The Culture of Student Learning at My School

Maymester is almost over. The students were dynamic and engaged. Only one or two students seemed to struggle with the material.  Summer students are always stronger, perhaps because they know they have to work harder in a compressed time period, and perhaps because summer school includes university students.

Culture of Learning

Summer, though, reinforces my confidence about doing things a certain way. It’s harder during the school year to feel that confidence. The student culture can be demotivating. Students walk away from good grades simply by absenteeism and failure to do their assignments.

1. Reading: At universities, the primary struggle is getting students to read before class. The way my classes were structured with activities and heavy discussion, classes wouldn’t work if students were unprepared, and students figured that out quickly.

At my current community college, I simply expect students won’t read. Half of them don’t buy the books, even though I tell them the book is necessary to pass. Of course the readings are less theoretical, so there’s less to process, and discussions are less challenging than in upper division classes. Nonetheless, class time still could be devoted to application, personal awareness, etc. The students just won’t read. Not just a handful, but the majority.

2. Absenteeism: Alright, so it’s a challenge to adjust to the open-enrollment environment, and students’ varied reading levels. Using differentiated instruction is the obvious solution. But the challenge is magnified when students are chronically absent. I’m seeking answers…always….

To adapt to the culture of absenteeism I started making attendance mandatory, which feels coercive and punitive. The Fundamentals class has group projects, and absenteeism prevents the groups from getting work done. In public speaking, students cut class on speech days unless it’s their turn, thereby leaving no audience. Some students even skip on the day of their own speeches. Severe penalties don’t discourage absenteeism. In Interpersonal, where attendance is recommended, absenteeism is very high. Upwards of a quarter of the students miss about a third of the class meetings (based on a cursory review of roll sheets).

3. Work ethic: The most frustrating problem is students who simply walk away. Some even walk away from a passing grade. They just stop showing up one, two, seven weeks into the semester. They just stop coming, reverse zombies. They don’t drop. They just accept the F. Some students go through the first ten weeks of class, sometimes doing well, and then just disappear the last two or three weeks.

Part of this dynamic is promoted by attendance requirements for financial aid. So some students make an occasional appearance just to keep their money. They fail to see that they will have to pay that money back, and an F on a transcript isn’t going to help get a job that will enable loan repayments.

All of this utterly confounds me.

My responses to these cultural problem:

1. I call or email students with excessive absences. I invite them to contact me so we can work out their return to class if they desire.

Is this a good thing? Am I working with them and being responsive to their needs? Or am I babying them and enabling their lack of responsibility and engagement?

2. Although I still try to hold discussion and do activities, I started lecturing more heavily. I’ve gotten into the deadly and stultifying habit of “covering” the material. Conversely, not covering the material means students won’t get any of it, since they don’t read. In fact, there’s a “reverse entitlement” dynamic. At universities, students act entitled to grades just for attendance. At the community college level, students seem content and even grateful for a C (with some exceptions, of course.)

So by covering the material am I adapting or enabling?

3. I have simplified many of assignments and exams, using more multiple choice exams, tests straight from the test back. I used to be fairly disapproving of most test bank questions because they fall below the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Yet, students struggle to pass my own questions

Am I dumbing down? Or simply giving the students an opportunity to pass at the level they’re capable of?

I’m used to the students rising to the challenge, and my ability to motivate their desire to step up to the plate. I feel like I keep lowering the bar in the guise of being student centered.  This adjustment is difficult.

My teaching evaluations dropped, reflecting my transition to this new environment, so when summer class is successful, I feel rewarded and affirmed that I’m doing the right things to modify for the new environment. It takes time and learning…

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