Monday, August 26, 2013

How to Make Students Better Students

Orientation is not just a time to orient students to one another and start the
horrendous registration process, it is a time to adapt the students to college itself. Schools need to make the new students realize that the college environment is different than the high school one. That there may well be greater demand placed on them to study and perform than before. That they may not yet be college students even though they have been admitted to the university.

There is a persistent belief in the Tinkerbell Theory as discussed in The Power of Retention. The Tinkerbell Theory is most clearly elucidated in the belief colleges have that their students know how to be students. Actually, too many schools have a misguided belief in Peter Pan and maturity dust.  They believe that somehow magic occurs on the stage of the local school auditorium at high school graduation.  An immature high-schooler starts across the stage, and with him or her walks all the ways of thinking and attitudes ingrained over 12 long years.  These are the same very characteristics that made the soon-to-be high school graduate have to prove he or she was capable of succeeding in your college.  Then, he or she stops and just as the high school principal hands over a diploma, a small, invisible Tinkerbell flies overhead and sprinkles magic maturity dust on the graduate. POOF!!  Suddenly before us stands a college freshman!  A high school student has left the Neverland of never growing up and somehow has become a mature college freshman in the eyes, beliefs and actions of the receiving institution. What was a latent college student suddenly sheds his or her immature ways and is suddenly metamorphosed into a full-grown college student ready and capable of meeting the demands and dictates of college! Then that new college freshman is given ten weeks of summer break to forget most everything he or she has learned about being a student.

But this is far from the truth. Peter Pan was fictional and so is the belief that incoming students are college students upon walking on campus.

It is important that colleges educate their students on how they are to be students. How they can become intelligent users of the college.  It is not enough to give someone a catalog. Simply because something is in the catalog does not make it automatically qualify as fully informing students.. The college has an active obligation to make sure the students are fully aware of the school’s rule. Simply check out add drop policies and how students do not know them as proof of this. The university will have a clear add drop policy that requires the students to take certain actions but the students are not aware of this. How do they drop a course? They simply do not show up again. They believe that if they stop going, they have dropped the class. After all if I am not going the class no longer exists believe our narcissist students. Then when they are given an F or at best a WF (withdrawn failing) on their grades report they are shocked. How could I fail a class I did not attend? And you want me to pay for the course I did not go to as well as failing it? No way! The result? At the very least and angry student. More than likely a drop. The shock of not just failing a course but the added shock of not being told there was an add drop procedure can just be too much for many students and they believe this place is just not worth the effort and money. They believe they have been given poor customer service since the college did not inform them of the policy either before or after the drop. The students feel that they should have at least  been informed that they did not drop the course properly by stopping attending the class. Someone should have told them.

They are correct. But because most schools do not have an attendance policy there is no impetus for faculty to inform the student that he or she has been missing class and could be failed for that and for not taking quizzes, tests and completing assignments.

Students have to be taught. In high school they were not allowed to miss classes and there was no dropping of a course to keep up the GPA or because the student was falling behind or failing. This is a major difference between university and high  school and needs to be taught to students.

Another college posted its dates for registration for the next semester on its student website. Then the school was very upset when some students did not show to register. The college officials believed the students should have known from the website. But they did not instruct students clearly enough on how to get a password, the how to navigate the site and finally the need to check the front page on a regular basis. Besides, the reality was, and is for most all schools, students do not use the portal and if they do, they do not use it as the college or university intended. Students at the college thought the site was just for getting their final grades, checking their bills and other administrative bothers. They were not aware they needed to check it for announcements.

Besides, in high school if they missed a registration date, or even an assignment, they just did it late.  No penalty. How would they know the rules were different at the institution if the college did not inform them? They simply are not college students until they complete the entire course and are certified as college students by graduation itself. Until then they are in the process of becoming.

The problems with add drop policies and procedure brings to mind an allied issue that needs to be addressed as well. Attendance policies or more importantly, the lack of them. . The typical college attendance policy reads something like this: Attendance in class is important. Therefore it is expected that students will attend classes. Each class will have its attendance policy posted as part of the syllabus and students are expected to follow them. This is as good as having no policy at all. Expectations are not strong enough and they are almost always broken anyhow. Leaving the policy up to every faculty member is not having a policy at all but many hundreds of mini-policies that may actuallky be in conflict with one another. But this situation on campuses is because the faculty bare some of the strongest believers in the Tinkerbell theory. They actually believe that the student sitting or not sitting in class is an adult and should be able to make adult decisions including not coming to class. They are especially adamant about attendance and not being held responsible for it unless they decide individually that attendance is mandatory or there will be a limited number of absences. 

Every college and university should have a clear, consistent and meaningful attendance policy that states that being in class is so important that students must attend all classes Important because students who do not attend classes are at greatest risk for dropping out. Important because students who miss classes are not gaining the value of the teacher’s instruction and thinking on the material. Important because the student also loses out on the very important teacher-student communication and relationship. Important also because it is the student and faculty interaction that is the reason we have faculty at a college or university. If students do not need teaching faculty to learn from in classes, the need for faculty disappears.

But the attitudes and rationale of so many faculty toward student attendance works directly against good customer service and retention too.  All need be done at most every workshop is review the institution’s attendance policy with the audience and an argument is begun. Most faculty and some administrators immediately disagree with me. 

And when they disagree in a workshop for instance, they do so vehemently. During one workshop in retention and customer service at a large community college, it was mentioned that the college had about a thirty percent four-year retention/graduation rate that would be significantly improved with a consistent and encompassing college-wide attendance policy. A policy that would make attendance mandatory. Immediately a faculty member passionately shook her head no and raised her hand. 

“Students are adults and they need to learn to be responsible for their own choices They need to learn there are consequences to their actions” she said as does someone at most every presentation and workshop ever given. This statement of course indicates the belief or assessment that students have not yet learned to be responsible so we should teach them that. By allowing them to be irresponsible!

By allowing them not to come to class and learn the material properly they are allowed to become intellectually bankrupt on the subject. Then they prove their irresponsibility by faculty having put material from class lectures on the exam knowing that if they did not attend class they cannot pass the exam. Sort of like letting someone have a mortgage they can’t possibly pay for and we know it but sell it to them anyhow. That is sort of teaching them financial planning by going bankrupt.

The students in classes are not yet responsible or even learned enough to make many decisions. That’s why when faculty assign homework they give a date for it to be handed in. “It is due on next Tuesday. If it is not in then, I will not accept it without a valid reason.”

Why is it so important to not trust them on turning in homework on time but it is okay to let them to not attend a class in which the homework assignment and material related to it are handed out or have been discussed? This is a major contradiction. Why not just trust them to hand it in on time? Or better yet, why not trust them to hand it in at all? Why isn’t homework an optional attendance sort of thing. “Hand it in if you think if you think it’s important? Or if you can pass the class without doing or handing in enrollment, fine?” Contradictions anyone?

Why do we even believe they are responsible enough to make the right decision to attend or not attend class? What is it about enrolling at a college or university that makes anyone believe these people are responsible or even sensible? This is especially so for freshman the most group most vulnerable to the Tinkerbell theory which by the way is whom the faculty member who asked the question at the workshop taught.

The Tinkerbell Theory also applies to upperclassmen  Perhaps not as obviously but it does apply to most of them. Simply because they have been attending college does not make them mature or responsible. For example, do students suddenly shut off their cell phones in class if they are juniors? Not unless they have been taught to do so. Do seniors not text during class? Only if taught they cannot do that in class. When a freshman returns to campus as a sophomore does he or she come to class on time? Even better, if he or she has passed Composition is the student’s writing now mature and correct? Etc. Etc……. What else is fictional is that college teaches them responsibility by letting them choose to be irresponsible; to go to class or not.

Physical maturity in no way equals mental maturity. Maturity is something that is learned and taught. This is something that is accepted as a given with young people for example. They are taught how to share, how they need to clean their room, brush their teeth, wash, bathe, look before crossing, do their homework … If we want a child to become a religious person we teach them and even demand they go to church, temple, mosque… If we want them to play a musical instrument we make sure they attend classes and practice. And we do make them go to classes, if they are our children!!!!!

When people start the argument on class attendance, at some time I will ask that person or persons if they have children in college. Most every time at least one does. “Okay, Let’s assume you are paying only $10,000 a year for school. Only $10,000. Public university. Your child completed a FAFSA waiver at school (which should be done at every school) so could you call to find out why Jennifer is concerned her grade in a class is not that good. You are told that Jennifer is not attending that class. What do you do?”

The faculty member invariably says something akin to “I’d tell her to get her butt in class , not skip classes and go for extra help!”

So if it is good enough and important enough for you to tell your child to go to class, why isn’t it equally good and important for other peoples’ children in your classes to have to attend? That’s when the “ahhhhhh” and “we fell into that” light bulb moment hits. But fear not, the light gets turned off quickly.

And then I respond “Why didn’t you just shrug your shoulders and say something like ‘well I guess that’s her just learning to become responsible?’ Or don’t you want your children to learn responsibility the very hard way you would let other peoples’ children learn responsibility. By getting to work at some minimum wage job for their semester off? Oh by the way, most every business does not teach responsibility by making showing up for work an option. When workers do not come to work, they learn about looking for another job. Interestingly enough, that is true at the colleges and universities at which we work too.”

An additional excuse for opposing an attendance policy is stated as there is not enough time and I’m not a disciplinarian excuses. but how does taking attendance make someone into any of the above? It doesn’t. It is like teaching itself. It is all in the way you do it. If one gets to know her or her students, attendance is easy. You can recognize who is or is not in class an check them off. If you don’t know them well enough, then you may not be doing a great job of connecting with them anyhow. Little says connecting an caring like “yes, whatsyourname” or “you in the blue blouse.”

Or it is east to simply go through the roll, call out their names ad see who responds. That way you can check to see who is here and correspondingly, start to learn their names!!!

One could also assign some student to take the roll or pass the attendance sheet around. That is not as effective of course. Some students will work it out so they can skip and not learn from you. And well, you will not learn their names but it is a way to not get too acquainted with anyone in the class. And yes, I know you will say you get acquainted to many of the students in class in the process of teaching. Of course, you can’t get acquainted with those who don’t show up. And we all know the pile of research that indicates that a feeling of association with a faculty member is a very important retention and learning factor.

There is also the excuse that there just is not enough time in the semester to take attendance every day. But in reality, the two or three minutes it might take will not interfere with the ability to learn all the material. This is especially so if the class starts on time. There is a very high number of classes that simply do not get roiling until at least five minutes have gone by wasted. In many cases, the delay is caused by late students, late faculty members, faculty talking to students at the front of the class rather than office hours or after class or the faculty member and class not knowing how to come to a decorous academic order.

Taking or calling attendance is also a way to call the class to some sort of order. It can be the signal that the academic world is about to intrude on the more relaxed and disorder of the non-academic world in which people can do as they please without regard for others and a faculty member. Calling the roll also signals that the faculty member is asking for decorum, academic decorum in the classroom. Calling the roll is a well-recognized signal to students that a separation from the non-academic to the academic has taken place so get with the appropriate decorum.

Another excuse is that faculty do not want to be made into those who cause students to get into trouble, to report on them. But then if that is a concern why give grades and report them? After all nothing can cause problems more than a low grade?

A quite prevalent response to required attendance is that this is college, an academic environment in which we are teaching ideas, ways of thinking and specific course material and information to students to prepare them for life. We are trying to instill in them a process of inquiry that can lead to mature decisions later on. Okay. Fair enough but can students learn if they are not in class?

If students can learn as much when they are out of classes as they can from a faculty member in the class, the issue is not attendance at all but the value or lack of value the faculty member brings to the material and learning. If a student can learn the same amount of process or information or whatever just by reading the books frankly that faculty member teaching the class is…well…not worth much. Maybe nothing. Maybe less than nothing since he or she is wasting student time and institutional resources.

Actually, these embarrassments to the profession are the best argument anyone could bring against requiring attendance are the professors who just do not teach well or give a damn about student learning. Because requiring students to suffer through these people is not right. And the professors and classes do add to inclination to drop out or transfer from the school. They also reflect very poorly on you, and colleagues who are dedicated and good teachers who care about learning and teaching well.

If the faculty member does not add significantly to the learning and understanding of the material or topics of the class, why have the person in the class at all? Why not just have students read the books and take tests and save the faculty members salary for someone who does add to learning? And yes you know who in your department I am talking about but I know as well as you that thought you know that person is a waste of clean air you will do nothing about it.

Please realize that when a professor tells students that they do not have to attend his lectures and they can pass by reading the assignments, doing the homework and taking tests, he is saying There is no value to my lectures or classes. I, in fact, have nothing to offer you that you cannot get from a book. This is a clear admission that I am useless as a teacher. I have no value for you. And in turn that diminishes each every faculty member teaching at the college or university. The fact that “there is room here for someone useless and I am paying for this worthless piece of the faculty” makes students wonder about other professors. And it does not matter if he or she is a brilliant researcher; not to the student in the class trying to get something of value out of it. Nor does the excuse cut it that this is an academic environment and I need to be collegial with my colleagues to the deficit of students and the reputation of the institution.

The “this is an academic environment” excuse leads directly to another popular reason why faculty oppose required attendance although I have yet to have anyone argue against required courses. Hmmm, we require courses but do not require students to attend them. There seems to be an implicit contradiction here.

The reason why some faculty opposes required attendance is they believe that the administration will not support them. They believe that if they are going to fail a student due to missing too many classes, the student or parent will go to a senior administrator who will tell the professor to work something out. Make it go away. Okay. I have to concur that there are some administrators who would do just that. Often while waving what they claim is customer service. It is people like these that give customer service a bad name. What they say is customer service is not. It is just making the problem go away because I don’t feel like dealing with it or listening to an angry parent or student.

Keep Academic Customer Service Principle 11 in mind:
11. The customer is not always right.

Furthermore, these people can get away with asking you to make it go away or figure something out because there isn’t an institutional policy that the weak-kneed need to lean on. In the same way they can point to an institutional, state, federal or some other agency policy and tell a student or parent “I’d love to help you but my hands are tied because….”

This can occur because there isn’t an institutional policy. With a patchwork of individual policies which hopefully are elucidated in the syllabus (which is a legal contract since what it is in there is what must be followed in this class) it is much easier for a weak administrator to pass the buck back. If one section of a course requires attendance for all lectures except for excused absences; another has no required attendance; and a third lets students miss three meetings, you can see how easy it would be for a weak administrator to manipulate the situation if a student in the no miss section had two unexcused absences and was flunking as a result. Moreover, just think how well some attorney will be able to present the inconsistencies to a jury when some family sues because junior flunked the course due to the two unexcused absences while other students never went to the same course, different section, and passed.

An institutional policy takes away the possible manipulation and even legal action in which a plaintiff could sue not just the school but you individually. It also would not allow an administrator to suggest, ask, imply, persuade a faculty member to possibly consider passing the student against the attendance policy in the section even if other students may have flunked for non-compliance with the attendance policy for the section. Couldn’t that lead to a great lawsuit?

But these are the weak people-pleasing administrators. When senior administrators at the colleges and universities are asked if they would support a faculty member who followed an institutional required attendance policy. Every one of them stated support for an institutional policy but also realized that this is an academic issue that must be resolved by the faculty.

So now, why oppose an institutional policy? What is the value of a hodgepodge of non-policies? They do not help students. They open faculty up to disparagement and even legal sanctions. Whereas an institutional policy helps students, promotes learning and keeps faculty out of court.

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