Friday, February 20, 2009

Earth to Students

This post could also be called "Earth to Professors", as it is about the different planes (spheres?) of existence of most students as compared to most professors. It is not surprising of course that there are gaps in experiences and expectations between students and professors, yet from what I've seen, students and professors alike are continually amazed at the mystifying behavior of the other. Or maybe it's just me; I don't understand many of my colleagues either.

This disconnect has many varieties, but one that I encounter when teaching an introductory course is a mismatch in perception of what is an Essential Concept that must be understood for the student to understand the world and what is a Random Fact that students have to memorize for no apparent good reason.


A week or so ago a student came to talk to me about her quiz. She pointed to one question that I had put at the very beginning as a confidence booster/at-least-I-will-get-some-points-even-if-I-can't-answer-any-other-questions kind of question. It was a question that 99% of the class got right, just not this student. I was amazed that a living human being in college could miss this question.

She said "That's a random fact that I just didn't happen to memorize. I didn't know you were going to ask us about details like that." Her "random fact" was something I consider a basic concept that most people over the age of 5 know, but I didn't want to make her feel worse than she already did. So I didn't say that. I said "Even if you consider it a 'random fact', it is something I mentioned in several classes as a basic concept and it is covered in Chapter 1 of the textbook." She said "But I didn't go to those classes and I didn't read the textbook." Oh, OK. In that case, let me give you the points back. No, I didn't say that either.

Another example:

Another student who was unhappy about his quiz came to talk to me. He pointed to a question he got completely wrong and for which he received no points and said "I read the question wrong, but for the wrong way that I read it, I gave the right answer. I think I should get some points for that." I looked at the question, which contained 6 words, and asked him how he had (mis)read it. He said "I didn't see that word" (points to the one noun in the sentence). In fact, he was right that if you substitute a completely different and unrelated noun for the real noun, you could possibly explain his bizarre answer. I didn't think it reasonable to give points for that; he didn't think it reasonable that I didn't even give him partial credit for his completely wrong answer.

Last example:

A student emailed me: Hi, I missed the class today and I am thinking that I really need to know the things in this class before the exam. Please tell me when you will be giving the lecture again so that I can attend this time. your student, X

This email surprised me at first, but once I thought about it I realized that he must have taken an intro class in another department in which one person teaches multiple sections of the course. Perhaps the email reflects how the student has thus far experienced a big university, but if so, it's too bad that he hasn't encountered more professors and/or smaller classes and gained a clearer idea of how a large part of the university functions. I don't expect students to have a detailed understanding of what my professor job entails, but I'd like to think that most students know a bit more than this student seems to. I looked him up in my class list and saw that he's a senior, so he's probably not going to get a broader view before he leaves here.

These types of interaction will always happen. They remind students that professors are strange, and they remind some of us professors that we are talking to people whose experiences and points of view are very remote from our own.

Fortunately for the student, if he/she doesn't like the exam questions or how they were graded, the student can give the professor a low grade on the end-of-term evaluation. I personally think that all professors should get an A just for the effort of teaching, but I understand that we can't have teaching evaluation inflation and that it is better for the reputation of an academic institution if professors get average evaluations.


Steven Pierce said...

Since coming to the UK I've gotten something else astonishing: students approaching me and asking which lectures will be on the final exam. Many of them expect that each exam question will correspond to one (and only one) lecture, so they just need to choose a couple of lectures to study. They get very bent out of shape when I say I expect them to master *all* the lectures.

Anonymous said...

And I thought we only had clueless ones on this side of the Atlantic.

Here's a bizarre suggestion: Guaranteed Grade Tuition.

If you pay $10,000 a year, you are guaranteed a "D", no matter what you did, so you can party away. Doing real work, however, can better your grade.

$25,000 gets you a guaranteed "Gentleman's C". $50,000 a guaranteed "B". And for $100.000 a year (just small change for Mommy and Daddy) you get your guaranteed "A", and can come to classes if you feel like it.

Imagine how many less exams you have to grade! And then you can offer scholarships or tuition with no guarantees for maybe $1.000 a year.

But the degree has to have a footnote denoting whether you bought your degree or earned it. I mean, with so many other "colleges" selling degrees, shouldn't all the schools get in on it? Leaves more room for those who really, really want to learn.

Anonymous said...

"But I didn't go to those classes and I didn't read the textbook." And that is how she defended herself??? She should lose some points for lack of participation!

I personally think that all professors should get an A just for the effort of teaching.
Amen to that!

I may have not always been an A student, but I always took full responsibility. That is what is lacking in a lot of these situations. It also goes back to your previous post about entitlement.

EliRabett said...

This, of course, is why syllabi now resemble contracts written by a tedious lawyer.

Alyssa said...

DH an I were just discussing this last night. He was telling me about a student that came into his office to ask him about a question on the exam (which he got a zero on). DH looked at his answer, and not only had he used the completely wrong equation for the question (even though it was an open book exam) he wrote it down wrong.

Still, the student wanted part marks because he wrote down an equation!! Sigh...

Anonymous said...

I recently graduated college, and I knew several students who would always ask for a better grade even if they knew were wrong, because they knew that a lot of teachers would just give in and give them a few extra points that they don't deserve. One time I made a silly mistake on a test, and one classmate said I should talk to the teacher about it. I knew it was my own fault and just took responsibility and accepted the lower grade. Some students don't actually expect a better grade or feel like they deserve one, but they figure that it doesn't hurt to ask for more, and sometimes they get it. It's a little unfair so I'm glad to see that you didn't give in. Don't get me wrong; I'll ask for a teacher to review a test if I actually think they made a mistake. But some people will ask for more points even if they know it's their own fault.

AKA said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wanna Be Mother said...

God I just don't get all this entitlement feeling of some students! The university and profs jobs are not to give you A's for doing nothing and knowing nothing, it's to help you learn and to test whether you have learned the essentials of the topic by giving you a grade.

I love the way you connected it to teaching evaluations! Hilarious

The Geek In Question said...

The last example floored me, but I read it the same way you did initially. Even then, I think I'd be irked that the student couldn't be bothered to take the initiative to look up the course lecture schedule his/herself. But maybe that's just me.
(new reader here, by the way, and enjoying it). Thanks.

John Vidale said...

The best way I've found to mitigate complaints about tests and how they are graded - give them last year's exam to study from. Otherwise some students always complain they studied the wrong mix of lectures, labs, and the book, and its my fault.

My other headache is students' (and teachers') failure to understand the mapping between a class average score and a grade distribution. IT IS NOT NECESSARILY A LINEAR FUNCTION MAPPING ONLY 90+ TO AN A. One outlying high score does not "break the curve". If the average score is 50/100, not everyone need fail. If everyone gets above 90, not everyone is getting an A, the teacher just made up a bad test.

Sorry if this post seems like shouting. It's too bad we have to assign grades at all, but that's the only way large required non-major classes work.

Anonymous said...


Those med students may be fine when they get to you, but when I have them in intro science classes they see it as just a hurdle, and anything that might stand between them and an A is an injustice on a cosmic scale.

I can't top the student who defended herself by telling FSP that she hadn't read the book. However, I do love the story of a student of mine who showed up 5 minutes before the midterm was over, and said "Oh, we have a midterm right now? I thought class starts later." Um, no. The midterm was at the same time as ever lecture. Then she works on it for 5 minutes, and after I call time she says "You'll let me come to your office and finish this, right?" Um, no. First, I have a meeting with the dean, so even if I wanted to indulge you, I can't. Second, everybody else in the room remembered that the exam starts at 11am and they all showed up on time.

Another story: When I was a TA for the 4th quarter of a course sequence, a student came to me during the final exam and asked if I could tell him what equation to use. I replied that (1) he's allowed to bring a page of notes so he shouldn't have to ask for equations and (2) this equation was taught in the 2nd quarter of the course sequence, so if he's made it to the 4th quarter he should already know this equation. He grumbled but went back to his seat. A little while later, the professor comes in, and I whisper the story to him. The professor says "Oh, I don't want him to fail because he doesn't know that equation." I whispered "Not knowing that equation is exactly why I want him to fail." But I was over-ruled, and the equation was written on the board for him. Last I heard, that professor is still teaching. God help us all.

Temp Prof said...

FSP- How sad is it that I can say I've pretty much had all those same experiences, and I've only been teaching for 1 year! And I don't even teach full-time. Thank you so much for sharing your stories and helping me realize other professors are going through the same thing!


Anonymous said...

John's point reminded me of another annoying lack of understanding some students seem to have: they don't understand the relation between points and percentages. On the syllabus I tell them how many points the class is worth (usually 100), and then what percentage of points corresponds to each final grade (90% and above for A, 80-89% for B, etc.). I can't tell you how many complaints I've had from students that my class was "only" worth 100 points, so they had a hard time getting a good grade! I've experimented by making the whole class worth 200 points, or 160, or whatever, and then they complain that it's only worth 200 points! WTF? I could make the class worth a million points -- you'd still have to get 90% of them to get an A!!!

Anonymous said...

I LOVE the last paragraph. I'm thinking about printing it on a banner and hanging it outside my office.
-a first-year professor

Anonymous said...

I would hasten to note that short of providing any statistics as to how many of your students actually ask these inane questions, it is rather improper to malign "students" as a mass with these characteristics since it is usually only a few outliers that act this way.

Given enough students, you'll almost always encounter these, and my advice is to remind yourself of the rest of the students that make your experience worthwhile.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to go on an anonymous rant about one insecure and ethically challenged female professor I had the misfortune to study under. I did everything possible to be nice to her, smiled often, sat quietly in class, but she knocked off a bunch of points over every little trivial infraction I made and wasn't fair about it. Everyone knows you can be a total dipstick as long as you treat all your students the same. By the end of the semester I couldn't stand her, maybe because I tried so hard to get on her good side - I know she had one all the guys were on it. May she burn in hell or worse may all her submitted papers get rejected. Ahhh I feel so much better.

Anonymous said...

I've had professors and teachers who said their policy on regrades was to always re-check the grading on a homework or test if the student had a particular question or concern...but the catch was that by asking for a re-grade the student acquiesced to a re-grade of the entire test, and that the grade could be adjusted up, or down, depending on the grading errors found.

It seemed like a good filter for some of the people who were protesting really inane stuff, knowing full well that they may have accidentally received undue partial credit in other parts of the test.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Well, as an undergrad student I do have one thing to rant about even though I'm on the other side of the argument. It does annoy me when professor/lecturers goes too fast in lectures. There are two ways of making notes, one copying down absolutely everything on the board if you don't understand...which is extremely time consuming...or writing decent notes after thinking two or three seconds on the point made which is significantly quicker and much more easily absorbed. So, in the event where the lecturer speaks really fast and write illegibly the first often predominates and I for one will defintely get a low mark on the exam and will feel the need to maybe nag for a few extra points on the basis I've tried. If they can I'd rather they give detailed handouts and just made sure that the basics were understood....><

Anonymous said...

I had a high-school chemistry teacher who gave thousands of points for each assignment. By the end of the semester we had millions of points. We used to make fun of him and his grading, never realizing that it was the most effective method I've ever seen to teach significant digits.

JLK said...

I have to say, FSP. Your posts about undergrads make me feel like I was the Best. Student. Ever.

Just because I wasn't an overprivileged moron.

Have you had nontraditional students in your classes? What is the professor's perspective of nontrads as a population?

Anonymous said...

Alex at 2/20/2009 11:08:00 AM has raised an important example, and it ties in with the course evaluations issue.

I have what I consider reasonable expectations of my students. But oh how I pay for it when it comes time for course evaluations. I would have taken Alex's position exactly in that scenario. But some of my colleagues would have been writing that equation on the board, passing the student along, and in exchange for this irresponsibility, reaping better course evaluations.

Anonymous said...

But some of my colleagues would have been writing that equation on the board, passing the student along, and in exchange for this irresponsibility, reaping better course evaluations.

And so the cycle is complete. Is it any wonder, then, that students feel "entitled" to better grades than they deserve? Faculty who inflate student grades to pump up their own teaching evals or because it's easier just to give the kids what they want are part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

How I grade now and how I will grade after tenure are 2 entirely distinct matters. I wouldn't have written that equation on the board even now, when I'm an assistant professor at a PUI (where evaluations matter) rather than a TA at a research university (where nobody cares about a TA's evaluations, just whether the TA gets grading and posting and other tasks done on time). However, I do give tests that I consider to be tests of minimal competence in the subject rather than mastery of the subject.

My department requires that assistant professors be reviewed every year, and in our review materials we submit our grade distributions. The distributions seem to be of less importance than evaluations, as long as they aren't too high or too low. When I am tenured and on the tenure committee, I will write reviews that praise people with grade distributions that skew low, saying that they are evidence of high academic standards.

But for now I am not tenured, and so I seek to survive.

Anonymous said...

To hkukbilingualidiot: when a lecturer lectures too fast, do you stop them? Ask them to repeat what they said a little more slowly? Or drop them an email later telling them you're having trouble taking fast enough notes? Professors don't necessarily know that they're talking fast, or that the back rows can't hear them, or that people can't read what's on the board. We need to hear that from students, and only a rare jerk of a professor would get offended by that kind of feedback, as long as it isn't delivered in an impolite way. I, for one, am ecstatic when a student stops me and asks me to repeat something. They're alive! They're paying attention! Yay! But if someone came to me regarding their exam grade and wanted extra points because they had been having trouble all semester with my lecture speed/volume/whatever, and they had never mentioned it before, I would have zero sympathy. Zero.

John Vidale said...

Writing the equation on the board is not all bad. With the equation, which others apparently did not need to memorize either as they could have written it down, the student may think harder about what the course material means than he has rest of the quarter. Without the equation, he is wasting his time.

The need to repeatedly measure a fair numerical grade is such an impediment to learning.

Houda Nashawi said...

I think students and professors do live in different "spheres" or "planes". They look at things differently, and there is some sort of gap between these two groups of people. Whether it is a "generation gap", like the one between parents and children, or a "cultural gap" I do not know.

I started to notice this "gap" when I became I grad student. During my undergrad studies, my friend argued with a professor once about a question in the exam she missed, and which the professor believed can be answered by school kids because it was only "common knowledge". I thought the professor was really mean then: what if someone doesn't happen to know that particular piece of common knowledge?

It happened to be that that particular professor became my grad adviser. While we're in the lab, a lot of undergrads come to him making arguing about very similar issues. Now, I think the students are being ridiculous and unreasonable, and that the professor is absolutely right! But I still realize that if I were in those students' shoes, I wouldn't like to be told that!

I think when I came to interact with professors more often, I understand them better. My mom always says that I can't understand what a mother really feels for her children unless I become a mother myself. I think this applies to academia too!

Anonymous said...

Another good idea would be to delay course evaluations until one year after the students had completed the course.

Their perspective on how well (or poorly) the teacher and the course prepared them for future courses would be tremendously improved.

Their frustrations with the minutiae of grading would be more remote.

Unbalanced Reaction said...

HAHA!! I've had two out of three of those scenarios presented to me JUST THIS week. I guess students are the same everywhere!

Anonymous said...

This post and comments have a lurking entitlement flavor from the previous day, but the issue of mismatch in perception of what is primary concept versus useful, but not indispensable information, is a very interesting one.

"a mismatch in perception of what is an Essential Concept that must be understood for the student to understand the world and what is a Random Fact that students have to memorize"

This is the greatest challenge I face when teaching an intro class. In fact, extracting the essential points from the sea of details in my field (a natural science) is the way I organize most of my lectures. Intro textbooks attempt to do that as well, with highlights, color text, big and small font, but they contain so many details - mostly to fill space as far as I can tell, to justify their high cost - that the "extraction" of essential concepts is left to the instructor. It makes sense to me that the students and I start the course on different planets, especially since students have typically never had a course in my field, but hopefully, by the end of the semester, we are closer to being on the same Earth.

Doctor Pion said...

"But I didn't go to those classes and I didn't read the textbook." Oh, OK. In that case, let me give you the points back. No, I didn't say that either.

What I would say, and have found quite effective with students such as that one, is "That is an explanation, not an excuse." Students in an introductory course really need to hear this, because explanations were accepted as excuses in HS.

A similar 'thought' process could be behind the request of student #3, who might expect review lectures based on 12 years of past experience (not to mention what sometimes goes on in other departments).

I wave off reading comprehension problems, such as that of student #2, with the fashionable phrase, "critical thinking". Would you get fired for serving kethcup instead of tomato soup in a restaurant? Wake up and smell the coffee.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Ok, I don't teach at a university, but I have never understood this: If everyone gets above 90, not everyone is getting an A, the teacher just made up a bad test.

Why not? If everyone mastered the material, why shouldn't they all get an A? My goal is to teach so that everyone can produce a good translation, or master the declensions, or comprehend the syntax. Why, if everyone does, have I "made up a bad test" instead of taught well?

Anonymous said...

As a student from a European country, I would be absolutely astonished to find any of my fellow students having such ridiculous complaints and demands. It can't be a 'student' thing as a general rule, it simply doesn't make sense.

Anonymous said...

Just as a matter of interest, what was that 'confidence building' question?

Anonymous said...

When I was a lowly math TA, we had common exams for all calculus sections taught by a single professor. Student complaints, no matter which TA graded a problem, went to the professor. One engineering student vehemently protested losing three points (percent) for a missing factor of 2 in a solution, announcing, "A factor of 2 doesn't matter." The tenured professor grabbed the paper, and crossed out the "-3", and replaced it with "-6", responding, "So the factor of 2 does not matter"? The student glowered but retreated. None of the TA's would have had the guts to try that.

On the other hand, even those who know better don't always practice. Also when I was a grad student, one of my classmates in several advanced computer science courses was a PhD mathematician who had returned for a PhD in computer science. In every course, he would track down the poor grad student who graded papers in order to challenge every point he lost on homework, no matter how trivial, silly or irrelevent to his overall grade.

Niket said...

"I personally think that all professors should get an A just for the effort of teaching."

How would this be any different from "I personally think all students should get an A just for the effort of attending classes?"

I think the students are just trying to get some marks for the problem. There have been cases where students just copy the question in their answer-books and expect non-zero marks. In their eyes, its still worth a try... because there are a few teachers who'd oblige.

hkukbilingualidiot said...

To Amy..

I did to those lecturers who lecture too fast and too voluminous, but the problem of the fact is they don't quite register it just as quickly as they teach. Additionally, without the backing of my fellow classmates...who don't quite care enough...I'm pretty much stuck.

Anonymous said...

long time reader. First time commenter :)

I have often wanted to say to this student (i've had this student in my office many times) "Bridge fall down." Referring to the fact that in bridge-building at least, there is no partial credit. Alas, I have never said it.

LV said...

Most discouraging thing ever as a student was discovering that half a room of monkeys sharing a couple of broken typewriters could get degrees. What value does a piece of paper have when any monkey can have it?

Anonymous said...

The second student in your example knew darn well that he had a slim chance. I've tried this before, knowing full well that reason and logic were against me, but felt that emotion could compensate for my long shot. Did it work? Of course not.

The student wasn't "stupid". He was just scrambling for every possible point.

Anonymous said...

Who was it that said "90% of success is showing up"?

I think the examples you cited make a very strong case that there are people in college today who shouldn't be there.