Friday, December 10, 2010

American Idol Academics

I've written a few blogs this week. Yeah, I know, you haven't seen them. As it sometimes goes, I write things I hope I can post and they end up going to a dangerous place and a little voice inside me screams: "DON'T DO IT!"

I don't always listen, but this week I did.

Then, as inevitably happens, something gets tossed in my path and I figure it out. I didn't figure it out for all of the blogging I've done but I figured it out for half of one post.

What happened is today, I sat through an epic staff meeting. Any staff meeting that goes over an hour can be defined as epic (today's weighed in at about 3 hours). Any staff meeting, of any length, where I can get through without making a sarcastic remark might be called a miracle.

Fortunately my coworkers, after 8 years of suffering the sharp-tongue that is me, have come to know me and love me for who I am. Because today was no miracle.

Part of today's meeting was my coworkers reporting on conferences they went to that were paid for by the department. There was a theme to today's reports: student entitlement.  This theme was coincidental because I wrote the majority of what you will read below on Tuesday of this week.

One of the reports likened student entitlement to the American Idol experience. The "bad" American Idol singer experience. You know, those ones that THINK they are good because their moms and dads and aunties and uncles have told them their whole lives they are good, and then they go on TV and they are so laughably bad that they make it onto the bad singer portion of the show?

Don't we have students like that too? Don't we have a whole cohort of students who have been told their whole lives they are "good" and they can do anything (because heaven forbid we harm our kid's self esteem when they perform sub-standardly by telling them so) when really, they are only average. When did average become the new A+?

The other day I payed a vist to the other educational institution where I occasionally moonlight. I'm moonlighting again in January in order to pay off some bike-addiction related debt, and I had to pick up a textbook. I found my mailbox -- which I didn't know I still had, by the way, I haven't moonlighted in a year -- and it was stuffed with crap.

One envelope of that crap was a pile of standardized mandatory student evaluations from the summer of 2009.

I can't believe they kept them this long, was my first thought.

My second thought was to scan them with interest, particularly in light of the fact that I recently bragged about how my students thought I was cool.

Typically at this other institution, I am not perceived as being so cool. They are a tougher audience. My home institution has a much more "access" oriented attitude to admissions. Most of the students at my usual home base were not the "best and the brightest" in high school and they know it. They never worked to their potential before but they are working their butts off now, and sometimes the grade given for hard work is a shock. I've had thank-you's for giving out C's.

At my moonlighting institution, however, there are lofty entrance requirements and high GPA's. Many of these students were the kids who sat through classes in high school, stone faced and dazed, didn't study, and still got A's. They figure they should have the same privilege in university. They are equally shocked by my grades. Yeah. When they put in the same nothing effort in their university classes and get a nothing mark for it, guess who's fault that is?

Certainly not theirs. They are "A" students. And they've NEVER gotten this bad a mark in their life so the problem is with YOU, PROFESSOR.

[I especially love how they call me Professor -- usually with thick-tongued sarcasm veiled as feigned politeness. It makes me want to turn around and look over my shoulder and see who's standing behind me. I have a Masters degree and I'm a sessional. I don't have a rank.]

The quantitative part of these evaluations were the highest scored I've ever seen in the 6 or so times I've taught this course over at "the motherhouse" as we affectionately call it at my home base. I vaguely remember this section. This class went well. They were a pleasure to teach. And they got the material and asked good challenging questions. I remember standing up in front of the class and complementing them.

I'm obligated to hand these things out even though they never tell me anything new or say anything useful that helps me make the course better. A lot of them come back looking like this, with careful thought obviously put into their selection of evaluation choices:

Notice the clever camera placement to disguise the institution of origin (as IF you didn't know)
This is a fine example of what we call in research "jargon" the "acquiescence response set bias." 
Do you think this student even bothered to read the stem associated with the question?

They don't usually write anything qualitative on those fancy computer generated lines where they are allowed to do so. They can't be bothered. Most of them come back blank. But those that do comment seem to have no trouble saying something blatantly rude and unhelpful during this opportunity they've been given to anonymously vent.

Who am I to talk though. I probably did it too. Once upon a time, I was one of them. Overachiever. A student. Same institution. Same faculty. You'd think this would make me more understanding.

I remember, as an undergrad, sitting on a faculty council at this same motherhouse institution and it was the same year they brought these standardized evaluations into being and listening to the discussion from the mouths of my profs and instructors about how nervous they were about having these things published publicly. (Which apparently they are. I've never looked.) How nice of them to publish those qualitative comments that talked about how the students didn't like a hairstyle or a suit they wore one day or how one had been referred to as "the dragon lady."

I can't recall a time that any student wrote anything so personal about me. Most of the time the comments I get are about things that I can't control, such as the fact that my course is in the program at all. "This is the worst most useless course I have ever taken."  Great. I'll follow your carefully outlined feedback and make it better. Thanks for your suggestions.

Or my personal favourite from a few years back: "This course is just further evidence of the cash-grab nature of [this] program."

Thanks for the constructive criticism. Please take that up with the Canadian Nurses Association who has put countless hours of research into the entry level competencies required by nurses. See if they agree with you. They'll probably want to rip that degree out of your hands and tear it in two, because clearly, you missed the point of your four years of education. Please go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. And while you are there, find some personal growth.

From what I hear among my colleagues, you would think there isn't a single course in the entire program that is of any use to their career, except for the clinical ones and those are graded too hard and are too much work.

Today I particularly enjoyed reading this literary effort:
This class was IMPOSSIBLE to follow as a result of the profs teaching style. She spoke quietly and VERY fast, using jargon without explaining what it meant. Her tests were not related to her class content and the questions were hard to understand. Class notes had no flow and seemed random. 
Wow. Was she in MY classroom. (It may not have been a she. But the handwriting is very girlish.) Me QUIET?  Jargon?  You mean like Cronbach's alpha, operationalized, manipulation, criterion related, transferability? That kind of thing? All the words you need to know and were supposed to have studied to understand research methodology? I take back that cheat sheet I gave you for 2 out of 3 tests. And next time I won't bother to give those practice exercises, which basically ARE the tests. Did you at least flip through the textbook that my notes were essentially plagiarized from? Obviously pre-loading you with the test questions didn't help. I won't do that any more.

Yes I do talk VERY fast by the way. I can't refute that.

Oh the joys of teaching mandatory curriculum material that doesn't involve saving lives. I've come to learn that often the students equate their passion for the material with the person standing in front of them. They can't seem to separate them. They hate the material, they hate the instructor. They hate the teacher, they hate the course. It is a shame.

They also seem to fail to equate their grade in a class with depth of understanding. The sense is that they should get an A just for showing up, reading the book, handing in their assignments (maybe). Oh but I worked SOOOOOO HARD in this class and I still only got a B.

Working hard does not equal exceptional understanding. I understand what I teach, but start talking interest rates and investing with me and my eyes glaze over. I squeaked out an A in economics one year not understanding a thing that came out of the mouth of the foreign grad student who was teaching the intro section or, for that matter, anything I read in the textbook, only because I've learnt over time how to outsmart a multiple choice test. And because I'm part of that 3% of students who will do well no matter how crappy the instruction.

Before I started teaching, I thought all students were like me. I thought I was of average intelligence but knew how to fake the system.

I can write a paper with ease. I can do stats. But I'll never be able to find the feel of knowing exactly how much to turn a screwdriver in my rear derailleur so my bike shifts better. We all have our aptitudes. I could study an engineering textbook for hours and still not develop a depth of understanding.

Notice that I didn't give you any examples of the positive things that students said. There are lots of those too. In fact, there are WAY more of those than the negative ones. Why do the negative ones stand out so much?

This one was kinda nice:
Excellent instructor -- Very good -- glad I had her. Loved the old tests -- review. Awesome cheat sheet idea -- actually an instructor who understands the point of the course i.e. not to memorize the text book!
Now there is a student who gets it. What she wrote was exactly what I was trying to do. One of our advisors in the staff meeting today said students are always coming into her office and saying that the test they just failed wasn't on anything they actually took in class. When she asks them to tell her what some of the questions were, inevitably one they recite back is a pure application question.

No, I am not always going to ask you to tell me the definition for "acquiescence response set bias." (If you were paying attention in this blog, you'll know it already). Sometimes I might show you a picture and ask you to name the response set bias shown in the image.

Most of the positive comments I get are spoken to my face and then never written formally. Like the student who spontaneously walked into my office today to thank me for my course. (Same course as I am being evaluated on above. Different audience. Different institution. Different year.) "I really enjoyed what you did. I could have sat there all day doing that stuff we did yesterday," he said. "I don't get it. But I enjoyed it."

I don't dwell on my student evaluations. I read them and I nod in agreement, usually. I smile when they are cute and gushy and nice. I roll my eyes when I am dropped unhelpful scathing feedback I can't change or offers no solutions that will make it better. And then ten minutes later it is gone out of my head and I'm on to the next pressing task. I don't lose one second worth of sleep.

So I have a stack of student evaluations sitting beside my computer now. There isn't much more I can do with them and there is a lot of blank space. They are good for this kind of thing though:

The next pressing task: Coach Pat's Friday trainer workout. This was a relatively easy aerobic day. You should have seen Wednesdays. 

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