Teaching Tactics: Part II

(Part 1 here)

This is a story about my DH.

Very few students start out in DH’s department.  Many of them stop in his department on the way down to the university’s gut major, having flunked out of another major.  He teaches the first core course in the major.  Every semester has seemed more demoralizing than the last.  That’s not quite true… some semesters have been better than others (and moving from 8am to 9am helped a lot), but sometimes he’ll have to fail half the class, sometimes (partly) because they just fail to show up to things like exams.  Often nobody in the class earns an A.  Occasionally he’ll get a few students, ones who picked the major as a first choice, who get an A but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

He worries that it’s him.  It’s not him.  I’ve sat on his classes.  He’s as good as any teacher I had in undergrad.  The students also love him– he gets close to perfect teaching evals, and the students actually write comments in the comment section.  But they’re not learning the material.  And that makes him sad.  Because he’s a wonderful person who cares deeply.

It’s also not him because 40-60% of every entering class doesn’t make it to graduate in that major.

Since he started teaching, he’s been treating students like adults, even if they don’t act like adults.  Gradually he started adding things like making attendance mandatory and grading for it (some semesters with homework quizzes, some semesters just having an attendance grade).  Even so, students would still skip so many classes that adding that to their first two exam grades there’s no way they can pass the class.  Yet they still show up to lab.  Something isn’t reaching them.

This summer we read the teaching tactics book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov.  It disagrees with a lot of these pie and the sky ideals books, which, incidentally, I will also say don’t work for me and I have WAY better students than DH does (Boice works for me, but some of these other books are ridiculous– all theory, no empirics, and implementation has gotten me into trouble in the past).  One of the major points of disagreement was whether or not to treat students like adults.  This one argues that students need guidance. Some of them are incompetent but teachable.  They don’t take notes because they don’t *realize* they’re supposed to be taking notes and they don’t know how to take notes.  They need to be told to write down everything the professor puts on the board, a technique that Lemov terms “board = paper.”  (#2 does notes scaffolding instead of “board = paper” — that doesn’t work so well with DH’s discipline or the math class I teach because they have to learn to draw diagrams and figures).

We sat down and talked about what DH’s students need.

1.  They need to come to class.
2.  They need to be engaged.
3.  They need to do their homework.

1.  Come to class:

As we mentioned above, changing the points given for attendance, having quizzes, etc. none of these were strong enough to incentive students to get out of bed if they didn’t want to get out of bed.  Students just did not realize they were failing by not showing up.  Tactics along those lines are not going to work because they are insensitive to how attendance directly affects their grades.

What they need instead is to know up front and in their faces that someone is going to notice when they’re not there.  When I had this problem with my students, another professor recommended that even if attendance isn’t part of the class grade, that you take roll every class.  At the beginning of class.  Loudly.  You can just toss the sheets later if you’re not going to use them, but just calling out the names lets them know that you are aware when they’re not there, and maybe you care.  It works.  I still get the occasional unexcused absence, but not consistently and most days everyone shows up.  I make a big deal about missing people, “Bueller, Bueller, Bueller” — they tell each other that the absence was noted.  I often get an apology and the same student rarely misses twice without a university approved absence.  I haven’t had a person fail my class since I started taking attendance.

K-12 has true mandatory attendance, so the book doesn’t discuss this specifically, but it does have suggestions on how to make kids know you know they’re there.  Greet everyone at the door.  Use their names in class.  Cold call so that people cannot hide.  (The book has a really large section on cold-calling, which is not like the cold-calling that terrified me as a student– well worth reading, and I’m going to implement it too).

2.  Engagement:

There’s a couple of chapters on engagement, full of great stuff, much of which I already implement because apparently I’m awesome like that (my problems are instead discussed in the two chapters on classroom climate and behavioral problems, but that’s another post that may never be written).

Techniques include names such as, no opt out, cold-call, Vegas, stretch-it, at bats, volleyball metaphor, etc.  No opt out, the first technique, was new to me, it’s where if someone called on doesn’t know and then someone else answers, you go back to the person who didn’t know and make sure they know now.  They have to listen and keep thinking, and eventually get the solution themselves.  These techniques keep all the students awake and moving.  And all students, they don’t let just some students dominate discussion.  You’re not just lecturing, even in a technical class.  (Note, some of these techniques will not work in a ginormous lecture hall, but do work well for DH’s mid-size classes.)

3.  Homework:

Grading every homework would be best, but sadly there’s no money for a grader and DH only has a finite amount of time.  But instead of just letting them decide whether to do their homework and get the grade or not do their homework and get a zero, tell them they need to do it.  Get them to create study groups on the first day of class.  Occasionally spend some time in class on homework problems before they’re due so they’ve gotten it started.  Make doing the homework the norm– everybody else is doing it so you should be too.  It’s expected.

These changes have been working.  Not 100%, but the lost group who is normally checked out this time of the semester is much smaller than in previous semesters.  More homework is being turned in complete than any previous semester.  And most importantly to me, DH is not dreading each class day.  He’s teaching, they’re learning, and he’s learning too.

The big underlying theme from all of these is actually a form of Libertarian Paternalism (or “Nudging”).  With these students, it’s not the hard rules of grades or quizzes or mandatory attendance that’s important.  It’s the verbal iteration and reiteration of expectations.  Even though DH knows their names, calling roll is important.  Letting his students know that he knows they’re there.  That they’re paying attention.  Reminding them that they’re supposed to be taking notes instead of playing hearts on their laptops, that he can see them, that he knows and cares.  These social cues work much better than the realistically more important (to their futures) possibility of actual failure.  And that’s interesting, and a lesson to us, especially if our main goal is to get them to learn the material.

Do you think there’s a role for these kinds of tactics?  What do you do about attendance, engagement, and homework?  Do you think we should allow students to sink or swim on their own, or is nudging them ok?

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15 Responses to “Teaching Tactics: Part II”

  1. bogart Says:

    Very interesting stuff, I put the book on my to-read list.

    Yes, I think these tactics seem worthwhile if they work (as they seem to) … I’m a bit irked that they are necessary at the college level, but, while I don’t think that faculty have an obligation to teach everyone, even those who don’t want to be taught, I do think it’s worth trying to use the teaching time effectively. If calling roll (etc.) helps with that, then it seems like a good thing to me (there’s probably a zero-sum/time-based counterargument, i.e., time spent calling roll could instead be spent …, and I’d be sympathetic to that one, too, but you haven’t made it and I’m not going to try.).

  2. Spanish Prof Says:

    I don’t know. My first reaction is I’m not anybody’s mother, so why should I behave like one? On the other hand, I think it depends a lot on what kind of institution you teach. Where I teach, most students were good high school students from private schools. So for me, I treat them as adults and as people who have had the opportunity to learn good studying practices (there are exceptions, and I treat them appropriately on a case to case basis). As a result, I am always available to my students, but I don’t nudge them (and except for lower level language classes, I don’t even take attendance). But I know the disparity that exists in institutions around the country. If I were teaching in a different kind of institution, I would probably adjust and take a different approach. I do want students to learn!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I tried the “I’m not your mother” in my first semester here, and student complaints escalated to the Dean. I had to learn to dumb down my approach significantly for the student population here. In more optimistic moments I say “scaffolding” instead of “hand-holding”.

  3. Funny about Money Says:

    Oh, my. What a post!

    Well, let me start by saying that I tell my students that they’re grown men and women and I treat them that way. However…there are grown men and women and there are, uhm…others.

    I take roll because the community college district requires me to do so. We are asked to drop students after a certain number of unexcused absences; as we are frequently reminded, this is not an option. I tell them that the reason I’m taking roll is that the district requires it. I track their attendance in my electronic grade book simply by adding one point for each day they show up. Sixteen points for attendance in a once-a-week class won’t make or break very many classmates’ grades, but 48 points in a three-day-a-week course could.

    When someone comes in late, after I’ve kicked into gear, I do not add their point to the electronic roster, because I don’t believe I should have to interrupt what I’m doing. That means latecomers lose a point. Sorry. You’re an adult and you should be able to get yourself there on time.

    I do not call them by their first names but instead address them as Mr. or Ms.; if a student raises a hand to ask a question, I sometimes will answer with “sir” or “madame.” I never refer to college students as boys or girls but always as men and women.

    My Wednesday-only English 102 section started with 20 students. Enrollment was down to 15 by the time their first writing assignment was due. Of those 15, six did not turn in papers. Of the 9 who bothered to try their hand at scribbling a 750-word extended definition, three failed. One of these failed with the lowest score I have ever awarded a student paper: minus 185 points. Since I’ve resolved never to hand out any more grades in the negative numbers (yes, I have been known to do that), I gave him a 0 on the assignment.

    One student, however, did manage to score 100 points. Three others made it into the 80s. So I don’t think I’m unreasonable.

    You’re right. They don’t take notes because they don’t know how to take notes. They probably don’t know they’re supposed to. They don’t read because they don’t know how to read — at least, not efficiently. They don’t understand what you’re saying in your lectures because they don’t understand a surprising number of the words you use — this semester, for example, one classmate told me that even though she’d looked up a word in three different reference works, she still couldn’t figure out what it meant. The word was urbanization.

    I do not grade every exercise. To do so would kill me and my sidekicks; besides, it’s hard to pass hard copy back and forth between graders who live halfway across the galaxy. I tell my students that if they’re interested in maximizing their chances of getting a good grade in the course, they should do the exercises. They are, after all, adults now and can choose whether they wish to engage all the course’s tools. It’s their money. After all.

    Engagement techniques: calling on them, asking them to use their electronic tools to find facts and answers to questions; doing detailed post-mortems of each assignment in class; physically standing near them; working exercises in class; putting them in groups in which each student develops his or her own essay topic related to the group’s broader subject matter and then asking them to help each other find research material for their respective projects; having them report in class on their group members’ progress; making them do peer reviews following specific, detailed guidelines.

    When a classmate puts her head down on the desk and falls asleep, I let her sleep. It’s her business that she’s not getting enough rest to function in class; she is, after all, an adult.

    When a classmate plays games on her smartphone, I may ask her to use the smartphone to look up some term or concept and explain it to us. Maybe not. It’s her business if she wants to waste her time and money in my class; she is, after all, an adult.

    When classmates talk while I’m talking, I tell them to leave the room. If I have to, I speak with them outside the classroom and explain that they will required to leave every time they carry on a conversation while the class is in session, and that the result will be that I will have to drop them from the course for excessive absences. And I generally remark that they are, after all, adults who are about to go out into the work world and make a living, so they should learn not to behave as though they were raised in a barn. After all. ;-)

  4. Frugal Forties Says:

    I have very mixed emotions about the topic.

    On the one hand, we’re talking about your DH’s job enjoyment. If figuring out ways to keep his students engaged and successful in that way enhances his job enjoyment and even makes it possible for him to not dread going to work, I say go for it.

    The other part of me, the one who put herself through college by working full time and going to school full time is really irked by the whole thing. At some point if these people can’t figure out that they have to actually read, write, and study in order to succeed in college, then maybe they need to not be in college. When they get out in the real world, their bosses aren’t going to tell them that they need to do their jobs and answer the phones and whatever it is they need to do to be successful. And it seems to me that every year the line of when we need to stop hand-holding students gets pushed back further and further.

    Of course I’m not a teacher and I don’t have to deal with the frustration of having kids fail or drop or whatever and feeling like I’ve failed because of it, even though it isn’t my fault. Maybe if I were the one standing up there watching students drop like flies, I’d feel like I needed to do more as well. So there’s that.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I have a LOT of students who shouldn’t be in college and need to fail so the rest can experience a class that challenges them. Unfortunately, the failing ones fill out student evals that contribute towards my tenure bid. After tenure, I’m going to let more of them experience more of the natural consequences of their actions.

  5. Cloud Says:

    I think my opinion changes depending on what level of class it is. If it is an introductory class taken mostly by freshmen, then the nudging may be a good idea. By the time a student is in an upper level class, though, he or she should damn well be responsible for showing up, etc., without any “nudging”.

    But, I am not a teacher. The closest I’ve ever come was teaching an extension class for a few years, and then I was required by the administration to take roll.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Students in my upper-level courses are definitely better than the ones in my first semester core-course. We do a LOT of hand holding in the first semester cores and they get slammed from all of their core professors with how college is different from high school and how they’re just going to have to cope and deal with that, and we blatantly tell them what they need to do to be successful and professional. (We’re here to help, during office hours!)

      We didn’t used to do that, but doing so has helped tremendously. One of the related programs at our uni hasn’t done it yet and they’re still having to deal with unprofessional students thinking that all their problems are the professor’s fault.

  6. Revanche Says:

    My head spins at the mediocrity, nay, the slackerism. Why the HECK are they even there??? I mean, how did they even get into college with those kinds of habits??

    *rant rant*

    Ok. Ok, I know it happens because in my very first year, I made the mistake of taking a core Eng class that I didn’t need to. I thought my uni was still only allowing us to claim 9 units worth of AP credits and loved English enough to have another go at it so I could claim all the other AP credits instead.

    In that class, one of the boys I made the acquaintance of was already on academic probation and we were only two class sessions into the year. I didn’t spend any real time thinking about how on earth that was even possible at the time because I was loving the class and loving my professor. But now that I look back, I can’t imagine how incredibly frustrating it must be to have your career path hinge on the poor decision-making of such students.

    I’m now also recalling memories from my college years. It stunned me, editing papers for high school seniors, how badly written they were and I was insisting that they couldn’t possibly be allowing these kids to graduate from high school so ill-equipped. Those illiterates are the butts in your seats.

    So I have to backtrack and say, it does make sense that they’re managing to get into college with barely any real skills. And so if he has to use tools that to get performance and attendance out of them, paternalism or no, sink or swim, this IS the material he’s working with and he can’t possibly garner any job satisfaction from a sink or swim scenario. At least he has some tools that will help, to some degree, and aren’t actually handholding, they’re nudges.

    But agreed with the other posters that it irks the whey outta me!

  7. Ashley W. Says:

    Our education system is truly crippling this nation. I teach high school in a low-income area and I have classes where the MAJORITY of students are reading on a third grade level. It seems as if my Honors/AP classes are what “regular” classes should be and my regular classes should be SPED classes. There is so much pressure from the top down to focus on the numbers that the students are pushed through without learning anything except for how to get by. I get so frustrated because my students tell me that they want to go to college, but most of them cannot spell a word as simple as “academic”. Like your husband, I receive excellent evaluations as well and I always get compliments when visitors come to my classroom. It all seems false when I grade their tests after a really good lesson. I feel that failure is the norm and passing the test is a strange and unusual feat. I really don’t mean to put my students down because I do have quite a few that are on level, but most of them are passed along from grade to grade. I have spoken with other teachers at “better” schools and they have very similar issues. All of this is to say that this trend is floating up to the college level and it is sad. Students, especially the millennial generation, are so accustomed to receiving something for next to nothing. When I was working on my Master’s degree, our professor actually had to lecture in class about proper spelling and grammar usage. I know I’m beginning to ramble now, but I get so upset thinking about the values our students possess today.

  8. Rumpus Says:

    The problem with letting people sleep in class, or letting them use their cellphones, or read the paper, or otherwise ignore me during class, is that it affects the other students’ opinions of the class. Even if the other students know that the sleeping person is making a poor choice and isn’t likely to pass the class, the mere fact that someone doesn’t believe the class is worth paying attention to (even if they’re already in the room) results in reduced engagement from some portion of the other students. They’re less likely to pay attention, less likely to put any effort into their answers, and more likely to fail to retain the material being covered. In other words, I see it as my job as a teacher to regain the attention of that one student for the good of the other students. I agree that they are adults, and so I treat them like adults. If I’m in a meeting and two adults start ignoring the issue at hand and chatting about something unrelated, I’m going to call them on it. So I do the same with my students. Ditto with cell phones, laptops, homework from other classes, etc.

    Unfortunately, I think the issue goes beyond that. Many students have not been taught how to really benefit from lectures. They’ve had years and years in school, but due to poor instruction, or learning disorder, or being clever enough not to care, they never learned how to uptake and retain information as needed in a typical college classroom. So then they start to do poorly, but they don’t know how to respond to that either, and things just get worse. That’s why I tell them up front what I expect of a student that wants to pass this class (like showing up every day), and then I take attendance and do it so they know that I know when they aren’t there. It’s always the student’s choice whether to show up to class…and it’s also their choice whether to feel guilty when I ask them why I didn’t see them in class last time. In my experience, a typical student in the first year or two is capable of making his/her own choices, but the long term choices (getting a degree in engineering), do not agree with the short term choices (not doing the homework to get practice necessary to learn the material). So I suggest at every opportunity that they do what will maximize their benefit from my class. I don’t get mad at them, and I understand they have other priorities, but I do make sure they know what actions I think they should take to maximize their learning potential for the class.

    My main priority is helping them to learn the material, and a large portion of that is making sure they get the most benefit from the class sessions.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      You just hit a bunch of economic concepts there…

      Poorly behaved students have negative externalities on the rest of the class.

      Students desire commitment devices because they they have time-inconsistent preferences.


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