Prof: Group learning wastes time

Group learning “is a waste of classroom time and an obstacle to student learning,” argues Bruce Gans, who taught English at City Colleges of Chicago.

At a community college where he worked, non-tenured English instructors were evaluated on whether they fostered “group activities such as study groups and team projects.” Those who didn’t use group learning risked losing their jobs.

Gans observed teachers who were up for tenure or contract extensions.

A literature instructor wanted students to understand metaphor. She “circulated a set of lachrymose pop song lyrics and divvied the students into groups of three to identify and analyze the lyric’s figures of speech.”

During the collaboration period, most of the groups alternated between working desultorily and not at all. The instructor leaned against the edge of her desk silently observing her realm, then circulated briefly among the groups.  There were many to visit, which precluded going into great depth with any.

Much might have been accomplished had the instructor used that class time to present accurate analysis and modeling the thought process of decoding metaphor and to directly question her students. Instead, the students learned very little from their group work.

In a class on how to write a research paper, another instructor paired students, distributed readings on the research topic and told students to teach each other how to paraphrase the passages.

Students texted, made phone calls, chatted and joked. It “seems exceedingly unlikely” they learned about paraphrasing, Gans writes.

The central value of being in a classroom consists in the opportunity to be instructed directly by an expert credentialed in a core skill and complex body of knowledge, a teacher who has experience articulating ideas clearly and in holding students to rigorous standards of proficiency and civility.

. . . The strategy of group work, in contrast, is to unleash learning by yoking together two or more students who often possess neither aptitude nor concern for the assignment.  If a professor divides a class into small groups to correct grammar errors in their papers, no one should be surprised when the final papers substantially retain the original errors and have incorporated new ones.

Group projects are supposed to teach students to collaborate. Gans is dubious. “Groups are creatures of compromise, consensus, the intellectual mean, the mediocre.”

Having students evaluate each other’s writing doesn’t work if nobody’s a good writer, argues Troy Camplin, a lecturer in English at University of North Texas in Dallas.

A remedial writing student asked why we did peer review since, “I feel like I’m getting nothing but bad advice. I mean, they don’t know any more than I do.”

. . . I spent about half of my time going around telling students to ignore practically everything their fellow students told them to do. My students did not know grammar, or how to write a good sentence, or how to write a coherent paragraph, or how to make an argument – and I was asking them to critique their fellow students on precisely those points!

Good writers tend to be avid readers, Camplin argues. “The practice of reading good writing allows you to see what good sentences, good paragraphs, and good arguments look like.”  Students need to read extensively “before they can learn how to write well.”

Acceleration works!

California’s community colleges must accelerate teaching for remedial students to give more students a shot at success, writes Gary K. Hart, a former state senator and board member of the Campaign for College Opportunity, in the Sacramento Bee.

More than 70 percent of entering community college students are unprepared for college-level work. Most drop out.

Why such a high failure rate? Too often remedial courses are a repeat of high school classes involving tedious drills and low standards that already haven’t worked for students. Poorly prepared students become bored and discouraged, especially since they earn no college credits during their multiple semesters of remedial work.

Faculty members created the California Acceleration Project to develop innovative courses using challenging, relevant materials. Students can complete college English and math requirements in one year.

Instead of filling in the blanks in grammar workbooks, students are writing essays about the ethics of controversial psychology experiments. Instead of word problems about two trains traveling toward each other, they’re analyzing real-life data from pregnant women to identify factors correlated with low birth weights.

CAP students’ odds of completing college-level English more than doubled and their odds of completing college math were more than four times higher than regular remedial students, according to a recent study.

Accelerated English courses are improving success rates at Chabot College, according to the Community College Research Center at Teachers’ College, Columbia.

Carnegie’s Statway, an accelerated math program, is producing gains at  American River College in Sacramento, Hart adds.

. . . why isn’t accelerated remediation offered at all California’s community colleges? Why are most students still stuck in the traditional system and dropping out at high rates? There are some modest retooling costs that are necessary, but the major problem seems to be inertia and a failure of imagination.

. . . Two years ago the Legislature adopted and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law with great fanfare the California Community College Student Success Act, which includes important initiatives such as campus-by-campus student progress scorecards, a more consistent assessment system, and new funding structures for services such as student orientation and counseling. They are all important reforms, yet curricular redesign and a focus on effective teaching strategies were absent. I believe until the heart of the education process is addressed (what is taught and how it is taught), our community college reforms will fall short, and large numbers of students who deserve a chance to work hard and earn a degree will continue to be casualties of a dysfunctional system.

Accelerated remediation should be available to all students, not just the lucky few, concludes Hart.

‘Inferiority myth’ plagues community colleges

Community colleges are fighting an inferiority myth, writes Kerry Hart, president of Morgan Community College in Colorado. “A community college education is as good — or even superior to what universities offer during the first two years,” he argues in the Fort Morgan Times.

Community colleges have smaller class sizes and give students more individual attention. In addition, the academic courses taught at the freshman and sophomore levels are identical to those taught at the university (and that’s why in Colorado we have a common course numbering system with guaranteed transfer from any Colorado community college to any Colorado public four-year institution and virtually all of the private universities as well).

. . . Unlike universities, community colleges do not use teaching assistants. . . . many university faculty are hired to do research as their primary job responsibility, and community college faculty are committed to helping students become successful.

In addition, students are comparable at community colleges and universities, writes Hart. “One can find academically well-prepared, bright, capable, gifted and economically advantaged students in both settings.”

A small but growing number of community colleges are dropping the word “community,” reports USA Today. The Seattle Colleges and Henry Ford College in Michigan are the latest to make the change. Most Florida community colleges are now “state colleges.”

One motivation is “a desire to increase enrollments and to upgrade the traditional image of community colleges as a place where students go if they can’t get admitted anywhere else.”

In surveys for Seattle Colleges, for example, high school principals said students “were sometimes put off by the name ‘community college’ and would come if it was called a college,” says spokeswoman Susan Kostick.

Michigan’s Jackson College hopes the name change will help it recruit international students.

Community colleges “are constantly having to defend themselves to people who have no idea what those colleges do or how they do it, and who often evaluate their worth using criteria designed to assess four-year campuses,” writes Rob Jenkins, who teaches at Georgia Perimeter College.

Adjuncts lack training, support

Community colleges depend heavily on part-time faculty but rarely treat them as “full partners in promoting student success,” charges Contingent Commitments: Bringing Part-Time Faculty Into Focus, a new report by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE).

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Adjuncts teach 58 percent of community college classes, CCCSE reports. They work for much less money than full-time instructors and for minimal or no benefits.

Part-timers teach the neediest students: More than three-quarters of developmental education faculty are adjuncts.

Adjuncts are less likely to refer students to counselors, tutors or labs, perhaps because they’re less aware of support services.

Though many part-time faculty express their passion for teaching and commitment to student success, many also see themselves as outsiders in the colleges where they work. Many do not find out whether they will be teaching classes until just days before the term begins. Their access to orientation, professional development, college services, or office space to do their own work and meet with students is limited or simply unavailable. They rarely, if ever, are engaged in interaction with their peers or in campus discussions about the steps colleges need to take to improve student learning, persistence, and completion.

In focus groups, adjuncts complained they’d never been told how to make copies or find their mail boxes.

Embracing Non-Tenure Track Faculty,, edited by Adrianna Kezar, suggests ways colleges could improve working conditions for the “new majority” of contingent instructors.

For-profit students like teaching, but not costs

Current and former for-profit college students like their school’s quality, but not the high costs, reports Public Agenda. Alumni aren’t certain their degree was worth it.

Students and alumni “agree that their schools have caring instructors, keep class sizes small, and give effective guidance (though alumni are slightly less enthusiastic),” according to the survey. Current students say they’re making good progress in their course of study.

However, students and alumni say their schools are expensive, and nearly half of current students say they worry “a lot” about taking on too much debt.  

A third of alumni say their degree “really wasn’t worth it.” Another 30 percent say their degree’s value “remains to be seen” and 37 percent say their degree was “well worth it.”

About half of the employers surveyed see few differences between for-profit and not-for-profit colleges. The rest see public institutions as superior. However, many employers aren’t clear about which colleges are for-profit or non-profit.

Many students don’t realize they’re attending a “for-profit” school. 

Like community colleges, for-profit colleges draw many low-income students, notes Public Agenda.  These “economically vulnerable” students are not “comparative shoppers.” Just 39 percent of for-profit undergraduates and 32 percent of for-profit alumni had considered more than one school before they enrolled at their current institutions. Even fewer considered a non-profit alternative. Community college students show similar patterns.

When a calling stops calling

Teaching was a “calling” when she had a shot at a permanent job, writes Rebecca Schuman. Now, after “two years as a slightly less-disposable faculty member, with a salary, full benefits, course-design autonomy, and my own office,” she’s returned to “dead-end adjuncting.” As a disposable teacher, she’s “hanging up” on the calling, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

George Washington University’s Joseph Fruscione, whose adjunct advocacy has thrust him into the public eye, told me that what “calling” he has felt to teach hasn’t changed—just his perceptions of academe. He wrote to me: “I entered with a (too) idealistic sense of it as a place of knowledge and intellectual inquiry. Being essentially cheap, renewable labor has made me feel cynical and a little angry about how universities are knowingly overusing contingent faculty while adding more administrators, provosts, and the like.”

Calling teaching a “calling” is an excuse to pay less, said Katie Guest Pryal, who teaches legal writing at the University of North Carolina.

The language of “calling” can contribute to the feminization of contingency, a California adjunct said.  “My mother was a second-wave feminist and taught me to see the use of the words ‘calling’ and ‘vocation’ as excuses not to pay women for labor, especially in teaching and nursing.”

Adjuncts demand equality

The plight of temporary, part-time college instructors is getting attention, if not action.

Adjunct college instructors complain of low pay, few benefits, shifting schedules and no job security in The Just-in-Time Professor. The report was compiled from an online forum set up by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat.

Most respondents said they make $2,000 to $3,500 per three-credit course or an average of $24,926 a year, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

More than 60 respondents reported salaries that would put them beneath the federal poverty line for a three-person family. Some respondents said they were on federal assistance programs like Medicaid or food stamps. One added: “During the time I taught at the community college, I earned so little that I sold my plasma on Tuesdays and Thursdays to pay for [my child’s] daycare costs.”

On top of low pay, 75 percent of the respondents who discussed the topic said they did not receive benefits—either because their employer didn’t offer them or because they were otherwise ineligible. One adjunct wrote: “The health care plan that I could buy into costs more than my take-home pay on even a good year. My retirement plan is to work until they bury me.”

In Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System, edited by Keith Hoeller, 11 activists propose solutions to the “two-tier system.”

Three-fourths of college faculty are “contingent,” a nearly tenfold increase since 1975, according to the writers. That divides the faculty into haves and have-nots. The book describes successful organizing efforts. 

Hoeller is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Green River Community College, cofounder of the Washington Part-Time Faculty Association and co-organizer of the New Faculty Majority.

Marcia Newfield and Rosalind Petchesky have advanced degrees and decades of experience teaching at City University of New York, reports NBC. As an adjunct, Newfield earns $3,622 for each of the two classes she teaches each semester at Borough of Manhattan Community College. She now has health insurance but “no job security, disability benefits, permanent office, or input in her department’s curriculum, and only a meager pension.” Petchesky, a “distinguished” professor with tenure, makes about $144,000 a year.

Accelerated teaching

Teaching “accelerated” English and math is very different from teaching a traditional remedial class, write Katie Hern and Myra Snell, in Toward a Vision of Accelerated Curriculum and Pedagogy. In the LearningWorks brief, the two community college professors draw on their work with the California Acceleration Project (CAP), a project of the California Community College Support Network (3CSN).

In traditional models of remediation, students often work on sub-skills, such as completing grammar exercises or reviewing a long list of arithmetic and algebra procedures from their prior schooling.

“We don’t believe that the basics should be separated out and front-loaded before students can tackle more challenging – and frankly, more interesting – tasks,” writes Hern. “Instead, we believe under-prepared students need practice with college-level skills, content, and ways of thinking. They need to reason their way through open-ended questions on topics that matter. They need to think. And if, along the way, we see that they are weak in some of the basics, we need to build in targeted support.”

At 12 California community colleges offering accelerated remediation, completion of college-level English increased by 50 percent. Accelerated math students were 3.3 times more likely to complete a college-level math course, according to preliminary results from a study by the Research and Planning Group.

Ninety percent of low-level remedial math students never earn a certificate or degree. That’s “Old Testament bad, rivers of blood bad,” says Uri Treisman, a University of Texas math and public affairs professor.

“The evidence is clear that requiring students to complete multiple semesters of remedial courses is just not working,” says Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks. But community colleges “need to think about not only curricular structure, but about how faculty are teaching.”

Study: Adjuncts are just as effective

Adjuncts don’t hurt — or help — student success at community colleges, concludes a preliminary study. Most research shows adjuncts aren’t as effective, notes Inside Higher Ed. But a study released earlier in the fall found students may learn more from adjuncts, “at least at research universities.”

Hongwei Yu, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Office of Community College Research and Leadership, was lead author of The Effect of Part-time Faculty on Students’ Degree and/or Certificate Completion in Two-Year Community Colleges. 

The authors attribute their findings regarding adjuncts and student success to the possibility that community colleges “hire a significant percentage of part-time faculty who come directly from professional fields and  have practical experiences, skills, and knowledge [...] which may help students achieve degree or certificate completion in two-year community colleges. In addition, part-time faculty may provide students connections to workplace or a community.”

Researchers found lower completion rates at large community colleges (10,000 or more students) and at rural colleges. High school grades also correlated with completion rates.

More than two-thirds of community college faculty are adjuncts teaching part-time for low wages, no benefits and no job security.

Some adjuncts are trying to organize for better treatment, but there’s a large pool of people with advanced degrees and limited job prospects.

The Adjunct Question is the topic for the week at National Journal.

Teaching the unprepared

Colleges are trying hard to raise the success rates — or, at least, the pass rates — of unprepared students, writes Eileen F. Toplansky, who teaches writing at two- and four-year institutions. She’s been urged to take an online seminar that promises to teach how to create relevant content, engage students and deal with “incomplete homework” and “course assignments that are sloppily completed or completely ignored.”

. . . as instructors, we are supposed to “tease knowledge out of students, rather than pound it into their heads. Projects and collaborative learning are applauded [whereas] traditional methods like lecturing and memorization are [often] derided as ‘drill and kill’” even though these latter methods do work well.

The vocabulary base of many of my students ranges between the fifth and seventh grade reading level. The dictionary is a foreign object. Yet, incessantly, instructors are told to engage in peer-review; that is, students grade and evaluate other students’ work.

Toplansky supplies unedited passages by community college students:

Interests of people change and people begin to seek a self-defiance. When these things happen, people begin admiring uncharacteristic traits. People fall in love and typically get married. But unlike in the past, people are getting married for a different reason.

and

From the study it was proven that even though the teen had an unplanned pregnancy, theirs evidence suggesting even though the teen got pregnant by accident they purposely don’t use contraception because they would like to get pregnant.

Another student wrote: “Every human being lurks for love from another, same sex or not.”

Ah, yes. Lurking for love in all the wrong places.