“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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“Kids These Days” Part 1

At the time of writing, I’m assisting faculty with processing the grades and academic standings of students from the last academic year.  All of the grades for the Winter are in, but for the engineering degrees we are in the long, tedious process of reviewing all the grades and courses delivered over the last twelve months and making notes on ways the delivery can be improved for next year.  This is an important process for us to follow, not only for our continuous improvement requirements for accreditation, but also because it’s important to pause periodically and reflect on the reasons students perform they way they do – especially when they fail.

Because people have a tendancy to shift blame away from themselves, reviewing student failures can be challenging.  If you ask students why they fail, you’ll likely hear something that reflects courses that are too challenging, professors who are unreasonable, or circumstances they had no control over.  Faculty, on the other hand, think students are unwilling to put in the hard work needed to be successful.  The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.  In my opinion, I feel that faculty sometimes forget what it’s like to be a student, and I feel that students don’t see the bigger picture to help them understand how they should be prioritizing their work.

Despite the fact that students are legally adults when they come to school, we forget that the depth of their experience is often pretty shallow.  It’s the first time they are away from home, the first time they are having to manage their day-to-day lives, and often higher education is a large step-up in academic expectations compared to their secondary school experience.  I’ll chat a bit more about this next week, but I think the takeaway is that we often take for granted the experience we, as professors, draw upon to manage ourselves and our work, and instead we shake our heads when the students perform poorly in their work and seem to ignore the opportunities we extend them for extra support (office hours, anyone?).

A valuable skill faculty need to develop and practice is empathy for students.  We as faculty have a responsibility to both apply high expectations to the students, but also be willing to place ourselves in their shoes and see the world as they do – a world where everything seems important, everything is competing for their attention, and crucially, students think everything carries dire consequences.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Note to My Students

I closed out the winter semester last week, submitted my marks, and took a breather.  During the next week, I will be prepping my next semester and updating the course shell in anticipation of the start of the new semester.  During the interim, I’ve been reflecting on how the last semester went, and what I can do to improve the student experience in my online course.  My failure rate was higher than usual, and I want to make sure that I’m doing what I can to address those elements I can control.

Were I to give some advice to my students, this is what I would say:

Hello Students!

It is the start of a new semester, and I welcome you to the course.  If this is your first general education elective or philosophy course, I hope it meets your expectations.  Gen Eds tend to be a special kind of course.  This is one of the few courses you get a chance to choose, but it’s also one of the courses you’ll take that is a departure from your core major courses.  While you need the Gen Ed credit for graduating, you will feel the conflict over prioritizing the rest of the semester’s courses that will lead directly to your career.  It is very easy to let my course slip to the back-burner.  I recognize this and can understand your predicament.

In light of that, I want to give you some advice on how to do well on my assignments.  If there is one piece of advice I can give that will maximize your chances of passing my course, it’s that you have to do the work and submit your assignments.  As obvious as it might be that in order for me to give you a grade, you have to give me something to mark, I know that you will look at the assignment weightings and judge that the assignment is not worth your time to complete when you have other “more important” assignments to turn in.  Unfortunately, each submission you don’t turn in is essentially free marks that you will miss.  A good grade in this course is not won through stellar big assignments.  It’s about showing up consistently and slogging through the little assignment.  All those little assignments add up.

It can be intimidating to do philosophy.  If you are used to coming up with the right answers easily, you can face down a philosophy paper and become paralyzed by the weight of the work.  However, I want you to remember one important fact: doing good work in philosophy is not about thinking big ideas.  To do good work in philosophy, you must be good at communicating ideas.  I don’t expect you to have the “right” answer.  I don’t expect you to fully understand the concepts you are encountering.  Instead, I expect you to give an honest attempt to grapple with the ideas, and for you to use what you are learning in the module to play around with the ideas.  The more connections you can make between the ideas, the better.  Also, the more simply you can communicate those ideas, the better.  Don’t try to wow me with big vocabularies and vague writing.

I am generally not a hard marker.  I value progress and earnest intellectual work over feeding me the “right” answer.  Don’t give me what you think I want to read, and don’t give me your unsupported opinions.  Learn to play around with the ideas and explore topics you’ve never thought about before.  Make sure to attribute your ideas, and make sure you keep your reader in mind when you write your papers; explain the concepts to me as if I am a your grandmother.  If you do that every week, and put in an honest effort, I won’t let you fail my course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Two Approaches to Intro Phil

By the time this is published, I will have finished my grading for the Winter semester, however as of drafting, I am procrastinating from finishing.  That means it’s time to let my mind wander and to blog about it.

The course I’ve been teaching since Fall 2016 is a light, multidisciplinary romp through philosophy that examines various topics in human experience through multiple lenses.  Often, this is one of the first general education courses the students encounter, and for many it is the first time they are getting into something approximating formalized philosophy.  It’s an online course, so the students work their way through the module material, post to discussion boards, and submit weekly asignments.  The modules are a mix of text, graphics, and embedded videos, and all things considered is a pretty marked departure from my first course in philosophy.

My introduction to philosophy was significantly more old school.  We all had copies of Cahn’s Classics in Western Philosophy (the sixth edition), and we started the semester on Plato.  It was my first class in university, and my first introduction to academic philosophy.  In a small way, that course has dictated how, in my mind, philosophy gets taught.  It is my default template for teaching – the professor stands at the front and pontificates in fifty minute blocks of time.  I never questioned it; I just tried to take notes, not really knowing how one takes notes about the lecture material.

Since then, I’ve seen a few different pedagogical approaches to teaching an intro phil course.  You can teach the material chronologically, topically, using ancient sources, using modern case studies, you can approach the different branches of philosophy thematically, or you could teach the material historically.

But there is another axiom I’ve been thinking about when teaching philosophy (or any topic for that matter):

Should I require the students to read the text before or after the lecture?

On first glance, this seems like a silly question.  Afterall, the lecture is about exploring ideas, clarifying thought, and demonstrating how to extend the ideas.  Students should grapple with the text and work to come to an understanding.  If there are problems with the text, they can bring their questions to class for rich discussions.  After reading the text, the students can teach the concepts to each other and have fruitful conversations about the ideas.  Why would you want to let the students not read the text?

On the other hand, it depends on what your goals are.  You see, the problem with requiring the students to read the text prior to the lecture, at least at an introductory level, is that the students often don’t possess the vocabulary or the historical schema’s to truly understand the work in front of them.  In an introductory philosophy course, I’m not looking for students to master the material.  Often times, I’m not even looking for them to be right in their arguments.  Instead, I’m looking for other skills, like close reading, comprehension, and (most importantly) the ability to read text charitably.  The hardest thing for students to grapple with in intro phil is that they are seeking to be right and rarely allow themselves to explore ideas.

Plato wrote more than 2000 years ago – what could he possibly have to say in his silly dialogues that helps me today?  Given the current political climate, I’d say his Republic has a lot to say (I’m looking at you, Thrasymachus).

If I give students a text, they don’t have the benefit of a historical view.  They don’t understand the context in which the author is writing.  They don’t understand the conventions of language and allusions.  They don’t see the historical dialogue that is unfolding on the page, where the author is addressing thinkers who came before them.  For instance, in my experience, the vast majority of students who read Descartes for the first time end up thinking Descartes literally believes an evil genius is out to deceive him.  They get so fixated on trying to keep up with what Descartes is doing that they lose sight of the argument being laid out before their eyes.

Reading the text before class is a great way to have students develop critical thinking skills, but if you want the students to understand what they are reading, it might be worth your time to consider helping them to explore the text together.  At least for an intro phil course.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan