When most students fail your test: ‘What would an excellent teacher do?’

teacherhidingIf the majority of students in a class do poorly on a test, how do we know whether the kids didn’t learn the material or the teacher didn’t teach it?

Or at least teach it effectively?

When students fail en masse, should teachers reconsider the format of the class and how they are teaching the content?

I have talked to teachers who have thrown out the pacing guide after realizing their students are unprepared and require a more fundamental approach to the material. Of course, going back to basics means the students may not be ready for the end-of-the-year exams in the class.

A college professor takes up this issue in a thoughtful blog this week. I am sharing part of it here as she poses questions that most teachers have probably asked themselves at some point in their careers.

I would love to hear the answers.

In “Stories from the Front (of the Classroom), religious studies professor Kate Blanchard writes she gave a mid-term exam with high hopes as the class had been progressing well and the students seemed to get it. But the average score on the mid-term test was a low D.

Blanchard writes: (Please read her full blog before commenting. This is only an excerpt.)

If there had been at least a handful of A’s, I would have worried less. An extremely high percentage of students in my classes are there to fulfill a humanities requirement; they aren’t necessarily interested in religion, and they hope it will be an easy course. These students don’t expect to work much and a bad mid-term grade can be a useful wake-up call. But when even the most engaged students can’t break a low B, it’s clear that something is amiss at my end of things.

A professor I admire says his teaching philosophy is to have high expectations for his students; expect the best of them and they will never fail to give it to you. So I continue to require (what I hear is) “a lot” of reading in my intro courses, because I am trying to set the bar high and let them rise to the occasion. I also don’t spoon-feed them information in bullet points; although I occasionally stand and use slides, I usually sit and lead discussions about the readings… in which I often end up doing most of the talking. Most of them sit slack-jawed and take few notes, but some answer questions or make comments.

The question for you, dear readers, is: What do I do now? Do I “dumb down” the class… Do I just plow ahead with my current plans, knowing some of them will fail or drop out, while hoping others will be inspired to work harder? I have seven more weeks to get them to want to learn something. What would an excellent teacher do?

 

 

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46 comments
anothercomment
anothercomment

My college Sophmore daughter who is an A student in a STEM major, has told me that several professors or teaching assistants have told her that she participates too much and asks too many questions. I was also a top student in a STEM field 30 plus years ago, my first advise to her was participate and make yourself known by scheduling office hours with every professor or TA . I was also a TA in the day before computers and cellphones and had students even show up at my apartment door.

My daughter said she has no intention of not asking questions or participating since she has ADHD and it is the only thing that keeps her on track.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@anothercomment 

Why isn't your daughter taking medication for her ADHD? Class participation is a good thing generally, but too much can be a definite class disruption since it keeps other students from participating.


I'd also suggest that she register her disability (for if documented, it is a disability under ADA) with her school's Disability Services office, for she will probably need more time to take her exams. She would take her exams in the DS office. I've had several such students, and this was the case. But register her soon, in time for the midterm exams.

scrappy-22
scrappy-22

After reading the full piece, which gave some more specifics, I would say the answer is somewhere in the middle of plow ahead and 'dumb down'... leaning more to plow ahead. 

Honestly after reading what the test actually was, this seems like it would be an easy test. However, there is a lot of reading over half of a semester, and only 30 questions of MC.  A little guidance on the important subject areas would allow students to focus their studies a bit more while not 'dumbing' down the course, and still setting high expectations.  

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

At the college level, unlike the high school level, the professor usually composes the test given (or compiles it from published sources such as "Teachers' Guides"). I don't think that this happens at the high school level, where tests from outside sources are used.  Very different situation.


So in the situation given, where a Religious Studies professor finds that all or most of her students have done poorly on the test she gives, I think she should question the test....unless all of her class is made up of C students.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

However, from her description of her class, it sounds like the students may not be A students in the first place, but non-majors who are required to take the course. ...possibly freshmen who aren't used to college classes (as AtlantaMom suggests).  If so, I would take some class-time to explain basics of college classwork if they expect to do well on tests. And if they aren't taking notes, I would lecture them on how to do this, and why--a skill they'll need all through college.  It's hard to realize how many incoming students lack the academic basics.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@class80olddog @OriginalProf 

Here too college is different from high school. It's quite usual for professors to require class attendance, and withdraw students once they miss a certain number of classes---as determined by the professor. Of course, you have to state this on the syllabus. But I have withdrawn many a student who missed more than 8 days total, which would be about 3-4 weeks. "Class Attendance" is an allowable reason for teacher withdrawal of students by the Registrar.

anothercomment
anothercomment

Stan as someone with an Architecture degree and a masters degree in engineering I believe that it is very ill advised for any student to take AP calculus in High School. It will serve a student much better to really master Algebra II, Trig., Geometry, statistics, then do AP calculus. Most engineering schools will ñot accept AP calculus credits. If they do you need a 5.

I graduated 5th in my undergraduates class and was president of Tau Beta Pi Engineering Honor Society, I got one of my two C's in Calculus is college. Many engineering śtudents fail college calculus classes. I personally know top students from Marist who have recently failed calculus at Georgia Tech. I had friends in college repeat the same required calculus classes 3-4 times, having tutors help them each time. I got math and my class mates used to beg the professor in 1978-79 ( pre fall of the shaw of Iran ) to only count the American students grades ( with my grade and N a Yale Professor now) having the top grades as C's ; dropout the male Iranian grades. ( the Asians of today), for the curve.

Now the good thing is I surveyed the architects and engineers that worked for me if any of them had used calculus since they graduated from college. The answer was only one Mechanical Engineer had used calculus over 25 years ago to long hand out some actual heating load calculation. Since, the advent of all the computer programs we don't use calculus day to day. We just need to know the theory and plug the numbers in a computer program. Unless you are going to be doing the computer programming, or teaching high school calculus or college calculus. My strong recommendation is please let's stop the instantly of a Math 1,2,3 or coordinate Math. Stop pushing AP Calculus in High school. Kids really need to thoroughly learn pre-algebra in middle school. Then the series that the private schools and the high performing states teach; Algebrea, Geometry, trig, statistics, with Business Math being a good option for a lot of students.

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@StanJester 


Why do you think only 7% of the students who took the Calculus AP exam in FY2011 score 3 or higher at a school in existence for 3 years at the time?Is the score on the AP exams the only measure you are interested in?If this is the type of questioning the citizens of DeKalb can expect from you when you serve on the school board, they will be in for an interesting 4 years.


bu2
bu2

@anothercomment 

The kids taking AP Calculus simply move the courses up a year.  Algebra in 8th, Geometry in 9th, Algebra II in 10th, Trig in 11th. 


Now I took the normal sequence with Trig in 12th and felt pretty well prepared for college.  I found college Calculus pretty easy.  And I haven't used it since.


However, those taking AP get the opportunity to start college a little more advanced, whether it is simply being better prepared or being able to place out.

woodrow404
woodrow404

I think that you have to approach people where they are, before you can even begin to teach. Somehow you have to lead them to the point where you both become aware of what they don't know. At that point, you will know where to start, and they will be uncomfortable enough with not knowing, that they will begin to learn. 

I think that really good teachers constantly assess the classroom, demanding feedback.  Taking the "I dunno" and using that by beating it into the ground until a result happens. One "I dunno" is a front for the 9 others in the same place. 

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

". I also don’t spoon-feed them information in bullet points;"


Start spoon-feeding them information in bullet points.  


They hear, and they forget. 

They see, and they remember. 


" I often end up doing most of the talking."


Get more class interaction time going. 


They do, and they understand. 

User777
User777

One of my pet peeves for HS level, is students often do not get to keep their tests. I always considered reviewing what I missed on the tests as critical for mid-terms and finals. Particularly for math and sciences, I think the teacher should look at the test and make sure they didn't word questions in a way that may have been confusing. Barring that, tests need to be reviewed with students so they understand what they missed and how they can improve next time. If it is a pattern across multiple tests, them it is more than the students failing, in my opinion. Either they weren't prepared for the class to begin with, or the teacher is not teaching effectively.

CoastalSusan
CoastalSusan

The biggest debate among faculty is "do we have to teach them the subjects they were supposed to know before entering my course?"  This usually revolves around the inability to write, including lack of grammatical skills (i.e., its, it's, they're, their, there and noun/verb agreement).  Since I teach Journalism, I say it's my responsibility to improve the writing skills.  However, yesterday, I had intended to have a discussion about the late Ben Bradlee and what he meant to modern Journalism.  Instead, I found that literally none of my students knew who he was (one said he was dead) and NONE of them had heard of Watergate.  The discussion had to become a history lesson from me.

AtlantaMom
AtlantaMom

After reading the blurb above, I was thinking the test was a few essay questions, and somehow the students misinterpreted the questions.  Nah.

When I read the entire blog by the professor, it looks to me like this is a freshman class, and the kids haven't learned that you really do need to do the readings outside of class.  The test will be about more than just what's covered in class. It's a painful learning process.


Mr_B
Mr_B

One of the results of our national fascination with STEM subjects has been the inability of many of our current students to engage with anything that can't be stated as a formula. When you don't give students to incentives to become culturally as well as mathematically literate, it comes as no surprise that they can't manipulate philosophical concepts. The fact that we don't  reward theologians like we do engineers is not lost on them.

TheHallGardenDiva
TheHallGardenDiva

Funny that this subject just came up. 

One of my children has a chemistry class with around 400 students in it.  The average on the first test was a failing grade.  When my child went to the professor to ask what to do to succeed in the class, the very flippant answer was "You'll just have to study more."  My child hasn't missed a class, does the reading and assignments, and studies quite a bit from what I see.

While I do believe that the students have to take some of the blame for the abysmal grades, I also believe that this professor has failed miserably in teaching this subject matter to the students.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@scrappy-22 

This very common problem needs to be brought to the attention of the department chair, or at least mentioned on the student evaluations of the course. 

redweather
redweather

@TheHallGardenDiva Why do you believe that the professor "has failed miserably in teaching this subject"?  Couldn't there be other explanations for the students' "abysmal grades"?

scrappy-22
scrappy-22

@TheHallGardenDiva Does the professor or TA speak English? Well?  I had this problem in chemistry in college.  No matter the amount of reading I completed, I had trouble grasping the formulas, especially organic chem. But when I tried to reach out for help, the language barrier became a real problem.  

On one hand I felt and still feel that this is not the students fault, but that of the institution that hired these professors knowing they can barely communicate.  On the other hand, the only way I was able to pass was to seek out tutoring from other students. Does that mean to truly be 'college material' you do whatever it takes to complete the learning process?  

anothercomment
anothercomment

This is very common in STEM classes; Bio 101, Chem 101, Engineering 101, Calculus 101, Physics 101, etc. I have been both the student and the TA.

These and other classes with whatever their University corresponding course number where it be 1101 or 201, are widely known as cut classes. The university expects that 25 to 50% of the class will fail the class. High school grades and content very from school to school. SAT and ACT scores can be raised up to 200 points by having access to tutors who teach you the tricks to take the test, multiple attempts of test taking can raise your score, socio-economics can impact your score. The only way to find out the true aptitude for the chosen subject matter is to see how they perform in these cut classes.

Let's also not forget that many students unfortunately do not have total free will choosing their college majors. How many families have we seen were Grandpa, Dad and now Son is expected to be a brain surgeon. So many parents now want their kids to be an engineer. Or they see that Chemical Engineering is the highest starting salary of all engineers. I saw 35 years ago so many guys that eventually came out sent to architecture school, but they really wanted to be a fashion designer, or artist ; but pops thought that would be admitting son was gay.

These STEM classes are hard to most people, but if you have the aptitude, passion and desire to succeed in these areas of study they will click for you. Sometimes, even the smartest of us needs a tutor to get that click. I have also seen that person who scored the perfect 1600 or 2400 on the SAT. Not succeed in these classes because it was not their passion but someone else's.

BKB
BKB

The one comment that stuck out to me is "...I often end up doing most of the talking."  The students aren't doing the reading and therefore have nothing to contribute.  It's no surprise that they do poorly on the test.

My (elementary) suggestion is that you write all of the students' names on an individual note card and use those to ask them questions randomly during class, so that no one is able to sit through a class without being involved.  This will force them to be more prepared or risk being embarrassed in class.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@BKB 

Of course, the genuinely poor student won't be embarrassed at all. And this can have a bad effect on class dynamics through contagion.

(If the students just aren't doing the assigned reading, may I suggest short, random and frequent pop quizzes on the material, worth, say, 10% of the final grade? Then you have to grade them, but it does improve classroom participation... especially when they figure out that silence means a quiz.)

redweather
redweather

This teacher notes that her students "aren’t necessarily interested in religion, and they hope it will be an easy course. These students don’t expect to work much. . . ." 

I teach college students, many of whom must be constantly reminded that every class counts as far as their GPA is concerned, and that the attitude (positive or negative) they bring to school will decide whether they succeed or fail. I also remind them that once you decide one class is not all that important, it becomes that much easier to decide that another class isn't all that important. That's a slippery slope if there ever was one. 

popacorn
popacorn

Simple. Fail the first one, dumb the test down, and then cheat on the following ones. The Georgia Way. 

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

Here are some other good comments from the Facebook discussion of this  blog: 


1. Today's college students do not have the same proficiency levels overall that our generation and our parents' generation did. If my parents taught college today, they would be appalled at how few books the students have read, how little extensive writing they have done, and how poorly they execute critical thinking (overall, noting many students are exceptions). That said, my son had a novice chemistry teacher at college, and after all the failing kids dropped the class, the class average going into the final was a 68 (despite numerous hours of extra tutoring, study groups, etc). The prof was fired at the end of the year, and the kids in the class suffered tremendous damage to their GPAs and HOPE eligibility because of her ineptitude.

2, When one Facebook commenter said the test was "flawed," another teacher wrote: 

Reflect. It's not "obvious" that the test was flawed. Assuming an issue with the test or with the teacher completely absolves the students of any responsibility. Rethink the context. If the question posed had asked about a professor instead if a teacher would the answer be so "obvious"? Now ask yourself where do our kids get the skills to be successful on the college level?

bu2
bu2

@JKonop1234 @MaureenDowney 

They ask them to know a lot more than when I was in school.  Some things, particularly in science and social studies, that we covered in HS are introduced in elementary school.


Perhaps all that extra "rigor" keeps them from some of the broad reading (electronics does it share as well).

scrappy-22
scrappy-22

@MaureenDowney I had a similar situation happen with an Advertising professor. It was her first and last semester that I was lucky enough to have her for. 

I had this on the Mon & Wed class, but had friends who were in the Tues & Thurs class - with a different professor.  They seemed to have an excellent class, learned interesting things, and had normal assignments.  While we had things like "write an essay about how you love your right hand". 

Seemed especially not fair I was stuck due to scheduling conflicts. My grade point and any love for advertising suffered. 

JKonop1234
JKonop1234

@bu2,


Good points...Kid are way to busy between school, sports.....they need chill time as well to just enjoy hiking, reading, music......Both my kids are hard drivers...I take them hiking all the time....best times....

JKonop1234
JKonop1234

@MaureenDowney 


In fairness we are comparing apples and oranges....Colleges in the past took about 50% of the kids they take now. If you look at the top 20% ie AP/joint enrollment students the students are much better prepared than my generation. They take many more advance classes than we took....and do a lot more homework...The real issue is the push to make all kids college prep or out.... ie NCLB...

Wascatlady
Wascatlady

I have never had this happen, and I do not know anyone who has shared that this had happened.  When I would give a test, I would analyze the missed questions, to see if there was a pattern.  Then, I would attempt to remediate those areas that seemed misunderstood among many class members. I would pull aside, as possible, individual students with problems.  Remember, however, that I generally taught 7th grade and below.


I do think widespread failure on an exam should prod a teacher to re-evaluate the test.  However, nowadays we give study guides AND EVEN GO OVER IT BEFORE THE TEST so there are not many good reasons for failing at the lower level, other than lack of effort or lack of prerequisite skills.  In middle and high school it may be different.  We surely DO send kids up who do not have the requisite skills in math and reading.

MaureenDowney
MaureenDowney moderator

A teacher posted this response on AJC Get Schooled Facebook and I thought it was worth sharing:

Reteach, Retest, Recover. Reteach content and make sure it not EVERYTHING but the most important things. Retest the students. It's okay. The goal isn't a good test; the goal is learning. Recover the data. What questions were most missed? Why? Go through and TALK to your students. Even summative assessments can be formative.

TaxiSmith
TaxiSmith

When most students fail a test there are three possible reasons: 1) You didn't teach what you thought you taught, 2) the students did not understand what you taught, or 3) you are teaching "above their heads" and you need to do some base-line studies of your students to establish what they know. These comments are based on 43 years teaching in Georgia. (Many teachers simply neglect to do No. 3, which is critical.)

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@TaxiSmith 


All great reasons!  It would also help to have partnerships with parents to help reinforce what was taught.  Unfortunately there will be varying levels of support.

HS_Math_Teacher
HS_Math_Teacher

When 63% of the students STATEWIDE fail a high-stakes exam, what should the state do? 

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@HS_Math_Teacher 


What many would do is to complain about the test then work to eliminate it by demonizing it.  It would interesting to see the results if students from years past took the exact test.  Only then would we have an idea if progress was being made.

OriginalProf
OriginalProf

@HS_Math_Teacher @OriginalProf 

By "again" I meant that I had just made the same reply earlier. College students don't take state-wide tests while in college except for those demanded by certain fields, such as PRAXIS. But even there, the college doesn't give them.


College classes are very different from high school classes...seems to me that answers for the one level aren't really relevant for the other level.

HS_Math_Teacher
HS_Math_Teacher

@OriginalProf    "I have talked to teachers who have thrown out the pacing guide after realizing their students are unprepared and require a more fundamental approach to the material. Of course, going back to basics means the students may not be ready for the end-of-the-year exams in the class."  


It sounds to me like Ms. Downey is generalizing, or relating, this to high school teachers as well.  As far as the state-wide test is concerned, there is a parallel issue here as far as I'm concerned.