Saturday, October 27, 2012

Must be present to win

A cry for help

One of my students—let's call him “Dick”—sent me a distressed e-mail. He was not doing well in class and was hoping for some wise words of guidance from his teacher. His semi-coherent message ran thus:
hey Dr.Z dick here,
hey i wanted to run over a little bit of questions, 1.please tell me if there is anything you can pinpoint from my work that i can work on to develope the grasp of this sections.i do not want to fail and sometimes i feel i can grasp it then sometimes i fail it.i do not want to fail this class i meet with tutors every week twice and home tutors and i can do decent but cannot prove my worth on every other using the dropin ctr efficiently...any help you can recommend i do not want to lose my financial aid as it is viable to my continued succession.i can retake the course next semester as a retry but do not want to receive a W as it may discontinue my aid as well..
I often reply immediately to such messages, both to reassure the student and to prevent them from getting lost in the in-box maelstrom. Students benefit most from timely feedback. This time, though, I sat on my hands and just stared. And stared. And walked away from the computer.

Dick was in class the next day. I asked him to see me at the end of the period. He dutifully approached me as his classmates filed out of the room.

“I got your message, Dick, but I have to say I'm puzzled. Isn't it obvious what you need to do?”

“Huh? I'm trying everything I can, Dr. Z!”

“Even attending class? You routinely miss one class session per week and you often skip two. I'm less impressed about the frequency with which you meet with tutors if you don't attend actual class sessions.”

“Well, uh, sometimes I can't make it.”

“So it seems. But if you can't attend class, you can't reasonably expect to pass it. And where is the work you're doing with your tutors? I didn't see any homework from you for the last two chapters. So far, in fact, you've missed about thirty percent of the homework and quizzes. You'd barely be passing if you got perfect scores on the remaining seventy percent, but you're nowhere close to that.”

Dick had nothing to say, but he was nice enough to look embarrassed.

“Dick, I was astonished by your message, especially since it should be perfectly obvious that you desperately need to come to class and pay attention to the lessons. You can't skip out on a third of our sessions and survive. Few students could get away with that. I need to see you in class, on time, every day for the rest of the semester. That's my advice.”

He nodded his head. He even showed up the next day. Two days in a row. That's good! I wait to see if he makes it to three, which has occurred before—but rarely.

One thing sticks in my mind, though. Dick was clearly surprised—startled, even—at my advice. The notion of actually coming to class regularly had never occurred to him.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Oops! ... I did it again

It was an accident.

I gave my students a take-home quiz, due at the beginning of our next class period. This doesn't happen too often, but it's a nice opportunity for them to score maximum points by working together and carefully comparing notes before submitting their results. With a few exceptions (the handful of students who prefer to keep their work as secret as possible), my students spring at the chance to cooperate and rack up the points.

This time was no exception. However, one student e-mailed me with a concern. “Abe” had transportation issues and was afraid he might be late to class or even miss it entirely. As a precaution, he had scanned his solution to the quiz and attached the image to his message. I wrote back to put him at ease, confirming my receipt of his work, and wishing him good luck in making it to class the next day.

As it turned out, Abe was in class that next morning and handed in the original version of his quiz. I slipped it into my binder along with all of the others. Like the absent-minded professor I am, I quite forgot that I had printed out his scan and already had that in my quiz folder. During my grading session that afternoon, I inadvertently graded Abe's quiz twice, marking up both the original and the scan.

I noticed my oversight while sorting the quizzes into alphabetical order for purposes of entering the scores in my gradebook. I placed the two versions of Abe's quiz side by side and discovered that they were still identical: My red-ink marks on the two quizzes were identically placed, the corrections were a perfect match, and both quizzes bore the exact same score.

Naturally I was pleased. Consistent grading is one of the most important factors in treating students equitably. Here I had evidence that my correction process was rigorously—even rigidly—consistent. I have achieved the gold standard in the potentially capricious and subject process of grading!

Either that, or I'm a robot.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Did not do the math

An example of undercutting

If a large fraternal organization invites you to be the speaker at its annual fundraiser, you should definitely accept. If that same organization asks you to contribute a signed copy of your novel for the silent auction, you should provide it. If they reserve a table in the lobby for a local bookseller to hawk your book, your delight should exceed all bounds!


If they put a starting bid on your book of $25 when it's being sold for $21 in the lobby, don't be surprised if your book is left behind on the auction table. Oops!