Category Archives: Higher ed

Student failure and student humanity

A mathematics lecture, apparently about linear...

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Alice Fenton (a pseudonym) set off a minor firestorm recently with this post to the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “The Pleasure of Seeing the Deserving Fail”. The title explains the content; the article is about different kinds of students who bring failure upon themselves in some way or another, and the pleasure the instructor can take in failing them.

Today, “Alice” has published a sequel, called “How to Inspire a Backlash”, to serve as a counterpoint to the negative reactions to her first article. At the close, she says:

Anger, dislike, weariness, schadenfreude: Those are all, for me, parts of human experience. That does not mean those emotions rule people, but it does mean they are there sometimes. Acknowledging those feelings may improve the chances that they won’t affect how I behave, since acknowledgment leads to awareness, which, in turn, can lead to clarity and caution (if not the kind of caution that keeps one from writing an article for The Chronicle).

So I did not write my original article because I was burned out, or filled with rage, or even—delightful as it might be—a harpy. I wrote it, in part, out of a sense of ironic fun that I assumed (naïvely I now see) would be shared, and, in part, as a description of occasional and ephemeral angers that I saw no harm in sharing.

But equally I wrote it because I feel it is part of my job, as a teacher as well as a person, to acknowledge my negatives as well as my positives—not because that makes me superior, or inferior, but because it makes me human.

I used to think, and teach, this way. In fact, if you go back far enough in the archives of this blog, you will find numerous posts that have a kindred spirit with Alice’s two articles. I called out torpid students and took pleasure in their mistakes and failures out of a sense of “ironic fun”, a sense of needing to vent “ephemeral angers”, a sense that doing so affirms my humanity. I would celebrate the successes of my students and vilify their failures with equal relish. And whatever I restrained myself from blogging about, I would keep active in my thoughts and gab about with colleagues in the hallway. After all, those emotions are there, and acknowledging them makes me more human, and therefore failing to do so would be dehumanizing.

Then I realized something: Professors aren’t the only people around here who are human. Students are human beings, too.

My students are human beings with all the accoutrements other human beings possess. They have intelligence, prior knowledge, nonempty cognitive frameworks, morals, creativity, and nontrivial accomplishments in life. They have people in their lives who love them dearly, whose hearts would break at my schadenfreude at their expense, no matter how much “ironic fun” it is. They are capable of doing amazing things, and they have their own successful K-12 education to prove it. There is no reason to believe they cannot go on to even more amazing things, and any educator who doesn’t feel this possibility when teaching is not paying attention.

Yes: On the flip side of this, students can also be astoundingly lazy, rude, ill-mannered, slow, foolish, and downright unpleasant to be around. Many of them think they are still children. Many of them do not have the first idea how to manage themselves; some of them willfully mismanage themselves because they figure this is what college is all about. For us faculty, students through their behaviors can drive us to insanity, to rage, to tears of frustration.

And yes: Many students deserve to fail as the logical outcome of a litany of irresponsible behaviors and bad choices. In a just, well-constructed academic environment where learning and academic rigor matter, these students will fail — they must fail. It is not wrong to find a kind of satisfaction in a system that works in this way. There is pleasure, in a way, to be found here as well: a pleasure one gets from first dividing the educational world in to two parts — us and them — and then lumping the students who frustrate us the most into the them category and watching them get what they deserve.

So I don’t deny that there is pleasure to be had in student failure when they “deserve” it. But it’s one thing to apprehend the pleasure and quite another to take it. Anybody who is serious about becoming more human will begin by acknowledging the humanity in other people. And I defy any educator worthy of the title to take pleasure in student failure, “deserved” or otherwise, without ignoring one or more key elements of student humanity. You cannot take pleasure in student failure without dehumanizing the student — and yourself. If you do, you are not an educator, no matter what your title may say. You may not even be as human as you think.

The way forward to humanity — and sanity — as an educator, as I was somehow blessed to find out, is to treat students as human beings with complex sets of values and assumptions. These values and assumptions all play into their behaviors, and it is way too easy to dismiss the student based on behavior without considering the cause. That guy in the second row preferred Facebook to your lectures all year. Why? That young lady in your 9:00 AM class has missed five class meetings and falls asleep when she shows up. Why? That fraternity dude in your 12:20 class would rather party than study. Why? All of these behaviors are linked to student’s values and assumptions — that is, to their humanity — as well as to our own values and assumptions about student learning. We make progress when we start answering these Why? questions seriously, taking student values and assumptions — that is, their humanity — into account as well as our own assumptions about student learning and how it takes place.

Just as we faculty — and entire institutions — can and should find happiness, satisfaction, and joy in student successes, let us be frustrated, perplexed, and saddened by student failures. There’s no point in denying those feelings. But indulging them? Finding pleasure in student failure? Never, under any circumstance.

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Thinking about learning styles

Rendering of human brain.

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Excellent post today from Derek Bruff, reporting on a talk by Linda Nilson titled “The Truth About Learning Styles”. Linda’s slides are here (PDF), and here’s Derek’s short take (all emphases are Derek’s):

Are there learning styles?  That’s the question that Linda Nilson answered in her keynote. […] [T]he short version is that several popular learning styles models, including Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences model, theVARK model (visual, aural, read/write, kinesthetic), the Kolb learning style model, and the Myers-Briggs personality modelhave very little predictive validity. That is, a student’s “style” as determined by one of these tests doesn’t have an effect on how well they learn through various activities.

[…] Is there a learning style model with reasonable predictive validity? Yes, according to Linda. The Felder-Silverman model has “good construct and predictive validity”within the context of teaching engineering students. The Felder-Silverman model isn’t as well known as the other models listed here, but given its greater validity, it’s worth being familiar with.

It’s worth mentioning that there is a free, 44-question self-scoring questionnaire online that measures students’ positions within the Felder-Silverman model. I like to give this questionnaire to students as a homework assignment between the first and second day of class along with a reflection essay asking them to respond to their questionnaire results. Students are sometimes surprised with what the questionnaire says about them. It’s frequently the case among first-year students that they’ve never really considered that people learn in different ways or that working with a person who learns differently than they do sets up a potential conflict. Upon entering college — where students have much more responsibility for their own learning, and there is much more collaborative work happening than is often the case in high school — just getting students to keep the notion that people learn in different ways clear in their minds is a pretty big step. The questionnaire is free and takes about 10 minutes, so there’s really no good reason not to administer it, just to have the data on hand if nothing else.

Faculty, on the other hand, often make too much of learning styles. That each student learns in a different way is beyond question; but I think we can oversell the notion of learning styles quite easily and end up labeling students rather than helping them learn. And it’s crucial to understand the limitations and scientific validity of educational concepts like learning styles — or in this case to understand that this validity is fairly limited, and we should handle the notion of learning styles with care and perhaps with a grain of salt.

Derek’s post goes on to note the importance of moving away from “learning styles” and toward teaching modalities, focusing especially on those modalities that help the greatest number of learners regardless of “learning style”. This is an important difference, and there are things that we definitely know from cognitive science that speak to teaching modalities that make a difference with a large audience without regard to learning styles. Derek’s post/Linda’s talk goes into that in some detail; read the whole thing.

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In defense of big universities

Recent Kirkland Hall photograph.

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I’d like to take back something that I said in my post last week on the UCF cheating scandal (my emphasis):

[T]he more this situation unfolds, the more unhealthy it makes the whole educational environment surrounding it seem. Class sizes in the multiple hundreds: Check. Courses taught mainly through lecture: Check. Professor at a remove from the students: Check. Exams taken off the rack rather than tuned to the specific student population: Check. And on it goes. I know this is how it works at many large universities and there’s little that one can do to change things; but with all due respect to my colleagues at such places, I just can’t see what students find appealing about these places, and I wonder if students at UCF are thinking the same thing nowadays.

I’m coming at that statement as somebody who’s spent the last 14 years in small liberal arts colleges. The idea of 600-student lecture classes, using prefabricated tests from a test bank, and so on is completely alien to how I conceive of teaching and learning in higher education. The larger the university, the easier it is to adopt such depersonalized (even dehumanizing) “teaching” techniques. But I think I painted with too broad of a brush here. Because the fact is, there are going to be faculty who employ depersonalized approaches to education no matter how big or small the institution is. There are small colleges who willfully, even readily, employ such approaches to teaching on an institutional scale even though they are small enough to do better. And on the other side, there are large universities that, despite their largeness, still manage to treat undergraduate education with the care and skill it deserves.

I’d like to point out a couple of such large research universities with which I’ve had direct experience who, to me, really get undergraduate education right, or are at least trying to do so.

First is Vanderbilt University, where I did my graduate studies and got my first taste of teaching. Vanderbilt has a real culture of teaching and learning that pervades the entire academic structure of the university. It has a fabulous Center for Teaching where I was privileged to spend a year as a Master Teaching Fellow during my last year of grad school, working with other graduate teaching scholars and university faculty to help them get better at their craft. And what always impressed me at Vandy was that a lot of professors were interested in getting better. It’s a great research university, but the profs there — at least the ones I knew, with the exception of a few entrenched math people — all took teaching seriously and really wanted to work at getting better. And it shows in the quality of undergraduates Vanderbilt produces. I can definitely see why a high school kid would want to go there.

The other example is The College of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. I spoke there recently to a group of faculty and support staff who are involved with a program called Engineering Beyond Boundaries, an ambitious program to transform the teaching, learning, and practice of engineering in response to key shifts in the discipline and the culture around it. The people involved with that program are embarking on an all-out effort to push the culture in the engineering school toward one that adopts a more modern approach to teaching and learning, including the renovation of learning spaces, work with innovative instructional techniques, and creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary work. They’re just getting started with this program, but I think some interesting things are ahead for them as they proceed in terms of teaching and learning.

Do you have other examples of big universities that are doing a good job with undergraduate education? Brag on them in the comments.

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“The system has failed you”

Apropos of the UCF cheating scandal, Stephen Ransom tweeted this morning:

Here’s the video he linked:

Once you get over seeing Uncle Phil as the Kaplan University proponent here, take a moment to think about this.

  • Does the video have a point? Is it time for a new system?
  • Is “the system” flawed in the ways or to the extent stated in the commercial?
  • Is the problem with “the system” its being steeped in tradition? Is the problem the oldness of the ideas?
  • Is Kaplan University, and other institutions like it, the answer?
  • Which would you rather attend: the University of Central Florida, or Kaplan? (Yes, that’s a loaded question.)
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What correlates with problem solving skill?

About a year ago, I started partitioning up my Calculus tests into three sections: Concepts, Mechanics, and Problem Solving. The point values for each are 25, 25, and 50 respectively. The Concepts items are intended to be ones where no calculations are to be performed; instead students answer questions, interpret meanings of results, and draw conclusions based only on graphs, tables, or verbal descriptions. The Mechanics items are just straight-up calculations with no context, like “take the derivative of y = \sqrt{x^2 + 1}“. The Problem-Solving items are a mix of conceptual and mechanical tasks and can be either instances of things the students have seen before (e.g. optimzation or related rates problems) or some novel situation that is related to, but not identical to, the things they’ve done on homework and so on.

I did this to stress to students that the main goal of taking a calculus class is to learn how to solve problems effectively, and that conceptual mastery and mechanical mastery, while different from and to some extent independent of each other, both flow into mastery of problem-solving like tributaries to a river. It also helps me identify specific areas of improvement; if the class’ Mechanics average is high but the Concepts average is low, it tells me we need to work more on Concepts.

I just gave my third (of four) tests to my two sections of Calculus, and for the first time I started paying attention to the relationships between the scores on each section, and it felt like there were some interesting relationships happening between the sections of the test. So I decided to do not only my usual boxplot analysis of the individual parts but to make three scatter plots, pairing off Mechanics vs. Concepts, Problem Solving vs. Concepts, and Mechanics vs. Problem Solving, and look for trends.

Here’s the plot for Mechanics vs. Concepts:

That r-value of 0.6155 is statistically significant at the 0.01 level. Likewise, here’s Problem Solving vs. Concepts:

The r-value here of 0.5570 is obviously less than the first one, but it’s still statistically significant at the 0.01 level.

But check out the Problem Solving vs. Mechanics plot:

There’s a slight upward trend, but it looks disarrayed; and in fact the r = 0.3911 is significant only at the 0.05 level.

What all this suggests is that there is a stronger relationship between conceptual knowledge and mechanics, and between conceptual knowledge and problem solving skill, than there is between mechanical mastery and problem solving skill. In other words, while there appears to be some positive relationship between the ability simply to calculate and the ability to solve problems that involve calculation (are we clear on the difference between those two things?), the relationship between the ability to answer calculus questions involving no calculation and the ability to solve problems that do involve calculation is stronger — and so is the relationship between no-calculation problems and the ability to calculate, which seems really counterintuitive.

If this relationship holds in general — and I think that it does, and I’m not the only one — then clearly the environment most likely to teach calculus students how to be effective problem solvers is not the classroom primarily focused on computation. A healthy, interacting mixture of conceptual and mechanical work — with a primary emphasis on conceptual understanding — would seem to be what we need instead. The fact that this kind of environment stands in stark contrast to the typical calculus experience (both in the way we run our classes and the pedagogy implied in the books we choose) is something well worth considering.

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Students respond to UCF cheating scandal

As a kind of rebuttal to the cheating scandal at the University of Central Florida, some students have posted this video that raises the issue of whether students were misled as to the source of their exam questions:

I think the students have a point here. Prof. Quinn did say that he “writes” the exam questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he creates the exam questions from scratch; “writing” an exam could refer to the act of assembling a particular mix of questions from the test bank. But it’s unrealistic to expect the average college student to know the difference between creating and assembling an exam when the word “write” is used in this context; and anyway he said he writes the questions not the exams.

This entire video goes back to a point that involution made in the comments to my first post on this story: Did the students know that the exam was going to come from the publisher’s test bank, or was there at least a significant chance that it would be? If not — if the students had no reason to believe that the test bank should be off limits — then what the students did can’t be called “cheating”. How could it? Cheating is when you use an unauthorized resource to substitute for your own knowledge. If the resource isn’t unauthorized, it’s just another resource, not a cheat-sheet. If Prof. Quinn didn’t make it clear that the test bank was off-limits, I’m afraid he doesn’t have much of a case here after all. What exactly was said in the class or the syllabus about and test banks? Does anybody know?

Of course, by telling the students that the test bank is off-limits, you are basically telling students that the exam comes straight from the test bank and therefore making it that much more likely that this sort of cheating will take place. But I consider that a strong reason not to use test banks at all, rather than a reason to keep the test bank under wraps. In fact, the more this situation unfolds, the more unhealthy it makes the whole educational environment surrounding it seem. Class sizes in the multiple hundreds: Check. Courses taught mainly through lecture: Check. Professor at a remove from the students: Check. Exams taken off the rack rather than tuned to the specific student population: Check. And on it goes. I know this is how it works at many large universities and there’s little that one can do to change things; but with all due respect to my colleagues at such places, I just can’t see what students find appealing about these places, and I wonder if students at UCF are thinking the same thing nowadays.

As to the students making the video, I think they can bring something fruitful out of all of this if they stay on point and act professionally. But I have to say this video doesn’t help. First of all, calling yourself “UCFScam” on YouTube; it’s not a “scam” and business majors should know that. In fact, calling Prof. Quinn’s actions a “scam” implies fraud, and that can be interpreted as slander on the students’ part, landing them in the same place they want to land Prof. Quinn by suggesting he violated copyright. Second, speaking of which, accusing the prof of copyright violations and calling him lazy are off-point and counterproductive. Pejorative words don’t win you an audience. And the last subtitle:

…is absurd. Right now the students, rather than sounding like mature young men and women who have been legitimately put on the wrong side of an issue in an unfair way, sound like whiny undergraduates asking for class to be cancelled and wanting more points. If you have a point, make it — respectfully and logically. You might also try not making spelling errors such as “frustated”. I’m assuming the students want to succeed in the business world, and this is how it works as far as I understand it.

What a sad situation. Why don’t they just make up their own tests at UCF?

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Cheating at Central Florida

In case you haven’t heard, the University of Central Florida was recently rocked by a large-scale cheating scandal in a business management course. At one point, over 200 students in the course had turned themselves in to Prof. Richard Quinn or an associate. Prof. Quinn uses (or I should say “used”) tests from a pre-made test bank, and somehow students got hold of the test bank with answer keys prior to the midterm. Every student in the class, guilty or otherwise, was required to retake the midterm, which apparently then showed a normal distribution as opposed to a severely bimodal one on the compromised exam.

UCF puts the videos for Prof. Quinn’s lectures online. Here’s the one where he announces he’s discovered the cheating and describes what’s about to happen. This is 15 minutes long, but you MUST watch it. Seriously. All of it.

Wow. Can I breathe now? Four things:

  1. That lecture was a masterpiece of restrained forcefulness. You can tell that Prof. Quinn wants to explode all over those people, and yet he doesn’t — and somehow it makes you feel worse than if he had blown up. I’ve been in situations like this before and never come close to keeping my cool the way he did.
  2. You wonder how much of what he’s saying about “forensics” and the “net tightening” around students is just bluffing, and whether students with the chutzpah to cheat on this scale have the nerve to call the bluff. Can a university IT department really do an NSA-style traffic analysis to determine who cheated?
  3. I think Prof. Quinn is being unbelievably gracious (you might even say “lenient”) towards the students who ‘fess up to the cheating. Between getting kicked out of school and having to take an ethics course, I think I’d choose the latter any day as long as there’s no penalty. Speaking of which, did anybody consider the poor schmoe who has to teach that ethics course? How crummy of a teaching assignment would it be to teach an ethics course to students who are forced to take it because they got caught cheating? Like teaching a drivers’ ed course to a 200-student class full of known traffic violators.
  4. Finally, and a little more seriously, I abhor academic dishonesty, and the fault here lies squarely on the students who chose to cheat. However: This should serve as a warning to any professor who chooses to use a publisher’s test bank to give prefabricated tests. Doing so adds so many exploitable seams into your test security that it is practically begging for unscrupulous students to try to find those seams. I know: I’ve written one of those test banks before. The publisher doesn’t keep track of who has a copy; the fact that there are extant copies of the test banks and their keys just floating around out there should be enough to make profs not want to use them. But some still do. The convenience is not worth it.

 

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