Saturday, May 31, 2008

Reading a Syllabus

Every college course you take will have a syllabus. This is the list of rules and regulations for the course, along with a schedule of readings and assignments due. (My courses are a bit unusual because I publish the schedule as a separate document from the rules.) Typically, a copy of the syllabus is filed with the Department supervisor, and occasionally reviewed so the rules end up being fair and appropriate.

I'm always hearing comments such as "I didn't realize attendance was worth that much!" or "How could my grade be so low when I only fouled up one paper?" (You fouled up a paper that was worth 25% of your grade.)

Most college teachers assume that if they distribute a printed copy on the first day of the course and discuss it in class, you will know what's on it. If you miss turning in an assignment, the first question is "Wasn't it on the schedule?" If you want to appeal a grade, the first question will be "What does the syllabus say?" Nobody is going to track you down and urge you to turn things in or attend class. You were informed at the start of the term. For examples of my syllabi, click the links to my schools (right side of this page).

Trouble spot:

Not all syllabi are created equal! One professor won't count attendance at all. Another counts it very closely. One will allow late papers. Another won't. Chances are that if you take five courses, you'll have five starkly different syllabi. Your English professor won't be at all moved if you point out that your history course doesn't require daily attendance.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Predicting College Success

I had a conversation this morning with my sister, who is homeschooling her two teenagers. She commented that a prestigious school had dropped the ACT and SAT requirements, which made her happy because she doesn't teach her kids with a final test in mind. So we got to talking about the whole business of college admissions.

The college admissions people are in the business of filling their colleges with people who look like they might be successful students. Nobody looks good when a kid flunks out. And of course, the big standardized tests were supposed to be sort of a democratic device so a kid from a low-quality school district would have an even chance with a kid from a good one. It never worked out that way, of course. The tests were supposed to measure ability (that's why it's the Scholastic Aptitude Test), but they really measure what you have learned.

I'd like a different test. I'm not sure how I'd do it, but I'd like something that measures personal maturity.

We've all known someone like Sebastian Flyte. He's a character in the novel, Brideshead Revisited. He's got everything. Money, intelligence, social position (He's actually Lord Sebastian Flyte). He's good looking, fun, and funny. Off he goes to college. He has trouble finding time to attend all his classes. He drinks a lot. By the end of the very long novel, he has found his niche in life. He's sweeping the floors at a monastery and occasionally taking a month off to be drunk.

In twelve years of teaching I've seen a lot of Sebastians. In fact, something like 25% of America's college freshmen have enough of a drinking problem to get in the way of their studies. They were bright kids who really thought that Animal House was filmed as a documentary. I remember one boy from my hometown. He was the smartest thing that Mansfield had made in years—always getting academic prizes, winning everything for his school at Academic Challenge. And, yes, tall and good looking. He got an early admission to Washington University (my alma mater, and a pretty tough place), so he left in January. He'd flunked out by June. Booze.

I also seem to have a lot of kids who have a "condition" (and it isn't always drink or drugs) that just seems to get in the way of attendance. It seems that about 10% of my students just can't seem to pull themselves together to attend class. Sometimes they present a doctor's excuse, and sometimes not. Either way, they usually fail because they haven't a clue what we're doing.

As a little side topic, isn't it interesting that education is the only place where people are pleased to get less than they paid for? If a student pays to attend my class for 45 clock hours and I dismiss class early one day, the student is overjoyed. If the student can skip out of 20 of those hours without me saying anything, he figures he's a winner.

Anyhow, back to my alma mater, Washington U., I remember the chancellor saying that a mediocre person with a good work ethic is much more likely to do well than a person with high abilities and no discipline.

I just wish we could design an SAT that could measure sobriety and work habits.

A few attendance statistics

In the Spring 2008 semester, I had 93 students. At one school, we met twice a week (27 class sessions). At the other, we met three times a week (40 class sessions). I failed three students for plagiarism (a somewhat low total). Two of those students left in the middle of the semester, so I didn't include them in the tabulation below.

At the two-day-a-week school, 18 (out of 56) students got an A minus or better. Six of those had perfect attendance; the worst missed four days. The average number of absences for students getting A minus or better was 1.28.

At the three-day-a-week school, 9 (out of 33) students got an A minus or better. One had perfect attendance; the worst missed four days. The average number of absences for this group was 2.

At the two-day-a-week school, 9 got a D plus or worse. The average number of absences for students getting D plus or lower was 9.33, and this includes two students who only missed four days. Four students missed ten or more class sessions (a third of our meetings). I've included one student who failed her last paper for plagiarism because she showed up off and on right up to the end. She had eight absences. The student with worst attendance missed 21 class meetings (out of 27).

At the three-day-a-week school, 9 got a D plus or worse. Leaving out the student who only missed one class session (but never turned in any work), the average number of absences for students receiving D plus or below was 12.25. Five students missed eleven or more class sessions.

It's interesting that the attendance percentages are about the same. At both schools, the A minus or better students attended about 95% of the time. At both schools, the D plus or worse students attended between 65% and 69% of the time. (It's also interesting that the grade scale shows 90% as the lowest score for an A- and 70% for a C-.)

Friday, May 23, 2008

E-Mail from a Student

After the last semester ended, I got this e-mail from a student:

i do no think i was absent all thoes days because i would email you if i missed class or tell you and i marked down the days in my classes if i had missed for my records and i have only got 5 days missed and i had emialed you for i think two of thoes days. If there isany way i can prove this to you becaus ei have attended all your classes but five. On the days that i missed i asked you what i had missed and you would give me the handouts or tell me nothing meaning papers. if there is any way the absents could be changed because i truely do not believe i was out all of thoes days. If there is any way to resolve this i would greatly appreciate it. You could contact me on my cell phone at 1-000-000-0000. If this would be easier and i think more effiecient to get this resolved faster. if you could contact me i would very much appreciate it. Thank you for emailing me back.

I hate getting these. He's asking me, essentially, to reverse my opinion on his grade and to give him a passing grade. Let's break it down:

1. Audience
I, the course instructor, am the audience. I'm not terribly warmed up by his charge that I'm just plain wrong. Of course that isn't the worst thing about his audience awareness. He wants me to raise his grade, to say that he really wasn't that poor in English. He's sent me a letter that's so illiterate that I suspect his earlier papers weren't his after all. I'm tempted to lower his grade for the course. (Interesting note here: most of the e-mails that ask for a higher grade show about the same writing quality.)

2. Letter content
Even if I do accept his claim that he was only absent five times, that is still two more than I allow before I begin to lower his participation grade. It's interesting that his daily quiz grade has several zeros for missed quizzes. He hasn't done his arithmetic or read the syllabus. If I were to grant his request, he'd get a D+ (and still have to repeat the course).

3. The point of the letter
It's unstated, but the point of all this is "I want to be done with English and move on." That's why his final paper was only three pages for a seven page assignment. That's why he won't even proofread his final communication to me. He writes as if he and I have a legitimate dispute that we need to clear up. We don't. In terms of the real point of the course, did he "get it"? I don't think so.

A last point
We take grades seriously in college. If I want to change one, I have to get several people above me to agree—which means I need to have a decent justification for the change. I've always got to answer the question why this grade was changed and whether everyone else got the same sort of opportunity.

The General Plan

Because this is a blog, my "Grand overall plan" post will end up at the bottom (Newest stuff ends up at the top), so you will probably read this last, if you see it at all. And because this is a blog, it can grow in some unpredictable ways. This morning I sat down and made a rough list of things I wish my incoming freshmen had (but frequently miss). Here's what I wrote. It will form some kind of skeleton of the discussion that follows.

Skills I wish my student had

  • Computer use, at least enough to make a reasonably nice looking paper, and the ability to send an RTF file as an email attachment
  • At least enough basic English to write a three-page essay with no more than four or five spelling/grammar errors per page (I would call that a low "C")
  • At least enough basic skill to actually write three pages on a topic
  • Using a paper dictionary
  • Keeping track of their own stuff, including paper, pen, calendar, and textbook

Intellectual material I wish they knew

  • Enough familiarity with a quality daily newspaper (LA Times or Washington Post for example) to know what national and international issues are current, what an editorial looks like, and what a feature article looks like
  • Enough basic civics to have some idea how our country is governed—it would be really great if they had actually seen a copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
  • Enough basic history to have a clue when the big things happened. Were Martin Luther and Martin Luther King the same person? Did George Washington and Abraham Lincoln know each other? Why does the American flag have thirteen stripes?

Daily habits I wish my students had

  • Being intellectually curious
  • Being humble enough to try to get something from the class (arrogance is never fitting in a freshman)
  • Staying reasonably sober
  • Actually showing up and doing the work—including reading the textbook
  • Using campus facilities such as Writing Lab and professors' office hours