Monday, March 05, 2007

A real data point on "The Pre-Test" - from a former professor

I wrote the about SIU Grade inflation and about giving the Pre-Test. I have a series of comments from a Professor who claims to know everything and who claimed that I know nothing. I was kind of hoping that Don would write in, he has been an insightful commenter here in the past and had this to say -
I write as a former SIU professor who moved to a more challenging position in academia, and who continues to struggle with expectations from both students and higher-ups that are not only unrealistic, but also, may I say, unethical.

As an undergraduate student, I took several math classes from a man whose idea of a review session consisted of two words: 'Know everything.' If it had been mentioned in class, it was fair game, in whatever context, so long as the questions on the exam were reasonable (and they were). Those experiences were crucial in my development, for I learned right away that it was up to me, that the responsibility for a good grade was mine, and mine alone.

I've carried that idea into the classroom, with mixed results, to say the least. I had several people at SIU (but I've not experienced this at my current job, at least not yet) ask me whether I would issue a practice exam in advance of the genuine article. I always told them no. Further, I told students that, if I were to conduct a review session, it would be student-driven, that is, the students would come into the class to present any questions they might have. As you might surmise, the average session lasted no more than twenty minutes. The exam grades tended towards the abysmal, as might be expected. The exceptions to this trend, without fail, consisted of people who asked questions of me both during the lecture and outside of class, that is, those who did well were those who took ownership of the material.

This is why giving a 'practice exam' is inherently unethical -- or for that matter, doing anything in order to curry the favor of students. Jack Kemp's supply-side analogy of a rising tide that lifts all boats is not applicable here, for in this case you are raising the poorly-built, ill-tended crafts along with the sturdy ships which have been made so by diligent effort. By giving a practice test, you are telling the hardworking students in your class that their efforts are essentially for nought; why expend all of that additional energy towards learning the material?

Call such pandering what it is: academic welfare. Economic welfare programs have not worked in any environment in which they've been enacted, as the potential for abuse is too great, and as the recipients of this unwarranted largesse learn exactly the wrong lessons by way of this supposed generosity. The same things may certainly be said of its academic counterpart.

I left SIU for precisely the reasons of which we write in this comment section. I have an excellent research program, performed service duties faithfully and well during my time at Southern, and taught my classes effectively. However, because I come off as a 'hard ass', my student evaluation scores were consistently between a 3 and a 3.5. Those who worked hard in my class, however, appreciated my efforts, and said so in writing, one young man (who is now at UIUC) going so far as to say that I was the best professor he had during his time at Southern. It is not my goal to be immodest, but rather to make a vital point, namely that tough love has its own, and very gratifying, rewards.

None of that mattered to the departmental committee, who scuttled my bid for tenure solely on the basis of insufficiently high student evaluation scores. I received confirmation from a member of the committee that this was indeed the only reason. Moreover, this same person told me that if I babied the students for a year, going so far as to give them practice tests, then tenure for me would be assured. I found the notion of being a pedagogical version of Santa Claus entirely distasteful, and the rest, as they say, is history. I'll grant you, I've got problems at the new place, namely kids whose parents pay $40,000 per year who in turn believe they're entitled to good grades. To this point, however, nobody has told me to 'ease up or else'.

Too many people in this world possess neither the courage nor the self-confidence to challenge immoral or unethical paradigms, choosing instead to rationalize matters, hold their noses and collect their paychecks on a regular basis. I'm reminded of a blog entry I read not too long ago that contrasted successful people with their unsuccessful counterparts. The blog entry ended by saying this:

'Most successful people do what 95% of others do not do. So by trying to appease that 95%, to live in their eyes, you're already doomed on that path of failure.

'Successful people do what unsuccessful people dare not do: living by their own standards, not by someone else's.'

As a postscript, please forgive the long entry. I haven't posted here in a while, and, as the spring quarter has just started, I have a bit more free time than usual. That will not last, of course, which is fine with me.
Because of Student Evaluation based promotions, SIU's Math Department lost one of their best young professors.

I love Don's ending (I often wish I would write as well as he does), "Too many people in this world possess neither the courage nor the self-confidence to challenge immoral or unethical paradigms, choosing instead to rationalize matters, hold their noses and collect their paychecks on a regular basis."

To my buddy, the professor who knows everything, maybe it is time to stop holding your nose and start trying to fix things? I was discussing this with my Father earlier, if you want a real education about what is going on at SIU, feel free to give him a call.

Of course, your comments are welcome.


Peter in Carbondale said...

There is a good set of comments about this here


Anonymous said...

SIU isn't in a position to be selective in its admission, so it lets in some students who are ill-prepared for college. If a professor goes into class, especially a 100-level class, with the attitude that it is all up to the students to learn the material, many of them will fail. For people who think the university is responsible to weed out ill-prepared students, you'll have no problem with this. For people who think the university is responsible to provide an education to the students it admits, letting them fail without giving them a clue of what they would need to do to succeed is a problem.

I've never been in Don's classes, so I can't judge what he did. From his comment, I am left wondering how much he left the "poorly-built ill-tended crafts" to sink and how much he guided them to make repairs. When the review session only lasted twenty minutes, did he suggest that the students might want to skim their notes and ask question about material that looked confusing? When students asked for a practice test, did he suggest that they might want to look on the Internet for tests from similar classes at other universities or even for tests on the SIU Math Department Web site? When students did poorly on the homework and on the midterms, did he tell them to come to office hours or to form study groups?

Don Mills said...

To "Anonymous":

I did provide assistance to those who were willing to seek it, whether it was pointing out in class, or in the review session, which topics I would emphasize on graded events; talking to students after class, whether during office hours or during times in which they had made appointments; or helping students, sometimes late at night, by answering their email queries. I did all of this for the students, and a sizable percentage still did poorly on the exams.

Here's what a couple of students have said about me, just to give you an idea of how the hardworking students in my class -- the ones that were active in their learning, not the ones who acted as vessels, saying "Fill me with knowledge":

"When I needed help on a concept or specific problem, Dr. Mills was without fail available
after class and during his office hours.... I could e-mail him and
commonly receive a reply before I had finished working on math for
the night. I felt that he was genuinely dedicated to his job and
his students."

"His teaching method was superb.... His philosophy was if he challenged us
from the beginning, we would be more prepared for the final. This method was very encouraging."

I make no apologies for my teaching methods. I went out of my way to help students, time and again, only to meet with disappointment, and not only that, but fingers of blame pointed my way, as if it was MY fault that I couldn't instill a proper work ethic in them, or transmit, by way of telepathy, an understanding of the concepts that I communicated to them in class. You can lead a horse to water, but you surely can't make it drink.