(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).
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.)
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?