Tuesday, April 29, 2008

To whom am I teaching, and how?

Today, I was thinking about where I fall on the 'hard-ass' scale. This was because I was an examiner at the Honours thesis defense (since when are there Honours defenses set up like grad school defenses??). It was for an excellent student I had in my fourth-year class this term. She's written a thesis that is quite learned, but that I didn't find to be as spectacular as the others did - I wasn't in favour of giving it the A+ that they were, and was more hung up on a couple of issues.

I thought back to a month or so ago, when the student asked me if I'd be a reader of the thesis, and she said - very good-naturedly - that this was scary because I am "hard." I was kind of taken aback by this, but felt good about it, because sometimes I worry that my easygoing way with students means that I am not challenging them enough. And this sense that I am "hard" was borne out at the defense today, during which I was being more demanding of the student's work than the other two (both of whom I respect a great deal).

Then I thought about how I teach. I "teach to" the strongest students in a given class. I am sure that this would get me in trouble with learning specialist types - I am not trying hard enough to be inclusive - but I feel it is my "duty," for lack of a better word, to aim high, to meet the strongest students at their level. And then I am hard on them, apparently.

I don't know what to think about this question of who I am teaching to, and what I am expecting of them. Am I doing anyone any good if this is my approach - the "hard" approach? Well, sure, I can see that being "hard" for the strongest students is challenging for them - I'm not so worried about them. But what about the weaker students. Surely I must then be even "harder" for them. Is this good or bad? Am I any help at all for them?

Who do you teach to? Should we place a premium on 'hardness'? These are the questions I'm thinking about.


Brigindo said...

I think this depends, somewhat, on what you are teaching. At least it does for me. I teach in a very applied field and the majority of my students will be practitioners. I try to teach to the middle of the pack. I feel if I taught to the top of the class (which would be a lot more fun for me) I would loss the bottom and the middle would really have to struggle to keep up (we have a large range of abilities in our program). Ultimately my students need to be competent practitioners and I feel it is important to get as many of them there as possible, even if it means some of the top get a little bored now and again.

All that being said, I find I do have a reputation as a hard teacher.

Psychgrad said...

Good question...

I think I teach to the upper levels of the class but nurture to the lowest level. For example, I try to make a point of acknowledging how difficult some of the material can be and make myself overly available for students that need help. Granted, the top students may not find the material to be difficult, but I think the students having trouble will appreciate some sort of acknowledgement that they're not incompetent - that the material is difficult and that it's normal to not understand the content immediately.

Do you have much experience giving grades to honours students at this university? Perhaps compared to the other students in the program, but not in the grand scheme of things, this student deserves an A+. What grade did she end up getting?

Thoroughly Educated said...

I mused about this on my old blog a couple of years ago. I found I had fallen into the habit of teaching to the middle of the class and I was trying to rethink that practice, though I'm not sure how far I've succeeded. In part, I aimed at the middle because where I used to teach, the middle was a huge target: the students tended to be uniformly solidly prepared but unimaginitive and outliers at either end were rare. Also, since I teach intimidatingly technical material in a department where most of the courses are fuzzier, one of the ways I sold my classes (to my colleagues as well as to students) was that I could take any student from where they were and get them to a level of working competence in my subject. That in itself was a great achievement, and students seemed to feel it so. After several years of teaching that way, though, I realized that I had been selling the few really outstanding students short because I had not provided assignments that drew out the very best work they could do. (This his me when I was trying to write recommendations for a few of them for top grad programs.) In retrospect, I think a better solution for that student population might have been to do what one of my high school teachers did in a class of mixed levels on a technical subject: he set out very clear criteria for the level he expected everybody could and should achieve with solid effort, and would give a B for complete mastery to that level, but no higher. Then he indicated on every test and assignment what the next level would be. Anybody who wanted to shoot for an A could do it.

I'm not sure that approach is entirely defensible, but I think it makes sense for the kind of thing I teach, in which the class as a whole simply can't function unless everyone keeps up at the minimum level of competency.

In my current job, I teach a population of students who are conditioned to compete with each other to be the very best, so it's much easier to teach to the top - the students point me clearly to that next level. I think if I were to go back to the kind of student population I had before, I'd take those raised expectations with me and hope I could keep them up.

Dr. Crazy said...

I've been thinking a lot about this post since I first read it over coffee this morning. I think I aim for different groups in different parts of the course. What does this mean? Well, the reading and writing assignments in my courses typically aim for the low end of the high achievers (say, your typical A- student). That means that B and C students find the reading material quite challenging, an A- student would find it appropriately challenging, and an A/A+ student would find it only slightly challenging. But in terms of what I do in class, I am for the B- student. So I spend a lot of time translating challenging assignments for the middle and in engaging them in material that they at first found daunting. The A group of students is still somewhat challenged (I do a lot of group work and I stick the strongest students together) but the difficult stuff is made accessible for the middle and slightly better for the D/F students. On papers I comment to their level, and my aim is not to bring them all up to A-level but rather to bring them up one notch from where they started (so my hope is for a C student to end the semester doing B-/B work).

I'll admit, I don't direct my teaching much at the low end. I offer to meet with them outside class, direct them to campus resources for help, etc., but if they aren't willing to put that work in, or if they don't do the reading or turn in assignments on time or whatever, I feel like it makes more sense to invest the most energy in those students who are also invested.

BTW, I'm widely considered a total hard-ass by students and colleagues alike. You know what, though? I'm also considered really invested in assisting students and accessible and students always say they learn a ton in my classes. So I don't mind being a hardass, if those other things are true.

Hilaire said...

These are all incredibly helpful comments that give me new ways of thinking about this issue - thanks.

Psychgrad - We went with a low A+, where I would have put her at a high A. I'm just going to ask her to address, in revisions, the one particular issue that was sticking in my craw. I'm okay with this - it's not hugely different from what I would have proposed. I will say, though, that before we went into the defense I was thinking A-. I left convinced.

Belle said...

Funny; I just noted this over at HeuMihi's blog. My materials are always focused at the A students; I work hard to get the C types engaged. I am well known as the bitch of the department; I am a hard grader. Oddly enough, the students still come, still work hard. A grades are rare, but treasured by all.

Except those that don't. But then, they're not paying attention to their peers who are saying 'stay away from Dr Belle's classes if you're not going to participate! She demands a lot!'