Saturday, January 05, 2013

Field of Broken Dreams - Part III

Responding to Entitlement

I concluded my last entry with these questions:

One, what do such grades actually mean? and,
Two, what can we assume that students actually learn in such courses?

Of course these are questions which are being asked widely in our society today. Sadly, most approaches to these questions begin with negative presumptions that are largely unfounded: the grades mean little, the students are not learning much and it’s all the teacher’s fault. And there may be some truth to these presumptions. But the reality is a lot more complex than that.

The bean counter response to these questions has been to create assessment programs which, based upon snapshots taken from pre- and post-tests or embedded questions within a given course, purport to offer empirical proof of student learning or lack thereof. Clearly such a procedure creates sets of data that permit anxious bureaucrats a good night sleep. 

However, it also provides an incredibly simplistic picture of student performance which ultimately must be observed over time to be fully understood. Think of a single still frame from Gone with the Wind, e.g., the burning of Atlanta or Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs. Would we really believe that either of those stills adequately sums up the entire masterpiece by Selznick? As Einstein put it, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

These assessments are ultimately exercises in reductionism which, while proving enormously time consuming for instructors with plates already more than full, ultimately provide them very little worth knowing in the end. Without a standard curriculum, such assessments essentially compare apples to oranges. Instructors could well be taking very different approaches to the same course in adjoining rooms. And when assessments do become tied to standard curricula, pedagogy almost inevitably becomes reduced to teaching the tests and student learning is reduced even further to the perennial question college instructors have endured since the inception of No Child Left Behind: “What’s on the test?”

About two years ago, I began calculating the time expenditures required for every class I taught. I had asked myself, “Is it possible the students are right? Am I giving them too much work?” Realizing that such an open-ended question could turn largely on preference (there are a number of students who regularly call their classmates babies for their whining), I decided to use the only standard in common usage, the Carnegie Unit, as my basis for comparison.

I assessed the actual prep time demanded by each course, calculating required reading times at 2 minutes per page (the average high school speed) while assessing time required for assignments based upon the averages of what students reported spending on them. In all honesty, I was quite liberal in my estimates, erring on the high side for each one.

I began posting the prep time required for each class on the class webcourses site for students to see. One semester I even integrated the estimated undistracted prep times into the class schedule itself (noting that the distracted behavior colloquially referred to as “multi-tasking” by definition adds time to any endeavor undertaken which cannot be counted toward required prep time). This allowed students to see up front how much a give class' worth of reading and assignments would take them.

Perhaps I was na├»ve in assuming that if students saw how little actual time was being demanded of them, with none of the classes exceeding about 70% of the Carnegie Unit’s 2 hour prep requirement, maybe they’d stop complaining. But I was wrong. Indeed, the complaints increased. Clearly, less time for more grade is increasingly seen as an entitlement among many of our students today.

Giving up but not giving in….

By last summer, I had pretty much given up. I was particularly tired of the whining that resulted from students taking the quizzes adapted from the textbook publisher’s test bank which they inevitably proclaimed as “too hard” or “tricky.” In response, for the intro humanities course surveyed above, I created a new series of content quizzes for my online humanities GEP courses. I give these quizzes strictly to insure that students actually purchase and read the textbook. Remember, when it’s all about the grade, unless there are points attached, it just doesn’t happen.

The new quizzes were based on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Bloom’s system evaluates questions on the cognitive complexity required to answer them. Level 1 data dump is the lowest level: “What is the structure pictured above? A. The Washington Monument, B. The Pyramids, C. The Parthenon, D. None of the Above.” That was the level I chose for my new quizzes.

I wish I could say this solved the problem. For 27% of the students in the class surveyed above, even Bloom’s Taxonomy Level 1 questions did not insure them at least an A- on their quizzes primarily because many simply failed to take them. Indeed, if the 20 points of extra credit used to induce students to take four extra quizzes were actually added to the possible total points, only four would have managed an A- on the quizzes. Remember, this is the lowest level of cognitive functioning possible. It’s as easy as I can make it.

Results were even worse for my efforts to ease the writing requirement which students regularly rail against as onerous. Gordon Rule courses require students to produce four intensive writing assignments to pass the course. Trying to make this as easy as possible, I created three Discussion assignments, two of them based upon readings linked to the schedule itself. The assignments included a content quiz on the readings (again, to insure students actually read them), an original post at the Discussions site based on a format provided them, and two response posts, one responding to the original post from a member of one’s group and the other to a student outside the group.

The most demanding of these assignments required students to read Elie Wiesel’s Night, a 109 page paperback about the Holocaust (available for .99 online) which would have taken the slowest reader less than three hours total to read. From the scores on the prep quiz, it was clear that few had actually had invested the time to read the book with only four of the 37 students making As and another six scoring a D or failing completely.

The fourth assignment should also have been the easiest, a Summary Reflection Paper which required students to critically reflect on three ideas from the material which had struck them during the term, and to consider how their understanding of being human had been impacted by the course materials. There was no additional reading and the answers came from the student’s personal experience of the course materials.

Clearly, that involves two major presumptions: A) That students actually read the material, and B) That they actually thought about what they’d read, two major - and apparently unfounded - presumptions. A mere four of the 37 made an A on the summary assignment while nine of the 37 ended up with a D or an F, two because they failed to submit anything at all. That’s a pretty disheartening result from a semester’s worth of readings and assignments. Bear in mind the purpose of the Gordon Rule is to assure that our graduates can write at college level.

Of course, GEP courses have a reputation for underachievement by students who see them as irrelevant to their majors and thus unworthy of their time or attention. Perhaps performance by our own majors would be better.

Encountering the Humanities is an entry level course for Humanities majors designed to introduce students to the discipline and to beginning research methods. This past term the requirements for the course were reduced to two components. The first was the four research and writing assignments required by the assessments program. The second was an engagement grade in which students could earn up to five points each class by showing up on time, remaining the full period and having prepared the assigned material for the day. How difficult could that be?

Apparently too difficult for the 79% of the class who missed more than a week of classes. The class average absence rate was 7.5 classes for the term. That translates to two and a half weeks (out of 15 total) missed completely. Bear in mind that this class covers topics ranging from the affirmation of life in the face of death to the use of film as propaganda during the WWII era to the controversies over publicly funded art such as Robert Maplethorpe’s. I incorporate a lot of film, library tours, group activities and personal reflection assignments. This is hardly a deadly lecture series on Prussian generals in an credit hour factory auditorium.

By the end of the term, absences skyrocketed, chronically late arrivals increased and the loud sighing to register boredom from unprepared students grew in velocity. What a joy to teach! (And these are our own majors!) One wonders what careers will permit such spotty attendance records, rudeness and disengagement.

Even so, about a third of this class managed to end up with at least an A-. However,  if the 40 points of extra credit (about one letter grade) had been added into the possible, there would have been a mere two A- and our would-be majors scoring a C or lower would have totaled 11/19 (58%), a far cry from the 0% who come into these classes expecting nothing below a B.

More work than I’ve ever had to do….

Even with all the eased requirements and all the extra credit to bribe students to engage all the material and the inflated final grades to show for it, the whining continues. The most common comment I receive on my student evaluations every semester is one or more variants of “this is more work than I’ve had to do in any of my other classes.” Bear in mind that at most the requirements of any of my classes are 70% of the Carnegie Unit 2 for 1 prep time requirement. I know because I’ve actually measured them.

For a long time, I shrugged off these comments with the assumption that students say this about all their classes. It is the nature of the beast for students to complain about college workloads. I certainly did my share of complaining as an undergrad and law student and I expect my students to do the same. But two events in the past year have made me consider that perhaps they are telling the truth.

The first was the publication of a national ranking by Newsweek of the “least rigorous colleges” in America. Lo and behold, UCF was…. Drumroll, please …. Number 1 in the country!  Of course, it would be easy to attack these rankings on the basis of methodology (students were asked to rank the difficulties of their course demands). But other factors considered such as teacher/student ratio are often seen as causally related to a lack of academic rigor in the scholarship of teaching and learning. UCF has long held the title of the highest student/teacher ratio in the country.  And when the Newsweek ranking is considered together with the fact that UCF has been ranked in Princeton Review’s top 10 twice in the past five years in the category of “Students say they never have to study,” the least rigorous title begins to look more possible than not.

The second was the appearance of the dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at a departmental faculty meeting at the end of the fall term. He reported that the primary concern of the university and thus the college had become student credit hours and student graduation rates. Bottom line: it’s all about numbers and dollars. Concern for quality has become a quaint notion in the corporate university with its consumers formerly known as students.

In a time when students increasingly choose their courses based upon online consumerist rating services (e.g., which penalizes demanding instructors with low “easiness” scores and rewards those seen as easy As, the scramble for credit hours becomes a real race to the bottom. And the decision over assigning a student a grade lower than a C in a course, even with an average of two and a half weeks of missed class, becomes a moral dilemma in which any semblance of remaining academic integrity is pitted against pragmatic considerations for the health of one’s job. Being a good (translation: academically rigorous and demanding) teacher is no longer an asset; in this brave new world of academia it’s a liability.

So, where is the moral reward?


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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