Adventures in Ethics and Science

The responses to my earlier post on an admittedly nutty idea to get students to come to class seem, so far, to hold that the choice of whether or not to attend class ought to rest solely with the college student, and that he or she ought to live with the consequences of that choice. (Also, there was a fair bit of reminiscing about pointless class meetings that had been attended and about classes aced despite chronic absenteeism.)

I don’t disagree that cultivating a sense of personal responsibility is a good thing (nor that poorly planned or poorly delivered lectures are bad). But how to cultivate that sense of responsibility is the head-scratcher, especially when one’s students seem to have a very different motivation structure than one remembers having when one was a student.

The sad fact is, the course we were talking about last night is one where attendance and learning what one needs to in order to fulfil the requirements of the assignments are strongly correlated. Moreover, it’s a class that one must pass in order to graduate. What this means is that ditching the class is an impediment to graduating. This makes it feel especially urgent to do what one can to help one’s students to see that the correlation is there and take this into consideration when making decisions.

Because trust me, there are always students who profess to be shocked when they discover that the minimal effort they have expended on the class has not been enough to pass. Then there’s the tearful “is there anything else I can do to pass?” conference. And, as big a fan of the cultivation of personal responsibility as we professorial types may be, we’re not made of stone. No, we don’t cave, but it exacts some emotional energy not to cave when a kid who has made some bad choices is crying in your office asking for a do-over.

So, at minimum, we like to make sure there’s very clear signage on the path of doom. And, we’d like to make the path that’s more likely to lead to success more attractive. We just aren’t clear on what precisely would attract our students to it.

One other point that I will toss out there without belaboring: a high absentee rate in a class can really screw up your plans for a class meeting, especially one organized around discussion. If half the students don’t show up, and maybe a third of those who do haven’t done the reading and/or won’t open their mouths, it does not make for a riveting learning experience even for those who do show up. In a situation where instructors can’t cut loose those who don’t want to be in the class in fill those slots with students who are ready to engage in the material, it’s a suboptimal experience for everyone.


  1. #1 Bardiac
    April 9, 2007

    As someone who teaches writing through process, I go nuts when people miss peer editing or other days when we’re doing specific group work. I think the work is useful or I wouldn’t spend time in class doing it, but I detest trying to deal with students who miss, even for good reasons. And students who casually miss, well, that’s just a pain in the rear.

    I also try to incorporate discussion and it’s painful if students don’t read with reasonable care.

    I don’t have good answers: I grade peer editing AND give reading quizzes, but dang, talk about infantalizing. On the other hand, I was in more than one grad seminar in my PhuD program where people hadn’t actually done the reading either, so it’s not like people who become PhuDs (and profs) were perfect as students either.

  2. #2 JM
    April 9, 2007

    I’m glad you posted a second time because I was feeling the need to clarify some things as well.

    I think I’ll post again instead of taking up your comments, mostly around how I’m trying very hard NOT to infantalize but instead use the daily things as examples on how what they learn every day all builds on each other.

    More later.

  3. #3 Tony Arkles
    April 10, 2007

    I suppose that is the other half of my story too; the classes where discussion was an integral part of the class are typically the ones I attended the most (almost never skipped). You can’t get a good handle on your peers’ perspectives if you’re not there.

    Ethics, in fact, is one of the classes I absolutely loved attending. There are so many wildly varying opinions between people at “similar” stages of their lives, it was quite fascinating to hear so many other perspectives. Philosophy of Sex, too, has been really great.

    The ones that I found I had the most trouble with were either Powerpoint or overhead based, with no student interaction. Further, the slides were typically posted online and only took about 1/4 of the time to read through, jot down some notes, and apply to some problems.

  4. #4 Zeno
    April 10, 2007

    So, at minimum, we like to make sure there’s very clear signage on the path of doom.

    That seems worth a try, but even good signage may not be enough. Of my six doomed algebra students for whom passing the class has become mathematically impossible, two are still coming to class, sitting there blankly, and earning zeros on in-class quizzes. They’re so clueless about math that they don’t even grasp the inevitability of their doom.

  5. #5 Janne
    April 10, 2007

    Well, if you have specific activities, make participation (not just attendance) compulsory.

    As for learning responsibility, having to retake a course a year later is a pretty pointed learning experience. “What can I do to pass?” “Be here next September 1st for the roll call.”

    To be sure, you want to be very clear about it. Tell people in the first handout, during roll call and in a special welcoming email that classes cover material not in the books and not in the handouts, and that it is not possible to get a passing grade without attending.

    Then let people decide for themselves.

  6. #6 Hairy Doctor Professor
    April 10, 2007

    Economies of scale often influence attendance, as well as general interest, the weather, time of year, etc. I teach a computer basics class to 400 (two lectures of 200), all non-majors, nearly all taking it as a way of checking off a university requirement, and nearly nobody is registered because they want to do the course. In a class that size it is essentially impossible to get any kind of discussion going, often due to the “personal embarrassment if I ask a dumb question in a large group” effect. It is also very difficult to take attendance without wasting a lot of the class time or burdening the TAs.

    Come warm weather about late-April, after a long cold winter, and the afternoon lecture is often around 20% attendance (do the math). The morning lecture is always much better attended, but it still takes a major hit when the jackets come off. Preannounced quizzes see a spike in attendance, but after the quiz I nearly get trampled under the exodus (at which point I sometimes give a second quiz to the remainder, or give them some bit of trivia and tell them it’ll be worth points on the final).

    I don’t particularly understand the people who then show up at the final with so few points under their belts that they would have to get 400 points on a 100-point final to scrape a “D”. They are wasting their time (at that of my TAs) in a last-ditch hail-mary to pass. That’s when I get the tearful conferences, parental yelling, pleas for extra-credit work to do after the final grades go in, etc.

    Many probably find me boring, too technical, or the material too hard. My class reviews are quite good, but it may be skewed by being given only to those who are still in the seats at the end of the semester.

    So, it is a large lecture class, technically oriented, heavy on the math, given largely to students who aren’t interested in the first place, and are there primarily to get a checkmark on their transcript. I could probably show up in a clown suit, bring chocolate to class, have Britney Spears, Hillary Clinton, and Anna Nicole’s baby give guest lectures, AND give points or other rewards for attendance, and they would still stay away in droves.

  7. #7 musecumulus
    April 10, 2007

    You might be interested in a recent Op-Ed piece in our school paper entitled “Give me one good reason to go to class,” as well as a professor’s response to the piece.

    From reading this, you might be able to guess that even enticing students to come to class with a monetary reward (as you noted earlier) wouldn’t have a noticeable effect on many of the students here…

  8. #8 Janet
    April 10, 2007

    Have you thought that maybe the issue goes back to high school–kids learn to “just do the minimum because it’s all pointless and irrelevant anyway” there. If you start off with kids with a good work ethic, the desire to learn, and a sense of purpose in getting a college eduction (for reasons other than parental pressure or lack of better idea for what to do after high school), the attendance problem will take care of itself.

    I think you need to identify traits common to the students who come to class, and recruit more like ’em at admissions time. I keep reading about how hard it is going to be for my kids to get into college (high school graduate population keeps increasing, but the number of four year colleges is essentially flat), surely you can be choosy, once you know what to look for.

    Another thought–do your students get any one-on-one advisers or help in choosing and getting through their courses? I know that in my college experience, I didn’t have a good mentor, and looking back I know I missed out on opportunities. If your students had advisers who did more than sign forms once a year, who checked on what they were taking and treated them as more than a number, you could talk to the adviser when attendence became a problem.

    I started out as a science major, and the university assigned me an academic adviser in the P.E. department, with an office which was literally a one-and-a-half mile walk from my dorm. Needless to say, I never went there for advice, or even thought there was any reason to seek out the adviser if I could find some other random faculty member to sign whatever form I needed. I wish I had learned how to form more personal connections with my professors as an undergraduate, but I didn’t have a clue.

    I did, however, go to class, and dropped a course if I wasn’t able to keep up with the reading. (Russian literature? What was I thinking??)

  9. #9 Kenny Easwaran
    April 10, 2007

    In response to the “kids these days” point in your first post, I think there’s actually something to that. I think students are much more willing to get up and leave class to go the bathroom and come back than they might have been in the past. At least, I’ve heard that there used to be places where one wasn’t allowed to do that, or that at least one had to specifically ask permission. I don’t know if both represent a sort of casualization of lecture.

    And for what it’s worth, I had very poor attendance in my first few logic classes, because they were quite easy for me given my math background. I also missed a lot of the cryptography class I took as an undergrad (I started out not being sure if I wanted to take it, but when my friends convinced me I could just watch the lectures on TV(!) then I took it, but never actually learned where the classroom was). But I can’t see how one would expect to be able to miss a lot of something that’s not a routine mathematical or factual class like that and still be ok on the material.

  10. #10 Abby
    April 10, 2007

    Similar to the attendance issue, one of my professors uses what he calls the “Monte Carlo Quiz” to encourage folks to do the reading. At the beginning of each class, dice are rolled to determine a) if there will be a quiz, b) which reading it will be on, and c) which of the questions we are to answer. I’m an admitted slacker at class reading (I’ll usually skim it, but not read carefully), and, while the quiz seems a bit silly, it does help me drag up the motivation to do the reading. And once or twice I’ve gambled on the dice roll not hitting a particular outcome. The quizzes are worth maybe 10% of our grade, not enough to kill you if you didn’t do the reading, but enough that you have to do them to get an A. Which seems fair, and it only takes about five minutes of class time.

    Perhaps one could do something similar with a quiz on the material from the last lecture?

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