July 17, 2012

Repeat Flunking & Disappearance II

In the last post I wrote about why I don't want students disappearing from classes or not taking them seriously. The basic point: It's a waste of their time, money, and kills their GPA (which may matter to them later.) It is also a major frustration for me as a teacher, but I figure arguing the negative repercussions on students' lives is more compelling. In this post I speculate on different groups of students who have a pattern of falling apart or disappearing from classes most terms.

1. The Big Vision Distracts
This is a peculiar group of students, but very distinct. They lull me in with so many aspirations. Over and over I will sit and listen to them contemplate Peace Corps, different careers, and a variety of graduate programs. They demonstrate vision and often put a lot of effort into researching and planning or even initial implementation.... however, students in this particular group can't seem to make a deadline. They have 7-10 year goals. They just don't have a sense of their schedule for the rest of the week or even the day. These folks show up a class after something is due with frantic explanations and no work to hand in. Can they have an after-the-fact extension? Some of them just disappear and wait for you to come ask them what happened. When you give these students direct feedback about this pattern, they usually admit to it. "I know, I know..." But the pattern stubbornly remains. It takes me a few terms to see the pattern because I so easily slide into the role of sounding board and cheerleader for their career aspirations. When I recognize the pattern I start redirecting them to focus on their immediate responsibilities in order to help make sure their 7-10 year goals remain achievable.   

2. Anxiety and Fear
I suspect that there is a certain group of students who disappear because of anxiety and fear. Non-trads are overrepresented in this group. [Traditional students refer to ones coming right out of high school. Non-trads are generally older or may have been in the working world or have families already.] Some non-trads may feel out of place because they haven't been in school for a long time, and they're nervous about their ability to succeed in classes and fit in with their peers. Other students who are very shy or socially overwhelmed also fit into this group. Usually I'll reach out to these folks and sometimes I wonder if that makes me even more intimidating as a teacher. It's unfortunate, because the kiss of death for succeeding in the class is when fear and anxiety (embarrassment, shame?) prevent the student from getting help from the teacher, student tutors, student success advisors or other campus resources. These folks tend to quietly disappear. By the way, I love having non-trad students in classes. Often times they are highly motivated and much, much better at managing multiple responsibilities. They bring a lot experience and perspective into the classroom that benefits all of us and help keep the bar high.

3. Why Am I Here?
Did you apply to college just because your friends were? Are you tagging along with your boyfriend or girlfriend? Or are you just pleasing your parents or following your guidance counselor's recommendations? Not sure what college is supposed to be about? You might fit into this group.

4. Hard Charging Crash and Burn [Type A Underachiever]
These students are very, very frustrating because they get so close... so very close. They may have an A average going into the last few weeks of the term. Then they just fall apart and/or disappear. Rise and repeat term after term.

5. Barriers Be Damned! (At Least Initially)
This group is different from the Hard Charging Crash and Burn types of #4. These students have blatantly identifiable barriers that are evident before the term starts. Students in this group usually recognize these barriers, but rationalize that they won't prohibit them from completing the term. These students might be overheard saying, "I can do online classes without reliable access to high-speed internet. I'll just go to the library." or "I can take classes on campus without reliable access to transportation. I'll just hitch a ride." My favorite is, "I can take 18 credits (full-time plus) while taking care of multiple children and/or working three jobs!" Despite others' reservations about the feasibility of completing that term, the students take off with unrealistic expectations, determination, and generally fall apart later in the term.

6. Midterm Priority Shifters
Pledging a Greek organization? Working on a play production? Dating someone new? Starting a new job? Students in this group get absorbed in something that changes their priorities and schedules. I think this shift is somewhat subtle to the student. If they show up to ask for help it is usually after they realize how far behind they are, rather than when they first committed to additional responsibility.

7. Not Ready for College (in terms of academic skills)
Unfortunately, in the US there has been a lot of pressure for everyone to get college degrees. Not everyone is ready for college-level academic work. The cruelest version of this push is when students felt like their grades and achievement in high school were good ["I got an A in Algebra II!"] and then they take our placement tests and end up in developmental math. In this situation, students have to contend with the idea their grades in high school were inflated or that we at college are unrealistically demanding. This student may be fine at college with some support improving their academic skills, but usually the initial demoralization, confusion, and frustration with how they are doing relative to their expectations is formidable. Occasionally, we also have people that end up in college that really do not have the skills, even if they utilized all the campus supports available. This just seems cruel and unethical for the school to accept students in this situation. 

8. Not Ready for College (in terms of social and self-management skills)
These students don't flounder because of academic weakness, but because they're are overwhelmed socially and/or have never had to organize their own lives. Depending on their life at home before college, moving into a dorm surrounded by other students is a major change. Often when we complete registration for first year students and they see their schedules they remark on how much free time they have. Four to five classes look like they only account for twelve to fifteen hours of work per week. These students perceive a lot of free time in their schedule, whereas I automatically budget three hours of study/homework time per class each week resulting in twenty-four to thirty hours accounted for weekly. Even when I suggest they formally schedule study time for themselves, many students have to figure this out for themselves after a few terms of falling apart after midterm. Not only do these students struggle to organize their schedules academically, but they often struggle to create routines for laundry, regular meals, bedtimes, and wake-up times while trying to balance this with their social lives.

9. Student Loans as ATM 
I almost don't want to mention this group. These students are rare, but they worry me. The future impact of loans and debt is very abstract to them. They are making decisions now that will impact them later in a ways they have not considered. (*Check out NPR story link below) I heard one student say, "We're already in debt, so why does more debt matter?" Another said, "Isn't everyone in debt? Isn't that part of life?... I have four maxed-out credit cards." [I hear my father half way across the state saying, "This is what happens when you take Home Economics and Family and Consumer Science out of schools. It's as if they don't want people to survive in the modern economy."]. I've met a student who is three credits (or one class) shy of completing her undergraduate degree, maxed out her student loans, is working full-time, and is having a hard time saving enough money to pay for the last class that she needs to graduate. She is stuck in limbo with 98% of her degree completed, the reality of student loans repayments in addition to her regular bills, and she is getting paid less than she would if she could had her degree. She is stuck with all of the cost and very little of the benefit. Please, please, please don't be in this group.

* NPR Story "Call Me Maybe When Your School Loan Is Paid in Full"

Do you identify with any of these groups or patterns? If so, ask for help! Ultimately, we want you to be successful.

Did I miss any? Can you think of others?

Repeat Flunking & Disappearance I

When I started teaching, I don't know what I was thinking about the students' perspectives, but I know I believed that it was my responsibility to think seriously about the material, our goals, and students' learning and then do my best. I had tunnel vision for what I could directly control, specifically my behavior and effort. However, classroom success is dependent upon the students and the teacher working together.

I guess I figured that most students would be in college for some reason that was related to learning.  These reasons may include because they think education is important to their future career goals or to their family or for personal reasons. Surely it must be important for some reason because education is a serious investment of their time, effort, and (someone's) money. I assumed that they would want to learn and do well, even if their reasons were different. And I could work with that.

The most disappointing surprise of teaching undergraduate classes is how reliably some students flunk solely because they don't do the work or don't show up.

For context, I work at a tiny, public school. We get to know our students well since we work with them in small classes (Between 12-25 students) multiples times across their college career. I'm not in a situation where I only see students once or twice in auditoriums of 50-70 students or hundreds of students. I also tend to teacher on campus, in person. And if I teach online, I try to make sure it is a hybrid class so I actually get to see and interact with the students.

Anyway, I need some help with this. I do not understand. I don't get it. And I need to get it because it is driving me crazy... even if this only affects a small percentage of our students. This is one of the most predictably disheartening things about my job, which is why I spend plenty of time trying to figure out how to support students without lowering the bar (which is condescending and ridiculous if their education or degree is to be at all meaningful and helpful.)

So, here is where I get stuck:
Why waste your time, your money, and kill your grade point average (gpa) by signing up for classes and then disappearing? 

My #1 Concern: Your Time
Not to try to rush you through your degree or amp up anxiety about time, but why waste your time? Surely there is something else you can do with it if you aren't ready for school or you don't have the time or motivation to complete your school work... Get a job? Go travel? Focus on the other things in your life that are vying for your time? At first glance it may seem bailing on any particular term would set you back about fifteen weeks since that is the length of our Fall and Spring terms. However, if one of the courses that you bailed on is only offered once a year, and it's a prerequisite for a class that you need the next term, you've functionally set yourself back an entire year. That four year degree just turned into a five year degree. If it happens again, five years can turn into six.

My #2 Concern: Your Money
As for money, since most of our students work during the term, they lose out twice when they bail out of classes. First, if they've paid out-of-pocket or took out loans and ditch the class they lose both the tuition and fees for that class/term. Second, the time needed to retake classes is time that they aren't working with their degree. [Stay tuned for a posting on student loans. They are unreal until you have to start paying them off.]   

My #3 Concern: Your GPA
I don't want people to get too wound up about their grades; however, I think they should care. One practical reason is that it may impact future employment or graduate school prospects. A less practical reason is that it it is some measure of your engagement and attainment. Again, why get involved if you aren't going to put the effort in? Back to the practical for a moment, since it seems especially compelling. Wrongly or rightly, people will try to infer things about you from your transcript. What do you want your transcript to say about you? I blew off school? I wasn't very serious? I wasn't ready? I didn't care? Plenty of people will try college, not do a great job, leave, come back year later [when they are ready!] and do a great job. Usually that is a fairly clear transcript pattern. If you're starting that pattern, there is no shame in leaving school and coming back when you are ready. Another familiar pattern is when people have one or two terms that are noticeably weak relative to the rest of their transcript. That gives the impression that something overwhelming happened during those terms. Consistent withdrawals, "L" (left), "I" (incompletes), and Ds and Fs - with occasional better grades sprinkled throughout - does not make a helpful transcript. 

My General Recommendations: If you don't have the time to dedicate to the class don't take the class. If you know you do poorly on online classes, don't take online classes. If you know full-time is too much for you given your other responsibilities, don't go full-time. [And I know this is very hard because some student loan policies require full-time status... between that and the constant advertising that degree programs will "fit your lifestyle" even if you're working full-time and are a caretaker for other family members I can understand why people feel pressured into going full-time.] The goal should be setting yourself up for success and avoiding setting yourself up for failure. If I sound obnoxious for saying this it is because I've watched too many students do it over and over again. As an academic advisor for students in my program, I've sat with students who have a multi-term track record of reliably imploding around midterm or at the end of the term. When I suggest they plan their term knowing things get much, much harder around later on in the term, they still insist that they can handle the full-time or full-time plus schedule they chose. If we're lucky, the student will sign paperwork to withdrawal from a class or two half way through the term, or if we're unlucky, the student doesn't surface until shortly before the next term with a long explanation that doesn't impact the end result. Meanwhile, they got "Ls" on their transcript (which stands for "left" and is equivalent to an "F" gpa-wise.)

It is okay to leave college. We'll gladly see you later when you're in a better situation for getting the most out of the experience. We want you to succeed.

July 9, 2012

Love That Book

I don't want to sound measured and objective right now or debate how technology changes how we read. The teacher in me automatically tries to have six sides of the debate in my head as I think about books, reading, and the consequences of new electronic communication technologies. But for now, I'd rather just one-sidely yap about how much I love books and reading. It is summer after all...

Did you recognized Bastian from the movie The Neverending Story? I went to see the movie in the theaters with a slightly older cousin and my uncle. I tried so hard to make sure that they didn't realize how much the Gmork and the Nothing scared me. I also did the wide-eyed "I will not cry" face when Atreyu's horse Artex drowns in the Swamps of Sadness. Thankfully movie theaters are dark. By now, those of you reading this who have seen the movie know why I am talking about it in a posting about loving books. Bastian defends himself when the bookstore owner taunts him about not reading books. Little does Bastian know that he is being set up to steal ("borrow") a very specific book. In the picture above, Bastian is in the creepy attic of his school, skipping classes and reading the book from cover to cover. Reading this book puts him inside the adventure and in the role of helping save an entire world threatened by people's lack of lack of hope and imagination.

[I'm trying to imagine Bastian acquiring the e-reader version and hunkering down in the attic... Just isn't the same. No bookstore filled with stacks and cranky owner would be necessary.]

I assume that those of us who loved this movie identified with Bastian's all day read. We know what it is like to be so absorbed in a story as to not stop reading despite the time passing. Just one more page... or one more chapter, I would say to my mother who wanted me to turn out the light and go to sleep. There is always another chapter until you realize you hit the last page, and I had a flashlight next my bed so I could continue to read after lights out.

The drawback to the speedy read is the sadness of finishing a book that you didn't want to end. Depending on my mood and schedule and whatever else in the stack on my bedside table, I've adapted to trying to balance getting to read and slowing myself down to stay in that world a bit longer. But now and then a good cover to cover read is called for... For instance, I really love many of John Irving's books and so I tend to binge on those when my pre-ordered copy arrives. While visiting little cousins over vacation I caught up on the Harry Potter books over a few days. Vacation are for reading more, right? Being sick is also for catching up on reading by the way. A suggestion: If you need to slow down your read, try an audiobook. For some reason I can pound through a book much faster when I'm reading than when I am listening. However, I can listen and do chores simultaneously. And audiobooks are made for long commutes.

Audiobooks aren't so new by the way. I spent time in my bedroom on rainy days listening to books-on-records while reading along in the picture book. For some reason, I vividly remember Pete's Dragon. [And Google let me find it again.]

A drawback to books... they are a commitment. They take up space and multiply rather rapidly, even if you're good about using local library or sharing with friends. For any of us that have been asked to clean out our childhood bedroom, what to do with all the books? And whenever you have to move, boxes of books are heavy and costly to ship. Culling the herd is always a bit painful... but it says something about books that survive multiple moves and thinnings. Or you can set books free.

I also like reading people's bookshelves and wondering what I've learned about them. I'm sure I had many a conversation with professors where my focus was somewhere over their shoulders or head as I scanned the book spines across their shelves.

Within the next week or so, we're having built-in bookshelves installed in our living room. It's our birthday present to one another. The carpenter asked us if we wanted room in the wall shelves for a TV or any other multi-media. We said the entire wall was for our books. I'm eager to sit across the room at look at our shelves. And we've already talk about how we'll organize (and reorganize) our collection... to let childhood favorites be next to authors' collection next to books on hobbies and with non-fiction next to many, many a cheesy and serious science fiction books. I look forward to sitting across the room and figuring out what to reread next.

Happy Summer!

Major Disclaimer: There is The Neverending Story the book and The Neverending Story the movie (skip all but the first movie.) I certainly recommend the book. I read it after I saw the movie. However, if you've only seen the movie please know that Bastian Balthazar Bux is a much different and more complex character in the book than in the movie. If you love his character in the movie you may be allergic to his development in the book. He is less attractive and sympathetic. He annoys. He almost goes over to the dark side irrevocably, so maybe you don't want to be in his shoes throughout the book. However, the book has a much longer journey with many more characters and adventures.

Trivia: How many "Love That _____" references do you know? [This question is coming from someone who generally avoids poetry. A love dogs. Those are your hint.]