Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Not improving

There are some students you're sure would have done better in your class if only they'd come to your office hours, or submitted a rough draft of an essay, or even just bothered to ask for a single point of clarification. And then there are other students you can't keep out of your office: the ones who pepper you with emails, outlines, paper drafts, and endless questions about the minutiae of format and source citation.

I've got one of those right now: a student who runs everything by me. But every suggestion I make and every correction I offer seems only to make her more anxious, and more convinced that if she just starts the next project sooner, and gets feedback from me on every detail, then she'll do better.

And the thing is? She won't.

Most high-strung students you can tell to chill the fuck out. Sometimes they're excellent students who just need more sleep. Often they're reasonably good students who can't believe they're suddenly getting Bs (rather than the straight As they got in high school or at their previous college)--but who will settle down in a month or two through a combination of working harder and adjusting their expectations. But the student I have right now isn't getting better. And it's been clear to me for a while that she's not going to get better this semester, or maybe even next semester.

It isn't that she's dumb. She's hard-working and curious and I'm perfectly willing to believe that she'll have an intellectual growth spurt over the next few years; I've seen it happen before. But in the short term, no amount of effort on my part or hers is going to push her over the hump. She's just not ready.

And that's one of the dirty secrets of teaching: it's not about what we do, or it's only very contingently about what we do. Something we say in class or explain during our office hours may plant a seed, but intellectual growth happens over time, inside a student's head, in ways that are fundamentally mysterious. It happens while our students are out babysitting or buying gas or fighting with their friends. One day, they didn't get it. The next day, they do--or at least, they're primed to get it, this time, when we give them exactly the same advice we've been giving for months.

But you know, I can't tell my student that. I can't say, "you're not going to improve much this semester--but you might next semester!--so chill out."

So I keep meeting with her and responding to her emails, and her work gets only very marginally better. I'm trying to communicate my faith in her, but I wonder whether I'm doing the opposite: she's working so hard, and I'm being so patient--and her grades stay the same. In her place (and I have, after a fashion, been in her place), I might conclude that the problem was me and I was just intractably stupid.

Read a lot, think a lot, live life, be patient. Sound enough advice, but easier said than done.


What Now? said...

Oh, exactly! I always have at least one or two of these students a year -- motivated, hard-working, clearly working at their current maximum level. I at least have the comfort of knowing that my students are still pretty young and probably have multiple intellectual growth spurts ahead of them, but that doesn't satisfy them or their parents, and I've never found a polite way to say "You're just not there now, but maybe someday you will be."

Susan said...

Your description of the learning process is so perfect. Can we send it to every politician?

And I know that student. My husband had a colleague back in the 60s whose answer to the question from a student about why he kept getting X as a grade was that "you're an X student". And while I'd never say it, right now, sometimes a student is an X student. But this semester I've had the pleasure of a student suddenly getting it, and going from maybe B/B+ to As. Early in the semester she saw something, and it all clicked. I would love to say that it was my outstanding teaching, but it wasn't.

Belle said...

I asked a cognitive psych prof about this - zie said it was about brain growth and development. Which makes total sense. Zie did say that repeated attempts sometimes seem to spur that area of the brain to develop, so maybe we can take comfort in the belief that we are, indeed, having an impact. It's just that this term, we're not likely to see it.

And how much better is it than those students who simply refuse to go beyond the first, initial problem. Those who say, 'I'm just not an X person.' I've taken to warning them about that, citing neuroscience
studies that show that the way we think might literally change the development of our brains. Small comfort now, I know.

Flavia said...

WN: I sometimes think this kind of student would be easier if I taught HS--where everyone knows there are still intellectual growth spurts yet to come--so thanks for the reality check! And from the student's perspective, of course, it's hard at any age to feel that one just isn't getting it, especially when others are.

Belle: yes, neuroscience (and specifically the studies that show that brain development continues at least until age 26, and probably beyond) is really a comfort here. Like Susan, I've seen students suddenly "get it," within a semester or two, even when they're at a fairly advanced age/stage of their academic careers--so I always hold out hope. And it's good to know, as I didn't, that trying repeatedly does make some cognitive difference.

It's funny: we all know that some students "aren't yet ready" for college, and we all know that some adult/returning students are much more successful than they were or would have been at age 18 or 22. But we tend to talk about this in terms of personal maturity, or focus, or of "knowing what they want" now. But surely in most cases there's also real intellectual growth that's happened in the intervening years: many of those students are actually smarter now, and able to do intellectual work they couldn't have done at 22. My returning students always fret about the fact that they haven't written an essay in five or ten years. But you can learn essay-writing conventions pretty quickly. What you can't learn quickly is how to make intellectual leaps and how to complicate your initial ideas--and most of my returning students are good at that.

Susan: it's what gets left out of so many discussions about graduation rates and time-to-degree and credit hours. Colleges absolutely do have a responsibility to make sure that the average, reasonably focused student can get all the courses he needs in four years, and that every student has good academic advisement to help him through his career. But some students just are going to take six or eight years, or change majors five times, or drop out, or transfer. And they aren't necessarily the weakest students, or those with the least potential.

It's a shame, though. Students have outside pressures. They have a right to think they can get through college in a reasonable period of time. And if their intellectual growth spurt comes later--say, after they've graduated with a crappy GPA and maybe felt bad about themselves and the college experience--what then? They may have missed out on the opportunity to put it to academic use, to get the most out of college, or to learn all the things they might have wanted to learn.

Bardiac said...

The problem is, you can't measure intellectual growth for assessment purposes when you think about it in complex ways. It doesn't fit on a Likert scale thing. But the bean counters want everything to fit on a Likert scale, and it all better be on the high end!

Comrade Physioprof said...

But you know, I can't tell my student that. I can't say, "you're not going to improve much this semester--but you might next semester!--so chill out."

I disagree completely. There are certain difficult scientific techniques we use in my labbe that have a learning curve that is completely flat for an unbearably long time, and then all of a sudden, you just get it, and henceforth are able to make it work routinely. When my trainees are struggling on the flat part of the curve, I explain to them very explicitly that while they feel like they just keep trying and trying and trying and they are not getting any better and keep failing, they will eventually round the curve, and they just need to keep trying.

You haven't given any reason why you can't explain this shitte to your students.

Flavia said...


Well, look. It's not that kind of predictable pattern. She's not conforming to a trajectory that I've seen before, except insofar as I've seen other students who seem "behind," intellectually--in one way or another--who've caught up later.

We're not talking about a specific skill--the ability to write a complex thesis statement, say. It's more like a habit of mind, an ability to nuance and complicate her ideas. (With any given topic, I can push her by asking targeted questions, provide advice, etc., and that helps a little--but it doesn't change, or at least hasn't yet changed, her thinking in a way that can be carried forward to the next topic or project.) And it is, actually, totally possible that she won't grow out of this, that she's just hit her limit. I don't prefer to believe that, but it could be true.

So yes: I can say some version of what I've said above, and I have. But since I haven't seen exactly this situation before, I can't say with confidence that she'll grow out of it. She's lacking something that most of her peers--even those who are struggling in other ways--are not lacking. So it's hard not to sound patronizing and/or full of shit when I say, "eh, you'll grow out of it. I mean, probably! I bet you will! Not that I have any evidence, but I have a hunch!"

Shane in Utah said...

I really like the phrase "intellectual growth spurt." I think it helps explain why many students see their sentence-level writing fall into incoherent mush when they try to engage in some new cognitive task like applying a theoretical concept to a text. Just as someone who grows 5 inches in 6 months is going to be clumsy and ungainly while they get used to the new height, someone who is going through an intellectual growth spurt will go through a similarly awkward phase while they get used to their new powers.

Historiann said...

Flavia, are you sure she's really working all that hard? Your posts calls to mind the senior seminar or grad students whose rough drafts I review. It's really apparent which students actually took my advice and worked hard to make substantive changes in their final drafts, and which ones just corrected the typos I pointed out and did a few superficial things to make it *look* like they benefited from my advice.

I'm always struck by the number of first essays I get in each undergrad class in which students have clearly applied the least possible amount of effort. And yet, 90% of them do much, much better on the second essay because they know they need to WORK to get a B (let alone an A) out of me.

If your student is seeking your advice but is unable to use or apply it, she may just not be working all that hard at anything other than looking for hand-holding and freaking out a lot. She'd be better served by doing the reading, following the instructions on your paper assignments, and really working on her writing.

Flavia said...


That's a fair question, but yes: this student (and others like her--I do have a specific student in mind, but in some ways this is a generalized figure) is genuinely working VERY hard. I've seen significantly different early drafts of various papers, she took an optional rewrite on one of her submitted papers (and changed it a great deal), and all that sort of thing.

I do have students who just want hand-holding and reassurance and who want to give the appearance of working hard (look! I've been to your office hours THREE TIMES about this paper!) without actually challenging themselves. But I'm not talking about that kind of student in this post.