Monday, March 26, 2012

High-Maintenance Equation

A colleague and I were discussing the teaching of large classes (~100 students) and how/whether this is substantially different from teaching a class with 30 students or 300+ students. This is not the first time I have had this conversation in my life, but it is always interesting to hear what others think.

Of course part of the answer to the question of whether there is a difference relates to the structure of the class and whether you have grading support etc., but to the extent that we can generalize, what are the main factors in similarities vs. differences in teaching a lecture-format class of 30 or 100 or 300 students?

Aside from issues such as ability to learn student names, we agreed that a rather major factor affecting the experience of teaching is the number of high-maintenance (HM) students in a class. In a large class, there is a greater chance of encountering HM students, and more of them.

What are examples of HM behavior? It is important that I explain that I do not include in this category students who ask a lot of questions unless the questions are repeatedly and insistently of the 'just tell me the answer so I don't have to think about it or go to class or read the textbook' or similar variety. Just asking a lot of questions does not by definition make a student HM. (See also discussion last year of how HM student behavior is not unique to students; professors do many of the same things when in the role of 'student'.)

Lots of unreasonable requests (for things the student could easily look up on their own), lots of whining and excuses, and/or frequent begging for a better grade are possible components of HM behavior. Students who require a lot of help are perhaps technically HM in some ways, but if they are working hard to understand the course material and are sincere, then I would put them in a different category.

So, just considering the most difficult, soul-destroying type of HM students: Is their effect on your energy level and emotional state diluted by the large number of non-HM students in a class? I would say no (mostly). The type and frequency of HM behavior and the number of HM students are the major factors, not the overall class size. This is a hypothesis that I propose, for discussion.

That is, if you have a class of 100+ students and 1 very HM student, is that somehow less of a drain than if you have a class of 30 students and 1 very HM student? And if you think it is, can you write your personal equation that relates total class size, number of HM students, and their cumulative effect on you?


Alex said...

I think a HM student is worse in a 100 student class because there are so many other people making perfectly reasonable demands on your time, so (1) you are stretched even thinner and (2) it's really driven home to you how disproportionate this person's demands are.

Another aspect of big classes is that lots of low-probability events, besides a uniquely HM student, become all but inevitable. I was talking about this with a colleague: Faculty will respond to almost any proposal for anything differently with "But what if we have one student who..." And when you teach a 100 student class, even a 1% case is likely to happen to you, and you have to be as far to that person as to anybody else.

mathgirl said...

I went through a very extreme case: a year ago I was put to teach the easiest possible class: upper level undergraduate in close field, 6 students. One of them was HM and drove me completely crazy. The fact that it was a small class made things worse because he thought he had the right to demand anything. This student substantially ruined my teaching experience that term.

sleddog said...

I agree with mathgirl: in smaller classes, the HM students feel more entitled.

I am a relatively new faculty member, and I often struggle with balancing the desire to help students who are trying and truly need help, with the need to not become an administrative assistant or tutor to presumptious HM students. I find it harder to make this call early on with international students, when language and cultural differences come into play.

My most recent incident of HM behavior was from a student in an upper-level class in which one assignment is to turn in an outline for one critical section of their lengthy final paper. The paper is a research proposal which will serve as the basis for work to be conducted in following semesters. The purpose of the outline is so I can see the direction each student is taking, and help redirect them if necessary. The expectations are made clear on the syllabus and were discussed in class. The HM student met with me individually twice in the weeks leading up to this assignment, and we exchanged a few emails in which I answered questions. HM then emailed the day before the outline was due to ask me how to write an outline. Yikes.

Anonymous said...

This happened to me on an interview for a faculty position. I was given a scenario where a student (one of say, 300) makes an unusual request (I need to take the exam later because [excuse here]). How would I respond? I sort of naively caved and said, oh it would depend on the excuse, blah, blah blah. The questioner was very nice about it, and said, well no. The second you give in, even just a little, word will get out, and then you suddenly have a hundred other students making special requests or other excuses. I don't know if this equates to an HM student, but I wonder how contagious the HM condition may be, especially in a larger group.

Anonymous said...

What Alex said.

It is because of the HM students that I can only stand to teach my giant gen-ed class once per year. They are so draining. To the point where I almost have a panic attack because all of the needy emails at the end of the semester.

Anonymous said...

What mathgirl said, exactly!

In a big class I feel entirely justified pointing out that, with ~100 students, it is unreasonable to ask me to make time for individual appointments to help students who had unspecified, unexcused "conflicts" with class last week catch up with the course material. It's an unreasonable request in a small class, too, but it's dead-obvious unreasonable in a big one.

Anonymous said...

I must admit the most egregious HM students, like you define them, are not a problem for me because at a certain point i would make it clear I was no longer responding, and it the behavior disrupted class, I'd make it clear it would not continue. However, having a Y chromosome and lots of grey hair may help in discouraging them , based on my own and my colleagues experiences.

My own observation is that there is a magic threshold of 100 students above which you have one of EVERY possible problem:

death in the family causing missed exam, persistent complainer, multiple requests for make-ups, forgot to sign the honor pledge, possible cheating

75-90 students--almost never happens
105-120 student--always happens

Mark P

professormamallama said...

As soon as I type this I know I'll be in trouble, but I seem to have *no* HM students this semester. Could it really be true? Only 7 more weeks to go.

E=enjoyment of my class is a function how many wonderful people (N) I get the pleasure spending my time with. In other words, N=class size. Of course, this is minus how much I decided to assign that semester and thus must grade...

If HM>0, then E=-10^(HM^HH)-GRADING*N
To me, class size (N) doesn't matter when HM>0, except that I also still have to grade a lot if it's a big class. My (negative) enjoyment is mostly a function of how many HM students there are and HH (how horrible they are...).

Actually, I *could* add in a factor to either equation for some really awesome fantastic inspiring student (+AFIS) who I think may later volunteer in my lab and do mind-blowing thesis research, which would make the HM=0 case even better, and the HM>0 slightly less awful.

jb said...

I don't think class size would matter. I've only taught large classes (over 200) and regardless of whether have 1 or more than 1 HM students, the drain on my energy and psyche is the same. As mathgirl mentioned, it just takes one to ruin your experience for the term.

Rosie Redfield said...

I think I must be a big meanie. I don't let them become high-maintenance, because I refuse to give unreasonable personal attention. For example I say "Please post your questions on the course discussion board so all the students can benefit from the answer". If they need hand-holding I quickly send them to some other source of support.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting comment (Rosie's). I want to get better at preventing HM behavior, but without going too far into being totally impersonal and inaccessible. I am better at this than I used to be, but maybe it's impossible to get it perfectly right for all classes, students, situations.

Anonymous said...

A few semesters ago I had a really assholish HM student; he was really disruptive and affected the class dynamics. I didn't have tenure so I had to tread lightly, but I really wanted to tell him to shut up and just kick him out of class.

Agree with everyone else -- even one HM can not only ruin the whole semester of teaching, but it ruins the experience for students as well.

Anonymous said...

I have one this semester who is ruining the experience for everyone and has poisoned my whole semester. Had to go to upper administration about it as he was so disruptive. It isn't over yet but only 7 weeks to go.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a non-linear (inverse U) relationship between class size and the pain caused by HM students. In a small class you have few students who fit this role and you actually have enough of a relationship to nip it in the bud or to deal with it. In a large class a blanket policy is usually seen as justified by students and admin. But the 50-100 student class means you will have at least 1 HM student and they often feel you should deal with their issues because it isn't such a large class while my admin wholly concurs (the admin here operate on a each special flower needs special tending philosophy).

Anonymous said...

I believe this might be described by a Poisson distribution if we assume that HM students are randomly distributed. If your average is 1HM every 100 students, the probability distribution in a class of 300 will be:
p(0) (no HM students in the class) ~5%
p(1) ~15%
p(2)= p(3)~ 22.5%

Anonymous said...

Anon commented "This happened to me on an interview for a faculty position. I was given a scenario where a student (one of say, 300) makes an unusual request (I need to take the exam later because [excuse here]). How would I respond? I sort of naively caved and said, oh it would depend on the excuse, blah, blah blah. The questioner was very nice about it, and said, well no. The second you give in, even just a little, word will get out, and then you suddenly have a hundred other students making special requests or other excuses. I don't know if this equates to an HM student, but I wonder how contagious the HM condition may be, especially in a larger group."

In my first year as a professor, I was asked by a student to take a make-up exam (ina class of 150 students) at a different time, with a not too impressive excuse, but I was young, and wanted to be "nice" and said yes. Within less than 24 hours, 15 additional students came by to ask about re-schedulign the exam. I finally went over the limit when the last said: "I'm here to sign up for the scheduled make-up exam time...."

Word gets out. Our syllabus now says no-make-up exams. Of course we do give them, but the number of requests is minimal.

Mark P

jb said...

Our syllabus now says no-make-up exams.

I used to have a no make-up policy in my syllabus as well. However, I was later advised not to use those words as "every effort should be given for students to excel". I'm sorry but with 500 - 600 students each term, I get a sickness, dead relative or car trouble every time I fart. There's no way I'll give make-ups without documentation. Even with this policy in place for several semesters now, I still get pleading emails. As one student told me, there's no harm in asking.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar situation as mathgirl, a very small number of students, but one who was very HM. Had the "can you give me more info on how to organize this?" email the day it's due, constant excuses for why assignments were late, asking for extensions, etc. It really ruined the experience for me.

I will say though that it could probably have been nipped in the bud by me if I had been stricter at the beginning- when I had previously taught the same course I had no HM students in it, and so I set the tone at the beginning this time around a little more relaxed than I should have.

I also have a feeling that if I wasn't young and female, this particular student would have taken me more seriously. But that's just a hunch.

Doctor Pion said...

My only experience has been with huge classes (circa 200) where I was a grad student TA in a recitation with 30+ students, or with being in full charge of a class that has either 30+ or 60 in it without any grading support. Huge and large classes require a lecture approach. The smaller class can be whatever I want it to be on any given day.

HM students don't appear worse in any of these situations, but then (as I learned from discussing one of your blog articles with a female colleague a few years ago) I can more easily get away with a stern "read the syllabus and the college policy" than can my female colleagues. I don't know if it is universal (due to most K-12 teachers being female) or regional, but comments from colleagues suggest that students are more likely to ask female teachers to give extra credit etc makeups etc retakes etc etc like they commonly experienced in HS.

I learned about some things the hard way myself, and "nipping it" is one of the beauties of the semi-annual reset when your courses start over again. It is also something all new faculty get mentored about, if they are lucky.

FYI - I only give makeups when it is mandated by a very specific college policy that requires advanced notice, but I replace one low (or missed) exam with the final exam score. Period. Late homework is marked off 25% per day, period. Missing class because you have a family vacation? Yes, I guess you are going to miss class and have to learn it on your own.