Friday, September 23, 2011

Fatalism Epiphany

Please see here and here for backstory. I am trying to triage the help I give to floundering students because I need to know for whom my help will be effective and for whom my efforts will be wasted. I don't want to give up on anyone, but this work must be personally sustainable.

Wednesday was the students' first exam. I busted butt and got the exams graded and back to them on Thursday, their lab day. During lab, I noticed that the students whose grades were the worst on the exams had turned in the worst work on the labs. No surprise there. I also noticed that of all the students who were doing poorly before the exam but were able to pull their scores up after my warning had a qualitative difference in the details of their lab work. If you asked a student who didn't improve their score, "Why is the sky blue?" they will answer, "Because it is blue", which will get them a poor score in lab.  A student who could at least answer, "That's the color of the light coming through", would still get a poor score, but would be trainable to learn more in depth --- that "the atmosphere filters all colors of light except around 470 nm, which enters your eye and strikes your retina where it is converted into neural impulses that is perceived by your brain as blue", which is the expectation for a good grade.

This is my new working hypothesis; that students who can do the lab write ups (which are open book) to a minimum degree are trainable, but that if they are failing the lab write-ups, AND they avoid my help otherwise, I cannot spend enough effort to rescue them from their own failure. I know that in the large state school where I got my undergrad, there would be no such discussion because there would not be any "chasing" of the struggling student by the Prof. But here I do a little. The standards are very high to pass, but the support is there for students who want it. Not all students want it, and the students who need it the most are unwilling to seek it. I want those non-seeker students to succeed too, despite their fears or background. But you simply can't do it for them.


  1. here is the sad fact, some people lack the intellect for higher education. We wish in the U.S. to ignore this fact, and tell fairy tales of mobility etc to students who'd be better off getting technical skills that would probably render them more employable. Small private colleges, desperate for students, are guilty of this in particular I believe as they are so dependent on enrollments. That leaves the profs of such schools in a tenuous situation. It is heartening to read your struggles as I've been there myself far too many times. With lack of intellect is coupled with lack of effort, there is where I draw the line. Glad you found your line too (or at least it sounds like it)

  2. You are absolutely right. I should blog this year about my U's efforts to increase enrollment. We're getting more tier 1 students (hooray!), but they are a money-losing deal, so the U. is trying to offset with more tier 4/5 students esp. athletes. What chaps me is that even if not everyone is cut out for higher ed, the population that don't succeed are heavily weighted with minorities and disadvantaged, which I believe has nothing to do with intrinsic ability. Its preparation probs for some of those students. The question is, can *I* help them compensate, or is it just too late?