Friday, 18 February 2011

A Critical Moment

It seems to me that there are a few moments that are terribly critical in connection with how a student does in your class. Most days are like most other days. However, I think the period of time immediately after the first test is really critical and can make a big difference in how well a student eventually does. As you would imagine, my concern is always with the students who do not do terribly well on that first test. I worry that they will see that low first grade and simply assume that is proof positive that they are dumb so they might as well stop trying. Instead of working to get better, they begin to crawl into a hole and their grade spirals downwards after that.

Or, they will start trying to make random attempts at pushing their grade up without any logical plan and become frustrated by the lack of improvement.

Or, maybe worse still, they will think that I have given up on them and seek less help from me rather than more.

Consequently, I try to provide some relatively immediate help and encouragement to the students who make less than an A or B on my first test. I want them to know that only a small part of their grade has been settled and they can still do well BUT ONLY IF they start making some real improvements. Then, I provide suggestions and point up that I am happy to help.

Humans tend to underrate their abilities. Students often latch on to any bad news (“you made 66 on the first test”) as proof of what they have suspected: They are not really capable of learning this material. I want to dispel that myth as quickly as possible. I want to prod them into making changes. I want to provide some direction for those changes.

I gave my first test in each of my three classes about a week ago. I returned the tests recently and some students did well while others did not. I wasn’t worried about the ones who did well. The taste of success often spurs those students to work harder. A good grade builds confidence. But I wanted to try to get the other students turned around. For that reason, I sent the following email out yesterday to each of my students who made less than a B on my first test. In simple terms, it says “you can do it – don’t give up,” “here are some ways that you can do better,” and “don’t forget that I’m here to help.”

Here is what I actually wrote. Not surprisingly, a number of students have come by my office since that note went out. They had some of their questions answered with just a few minutes of assistance and, subsequently, did much better in our class discussions.

Email – February 17, 2011
“I am only sending this note to my students who made a C or less on our first test. As you and I both know, this grade was only a small part of your grade. There is no reason why you cannot turn your grade into an A or (at least) a B. However, my experience is that students tend to keep their same grades unless they make some changes. Without changes, the first test is a pretty decent indicator of the final grade. And, I don’t like that – I didn’t get into this business to give Cs, Ds, and Fs. I want As and Bs.

“So, what changes can you make? And, I realize that I have already talked with several of you about this. And, even better, several of you have already started to do the following.

“The very best thing you can do to improve your grade (without a doubt) is to come up with 2-4 questions as you prepare for a class: “I don’t understand this.” “I couldn’t figure out how to do that.” “I’m not sure what this question means.” Etc. Then, take 10 minutes (just 10 minutes) and come to my office prior to class and let’s go over those 2-4 questions. Yes, that takes self-discipline on your part but the more you know before class, the more you will learn in class. I have students who come by and see me every single day for about 5-10 minutes. That always helps. Those people tend to do very well.

“The second thing you can do is review the material carefully after class and write out 2-4 questions about the stuff that you still don’t quite get, stuff that doesn’t yet make sense. And, again, come by for 10 minutes and let me help you with that. Sometimes just hearing stuff one more time makes all the difference in the world.

“Students often get scared after one bad grade and come by for one day and ask good questions and then get distracted and never show back up until the next test. Then, they make another bad grade and wonder why they didn’t come by on a regular basis. You are not in a hole yet but if you make another C or less on the next test, you will be in a hole. I want to prevent that. I want you to learn; I want you to do well. I want you to be proud of your effort. I want you to be successful. Come by and see me.

“Here are my scheduled office hours. I am able to come in occasionally at other times but most students can work one of these six times into their schedule.

--8:30 (usually 8:15) until 8:50
--10:00 until 10:20
--12:30 until 1:20
--2:30 until (usually) 3:00

--1:00 until 1:45

--11:00 until 11:45

“I will not come out into the hall and drag you into my office. You are an adult; it is your grade. I expect you to take the initiative. But it is VERY helpful to walk in with your list of questions. That shows you are prepared for the conversation.“

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