Friday, November 26, 2010

Needy students

I've tended to make myself pretty available to the students in my classes for extra help outside class. I really do want the students to learn, and it is also a good way to boost teaching evaluation scores without compromising grading standards. It seems to me that 5-10% of the students take 80-90% of my out of class time. I am beginning to wonder if I am doing some of these students a disservice by not forcing them to learn how to access resources other than their professors for help.

I really think that part of what students go to University for is to learn how to learn things quickly. I've noticed that many of my timesink students do not belong to study groups and tend to study and work alone almost all the time. It is very difficult to get a BS or BSE in my field without learning how to work in groups. There is no way I would have been able to get much out of my senior level labs and problem sets without working the material through with my classmates. I imagine other STEM fields are similar. In the job world, pretty much everyone works in teams, so they may as well learn how to now. So now I am starting to wonder if I am falling into the academic equivalent of a helicopter parent for some of my students.

Maybe next time, I should make myself more of a last resort than a first place to go for questions via email.


GMP said...

The phenomenon you noticed, that 5-10% of the students take almost all of your out-of-class time, is very common. And you know what? Those kids will not necessarily do well in your class and will therefore not necessarily even give you very good evaluations (and are not necessarily appreciative of all the time you spend with them, as they often think they are entitled to it anyway). I am telling you this from experience, having had a ton of time in my first few years go down the drain due to office hours. And having realized that I received a very low evaluation from one perpetual time-drain student (he had very characteristic handwriting), which marked the end of teaching innocence for me. Nowadays, I have a 2-hour-long office-hour slot the day before HW is due; the rest is either in the 15 min after class or via email.

Female Computer Scientist said...

When I first started teaching I used to helicopter. But now I'm just too busy to bother, so I've learned two tactics that work well. 1) I tell them how to find the information they need and suggest they go look it up on their own. This usually works well, because once they know where to start looking they can usually do ok, and 2) I delegate to other students to teach their peers. (similar to what you were saying about groups).

The second one has saved my butt more times than I care to admit. :)

I read a great article that helped me on this in the chronicle, or maybe at one of these women in STEM workshops I went to. I'll see if I can dig it up...

Hope said...

Whether you are doing your “needy” students a disservice depends on exactly what your students need. Are they coming to you for answers to simple questions that they could easily find elsewhere? Or are they approaching you after having spent some time with the material and not being able to make any headway on their own? Do these students show up for class on time, do their homework – in other words, do they do everything that you ask of them but just need extra help? I would think (and hope!) that the answers to these questions would have a lot to do with how you handle the situation.

In the first case, I think it’s certainly OK to let them know that they have to try to figure things out on their own before approaching you. You should also take it upon yourself to set some reasonable limits on the amount of time that you are available outside of class. Perhaps requiring them to pay you a visit in your office vs. sending an email would discourage those who really don’t need your help?

I am not a fan of foisting one’s teaching responsibilities on other students, and I say this having been on both sides of the fence. I also find this statement a bit odd:

I really think that part of what students go to University for is to learn how to learn things quickly.

I’ve never heard this from anyone, and I disagree with you. You go to college to learn how to learn – period. Once you’ve got that down, speed follows. The best way to master this skill is to watch others who are experts at it (i.e., profs) problem-solve and then try to imitate them. One-on-one time with a prof can be invaluable here, and this is one of the reasons that those insanely high tuition rates at some schools are worth it. Getting by with a little help from your friends is no substitute for truly mastering your subject matter and will come back to bite you in the end. There are many other social situations where one can practice teamwork – that’s not the point of going to college.

I should also add that I’ve used my interaction during office hours with faculty to gauge whether I want to work with someone or not. And if I were you, I would forget about doing things to try to boost your teaching evals. You will never please everyone, so just do what you honestly feel is best for you and your students. Sounds na├»ve, I know, but I think that in the end, this is the only sane strategy.

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for all the comments.

GMP--I am trying to get over my gold star collecting habit from my school days. I find teaching evaluations so stressful, because I don't think that students necessarily know what a good professor does, especially early in their university careers. Next time through, I will definitely guard my time better.

If you find that article, FCS I would be interested in reading it!

I am certainly not interested in foisting off my teaching responsibilities on others. I am very happy to help students who have wrestled with the material at home and need a hint or clarification. These students are generally not big time sink students.

What I am finding is that students with very weak problem solving skills do not learn from watching me do problems--they keep trying to memorize algorithms rather than applying concepts to solve the problem. These are my time sink students, because many of them ARE working hard, just ineffectually. They do not listen when I tell them this. They "do" the homework, mostly by thinking for a short while, then looking at the solutions for a "hint" (and learning nothing). These are the people that should work in groups rather than trying it alone all the time, since they need a hint, but the solutions give away too much.

And I absolutely think students go to University to learn how to learn quickly. Almost anyone can learn most subjects given infinite time. Its just that no one has infinite time. If Universities were all about "learning how to learn" in isolation, there would be a lot less material per course.

And I do know that I need to get over it on worrying about my teaching evals! :-)

fyogs said...

Just discovered this blog, which is great! In case you are still reading comments on old posts, have you considered the possibility that these students who need more help might not have a social network that extends into the class? Maybe they are female, or underrepresented minority or poor students (in a class that is overwhelmingly male, majority race, or middle-to-upperclass), and the others have sorted themselves to work together along social lines?

prodigal academic said...

Thanks for the comment, fyogs. I definitely have some needy students who don't have social networks in the class for various reasons, including ones you suggest (which will likely continue to be an issue for them throughout University, unfortunately, since this class is required for specific majors). I feel for these students, and try to at least get them together with each other, if they are willing to try it. The bulk of my needy students, however, seem to have study groups already, actually. They just work ineffectively and/or don't want to work together on the material, or they want everything spoon fed the way they had it in high school, which doesn't work for University style courses.

I've stopped letting these people monopolize so much time in favor of using resources more efficiently. For one thing, I don't reply to emails on course material directly anymore. Instead, I post the question and my response to the course online discussion boards and direct the student who emailed there rather than act as a private online tutor to anyone who emails me. This saves a huge amount of time, actually. I also don't allow students who don't put any effort into the problem sets to monopolize office hours anymore. Everyone present asks questions in turn, so I turn fewer people away, rather than allowing the first people there to use up the whole time asking questions they could have answered by themselves using the textbook, online discussions, or weblinks provided to the whole class for that very purpose.