Thursday, January 17, 2008

Persistence: How much is too much?

Man, is this week kicking my butt. Hence, the silence. But I do have something that's been on my mind all week, that I've been turning over and over in my mind but haven't really come to a good resolution.

So. We all have students in our classes that are maybe not doing as well as we think they could or should. That would benefit from coming in and talking to us during office hours, for instance. Asking questions about the course material, yes, but also discussing strategies for how to study, how to read the text, how to approach the homework assignments, even how to ask for help from the TAs and/or other sources.

Some of these students, left to their own devices, may in fact find their way to office hours, will figure out how to be successful in class, and find enlightenment. Many, though, will not, and will struggle unnecessarily.

For some, laziness may be the main factor. But for others, it may be a fear---of the professor (hey, I was scared to death of my professors, and never went to any office hours until my senior year), of who knows what. And it may even be one of those tricky "cultural capital" things---not coming from an environment where you know how to utilize the available resources, including professors. It's hard to tell, sometimes, what forces are at work.

How, and when, and how much, do you reach out to these students?

I probably do more than most. I keep a careful eye out early on to catch those who are struggling right off the bat. I reach out to them as soon as I sense there's an issue---usually by email, because I figure that's less awkward than confronting them face-to-face. ("Hey, you're failing! Why don't you stop by and see me?" Yeah, awkward.) I do this throughout the course, too, especially after exams and other milestones. And I try to check in periodically with those who have taken the time to come and see me.

Many students, though, never take me up on my request, and continue struggling.

Now, I'm not talking about excessive hand-holding here or dealing with lazy students. But sometimes I wonder if I should be doing more for some of these students who maybe fall into one of those latter camps: the fearful ones, or the ones lacking cultural capital. Should I be more persistent? Where is the line between persistent and annoying? In short, how do I help the ones who want my help (but may be too intimidated to take advantage of it, even if I'm the one who reached out) without annoying those who don't?

Maybe this is one of those questions that doesn't have a nice, pat answer.


PA said...

I used to be terrified of my professors, and even more terrified if I was not doing well in the class. My hope was that they wouldn't notice me until I could start doing better. It might have made a big difference if a professor offered more help. Still, once you have offered, it is up to the student, technically an adult, to take you up on it I think.

Anonymous said...

If this works for your class size, another option is to require that all students who receive below a certain grade on an exam or assignment come to see you.

Been there said...

I like anon's suggestion. I'd also suggest it for students who had been regularly attending the class but then stop, or only come erratically.

During my second-to-last undergrad semester I was seriously depressed and had two profs ask/ demand that I come see them. One did it by email, and the other in person because I was too distraught to be able to take the day's exam. (In retrospect, some or all of my classes that semester should have been dropped).

Anyway, I really appreciated being told to come. That said, I'd also recommend researching the other services the school provides (counseling, tutoring, etc) and referring them to those, if it appears they need it, since you never know what else may be going on in that student's life. You could also suggest weekly appointments as an option for those you manage to convince to come. Asking for help is hard; some people won't even take it, but some will and will be secretly grateful you "forced" it on them.

EcoGeoFemme said...

Maybe announce during your class that you really are available during office hours. When I was an undergrad, I thought that profs didn't really want to be bothered and that office hours were sort of a formality, i.e they were required to list them but didn't really want to be interrupted. Since I was at a mostly undergrad school, I doubt that was really the case.

Kathi Fisler said...

Coincidentally, I read this post right after mentally rehearsing my "get into office hours" spiel for class yesterday. I try to do two things: to emphasize that I want students to come in for help, and to remind everyone that several students are struggling so nobody should feel badly about needing help. I also point out how the assignments or material may differ from what they've seen before, so they are really coming to work on skills in approaching this material. I sometimes follow up privately to email or discussion board posts suggesting that the student come in for help.

And for all of that, it doesn't seem to make much difference to whether students actually come in.

I don't push hard in upper-level classes. I feel one part of my job is encouraging the traits students need to succeed outside the protection of college: knowing when you need help and getting the courage to ask for it is such a skill. I try to make it very clear that I'm available. I describe metrics for knowing whether they are in trouble (such as grades below a certain point, or what they should be able to do easily when starting the homework). Beyond that, I want them to take the leap.

The other side of this is how hard we encourage the really talented students to come engage with us on material. I dislike the connotation of "office hours" as "having difficulty". I'd much rather office hours be about interaction, rather than be a stigma. I worry that I discourage the strong students from stopping by if I paint this picture of people needing all my (usually empty) office hours for help.

Andrea said...

This won't work if you have large classes but I teach at a small liberal arts school and I require every student to make an appiontment to come and see me twice during the semester, once around midterm and once before the drop/add period. I really hate that this works because it takes up two solid weeks of my time, but it is tremendously usful. I get to have some one on one time with each student, I catch problems before they develop and early enough to fix and they learn not to be afraid of me or my office. I highly reccomend it if you have small enough classes.

EarlyToBed said...

I am indebted to one of my profs who warned me that I was on the border of failing his class. He was clearly not comfortable talking with me about it, but I'm glad he did. I give my students mindterm feedback on their performance, but only if they show up to class.

Anonymous said...

Good question. I worry about this too. One thing I've found successful in the past is holding my office hours outside my the library, or the bookstore cafe. I think it's less intimidating to students when they see me munching on a donut, and it's also nice to get out in the fresh air. Depends on weather and your school's facilities, of course.

Anonymous said...

I'm a 12 year veteran computer science professor. What I do is make EVERY student turn in their programs in person. I will not take them via email. I will only grade the program if the person is there in person to talk about it.

I have about 70 students this semester. There will probably be 5 programs per student, and about 10 minutes per grading event. Therefore I will consume 70 * 5 * 10 / 60 = 58 hours grading in this manner per semester. It's not too bad.

There are three results.

One is that I've become totally approachable. Since every student comes to my office many times, there is no stigma.

Second, I'm giving my students a different kind of feedback than the other professors. Being able to *discuss* rather than *write* about someone's program can be very valuable to them. They can explain *why* they did something rather than simply read that the prof thought the decision wrong. This is valuable to them.

Third is that I suddenly get great class reviews from students. This is because they learn more clearly what I want from their code, and because they get to know me as a person better. I get better reviews even though most students gripe about my grading method itself.

It sounds like a lot of time, but its about 4 hours per week. How much time do you spend grading?

Jane said...

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone! I've enjoyed reading your suggestions, thoughts, and what you're currently doing in your own classes.

I should say that I'm already pretty proactive about emailing students who are doing poorly and telling them to come see me. Some of them take me up on it, some don't. The frustrating thing is that some of them who do come initially, don't keep up with it. So I feel the need to come up with better strategy to deal with those cases. Yes, I think that students need to learn to take responsibility for their own work, but I just can't shake the feeling that there's a bit more that I could be doing (while retaining my sanity, of course).

Removing the stigma from office hours *is* tough, though. I have considered having the students all come see me at some point, as some of you have suggested---maybe some day I will actually go ahead and try it.

Anyway, lots of food for thought here. Thanks again for weighing in, everyone!

Drew M. Loewe said...

My syllabus reads:

Feel free to meet with me and to ask me questions. Ask, ask, ask! There is no limit to the number of questions you can ask me. I am here to teach and I presume that you are here to learn, so do not be shy. My office hours are your time, not my time. If you cannot meet me during office hours, just arrange an appointment with me. Students find me accessible, so... access me!

I then try to reinforce this by devoting the first few minutes of every class to questions and answers (gets students to see that others are wondering about the assignments, too) and to making conferences useful.

But, at some point, students have to make the choice to take a step forward by asking for help. All I can do is provide conditions and incentives to encourage this step.

Phiwilli said...

The "office hours" business is a hangover from the halcyon days of yore when all students were full-time and very few had part-(or full)time jobs and profs had the status of revered authorities. If you are serious about teaching, students should be invited to drop by even unannounced, anytime you are in your office, not just during magical "office hours." And you should be willing to arrange, by email or in just-before-or-after-class contacts, a time for meeting congenial for the student as well as for you, even if it isn't during "office hours."