Ask the grumpies: Dissertation Student from Hades

Stacie asks:

I have this student. She is a PhD student and she gets under my skin! Several months ago I could tell things were not right between us as she was very combative and defensive in class. I tried various ways to figure this issue out in class to no avail. I finally asked for a meeting and honestly felt blind-sided and rail-roaded by her response. When I tried to discuss her behavior, she was quick to retort how she wasn’t the problem, it was me and began to recount my failings [update:  failings were that Stacie is “cold and distant”]. It honestly caught me off guard and I didn’t know how to respond. I ultimately tried to diffuse the situation and talk about how we would work together in the future. I did find out that other students definitely see problems in her behavior in various classes, but have yet to find another professor who will vouch for this. I’ve asked and they say they have no problems with her, but then I hear other students talk about how much this student is being difficult in their classes… (this also drives me crazy!) I talked to my Chair whose overall response to most things seems to be “oh well” so that didn’t really help.

I am really having a hard time keeping my cool around this student who continues to be defensive in class. I am definitely having trouble “teaching others how to treat me” – probably because I don’t like conflict, try to be “nice”, and don’t have great one-liners at the ready to respond to student behaviors.

Yes, I am the newest faculty member, one of the only young females in a mostly senior, male faculty, and have been told I’m the most “human” of any professor we have. (I used to think this was a good thing, but now am not so sure.)

I was wondering if you could help me with how to think about this issue or some phrases I could use regularly with this kind of thing with students or other things I can do to survive this kind of issue. I have a feeling this won’t be my last student who challenges me like this, but I don’t want to always worry or over-think these things. I honestly have some great students, but this one student is the only one I can think about! It drives me crazy!

Well, we don’t have any great advice on this particular student.  Avoiding her completely would be awesome, but it sounds like that might not be an option. Mostly, it sounds like you need a mentor who has handled PhD students at your school for a while and has tenure. They can give you suggestions for the circumstances.  It also sounds like you’ve tried in vain to find such a mentor, and that really sucks.  We’re sorry you’re not getting more support on this.  :(

However, you can also look outside of your department.  Seek out the following resources: 1) talk to the head of the teaching development center at your school, whatever that’s called. (Or teaching & learning, or teaching & Faculty development, etc.) They exist for things like this! 2) talk to your faculty ombudsperson, as they may know more resources and probably have seen similar situations in the past. 3) attempt to get mentoring informally from senior colleagues — if not in your own department then in other departments. You could talk to other people who supervise PhD students, members of the student’s dissertation committee, the Director of Graduate Studies for your department, or the Dean of the Graduate School (or someone in their office). Take them to coffee and ask for advice. It’s good for the future to be friendly with these sorts of people anyway. 4) Outlast the student. Unfortunately this also takes time.

In terms of how to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future with other students, Teach like a champion is an invaluable resource with tactics that really do work. It isn’t quite as much help for what to do after a problem has started, but it’s great for setting up a professional environment where problems won’t start. We have some posts on teaching tactics from it that you might find helpful if you want to get a taste while waiting to get it from the library.  Maintain control of the classroom, and very strong personal boundaries. Don’t let the turkeys get you down.

Update:  That is an incredibly gendered complaint.  Professors are allowed to be cold and distant and setting boundaries and having a personal bubble helps immensely when you’re a young woman professor.  If you didn’t have such a bubble, students would be complaining about something else because they would perceive you as unprofessional.  There’s no way to win.  Allowing space and distance is the way to go because it isn’t so time intensive or emotionally challenging, even if you get punished for it.

Getting grey hair is also good for reducing student challenges. And experience is great for not letting obnoxious students get to you so much. But those strategies take time.

In the mean time, hopefully the academic part of the Grumpy Nation will chime in with additional suggestions.  We’ll also try to get a signal boost from Historiann to get her always helpful readers.

warm and fuzzy student things

One of the joys of my job is that I get to remove math phobia from students.  I teach a required math course for social science majors, many of whom come from backgrounds that are not math heavy.  Often this is the first math course they’ve taken since high school.  Many of them think they’re just not good at math.  I spend a lot of time filling in gaps of their knowledge, even doing silly things like going over every step of simplifying a fraction or solving for X, you know, just in case.  (I do this because my Calc 1 instructor SUCKED and I learned almost all of Calc 1 while taking Calc 2 from a different professor at the local university because he would go through every single step of what I’d missed whenever we needed to know it.)  I do extra tutoring in office hours.  I constantly push the growth mindset on students.

From about midterms to getting final grades, my students start to realize that hey, maybe they’re not so bad at math after all.  This week has been especially warm and fuzzy with students popping by during office hours to confide in me that they’re actually “getting” the class, something they thought impossible. (Last week they discovered and informed me that they’re several weeks ahead of the other section and have had much more difficult homework assignments– this has become a point of pride with them.)

Lots of students mentioned in office hours that it’s all coming together on this week’s homework.

One gentleman told me that his entire life he’s taken the easy way out, doing things that maximize how impressive they sound while minimizing actual need for thinking.  This semester he’s taken some (gen-ed fulfilling) classes from our department, including mine, and they’ve challenged him and he’s risen to the challenge and he’s realized he likes to be challenged.  He came by to tell me he’s changed his major to our department from communications.  He’s actually the second person to tell me this week that (s)he’s switched into our major because my class wasn’t anywhere near as frightening as (s)he had thought it would be, not because it’s easy, but because (s)he can do it.

Another woman stopped by to tell me that she’s always been terrified of math and never thought she’d ever be able to do anything with computers, but she feels really powerful whenever she uses her statistical software on the homework.  She can’t wait to take my (more difficult, semi-elective) class next semester.

A senior stopped me in the hall and told me how surprised she’d been to see that A on her transcript last semester, an A she’d earned in my harder semi-elective.  The stuff she learned has been helping her this semester too.

It’s been a warm and fuzzy week.

Do you have any warm and fuzzy student stories to share?

More on teaching tactics: roll call, do now

We already talked about Roll Call— simply calling people’s names from the attendance sheet before class and marking them in or absent, whether or not you use that information.  The book Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov talks about threshold techniques, which is the way you greet students as they enter, and DH has picked roll call to be his threshold technique.

Do Now is another technique that can be useful in technical classes.  Basically you have a little problem for them to solve that they should be able to solve in a short amount of time at the beginning of class.  It’s either written on the board or given in a handout that they pick up as they enter.  It’s a way to check for understanding and to get the ball rolling and the brain activated for class.

DH has been talking about the interaction between the two.

Roll call (effectively his threshold technique), strengthens the utility of the Do Now. People show up early for the roll call, and so they’re there to start on the do-now before class. It’s gaining him probably 5 minutes of time on 3/4 of the students.  And he can use the time since he’s going right up to the bell every session.

Do Nows and quizzes are pedagogically essentially the same thing– quick checks for student understanding and an incentive to keep up with the material.  However, the Do Now has many psychological and mechanical advantages over the quiz.  Students like the Do Now better than the quiz.   They feel a lot different.  They’re less intimidating. And he doesn’t have to grade them.  They feel more like they’re for the student learning than the end result of a grade.

He was using quizzes for attendance, feedback to the professor, and an incentive for them to keep up with the material. Now roll-call and cold-calling are filling those needs.

me: I’ve definitely been doing more cold calling.  I’ve been trying to learn a new student name or two every class period  so that kid gets picked on.  Once I’ve picked on them, they’re more likely to ask questions.

DH: I’ve realized that cold calling can be a learning tool, and hopefully that comes through when I walk them through anything they’re struggling with, and the way there’s no judgement on wrong answers.  Anyway, off to class.

I hope it went well!  Do you think we should allow students to sink or swim on their own, or is nudging them ok?

Ask the Grumpies: Video in class

Leah asks:

What is your preferred way to use a video in your class?

#1 says:  I love them, I use them as much as possible, students love them.  I show them whenever I can think of an excuse or find a good video.

#2 says:  I generally only use video in my electives, and generally Daily Show or Colbert Report clips on current events that just happen to fit with a topic we’re discussing.  Occasionally I’ll dig up a Youtube video of an old commercial or something to explain what things were like before they were born.  I tend to use NPR a bit more, either having them listen in class or as a homework assignment that we’ll then discuss in class.  For one of my electives, I have a video of a talk that an architect of an important piece of legislation gave that I just show instead of lecturing because he just does a great job of explaining what and why and what are the problems.  I also have a video on another topic that I play sometimes because it has a nice overview of all the scholarly articles we’ll be reading on the topic.  One year I had my students watch a Michael Moore video for the final exam and use what they’d learned in the class to critique it.

Ask the grumpies: What makes an ideal student?

Femme Frugality asks:

What are the qualities in your ideal student? Where’s the line between being a good student and being a kiss-ass?

There’s no such thing as a kiss-ass in the grumpy nation.   A good student is excited about the material and about learning and isn’t concerned about grades, just doing a good job, being responsible, polite, and understanding the material in the class.  Enthusiastic students are often labeled kiss-asses as if it is a bad thing, but we’re here to tell you that enthusiasm for learning is never a bad thing, even if it forces you to go to graduate school and perhaps even become a professor.  So stay bright-eyed and respectful, we will not think less of you, even if your classmates are secretly jealous and try to pull you down.

#2 adds:

Come to class, look attentive, don’t sleep or text.  Make some reasonable effort on all assignments.  Don’t ask for exceptions to the rules.  Don’t give me presents or try to be friends, it’s weird.  (#1 says:  I do not mind presents from my international students whose cultures suggest gifts for all professors after the holiday break, but only *after* the class is over.  I have a nice collection of New Years red ribbons, which are entirely appropriate, especially when all your first semester professors have one.)

The students that stand out in my mind were really interested in the topic of the class and found something to fascinate them.  Also, intelligence.  Smart ones are better.  (#1 notes:  even if you’re not smart, hard work will *make* you smarter, at least in my classes.)  Respectfulness (not obsequiousness) and good writing will help.  I will have a soft spot for you if you volunteer for an in-class demo, but you don’t have to.

Grumpy academic readers, what makes your ideal student?

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?

Getting kids to behave in a teaching setting

It’s all about tactics…

We’re reading this book by Doug Lemov on how to improve K-12 teaching, figuring it should help us with college and graduate students too, even if not everything transfers over.  This book is really awesome because it’s about tactics.  What are techniques that you can actually use to get students to pay attention, keep listening, behave themselves and learn (mostly remember) the material.  It’s a great book with lots of great tips in a classroom setting.  Little nitty-gritty details.

We’ve had it in mind as we go through the summer, applying it more to a pre-K setting.

Example.  So DC says to me the other morning, “Ms B said if I flipped my flip flops one more time, she was going to wear them.”
“I think that means she wanted you to stop.”
“Why?”
“You were probably disturbing her or other kids.”
“Really?”  DC asked incredulously.
“Did you stop?” I asked.
“No, I flipped them two more times.  But Ms B didn’t put them on,” ze replied, disappointed.

I think what we have there is a failure of Ms B to communicate.  DC honestly had no idea that she wanted hir to stop flipping or why on earth she would have wanted that.  With kids a certain age, it’s best just to be direct.  “DC, please stop flipping your flipflops.  It is bothering me.”

Also while we’ve been reading this book, DC has started swimming lessons. The first session ze had an experienced and short woman teacher.  DC behaved like an angel and progressed marvelously.  Second session, DC had a tall inexperienced male teacher.  DC acted up in ways that we rarely see hir act up.  And so did most of the other kids in that group.  We were constantly reminding DC to listen to the teacher because swimming pools are dangerous and it is important to listen.  (Indeed, on the last day of class, DC fell into four feet of water and took a while to fish out, but was oddly unfazed.  DH, otoh, almost had a heart attack.)  DC claimed ze just didn’t hear when the teacher said to stop splashing or to stay away from the slides.  He would also give up on kids doing the right thing too soon, and would make idle threats that he never followed through on.

DH spent some time over these sessions comparing what it was that the first teacher and the second teacher were doing differently, especially on occasions with the tall male teacher when the students actually behaved.  Specifically, the kids behaved on the days when they were in the big pool instead of the smaller one where they could stand on their own without life jackets.  In the big pool, they had to sit on a mat for safety reasons when it wasn’t their turn with the teacher.  And, importantly, in the big pool, the tall teacher was the same height as the kids, not towering over them.  It was easier for them to listen to him.

Supernanny was right.  It is important to get down to the child’s level when you’re trying to get them to behave, listen, or obey a command.  Second, when they’re bored, they’re going to act up.  Give them something to do and limit their possible actions.  Too much freedom can lead to pushing that freedom too far, and not being in a position to pay attention to the teacher.  Finally, as before, follow through with commands and threats.  If you give up too early, then they have more reason to ignore your commands and threats.

These are all tactics.  Not high flung philosophies and so on, but concrete small things that improve the experience for everyone and help increase learning because of that.  It is easier to learn when kids are not distracted and it’s easier to teach when kids are well-behaved.

So that’s our recent experiences in getting pre-K and K-12 folks to pay attention and learn stuff.  We wonder what bleeds over to college students…