Archive for the ‘Teaching’ Category

Teach like I say, not how I teach

January 24, 2015

As usual, the week before classes start, we had meetings. Some of presentations at these meetings are designed to help us teach better. In one meeting, the speaker said that for teaching math, the students should have lectures for only a third of the time. The rest of the time they should be actively working, instead of passively listening. He actually had us actively working now and then for a minute or two. I didn’t time these sessions, but it was between five and ten percent of the total time.

If a class runs for 100 minutes, they schedule it for 110 minutes and tell us to give the students a ten minute break. Meetings often run longer than that in practice, and in theory one speaker was scheduled for two and a half hours without a break. Do they really think we have that long an attention span?

Most speakers had good Power Point slides that were legible, but when I have sat in the back of the room, some speakers have slides I can’t read. A speech teacher I know once said that any visual aide should have two characteristics: people should be able to see it and it should help. We had some in the meetings that were too long to read without ignoring the speaker. What do they think they are accomplishing? Do they wish to be ignored? Or, do they want us to be impressed when they put long paragraphs on the screen?

If these speakers believed what they said, we would have very different meetings.



The quality of students at the community college

October 19, 2014

Two recent incidents in Intermediate Algebra (high school Algebra II) help explain the low pass rates of students.

In the first case the student was trying. He was supposed to be working on an online assignment which involved factoring of trinomials. I saw he had another screen up and asked him about it. He said he was working, which was true. He Googled the factors of 45.

In the second case, the student arrived fifteen minutes late to a computer classroom, where beverages are not allowed, carrying a cup of Starbucks coffee. When I reminded him of the rule, he put his coffee cup next to the wastebasket. I threw it away after he left without it. This would not be a particularly significant incident except the fifteen minutes he missed of class was from a test which was 16% of his grade.

These two incidents display the major reasons students don’t pass, lack of prerequisite knowledge and lack of commitment.


What are tests for?

August 30, 2014

The last line in an article from The Washington Post was a quote from a Chinese official: “The habit Chinese students have formed is that they only memorize things but not absorb them. They forget about everything once the test is over.”

Most people think tests are there to measure students’ progress. That is not the only reason for tests, but some think it is.

The measurement of progress is reported to many people:

1. The student. This is often skipped in standardized tests designed to measure the teachers or the schools more than individual students, but the tests that are most important to the student should be reported to him.

2. The student’s parents. Obviously, this step should be done only if the student is a minor.

3. The teacher. Usually, the teacher grades the test, but with electronic and standardized testing something else grades the test. As a teacher, I’ve often used test and quiz results to modify reviews for the final exam and to change the emphasis the next time I teach a course.

4. Where the student goes next. This could be a job or simply the next semester’s course. Usually, the report is only a single grade.

5. Society. This helps judge the quality of the teacher of the school. It rarely names individual teachers or students.

A second goal of tests is to help student learning. Students often think they know a subject until they are tested on it. If the student doesn’t get feedback, ideally quickly, that student will have difficulty learning. How the students use the results of the test often determines how well he does in school. Graded homework, quizzes, and tests give the students an idea of how much they know. If they only study to do well on tests and forget about it afterward, they are not studying properly. Their actual learning will be incidental, not the goal of the work they are doing.

Unfortunately, American students have formed the same habits as Chinese students. If we want any real progress in education, students need to know things after they take their tests.


I do not want this student

September 21, 2013

She asked me if she could observe my class. I am not supposed to let anyone in who isn’t registered, but I was tempted to say yes. Why not? It wouldn’t hurt. But instead of giving way to temptation, I told her I wasn’t accepting new students. Three weeks of class passed. It was late to start.

She said she was already registered for another section of the class and she just wanted to change sections. What she did not tell me revealed more than what she told me. She did not tell me she had a conflict with work or child care. She did not give me a reason for her desire for a change of section. She was not going to ask me to accept her as a student until she observed me.

She was teacher shopping. I don’t want someone who was teacher shopping. They tend to be picky. If it took her three weeks to find out the teacher was bad, it wasn’t because the teacher’s foreign accent wasn’t understandable. It could easily be because the student had a bad grade or did not understand the material.

Another student asked me to let him join my class after two weeks of class. When I told him it was too late, he started to explain. “My psychiatrist said” were the first three words of his explanation. I don’t want to deal with a student whose psychiatrist is telling him something that makes him not follow the rules. The rules say one should register before the semester starts, not at the end of the second week of class.

I did give permission for one student to come in late. It was a student I had in a previous semester and a work conflict made him have to change sections. This student had two things going for him: I knew he wasn’t a problem student and he had a good reason for the change in sections.

I can’t keep problem students out of my class if they register on time, but I no longer invite them in when they want to come in late.


I’m mean again

July 9, 2013

On the first day of summer school, a student wanted me to arrange for a quiz to be taken early because of a doctor’s appointment. The quiz was for the next day. I refused. I was told appointments were only available when class met. I still refused.

Quizzes are five percent of the grade and I give at least eight quizzes and drop two of them. Individually, they aren’t important. This grade is very unlikely to have any impact on the student’s grade. It would not be difficult for me to arrange for the quiz to be taken, but I didn’t want to set a precedent for this student or for the rest of the class.

The student did not show up for class, even though the doctor’s appointment was for 9:45 and class went until 1:05. Maybe it was a long appointment. But I can’t help thinking the student didn’t put a high priority on class. That is all right. I don’t expect math class to be important to everyone. I do expect the student to understand there are consequences for the chosen priorities.

Job Security

June 4, 2013

I believe my job is secure.  This doesn’t mean I can’t be fired, but short of gross misconduct, I couldn’t be fired immediately. If they fired me for mild incompetence it would take a while, because the next time I will have a performance review will be in more than a year. Since the community college is funded by the government it is unlikely that it will fail and have mass layoffs, but it happens.

I don’t think I work less hard because my job is secure, but of course I can’t be sure.

I don’t know how much job performance is based on job security. But I find it interesting that students who are not secure about passing a course do not work harder than those who have solid A’s. I want all students to work hard. Of course, part of it is because students who work harder learn more. They are also more likely to pass. But perhaps it is more important for them to get in the habit of working hard.

Because if they learn to work hard in the course I’ve taught, they’ve learned something more important than the subject I’m teaching. (Don’t tell them I said there is something more important than math.)

Are we accomplices, part 2

May 18, 2013

Since writing the previous post, I’ve had several discussions with my colleagues about the subject. There are students who game the system. They know how late in the semester they need to attend class to be considered full-time students and use that information. That explains the occasional student who disappears early in the semester and shows up once, much later. It doesn’t happen often, and most probably have innocent explanations, but I’ve changed my mind about the subject.

I will be more aggressive about dropping students. I don’t want to be one of the people who allows students who receive financial aid for education to get the aid, but not the education. Nor do I want to be someone who allows a student with a visa, to get an education, deny that privilege to someone who will actually use the visa as intended. Both financial aid and visas are limited.

I emphatically do not want to be one of the teachers that allows a terrorist to overstay a visa.

The misuse of statistics

March 31, 2013

A certain clinic advertises that the death rate of people between the ages of 45 and 65 is 14 out of 100, but the death rate of people in that age range who go to the clinic is one out of 100. This looks very good, until you look at how the statistics was gathered. The clinic says these statistics are for the last decade. This means there are no people who were followed for the entire age range from 45 to 65.

Even assuming the clinic finds out every time a patient dies, the way the patients are in the study guarantees bad statistics. The clinic is in an expensive area, with many high powered jobs. The man who retires at 62 due to bad health, moves to Florida and dies a year later, is not counted.

In addition, assume that a 64-year-old man starts coming to the clinic and he lives past 65. He counts as someone who beat the odds. True, but he was not picked out of all people who entered the 45 to 65 age range, he was picked out of all people who reached 64 who were sufficiently health conscious to go to the clinic. His chances of reaching 65 were much greater than a random 45 year old.

If a school system decides to spend money to ensure that as many students as possible pass a certain test, they are likely to spend more money on students where it makes a difference. The students that are slighted are the ones who would never pass the test, no matter what was done, as well as the students who would pass the test regardless of the money spent on them. Statistics on test passing would be a misleading indicator of the general quality of the school. A school that spent money to improve all students would not have as impressive results.

At least in the case of the clinic, the statistics may have been gathered in ignorance, but the hypothetical school system is trying to beat the system. At least it is an honest way of beating the system, honest in the sense that if everything is revealed to the public, it won’t lead to indictments. Recently, the Atlanta school system tried a less honest way of trying to beat the system, and those indictments are making headlines.

In view of the stakes, I suspect many schools are putting their money where it can do the most good. By that, I mean the most good for the school system, not for the students.

False Assumptions

March 25, 2013

A student sent me an email after I went to bed last night. It said that he was Jewish, Passover started in a few hours, and he would miss three classes due to Passover. He knew that the absences would be excused.

Really? I suppose he didn’t know it was coming until last night.

I will not excuse the missed work. He could have emailed me the homework that is due tomorrow. I don’t have the assignments for the next classes, but if he told me early enough, I would have something I would accept. I’m not going to bother now, since apparently he’s not allowed to use electricity for much of the time and won’t be able to communicate with me. If he is going without electricity, he will be cold, since it is 35 degrees now, and will get colder tonight.

He is missing more than ten percent of the classes, since it is a twice a week class. One of my colleagues commented that this would make it hard for him to function in the modern world, since there are many Jewish holidays.

If he had told me the first week of the semester, I would have gone out of my way to accommodate him. He didn’t and I won’t.

I’m not sufficiently sympathetic

March 16, 2013

A student told me that he had health problems and financial problems. He was doing fine in his other courses, but had difficulty in mine. He asked me to tell him honestly if he should drop. I said yes, he should.

He continued with his sob story. I think he hoped I would tell him not to worry. That I would give him a C even though he did not do C work. When I was a new teacher, I might have felt guilty about following the rules. Maybe I’m old and cynical, but I don’t feel guilty anymore. If he has health problems and can’t keep up with college, he should drop the one course that he is unlikely to pass. It is not my job to solve his problems, nor to give him a grade he hasn’t earned.

Just because I can do it doesn’t mean I should do it. Besides, unearned grades shouldn’t go to students with the best sob story.