Saturday, October 24, 2009


This is a continuation of issues raised in the last two threads.

I give three critical papers as assignments throughout a semester. They are a major component of the final grade. These papers have a 1000 word maximum limit (no minimum). For the 1st paper, the assignment is to construct an argument using only two premises defending an assigned conclusion, for example, ‘professions should hold their members accountable for their actions’ or ‘the father should not have killed his child.’ As part of the assignment, after the argument is constructed the student is to take the premise that states what we should do and defend it using either a utilitarian of Kantian perspective. They are instructed not to defend the conclusion of their original argument, but only to present a reason why the normative premise might be true. In class we go over numerous examples of how to construct arguments and how to identify the normative premise. Of course, by the time they are asked to utilize a normative perspective these perspectives have been well-covered in class and through other non-graded writing assignments that they get credit/no credit depending on whether or not they do them. I offer to review their introductions/thesis statement and argument before they turn the paper in and to offer suggestions if there are problems so they can make corrections. I even put an example of how to set up the discussion with a sample introduction/thesis and sample argument on BB for them to refer to when writing their introduction/thesis and argument.

One would think that with all the preparation and guidance that the students would do very well on these papers, but historically the 1st papers are an utter disaster. This semester, of the 106 students who received grades, 43 of them received a D or F. There were only 8 A’s. The main reason for the failure is that they did not do what the assignment asked of them. Now this will change and the 2nd and 3rd papers will be vastly improved. But how do we account for this poor performance. (By the by, I had the same results when I gave exams instead of critical papers and handed out review question from which the exam was to be taken 1-2 weeks before the exam.) It is not that they are stupid because the vast majority of them who got D or F will end up getting C or B on the next paper.

I suggest that the reason why students perform so poorly is that they do not know how to learn! They do know how to take tests (that is what they have learned in middle and high school), but that requires a vastly different set of skills. They do not understand that learning is an on-going process and that one has to practice as part of learning. I am beginning to think that we do our students a disservice by giving them a syllabus that covers every contingency and by given them review questions before exams. I have had students ask me for review questions for all the exams including the final exam at the beginning of the semester. They want to know what they will be tested on so they can focus their studying. But is that learning? I think not, but I do not have the answer. I am perplexed and a bit frustrated, but I do keep searching for the best pedagogical approach.


  1. You are right that many students don't know how to learn. What's worse is that many of them have been conditioned to behave in ways that actively impede learning - conditioned by having been rewarded for behaviors that result in good grades but don't result in learning. For my own part, it is very useful for me to remember that it is not (entirely) their fault. They are using good induction and they have been under-educated.

    Here's the example I use with them. In college I took four years of German. Though Santa Cruz didn't have grades at the time, I received the equivalent of B's and A's throughout my studies in German. I graduated knowing precious little German. They intuitively get that you could get a B or A in a language class without learning to speak the language if one is especially good at cramming. They should be encouraged to realize that the same is true of physics courses, history courses, philosophy courses, etc. If they set their sights on checking off a to do list, or fulfilling an assignment or doing the minimum work for the maximal grade, they won't learn.

    O.k., what about practical pedagogical advice? First, talk about it. Most people who have been habituated into this particular vice don't know they they are doing it. They want to learn and they assume that fulfilling assignments will deliver that outcome - if it doesn't, well, that's the prof's fault! Second, make it clear that while this is a reasonable coping behavior, like most coping behaviors, it has its limits, and it will stop working for them some day.

    A final note. For every paper and every essay exam I choose an example of a paper or exam from one of their peers that was successful (not necessarily an 'A' but successful) and I give all students an anonymous copy of that sample. This gives them a concrete example of how engaging in the assignment and not merely jumping through a hoop has a real outcome. I don't give such examples out in advance (since I collect them from the graded batch) but there is nothing precluding you from doing so using, say, a sample paper from a previous iteration of a course.

  2. What do the students say when you ask them why they did so poorly? Do these low marks typically catch them by surprise?

  3. I'm not convinced that they don't know how to learn. I think for many students the first major assignment in a course is a gamble they take, which they use to identify whether they will be required to learn in the course. Learning is work, so when one can avoid it and still get the payoff, one often will. In my experience, the courses that do require genuine learning aren't the majority.

  4. Kevin: Over the weekend I graded another set of papers. This was for an SWS (supplemental writing skills) course that I teach where they can redo a paper based on comments from me on their first draft. 50% still got a D of F even after the rewrite. Not only did these students not do the assignment as instructed the 1st time, but they didn't do so even when it was pointed out to them on their first draft (not to mention the many times we reviewed the requirements of the assignment in class). You may be correct in maintaining that some students take a wait and see attitude, but what explains them not doing it when they get a redo?

    Anonymous: Most students are surprised, some even shocked (I am an 'A' student - how did this happen), but most try to make it my problem; I was not clear enough, etc. Some have even stated that it was wrong of me to assign only defending one premise when they thought it was more appropriate to defend the entire argument or forgot what was assigned and when they did the paper took the 'natural' approach to arguing and defended the entire argument. The fact that I repeatedly warned them against doing this and indicated that this was an automatic F did not register with them.

    Becko; Thanks for the pedagogical advice. It do talk about the results of the assignment. I do reassert my offer to meet with them individually to go over their papers (I made this offer before the 1st paper was due and indicated that I would review their intro/ thesis and main argument. They could even email me their intros etc.). What I have not done recently is give an actual example of an A paper from a student. I will do this next time before the 1st papers are due when I make the assignment and see if this makes a difference.

    I should point out that I do factor in improvement so that if there is significant improvement between the 1st paper and the 2nd and 3rd papers this does get rewarded. Most students that received D's and F's will move up to the C and B range on the 2nd paper. I do make my students aware of this so that they will treat the 1st paper as a learning experience, not a final indication of what they are capable of.

  5. I think that the solution is just to focus on grading students on improvement. I think it should be only natural that students wouldn't do as well on the first paper--they are learning and practicing. They might listed to everything you say but until they've done the assignment, well, they haven't got any practice.

    As for those who didn't even do the assignment...they aren't paying attention, for sure. They are probably texting in class. If they have a laptop, then they are on Facebook.

  6. Wow, John, it really sounds as though you've tried just about everything with these people.

    There's one expedient I tried in a roughly similar situation. I only did it once, so I'm not drawing from that much in the way of results. But the students who weren't getting it before did much better after the exercise, on the whole; and a couple of them told me that the exercise helped them understand what they had to do.

    Here's the exercise: you present students with instructions for an assignment similar to the one you are asking them to perform for you. You also distribute to them a number of (possibly abridged) 'assignments' that you concoct in response to the fictional assignment. I put it in the form of a thought experiment when I did this ("Professor Smith gave the following assignment to her students...") because some students in the course seemed otherwise likely to assume that this was some new assignment.

    Anyway, what I asked the students to do was to stand in for Professor Smith and assign grades to the 'assignments' they were given. All the students were given the same four 'assignments' to grade. It was made very clear on the instructions that one of the four 'assignments' deserved an A, one deserved a C, and two deserved to fail. I also provided them with clear instructions as to how to determine which assignment got which grade (and these instructions, of course, were very similar to the instructions for the actual essay the students were soon going to have to write for me). I made clear that there is nothing subjective about the exercise: they were not being asked for their own opinions, but merely to sort out the 'assignments' according to the rules provided.

    I asked the students to work out their grades for these 'assignments' at home, and made clear that they could be called upon in class to say what the answers were. When they showed up in class the next day, I split them into groups. I informed them that they had five minutes to sort out with their group how the 'assignments' were to be graded. Then, I had them report as a group on the grades they had assigned. As you can imagine, more or less all the groups got it right after this was over. And the total amount of class time invested was only 10 minutes.

    I think the reason why this was effective is that the exercise only asked students to do something they had probably done in elementary school (or high school -- I can never tell anymore): mixing and matching. But the content of the exercise involved them thinking carefully about what counts as passing or failing an assignment.

    Also, the fact that they themselves had the experience of assigning a grade to three projects on the basis of how well those projects met a clear set of guidelines helped them see the way professional instructors think. My impression is that these students normally can write all kinds of junk for assignments they are asked to do, and they are rewarded on the basis of what the instructor takes to be enthusiasm rather than relevance or precision. So doing this exercise (as one student mentioned) can be helpful in clarifying to students what it is for a serious instructor to grade the work of what should be a competent adult.

  7. John, I think we've all experienced frustrations similar to yours. And it sounds to me like you're doing a lot of the right things. So my remarks are wholly in the spirit of 'every setback is an opportunity.'

    First, I suspect many students have not developed the habits of self-monitoring and intentionality that enable them to learn effectively, especially in unfamiliar contexts or with regard to unfamiliar material. Or, more weakly, students are "insane" by the Einstein definition: they keep trying the same learning approaches over and over again and somehow expect different results. So in a sense, I agree that students don't know how to learn -- or at least they don't know how to learn philosophical material.

    That being said, the diagnosis that they don't know how to learn is too broad to help you help them. You say that "the main reason for the failure is that they did not do what the assignment asked of them." In what sense? Is it a conceptual confusion -- they can't distinguish premises from conclusion, they don't know what you mean by a normative premise, etc.? Are they still unsure about the Kantian vs. utilitarian contrast? My guess is that while different students might have struggled in different ways, there are probably some trends in the data, as they say, that could tell you where they need specific help.

    Moreover, the students probably need help with the learning process here. The results are poor because their processes are poor. You helped them a lot already, by putting your example on Blackboard. Is there more (or better) you can do here? For instance, could you have them turn in pre-paper tasks -- require them to turn in their conclusions/theses, turn in the arguments, etc., before the final assignment is due? That might help locate where they're struggling the most.

    Finally, echoing Becko and Justin: It's almost impossible to give students too many examples of what's being sought. They need to assimilate the expectations before they can meet them, and for students coming to philosophy for the first time, the expectations are extremely foreign. We can't, in my experience, just tell them the expectations. We have to show them instances of the expectations being fulfilled (and not being fulfilled!). Furthermore, the more examples you give, the more you dispel what I call 'the magic paper fallacy': the idea that we instructors (on writing assignments, at least) are looking for the literally perfect paper, the one that defends a particular thesis a particular way, using these sentences and these sources, etc. When students see that an assignment's expectations can be fulfilled in many ways, they come to appreciate the holistic or supervenient nature of these expectations -- that there are expectations and these are discernible, but this doesn't mean the expectations amount to a cookie cutter template.

    Hang in there!

  8. I've encountered similar problems when giving assignments that depart from the standard "state and defend your thesis" kind of paper, so I'm very interested in people's responses to this problem.

    I like what people have to say. I especially love Justin's tactic. I'll definitely adopt that in the future.

    My own contribution, which would probably work best after doing some of the things others have suggested, is this: Require the students to bring four copies of a rough draft to the class before the paper is due. Put them in groups of four and give each student three "peer review sheets." The review sheet should have very specific questions. For example: "what is the normative premise in this paper's argument? What is the non-normative premise? Does the paper present an argument for the normative premise? (Yes/No) Summarize that argument. Does it present an argument for the non-normative premise? (Yes/No) What is it? Does it present further premises to support the main conclusion? (Yes/No) What are they?"
    Let the spend a class session reviewing one another's papers, using the sheet as a guide. Have each student collect the review sheets on his or her paper at the end of class. I collect one copy of each student's rough draft, since I think they're more likely to bring a rough draft if I tell them that I'm collecting them.

    The point of this exercise is (a) to give the students another way to understand the criteria for evaluating the paper, (b) to help them see how the criteria apply to "real" examples of the assignment, and (c) to enable them to get mistakes pointed out to them in a fairly low-stakes environment.

  9. This is going to sound snarky, so I apologise in advance, but does no-one else see the irony in this post?

    You have a theory about how things work in your professional field; you work based on your theory; progress is checked in a the normal fashion; you find that there isn't as much progress as you'd thought or hoped. You say you are "perplexed". And then you say that *the students* don't know how to learn!

    I do know I'm being unfair here, you do say that you go on searching. But please remember that the students are searching as well. They take what, 6 or 8 courses per semester? Each with a different instructor who wants different things. The instructors all say that they've given full information, that all you have to do in the exams is apply what we've learned in the classes, but everyone knows that's not true. There are tricks and quirks. You don't have to be completely "test focused" to know two things: 1) tests determine grades; 2) instructors are unlikely to suddenly understand their own blindspots (as unlikely as students), so if a student gets a test "wrong" (i.e. the instructor doesn't like the way she's done it, despite it seeming logical to her) then she's screwed.

    The idea that students would do the same things when taking tests (/doing papers) for credit as they do under non-test conditions is crazy. If you're basing your teaching on that, you should think again.


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