When they’re not ready for prime-time

An August 2006 online survey of 502 professors (http://www.publishers.org/press/releases.cfm?PressReleaseArticleID=349 ) led to a conclusion by the Association of American Publishers that faculty are buying more expensive textbook packages because their incoming students are increasingly unprepared.  

I agree with the impression left that students aren’t prepared for college: 75 % of two-year college students are not ready for college level courses. I am not convinced that the solution is a snazzy CD & website to go along with the textbook. While the faculty surveyed seem certain this sort of thing helps (77 percent of those surveyed say that supplemental materials “clearly enhance most students’ learning”), I think the problem is elsewhere.  

Under the “do no harm” approach to teaching, I have to admit that requiring a student to purchase a time-limited access code to a website which he will ignore does not do any more damage than requiring him to buy a bare-bones textbook that he will ignore. But does it solve anyone’s problem (other than the publisher’s problem regarding how to grow profit)?  I take a lead from another finding: “Nine in ten professors (90 percent) say these students would do better if they made greater use of the assigned textbook.”  So here is my own, opinionated list of,

How to Bring SUCLs (Students Unprepared for College Level) Up to Speed 

1.      Never lie to students. If you say you will fail a student after four cuts or that you won’t accept late papers, do it. Students expect us to lie and expect us to be unfair by offering escape hatches to late papers, failing exams, misunderstood assignments and plagiarized papers. They expect unannounced extra credit to spout like weeds in the last two weeks of the semester. Almost all high school teachers have treated them that way and they think that’s the way the world works, regardless of what we say. This leads to #2…

2.      Actions speak louder than words. Take action.

3.      Treat all students the same: the gorgeous, late comer, whiner, handicapped, soccer star, immigrant, whomever. Most of us think we are fair but are not, and students can tell.

4.      Be ready to fail the entire class. It’s the only way to set standards for a course and keep to them. Similarly, be ready to give the entire class A’s. Grades serve two purposes: to motivate (the carrot and the stick) and to measure. They are better at the former than the latter.

5.      Teach students how to read your textbook. Most students don’t have a clue how well they read, how they do read or how to improve their reading. In one class session using your own textbook and course material you can do much to change that. More on this some other time.

6.      Teach students how to take your tests. As you cover material, demo sample questions, demo the great answer, explain why you ask the questions you ask, explain how you grade and what goes through your mind as you grade. Demystify the testing process, especially when you use short answer and essay questions.

7.      Show students how to think like you think. Education has eroded the emphasis of faculty as role model, but regardless of whether we want the role or not, it’s our – no escape. Model the thinking that’s done in your discipline. Often stop and give a commentary of what goes on in your skull. “When I see this kind of a problem the first place my mind goes…”  “When a mathematician picks up the newspaper and reads this survey she asks….” “When I looked at the textbook we’re using for the first time I noticed…..and I liked…..”

8.      Show students how to ask the questions that 1) adults ask; 2) students of your discipline ask; 3) you ask.

9.      Be realistic and describe to students the pitfalls of skipping or skimming or surface-working your assignments. Then tell them how to know what they might skip, skim or superficially complete if absolutely necessary. One thing that makes the student unprepared for college is that she doesn’t know what’s important and what isn’t, or even that there are levels of importance. It all seems equally unimportant. Separate the ideal from the practical; create a good, better, best scale in what you expect from your students.

10.  Be as hard as you can on cheaters. A 2004 survey concluded just 14% of college students will never cheat; the rest are just looking for the right opportunity. And cheating worked very well in high school. Create cheat-proof assignments; design cheat-proof tests and testing situations; fail cheaters. (Survey: Chapman, K.J., R. Davis, D. Toy, L. Wright. “Academic Integrity in the Business School Environment: I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.” Journal of Marketing Education. 26:3, 2004. 236-239.)

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