Thursday, April 25, 2013

Are Universities Prepared for Kids?

"Welcome to my class.

You will receive two tests, one half-way through the course, and one at the end.  The first one will be worth 40% of your mark, and the second will be worth 60%.  I will post your marks, but I will not return the test for 'exam security' purposes.  I should tell you, whether you get a good mark or not, I am only allowed to give so many "A's" and "B's", so I will have to see how the rest of the class does.  And you should be aware, 50% of my class typically fails.  There is help available, but you need to go and access it because I will not be checking on you, you need to be responsible for your learning, and as you can see, I have 400 other students in the class.  And whether you show up to my class or not is up to you, it doesn't really matter to me.  Why?  Because you are PAYING for this."

While not verbatim, this is very close to the words that comprised the first 45 seconds of my first ever class at university.  It was Chemistry 104, and before I had even started into the course, I felt defeated.  Unfortunately, when I went to my next class, Math 102, the message was very similar.  Physics 111 was a bit better, but that was because there was only about 250 people in that one:  it felt much cozier.  But the philosophy was the same with each professor was chillingly similar--we are going to give you a couple of opportunities to show us what you know with very little feedback and support, and if you don't show up, well...that's up to you.  And by the way, most people fail.

I bring this up because the other day, I was speaking to an outstanding colleague about a policy that they had created in their department.  The policy said "NO REWRITES!!!" (yes, with three exclamation points).  Interestingly, they don't actually follow this policy too closely, and as a result of their extra efforts, their department has one of the highest success rates in our school at just under 98%.   And when I probed a little deeper him about this, (because at our school, we are committed to providing students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate the learning outcomes of a given course), he told me a half dozen different ways that their department ensured we maintained this commitment to our kids.   He agreed with me that they needed to change what they had written to demonstrate how they support students to be successful in the different classes in their department.

This is very different than where we are at as a school, so I couldn't resist asking him:  "Where did that come from?".  His response?  He said that his department developed that in direct consultation with a first year university professor because they don't allow re-writes there, and he told them this would better prepare kids for university.

Through clenched teeth, I told my colleague that "I begged to differ" on this philosophy (I am Croatian--so my words might have been a bit different, but you get the idea).


Interestingly, less than two weeks ago, I sat with a large group of counselors, transition coordinators, and numerous representatives from our local university to brainstorm new and innovative ways to attract and retain students at post-secondary institutions.  Shockingly, the assessment thoughts espoused by this professor which would 'prepare students for university' did not make the list of high-yield strategies.

There are good professors at universities, I want to make sure that I am clear on that point.  But there are professors that look at the way that schools and teachers in the K-12 system give students multiple and varied opportunities to demonstrate what they know as weak, watered-down assessment.  "Of course they are going to get it if you let them try it five times!".

Groan.  Don't we want them to get it?  And if we acknowledge that there is the tiniest of possibilities that in a class of 400-500 students that a few of them could possibly learn at different rates and in different ways, should we not EXPECT that some of them might need to try certain bits of a course again?   Is that wrong?

I am tired of hearing these sorts of comments, so here's my counter to criticisms aimed at schools with assessment practices that are tailored to give students feedback and multiple opportunities for success, or with intervention programs designed to invite and then dictate additional support for students:

"How's that working out for you?"

Perhaps the experience I described above was similar for you.  And perhaps like me, you went from being a good student in high school to getting blown out of the water in the first year of post-secondary.  And can tell you I nearly quit.  I nearly became one of the 50% that my first year Chemistry professor described. 

The statistics are well-known--a significant number of students leave after their first year of university.  There is no one checking on them.  There is no feedback given so even they themselves do not have a sense of where they are at. They fail that first high-stakes test.  Then they fail one course.  Perhaps another.  Still no one intervenes.  Or they get a letter saying they are on "Academic Probation". And then they start to think  "Is this worth it?", "Should I just go to work?" and "Why am I wasting my money?".   And then they go.  They become a statistic.

"How's that working for you?"

"Not so well, hey?"

I don't want to prepare students for the university that I went to.  Not because I don't want them to go, not at all--I loved university.  It's because I don't want them to have to endure what I went through in my first (and even part of my second) year.  I don't want them to only have one or two shots at demonstrating what they know in a class.  I don't want them to have to demonstrate what they know using a multiple-choice test to do so.  I don't want them to get a mark that is lower than what they demonstrated because the teacher is only "allowed to give so many A's".  Those practices are archaic.  And in a place which we call 'higher learning', I feel those practices need to stop.

I want a professor to challenge students to demonstrate their knowledge in a way that truly reflects what they know.  And if they don't demonstrate that knowledge to a high standard, they get timely and frequent feedback and multiple opportunities to show what they know because it is really important to LEARN it.  I want someone to care that they aren't going to class, or that they are struggling.  I want someone to help them even if they don't seek out the help, because some students won't do that on their own without a little nudge, without someone reaching out to them.  Because in first year, students are still adults in training.  They are

So instead of asking the question "Are kids prepared for universities?", perhaps we should be asking "Are universities prepared for kids".


  1. [part 1]
    I really enjoyed the assessment practices at play during my M.Ed -- self responsibility mixed with very diverse and personalized demonstrations, and not too many of them, about 3-4 per course and none of them tests. It's a shame that 1st/2nd yr undergrad assessment doesn't at least split the difference between the guided try and try again approach in K-12 and the deep inquiry present in most post-grad work.

    I think you have to be patient with those who see value in the “no rewrites” philosophy. There are a few legitimate reasons why they hold out on what you see as the possibility of a fully-implemented AFL practice. For starters in most schools, AFL is never implemented they way it is usually designed or framed by the experts. I’ve asked about this topic quite a bit in SD57 where I teach, and the results are disturbing. Secondary teachers feel pressured to provide make-up assignments and extra time (usually in a detention-like setting) in order to get students grades to a passing level. The goal is grade advancement (not mastery of learning outcomes) and ultimately improved grad rates. The kind of work students do to “catch up” or “get through” is often worksheets or fill-in-the-blanks packages from amateur curriculum providers. Students get the message that if they jump through a few hoops, put some crap down on paper, maybe apologize for skipping 10 classes and promise not to do it again, they can pass every course they take. Teachers know that if a student really has failed a class, you assign 44% or lower so that you won’t be cajoled into putting together a “pass-the-course” package for students to complete after the fact. You might know more about why some school and sr admin feel the need to push students through in this manner, but I’m more concerned about the teacher response. Some, like myself, ignore the pressure, ignore most of what is said about assessment at the school and district level because it is illogical and misunderstood. We design our own schemes for assessing deep learning and place a premium on authenticity and students working with evidence to demonstrate understanding. Getting there, anyways. Other teachers give in to the pressure and sign their students up for the extra time and remedial work packages. This can be an indictment of what is happening in their class, but is can also be a recognition that composition issues make it difficult for teachers to weave the same narrative with large groups of students. This is compounded in a district like our where the “general population” includes a significant proportion of at-risk and struggling learners, with many of our advanced students opting for specialized programs or honours classes. The third response, most concerning to me, is where teachers simply lower the standards for course success and ensure that with a minimum effort, every passes. This is usually accomplished by assessing completion over competence.

    1. [part 2]
      ...There are other reasons why teachers drag their feet on “AFL” such as including a role for competition and clinging to standards they recall from different contexts and decades, but you get the idea

      Anyways, you are probably thinking at this point, “but they don’t get what thoughtful assessment should look like, it’s not about expediting final results,” the same charge that could be leveled at over-sized university classes. You’d be right. Luckily, even teachers who are shaky with assessment are still gifted educators and willing to learn from the example of others. Luckier still, students will most often rise to the challenges we set for them; I’ve seen this most often with the SS10 Heritage projects and SS11 Echo projects where students weak and strong have produced incredible work with meaningful personal connections. Just as we can dumb down learning intentions (or cut them in half under the false assumption that teachers will naturally aim for higher-level outcomes) we can also challenge the model and insist that student give us their best, or at least something that comes from diligence and creativity. I don’t really care if it is the first or third attempt. It took me 9 years to figure out my basic assessment philosophy (many “rewrites” and mistakes along the way), and it does not stay still for long. Ironically, it was the crappy assessment in parts of high school and early university (and my crappier attitude towards it) that motivated both my desire to be a teacher and also the way I assess.

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