The Thinker

College Pretenders

The community college system was invented to make college affordable and available locally to ordinary people. You don’t need a 3.8 average to get into most community colleges. You generally need either a high school diploma or a G.E.D. For those who come from families of modest means paying for two years of education at a community college at a rate of $72 a credit hour (where I teach) is a bargain.

Perhaps it is because the tuition is so inexpensive that it is so easy to throw in the towel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Yesterday I finished yet another semester teaching a course at Northern Virginia Community College. As usual as I recorded the final grades I felt dispirited. But I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s been the same way since I started teaching back in 2000.

I started the semester with 24 students. It had been a long time since I had a nearly full class. So I had some hopes that maybe this semester would be different. As I do at the start of every semester I went through the syllabus with the class to make sure my students knew my expectations. I told them that to succeed in the class it would take an average of four to eight hours of study per week, plus time for the projects. I emphasized how important it was not to rely on my slides alone but to read the assigned chapters in advance. I advised students to underline areas that were unclear and be prepared to participate in class. I said they needed to turn in their homework promptly so that I could give them feedback promptly. I told them I had office hours after every class. If they didn’t understand anything or had any issues they needed to see me during office hours or email me so we could work through their problems. I told them this was a medium level course. It was not English 101, but neither was it Calculus. It would move at a fairly brisk pace. Still, it was a college course. This was not high school.

Since I lecture from Powerpoint slides, I provided them with handouts of my slides. For most lectures I had several examples that I created that we could go through together as a class. Particularly in the first half of the semester we had regular labs. And if this was not enough to cement learning I started out every class with a review of the previous class. Since the class meets once a week, sometimes just reviewing the last class consumed an hour of class time.

So you would think that a student would have all the tools necessary to excel. But the most important tool is motivation. And that is the one tool I cannot supply. The sad fact of the matter is that many community college students simply lack motivation. When push comes to shove I strongly suspect that their coursework comes last. I’m not sure what they are doing with their time. Perhaps they are working three jobs in addition to going to class and are simply exhausted. Perhaps they are downloading smut or doing roll-playing games on line instead of reading and homework. Perhaps they are high on drugs or intoxicated by beer.

So what happened to my twenty-four students this semester? Here is the final tally. Five students simply withdrew from the course. Three decided to audit the class. That left 16 students who were going to try for a grade. In other words a third of the class dropped out or decided getting credit for the course was too much hassle.

Of the sixteen one guy showed up for the first class then stopped coming. He got an F, of course. But we appreciated the money he gave the college. Perhaps he can write his tuition off as a charitable donation. Of the remaining 15 three got F’s. There was 1 D, 3 C’s, 3 B’s and 4 A’s. One grade is incomplete but the woman will likely pass with a B. So out of 24 students, only 50% will have a passing grade.

Looking at the grading sheet of those who got C’s, D’s and F’s it’s pretty easy to understand what happened. For one thing, these students kept skipping class. They were there one week and the next week they couldn’t be bothered. The class starts at 9 AM on Saturday mornings. Perhaps they were out late partying Friday night. But I suspect the real reason is that they just didn’t care. They had nothing vested in the class. Perhaps their parents were prodding them to go to school but they really didn’t want to go. Perhaps lectures and labs was just not their thing. Perhaps they managed to catch colds every other week shortly before class.

But also these students were very scattershot about turning in homework. Like attendance, homework was 10% of the grade so it did count for something. In previous semesters homework was often turned in weeks late, when it was turned in at all. Some of the more brazen students had simply copy and pasted my posted solutions and turned those in. This semester I changed the policy: students had two weeks and no more to turn in homework and receive credit for it. But many students apparently didn’t care enough to do the work. And in the process they didn’t get the practice they needed so they could do well on the projects. So they set themselves up for failure.

And some couldn’t be bothered to turn in projects. I went the extra mile and sent out email notifications to those who did not turn in their projects on time. Mostly I heard nothing. One student said he was having problems. I said turn it in. Even partial credit is better than no credit when the final project is 20% of our grade! But he didn’t. I figure he never even started the project.

I’ve taught enough courses now to have a pretty good idea who is going to succeed and who isn’t. If their eyes are glazed over or closed they are not paying attention. Almost without exception students who come from India or China will do well. Two of the four students who received A’s were from India. The only other Indian in the class received a B. Usually if the students are fresh out of high school or twenty something they lack motivation. I wonder why that is. Do they suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder? Did they skate through high school pulling C’s and expect that they could skate through college with the same strategy?

Do students today even learn how to study? A lot of my students can’t be bothered to take notes. It seems they expect it all to be handed to them. It appears they think a course is something that can be worked on when it suits them. They don’t seem to understand there are consequences for falling behind.

And every semester I see some new twists from students trying to make the course easier for them. This semester I found one couple who were apparently living with each other and taking the course together. The woman tended to miss every other class but no matter. Her boyfriend was there taking the notes. Naturally they wanted to do their final project as a team, something I allowed in the past. But I strongly suspect the boyfriend did the entire project. In another case two guys were partners in a small business. In yet another case a guy who did his homework let the other guy sitting next to him copy and paste it and turn it in. Apparently some students have no ethical grounding. I guess they figure if the can download illegal music with impunity why not do the same with their homework. Why would this be a problem?

As I noted back in 2002, I am a karmic facilitator. It’s a shame though that even though I provide karmic lessons for so many of my students that the lessons seem to bounce right off them.

I am scheduled to teach another course in a couple weeks during the summer semester. I have seven enrolled students so I doubt it will go forward. It is just as well. I try not to take these failures by my students personally. My boss assures me this happens in all the classes. But after this dispiriting semester I need to recharge to go through this whole cycle again in the fall.


One Response to “College Pretenders”

  1. 5:20 pm on May 8 2005, Travis said:

    The education process is often dispiriting. I attend the University of Texas at Austin, and its sad how I see the same thing happen here. Mind you, it cost MUCH more then $72 a credit hour to attend here, yet people still have the same problems. They simply do not attend class or do not turn in the homeworks. What is worse is that people simply waste the money, and many of them justify it as “Its just daddy’s money”, said with a Texas twang. A student did not enjoy our Quantum I lectures, so he simply did not go. Unfortunately for him, attendance was a major portion of the class and he ended up with a C, kicking him off the honor roll from a Distinguished Scholar to something less. Now he complains about the teacher when it was really his action which earned him the grade. Both of my roommates are tutors, and I keep hearing stories of their students coming in at the last minute, expecting them to divine knowledge of Calculus into their brains. Usually they start by asking them what they were doing in class, only to be responded with blank stares. The worst part is that these people will more then likely graduate, with a degree from the same institute as me. Its times like these when I wish I had gone to Carnegie Mellon (well these moments and when the blackboards arnt cleaned for a month straight…hard to distinguish letters when the whole board is a pale white). Personally I think that we here should Fail people out of the school, instead of letting them degree hop as they do now.
    All I can say is that people have similar attitudes at all levels of education, so don’t let the slackers in your classes get you down. Just focus on the ones who did get As and hopefully will go out and get a better job because of it. They are the ones you’re there for.


    P.S. Its odd what google returns for Occam’s Razor sometimes. I got ESP/Psi information and a couple of blogs. Oh well, back to galactic evolution paper.

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