Friday, October 14, 2011

Meet 'em where they are at this year?

I was hired to be a rigorous teacher. My predecessor was not granted tenure because of lack of rigor in his/her courses. Since the students I teach eventually take standardized exams (professional licensure, MCATs, you name it), I expect a lot and support a lot.

In a large (for us) course I teach every single year, I almost always get a 74-78 average on the exams, exactly what I'm shooting for. This year, with nearly the exact same material and very, very similar exams, my first two exam averages have been nearly 10 points lower.

Other colleagues have complained about the quality of the incoming students this year. When I interact with them, my impression is that they are just like previous classes. But they are bombing my exams!

The first exam came back very low, and I re-examined the test thinking perhaps there were some "stinker" questions on it. I will even admit that I wrote the second exam easier than usual just to encourage them. And they bombed that one too. For example, the second test had 15 fewer questions. The questions were all multiple choice. I even had one question of 4 possibilities in which two were obvious throw-aways, and yet nearly 1/3 of the class missed this 50-50 shot for material that I thought was very clear in lecture.

Either my ability to be sensitive as to what they are "getting" or not is suddenly wrecked or this class is a really bad one. Do I make the course easier and easier until they start passing? Maybe just for this year so I don't flunk half my class (and receive the kind of evaluations that go with that)? Or do hold my standards, according to my mandate and let the chips fall where they may?


  1. This is one of the more defensible reasons for tenure :). I have the same concerns: do I teach to get good ratings, or do I have an absolute threshold for what I think is a passing level of competency? Assuming I get tenure, I can imagine that I will feel freer to teach in the way I think is right, not just best-enjoyed by the students.

    Still - I end up sticking to the standards; I just try to make it clearer upfront and get folks who are going to leave, to leave fast.

    {I did consider having an all-final class, so that everyone would have to rate me before getting any grades back! But I'm not quite that evil..}

  2. That is obviously the question, right? I agree that tenure will make all the difference. Can you meet them half way instead? Give them a couple of points on the exam to make them feel better, but also stress how much they'll need to work for the next exam? I think that very poor grades make students more likely to give up. Another idea is to give them the opportunity to EARN those extra points, instead of giving it to them. Let them re-take the exam as a group to earn a few extra points. This way, you maintain your high standards of needing to learn the material.

    FWIW, I teach at a community college, and my exams average 68-73. So my averages are lower than yours to start.

  3. Ironically I have run into this same situation in one of my courses this year. Because we also have professional standardized tests in a technical field, there is an overall standard that must be uphelp.

    I team teach this particular course and we all have taught this core course before. We have taught the same material, used the same book, and wrote a very similar test, yet our first two test averages have been very low. This particular course is a freshman course.

    We spoke with our admissions folk and they tell us this is the smartest class we have ever admitted. The measures they use are high school GPA and SAT scores. I really have to wonder how high school grades are being inflated or what because there students are definitely struggling with very smiliar material to previous semesters. Admittedly this is a technical course, but it is one we have taught ever year and never had these results.