On Saturday I finished grading my midterms and confirmed something I had feared: one of my classes has a large gap in understanding between the best group of students and the worst. In that particular class 8 students earned a perfect score on the midterm and 7 students earned less than 70%. I think the exam isn’t at fault, as this is the fourth time I’ve taught the class and it was of a pretty typical difficulty level. Instead, I think that I have a large group of students who either have programmed before or who have a strong natural ability at programming and a large group of students who are struggling with programming.
Classes like this are tough for everyone. If you teach to the middle, which is just about the only thing you can do, a large group is bored and a large group is lost. We didn’t used to have this issue in the Python classes, but this academic year we changed the curriculum so that any student interested in development (computer science, security, or computer game development) needs to take the classes. The classes are designed for novice programmers, since we don’t assume that students will have already programmed. But there is a population that learns programming in high school, so we also developed an accelerated version of the course that covers both classes in one quarter. Sadly, though, not everyone who should be in the accelerated classes ends up there, so the Python classes have been more bimodal this year. I don’t think there are any easy solutions for it, but when I have as large of a gap as I do in one of my sections this quarter I get a bit discouraged.
Today was the 2013 DePaul Faculty Teaching and Learning Conference. The theme this year was “Reflect, Renew, Recharge: Teaching Sustainably to Prepare Lifelong Learners,” and I enjoyed everything I attended. I was thrilled, and surprised given the great sessions scheduled opposite us, that so many people attended my co-presenter and I’s panel. But as usual it was the interactions with my fellow attendees that had the biggest impact on me.
In the morning session immediately following the keynote I attended an interactive presentation on informal learning communities facilitated by two people from the Center to Advance Education for Adults at the School for New Learning. One of their activities had us interviewing each other, and I was paired with someone who teaches in the psychology department and the Theatre School. We were investigating learning communities, and my partner indicated that her chosen learning community was her synagogue. She said that without a rabbi that they all share responsibility for readings and commentaries each week, but that it was particularly the humility displayed by the highly educated, distinguished, and elderly members of her synagogue that enabled her to learn so much.
This was an absolute revelation to me, because it crystallized something that I’ve felt for a long time but never been able to articulate. The colleagues, both at DePaul and more broadly, who impress me the most and who inspire me to be my best are those who show humility. They don’t think they know it all. They recognize and acknowledge their flaws and failings at the same time that they work to improve them. They don’t think that they are better or more talented or more distinguished than anyone else and treat everyone with equal respect. And it’s precisely the people who don’t show humility, who let their ego get the better of them, who annoy me the most. The latter are louder and more easily noticeable, almost by definition, but the former are most definitely present. And it’s made me decide that, among faculty, humility is the highest virtue of all, enabling so many other positive characteristics to shine through.
This morning I was browsing the ACM TechNews and found reference to a New York Times article entitled Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden. Having taught online courses since 2000 and having published about my efforts through the years, I was intrigued and had to read it. And as I did my blood pressure rose because the article committed my current favorite pet peeve: it equated online learning and massive open online courses (MOOCs). I found myself once again ranting about people with a complete lack of knowledge about online education writing about MOOCs. Because online education significantly predates MOOCs! Really! It was going on in institutions all over the world when MOOCs were just a gleam in their inventors’ eyes. And, yes, this is just another instance of obliviousness about previous work, which I’ve written about before. But it continues to aggravate me, so I’ll point it out one more time. It’s especially annoying when the ACM has a part in publicizing the articles since they really should know better!
Yesterday both of my classes had assignments due. Given nearly everyone’s proclivity for procrastination that usually means busy office hours and a jam-packed inbox for me. In the process of dealing with students about the assignment I had two notable encounters yesterday, both of them revealing significant negative associations having to do with questions.
The first interaction occurred about 20 minutes before the start of my first class. I’ve promised those students that I will show up early everyday to answer questions, and a few were taking advantage of that. We started a brief conversation and during it one student said that he didn’t ask more questions “because they show that you haven’t been paying attention in class.” I laughed and told him that might be the case, but that he should ask questions anyway. I encouraged him to embrace self-acceptance, which caused him to laugh.
The second encounter was electronic. A student reacted badly to a clipped e-mail message from me (did I mention that my inbox was stuffed?), and quickly said he wouldn’t bother me anymore. I told him that’s not what I had meant and that I wanted to hear his questions. He replied: “Oh, sorry. I have never been one that needed to ask questions and now I ask a lot of questions and feel bad.” I told him that I liked questions and that he should continue asking them.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard from students that they perceive asking questions to be a bad thing. It leads me to ask all kinds of questions myself. When did asking questions become stigmatized? Yes, sometimes the questions were answered in class, but everyone knows (or should know) that it’s difficult, if not nearly impossible, to pay attention to anything for 90 minutes at a time. Why is it that asking questions means you’re a bad student? I was an excellent student, and I asked a million questions. No one ever told me I shouldn’t, and if professors blew me off I always decided it was their issue and not mine.
I may have gotten part of my answer yesterday too. A former Python student of mine came to see me. He had a question about his Java assignment, which I tried my best to answer. He then unhappily told me that his current professor just doesn’t answer questions and that I should know that I’m doing things the right way. Is it that they started seeing questions as a bad thing when asking them produced bad, or no, results? Sadly, I don’t have any answers.
This past year I have informally conducted an experiment in the changes attendance taking has on my classroom. Just about a year ago I started regularly taking attendance in my classes. I don’t count the attendance for anything, since I believe that leads to grading nightmares. But I do regularly track who is coming and who isn’t and keep it in my grade spreadsheet in a separate tab. I also let students know that I’m watching, for example, by e-mailing students who miss a couple of classes in a row.
I’ve found it has several benefits:
- Students feel compelled to tell me when, and often why, they’re missing class, even though I think we’re all clear on the fact that it doesn’t count for any part of the grade.
- I learn names really fast. Really, really fast. That means I can involve more students in the class by cold calling on them, although I always give them an option to “pass” on my question.
- Attendance in my classes is excellent. Interestingly, participation also improved when I started doing this, which may be related to the point above.
The work increase in doing this for the small classes I have is minimal, especially given that I want to learn their names anyway. Although all of this sounds obvious I wouldn’t have predicted before doing the (informal) experiment. It’s been eye opening.
For her birthday my daughter received from a classmate The Encyclopedia of Immaturity. If you’re not familiar with the book, it’s an irreverent book with all sorts of slightly objectionable content. As far as I can tell, it’s main goal is to make kids laugh as they feel like they’re being vaguely naughty. It was an excellent gift for my daughter, as she worries about getting into trouble more than a kid her age should. It’s good for her to embrace a bit of naughtiness.
She has enjoyed reading the book to me, mostly because I’ve enjoyed parts of it too. Last night she was reading it before bed, when she became completely outraged. There’s a page entitled “Make a fake pocket protector! Would You Like to be a Lot Smarter?” which starts off: “Have you ever wondered how come all those computer engineers are so smart? It turns out there’s a secret! It’s those pocket protectors they all wear! Sure they look dumb, but they actually enlarge your brain!” The book seems to be written by geeks so I think it’s definitely intended in a tongue-in-cheek way, although the photo included is particularly unflattering. But my daughter didn’t catch that part and was practically yelling, saying how untrue it all was. When I asked her why she was so outraged, she said it was because her father and I are computer scientists. She was hurt on our behalf. She noted: “You don’t even wear pocket protectors!”
It’s clear that she not only has embraced her inner geek, but she’s ready to go on the war path to defend geek identity. It was a proud parenting moment for sure.
While I never lacked for imagination, the entrance of my now 9-year-old daughter into my life has brought that part of me into sharp focus. I’ve delighted in playing games with her, speculating on why or how something happens, and projecting into the future about events to come. What I didn’t expect was seeing how much our imagination dictates the direction and course of our life.
To give you a small example, my partner and I have been taking our daughter to our workplace since she was very small. Her first visit to DePaul was at the age of six weeks, when we both had to attend a meeting of the personnel committee in the spring quarter of her birth. Our generous colleagues were her first babysitters as we met with tenure-track faculty for their reviews. More recently I’ve taken to bringing to her my classes at least once a quarter. She hears about my students almost daily, and she enjoys it a lot more when she’s had a chance to meet the students directly. She bravely introduces herself to the class and then sits and watches me interact with the students. She’s been to the campus so often that people recognize her by sight. She, of course, often doesn’t remember them, which has led her to believe that she’s a sort of celebrity at DePaul. I’ve never tried to dissuade her from that idea.
Not unrelated to the campus visits, I have long encouraged her to attend college. I know that girls face pressures that boys don’t regarding family life. Those pressures can have a negative impact on their education, and I wanted to make sure that she envisioned herself attending and graduating from college, regardless of what it is that she ends up doing.
I was reasonably confident that I had instilled the idea of college in her, but I learned today just how much she’s fixed it in her imagination. She had an event hosted by her Brownie troop in the suburbs, and I ended up talking to the mother of another 3rd grader at Erin’s school. We were discussing school, when the topic of college came up. The mother informed me that my daughter tells all of her classmates that she’s going to attend DePaul. While I would certainly be happy to have her attend a university free of charge, I’ve also made it clear to her that her college choice is up to her. I shared that with the mother, who appreciated the story.
When I talked to my daughter about it later, she told me that she regularly asks her classmates where they plan to attend college. When they say they don’t know (as is expected for an 8 or 9 year old) she said she encourages them to consider DePaul. After all, as she explained to me, the teachers are quite good, there are a variety of majors, and everyone at the place takes education very seriously. It may well be that in another decade DePaul will have a spike in applications from students in the Chicago Public Schools who attended my daughter’s elementary school. That idea makes me smile. It also has me wondering how things might be different if more 3rd graders were already convinced that they were going to attend college.