There’s always one. The student who can cancel out all of the good comments you get. The student who can make a semester that seemed to be going well into one that seems like a descent into madness. The student you can’t get out of your mind. It’s the trouble student. I have already had one this summer, and I hope she is the only one. She is dropping the course, so she should be out of my hair soon, but she has already had a negative effect on my attitude toward teaching.
This one popped up earlier this last week, so about 1 1/2 weeks into the summer session. The first email I get is about a legitimate problem she had with one of her assignments being recorded. I referred her to the support system for the textbook site. Along the way, I had noted that she had listed a completely ridiculous amount of time she had been working on this particular assignment. As to the assignment, for each chapter, the students have to complete a quiz. The quiz is 45 questions long, multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank. The students can redo the questions as many times as they like, open book, with the only grade being given when they get 70% of the questions right, at which point they are given a 100. It is a testing mechanism inside the textbook website, so I don’t have any control over it beyond that. So, for this assignment, essentially 32-33 questions of an open book quiz, she was claiming to take 5-6 hours for each chapter. I commented that it should not be taking her that long and asked what she was doing. At that point, I started getting the exploding walls of text from her. She started slamming the course as being incredibly difficult and unreasonable in expectations. I tried to calm her down while still insisting that something was not going right is it was taking her that long. That exchange of emails lasted from Wednesday through Friday.
On Friday, I was contacted again about something different. This weekend, the Critical Mission assignment is due. They had 2 weeks to work on this Critical Mission, although the majority will, of course, do it all at the last minute. The Critical Mission has the students put themselves in the place of an advisor to a historical figure. In this case, the students are to take the role of an advisor to a member of the Continental Congress and advise this person as to whether they should vote for or against revolution. The students are given a timeline, a map of events, and four primary source documents. They are then asked to identify some themes they would use in making this argument (ie. they are given 5 themes and have to pick the 3 that would make a strong argument for their case). For each of the themes they pick, they then are given a list of evidence (mostly quotations) that they could use to help support their theme, and they have to choose which ones would support their themes. So, by the end of the Critical Mission, which should take most students 20-30 minutes to get through, they have an argument to make, 3 themes to present (3 paragraphs), and a list of evidence to support those themes. Then, I ask the students to write it up in a paper at least 500 words long, or about 2 pages or more. Then, they have to contribute to a discussion forum over the topic.
So, on Friday, I got an email saying she had just spent hours going through the material, was completely lost, had no idea what was going on, and was throwing her hands up in the air and giving up on the class. Note, she did not ask for help, she just threw the assignment in my face. She said I was unreasonable and incredibly difficult. She said she had talked with another person she knew who had had me in the past (and dropped me, she was sure to note), who had said I was also difficult and unreasonable. She lambasted me for the structure of the course, for my unrealistic expectations, and for tricking her into giving up her time and money to take a summer course from me. I tried to give her a reasoned response, but by this point, my patience is running thin. I told her that she was apparently overthinking all parts of the course, since everything was taking her about five times longer than it should. I also noted that the layout of the course and the assignments were actually fairly straightforward, as I pride myself on explaining what needs to be done pretty well, although I do err sometimes on the exhaustively long explanation. I ran the email by my wife before sending it, as I was trying not to be offensive while also trying to defend myself (which is not an easy balance to draw).
The response I got back was basically, I’m dropping the class, good riddance, and I’m sorry I wasted my time and effort.
My main problem with all of it was that I feel like I never had a chance to actually help her. It seems like she had already given up by the time I talked to her, and I was left with the feeling that I had failed the student. The sad thing, and, of course the thing I can’t say to a student, is that I already feel like I have dumbed down the class a lot more than I would like. I already feel guilty that I am not asking enough of the students and that my class should be a lot more demanding than it is. I feel like the level of effort that the majority of students put in is very low, and I have to keep my expectations lower than I would like just to get students through my course. So, while I do hate students like this, they also make me laugh, because if they can’t do my course, then I don’t know where they will have success. The comment I get more often than not from students who successfully complete my course was that it was relatively easy, that you just had to sit down and do the work and put in effort and you will do reasonably well. That doesn’t make me proud necessarily, but it is the opposite of what this student said. And, or course, it’s this student that will stick around under my skin and grate at me over and over. I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but it does.
OK, so the first major assignment is coming in, and so I am just starting to grade them. It’s always an interesting point when you get to see the first major set of assignments from a group of students. All they’ve had to this point are some chapter quizzes to keep them moderately honest in what work they are doing for the class, but here at the third of the way through point, the real stuff is coming due. I have multiple writing assignments over the course of the semester (6 for the online class and 8 for the hybrid class), and these are the first written ones. So, not only am I seeing their work for the first time, a lot of them are doing real work for me for the first time here. For each of us, this is the point where the class really starts. This is especially true for the class that I just finished grading. I teach the two halves of the American history survey, and so in the spring, I mostly teach the second half. However, I do have one online class that is the first half. Whereas many of the students in my second half class are ones that I’ve had before, all of those in my first half are new to me. So, it really is a new experience all the way around.
What they had to do was work through a Critical Mission within the Connect History system associated with our textbook. There were two written assignments out of that. The Critical Mission had them take on the role of an advisor to Moctezuma as Cortez and his men are approaching. The students have to advise Moctezuma on whether to take a militant approach to Cortez or whether to greet him peacefully. The students are given evidence to work with for it, and they have to put together an argument using the evidence. Anyway, the details aren’t all that relevant, but it does give you the idea of what the students are doing for me. So, I graded their two submissions and discussion forum over last night and this morning, getting all of those out to them early this morning.
It is interesting to see how it goes. First of all, there were 30 people in the class when we started. We are down to 26 now with drops by this point. Of those, 4 have not logged into the classroom in over 14 days, so they are also not really counted. Including those, 11 did not turn anything in for this project, despite multiple reminders throughout the weeks leading up to the project. So, of 30 that I started with, I actually graded 15 projects. The overall results were pretty good for a first assignment. I mean only one or two really hit the mark completely with regards to my expectations, but the results were good overall. What I was actually most impressed with was the discussion participation. I give them a couple of topic options to write on, and generally they give 2-3 sentences at most on the first time out in an online discussion. Instead, here I got long thoughtful discussions with replies that showed they actually had read the other person’s writing and had thought about it. It was impressive for a class of people that have not had me or known my expectations before this point.
I guess I really don’t know what else to say about it. Nothing all that profound here at all, just wanted to share what was a pretty decent feeling for me about an assignment. Yes, so many people didn’t do much of anything on it, but those who did participate actually turned out a good product. That is always gratifying, as it makes me feel like I put together a good class with good instructions if they were able to succeed like that.
P.S. I apologize if this is a bit rambling in nature. I’ve been doing a few other things and keep coming back and adding a sentence or two at a time. So, if it’s disconnected and disjointed, that’s the reason. I’m not going to go back and read over because I’m tired and ready for bed, so everyone will have to take this one as it is. Talk to you tomorrow.
Just a quick post today, as I need to get some grading done.
I had a spectacular discussion yesterday in one of my sections. We were working through the issues of a Critical Mission from the McGraw-Hill Connect History program. I started off the discussion by asking, “What did you think?” Then, an hour and fifteen minutes later, I ended the class. In other words, they talked for 75 minutes in a productive discussion with no further prompting from me except to interject some comments and call on people to make sure people got to talk. Rare but quite satisfying.