24.4.06

VARIABLE DUEDATE IS NEITHER REFERENCED NOR DEFINED. Inside Higher Ed's pseudonymous Shari describes the evolution of what University Diaries calls the Syllabum Omnium.

My attendance policy seemed clear to me — as did my requirements for rewrites. I had even made up an in-depth course outline, which listed due dates for papers, late due dates for papers which included a 10 percent grade penalty, quiz dates and test dates. I reasoned that any person accepted to college would surely be able to understand my course objectives and see how they could accomplish those goals. I was wrong.

Students still flooded the podium with questions about what exactly constituted an excused absence, what the penalty was for late papers, and whether they could make-up work when they didn’t come to class. And, one student asked, her tone petulant, exactly how late was late anyway? Sigh.

Well, I suppose if her college serves moonlighting Amtrak or airline employees, nobody knows what "on-time" is.

Finally I attended a valuable workshop on high- and low-context learners. Suddenly I could understand why certain students wanted to know about the whole semester’s work at the start of the first few classes. And why other students were happy to have information parceled out at two-week intervals. Desperate to improve retention, I rewrote my class materials again. I drafted a day-by-day course outline that provided not only important due dates, but guidelines of what we’d be doing in each class. Some were general ideas; others were specific instructions, listing handouts and work to be done.

My high-context students were thrilled. They immediately skimmed the course outline and highlighted certain dates. Armed with knowledge, they started to feel more accountable. Many spent more time on assignments, saw tutors, and turned in better work. My low-context students, of course, were not affected. They simply read what was immediately due the next day and accomplished that one piece. A few read ahead — if only to avoid scheduling problems with their busy social lives. Others only consulted the syllabus minutes before class started.

In other words, a course outline has to be as explicit as a FORTRAN PROGRAM(*).

You think I'm kidding? Read on.

Each semester taught me one more trick. In one case, I made a simple change that eliminated all the questions about when a student was supposed to have done the reading listed for that day’s work. Some may find this hard to believe, but some students actually thought that a reading listed for Wednesday’s class, for example, might be done during Wednesday’s class — or even after Wednesday’s class. No matter how many times I announced in class that readings were to be done before that day, some students claimed they didn’t understand that they needed to read ahead in the textbook in order to be ready for that day’s class.

To make my expectations even more clear, I started grouping the readings required and listing them as “homework” for the previous class. On the next class day, when the students were going to be quizzed on those readings, I listed a “quiz” at the start of the hour and referred to the readings they read as “homework.” Now under each class date, I had headings that instructed duties to be carried out at “start of class,” “in-class work,” and “homework.” Curiously, my students understood this system perfectly. The questions stopped and the majority of my students started coming to class prepared.

And you wonder why the positional arms race to get into the hundred or so colleges and universities claiming to be the country's top twenty goes on, despite accumulating evidence that the motivated will do just fine no matter where they go. The evidence of spoon-feeding and hand-holding at the less well-regarded institutions proliferates, and ambitious students and their ambitious parents know it, and sigh, and flood the admissions offices at those hundred with sufficient applications that, a fortiori, will peg the meter for "selectivity."

There is a lively bull session at Inside's comments, with some people seeing things as I do, and some seeing things differently.

(*)Regular readers of this site will understand that a FORTRAN PROGRAM is sufficiently explicit that a moron, in the old clinical sense, can execute it flawlessly.

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