Sunday, August 26, 2007

Why we teach


“Our job is to make sure the students pass.”

My colleague spoke these words with great conviction. I had no reason to doubt her complete sincerity. Nor did I doubt my complete disagreement.

When I was applying for jobs back in the eighties, one of the popular buzzwords was “facilitator.” You didn't tell hiring committees that you were going to “teach” the students. No, you going going to “facilitate their learning.” Part of this, of course, was telling people what they wanted to hear: Say the secret word and win a hundred dollars—or a teaching position. It helps to know the codes and the special handshake.

But there is a lot of truth in the notion of facilitation. We help them learn. We can't make them learn. When you get right down to it, “teach” is not a very transitive verb. You need a lot of cooperation from the direct object. I like to think that I occasionally inveigle someone into becoming a better learner, but we teachers are pretty helpless if the students are determined to be just seat-warmers (assuming they attend classes!).

These days one of our favorite buzzwords is the adjective “multiple.” We evaluate student performance by means of multiple measures. We deliver course content in multiple modes to appeal to the multiple intelligences of our diverse student population. It's an apt word. Like Lt. Uhura, we need to “open all hailing frequencies,” because not all of our students are tuned in across the spectrum.

We're in the business of delivering subject matter content, striving as best we can to fit our instruction to the needs of the individual student, and working to establish reasonable benchmarks by which to gauge the progress of our students and to provide a basis for assigning grades to their levels of performance. It's tricky and it's messy, but it seems a worthwhile endeavor. Most days I feel like a contributing member of society.

But not all of my students pass. In a typical developmental math course (like introductory algebra), it's not unusual for student success rates to hover around the fifty percent mark. By the end of a school term, half the students you started with have either dropped out or failed to earn a passing grade. I know that's a frustrating experience for me as an instructor, and I'm certain it's even more emotionally draining for the students who tried and failed.

I said “tried.” That's a loaded word. As a college faculty member, I have the luxury of volunteer students. No truancy law chivvies them into school. They have all chosen of their own free will to sign up for my class. (Sometimes I get a quibble from a student who claims he's enrolled under protest, my course being a requirement he can't avoid. In that case, I ask him sweetly who chose his major for him. It's voluntary.) I take their voluntary enrollment as a commitment to try to pass the class. I commit myself to trying to help them pass the class.

However, I certainly do not consider it my job to ensure that they get a passing grade. If that were my mission in life, I would know how to do it. I prefer instead to maintain some standards.

The new generation

My school has been going through a wave of faculty hiring, and my department has been assimilating an influx of eager new math instructors. My new colleagues, most of whom are significantly younger than I am—several fresh out of grad school—are looking toward the senior faculty members for hints and suggestions on how the job is done. Although we have a formal mentoring process in which each new instructor is paired up with a senior faculty member for advice and guidance, a lot of the information comes from more casual interactions and office bull sessions. Will they pick up my colleague's notion that it's our job to make sure our students pass? And how far should a believer in that dictum go to ensure its realization?

I did some nosing about on out of curiosity to see how my colleague's students viewed her. These are some of the comments (paraphrased) that I encountered:
She is a great teacher, very helpful. As long as you can do math I recommend you take her. C students were getting A's. I would take her again if I could. Loved her!

I missed a couple weeks of class and I was not prepared for exam #2, but she gave me as much time as I needed to catch up and make up the test. She also let me turn in most of the homework during the last week of class. A less patient professor would have flunked me for sure, but she helped me earn an A. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

VERY EASY! She is really nice and just a really easy teacher. You just show up on review days and makes notes for the test and it's all good!

Her class is really easy. She asks for the least amount of work and she tells you exactly what is going to be on the test. She even tells you whats gonna be on the final exam. Just learn her examples. This is a super easy class.

She is the best math teacher I have ever had. If you are the type of person who doesn't get math, don't worry, you will pass with her.

The easiest math teacher ever. You can pass easily or even get an A if you do a third of your homework. You can still do really well even if you don't go to class.

We should always take student evaluations with a grain of salt. They aren't exactly disinterested parties and some negative reviews are written by students who want to shift the blame for their difficulties to their teachers. Positive reviews, however, are usually the real thing. My colleague is much loved. She gives A's to C students. Did the students blossom under her tutelage and rise a couple of grade levels in their math achievements? When I see comments from the unprepared student who was given enormous latitude to make up a missed exam, I doubt it's simply a matter of improvement by the student. Rather, I think someone has lowered the bar. A lot.

What happens when my popular colleague's students move on to subsequent courses? Well, if they go from her introductory algebra class to your intermediate algebra class, expect trouble. They want extra-credit assignments and get peevish if you don't provide them with a problem-for-problem practice test in advance of each exam. Immediately after a bad exam performance, they will ask you when they can take it again. This is a learning mode that doesn't, I admit, sit well with me. (We offer a self-paced learning lab for students who thrive in that environment, but I teach a standard classroom course.)

The general level of happiness in the universe is preserved to a degree because many of these supposedly successful students are merely satisfying a graduation requirement for an associate's degree and will never take another math course. Their ability to continue in upper-division courses will be stunted, but they may never discover that. A few, though, will try to climb upward, having received academic credit for a course whose content is still mostly a mystery to them. Their happiness may be short-lived when they get lost in their next round of classes. If the course was simply an obstacle in their path, then I guess they have dealt with it. If they were actually looking for an education, I trust they will be content with their good grade.


Anonymous said...

If our job is to make students pass, then a diploma mill does it better than any university professor ever has.

And in my opinion the object of "to teach" is the topic of the course, not the student. I teach mathematics, and students (hopefully) learn mathematics. I don't "teach students".

Anonymous said...

The college where I teach hires high school teachers to adjunct for the algebra course. So we teach the students. But they take a uniform final exam, and cannot pass the course without passing the exam. So we teach the course.

Don't get me wrong, the success rate is not amazing. But at least there are no discussions of extra credit and retaking exams. I feel the department supports what we are trying to teach.

Lepht said...

thank you. there are far too many classes like that at my own university; in fact, it's possible to obtain a BSc in Computing Science without being able to do more than copy-paste a few lines of Java into a baby-steps IDE and steal people's XHTML... *sighs* makes you wish you were allowed to whack the lazy.


The Ridger, FCD said...

Yes. "Students" are the indirect object of "teach", as can be seen when you put both objects in: I teach students math (well, I teach translation) or I teach translation to students. I'm not really sure why you can say I teach students ...

Anyway, maybe most things are sort of like golf, which, as Leslie Nielsen once remarked "can be taught; it just can't be learned". Not quite that bad, but we don't just upload the knowledge. The student does have to work at it.

eProf2 said...

Obviously, the school year is about to start again. Have a great year!

Oh, the EASY teacher probably fills her classes first; thus, assuring her of praise from the administration and job security.

Any more thoughts to the statistics course pre-requisite experiment/research?

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, as a colleague of mine said last week, " I like to have high standards, but I am not going to lose my job over it."

Anonymous said...

Ridger, I like that analogy. Now I need to get a production team together for a series of "Bad Math" videos...