance is spotty, which is part of the reason they got into their current situation, but all six were in class this week. The benighted fellow who serve as the class caboose is chronically late—when he shows up at all—but he dutifully racks up his 22% average on exams while actually needing 161%.


I would like to tell you that I wish I had made the situation clearer and that I wish my students had paid more attention to the student scores posted on the classroom wall.

But I can't tell you any of that because I don't wish any of the above things. You see, I did make the situation clear. I told one student after another his or her target scores. I did not skip the failing students. They know their target scores are beyond reach because I told them that their target scores are beyond reach.

They appear not to understand what it all means, and I presume that their deep-seated innumeracy is a major symptom of their academic ills. I fully expect the stubborn six to flame out catastrophically on the final exam and then bewail their flunking grades by telling me it's unfair. After all, some of them attended most of our class sessions.

I can attest that I saw them there in class. And I must say that they tend to keep their desks very nice and clean, clear of all clutter such as textbooks or notepads. It leaves more room for their cell phones, iPods, and morning coffee.

I regard it as one of teaching's cardinal sins to dismiss a student's chances of success and to give up on them. But my stubborn six remain oblivious and are obviously entirely beyond my reach. It would be unseemly of me to pound my head on the chalkboard.

Into the valley of F
Rode the six flunkers.


eProf2 said...

Have you advised them to withdraw from your class and start afresh again next semester? Failing is one of the options available to your six flunkers. Another is for the six to withdraw and try again. As I used to tell my students, "a transcript, unlike so many other documents about us, will follow you the rest of your life. Protect it and amass the best grades you can. Your chances in life will be determined, in large part, by what you're doing in school right now."

Zeno said...

My school has a very late drop deadline. I think that encourages students to hang in there till the bitter end in the crazy hope that some sort of miracle will occur. I have actually had students ask me how many D's they have to get before it "adds up" to a C. We're having another exam soon. If the stubborn six last till then, their "target numbers" will soar to ever more ridiculously unattainable heights. I'll take them aside one by one again and repeat my suggestion that they spend more time on their other classes and try again next semester. It didn't do any good last time, but teachers can be stubborn, too. I'll try.

Unknown said...

I graduated from college years ago, but I still have that dream; I discover I have a final test or a major project due and I haven't even been to class in months.

Which actually kind of happened. I wanted to sign up for a class which was too full, so showed up on the first day and was about 8 down on the waiting list. Thinking I'd never get in anyway, and never hearing that I was in, I never went back. Near the end of the term I got a note very similar to the one you gave out. I just dropped the class with the explanation that I'd never known I was actually in it.

Kristjan Wager said...

I can see one reason for continuing to show up for classes: learn something that makes it easier to retake the class.
Somehow I don't think that's the case here.

Zeno said...

A most excellent point, Krisjan, but pretty clearly not the rationale of my doomed student cohort. They really appear to be absorbing nothing. One of them has handed back her last two quizzes with nothing more on them than her name. (She can't factor polynomials at all, not even monic ones.) I once had a student tell me quite directly that she was in my class only to qualify for financial aid. Are any of my stubborn six in that category? I do not know.

Anonymous said...

I teach both high school and community college chemistry. I make the same point, Krisjan, to my high school students in particular. Perhaps you should learn something now, to make it easier when you are in class again later, but alas, no teenager has yet to heed my warning. Some are crashing and burning a second or third time in this class (chem is a course required for HS graduation in California now).

I know at the community college level, some students stick it out so they can keep the financial aid checks rolling in. Granted, too many F's and a low GPA will get your aid yanked too, but sometimes they are in the situation that if they drop the class then they'll drop below full time and have to give some of the money back. So in essance, they are getting paid for seat warming.