Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Why Students Do Not Succeed

In light of the last few postings I thought that my experience last (Monday) evening might contribute to the underlying theme, which seems to be what constitutes, or contributes to, student success.  Last night in class a student ask me to explain my statement that many students do not do as well on the 1st exam as they thought they did.  Depending on how I have structured the course, I give 2-3 exams per semester.  I always give them the questions from which I will make up the exam @ two weeks before the exam.  Sometimes I make these take-home exams.  I explain to them what I expect on these exams and remind them to read the definitions of grades that I have provided in the syllabus.  Regardless, a large number of students (@ 30%) will do D or F work on these exams and many are surprised at, not to mention disappointed in their grade.

Here are a couple of the questions for the 1st exam:
  1. Using examples from Euthyphro and Meno explain how utilizing the Socratic method exposes two specific types of ignorance.  In your answer explain why Socrates thinks that it is important that we define our terms. 
  2. In the Allegory of the Cave, Socrates maintains that we are just like the prisoners.  Relating you answer to his concept of truth and utilizing specific examples, explain what he means by this. (They [should] realize that we are dealing with Plato’s definition of truth.)

Some of the reasons for poor performance I gave last night are:
  1. Students have not read the relevant material carefully or reread it before they answered the questions.
  2. Students waited until the last minute to do the exam
  3. Students did not outline their answers before answering them.
  4. Students did not develop the key points, but assumed that I would fill in the blanks.  They forget that a D and C are still correct answers to some extent, they simply lack detail and/or development.  (I tell students to answer the questions as if the reader is not familiar with the material and they are trying to educate that person.)
  5. Students have not been in class (or have not been paying attention) and have not been exposed to the ongoing discussion and development of the arguments being presented by Plato/Socrates.
  6. Some simply do not care.

Your thoughts?


  1. I am surprised that "Students do not read the question carefullly" on your list. Did you have examples of this? I have found that some students short cut the question to "Tell me everything you know about ..." rather than answering the specific question.

    I think that kind of result is related to a desire to show you that they have covered the material when in fact we are often more concerned with their ability to select relevant material and construct an argument in response to the question.

    Otherwise, your reasons all sound very plausible.

  2. JoVE makes a good point. I know that some students don't bother to read the instructions on my in-class exams (or apparently to listen to my verbal instructions). Two students last week wrote answers to a multiple-choice component on the exam rather than the answer booklet, though I gave written and verbal instructions not to do that.

    And I know that students don't read the whole question(s) because I often have essay questions that ask them to do 2 or 3 different things, and they only address 1 or 2 aspects. (E.g. I ask them something like: "what does philosopher X say about p? Why? What would philosopher Y say about X's arguments? What do you think?" Many will skip "Why?" or "What would philosopher Y say...?" etc. I don't know if it's inattention or not caring...)

  3. It is a combination of habitual inattention and not caring combined and reinforcing each other.

    The last year at my institution (a very low-tier state university), I have elected not to teach any "upper-level" philosophy classes (i.e. anything from Intro on up) anymore, since despite all the implementation of ideas and techniques from various pedagogical theories, 80-90% of the students will come to class without having read the selections, and will simply not write papers following the guidelines (i.e. handing in a 2 page paper, barely on topic, in place of a required 4 page -- 4 page!! -- one)

    So, for the last year, I have concentrated on our Critical Thinking course, one which is required for all students. It has a DFW rate of roughly 40% -- after we have dumbed down the class as much as humanly possible. I have restructured the class semester after semester, developed numerous resources to break matters down to much more basic levels than the textbooks do, provided the information in forms oriented to student's learning styles, videoed lectures, designed practice exercises, even added sections on how to study, how to do well in college (basically, some elementary practical reasoning) -- I could go on. The grade breakdown tends to be an inverted Bell Curve.

    Administrators, ed profs, and the older profs (I've only been teaching for 10 years) at my school have one stock response to this -- not to place any responsibility on the students -- to ask: have you tried. . . ? Usually, the answer is: Yep, been doing that for a few years now.

  4. I'm with JoVE. It seems that no matter how many times I tell students that their main task on exams, papers, etc. is "to answer the $&^# question!", some still have logorrhea. This doesn't preclude your other explanations, John, but I suspect this inabaility to focus on the question is very common, a result of a kind of panic that sets in for many students when they are asked to undertake a complex analytical task.

  5. I can imagine that in some cases it is panic. But I wonder whether the problem is habit related: many students have developed very particular dispositions with respect to how they react to data/information. Basically, they see things in terms of text streams - it should be fast, quick, short, and efficient. If your instructions on an exam (or question) is longer than what they habituated to pay attention to, they won't respond to those parts of the question. I can see this happening in a panic, but I can also see a completely calm student doing just this sort of thing, because that's how they interact with information.

  6. This is all very interesting. I also think that it is true. Now the question becomes, how did so many students get to this point with having attention spans and study habits that seem to preclude the possibility of their being successful? I seem to recall some studies regarding the teaching of philosophy in grade schools (Philosophy for Children) that indicated that students that were exposed to critical thinking in early grades did better in other areas of study then those not so exposed. This would seem to indicate that philosophy, or critical thinking skills, need to be introduced much earlier then they are not being introduced, if they are being introduced at all.


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