April
16th 2010
Grade deflation + student frustration = Proffie’s early vacation!

Posted under: jobs, students, unhappy endings, wankers

Have one on me, Professor!

Wow.  Having high standards will apparently get you yanked from teaching your own course at Louisiana State University (h/t Inside Higher Ed).  Yes, that’s right:  an introductory course (!) for which the faculty member volunteered (!!!).  Well, as they say:  no good deed goes unpunished, right friends? 

Dominique G. Homberger won’t apologize for setting high expectations for her students. 

The biology professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge gives brief quizzes at the beginning of every class, to assure attendance and to make sure students are doing the reading. On her tests, she doesn’t use a curve, as she believes that students must achieve mastery of the subject matter, not just achieve more mastery than the worst students in the course. For multiple choice questions, she gives 10 possible answers, not the expected 4, as she doesn’t want students to get very far with guessing. 

Students in introductory biology don’t need to worry about meeting her standards anymore. LSU removed her from teaching, mid-semester, and raised the grades of students in the class. In so doing, the university’s administration has set off a debate about grade inflation, due process and a professor’s right to set standards in her own course. 

But, “[t]he class in question is an entry-level biology class for non-science majors!”  Who said that–a complaining student?  An outraged Sophomore who’s sure this grade is going to screw her chances for med school?  No–it’s a quote from a statement by Kevin Carman, dean of the College of Basic Sciences at LSU!  Awesome!  Who the hell thinks that “entry-level” classes for “non-science majors” should mean “gut class?”  If low expectations weren’t a clearly articulated expectation of the biology deparment and the College of Basic Sciences for their entry-level courses (which of course always have more non-majors than majors), then I call bullcrap on this.  

No one from the administration contacted her about their concerns about her students’ grades.  No one came to visit her class to see what was going on.  No one alerted her to any problems until she was informed that her services were no longer required.  (Dean Carman says “Professor Homberger is not being penalized in any way; her salary has not been decreased nor has any aspect of her appointment been changed.”)  More from IHE

At the point that she was removed, she said, some students in the course might not have been able to do much better than a D, but every student could have earned a passing grade. Further, she said that her tough policy was already having an impact, and that the grades on her second test were much higher (she was removed from teaching right after she gave that exam), and that quiz scores were up sharply. Students got the message from her first test, and were working harder, she said. 

 How, you might wonder, did anyone know that at mid-term 90% of her students had failed or dropped?  “[T]he university’s learning management system allowed superiors to review the grades on her first test in the course.“  Let that be a lesson to those of you who report your grades on BlackBoard or WebCT programs!  This information can be used against you!  (I sure as hell won’t be using the system at Baa Ram U. for that purpose again.  Too bad for you, kiddies!) 

There’s all kinds of crazzy in this story–just go read it for yourself.  Even if Homberger had unreasonable expectations (and I’m not convinced that she did–she sure had high expectations for herself too, with all of those quizzes to write for every class!), the administrators at LSU look like they’ve behaved totally inappropriately.  But more disturbingly, they’ve the message that grades are negotiable (and subject to improvement!) if students complain about faculty standards.  Homberger gave her students a bonus question on the second test in which she asked what their biggest “A-ha” moment in the class was so far: 

Many of the reactions were about various issues in biology — with evolution as a major topic. But a number dealt with grades and work habits. One was critical: “When I found out my test grade, I almost had a heart attack.” 

But many other comments about the course standards were positive, with several students specifically praising Homberger’s advice that they form study groups. One student wrote: “My biggest AHA‐reaction in this course is that I need to study for this course every night to make a good grade. I must also attend class, take good notes, and have study sessions with others. Usually a little studying can get me by but not with this class which is why it is my AHA‐reaction.” 

Well, we certainly wouldn’t want students to think they have to show up to class and study for their degrees now, would we?  What do you think, friends–go read the whole thing, and tell me.  Have you ever been called on the carpet because you’re assigning grades that are too low?  Do you live in fear of this?  Do the inmates now run the asylum?

40 Comments »

40 Responses to “Grade deflation + student frustration = Proffie’s early vacation!”

  1. Rohan Maitzen on 16 Apr 2010 at 5:03 am #

    A recent column up here about the (perceived) imbalance between research and teaching as university priorities made the following suggestion:

    Just imagine what would happen, for instance, if the Government of Ontario set aside $50-million each year to be given to the institution that got the best ranking in a teaching satisfaction survey.

    (http://www.globecampus.ca/blogs/eye-higher-ed/2010/04/12/when-carrots-are-all-same-schools-will-be-too/>

    The author imagines “exciting innovations in teaching and educational delivery.” I imagine more of the kind of thing that seems to have happened at LSU.

  2. Rohan Maitzen on 16 Apr 2010 at 5:04 am #

    Sorry about the bad link:

    http://www.globecampus.ca/blogs/eye-higher-ed/2010/04/12/when-carrots-are-all-same-schools-will-be-too/

  3. Tom on 16 Apr 2010 at 5:13 am #

    I will concur that students often have an odd spin on what their “rights” are in regards to a classes. I give an assignment where I ask my students to identify and argue for an appropriate cell-phone policy for the university. With astonishing frequency, students come up with some version of “Students pay for their education, they can decide.” They seem surprised when I suggest that the State, their parents, and maybe even the banks that give them loans might thus also have a legitimate voice in how they spend their time and attention in the classroom.

    But administrators who are forced to increasingly see tuition-paying students as a vital revenue stream thus often appear to think like students: they pay for something that should let their opinions matter most. But there are many stakeholders in most students’ education and–believe it or not–faculty (especially at public institutions) are also paying for students’ educations.

    One might note further that the frequency with which such lower-level courses are taught by faculty without tenure makes it even harder for those faculty to take a stand on tough standards.

  4. Historiann on 16 Apr 2010 at 5:33 am #

    Rohan & Tom–great points. I think you’re right, Tom, that contingent labor is much more vulnerable to this kind of pressure. Since Homberger is long tenured, she didn’t face any sanctions in pay, whereas adjuncts have zero security.

    I hate to sound like Cotton Mather here, but I will put on my cranky old puritan cap: this appears to be the natural result of Baby Boomer-style parenting, which has emphasized children’s happiness over goodness, and “customer satisfaction” over rigor and actual learning. My bet is that the vast majority of parents will side with their children on this and even on Tom’s cell phone policy assignment.

    This is also perhaps the natural consequence of the Regan Revolution’s defunding of higher ed, and the fact that most students over the past 30 years came to see education as a private good rather than a public good. “It’s MY money, it’s MY time, I can do what I want with it.”

  5. polisciprof on 16 Apr 2010 at 6:00 am #

    What did her department colleagues do? I don’t see mention of their response in the article.

  6. ej on 16 Apr 2010 at 6:07 am #

    Wow-if I were at LSU, I would be in trouble. Last semester I failed over 10% of the students in my Western Civ. This is in spite of organizing study groups, conducting exam reviews, and giving them a study guide which tells them everything that could be on the test. Fortunately for me, my administration doesn’t micromanage. And since I’ve been teaching the course for 10 years now and had yet to see such dismal numbers, I could feel fairly confident that it wasn’t me. It was them.

    Unfortunately, I fear that the non t/t folk in my department don’t feel like they have as much latitude when it comes to grading or setting expectations, which probably does lead to some disparities in classes taught at that level. They are much more vulnerable to negative evaluations or accusations of unfairness.

  7. Perpetua on 16 Apr 2010 at 6:28 am #

    I completely agree with concerns and outrage about “customer satisfaction” oriented education and the entitlement of students these days vis-a-vis grades. I regularly teach an intro class and students are often astonished to discover that it’s “hard” (largely because I make them write using primary materials only).

    On the other hand, this *does* seem like it could be a unique situation in which there was a genuine problem with a professor’s grade spread. If 90% of students are actually failing or dropping out because they’re failing, to me that’s an indication that there might in fact be a problem. I myself would feel like I was failing somehow as an instructor if 90% of my students were failing my class. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which there are *so few* students willing to do a reasonable amount of studying. (Perhaps the academic culture at LSU is just different from my school.) But on a more hypothetical level – should a professor have absolute power to control the grades in a class even if 90% of them are “F”s? I’m not saying every teacher should be forced to grade on a bell curve – far from it. Sometimes there are classes that are unusually stacked with underachieveing students. But there are a very small handful of professors who grade inappropriately and it seems to me there needs to be some kind of procedure for student grievances, even if the professor in question has tenure. Now, how to *respond* to that problem in a reasonable way is much more difficult – I agree with H. that LSU’s response has exacerbated a culture in which grades are viewed as negotiable.

  8. Steven "thekingster@gmail.com" King on 16 Apr 2010 at 6:42 am #

    This is a natural consequence to the realities of “K-12″ education. I lament the fact that many of my students will become issues for college professors down the road.

    I try to balance my approach to grading since I realize that I am dealing with hormone-driven adolescents. I have been plagued to work in mostly impoverished school districts with incredible amounts of ESL and free/reduced lunch populations. While trying to be “fair,” it’s just a different breed to work within. It’ll come off as crass – when I meet a “problem” student’s parent (or guardian) suddenly it’s crystal clear “why” there is an issue.

    I am saddened that this professor is being let go due to “grading too hard (and I feel that there is more than meets the eye here…)”. When will we end the era of entitlement in this country and elevate education back to an honor – if that’s possible? I commend Charles Murray’s “Real Education” to all who are interested in eduspeak. His “four simple truths” addresses this problem head on.

    I concur with points three and four: 3) Too many students are going to college and 4) America’s future depends upon how we educate the gifted.

  9. Notorious Ph.D. on 16 Apr 2010 at 7:21 am #

    Thanks for the heads-up on Blackboard. Yeesh.

    I haven’t been *formally* called to the carpet, but Professor Venerable (the other member of my two-person subfield) has expressed “concern” about how demanding I am of grad students in our program, and may have started warning his students away from having me as a second reader on their theses.

    Fortunately, the grad director is supportive of my position, so I’m fine. But I’d hate to be in a university run by the Professor Venerables of this world.

  10. Matt L on 16 Apr 2010 at 7:25 am #

    I dunno, I think that failing or drop rate of 90% is a reason for concern, but it seems to me that the LSU administration escalated this way out of proportion. You would think that they might have a meeting with the dean, the chair of the department, and the instructor, just to see what was going on. A lot of p!$$!ng and moaning by the students should not be enough to get someone pulled from the classroom. I didn’t have a chance to read the link, but there has to be more to the story. Was some state legislator’s kid in danger of flunking bio 101?

    I also have a bit of Schadenfreude on this. My students are always under the impression that intro-level history classes like Western Civ aren’t supposed to be difficult. And yet they are OK with studying their butts off for Chemistry, or some other ‘hard’ science. I am thrilled to know that Biology for English Majors is also not supposed to be “hard.”

    Finally, two cheers for Professor Homberger!!! Stand up for your discipline! Hold fast for rigor! Because if we don’t nobody will.

  11. Jacob on 16 Apr 2010 at 7:38 am #

    I agree that a 90% failure/drop rate is a red flag, but that wasn’t the percentage of those who failed the class, just their grades after the first test. That still seems like a high rate, but as the article states, everyone in the class still had the chance to pass, and grades were on the rise. Homberger definitely sounds like a tough prof, but it sounds like the students have plenty of opportunities to acclimate to the class and its demands.
    What is particularly disturbing to me is the way LSU handled it. Like Matt L said, you would think some meetings would have been in order before removing Homberger.

  12. Notorious Ph.D. on 16 Apr 2010 at 7:56 am #

    Sorry to double-dip here, but:

    I wonder if the cutbacks in university spots due to budget shortfalls, making even second- and third-tier unis competitive, will have an effect on the consumer mentality?

  13. Historiann on 16 Apr 2010 at 8:09 am #

    Maybe I’m just a lot more laissez-faire in terms of faculty liberties to set their own standards than some of you, but I assume (perhaps incorrectly–but let’s go with it!) that LSU offers multiple sections of intro-level courses that will fulfill distribution requirements for non-majors, and/or even multiple sections of these courses that are required for majors. Given that assumption–that LSU operates like every other department I know of at big state unis–the students had opportunity to review the syllabus, understand that there are daily quizzes, and decide whether or not they were on board with that program. And presumably, they had several weeks to decide if they wanted to stay in the course or to drop it. (At my uni, students have a ridiculously long drop period, anyway.)

    So, the students in this case–as in virtually every other university course in North America and beyone–are all volunteers. No one put a gun to their heads and demanded that they take THIS particular section of THIS particular course with THIS particular professor. And yet, some students (not to mention LSU administrators) apparently responded as though the state is coercing their enrollment in this class. What gives? If you don’t like a class, don’t take it. Get the frack out. That’s a basic responsibility of student life–own your work and your education.

    Now, that said: I agree that this story is strange in that there’s no discussion of the department or the Chair’s role in all of this. I also think that those numbers would be concerning to me were I the department Chair–but they’re cause to invite a conversation with the faculty member, not cause for summary removal by the Dean. It’s the department that should set basic parameters and standards for intro level courses, if they find shockingly disparate expectations and grades at play.

    Bottom line for me: the lack of respect for Prof. Homberger here is just scandalous. Moreover, I think there’s a shocking degree of disrespect for those students who stayed in the class and who were rising to meet the challenge. All those little study groups, all of that renewed dedication to their studies–those students are learning that it was all for naught. The whiners have won, but that’s all anyone has learned from this tale.

  14. Historiann on 16 Apr 2010 at 8:34 am #

    And Notorious Ph.D.: great point about budget cuts. Perhaps there weren’t as many sections of this class offered as usual. Even so: I’m sure there are other ways for non-majors to meet those requirements.

    I agree with all of you who found the assertion that courses for “non-majors” should be less rigorous. Seriously: what’s the point of requirements if they’re so easy that students learn very little, and/or aren’t challenged?

    It seems to me that meeting and overcoming challenges is what the best of education should be.

  15. Katherine on 16 Apr 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Not to mention that the quality of scientific knowledge held by the American public is poor and leading the government into some crazy policy decisions.

  16. koshem Bos on 16 Apr 2010 at 10:20 am #

    University students are adults. If they don’t want to learn, it’s their right. I see very little merit the Sargent Major approach to teach.

    What LSU did is a crime. Do they understand the term academic freedom?

    As Hillel, a Jewish sage, once taught: the shy doesn’t learn, and the pedantic doesn’t teach.

  17. Indyanna on 16 Apr 2010 at 10:29 am #

    My god, so much to hyperventilate about here and so little space. But first, yes to Katherine’s point. Aren’t future employers and the general public being defrauded (along with everyone who has a transcript to present) if a specific grade reflects some suit’s “take” on what a typical “B” or “C” or “D” ought to reflect? This is pure administrative counterfeiting, debasing the coin of the academic enterprise itself. All in the service of some nut making hir nut at the Council of Deans meeting.

    I actually to some modest degree participate in grade inflation in our servile/service course, for a variety of philosophic and pragmatic reasons, but this story is appalling. Out adminisphere actually profits from low grades, even Fs, because students have to pass the course whatever in order to graduate, and so take it however many times they need to. Even with a D, you can repeat it to get a better grade. Both grades will still appear on the transcript, but the better one will be factored into the gpa (another form of commercial fraud, in my view). So in a weird way, by artificially reducing the yield rate for potential D/F repeaters, one underserves at least one part of the business model.

    I’ve been a vocal naysayer on the very idea of “learning management systems” hereabouts, but this is a revelation; that by using them the classroom is wide open to managerial scrutiny on a real-time basis. Wow.

  18. truffula on 16 Apr 2010 at 12:16 pm #

    Reading this post, I thought immediately of a censure report from the AAUP about Benedict College in South Carolina, where a grading policy was instituted by the President with the goal of boosting retention. The salient bits:

    This report concerns actions in summer 2004 by President David H. Swinton of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, to dismiss Professors Milwood Motley and Larry Williams for having refused to grade students in their courses in accordance with a grading policy promulgated by the president.

    … entitled the Success Equals Effort (SEE) Project… The Benedict faculty had not approved the policy, and indeed had not been afforded an opportunity to review it…

    Under the SEE policy, first-year and sophomore students thus were to be graded according to a combination of their knowledge (as demonstrated by test scores and written assignments) and their effort (as shown by attending class, handing in homework, and participating in study and tutoring sessions). The grades for first-year courses were to allot 60 percent to effort and 40 percent to knowledge acquired. Sophomore grades were to be based 50 percent on effort and 50 percent on knowledge. Junior and senior grading was to be determined by the respective schools and departments.

    Professors whose grading did not fall in line were directed by the Dean to change students’ grades.

  19. Historiann on 16 Apr 2010 at 12:21 pm #

    Wow. As cranky as I am about all of this, I see merit in the SEE approach (although not in summarily changing grades. That’s a failure of selling the program to the faculty IMHO.) If students attended all (or the vast, vast majority) of their classes, handed in all homework assignments, and participated in studying and tutor sessions, my bet is that their grades would go up all by themselves, even without prescribing a particular distribution of grades. (But when you announce that that’s *all* they have to do, you’re inviting mischief.)

    Even so: I find that class attendance is strongly correlated with final grades in the B to A range. I wonder every year about giving credit for attendance and class participation–since it rewards doubly the students who actually show up and participate. But it’s the only way to make the point that attendance is important.

    (Year after year, I tell them about the strong correlation between attendance and grades, and they never, ever believe me.)

  20. Indyanna on 16 Apr 2010 at 1:26 pm #

    A hospital could devise a HEAL program that intrudes on the diagnostic pronouncements of its resident MD staff. Securities firms appear regularly to shape, structure, or direct the analyses of their stock pickers and industry sector trackers. Accu-Weather might circulate an internal memorandum calling for a 40% reduction in the prediction of violent storms. Benedict College might have displayed the full courage of its acronym if it called the program SEEP, which implies or invokes how such managed expressive designs can tend to overflow like aged backyard in-ground systems. The problem is, nobody really buys the products of coerced speech.

  21. truffula on 16 Apr 2010 at 2:08 pm #

    Of course attendance correlates with grades and should be encouraged but 60% of the grade for showing up seems a little steep. It may also be setting students up for failure in the third year (after which, of course, the majority of the $ to be made on said students has been made).

  22. Z on 16 Apr 2010 at 2:14 pm #

    Greetings from South Louisiana! I agree with Indyanna.

    I teach many freshman and sophomore courses in which students are in fact failing by any reasonable standards. When I arrived at LSU years ago I was pleasantly surprised to find how little grade inflation there was compared to where I had come from (my first job).

    But now I curve in all kinds of ways and grade creatively, because I cannot afford the kind of trouble some admirable people get into. I am about to change back, though.

    It really is possible for students to do that poorly when they come from NCLB, are working 30+ hours a week, and so on and so forth. If they have what I would call middle school level skills, and I set them the kinds of tasks I used to set for the same courses when I was a TA at a much more selective university, I am bound to failure.

    Also, LSU was open admissions when I arrived. This meant the students felt a lot less entitled. They also hadn’t been raised with the expectation of academic success, so they weren’t as resentful or as risk averse as now.

  23. cgeye on 16 Apr 2010 at 3:23 pm #

    Isn’t this related, sadly, to Katrina?

    The gutting of public schools afterward, by charter school carpetbaggers, might play a part?

  24. the15th on 16 Apr 2010 at 4:08 pm #

    Hmmm, as a former adjunct, I have a somewhat different take on this — maybe not LSU’s actions in this case, but the idea that students today are lazy, entitled consumers. The student who demands an A for just showing up does exist, but s/he seems to occupy a pantheon with the Cadillac-driving welfare mom, the government worker who sleeps on the job and the plaintiff who demands a multi-million-dollar settlement for spilled coffee. All of these tropes pit groups of the relatively powerless against each other. Today’s students who feel entitled to high grades are tomorrow’s workers who feel entitled to luxuries like sick leave, health care and a 40-hour week. After a constant barrage of this kind of rhetoric, we become more and more inured to the idea that everyone else (but not ourselves) is suffering from an outsize sense of entitlement, and I think that this attitude is harmful to the public good.

  25. Indyanna on 16 Apr 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    Well, there’s probably something to be said for this notion of a harmful anecdotal “pantheon” (good metaphor). But I think the basic thrust of the post and most of the comments, anyway, is more about the arrogated entitlement of intrusive administrators who see their role as being about shaping “outcomes,” at the expense of the idea that faculty are responsible for the course and its consequences. The bathetic rhetoric of the nouvelle edocracy was again on view yesterday in the quotes in the New York Times from the Duke admissions czar angsting about how he was going to “sculpt” the incoming class of 2014. One almost wanted to puke.

    I’m entirely sympathetic toward students who are bayonetted into huge required surveys under rhetorics about educating the “whole person,” or about the need for intellectual “breadth as well as depth,” when the underlying reason is often as much or more about protecting jobs and faculty “lines” in the respective departments. Entitlement indeed works in multiple directions. But the steady growth over the last generation of an academic adminisphere that sees “strategic” as being the keyword of keywords in the educational “process” is, I think, the greater cause for concern.

  26. “Did you ever have the feeling you was being watched?” « More or Less Bunk on 17 Apr 2010 at 7:38 am #

    [...] I thought, but nothing out of the ordinary. Then in Dallas on the way home I read Historiann on the same subject, who certainly read the story much closer than I did: How, you might wonder, did anyone know that [...]

  27. maude on 17 Apr 2010 at 7:57 am #

    I just recently went through something similar or at least related. A student who is still in HS taking classes for college credit didn’t follow directions on a simple assignment. There were a list of things involved for the revision guidelines and she did not follow a single one of them. When I told her that her grade would be affected by it, she ran to my chair saying that it wasn’t fair that I had such stupid guidelines and that it wasn’t fair that her grade should be affected for not following them. I generally love my chair, BUT rather than saying, “um well you were aware of the guidelines and you didn’t follow them, so what’s your problem,” I was called in and my guidelines were questioned for their validity. The student also proclaimed in class, “I didn’t think you were serious about those guidelines.” Well, that sounds like you made a decision and there are consequences for that decision. But no, I had to sit through THREE meetings with my chair about a) my attitude about being upset that after she announced that she didn’t think I was serious and that then 2/3 of the class make same statement in unison–it was wrong for me to react to this negatively; b) I had to justify my guidelines and what their function for the revision was; c) and was given an hour long “lecture” under the guise of friendly advice about how not to get upset over students telling me they don’t take me seriously because this is going to down the road affect me professionally and it makes the students not want to learn. There is perhaps truth in that, but I got upset that day, and they knew exactly why I was pissed.

    The biggest complaint was over grades and that I’m “not fun anymore.” After like the 8th time of being asked “are you really going to count off for that” I decided then to go in the complete opposite direction and give them all extra credit for following the guidelines and then make a point in class on pointing out that those who followed directions got a ridiculously inflated grade that will give them a tremendous boost to their overall grades. When I told my chair I was going to give it as extra credit, he was under the impression it was only 5 points or so. Nope. It ended up being 24 extra points on a 130 point project. Most who followed directions got a grade or so increase. But it was absolutely priceless to see the student’s expression when she realized that students who are worse writers than she are now making a higher grade than she.

    What bothered me the most about this whole thing was that the complaint about being penalized for not following directions was even entertained and that she was validated in her complaint that it seemed that others were in agreement that it was not indeed fair to penalize her for not doing the assignment correctly as they kept asking if I was actually going to take points off for not following directions. So now students can turn in assignments apparently under their own guidelines as to what they think is “fair” for them regardless of what or how I’m trying to teach them. And then when they can’t follow directions and thus don’t learn the skill needed, it’s going to somehow be my fault that they are not prepared for the next course in the sequence because I didn’t teach them the appropriate skills. As a new and very junior faculty member, this is very very distressing. Granted, there are some things that I need to think about in terms of the class, but this whole experience has just been extremely disheartening. There’s a reason the good students want to go somewhere else. I would, too.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  28. maude on 17 Apr 2010 at 8:04 am #

    P.S. I think the other thing that really bothers me about this, too, is that the students who aren’t prepared, because I basically *had* to make accommodations for this student, are going to pass when they really aren’t ready. Only a handful got the full 24 points–most got around 10-15 or so, but even the ones who got 2-5 extra points, it was still enough to bump them from an F to a D, and they really deserve the F. I’m not so much angry about this anymore (although it’s only been one week since the last meeting), just frustrated and discouraged because things that I had been doing for years are now “pedagogically unsound” (Chair’s words) because one student complained because she doesn’t like how I do things.

  29. Historiann on 17 Apr 2010 at 8:32 am #

    Maude: your chair sounds like a tool. I don’t get his behavior at all, except to say that I think some Chairs relish the notion of schooling the new kids on the block how to handle “our students.” So this may just have presented him with the juiciest opportunity to do this so far this year–it may not be related to you or to this student’s complaint at all, in other words.

    It was inappropriate to entertain the complaints of a whiner and not to back you up, since you were merely enforcing the rules that *everyone* had to follow. In the future, you may need to write more detailed instructions explaining how each element of a project links back to a “learning objective.” (You might also put in your “learning objectives” on your syllabus that you want students to learn to follow instructions. Sadly, many of our students come to college unable to do that, so it might be a good thing to do for them.)

    Chairs who don’t circle the wagons around the faculty are Chairs who will only be inviting more student whiners into their offices. That’s a work-creation strategy that I totally don’t understand.

  30. takingitoutside on 17 Apr 2010 at 5:37 pm #

    The administration was really heavy-handed here. I think looking at students as volunteers is a bit off though. I read the article as a student, and there were some red flags that popped right out at me. To take your example of daily quizzes, yeah, they would be on the syllabus, but it sounds like Prof. Homberger went to great lengths to make them particularly difficult. It’s all fine and well to say that giving 10 options reduces the chance that a student might get lucky, but more options means that more time is necessary to read a question. Either she extended the quiz time (shortening teaching time) or quiz grades were based on just one or two questions. Failing one question on a two-question quiz gives you a failing grade on un-curved quizzes. That wouldn’t show up on a syllabus.

    What worries me the most was this line: “she also said that she told the students that — despite her tough grading policies — she believes in giving credit to those who improve over the course of the semester.” I’ve had teachers who have said similar things before, and it’s incredibly tone deaf. If I know that I’m failing three weeks into the class and the teacher says something like that it doesn’t help me. I have my grade in hand, I know that I’m failing, and the teacher is urging me to take time away from other classes in order to hopefully get an unknown amount of credit if I improve? There’s no guarantee that I’ll improve, and even if I do I may not get enough credit to pass. If I work hard, improve, and fail anyway, I won’t have any grounds to complain because random credit from improvement isn’t quantified on the syllabus. This is precisely why syllabi exist: students need some idea of how grades will be determined.

    Someone mentioned being able to drop classes. I’m not sure how LSU does it, but most of the schools I know have different drop deadlines and deadlines at which you can get your money back or transfer to a new course. Those deadlines tend to be earlier, closer to when first tests start showing up, so students often have to make the drop/continue determination based on one test, or less. There’s simply no time to figure out if there will be enough improvement on the second test.

    From that standpoint, I can see why the administration reacted so quickly, even though they clearly over-reacted. I wish there was more information in that article, like how much of the 90% had dropped versus failed and what the department was doing in all of this. If more were dropping than failing – particularly in this economy – it might have cost the college more to run the class than they could sustain.

  31. Historiann on 18 Apr 2010 at 8:10 am #

    takingitoutside: of course the students were volunteers! College education is not mandatory, and although most students were probably taking the course to check a box in their distribution requirements, presumably there were other ways to satisfy that requirement.

    The students are totally within their rights not to like her class, but they need to take responsibility for their educations. The administrators’ end-run appears to make the professor and administrators responsible for students’ educations, not the students.

  32. Z on 18 Apr 2010 at 11:19 am #

    Cgeye – no, it’s not related to Katrina, I don’t think. Not that relatively few LSU students are from N.O. Also, I don’t think the administration would act so fast in support of N.O. students. This is a defense of more privileged types, I believe. LSU is a big Greek and football school and is predominantly white. It has a largely suburban/rural student population.

    What is strange is that nobody talked to the professor, they just acted. This is getting more and more common. Administrators believe whatever is first said, and do not actually investigate.

    Still, I do not really understand why it is no longer seen as the student’s responsibility, if they are failing, to either study or drop — although I have some ideas.

    1) Many cannot afford to drop because if they do they will have to refund some of their student loan money, so they will not be able to make rent, etc.

    2) Others cannot afford to drop/fail because they have TOPS. This is a partial or complete tuition waiver for which you can apply if you have a 2.5 or higher GPA in high school and an ACT score around the state average. Many students enter college with TOPS but do not keep it, because college is harder than high school and the minimum requirements for TOPS are not terribly high. However, since TOPS came in, there has been a lot of pressure on faculty to give grades that will allow students to maintain their tuition waivers.

  33. Z on 18 Apr 2010 at 11:39 am #

    P.S. There are a lot of ways for non majors to meet those requirements, but a lot of advisors, peer advisors and parents don’t realize it. They hear of one course that meets a requirement, and they tell students and advisees that that course is “required.” This feeds the idea that the students are effectively incarcerated in the course.

  34. Z on 18 Apr 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Also — to “taking it outside” — yes, I know.

    But I notice that the students who are most freaked out about grades are the ones who don’t study or plan to, or who aren’t prepared for the course but also aren’t willing to go back and take the prerequisites. I always advise dropping to these groups of students but they don’t want to hear of it: they want some sort of guarantee that they will not only pass, but earn a high grade without meeting the regular course requirements.

    Also, I notice that students decide to be intimated on really irrational grounds. I gave a quiz the other day consisting of 5 items to identify. I revealed 3 of the 5 48 hours ahead of time. There was an additional list of possible items given out at that time. I explained that of those items, 6 would appear on the quiz and of those 6, each person was to choose 2.

    So: 3 items were pre-revealed, and the other two came from a pre-revealed list, and there was to be a choice on those two.

    But what the students said at the time of the quiz was that they had not understood that I would choose 6 items from that list and they would choose 2. They said they had not been sure *and had been afraid to ask*, and so had decided I meant they were to choose any 2 from the whole list. Now, they said, it was unfair of me not to let them do that.

    What seems bogus to me in all of this is that they allege having been afraid to ask for clarification of the quiz format ahead of time, but were not at all afraid to ask for it to be mega-easy when the moment of truth came.

  35. Z on 18 Apr 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    P.S. Sorry to go on and on, but.

    Matt L: “I didn’t have a chance to read the link, but there has to be more to the story. Was some state legislator’s kid in danger of flunking bio 101?” I’m sure, and also probably some ExxonMobil execs’ kids.

    90% drop/fail on first test, well I typically get this as a raw result in any course with freshmen in it — especially if I apply the standards I learned to have as a TA. What I do is, bump everyone up half a grade automatically and see what it looks like then.

    If not enough are passing at that point, I then start curving more. The results are that students are not pushed improve that much unless they are motivated for their own reasons, and/but that the higher ups are less unhappy with me than they would otherwise be. Women are supposed to be NICE, you know!

  36. quixote on 18 Apr 2010 at 4:21 pm #

    This one cuts too close to home. I’ve taught those classes, although luckily I’ve never had to deal with an administration like Homberger’s.

    (What’s up with that, by the way? I know I’m dating myself, but even when I was a temp, it was understood that all academic matters were the sole purview of the Department. The Chair could give you beans about inconsistent grading across sections, but not a Dean or Provost. Has this changed while I’ve been off in my own little world?)

    Non-majors Bio classes, if they have a lab, satisfy the biology requirement for many medical and nursing schools. So plenty of the students are pre-health professionals, even if not strictly bio majors.

    As one of my colleagues often said, his worst nightmare was arriving in the operating room and recognizing one of his students, still looking just as gormless.

    There are some vital (literally) reasons for rigor in these classes.

    And even if the students are dance majors, many current issues require some knowledge of biology (eg, stem cells, climate change, estrogen-analogue pollutants like BPA). Democracy is supposed to depend on informed voters, so requiring all students to show some grasp of the information doesn’t seem unreasonable.

    As for the 90% failure rate, that, too, is not uncommon. You don’t hear about it because most people curve the scores, but tests — especially early in the semester — where 90% of the students answer less than 50% of the questions correctly are not uncommon.

    I, and many other profs, “frontloaded” our classes, like Homberger, although maybe not as vividly. The idea is to make it clear to the students just how much time, studying, and aptitude the class requires before the drop date. It seems kinder, overall, to give them the option of a W rather than an indelible F.

    The part that blows me away about this story isn’t even whether Homberger was doing anything unusual (only in her honesty). It’s that the administration takes it upon themselves to tell her how to grade! There’s a name for those places. Diploma mills.

  37. Historiann on 18 Apr 2010 at 6:33 pm #

    Z’s comment suggests a metareason not to slacken standards: no matter how much rope you give them, they’ll still perform to about the same curve. (And quixote’s comment suggests another, extremely important reason not to go easy in the “lower-division classes for non-majors:” do you really want one of those students with an inflated grade to be your surgical nurse or MRI tech? Can we live with the burden of unleashing the unqualified masses on an unsuspecting public?

    I know I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

  38. quixote on 19 Apr 2010 at 7:26 am #

    Me too, sorry to go on and on, but as I say, this one is close to home.

    Re: performing to the same curve. Absolutely. It’s pretty much a Law: Student performance will equal half of their perceived expectation of the requirements. I.e. X(asked) => 1/2 X(result).

    The funniest instance of that I’ve seen was in a beginning computer operating system class I took to broaden my horizons. I was the only actual beginner. The rest were all sysops satisfying job requirements for continuing education. And they made so much noise about how difficult the first exam was that the prof actually asked me whether it was really that bad. It was so far from bad it was easy. He seemed very relieved.

  39. Cassandra on 20 Apr 2010 at 12:10 am #

    Historiann said, “Can we live with the burden of unleashing the unqualified masses on an unsuspecting public?”

    But, they’re already out there. They are MRI techs and nurses and doctors and schoolteachers and principals and professors and deans and used car salesmen and education profiteers and senators and even a president or two.

    But the NUMBERS of them now…whoa!

    And they’re crowding out the competent from being given the simple opportunity to demonstrate their competency.

    What better way to kill a country?

  40. What is the sound of one hand slapping my forhead? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 28 Apr 2010 at 5:47 am #

    [...] candidates win tenure and promotion at Brown and wants to lower it?  (You’ll recall that Dean Carman is the guy who yanked a proffie out of her own course because of a high rate of studen….)  Would he be concerned that 30% of Brown Assistant Professors are “failing?”  Would [...]

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