On Struggling Students

While I have been amazed with some of my students’ work, occasionally I have a student who is completely unmotivated or does not apply him/herself to learn or even pass. From my discussions with other educators in the US system, this experience seems to be shared by most, regardless of institution.

However, one of our first impressions with Swiss university students was that they demonstrated a business-like approach to their studies. Before integration of the Bologna Process objectives, many schools delivered lessons in the “sage on the stage” format where an expert simply lectured and students were expected to self-regulate their studies so they could pass a final exam. While this approach doesn’t benefit from the advantages of learner-centered design, it places a clear responsibility on students to take their studies seriously because there would be no “hand-holding” to help them pass their exams.

In a previous post, I discussed my concerns about encouraging similar personal responsibility in a learn-centered design. I also recently finished reading Herbert Kohl’s “I Won’t Learn from You” and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment which challenges my perspective on instructors’ responses to students who are not meeting expectations. He discusses (and gives examples) of students who are often labelled as “at-risk,” “underachiever,” “dropout-prone,” “remedial,” or similarly described. However, Kohl advocates cases where an instructor can practice creative maladjustment by strategically breaking school rules and challenging status quo to enable these individuals to engage in something that really motivates them, even at the sake of neglecting standard curriculum.

With this in mind, I think a lot of discussion needs to take place in regard to the responsibility of both instructors and students with particular attention to struggling students. As instructors, should it be our responsibility to find a way to engage even students who would not even show effort or desire to pass our classes? What becomes of these students and what is the eventual impact on society? We got some notion that while these types of students are more rare in Swiss universities, they may be more common in the universities of applied sciences.

Where should the line be drawn where instructors’ duties to encourage and enable students end and students’ personal responsibility to fit within the guidelines and expectations of the instructors begin?

MOOC: A first-hand experience

In recent years, massive open online courses (MOOC) have gained a lot of attention. I can understand why. Because they are “open,” anyone can sign up and take a free class. Classes in my discipline (Computer Science) are also commonly available for people interested in an introduction to programming (and a few other courses).

To be frank, a little part of me was worried or threatened by MOOCs. As PhD candidate aspiring to be a tenure-track professor, I look forward to finding a college or university that values teaching to call my home. I love interacting with students in and out of class. But then MOOCs appeared. I was excited, but scared. Were online courses going to replace traditional classrooms? Was my in-person and highly-interactive teaching style and experience becoming obsolete?

I decided to find out for myself. I signed up for a MOOC: Introduction to Music Production on Coursera. I’m a hobbyist musician and recording engineer with some formal training, but no real professional experience. This MOOC was offered by a talented professor at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Loudon Stearns. Like many who sign up for MOOCs, I was excited to learn something new from an expert! Through the 6-week course, I also made note of how the MOOC was organized, implemented, and how it impacted my learning. This course would be an opportunity to learn more about a topic that interested me, but also gave me an opportunity to conduct sort of an ethnographic study of students in a MOOC.

Each week’s topic was split into (usually 5-10) smaller lessons and each lesson was delivered via pre-recorded video. Each lesson’s video lasted about 2-10 minutes — quite a change of pace from traditional 60+ minute college lectures. I loved it! Honestly, it might have been the most effective aspect of learning in a MOOC. Short videos were succinct, to the point, and easily kept my attention. Although the videos included a fair amount of just watching the teacher speak, they also took advantage of computer screen streaming to illustrate software and concepts we were learning. It is also worth noting that — unlike some distance-learning online courses I had taken in the past — the audio quality was great so there were not problems understanding the professor.

As a teacher, I was also interested in how a MOOC with hundreds (or thousands) of online students would be managed and assessed. Each week had at least a couple short, multiple-choice quizzes. Quizzes were automatically graded and you could re-take them as many times as you liked until you were satisfied with your score. I don’t think the quizzes added much value to the course because even if you don’t know the answers, you can just repeat a quiz and guarantee yourself a good score.

The other major form of evaluation were weekly assignments. For each assignment, we had a week to:

  1. Choose a specific area related to the lessons that week
  2. Prepare a 5 minute lesson of our own
  3. Create a youtube video (5 minutes or less) or PDF (equivalent to about 2 pages written)
  4. Peer-review 5 other students’ lessons, and then self-review our own.

While I recognize value in peer-evaluation and self-reflection, it because obvious within a few weeks that students did not spend much effort or critical thought to peer-evaluation. It became more or less expected to get a perfect or near-perfect score as long as you demonstrate at least a little effort. These weekly assignments are only evaluated by peers, not by course staff.Therefore, there really was no accountability for doing quality evaluation. Consequently, I saw the quality of lessons and quality of evaluations drop from week to week. Admittedly, I followed the trend as well. It was the path of least resistance  do the minimal amount of work necessary to get a good grade.

There was also a final exam that was just an accumulation of several multiple-choice quiz questions. We’d seen the questions before. It was easy to ace even without deliberate studying.

That in many ways was the biggest weakness of the MOOC: the evaluation was set up for students to pass as long as they put in some minimal effort. I imagine some very motivated students made a lot out of the class. I know there was some collaboration and discussions in message boards, but not any more so than any usual class message board (by my observations).

I passed the class and gained a new perspective on MOOCs. They certainly aren’t the future of learning and are no where near replacing in-class experiences. However, with that said, they are useful resources for students who are motivated and self-driven enough to absorb the material and make the most out of what is available. In that perspective, a MOOC is a big step up from having to read books or online resources to try to teach yourself a new skill.

By really enjoying the format of short lessons, I am going to keep in mind how I pace my classroom lectures. There is a useful pedagogical tool in delivering concise material, followed by exercises or hands-on activities. Although I already had that model in mind when I’ve taught classes in the past, I’m sure my delivery wasn’t as succinct.

Lastly, online resources offer a lot of potential for innovating learning. I don’t consider MOOCs “the answer,” but they do provide insights into how to increase accessibility and enrollment. However, it remains to be seen if we can also tackle the problem of managing and giving real substantial evaluation and feedback to all students in such massive, open, online courses.



The Beginnings and Ends of Tenure

PBS NewsHour recently featured a segment called “Colleges and Universities See Graying Workforce Holding On to Coveted Positions” about tenured professors keeping their positions into their 70’s and 80’s (see the video below). Two primary concerns arise:

  1. Mentally and physically we decline with age, which may have implications on how well we can perform teaching and research duties. On the contrary, these seasoned professors also gain value in their extra experience.
  2. By holding onto positions beyond typical retirement age, it restricts the availability of tenure-track positions for younger, recent Ph.D.’s. PBS gives an example of an English Ph.D. who has not been able to secure a full-time, tenure-track job in seven years and has to resort to multiple part-time instructor positions.

Some schools are strategically offering retirement preparation for professors. In these cases, professors are “eased” into retirement often with financial and lifestyle mentoring, lessened course loads, and opportunities such as keeping professor emeritus/emerita status. While I don’t believe a strict, forced retirement age is a practical solution, the topic raises more questions about tenure in higher education.

Professors who have held their positions for decades have valuable experience that should not be taken for granted. However, challenges may also arise in keeping them up-to-date with evolving pedagogy, methods, technology, and ways to connect to students from generations more and more distant from their own. On the other hand, inexperienced professors should be more familiar with contemporary practices and pedagogy and with the younger generation. However, I have also heard nothing but horror stories about the first few years of a tenure-track position. Making the leap from freshly-minted Ph.D. to tenured professor is trying.

I wonder if schools could do a better job at scaffolding the learning process of becoming an effective, tenured professor by pairing retiring professors with their replacements. The younger, inexperienced professors could learn from the retiring professor’s experience while gradually taking over more of their responsibilities. Thoughts?


Higher Education’s Preparation for Independence

During a discussion about the European Bologna Process , we learned how, generally speaking, their students take heavier course loads and are held more responsible for their own education. Consequently, lectures at European universities concentrate more just on content delivery and involve fewer graded activities while students are expected to study and practice enough to pass a final exam. In the American school system, there seems to be increasing responsibility on instructors to make their courses fun and engaging, especially as active learning pedagogy gains popularity. The differences make for an interesting contrast in roles for both students and teachers.

Meanwhile, my respected colleague and computer science (CS) professor at Virginia Tech, Dr. Eli Tilevich brought up an intriguing contrast between our undergraduate CS education and the experience of music majors. Specifically, he drew attention to the music student’s experience at a senior recital:

The student giving the recital had to deal with all the stress and unpredictability of playing a solo recital in front of a live audience […] The recitalist had to handle all these issues completely independently without any help from anyone. The student’s clarinet instructor was in the audience, but only as a passive listener. Overall, I find senior recitals an excellent avenue for music students to demonstrate their proficiency in their chosen field of study.

While the objectives in academic music education are considerably different than those in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, Dr. Tilevich addressed that CS education does not have a comparable experience of strictly independent, professional assessment:

Even in our capstone classes, in which it is recommended that students accomplish a project for an external client, professors are always present ready to step in to help students deal with any issues that may arise.

This concern particularly piqued my interest. I have embraced an active instructional role where I do my best to assist students reach class objectives. However, do tests and class assignments adequately assess how well a student can perform a real, practical skill after the class is over? That’s tough to say.

A truly professional experience could serve as a final milestone in undergraduate education. An analogy can be drawn to the apprenticeship model of learning. A demonstration of professional performance would indicate reaching the goal of scaffolding: gradually decreasing the amount of help offered as the student grows in developing independence. There are unique challenges in each discipline to implement this type of experience, but it is an intriguing prospect.

A bigger question is though, how would a practical, apprentice experience as a capstone fit into the different teacher-student dynamics? In American schools, I imagine it would be a tough transition for students to go from traditional classes to taking full responsibility to work independently and professionally. My expectation is that the transition would be more natural for students used to taking greater responsibility — either through Bologna Process-style education or through previous exposure to internships or other professional experience.

I’m curious to others’ thoughts, especially since at this point I have no first-hand experience with European schools. I am also interested to hear how others think a professional capstone would apply to their disciplines. Lastly, it also makes me wonder if active learning pedagogy is particularly susceptible to “coddling” students too much and failing to teach them responsibility and accountability.