About three weeks ago (3/6/12), I included the following story in an entry in this blog:
“I immediately walked to my study and sent an email to one of my students. ‘You made a D on your first test in my class. Since then, I have not noticed one iota of improvement. None. You are not one bit better prepared for my class. You are not trying any harder as far as I can see. I can only surmise that your primary goal is to make a D in my class.’
“The next day in class that student was clearly better prepared. Not sure how long it will last but it was nice to see him more engaged.”
I basically confronted the student directly for not making changes in his attitude toward my class. I cared enough about him as a person to be confrontational. He may well have thought I hated him but, in truth, if I had not cared about him as a person, I would not have wasted my time. He made a D on the first test of the semester and seemed ready to make a D on the second test. Rather than fume to myself about his failure to reach his potential, I decided to be more direct and tell him of my concerns.
Waste of time? Certainly could be.
I gave my second test of the semester this past Monday. Intermediate Accounting II is an incredibly hard course with lots of complex topics. The second test covers some of the hardest stuff in all of accounting: bonds, leases, troubled debt restructuring, and deferred income taxes. If you are not an accountant, let me assure you these are difficult topics.
I gave an 80 minute test that 90 percent of the students didn’t finish. It was meant to be a challenge. The student above, the one I fussed at, made a 99 – tied for the top grade in the entire class of 51 students. Jumped from one of the lowest grades in class to the best grade.
I’m not naïve. I don’t think my one email made a great deal of difference. However, I do think it made some difference. As long as students feel anonymous, there is no push to do better. If not one person ever noticed them, if no one cares, it can be tough to really put out a strong effort.
But, when you say to a student “I’ve been watching your effort and you can do better,” (or, the reverse “I’ve been watching your effort and I am pleased”), you strip off that anonymity. There is something about being seen, being noticed, that makes a student more conscience of their own efforts. Often students fall into denial and you make them look at the reality of their situation.
My guess is that this student would have done better than a D if I had I said nothing but I don’t think the student would have made 99 had I not been willing to confront him. Not every professor can be confrontational but I do think, if done just occasionally by saying “I have looked at your work and I believe you can do better,” you can light a fire under a student.
I sometimes think that our tendency as human beings to avoid confrontation is one of the attributes of teaching that can actually hold a student back. Sometimes, they need to have that mirror held up so they can see themselves. Not because you hate them but because you care about them.