Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reflections on effectiveness and advocacy

Another fall has come and will soon go in the ebb and flow of higher education.  Once again students find themselves either rejoicing at making it through their courses or being confronted with the hard results of failure.

This time, for me, is a time for reflection on where I was successful in reaching my students or failed to adequately prepare them.  I, like most educators, agonize over the loss of the borderline student, or I shake my head in frustration when I think of those who come to college to "play" or work the system, a waste of talents and taxpayer dollars.  I reflect on these events and can find no permanent answers to the challenges and frustrations of my profession, only strategies that can be implemented in the hopes of optimizing success.  After all, good education, in practice, is sometimes more of an art than a science.

At this point in my career I have also made a choice to become more of a committed advocate for students higher education, especially for those enrolled in community colleges.  My reason for advocacy, the future of the community college in Mississippi, the home of my current employer, is once again on shaky ground.
Community colleges in Mississippi have historically been the backbone of postsecondary education and workforce training in the state.  These institutions have provided low cost educations to the working poor, the middle class, and even the upper classes of the state for decades.  Students from these institutions have gone on to obtain Bachelor's degrees as transfer students, as well as advanced degrees from other colleges and universities. The workforce training and development has also been a crucial part of the state's transition from a primarily agrarian economy into a more diverse industrial and service economy.

With the tough economy driving up unemployment more students have enrolled in the state's community colleges in order to seek retraining or new careers altogether.  Some of our community colleges have experienced record enrollment, a condition many people would call a boon rather than a problem.  However, this population explosion puts a strain on an institution in terms of space, services, and wear on facilities.  Add to this the cost of educating a given student (the actual sometimes close to 3x the cost of tuition and fees), and the need for state funding becomes even more crucial, since, like other community colleges throughout the US, the bulk of funding for Mississippi's community colleges comes from the state and county districts they serve.  The funding from these sources, unfortunately, has been severely hurt by consistently falling tax revenues.

Past techniques revisited

     This semester has seen a return to teaching and testing techniques that I thought I had abandoned.  This semester I returned to multiple choice exams and have added oral testing in the class (i.e. "come up to the board, please...").
      I have observed a mixed bag of results.  On the upside, I have developed a research-oriented pedagogy that allows me to link students misconceptions to specific learning objectives.  Students also have some instantaneous feedback about their deficiencies regarding basic concepts in the text.  On the downside, however, I have noted a potentially disturbing trend.  It seems very few of my students, especially among the traditional freshmen, are able to study effectively or even have the capability to make the most rudimentary connections between concepts.
     This situation has prompted me to look at my students within the concepts of student development theory to explain the situation.  From what I can tell, my students seem to be stuck within the dualistic position of development described by Perry's theory of intellectual development.  This way of thinking mean students look at the world in terms of right and wrong with no grey areas in between.  now, this situation is quite common among traditional students, but the current crop  seems to have this perspective more firmly entrenched.  For example, I have needed to explain how to study for these studdents, even going so far as to require them to make notecards and explain exactly how to make the notecards.  I have also found myself in the position where I am forcing them to memorize information for the exams. This means I must test them on their ability to learn at the lowest levels of Bloom's taxonomy, rather than giving them information in order for them to demonstrate their ability to apply information.
     All in all, I am rather frustrated at my students' absence of basic work ethic and learning skills.  Lucky for them, however, they have an instructor who cares too much to let them flounder.  They may not always like me, but they will leave my class with a more realistic knowledge of college learning.