Sunday, January 02, 2011

“Very Revealing….” – I

A little context

Sometimes revelations can be inadvertent. But almost always, they prove enlightening. And inevitably they reveal as much about the revealer as that which they would endeavor to reveal.

Against my better judgment, I checked the site again this week. While we in academia have come to realize we must endure this kind of mindless consumerism as an unavoidable part of our academic lives, one wonders what a consumer-driven site rating our students in a similar vein, say,, might look like: “Lord, this was one lazy, whining bunch this term. And what are they teaching these kids in high school? I had to spend hours just correcting grammar and spelling.”

One also wonders what the university’s sell out to this consumer model, its now online Student Perception of Instruction, might look like with the shoe on the other foot: “I actually had three students who did not submit papers prepared for other classes or purchased from an online site for their final assignment this time. Where did they come from and are there any more like them out there?” No doubt, an Instructor Perception of Students site would prove just as lacking in objectivity and helpfulness to the students perceived as the current system confused with actual faculty evaluations provides their instructors.

While I promised myself I wouldn’t go back to the site, it’s like the inflamed mosquito bite that one can’t keep from picking at. So I stopped by to see if there were any more stink bombs lobbed my direction after the last wild-eyed venting of spleen. I was gratified to see only one new entry, this one rather temperate, much more mature than the usual self-focused complaining. It simply read:

This class was pretty demanding. I emerged with a respectable grade but I would caution students taking this class that there is a lot of work involved. For an honors class the amount of work is about what it should be, but a lot of writing is required and the professor is very liberal. Read his blog. It is revealing.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson is famous for asserting that “A text without a context is a pretext.” So perhaps a little context might make this comment more intelligible.

At the end of each term, I engage in two forms of assessment designed to help me put student comments on evaluations into context. The first is an assessment of the workload I have assigned. Contrary to what students might think, I am very intentional in accounting for the time required to read materials, prepare assignments for class and study for exams. In the Honors World Religions class this term, this is the estimate of time required for its various aspects:


Total Reading Required = 1001 pages

o College Level Reading Speed (1.5 min/page) = 25:02 hours
o High School Level Reading Speed (2 min/page) = 33:22 hours

B. ALL OTHER ASSIGNMENTS (writing and participation) – 43:30 hours total


Slow readers – 78 hours
College level readers – 67.5 hours


Average Reasonably Expectable Prep Time (2 hours prep/1hour class) = 86 total hours/semester

The average reasonably expectable prep time (AREPT) for college students as demanded by virtually every college and university in North America and around much of the world is 2 hours prep time for every hour of class time. The World Religions course meets for 43 class hours each semester. That means that an average reasonably expectable prep time for this course is 86 hours. Note that even slow readers, at 78 hours total, were asked to prepare a full eight hours less than the average.

Clearly, this prep time estimate presumes that students are not simply occasionally looking down from the television, computer or text screen to actually engage the material. The notion of multitasking might stroke our egos with visions of our technological competence but in most cases it simply means trying to do a number of things in a mediocre fashion at best. Prep time means paying full attention to the task at hand.

In all fairness, to his or her credit, the student here recognizes the work load is hardly excessive for an honors class. Indeed, as noted above, it’s not even average for a college class generally. But that doesn’t mean students will not see a class with average demands to be excessive.

The second assessment I conduct at the end of each course is an anonymous survey in which students answer a number of questions about their expectations of college courses. The responses are, as the poster to says, “very revealing.”

In all my classes, I ask students what grade they anticipated coming into the course. Of all the responses in the Honors World Religions section, not one suggested they should receive anything less than an A- though one did suggest they were uncertain what they expected. A full 77% of the class said they anticipated an A by the semester’s end with another 15% saying nothing less than an A- would do.

These results are only slightly higher than the results I get in classes outside the Honors College. But it speaks to the sense of entitlement many students have regarding grades generally as well as their tendency to underestimate the demands (often because they trivialize the necessity) of general education courses prior to taking them.

A second question asks students how they see the general requirement of two hours prep for every hour of class. Only 15% of the students saw this as actually less than they felt they needed, another 8% said it was about right in their experience with 77% reporting that average reasonably expectable prep time is “a nice goal but unrealistic given college life today.”

Finally, bear in mind that even for those who read at slower than college level reading speeds, the average of two hours outside of class for every class hour was ultimately not demanded in this course. Even so, when asked to rate this less than average prep time demand, only 8% said it was “about right,” another 62% reported the work load was “more than in other classes but not unreasonable,” while the remaining 30%, nearly 1/3 of this class of honors students, said this less than average prep time work load was “outrageous, students have lives outside of this class.”

I must commend the student poster to whom I am responding here who is apparently capable of distinguishing classes that demand much  from classes whose material and methods themselves are difficult. The reality is, this course is not particularly “hard,” as the rating service terms it.  It’s simply more demanding than many. And the work demanded is rewarded with a high side curve in grading. The student's time for the instructor's grade. Sounds like a fair deal to me.

So, is this course “very demanding” as the student poster suggested? It clearly is if one comes into the course expecting an A while unprepared to spend even average reasonably expectable prep time to obtain it. And yet it is possible to make an A in this class as 38% of this section did (and about 1 in 4 of all students in my classes do each term) while spending less than the average reasonably expectable prep time in that effort.

Ironically, it is the aspects about which students complain most that secure the As they expect. While this student complained about writing, more than half of the students in the class attained an A on the writing component of the course. That becomes very important when added to the exam component in which only 15% of the class averaged an A, this even with dropping the lower of their first two exam scores. Students raised on a diet of high stakes testing in high school and last minute cramming for lecture and high stakes testing in factory classes at the university tend to overestimate their test taking skills while simultaneously underestimating the material tested. Writing takes longer – including the participation assignments on which 31% of the class scored an A – but it also tends to have higher pay-offs both in terms of educational value as well as grades.

"I simply don't have the luxury of teaching..."

In all fairness, many students aren’t required to spend this time in other classes. There are a number of reasons for that. Factory-process auditorium classes at overcrowded universities don’t lend themselves to much other than lecture and multiple choice testing (with the cheating that comes along with that). Moreover, professors on tenure tracks pressured to publish-or-perish must place teaching as their second priority during their paper chase period. Those who don’t find themselves looking for other gigs. And, in a world where formerly prestigious state universities like the University of Virginia finds its state funding cut to 8% of its needed budget, the car washes and bake sales of grant procurement to keep the lights on (and the concomitant selling of one’s soul to the corporate entities and their agents in governmental departments that fund them) pushes teaching even further down the chain of priority. As the young tenure track professor sadly told me on the bus home one afternoon this past term, “I simply don’t have the luxury of teaching.”

Of course, there is also the reality that when consumer-student “perceptions of instruction” are actually taken seriously and used for purposes such as hiring, raises and promotions, it doesn’t take much street smarts to recognize that playing to the audience who holds up the score cards at the end of your dance routine is essential. The less the demands, the easier the grading, the more the egos are stroked in the classroom, the less one confronts poor thinking and writing, the closer one gets to a 10 even from the cynical Simon Cowells among one’s consumer-students.

And then there are those like this instructor who seek to preserve a modicum of academic rigor and integrity but find themselves increasingly weary of swimming upstream against the entropic tendencies of the increasingly technocratic consumerist world of academia. At what point does one simply give in, sell one’s soul and play the game to preserve one’s sanity if not one’s job?

A couple more comments to follow.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


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