When Descriptive Becomes Prescriptive

When the wisdom from years of teaching interfere with your teaching.

After teaching the same course several times over the years it is natural to develop some ideas about how it typically goes for different types of students. For example, in a course that enrolls both mathematicians and engineers it is not unusual to find that there are parts of the course that one group does better with than the others. Whether or not it makes sense or is appropriate to adjust the course to account for this difference, is not the focus of this post, but I’m more interested in what becoming aware of this difference and possibly letting the class know of it does to the course. My basic conclusion is that unless you spend a lot of time and energy on resolving the issue, saying anything to the class about it, or even dwelling on it too much yourself, will only cause problems.

Suppose in the above case you announce that ‘Engineers don’t do so well in this part of the course.’ First we have to realize that students usually hear statements from the professor as proclamations of truth; but that it is usually truth by position, i.e. it is true because the professor will make it so. So upon hearing the announcement it is likely that some engineers will interpret it to mean that part of the course is designed to not be successful for them. Even if the students don’t think it has to happen, we then get to the question of who should do what about it. If the announcement is made, the usual follow up is something about ‘working harder’, which implies that it is up to the student.  The student may hear the announcement and think either that it is out of his or her control, or that the professor, knowing that it is a problem, will do something to make it okay. In either case, the result is no extra effort by the student. For the students that the announcement doesn’t apply to, they also may hear some other messages, like that it will be successful for them or that it will make more sense to them naturally (a question of impact on grades or learning). They may also think that they will do better as there is a group of students who are already designated as doing worse (via a curve). The problems start when the expected adaptations don’t happen (or at least at the level that was expected), or even when the pronounced results do happen. This ties into the typical student response to unexpected failure: ‘Why did or didn’t the professor do so-and-so?’  But now it has new legs as there is some evidence, via the announcement, that the professor knew something was going on and either didn’t do anything to fix it, or did things to make it worse (or to actually happen). So the announcement that was probably intended to cause heightened diligence (and glory to the professor for pointing it out to students so that they could be successful) actually turns into less effort and possibly very negative responses.

But what if you don’t say anything, but you still are aware and are thinking about this difference? Suppose you choose not to do anything about it. Then you still potentially have the same results as the students in the different groups won’t know that they are more or less likely to be successful and won’t make any adjustments, then the performance on the assessments will be poor (for some), and you won’t feel the need to do anything because you already expected it. So again you are caught not doing something to help, and, if pushed, would say that you expected it and so aren’t going to do anything about it. Suppose instead you do something about it (without telling the class why). So either you adapt the course so that the difficult material is avoided (for all or some), or change the presentation in a way that favors the previously unfavored group, or you change the way you grade to lessen the difference. So you either lessened the course or you’ve introduced a bias. In both scenarios, another consequence of even being aware of such a difference, is that it is probably wrong and will cause some individually unfair differences in the class. Like other –isms, if we assign some characteristic to a group (true or not), we end up treating them differently and not treating the individuals as individuals.

What if the observation and description applies to the whole class? For example, through experience, you know that students find some part of the course to be much easier than another part. I think you still have the same issues as above whether or not you share it with the class. Anything you say or do about how the learning could/should/will go in your class, leads to contrarily indicated responses by the students or negative changes in students attitude or behaviors towards your class. For example if you say something is hard, you have some students that expect you to adjust for that, or others who have struggled before that will more easily accept failure. You might skip the material, water it down, or just grade easier. You can have strange mixtures where you say it is hard and increase your effort to explain it, and then have the students think it is easy as they never came face to face with the difficulty of the topic, and then your proclamations are devalued or the students get an inflated sense of their knowledge.

It seems we’ve come to a point where any sort of learning observation becomes a potential negative no matter what you do with it. Yet, those sort of observations are at the root of most teacher development: I’m trying to have the students learn X, via experience Y, and I then check to see how we did, with any observations that learning didn’t happen overall or within certain groups, leading to modifications of X and/or Y. I think we still need to make those observations, but need to be more careful in how we use them.  Maybe the best plan is to keep the current design of the course and let those observations modify the next iteration of the course.


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