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Monday, March 8, 2010

Letting students fail?

I did something today that I don't normally do - I directly confronted a student (actually, two) who wasn't engaged in class. I had asked a clicker question related to elasticities and gotten a really mixed answer distribution so I asked students explicitly to draw the graphs associated with each of the four possible responses (basically, the four possible combinations of elastic/inelastic supply/demand) and then I was going to re-ask the question. While they were supposedly drawing the graphs, I walked around the room. When I do this, there's always a disturbing number of students who are not doing what I've asked them to do. Even more disturbing is that there are always some students who are do not even make a pretense of caring; they aren't taking notes, they just sit there, sometimes texting on their phones but often, I really have no idea what they are doing. I usually ignore these students - I will sometimes remind them that if they never practice doing economics, they won't actually learn economics but my generally philosophy is that they are (supposedly) adults and if they choose not to take responsibility for learning anything, it's not my job to "make" them. But for some reason, today it was really bugging me. Maybe I'm tired and it's Monday, maybe it's the cloudy weather, or maybe we've just hit that point in the semester when I really need a break, but it just suddenly was incredibly annoying that I was putting in all this effort and these students were just sitting there - and when they fail the class, they will probably blame me - and something inside me sort of snapped. So I stopped next to one of these students who was just sitting there, staring into space (nothing in front of him, no notes, no pencil, nothing), and I asked him, "I'm curious - do you find that you can remember everything without taking any notes?" He looked up at me and seemed surprised (though I'm not sure if he was surprised at my question or the fact that I was talking to him at all) and said, "No, I never take notes, in any of my classes." I just said, "Um, OK..." and kept walking. And across the aisle was another student who was not only just sitting there, staring into space, but had these big headphones on (I'm talking old-school padded stereo headphones, not even little earbuds) and didn't appear to even have a backpack with him. So I stopped in front of him and asked, "Can I ask you, why exactly are you here? You're not taking notes, you're not even listening. Why bother coming to class at all?" He protested that he was listening, his headphones weren't even plugged in, showing me the unplugged cord. I made a somewhat sarcastic remark about keeping his ears warm and suggested he at least bring something to write with next time. At that point, I went back to the podium and engaged the clicker question.

Interestingly, headphone-guy came up to me after class and said that he has to miss class on Friday and just wanted to check what we would be covering so he could keep up. I got the feeling that he was feeling guilty and I felt a little bad. But I also am wondering if I should do that sort of thing more often. On the one hand, I really don't think that I should have to tell college students that they should take notes, and I shouldn't have to badger them into attempting the graphing questions I give them. On the other hand, if they don't do these basic things, their chances of failing my class are even higher. At what point does their failure become more their responsibility than mine?


  1. Here's a thought that occurred to me as I was reading your anecdote about headphone guy. This guy had large, very noticeable headphones on during class. Sure, they might have been unplugged and he might have been listening. (Still weird, but whatever.)

    But what kind of signal were his headphones sending to the rest of the students in the class? Might some of them think, "Hey, that guy clearly doesn't care to listen. Why should I?" Might the presence of a few students who don't appear to be listening or taking notes provide some kind of social pressure or incentive for other students to tune out, too?

    And if so, the argument that students are adults and responsible for their own learning is a little weaker, I think. It become less OK to let students tune out, because that means you as the instructor are tacitly approving of a social environment where tuning out is OK.


  2. Derek, Thanks for pointing me to this very good blog. What do you suggest is a good way to counter the "tacit approval" of that environment in which tuning out is a possibility?

    I ask because one can not and should not call out each student each time one observes a behavior that deviates from the ideal environment of learning; because even setting minimal standards for attentive and respectful behaviors(taking into account that different students really do absorb and engage differently) feels like setting a fence in a moving river.

    Since I believe that specificity and clarity is always better than declaring "I know an 'A' paper when I read it and I know good classroom manners when I see them" I'm curious if you have boiler-plate syllabus language? Or do you have examples of what to do and say in class?

  3. Great question, Judith. What comes first to my mind is that I would likely call on a student who didn't appear to be paying attention. One of the issues here is that we have a student who appears not to be paying attention but really is (assuming we believe headphone guy's claim). Calling on headphone guy would help, I think. If he's not actually paying attention, then when he can't respond to your question, you send a message to other students that inattention isn't appropriate. If he can answer your question, then you demonstrate to the other students that he's actually paying attention. That way, they don't assume he's zoning out and assume you're okay with it.

    How's that?

  4. I agree that there can be a problem with letting students believe it's OK to tune out. I think that clickers themselves tell students that it's not really OK to tune out - they have to be ready to answer a clicker question at any time. I also find that when I walk around the room, students tend to pay more attention (or at least give the appearance of paying attention) when I am in close proximity, which tells me that they at least know that they should appear to be engaged.

    Because of the size of the class, I don't usually call on specific students except through the clicker system but on a handful of occasions, I've picked out people who were egregiously tuned out (like someone who appears to be sleeping or who is reading the paper). I think that tells students that there is a certain (though pretty extreme) level of behavior that I just won't tolerate.

    Interestingly, as I mentioned, headphone guy came up to me after class (he didn't apologize but I got the impression he wanted me to know he isn't really a slacker), and the other guy (who doesn't take any notes) sent me an email that night. So I do think it's worth calling out students at least once in a while, to let them know that you DO notice them.


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