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Pedagogical Ailments Common in Undergraduate Systems

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When a student fails a course one may attribute that failure to any number of personal or pedagogical variables. All educators have encountered the personal ones – a death in the family causes an absence, heavy out of school work hours, etc. – but these things are typically outside of our control. On the pedagogical side there a number of variables only an institution can control. These are things like class sizes, available equipment, out of class support, and so forth. Take out the personal variables, and the institutional ones, and you are left with those things an educator might directly alter to improve success rates.

Of those variables that faculty members can control, the one we seem most able to discuss is academic prerequisites. When too many students fail a course, the first question at the curriculum committee is often whether we ought not to raise the prerequisite grade to get into the course in the first place. Allowing students to enter a course when we know there is a significant failure probability is irresponsible, it is said. This is surely true. We ought not let students take classes they are ill-prepared for, but this isn’t the entire story. It is merely one variable within it.

To say that raising a prerequisite for a course would increase success rates is actually quite misleading when you consider the second-order consequence of that decision. I could dramatically increase the success rate in my courses by making the entry grade A+. If I only accept the most gifted of liberal arts thinkers I am unlikely to fail them in large numbers, but I have obtained this benefit at the cost of leaving those persons who would benefit most out of the conversation entirely. It is as if a hospital lowered its fatality rate by deciding to treat only persons with the common cold. Little is gained by leaving those in need of public service outside of that service.

So the grade one needs to get into a course is only one part of a very complex picture. Sometimes we do need to raise the entry requirements, but (as an open access institution, in particular) these instances should be quite rare. We should, rather, ask what variables might be addressed that don’t involve excluding more people. What other diagnoses are possible? Here are a few.

  1. Assignmentus Disconnectus – In some classes the assignment given is only loosely related to what was actually done in class. If you have spent the semester in open dialogue and debate, a multiple choice test will likely produce results lower than the true achievement levels the students have attained. One can’t measure oranges by the standards of apples. The reverse is also true. If you give an essay test after a semester of keyword memorization, you should expect poor performance.
  2. Formativitus – At the first year level, in particular, universities tend to spend the first few weeks dumping knowledge-level outcomes into students minds. Somewhere around the one month mark a multiple choice test is given. That test is sometimes worth a significant chunk of the students’ grades. They had no chance to fail and correct themselves before that moment – no formative feedback. The first time a student performs a task (cognitive or otherwise) should not be their only shot at it. If they were able to be good at something the first time the need for educators would be dramatically reduced.
  3. Officia Absentia – Students are busy, and sometimes overwhelmed, anxious or under far more pressure than is healthy. They have an unprecedented number of reasons to never avail themselves of office hours. The great virtue, though, of going to a small university is that we have more time. This applies outside of the classroom as well as in it. We need to be available, in person or online, for multiple points of contact with each person. One can’t tailor a strong learning experience without normal human contact. We need to push for it.
  4. Ambiguous Rubrication – If students don’t know what excellence looks like (through rubrics, examples, and modelling) it is entirely unreasonable to expect them to manifest it. They should know, on day one, what the class is aiming at. This means providing not just learning outcomes, but also marking guides and (if possible) exemplars for the upcoming assignments. When people know what they need create, they can attend to their development much more effectively.

Other diagnoses are possible, but these are a good start.

(not a real) Dr. Burns

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