Friday, November 30, 2012

Attendance and grades, a link

I teach a stats class for our majors. I tend to have a skewed grade distribution in there - a clump of people in the B to A range, with a long tail going off to the left....there are always a few people who do spectacularly poorly in the class.

And it's really not that it's such a HARD class, I think. I try to teach it in a way to make it clear. I work lots of examples. I give weekly homework where I require the students to calculate the tests they are currently learning and I give copious feedback on the homework (and I also work through the problems on the board after I hand the homework back, so people can see where they messed up, if they did.)

I don't want to boast, but I've had people who came in at the beginning of the semester either apprehensive about math, or telling me, "My last math class was 10 years ago" (we get a lot of non-traditional students), and they wind up earning As. The advice I give to people who express concern about how they will do is simple: Attend class, pay attention to the examples I work. Do all the homework and if you have any questions or if there is anything you do not understand, come in and talk to me ASAP and I will see if I can explain it in a way that will make sense to you.

However, as I said, I have a few people who do spectacularly poorly. I have three or four this semester. Mostly they are people who miss class a lot. One of them even missed an exam with no excusable reason.

I don't always know the reasons people miss class. In some cases, it's lack-of-caring about school - I've seen that, I've seen people (especially in the intro non-majors class I teach) who don't understand the relevance of a class, who see the fact that we expect them to get something resembling a well-rounded education as an archaic rule passed down by "the man" to keep students down. (To be honest? I'd rather NOT teach non majors. There are a few in the class who really care and work hard and are interesting to teach...but then there's an equal number of real attitude-problem people that make my work more difficult. I try really hard to make the class "relevant" and all that crap - but sometimes you don't SEE the immediate relevance of something you learn, you don't realize it until later on).

Or people have more pressing matters (or so they think) in their lives at the moment. (I remember my dad, when he had a grad student who had been doing very well, more or less suddenly have his grades start to tank, speculate: "I wonder what her name is?" (meaning, he presumed the student in question had a new honey).

Or, a hurdle we deal with here because we have so many "first generation" students: we get people who don't have family support, or in some cases have outright family hostility. For example: being told to babysit nieces and nephews on a test day because the kids' mom wants to go out shopping, and it's the student's "turn" to do the babysitting. Or in some cases, I've had students who had demanding and rather - what's the word? Codependent? parents who pulled passive-aggressive crap on them that showed me (or at least I think) that the parent really doesn't want the kid to grow up and become independent. And I have sympathy for that....but there's only so far you can accommodate.

In some cases there are chronic health problems. If I know about these, I can work around them. Sometimes we get Disability Concerns letters, if the student goes through them. One semester, for example, I had a student with severe chronic asthma and was warned that he might be absent a number of days on fairly short notice if his asthma was acting up. (He actually had better attendance, and was more engaged, than most of the "non disabled" students in the class). Or I've had students who get migraines and I can sympathize with that, as I used to (rarely) get them myself, and I know how you really cannot function while suffering from one. But people don't always tell me. I get that I'm probably not really bound by any privacy laws not to disclose to other people....but I'd hope students who had had me for a few classes would realize I'm the type of person who would NEVER share details of someone's medical stuff with another person. (Single exception would be someone saying they were thinking of hurting themselves or someone else; in that case if I couldn't drag them into Counseling Services myself, I'd definitely call a bunch of people to let them know).

But in some cases, it's just poor planning, poor time management. I don't have much sympathy there. Oh, I get, that some people, like Mr. Skimpole, just have "no sense of time" and believe they should be shown incredible considerations because of that. But you know what? You can, barring certain specific cognitive disabilities, DEVELOP a sense of time. You can set alarms on your fancy shiny cell phone. You can leave the house fifteen minutes earlier. Or you accept the consequences - I'm not going to make accommodations for someone who missed class because something "really cool" was on TV, or because they wanted to have a long breakfast, or some damn thing.

The other thing - with a lot of the big problems, health issues, family problems, crises at work - well, it sounds a little heartless to say because many of those problems are beyond the student's control, but - if you're missing two or more weeks of class? It probably makes more sense to drop out of school, get your life back together, and return later. And I get that that's not always workable, and some of the stupider aspects of how some financial aid works is that it's preferable to fail and retake a class than to drop out - but it really is hard to catch up after missing that much class, especially if there is something going on (like a major audit at work, or dealing with divorcing parents) that is going to distract one's attention. (I know it was a BAD semester for me - and I was teaching, and I had all my materials pretty much lined up and ready to go - the semester my dad was going through diagnosis of what eventually turned out to be early stage prostate cancer (which, thank God, he beat) - I was sad and distracted a lot and I know it badly affected my teaching. And that wasn't even as dire as many of the things students have tried to soldier on with).

But I really hope my chronically-absent stats students don't come back to me demanding some late-semester accommodation "because." They haven't kept me in the loop, I don't know if there are extenuating circumstances or if they just are poorly organized or don't care, and that makes it hard for me to be able to turn around and show a lot of sympathy. Especially at what is generally the busiest time of the semester for me.

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