Demorialized about teaching the the University level
February 27, 2014 12:12 PM   Subscribe

I feel like I am teaching to the lowest common denominator... What to do?

I am teaching a course to over a hundred students in a technical field at a large, public, US university. The profile of the students is mostly freshman/sophomore undergraduates, non-majors. The students are mostly "traditional" -- late teens, full time.

At this point, I am getting somewhat demoralized. The course comes with a laboratory period that gives me the opportunity to observe some of the students more closely. What usually happens is I spend the most time with students struggling with very basic things. Then I spend class periods trying to address some of the issues I've seen, but I can't help but think I am teaching to the lowest common denominator.

I am starting to become jaded, wondering whether some of the students I teach have any work/reading habits at all, and whether anything I do in the course matters. I can't help but think along the lines of "This is University... If you don't have study habits to figure some of this stuff out, I don't really care...", but then also "Am I really ineffective?" and "I don't want to turn students away who don't have background/confidence in the field, but can be still good and conscientious students". One of my brighter students recently quietly dropped out of the course.

Needless to say I don't have a lot of experience teaching, but I have taught this class before and have gotten solid, though unremarkable evaluations (along the lines of helpful and clear, but needs more enthusiasm).

A straightforward answer to the question in the title is perhaps "Don't"... What I am looking for is for people to share their experiences in similar environments, tell me whether they experienced similar feelings, and what has helped them in their teaching experience. Any thoughts?
posted by anonymous to Education (26 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Does your university have a "Center for Teaching & Learning" or "Center for Teaching Excellence" or some such place to support/advance teaching? I've found those folks helpful. No one is born knowing how to teach. You can definitely learn how to be better.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:29 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I teach at university too, in the humanities. My first-year course is often populated by non-majors required to take it by their faculty. The common response to this reality is similar to what you've described: frustration, bafflement by their lack of competency, professional uncertainty, and so on. Often this is communicated through insults from instructors with years of experienced toward teenagers fresh out of high school. "They can't even write a sentence!" etc.

I find an easy way to combat this it to start by recognizing the institutional reality of the situation you are all placed in. Don't download their difficulties with learning on to some other deficiency somewhere in the system, but recognize them as the starting point rather than whatever you presume to be the starting point based on your personal interests, competencies and experience -- which, as a post-secondary instructor, are emphatically not your students'. Why should they want to be proficient in your technical field? Or as proficient as you or a "bright" (by which I think you just mean "bright and interested in my field") student?

First-year courses offer an opportunity to introduce fresh faces to the discipline you presumably love and are inspired by. Not a gruelling task forced upon new faculty and contract staff. How you look at the situation both you and your students are forced by systemic pressures to enter will colour your teaching and your approaches.

And yes, take pedagogical classes if you haven't already.
posted by Catchfire at 12:40 PM on February 27, 2014 [14 favorites]

Don't teach down, bring your students up.

If you see that people are struggling, rather than spend your time remediating, have a 'come-to-Jesus' discussion with them about what they need to succeed AND LEAVE IT TO THEM to go to the tutoring center to get caught up.

Perhaps you can cover this in your opening lecture.

You need to be prepared. You need to know X, Y and Z. I expect all papers to be of college calliber, I expect them to be proofread and spell checked before they are submitted. If you have questions, see me in office hours or speak to your Lab Assistant.

Life is a sink or swim affair, and these kids have been coddled enough (I ought to know, I taught them English in High School.)

Some kids aren't ready for college and it's not YOUR fault. Let them know up front what your expectations are and be prepared to grade, not on a curve, but on the level.

Teach in a way that makes you passionate, share your love of your subject with your students and show them how magical it can be.

Don't spend class time teaching people who should know better, things they should have learned a long time ago.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:41 PM on February 27, 2014 [14 favorites]

Do you have other teaching staff helping you out? (e.g. TAs?)
What about access to a tutoring center?
How do you run the class periods-- are they lecture style, or flipped-classroom? Something in between?
Who has taught this class before? What do they say about the level you're targeting? (i.e. are you just expecting too much of your students?)
posted by nat at 12:43 PM on February 27, 2014

Oh, you are not alone. Speaking as a veteran teacher of lowest-level university courses, I can tell you with some certainty that everyone has felt this way at some time or another. The responses that suggest this is your fault are not wrong, but they do sort of miss the point.

Here's the deal: large state universities, large public universities, large universities in general, not-so-good mid-sized universities, etc., etc. etc. have a ratio of students that run from great to terrible in one class. It is the nature of the required course beast and it happens as often at Harvard as it does at Southwestern State U. I taught a class that had both the valedictorian of an elite private prep school and a student who literally did not know how to construct a sentence. It was a struggle to figure out where to teach.

There's no hard and fast answer to this. Some people will say to teach to the highest level and that some students simply won't keep up. Some people say to teach to the middle and challenge the better students while giving the lesser students some extra attention when possible. Some people will tell you that everything is awful and nothing can be done. Don't listen to those people.

You must set a requirement for the course (I'm assuming that may be done for you, considering it's an intro course and you are running labs, so you are likely a TA). You have a standard and the students must reach it. Otherwise they get a C or a D or they fail. This is not pandering or setting them up to fail, but it's how the course is run. The end. If they can't write a sentence, then they probably won't reach the required expectations set forth in the rubric of your essay. So be it. You have office hours and email and meeting times to help students who request it. Those who don't, don't. You can't force them to learn, you can't will them to get better, you can only offer what you can in terms of extra help when THEY request it. Otherwise, you have to teach to the place that they need to get to. And if some of them can't get there, then that's what course forgiveness is for.

This is super common. Don't get down and don't be that TA who moans about how stupid everyone is without realizing that you are in control of how the course goes and who you are teaching to.
posted by mrfuga0 at 12:45 PM on February 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

I used to teach first-year graphic design, and I completely understand your frustration. While you can't spend all your time with the students who are frustrating you, you can't abandon them, either. That said, it's not. your. job. to teach them basic studying techniques. It's your job to teach the course. If a student is truly having problems keeping up because they simply don't know how to study, you should point them to whatever the university has in place for helping floundering students.

The key to keeping my sanity was to home-in on the handful of students that did get it. The ones that were there to learn what you had to teach them. Those kids are what kept me going back day after day, and kept me excited to be in that classroom.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:47 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this will help. I taught full-time at a small college and then at a state university. These were things that I did to both teach a course that I wanted or would have wanted (up to date, applied material), yet helped the struggling students. IME non majors were sometimes a lot of fun to teach, although I think it depends on your area of expertise.

-Find a list of all the resources available (ie, writing center, free tutoring, how to study sessions, mental health resources). Put some of the resources on the syllabus at the start of the semester (the writing center was great for science students, both majors and nonmajors). Any students that you observe having challenges in a particular area, you can tell them one-on-one or in a section, whatever applies.

-Let students know that you are available during office hours and if the questions during class are basic, let them know that they should come see you during office hours, too (so that you can shift time in class away from basic material, etc).

-IF they are nonmajors, use news paper articles, fiction, or whatever it takes to catch their interest (if your area is biology, memail and I can give you some ideas if you want, OP) - but rather than throw DNA at them as a lecture, start with a genetically engineered or glow in the dark mouse picture, whatever. I would try to assign reading that wasn't just the textbook,but an accessible piece from NPR or the NY Times, or a Nature Review piece. But it helps increase their enthusiasm.

-People may disagree with this part- but you can present a bit of challenging material in all your lectures even if you know a subset will not get it. So maybe questions at the end that require them to apply the material, not just regurgitate. This helped to get students who just weren't ready or didn't want to apply themselves to drop the class. If it is only a third of the way through the semester, let them know their current grades...the students who can't keep up leave By the same token, encourage students during office hours with whatever help they need.
posted by Wolfster at 12:56 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also there's a big variety in what chunk of the class you think you should target. It is basically impossible with 100 kids to target each one; you're going to lose somebody, it's just up to you which (and hopefully to find another way to get those kids the instruction they deserve). People vary in their philosophy about whom to target, but you can't target everyone at once.

I've heard the philosophy of teaching to the middle 3/5: the top 1/5 should be in a harder course/will get there soon, the bottom 1/5 are beyond your reach.

I've heard the philosophy of teaching to the bottom 2/5; they're the ones who need the most help, and this way you'll get everyone up to a minimum level (I really really don't like this, I think it's going to waste a lot of time on people who don't care/ aren't prepared).

I've definitely been subject to the teachers who target the top 1/5; this loses everyone else quickly and is likely not appropriate for a non-major course.

Personally, as a TA I tried to target both the top 1/5 and the bottom 1/5, figuring the middle chunk was targeted already by the lecturer+textbook+homework problems. This meant I tried to give challenge problems which the top students could chew on (while hopefully still having pieces that everyone could do), while spending time working with the kids who were really struggling, particularly in office hours and during lab/section walkarounds. I had to give up on a good chunk of the bottom 1/5 or so because some of them *just didn't care*. I also had to give up on teaching anything to the top few kids because really they were just beyond the class level. So I think in the end I ended up teaching to just above and below the mean.

It might do you some good to figure out what range you'd like to teach to, and what's appropriate given what other instruction is available in the course. It's probably not good to ignore everyone who isn't the top student, and probably also isn't good (for your sanity, or for the course goals) to teach to the lowest common denominator, either. And accept that you can't possible personally reach each of 100 students.
posted by nat at 12:57 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Community college Spanish instructor here. I would say I teach to the highest level, but I bend over backwards to help the students. I will go over concepts with students as many times as necessary, either in lab or during office hours. I badger the Tutoring Center to hire a Spanish tutor. I have a Supplemental Instructor (our version of a TA) who holds study sessions twice a week. I explain as many times as necessary where to find the extra practice activities on our textbook website. Sometimes I feel like I do a lot of hand holding, to be honest. But many students are just not prepared for a college course, and since I teach beginning language, I get a LOT of them first. I like to think of it that I am helping them learn A language, not Spanish.
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:04 PM on February 27, 2014

You are articulating the reason I only agree to teach graduate and/or non-traditional students. When I teach undergrad courses, I teach in the evening which shifts the demographic to adults students who are completing their degree. (These students aren't perfect, but they are motivated.)

One thing is to get really familiar with the student services available. After the first written assignment, you should refer poor writers to the writing center. People who obviously missed the point of the readings should get a note that says, "Please take another look at the assigned reading. If you're having comprehension issues, then ask the Learning Support center for help." If someone hands you a paper not in the correct format (APA, MLA), then the note is "The library has course in APA. Your grade was reduced for missing the APA standards."

In fairness to the people who want to learn the course material, you can't spend your time teaching the basics of reading and writing. At a big school there's plenty of student support, but students don't alway find it or even know it's there. The trick is to tell people what needs fixing and point them to a resource.
posted by 26.2 at 1:24 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I can give you a comparison that might help you, from playing concerts:
I am sitting on stage, together with my group, playing a solo that I really (I mean really) like, and during the softest and most intense part of that solo, someone back in the audience chooses to unfold his lungs in such an undisciplined chain of bellows and gurgles that it makes me wonder whether I have to get up and slap him, or call an ambulance.
Of course we're professionals, and so I play on like nothing has happened, but the magic, the awareness of the reason why I'm doing this (and suffering through my pre-concert nerves, and through the muscle pain caused by too much adrenaline and all that crap), is solidly lost for the rest of the concert.

Concerts are notorious that way. During the concert itself, we (the artists) only hear what goes wrong with, and within the audience. And afterwards (at least in classical concerts, using funny instruments - like in my case the harpsichord), we are most likely confronted with the wise-guy section of the audience who come forward to make acknowledging noises and show their aunt that they know how to point at musical instruments on stage. We never (or rarely) get to know the other ones, those whom we made happy, and who will remember the concert for a longer period of time. But they do exist, and they are whom we play for.

To teach a freshman tech course well can make such a difference to students--students, mind, who perhaps don't even appear on your radar. The least you can teach them is how to teach, so the next generation has a good example to remember when they themselves end up in your situation.
Explaining stuff you already know can be fun but not if you make yourself feel like you oughtn't be explaining it in the first place. Give them the lowest common denominator Plus a Bit (that's how that works) and do it with a smile. Drink a beer afterwards on their health. It'll be fine.
posted by Namlit at 1:26 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Your experience is just about universal.

For me, one of the most important things was to recognize that the kids our classes are, overwhelmingly, not 18-22 year old versions of us. We wanted to get a PhD and make our living studying Subject full time -- very few of them want to. We're intrinsically interested in our subjects; they mostly aren't, instead viewing it as a means to some end. Most of us academics are people who found school relatively easy and straightforward or often even pleasant; that's not true for most people. I don't mean to say that we're smarter, but the people who go on to become academics are in the "top" few percent of, for lack of a better term, schoolishness.

Anyways, if you expect a big intro class to be filled by people randomly selected from your high school graduating class instead of by 100 budding Subject-ologists, life gets simpler.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:29 PM on February 27, 2014 [9 favorites]

Make your expectations quite clear from the beginning. In the syllabus - You should have these skills: X, Y, Z. If you do not have these skills, you can get tutoring here: Blah, or you can use these websites:,, The amount of reading each week is expected to be: Q pages, which typically requires N hours. I liked it when faculty were very clear, and when they scared off the people who were kind of lazy, because it made the course better. Tutoring individual students who do not have the basic skills is not a wise use of your time. Find a TA or work-study tutor. I spend class periods trying to address some of the issues I've seen Spend that time noting the resources available to students who are having trouble with some of the issues. Spend some lab time checking in with students at all levels.
posted by theora55 at 3:34 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

The bottom 10% of your class will be students who spend class time on their laptop looking at facebook and playing games - if they even show up - plus some who really shouldn't have passed the language requirements to be a student. They won't do the reading, and they probably won't put any effort in either. Teaching to these people is a waste of time - and it'll bore your brighter students who might opt to drop the class for more interesting things.

Teach to the students who are actually interested. Yes, that means ignoring the bottom of the class. For struggling students who are interested, office hours are great, and the ones who are trying will turn up well before the last consultation before an exam/assignment.

Alternatively, an optional 'extra' lecture where you go over remedial-type problems and students can ask questions can work. The bright, non-struggling students won't show up, and won't be bored.
posted by Ashlyth at 4:11 PM on February 27, 2014

I do teach to the lowest common denominator (well, not quite the LOWEST, because those are the students who can't figure out how to read the timetable and so don't actually manage to find the classroom. Yes, I do have some of those!)

But I make sure there are rewards for the smarter students frequently enough that they stay engaged too. If they can sit through a five minute excruciatingly slow explanation of e.g. where your brain is located*, then I finish that by showing a 3D animated model of the brain with highlighted parts that are relevant to what I am teaching.

Or I might be belabouring the definition of some technical term the students need to know, but simultaneously I'm displaying a powerpoint with a hilarious pun on that term in cartoon form, that you will only get if you already learned the definition. (I actually had a smart student spontaneously email me yesterday to thank me for doing that.)

I find I have a much higher lecture attendance rate than most other lecturers in my department.

Secondly I use the class website as the portal for the Smartypantses. There are always extra readings, links to relevant cool website stuff, optional extra problem sets (auto-graded), forums for students to discuss things, etc.

The key is to make sure your website is super-clear about what is optional and what is core. Colour coding or separation of the links into two different areas helps. Otherwise the lowest common denominator students freak out at the thought that they might need to master all of the extra stuff.

And finally, you can always add a couple of "extra credit" questions into assignments or labs, so that the smart students feel challenged. As long as they aren't too great a proportion of the overall assignment, the other students won't panic too much.

*(not actual example)
posted by lollusc at 5:02 PM on February 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

Oh, and to clarify, I don't teach to the LAZY students. I teach to the slower ones. The ones who struggle with English, or who have learning disabilities, or who just need to hear concepts explained in eight different ways before they finally get it. The ones who work hard and read the textbook and spend hours on the homework, but still only just manage to get a passing grade. They are the ones where your teaching can actually make a big difference, and it's actually pretty rewarding when you see someone finally get a concept, or pull their grades up from a fail to a pass.

If you assume that the reason the student doesn't know the term that was introduced in their assigned reading for the week is because they are struggling, not because they didn't bother to do the reading, you'll feel much happier about re-explaining it.

And I don't take it personally if some of my smarter students decide to skip class now and then, or clearly haven't done the reading because they can pick up enough information from the lecture to still get an A. They are just maximising the efficient use of their time, and good on them for that.
posted by lollusc at 5:08 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nontrad student here, who took a stats class with a prof uniformly highly rated by students of all skill/ability levels. This guy:

- had crystal clear slides and handouts. Similarly for admin/course organization.

- was funny; understood entertainment as a part of his role. This kept both low- and high-level students engaged when interest might lag (at different times for different groups).

I understand that you may not want to feel like a show pony, and that that's not why you got into your gig; it was love of the subject, etc. A reality it would be helpful to accept is that students and outreach and ratings are just going to be part of your professional life from here on out. Also, 2-3-hour lectures are long for everyone; a little humour never hurt anyone. (Not at the expense of imparting information though -- lecturers who veer more towards actual stand-up, and I've seen some of those, miss the point of their job.)

- used relatable and useful metaphors and examples from life for illustration.

- emphasized regular practice to keep up. It helped that the publisher of the text offered online practice modules we could use -- these were available (and we were reminded, on an ongoing basis, to make use of them) but not graded.

- lectures tended to run on the short side, by maybe 30 minutes (usually to 2.5 hours total). This was the planned result of careful organization. He used this already-scheduled time to provide TA support for struggling students. This is important; stragglers are probably not going to turn up for extra hours. TAs were also accessible -- emails were turned around within a day, and they kept and stuck to office hours, with extra time slotted the weeks before exams.

I imagine it's hard to empathize with or understand these students. Find alternative motivational hooks to support your work with them. Think of it as a public service. Maybe spend some time with support staff to get a sense of the kind of kicks they get from teaching basic essay writing.

It's not you, by the way. These students were very likely under-served by their families and prior education; what you see is a result of cumulative experiences. (I know that when I taught ESL to adults, not all of whom were hyper-motivated, and thinking about their backgrounds helped on tougher days.) Nevertheless (I think anyway), when they're in your class, it is your job to catch them up to whatever degree it's possible, in a way that doesn't also compromise the engagement of the higher achievers. I imagine much of the advice above is good on that score.

I will say that I learned tons about study and revision skills from that stats prof, and have carried it through to my upper-level courses now. I gave him a kick-ass rating, too.
posted by cotton dress sock at 5:55 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

When I returned to school at 27 to complete a BEd, I had to do a 101-level science course that included a lab.

I did not do well in the lab, and the TA did not help me at all. I am not a particularly stupid person, I was just totally unfamiliar with how to do a lab.

I think for freshman and sophomores you really should focus on teaching the basics. It's not "the common denominator", it's the building blocks you are teaching.

So you have to start thinking like a teacher, and identify the problem areas, and create so strategies students can use to address them.

You're right - they are grownups now and have to have responsibility for their learning, but part of teaching to any level is identifying and supplying tools for success.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:46 PM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]

My eye-rolling muscles have gotten a major workout since I returned to teaching after 2 years away: I feel your pain. I just spent a class hour explaining how to do basic library research, demonstrating on the website, stopping every 3 minutes to tell them to write things down -- only to have three students come up to me at the end of the class asking if I could show them the whole thing again, in person. In practice, they didn't want to learn to do it themselves: they wanted me to do the work for them, while they watched.

It's partly learned helplessness, partly a lack of very basic note-taking/listening/reading skills, and partly a conviction that everything is out there on the web, ready to be passively absorbed. Teaching them the skills they need to practice the very very basics of your field is a good thing, not a bad.
posted by jrochest at 6:57 PM on February 27, 2014

Lots of good advice above.

One word of warning: if you live/die by your teaching evals*, you must balance tough-love with a bit of student ass-kissery.

* i.e. you're an adjunct, contract or tenure-track (but not tenured) faculty in a school that gives a damn about evals.
posted by lalochezia at 7:20 PM on February 27, 2014

I've taught large intro classes and medium-sized intro method courses. All required for majors and fillers for non-majors. This made classes difficult because I had a mix of freshman to seniors of all backgrounds. One method I found really great in leveling the field was to do pair-ups and teams. I allowed peer-review for some written assignments/drafts and teams for the occasional labs/activities. I usually had my TA, who knew the students better, to mix up the pairs/teams so that there is a diversity of strengths and weaknesses. I found that just having another student's example or another student as the first line of defense helped with the level of work I got in return. I also establish a "collaborative" environment with my students early on (icebreakers in teams, facilitating exchanging of emails, etc). I tell them that this is a time where they should practice learning from each other, and to be sure to go to their peers if they have basic questions or need clarification for notes, etc.

** A few years ago, I totally felt what you do right now. I developed a mix of more patience and more 'I don't give a fuck'. The patience was for the students who I knew came from disadvantaged backgrounds. They never had the chance to develop more critical thinking or writing skills. They are the first go to college and are still understanding this new environment where they feel they may not belong. The 'I don't give a fuck' are for the students who do the bare minimum and haggle over every point to get an A. I'm apathetic then and do what I can so they would stop emailing me.
posted by inevitability at 7:26 PM on February 27, 2014

I spend the most time with students struggling with very basic things. Then I spend class periods trying to address some of the issues I've seen, but I can't help but think I am teaching to the lowest common denominator.

On reflection I am even more convinced that giving careful thought to structuring your time in classes and labs will help -- it sounds like maybe you're more reactive than you are directive. We students like it when classes feel firmly controlled and lose interest and confidence in the lecturer when it feels like things are meandering.

Decide in advance exactly when you're going to offer additional support - the last half hour of class, as my prof did, or a bit before, or around the break. Take a few questions during class, but ask students to save up more time-consuming issues for those specified times.

Since I've taken it upon myself to speak for students here, for the love of all things, please please please no (graded) group work. There has to be another way.
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:19 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Forget the sticks. Give them carrots. The good news is you're not in middle or high school, so you are teaching adults. Treat them as such. If a student is deficient in a skill, devise a way to have that student develop that skill. You didn't specify what the students are struggling with--is it the material you are teaching or is it outside your oeuvre? That is, you say it's technical, so I'm imagining a science, but if their issue is with reading and writing, then suggest where they can get help with that. Your university should have resources in those areas (it's hard to give advice when you leave it vague like that).

I'm in teacher training classes now, and the common thread that makes for good teaching, a good class, and students that learn? The magic formula?

Assessment and feedback. Assessment and feedback. Assessment and feedback. That's what good teaching is.

Assess their current state of knowledge. If it's low, then that's the hand you've been dealt. Those are the students you've been given. They are paying you the big bucks to teach students, however low level they are. So establish a starting point, and with your initial assessment, tell them what to do to improve. Tell them what they need to know. Be a cheerleader. Then assess again, and give feedback again.

Use the lab time to do this one-on-one as much as possible. Require students to check in with you in your office so you can talk one-on-one there.
posted by zardoz at 11:46 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with ROU_Xenophobe. The mental shift that made teaching go from being really stressful and exhausting to being okay-and-sometimes-even-rewarding was emotionally detaching myself from my subject. This is not a small thing--if you're teaching at the university level, you've more than likely made some pretty significant sacrifices in order to spend more time studying your field, and it's likely kind of become part of who you are. Once I set aside the idea that I was some kind of paladin bringing the good word of chemistry to ignite the flame of intellectual curiosity in undergraduate hearts, life got easier. (Also: realizing that I really needed to get over--or at least not project--any lingering resentment I had left over from being a student re: kids who were only interested in a grade, because I was in a position of responsibility now and that means compartmentalizing your shit.) It's okay if they never like it, it's okay if most of them only wind up being competent rather than great. It's not a reflection of failing on your part or theirs.

Kind of going hand-in-hand with that--there's kind of a tendency to feel like "these fucking kids", but I found it a lot easier to relate to students after I started treating them more like adults,, or at least like people who were becoming adults (n.b. As an undergrad, I attended a commuter school with a mainly older/working/under-served student population--and was a somewhat non-traditional student myself, though not in the sense the term is usually applied--but I now teach at a residential school with mainly young, often relatively privileged trad students. There was some culture shock.) For the most part, that meant being more willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, while simultaneously being less invested in shielding them from consequences. It's kind of lollusc says: if they skip a class or haven't read the chapter or something like that, it's not because they're stupid or lazy or don't like you. It's a choice that they've made in response to whatever pressures they have on their time and energy. (And, yes, some of those choices might not be very wise choices, but no one is ever totally exempt from the occasional stupid decision.) Intro science classes, especially, are kind of tasked with being all things to all people, and in the end, you don't have the bandwidth to try to deduce that Student A didn't do the reading because they were studying for a big test in another class that they were worried about, and Student B didn't because they're a non-major taking the class to fill a general requirement and they've already decided that they'd rather coast along to a C than give up another hour of their week, and that Student C didn't because it's their first semester and they still haven't quite grokked the amount of out-of-class reading and preparation they need to put in--in the end, the thing that you have to deal with is that they all didn't do the reading. It's not your job to sort the deserving from the undeserving or judge what the "lowest common denominator" is. What you're there to do is (1) give them every opportunity to learn the material, and (2) evaluate how completely they learn the material.
posted by kagredon at 12:09 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

(And, actually, though, I would see the kids who are asking for help with the very basic things as something of a blessing--at least they ask. For intro science courses, you're basically teaching about 5 things, only one of which is actually the core course material--you're also, at least tacitly, trying to teach them how to learn in a college class, how to learn and think about very unfamiliar/technical concepts in general, how to learn and think about science in particular, how to evaluate their own knowledge of a subject, etc. Basically, it's good to have at least a few students who openly struggle with a concept, because a lot of the time the process of breaking it down can reveal some fairly terrifying misapprehensions or gaps among the students who apparently have "gotten" the subject matter, in the sense that they can mash the right numbers together. And, just from a practical point of view, "easy" questions make for good jumping-off points, and anything anything ANYTHING is better than saying "Who has questions?" and being greeted with a sea of blank faces.)
posted by kagredon at 12:18 AM on February 28, 2014

I am a high school English teacher, so I sympathise with you a lot. I get frustrated by the attitude many students have that it is my job to spoonfeed information to them.

However, the reality is that 80% of them have been spoonfed for years and years and so that's really the only way they know to function. That has actually been worse in the more affluent schools in which I've worked (I teach in the SF Bay Area, but live and have taught in Marin/Napa) and the only remedy I've found is to gradually scaffold up those skills. Don't know how to take notes or read a science textbook? Let me teach you and then assess your work and give you a chance to revise it. Don't know how to sit in a lecture for 30 minutes without hitting up Facebook like it's a crackpipe? Let's take really brief stretch breaks between major concepts (which is a practice supported by brain science particularly, and has made a huge difference in my classroom).

I call the first six weeks of my semester "boot camp in being a student" and though we're learning content, the academic habits and skills are the focus.

And what you also have to realise is that most students never got that. I vividly remember my first college history professor teaching our class how to read a history textbook. I had never had someone teach me how to read a textbook. It was 15 minutes out of one day of class, but it changed my academic career and created a fierce loyalty to both the professor and his discipline (Dr. Hamilton, if you're reading this, you are all kinds of amazing. Thank you.). If you're teaching kids like me, smart but never had to work too hard, and never developed the real academic skills required in college, then you get the really exciting opportunity to be a Dr. Hamilton to them. So that almost fifteen years later, your students can give advice based on your class to random strangers on the internet too.

I know the popular "kids today are too focused on technology to learn!1!" thing is a refrain all teachers bemoan in faculty lounges. But that can be a feature, not a bug. I am a flipped learning teacher (blog/etc is linked in the profile) and I've found that engaging students with technology is ridiculously successful. Even just putting my instruction on video increased engagement, note-taking quality, and my ability to differentiate for all students. It's something to think about, and in the sciences, there are TONS of models (and even videos you can use). I show a video at the start of each class period - something under four minutes that can spark a writing assignment or a discussion, or that ties into the themes of what we're reading and studying. That alone means I have higher levels of engagement than my colleagues, even with students who "aren't good at English."

The tl;dr version of all that is this: students don't always have the skills they need, and you GET to help them build those while showing them how awesome your discipline is. What makes you excited about it? Also: flip your class.
posted by guster4lovers at 5:10 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

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