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