Saturday, September 25, 2010

A new kind of student?

Constant negative slope

“I didn't understand that.”

“What part of it didn't you understand?”

All of it.”

We were in an algebra class. We were solving a simple linear equation. A simple linear equation. Integer coefficients. Integer solution. Stuff at the prealgebra level of difficulty. Piece of cake. But not for everyone.

“Okay. How about the instructions at the beginning? Do you understand what we're trying to do?”


“We're trying to solve for x. What does that mean?”

“I don't know.”

She was matter-of-fact about it. I didn't get any sense that she was being deliberately or provocatively obtuse. She was a serene icon of incomprehension, exhibiting none of the stress or anguish that usually accompanies such stark confessions of ignorance.

“It means we want to find out what x is. It means we want x all by itself on one side of the equation and a number on the other side of the equation. We want to end up with x equal to a number.”

“Oh. Well, I didn't get that.”

The equation was so simple that it could have been solved with the techniques taught at the end of prealgebra (the prerequisite the student had supposedly satisfied in order to enroll in algebra). This particular student, however, acted as if she had never seen any of the techniques or had had an extremely successful brain purge since her last class.

Students do forget, of course, but we hope that they recognize and relearn things as we review them and progress to new topics. My algebra student instead remained at a complete loss. What's more, unlike students of the past, she was not willing to suffer in silence. In a way, I guess, this is good. When you need help you should ask for it.

My joy in her recognition of her need for help was, however, not unalloyed. My joy was incomplete because we were more than four weeks into the semester and she had not once bothered to darken my office door during office hours. She had never visited the class's assigned tutor. And I had had trouble learning her name because she was often missing from class.

Yet she was expecting me to abandon my planned progression through the day's topic in order to back-fill the profound abyss where her prerequisites were supposed to be.

“It's a sense of entitlement,” said one of my colleagues. She shrugged as she told me this. “We are now viewed as part of the service-sector economy. If they don't know something, we must spoon-feed it to them on demand.”

I was afraid that my colleague was right. My student had been completely unabashed while announcing her total ignorance to the entire class and then waiting calmly for me to do something about it. I'm a teacher and she's a student. That makes her my client and I must service her needs. In the meantime, she demonstrated no interest in lifting a finger.

“But students used to keep quiet when they were that lost, didn't they? In fact, they'd try to hide it and then either slip away to our tutorial services or drop the class. I'm not used to such overt pronouncements of ignorance or prerequisite amnesia—whichever it is. This is new and depressing behavior to me.”

“Don't worry, Zee,” said my colleague, junior to me in years but advanced in her blithe wisdom and patience. (Her years teaching high school probably helped.) “These things resolve themselves. You'll see.”

She was right. After skipping the following week of class sessions and meetings with the tutor, my student skipped the next exam. She was still on the class roster, so I dropped her. Naturally she couldn't be bothered to drop herself.

Problem solved. At least till next semester, when she wanders into another class having had even more time to forget what little she ever knew. I couldn't connect with her at all. Will her next instructor manage to rescue her? I don't see how.


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

I'm strongly considering printing this and taking it to class.

But on second thought, none of my kids are *that* bad.


But I do get the "I donnnnnn't understand this" whine a lot.

Anonymous said...

I agree, Silli, about potentially printing this and taking it to class.

My experiences have shown me, though, that many students (too many, I fear) are unable to see such issues from any point of view other than their own--and, of course, that of their fellow students, like the one Zeno describes in this fine post.

As a result, they'd immediately take the student's "side," and they would then concoct all sorts of reasons why Zeno's wrong, mean, not doing his job, etc.

This post could afford a great opportunity to discuss several important issues relevant to teaching and learning in college, or it could encourage the less mature and the ill-prepared students to get defensive. I get enough of that already, and I'm not sure I'd want more. (?) :-)

Mattir said...

I'm going to make sure the Homeschooled Spawn(tm) see this and understand that if Mom ever hears of them acting in any remotely similar manner, she will be extremely displeased. Like HULK-MODE, be afraid, be very very afraid, mode.

All too believable, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Students are the only consumers who want the LEAST for their money.

The community colleges have tried to achieve success in the same way high schools have done - to accept failure as success!

bonefish said...

Having just returned to college, I have been totally transfixed and appalled by the blithe ignorance that surrounds me. (teh stoopud floating thick in the air in some classes is almost palpable.) Not only do many of the students not know anything, they seem to be very pleased with the fact that they don't know anything.
Or, perhaps, it is a demonstration of the truism that the less a person knows, the more likely they are to overestimate how much they know...
How is it possible to be so pleased with yourself for being an cheerful ignoramus? What's gone wrong and how do we fix it?

DNLee said...

Wow! I can relate to that student on SO many levels. I was terrible at math. I asked the VERY same questions of my instructors (in high school and college). But I attended class EVERYDAY.

Honestly in misunderstanding is good. I appreciate proactive students who feel comfortable about asking questions and needing help. However, I don't have patience for students who don't do their part - show up to class, study, try, etc.

I learned the hard way about these 'entitled students'. As a result I lay it out on the first day. Teaching is what I do. Learning is what you do. I'm an all-in teacher. I'll do whatever within reason to faciliate your learning. But you have to do the work - study, study some more, do the work, etc. You earn grades; I merely assign the grades you have earned.

Jac said...

I'm hearing ya. I dropped out of my local community college because the standards were just too low. I got through General Biology 1 & 2, and General Chemistry 2 and Organic Chemistry 1 were actually decent. Then I took Genetics: students weren't expected to remember anything from the prerequisites - the first quarter of the course was review. On top of that, it was clear to this math tutor that the professor didn't understand how to do basic algebra - or even ratios - that she was trying to teach. These low standards aren't helping anyone. So-called accredited schools are becoming diploma mills.

Becca said...

Likely an old kind of student. People who end up as professors or teachers are nearly universally EXACTLY the sort of student who was embarrassed over not understanding information (of course, all good instructors get over this once they *are* up in front of a class- otherwise they loose opportunities to model for their students how to work to learn things when you get stuck). So you see someone unashamed of their ignorance, and it puts you off. You think back to your day- you were never like that. So it must be 'kids today'... except the difference in the *average* student (if real at all) is only one of degree. The thing is, you were a different kind of student.

Krzysztof said...

I used to use the phrase "ignorant and proud of it" to describe such students, but on reflection I think that they are too anesthetized to experience either pride or shame. I would probably ask the student "How important is it to YOU that you understand this material?" Her response might be that she needs it to graduate. What's happening is that the main thing she's aware of is that she knows she's going to have to support herself at some point, and has been told that a degree can help. But there is no focus on the process itself or comprehension of the mental effort involved. Add to that the "entitlement" sense that someone else noted and this is what you get. It's why teaching isn't fun anymore.

Markus Arelius said...

I like your blog and your eloquent writing. I'll keep visiting.

As for this example student of yours, I'm surprised that you, and apparently other teachers like you, seem surprised and upset at all.

California's golden K-12 education systems are ranked 46th in the union, proudly positioned to take the checkered flag ahead of "model programs" from Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi!

And all of this within a nation who's educational system is ranked 48th in the world!

Gee, and I thought we were No. 1!

In fact, this has been the case for many years, not the last ten of fiveteen. There's a reason why, for example, colleges offer English 110. It's because American high schools are incompetent and have proven unable to prepare students adequately for college level composition and research methods. Of course, in the USA college education is a business and "back filling" the ineptitude and failures of American state education can yield a nice, albeit modest profit.

Most Americans are frustrated right now with the economy, etc., but they really need to stop and wise up. That student of yours is the product of a society spending vast amounts extremely scarce resources on fighting foreign wars and throwing tons of money into a decrepit lie of a housing market.

I'm just saying that there's a consequence for not adequately investing in K-12 education as if our future depended on it. Those consequences will affect a generation of complacent students who may be matriculating near you.

Zeno said...

It really looks like I should be counting my blessings. Students like the one described in this post are new to me. Despite more than twenty years' experience in my current position, it's been only in the past year that I've had to deal with the obdurately ignorant. I've had plenty of encounters with frustrated students who can't seem to get math, but not with the serenely clueless who want me to dispense math into their brains like coal into a scuttle.

The other blessing I have is that my college is serious about its educational mission and we want our standards to stand for something. It's painting with much too broad a brush to say that community colleges have, in general, bought into failure as a viable lifestyle.

Anonymous said...

I had a first-year college student screaming profanity at me a few hours before the final exam because I would not accept an overdue assignment- one for which the answers had been posted on my door for three weeks.

Anonymous said...

Imagine if the student said she needed help just idetifying numerals, reading, writing, tieing her shoes or eating her lunch. Should the teacher feel obligated to help her with any of that? Add to that the sense of entitlement and lack of any DOY-ness and I'd say this girl deserves whatever medicority she manages to get in life.

HarveyRequiem said...

Wow. That is sad. Now I understand why so many of my teachers in college would tell me how absolutely wonderful it was to have me in their class. And that was just the gen ed classes! I didn't think too much of it at the time, though it was very nice to hear. Now I'm realizing how potentially heartfelt those compliments were, and it's kind of sad to think that's where things are heading--that college teachers, of all people, have to be grateful to have a responsive student with a will to learn.

I asked plenty of questions, especially if I didn't understand something, but I was never embarrassed about it either. I figured that it's a two-way street--I'm paying you to teach me, sure, but that implies that I need to put the effort in to learn the material too. I didn't see a reason to be embarrassed that I don't understand something or even everything, but I was always putting in an effort to understand.

In fact, I had a piano teacher years ago and the first thing he did was ask me how long it had been since school. I guess he had a lot of people who would show up for the half-hour class and practice nothing during the week. Perhaps they thought that all they had to do was pay their fee, come there and sit for a half-hour, and somehow the knowledge and skill might enter their brain through some kind of magical osmosis or something like that. He said they'd get angry that they weren't learning anything when they'd paid good money for lessons and they thought it was his fault. He was a really good teacher too--he was patient, informative, full of experience, and he appreciated a will to learn and ask questions. I guarantee that if someone couldn't learn piano from this guy, it was their own fault. I'd still be taking lessons from him if I hadn't gone to college and become strapped for both time and cash.

Here's one for you: A teacher in one gen ed class (a theater aesthetic class) was telling us about some teacher she had had in college who had been in the Nazi youth. He was a great guy, and so the students asked him at one point why he had been a Nazi. He explained about how Germany got screwed worse than anyone else after the Great Depression and...well, I won't get into it all. The main point is that one of the bored, entitled, dead-eyes little brats in the seats around me was mildly interested enough to raise her hand and, when called on, asked "so they heard about the Great Depression all the way in Europe?"

You should have seen the poor teacher's face--like she'd been slapped! Of course, I was gaping too, but we were the only two in the room who found anything strange about that comment. The rest of the students were either just sitting there, bored, with their arms crossed over their chests, or mildly interested because of the teacher's stunned look. Then, after composing herself a bit, had to explain a chunk of history they should have already known, and she had to explain it twice. I doubt they retained that knowledge at all.

Here's another: My major was in art, and when my teacher was quick-critiquing my work during my first-semester freshman drawing class I started asking questions and trying to clarify what he was saying so I could remember it right, and he stopped to stare at me. When I asked why he was staring, he said, "I'm staring at a student who actually is interested in learning from critique, instead of arguing with me and saying, 'it's my STYLE!'" I told him I was paying to attend college to learn, not to be fed candy and told how great I am. If I wanted that, I could have it for free from all the people at home who think I'm fantastic on my worst day just because they don't know the first thing about art. He liked that answer very much!

Anyway, this looks like a cool blog and I'm going to have to check it out in the future!

The Silent Moose of Doom said...

I couldn't agree more.

I've just returned to study as a mature age student (I'm only 8 years older than my fellow students) and I see this attitude constantly. Students talking/SMS-ing/on facebook throughout lectures, then demanding that the teacher repeat themselves because they weren't listening the first time, and how rude of the teacher to expect them to pay attention and keep up.

It's as though they see the learning process as some kind of black box between the delivery of the lecture and the publication of exam results.

One of my lecturers once refused to begin speaking until the students in the theatre finished their conversations (with each other and on the phone. Yes, they would also have phone conversations during lectures.). It took them six minutes to get enough control over themselves to shut up, which of course meant that the lecture was cut short by six minutes. On the unit's online forum afterwards, post after post went up about how those six minutes of material shouldn't be examinable, and how unreasonable it was of the faculty to expect them to learn all that extra material.

I've switched to studying off-campus.

Yokohama Michael said...

Hi, I guess I'm going to have to go against the flow here and say that I understand that student's position perfectly.

Unfortunately maths is just not for everybody. I know that's hard to digest on a blog written by a maths teacher but that is just the way it is.

I vividly remember my high school days in maths class. In other subjects I was doing well, even very well. But somewhere around the age of 14 or 15 mathematics just became an incomprehensible blur, an alien mass of symbols that could not be related to reality. I am pretty sure I could not, then or now, have attempted that problem. Anything beyond long division is just coolie labour for me. But I am highly educated, have a Masters Degree and teach at a university (not mathematics naturally). Yet even now I find the idea of an equation somehow...mildly offensive.

I guess my point is that there are different kinds of brains.

Around the age of 15 I had a similar experience as your student. I had been tuning out for several months (and many many students do this), and my teacher asked the class directly about a particular problem. I had to put my hand up and admit I had no idea of what was happening. He seemed astounded, and I hated to disappoint him as he was a good teacher. But I was never going to understand. On my best days the meaning of what he was trying to do would make some vague imprint on my consciousness, only to be forgotten when he moved on to the next problem.

He would say,

"Do two things. Pay attention in class and do your homework. Then you will pass."

Unfortunately it is just not true. Sometimes it does not work like that. I was unable to attempt the first homework problem after about the age of 15.

Brains are different.

Of course I failed maths but did well in other subjects.

So give that student a break. At least until you find out about her attendance and interest in other subjects.

Zeno said...

Captaincassowary, I would have given that student more of a break had I seen more regular attendance or any effort to avail herself of opportunities to obtain assistance.

HarveyRequiem said...

@Zeno: Precisely. Even when I have a lot of difficulty understanding something, I've encountered very few teachers who will not respond positively to the fact that I am making a genuine effort to learn the material. And in college, I encountered precious few teachers who would not be willing to help you or cut you a break, provided you were putting in an effort.