Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Professor of the Millennials

I have been writing a lot about my students but I have not mentioned how I have grown in the last 20 years.

I started as a typical professor teaching in a small liberal arts university. I was prepared for my classes. I taught from text books that I thought were quality books and challenged my students.  I gave routine homework as I knew from my education that feedback is very important. I did not have any feedback on any of my work for more than 6 years and I could never tell what I had done wrong. I did not want my students to feel that way. Exam should not be the only way to evaluate. So I routinely tested them with quizzes and in class questions.

This is how it went on for 10 years.  I changed some text books. My exams were still all written out and hand graded by me. I felt good about the quality of product coming out of my classes.

Then I changed my job for another university.  This was a similar university to my previous one with one major difference. The fees was too high. The students attending this university were generally the privileged ones.  I had hardly any diversity in my class. Within one year I could see the problem. These students were ready to blame anyone for not succeeding in my course. Even a hint that they were going to get a B was not good enough for them, so they lashed out.  For the first time in my life I was forced to give multiple choice exams because my students were accusing me of unfair grading. This had never happened to me before. I had only two grade challenges in my life, even now,  after 20 yrs.  All this really bummed me out.  So I looked for another job.

I found one in a nice college that had a lot of diversity in student and faculty.  Great I thought! Well....not so fast!

It turns out there is a great difference between a Masters and PhD professor. And from what I saw in my department, the MS graduated professors did not challenge the students as much as I would. It turned out to be a popularity contest. Anyone demanding quality product would not be popular. But students also don't demand quality, they demand good grades.

The other problem I faced was the type of students I was getting: there is no quality control, there was no prerequisite and there was also not a great demand on the student to do well in the courses. It became a catch-22 for me. I was required to teach at a lower level, give easy grades and not worry about the product or the long term learning consequence for the student! This was a big eye opener for me.

I also saw that most students just did not have the time to study, they are working, taking care of family or commuting so much that they miss class. That inspired me to make power points so students would have some notes to refer to.  That was not enough....I eventually recorded my lectures, so they could understand what I was trying to teach. That as not enough because they still don't know how to solve then I started making notes of me teaching them how to solve problems (pencasts). So it seemed to me that I was working more than they were.

Do I see the results of my hard work? I don't know. The information is out there. I don't track the usage of that info because I know that students can pass my classes without all that information - they used to - 10 years ago!! Now they cannot concentrate in class, they cannot give time to study and what is bothersome, they don't even try. They just give up. Why? Who teaches them that giving up is okay? How can you keep wasting time and money in college. Be done with it and start working and do other things in life. College is not is one step in the journey of life.

I have adapted a lot over the last 10 years but there are things I will never understand because I have not been through it myself so I can only sympathize with them - not empathize. I am very grateful I never had to pay for my education; my parents supported me. Getting my PhD in USA showed my how expensive education could be.  Thank god my subject was chemistry so I could get teaching assistant job otherwise I would never have been able to afford PhD.

I sympathize with my students that they have to go through such hardship in such young age. But not all are like that. The ones who have financial aid and have some support should have no excuse for not being better in their studies. But then .... it takes all kinds........

As time goes on - I know I will adapt. Sadly chemistry has not changed - it has not become easier. It still requires time and hard work.  There is no question to what hard work can do for a person. I don't have to do half the things I do for my students, but I do, so they understand that it is not just their struggle to do well, it's mine too.

The Millennial Student

People talk about the millennials as if they are a different species. But these are the product of current parenting and economic circumstances/situation.

I am convinced that a number of millennials have been cheated by everyone around them: their family, their school and of course their country.

Why do I feel so?

Their families let them down by placing so much burden on them of their family and financially.  These young students take all the responsibility of an adult family member but not that of their education. It could be that their parents are also working hard and need help in managing the home.  The students have to thus finance their education themselves.

Their government fails them by providing them free K-12 but not taking care of the quality of that free such expensive and such a key training.

In their schools, K-12, they have not been intellectually challenged. They have been told to do busy work that makes them feel they are putting in the effort and that is all that they are graded for. They have not been forced to memorize, not been asked to think critically, they are not taught math and writing skills.  Their hard work is limited to open book work and busy work. As a result they come to college unprepared for what is required to be a good student.

I feel these students have been cheated out of a good education.  They are not trained for good study skills, the determination, the discipline or the inspired to do well intellectually.  I am not in a place to say what the K-12 education is like, all I see is their product and that product is not to par.

Of course I also teach at a primarily 2 year college which has an open enrollment policy. We probably don't get the top of the GPA pool.  Which is fine. I don't mind having a B student...What I cannot handle is that if they are getting a D that they don't seem to care about it. They don't bother to seek help from the instructors, from tutors etc even though all these services are free. They would rather repeat the course rather than studying and getting through it. It is heartbreaking to see their state. And then there are some who are getting B but will withdraw because they want an A only. There is no in between.

I just don't know how to get through these kids.  They don't come for advise and if they do they cannot understand. They have their personal home situations which I don't feel like I am the right person to talk to them about. I don't know if they are frustrated or not, but I certainly am frustrated by all this. Why? Because my administrators hold me responsible for my students passing my classes.  They don't care that their students have so many struggles at home: taking care of parents and grandparents, being the only earning member of their family, taking care of kids, not having transportation for school, and finally not enough goal setting for their future - this is of course the responsibility of the college. I can only do so much.

I have my own issues also as a professor....another blog :-)

The Latest in Education - My Opinion

I recently attended the Biennial Conference on Chemical Education in Greeley, Colorado. What an amazing group of chemistry faculty I met there! I was presenting but I always feel that my peers are doing such great work.

I attended some organic chemistry teaching presentations and some liberal learning teaching. Both had their own flavors.

Organic (and general chemistry presentations) was filled with flipping teaching technique and results. It made me realize that the current student population has changed so much that we have to completely change our method of teaching. My generation of faculty has been taught via the traditional method.  We learned new concepts in class and we went home and studied and practiced problems. It worked! Now....there seems to be other priorities for students. They cannot seem to study at home. So we, the faculty, adapt. Why? To see that education survives? Or to see that our profession survives? Why are the students no longer interested in their own learning? What is it about the culture here that is telling them that you can succeed in a class without studying? And that too in a class like chemistry!

Faculty need to show success rates in our classes.  College funding depends on graduation rates. And now also job placement. So instead of making sure that the input (students) are prepared to go to college, the pressure is more on faculty to make sure that the students pass.  Will they get a job? Who knows? Currently I work at a 2 year college so at least that is not a problem for us for in chemistry.  It is the statistic of the four year college they transfer to.

The system is becoming so convoluted. No one is the winner except the college administrators. They don't have to provide quality starting material for a good quality product. They can easily shift accountability to the faculty to make anyone into an employable "success" person.  One biggest gap that is missed is that "teaching" is not a one way process - there is also that "learning" coming from the other side.

On the flip side there are also faculty who get so entrenched in their own style of teaching that they are not willing to upgrade their teaching material or style. The world is changing, we have to change also while maintaining professionalism, quality and integrity in our teaching. There is no measure for all these qualities. And these qualities are not even respected much. Students look for what grade they are getting and administrators look for success rate numbers. Everything in the middle is "magic".

In closing I will say that I am grateful that I have some percent of dedicated students in my classes. They motivate me to be better at my job. Education is important in creating the next generation of thinkers, doers and creators. It should not be taken lightly by any party.