Posts Tagged ‘College Students’

The Add/Drop deadline for students at my school is two weeks into the semester. It was roughly the same at my previous institution. I’m not sure whether it is something about the students at my new institution or just the fact that I’m teaching Introduction to Sociology again for the first time in several years, but this year I received more requests to enroll in my class during this time period than I ever remember having before. About 2/3 of them came in the second week of the Add/Drop period, some at the end of the week, which meant that they wanted to enroll after missing two of 15 weeks, the first assignment, and over 100 pages of reading. I nicely explained this to them as my reason for denying their requests.

I know that some students cannot register when they are supposed to due to payment issues or academic probation, but it seems that at least some students must be treating the first two weeks of class as a trial period for their courses before determining if they will commit to a full semester. A few advisors also seem to be dropping the ball, suggesting that students change courses long after the spring advising sessions, though it is possible that students just didn’t show up for spring advising. The annoyance of all of this is probably increased by the fact that I never changed my schedule after the beginning of the semester during my own college days.

Of course, the most likely explanation is that the sheer awesomeness of sociology and, beyond that, my teaching of sociology spread like wildfire through the campus in the first week of classes, causing the huge number of requests to join my course.

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In my first ten years of teaching I had no shortage students complaining about their grades. In one instance, a student who had earned a B+ was so sure that his grade should have been rounded up to an A- that he sent me a series of e-mails with quotes from his parents’ friends, who were professors, stating that they would have rounded his grade up if they had been in my position (including one who said, “Honestly, the guy sounds like a jerk”). Eventually, despite threats to appeal the grade, the student relented. Later in his academic career, the student asked me for a letter of recommendation. I suggested that another faculty member might be able to write a more positive letter (jerk status confirmed!). This is a rather long way of saying that I have had many students complain about grades, but I have been lucky not to have any direct contact with their parents. Until now.

This semester, a student earned a grade that was less than ideal. I did not, however, receive an e-mail from her asking me to change it. No, the first message I received came from her mother. I did hear from the student after I explained that FERPA prevented me from responding to the mother’s questions but that I would be happy to discuss the issue with her daughter. My explanation to the daughter was apparently not sufficient, because the next e-mail I received was from her father. The issue has not yet been resolved, but I am appreciative of the people in Academic Affairs who have taken the matter over. Since it is largely out of my hands at this point I’m not sure if I will receive the forthcoming e-mails from the student’s siblings and extended family.

Aside from the idea that students (and their parents) think that my grading practices are so arbitrary as to be easily changed, these situations are the most frustrating to me when I have given students multiple opportunities during the semester to work with me to improve their grades and they have not taken advantage of these opportunities. Since I do not foresee myself providing a mid-summer extra credit opportunity for my spring students, I would advise them to be proactive about their coursework while they are still in the course! Otherwise, their options are: (1) Appeal their grade; or (2) Invent a time machine…

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I’ve cautioned against asking “what are the students like?” in the past, but upon changing institutions it seems broad enough to use as a starting point for comparisons. The short answer is “not that different,” though this perception is influenced by the courses I’ve taught so far and the students in them. With that caveat, below are some initial thoughts:

There were fewer very weak students but not many more very strong students. Grading assignments and exams for last semester’s courses sometimes seemed like wading through a sea of mediocrity. Most students didn’t fail at anything but there were very few solid As. Instead, there were a lot of students between B- and B+.

Writing skills were better. This may seem counterintuitive given the above point, but my students last semester were much better writers overall than those at my previous institution. As a result, I was more able to focus on their ideas in my feedback, which was nice, even if their…

Ideas were not better. Despite the ability to string together coherent sentences, these sentences did not typically contain ideas or insights that were any better than those at my previous institution.

Ability to follow directions was still lacking. Whether using ASA format or including all of the required parts of each assignment, many students made relatively simple mistakes in following directions.

Students still need time to put things together. Exam grades last semester were typically about 10-12% higher than those for the same course at my previous institution, but they followed the same pattern. One student even admitted that she did not study for the first exam. Nevertheless, most students did well on the final exam and most who had poor midterm grades were able to improve.

Together, the above factors suggest that the bottom of the distribution may have been cut off, but college students are still college students. This also supports the “an excellent student here would be an excellent student anywhere” adage. The generally-better writing skills were the most noticeable change, though their combination with some of the other factors above led to the best-written C paper I’ve ever read.
It is far too early to get a sense of my students this semester, but it will be interesting to see if these patterns hold over time.

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Ten years ago I walked into a college classroom to teach for the first time. A few minutes after that, I walked out again because I had gone to the wrong classroom. Then I walked into the correct classroom and began my teaching career. If you had asked me a few days ago, I would have said that my teaching hasn’t changed that much in the past ten years, but looking back at the materials from my first semester the gradual evolution of my teaching became much clearer.

Looking at my first syllabus (which was only six pages – maybe syllabus bloat is a real problem), I am struck by how light the workload was (in my defense, I had 70 students and we were advised not to shoot for the moon in our first courses). Attendance and participation were each 10% of the final course grade and the remaining 80% was made up of the three exams. Students could also write three short “bonus” papers for up to 3% of their final grade, but these were the only writing assignments. About half of the students completed the first and about 60% completed the final one. I was apparently very lenient with these because most students received between .9 and 1 (out of 1). The average final course grade was a B.

Without looking at the roster, I can remember only three students’ names from that semester, one of whom I labeled “squirrely looking” on my roster (he earned an A), one of whom later died of cancer, and one of whom was friends with the student who later died of cancer. Even looking at the roster I can only picture a few more. What I do remember is walking across a stage at the front of the room every time I wanted to change the PowerPoint slide and then waiting for students to write down a definition that I had displayed (I didn’t use a textbook but had not yet discovered guided notes). I also remember feeling awkward when standing on the stage because I was so far above the students and feeling awkward when standing in front of the stage because I was so close to the students.

Although I felt fairly comfortable at the time, in retrospect I did a terrible job of getting students to participate in class discussions, which was noted on my evaluations. One student also noted that I seemed nervous a lot of the time. Another commented that by making them copy vocabulary words I was treating them like they were in seventh grade. The student then drew a frowny face, demonstrating that I may have been aiming at the right level after all!

Ten years later, preparing to start teaching at my fourth institution (including grad school and a small commuter college I taught at for a few semesters back then) it is nice to see that things have progressed. Given my emphasis on teaching as a grad student, I think that the biggest changes have been more about refining my approach than adapting to new institutional settings. At this point, I’m glad that my oscillations between different approaches for things like class participation and attendance have gotten much smaller. While small refinements may not seem as exciting as big changes from one semester to the next, it is nice to have gotten to a point with fewer glaring errors. I’m excited to see what changes the next ten years will bring.

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In line with my post the other day about my decision to require students to meet with me, and suffering for that decision, Bradley Koch at Soc’ing Out Loud has a recent post about student reactions after receiving a grade that was lower than they expected. He discusses four ideal types of students: those who do nothing, those who drop the course, those who get angry, and those who seek advice during office hours. I’ve also encountered these general reactions (and I’m similarly frustrated by those who drop a course after receiving a single poor grade on an assignment) but I think that he misses an important group of students in his discussion of those who do nothing. He writes:

Most students do nothing. They show up as if nothing has changed. I suspect that these are the students who have done well on their assignments and those who are too lazy to actually open the email attachment that includes comments and their score.

In addition to those who have done well and those who are lazy are those who are intimidated by the thought of meeting with professors. While he notes that many students at his institution are from privileged backgrounds, lots of sociological research tells us that many students who are raised in working class and poor homes are much less likely to approach a professor and ask for help. Even if they do approach their professors for help, they are also more likely to be uncomfortable about meeting with us.

I don’t know what to do about this problem, but it is definitely something to take into consideration when reflecting on student reactions.


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This semester I have been attempting to find out how many meetings a single professor can have with students before going insane. Whenever students are responsible for large assignments on topics of their own choosing I like to meet with them to make sure that they don’t go astray. For example, students in research methods have met with me and stated that they are interested in studying cancer. Not the social effects but cancer itself. How it can be prevented, how it is diagnosed, and how it is treated. Clearly, this is not a sociological topic! (Actually, I should allow students to use this. I would like to see how they propose to study these things using sociological methods.)

So meeting with students is good, but this semester I ended up assigning this sort of project in all three of my courses, leading to nearly 80 meetings and a serious reconsideration of my usual practice. On top of that, I offered students in one class an extra two points on their exam if they met with me to discuss what went right and (mostly) what went wrong in their preparation. I go back and forth on offering extra credit for an activity that I wish students would do anyway, but this does allow me to check in with them and let them know that I’m on their side as long as they’re willing to do the necessary work. Of course, only about half of the students who actually met with me did poorly on their exams…

I somehow survived all of these meetings over the course of about a month. I’m not sure whether it made me insane. Next up: meeting with my 50 advisees about their spring schedules!

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After the frustratingly low levels of student participation in my courses last fall I implemented a form of discussion questions in the spring semester that was designed to hold students accountable for class preparation while directing their reading to some specific topics that were relevant to the day’s discussion. In general, it seemed to work, so I am using them again this semester. While I require students to bring a copy of their answers with them to class (either handwritten or typed), some students type their answers but then have issues that prevent them from printing them before class. In these cases, students often e-mail them to me. Other than the fact that they won’t have their answers to refer to in class, I don’t have a problem with this practice. What I do have a problem with is the fact that, when sending them, students often refer to them as “homework.”

I realize that the difference between “discussion questions” and “homework” is largely semantic but, to me, discussion questions imply a student actively preparing for class, while homework implies busywork. The thing is, I don’t want students to see discussion questions as busywork. It is nice that they are preparing for class, but I hope that at least a few of them actually enjoy engaging with the material.


they’re discussion questions, not homework!

See the subject.

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Last semester was possibly my most frustrating as an instructor, given that two of my courses had lower-than-normal levels of class participation. Having finally received my student evaluations from the fall, it appears that my frustration was felt by at least a few of my students. Numerically, my evaluations were similar to other semesters. Qualitatively, though, it appears that a higher number of students who would have normally left the comments section blank were compelled to complain. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“Very negative attitude towards teaching. Often made rude comments to students for no reason… Terrible class, terrible professor.”

“Dr. Smith tends to be rude and misunderstanding towards his students. It would be appreciated that he shows his students the respect he demands as a professor. He doesn’t relate well to college life and all that it entails.”

“he is a good teacher but he is kind of mean sometimes & comes off indifferent to helping.”

“When talking to students in class or when commenting on a student’s answer to a question, it would be nice not to receive a smartass answer/comment in response.”

“Snide comments were made to multiple students and I was offended by his ego. He acts as though he is better than us simply because he has a PhD. My suggestion would be to tone down the sarcasm.”

If one looked only at the comments above, I would seem to be a terrible professor. I understand that not all students appreciate sarcasm, and that my responses were likely harsher last semester than most. Thankfully, there were also a few students who seemed to enjoy my courses. When compiling evaluations for review by others, I always follow a negative evaluation with a positive one that contradicts it. Toward this end:

“You were a great professor. You were able to relate to us but keep respect.”

“Dr. Smith needs to be less enthusiastic with his teaching and try to be more boring and even more unpredictable with grading and pop-quizzes. His energy level is far too high for someone like me and it amazes me how someone like that can become a professor (just kidding, Dr. Smith is awesome).”

“Great professor. Very knowledgeable and always willing to help.”

Thankfully for both my students and me, this semester has been much less frustrating than last.

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When students don’t do well on exams I always encourage them to meet with me.  I don’t think there is anything particularly novel about this.  What I’ve found, though, is that the more students meet with me the less frustrated I am with them (and with myself).  Only a few of the students who failed a recent exam have come to meet with me, but each gave me insight into what went wrong that I would not have otherwise had.

Most students had not put forth the required effort, but the reasons for this varied widely.  One student, for example, had been working off campus over 50 hours per week leading up to the first exam.  Given that, it is no wonder that she didn’t do well.  When meeting with me she was confident that she would do better on the next exam because she has been able to reduce her hours to around 30 per week.  Another, who did not have the textbook until just after the first exam, reported being very excited by the topic of an upcoming assignment.

While I may still wish that my students were more motivated overall, these meetings allow me to see what else they have going on in their lives and reduce my personal frustration considerably.  Unfortunately, I suspect that these students are reluctant to meet with me because they fear punishment or don’t want to relive their poor grades (among other reasons) while I feel more like doling out punishment when they don’t meet with me.

At some point maybe I’ll have enough experience to assume that students are doing poorly because of external circumstances rather than because they are all lazy and uninterested in education.  Until then, I wish more students would meet me halfway.

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Related to my recent post on students in the real world, I’ve had a lot of students over the years who were busy, whether with sports, work, or Greek activities (some of them even spend time on school!).  I also have also, however, had a few students who are so busy that I get tired just thinking of their schedules.  These students sometimes have multiple jobs, children, or both, yet manage to maintain a high level of academic success.  In many ways, they remind me of a friend that I had in high school who studied more than anybody I knew and also worked around 40 hours a week on a farm doing fun things like castrating baby pigs (yes, I grew up in a rural area).

Beyond both of these groups I’ve also had a lot of students who believe they are busy but whose schedules are filled with video games like Call of Duty and Madden and important social events like trips to the bar.  I’m not trying to say that these things are not important, but not having time to work on a paper because you have two jobs is qualitatively different than not having time to work on a paper because you were busy playing Call of Duty.

What I wonder is whether sharing the work schedules of my super-busy students with my pseudo-busy students would have any effect on their thoughts about time management.  Would seeing what a single parent has to deal with in order to get a paper done on time, for example, give others an appreciation for the amount of time that they actually have to do as they see fit?  Or would it have the effect that thinking about these schedules has on me and simply make them tired (and in need of a nap before their next round of Call of Duty?

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