Thursday, November 10, 2005

Notes from the Education Trust Conference

Yeah, so I've been a bit slow in posting these. Mostly because I had such a good time last Friday, but also, because I've been doing some extremely tedious document revisions for the past couple days. Sometimes, I just want to get the hell out of my job. Well, maybe that should read all the time.

Anyway, the first presentation I saw was:

"Redesigning College Math - Pre calc/College Algebra"
by Math instructors at Georgia State University

The topic presented in the session was one very near and dear to my heart - remedial/introductory college classes where loads of people fail, and those that don't probably don't learn anything anyway. They started out the presentation by putting up data of the grade distribution in the class. The pre-calc and college algebra classes at this school average 15-25% D's and F's, and another 18% of students in the classes withdraw. Stunning. They don't have data from other schools, but one of the presenters was a dean who had discussed the problem with administrators at other schools and had heard similar stories.

Let me take a moment here to say that I'm resisting the urge for people to drag the instructors out into the street and subject them to hours of the most horrid boredom I can imagine. Because that would be an easy conclusion. How does one legitimately have a class where a full third of the class doesn't pass? WTF? How can you at all claim to be an educator when a fucking third of your class doesn't learn shit? But then I remember the subtle messages and pressures that I felt as a new grad student (which is what the instructors of this class are), and I realize that the department chair is the dirty SOB who should be hauled out into the street and put into the stocks. Teaching attitude comes from the top of the department. I'm sure that the grad students are told to worry more about their research than their teaching. I'm sure that they're told that it's the pre-calc's students' fault for being so stupid in the first place. I mean, (and this is from the astronomy world) can you believe that students don't know that Jupiter's diameter is measured in kilometers and not centimeters? How could they be so stupid?

But I digress. At least this group is trying. Their process comes down to a mostly technological response to the program (the response was funded by NSF). In their old style classes, students spent their 3 hours per week in lectures. The professor droned, the students took notes, and then failed tests. The new version of the class had the students only meeting in lecture for 1 1/2 hours in lecture (and hopefully doing more active learning stuff), and then the other 1 1/2 hours in a nifty 88 seat computer lab. The students did a basically on-line class using MyMathLab. They did their quizzes and homework on line in the lab, or at home.

The certainly very interesting thing about their class redesign was that they forced the instructors to perform action research on their classes. Wow. Pushing scientists to research on their teaching. Now that is cool. The instructors met weekly to discuss what was going on in their class and to discuss research projects. The presenters displayed a number of these projects, and they were pretty good (It's amazing what a scientist can produce when asked to.) The research also provided a platform for the rest of the department to buy into the class redesign. Several studies did show that student learning increased through the new methods. Cool.

This was overall pretty good work. It's encouraging to see higher ed people participating in professional development (even if it's only grad students) and researching their own teaching work. The real test will be wether the upper level courses adopt this type of work, or if there will be enough push back on the grad student teachers in this class to not worry so much about student achievement. I asked the researchers to try to do an attitudinal survey of the gradstudents who participate in this class, and then measure them years down the road.

Unfortuanately, the course re-design doesn't solve the larger problems. Why do we have to teach remedial algebra at the college level? Why are these types of remedial college classes (obviously for students who have had trouble learning) some of the biggest classes on campus. Good high schools wouldn't do that. Why do colleges? And really, the $32 question for me, is how do we get real, significant (in the popular sense of the word, not the statistical) improvements to student learning and retention. The studies I mentioned above in the classes showed the the class average had risen on some standard questions. However, the average rose from 1.8/4 to 1.9/4. How do you get everyone to 4/4? Shouldn't that be our goal?

Possibly more to come this afternoon after my run.


At 1:17 PM, Anonymous e0n said...

>How can you at all claim to be an educator when a fucking third of your class doesn't learn shit?

Be careful how strongly you react here... I work professionally with a lot of these instructors, and many are very dedicated and desperate not to get students to pass, but to really learn.

As you mention, these students are coming out of highschool often lacking basic arthithmetic skills... elementary school stuff. It's horrible--but the problem is all around us. It's the primary and secondary schools, it's parents not teaching thier children to love learning, hell society in general.

But you are right--at least these people are trying.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger hoagieboy said...

Hey. Thanks for the comment.

Perhaps I was a bit heated when I got into writing this, but I'm not really backing down from what I said. I will say that I think the people at GSU are giving it a good effort, and I wasn't swearing at them, even if I sounded like it.

I've been on the inside of higher ed science courses too. Maybe a good fraction of professors do care whether their students learn or not. However, that care is skin deep. How many faculty go out of their way to learn how to teach? How many observe other professors teach? How many really question what they are doing? How many really question the material that they are teaching, and whether their curriculum makes educational sense? If they aren't, then they aren't really committed to having their students learning, and they're just grading the students based on the skills that they came in with. Maybe I'm hard on them. I do understand that people are busy, and they have research and other stuff to worry about, but I think many faculty fail their students in these intro classes.

Again, I reiterate from the post that really I blame the department chairs, deans, administrators, and goverment officials who don't care about higher ed teaching.

Yeah, I agree that many students come unprepared to college. But what really pisses me off is when professors become graders instead of teachers. We shouldn't accept it from elem/secondary teachers (and we supposedly don't with NCLB), we shouldn't with higher ed faculty either.


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