Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Annoyance Avoidance

It comes as no surprise that (according to my unscientific poll) the two most-disliked questions that students ask professors are:

Did I miss anything (important)? and Is this going to be on the test? (and variation thereof)

And yet, clearly students want to know the answers to these questions. Is there a way for students to get the desired information and avoid annoying their instructor?

Probably not. At least, not without doing a bit of work first.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I highly recommend that students take whatever steps they possibly can to answer the first question on their own, and then approach their instructor with specific questions about the material. If a student comes to me and says "I missed class last Tuesday but I have read the relevant chapter in the textbook, looked at the review material you posted online, and read [my classmate's] notes that s/he took in class that day, and I just have a few questions..", I am totally happy to answer those questions.

For question #2 and its ilk ("Do we need to know...?"), a similar approach of asking specific questions about course material may be the way to go; that is, by asking substantive questions that show some thought. I realize that is not the same as asking whether something is on a test, but I think that a thoughtful approach to question-asking might result, in some cases, in the gleaning of information such as "I don't expect you to know that particular topic in that much detail" or "Yes, that's an extremely important topic". But again, some work (by the student) is required to get to that type of conversation.

As I was reading the comments and assembling the polls, it occurred to me that some of the items listed used to bother me more than they do now. Am I mellowing with age? In particular, I don't mind the "Is this going to be on the test?" question as much as I used to. It is a familiar and routine part of the teaching experience, and I am happy to roll with it and give a sincere answer, particularly to intro-level students (less so with majors). However, I have not yet achieved a happy coexistence with the first question, perhaps because that one bruises my delicate professorial ego and the second question does not.

In terms of the other items in the List of Annoyances, it is clear that the issue of greetings in e-mails and in person is a minefield. I think it would be very useful if new-student orientations provided guidance on this, as there is huge variation from institution to institution. There is also variation within institutions and we can't expect our intro-course (non-major) students to know the culture of our department/unit. It is probably a good idea, therefore, if students start with the most formal mode of greeting ("Dear Professor X" in e-mail; "Professor X" in conversation) and see if they can pick up on any clues whether it is OK to be more informal. It is probably always a bad idea to refer to men as "Professor" and women as "Mrs/Ms/Miss/firstname" by default.

Professors can also help with this: In the first day of class in my intro-level courses, I specifically discuss the topic of how I want to be addressed.

But now I would like to explore this topic of mellowing-with-age a bit more, not with a poll but just with a request for comments. If you have been teaching for at least a few years: as you survey the list of Annoying Questions (and maybe others not listed), think about whether your feelings about these questions have changed with time. This question does not apply to anyone who has never been annoyed by any of these questions, ever, but for the rest of us: has your annoyance level (whatever that is) decreased, increased, or stayed the same with time?


Anonymous said...

I've always been annoyed by point grubbing, but my annoyance level has decreased over the years, because I don't do point-based grading so much. Nearly everything is a written report or computer program, and I let them redo those until they get them right.

I'm still very annoyed by students not copy-editing their work before turning it in—particularly when there are multiple authors on the report. My annoyance level with spelling errors that are catchable with spell checkers has gone up enormously over the years. There is no excuse for spelling errors that a machine can catch in formal reports turned in for a class. My annoyance level with spelling errors in e-mail has dropped a bit, though, as fast typing to handle the enormous load of e-mail correspondence sometimes makes spell checking too inconvenient.

"Will this be on the test?" doesn't happen in classes that rely on reports and programs rather than tests. I would find it annoying if my classes had occasion for it to occur.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about what you (roughly) say in class to address the "address me as..." question. I have thought about doing this, but feel weird saying "please call me professor x".

AnEngineer said...

When I've asked "did I miss anything important?", what I really meant was, "did I miss any administrative information?" Such in: did you change any due dates.

physioprof said...

There is no longer anything a student can say or do any longer that annoys me. I have become 100% indifferent.

Female Science Professor said...

I tell students that they can call me by my first name or, if they are not comfortable with that, by Professor X.

Anonymous said...

The best way for a student *not* to annoy their teacher with the "Did I miss anything important?" question is not miss the class.

Unknown said...

In my big intro lecture course I introduce myself as Prof X, and say that they can call me either Prof or Dr, whichever they prefer. And then I tell them that it is just generally a good policy to refer to any instructor as Dr. or Prof. out of respect for the university setting.

This seems to work, as I am generally called "professor", sans my last name (which people find hard to pronounce and spell).

The "will this be on the test" question, while mildly annoying, I have grown immune to it and know to expect it 500,000 times a semester.

The point grubbing, I have grown less and less patient with it over the years.

The mistaken salutation, while more annoying than "will this be on the test", is nowhere near as annoying as point grubbing. Calling me Ms. shows they don't know how to show professional respect, the point grubbing shows they think they deserve a special favor over all the other students in the class. THAT bothers me.

studyzone said...

One way I've dealt with the "do we need to know this for the test...?" questions has been to shift toward learning objectives. For reading assignments and lectures, I give students the learning objectives (written as actionable statements, such as "Compare and contrast...."). When I write tests, I use the learning objectives to guide the questions. Students are told from the get-go that if they need to know a concept in order to meet the learning objective, then yes, that too will be on the test. Since implementing learning objectives, I've had far fewer questions about what will be on the test.

Regarding names/forms of address, my PUI tells freshmen during orientation to address all faculty as Professor or Dr. last-name unless told otherwise. Students here are very respectful of that, and it hasn't been an issue.

Anonymous said...

When I was a new assistant professor (female), I was much more sensitive than I am now to being called Mrs./Ms./[first name] versus Prof./Dr. I suspect that the intervening 12 years created a large enough age gap between me and the undergrads that I no longer worry about whether they are mistaking me for a TA (or whatever else they are thinking) versus a member of faculty.

Paradoxically, I now spend less time explaining how I want to be addressed but very rarely get addressed as anything other than "Prof." by undergraduates.

GMP said...

My annoyance with everything has dropped considerably with respect to when I first started. I still hate being called by my first name by random undergrads who assume it's for some reason OK, and I hate it about the same I ever have. Students asking for special favors, such as grade grubbing or -- my personal "favorite" -- wanting me to hold separate exams for them because they bought an airline ticket and want to start the holidays early, piss me off more and more with each passing year.

Dave Backus said...

Yup, all true. But the focus on tests is leverage you can use. If that's their focus, make it work for you. Design the tests so that they need to learn whatever it is you think is important.

squawky said...

I think I've gotten less annoyed by the "Ms./Mrs." - especially as most of the majors have picked up on the Dr. address, so the new majors figure it out quickly. Some days I'm just happy if they get my name spelled correctly (and don't just use my email username, which has extra letters from my first/middle names that I could not change).

For me, I usually read into "did I miss anything important?" and interpret it as "did you give a pop quiz or assign some homework that will hurt my grade if I miss it?", so I usually follow-up with a generic email about coming to office hours with questions (and about the make-up policy for pop quizzes or comments about homework assignments posted to our LMS).

To be honest, the one trend that has started to bug me more is the BCC email - usually from a student who knows they will be missing class and is emailing ahead of time (although I've suspected some of the desperate "I just need one science class to graduate" emails in the past). These emails are usually nicely formatted and start with "Dear Professor," - but contain no specifics about what class the student is missing (or what they will do about making up missed work) beyond their name and some vague details about completing missed assignments. I teach 3-4 classes/term - I don't always remember which students belong in which class, especially at the beginning of the semester.

I'll be less upset with that over time, I suspect - will get used to dealing with it and move on to something else annoying.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, I just got a new favorite annoying email: "Have you graded the exams yet?"

Anonymous said...

I ask students signed the syllabus in which detailing absents will not be excused if they are not University approved absents, makeup work policies, reschedule exams policies, and etc. Students understand they have agreed with terms in the syllabus therefore they stop asking me annoying questions, such as extra credits, late homework, or car breakdown...

In addition, I have lecture notes posted which include reviews for the tests.

I simply don't answer emails to questions that smell like quick text messages: "Have you graded the exams yet?", "do we need to know this for the test...?"

I have tried using the "signed syllabus" method for more than 3 years, and no one call me "Ms/Mrs xxx" anymore ever since. For some reasons which they might not related, they knew I am a Dr. or a Professor.

Anonymous said...

Students want good grades. Their questions are therefore often about the best strategy. What's wrong with that?

If you want them to have a different goal, like 'critical thinking' or 'knowledge' or some other abstract thing like that which will ultimately be communicated via a grade, then you need to convince them to have that goal BEFORE you criticize what they do.

Anonymous said...

I used to be annoyed by the "did I miss anything" query. I vented to a colleague one day, and he suggested the following (edit days as necessary):

"No, Thursdays are important; Tuesdays are just for fun."

I don't necessarily respond with that, but I remember and giggle inwardly every time.

To the "will it be on the exam" question, I usually give the student a look of amazement, as though s/he has suggested something brilliant, nod slowly, and enthusiastically say "probably!"