Thursday, November 12, 2009

Day 51 (Round IV) "In the trenches": U-curve edition

In the throes of annual meeting of the tribes--so can't comment at length. Herewith an alternative, bootlegged from a comment over on Dean Dad, about the impact of the economic recession on enrollment rates and classroom profiles.

He was commenting that, at his community college, they are seeing a larger admixture of non-traditional students who might otherwise be entering the workforce, but who--given that there are no jobs--are doing a year or two of college instead. And that the diversity of expectations and modes of conduct in his classrooms is increasing--yielding a "U-curve" of two divergent poles of behavior, with concomitant frustration or lack of understanding across the gulf between.

Here was my response:

To the extent that my (public, soon-to-be-R1) university has always tended toward a regional, middle-to-working-class clientele and economic profile, and given that our recruitment varies from major TX and OK cities to quite small towns, as well as within the county, we have always experienced the u-curve you describe: that in itself has not changed.

The graduate population and profile are different--many more national and international recruits there--but our undergraduate population tends to show differing levels of skills, preparedness, and (for lack of a better word) maturity according to their widely divergent secondary-school backgrounds. I'm in music, so our UG population tends to show profiles based upon three different source groups:

1) students from relatively small rural towns; typically with very narrow experience, of the world or of "difference"; excellent work ethic; often challenged by college's expectations of "critical thinking and critical writing", after NCLB-oriented secondary schools' bias toward teaching to the test (e.g., regurgitation). They are usually quick studies but need a good deal of remediation.

2) students from middle-class economic backgrounds, typically Dallas, Austin, Houston, El Paso; usually reasonably well-prepared with basic entry-level college skills (aforementioned critical reading/writing, etc), but wild divergence in their levels of independence and initiative depending on the calibre of their (typically public) high schools. In this large group we will have (a) students from good high schools, with many AP courses, lots of critical thinking skills, good work ethic, desire to do well and grow; versus (b) students from underserved or -funded schools who need massive remediation.

3) home-schooled. This third, in this part of the world, is a not-small group. Motives for home-schooling parents may differ widely--the commonest here is the "I don't want those Secular Humanists at that public high school teaching my kid about evolution!" social and intellectual conservatism; these are typically what we would think of as white working-class. But we also have a substantial portion of home-schooled kids whose parents took this own in order to compensate for inadequate public school options; typically white middle-class. These third group tends to be very well-educated, with lots of individual initiative, good work ethic--but can also be quite undisciplined if subjected to the "you're going to do the same task as your classmates, at the same *time* as your classmates" necessary in groups of up to 100.


We have found that it is a huge problem if we subject whole groups to the remediation (reading, writing, thinking drills; English composition; library skills; etc) which only a portion (say, group 2b above) most need: if we do this, group 2a and ESPECIALLY group 3 will scream bloody murder with impatience.

We've had far better luck when we identified particular skill areas in which all 3 populations agreed that they needed remediation (in music, it's "critical listening"--the ability to listen to a piece of music and have good tools for hearing and articulating what makes it sound the way it does), and emphasized those skill areas during classroom work. So we'll spend a lot of time in the classroom on those areas for shared remediation; this tends to level the playing field: all are challenged, no-one is frustrated or bored.

In contrast, we "chunk out" those areas in which prior preparation and resulting facility are most divergent (basic reading comprehension, library skills, note-taking skills, etc) into outside-of-class assignments, typically delivered via Blackboard and often only "spot-graded." By making these homework assignments, we are permitting (or requiring) students to allocate the time to them which the students individually need. In effect, we can say to the AP and home-schooled kids, "If this assignment takes you 5:00 minutes, you'll be done in 5:00 minutes and it's an easy A," while conveying to the more skills-challenged kids, "OK, this is obviously something on which you might need to spend an hour or two, in order to catch up in your skills."

Overall this has worked very well: classroom efficiency, satisfaction, and group cohesion have gone up, as has the median acquisition of skills, while frustration, boredom, objections have gone done. It took us a few iterations before we hit the right balance and we're always tweaking.

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