Teaching grade 12½

Instructor Fabiola Aurelien (left) helps Atlanta Metropolitan College student Shaundraey Carmichael.

The first year of college has become grade 12½ writes Rick Diguette in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Once he taught college English at the local community college. He’s still teaching composition, but it’s no longer “college” English.

Every semester many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect.  Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree―when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects.  If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I often remind them that even the keenest of insights will never receive due credit if it isn’t expressed in accordance with the rules of grammar and usage.  Spelling words correctly, as well as distinguishing words that sound the same but are not, is also a big plus.  “Weather” and “whether” are not interchangeable, for example, but even after I point this out some students continue to make the mistake.  And while I’m on the subject, the same goes for “whether” and “rather.”

A state law called Complete College Georgia now links college funding to student performance, writes Diguette. Georgia Perimeter College faculty have developed testable “Core Concepts” students are expected to master in freshman English.

Early in the semester we must first assess their ability to identify a complete sentence ― that is, one with a subject and a verb.  After that, somewhere around week five, we find out if they can identify a topic sentence ― the thing that controls the content of a paragraph. Then it’s on to using supporting details by week eight and creating thesis statements by week eleven.

It’s a low bar, he admits.

Is this grade 12 1/2? These were elementary and middle-school skills when I was in school, admittedly in the Neanderthal era. I remember learning “weather” and “whether” in fourth grade. I guess we didn’t learn to create thesis statements supported by details until ninth grade.

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.”

Students do well on fast track to college English

An accelerated one-semester reading and writing course helped remedial students succeed at California’s Chabot College, concludes a Community College Research Center study. Compared to students in the two-semester course, fast-tracked students were more likely to complete college English, earn a certificate or degree and transfer to a four-year college or university. They accumulated more credits and earned higher grades.

“I like the one-semester idea,” said an adjunct who’d taught both versions of the course. “I think when you give them two full semesters, you give them that much longer to find a reason to leave.”

However, some instructors believed weaker,  less confident students, especially immigrants still learning English, needed more time in developmental English. One veteran teacher said:

Maybe ESL students do need to be taking it a little bit slower because they are not just acquiring cognitive and academic skills. What they are acquiring are language skills. … And you can accelerate your progress to some degree, but a certain amount of that is just going to be time.

Chabot’s English department rejected “remedial pedagogy” — drill and practice on subskills — years ago, the researchers write. Assignments in developmental English are designed to mirror tasks students will be expected to perform in college-level English, but with “lower levels of complexity and more scaffolding.”

 Several instructors said the accelerated course helped students by more closely resembling the expectations in college-level courses. Fast-tracking gives students “that college feeling,” said a faculty member who teaches both developmental and college-level English courses. 

While fast-tracking remedial English had “greater benefits for students with higher English and reading placement scores,” lower-skilled students weren’t harmed, the study found.

Employers: Grads aren’t ready to work

Eleven percent of business leaders strongly agree that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies their companies need, according to a new Gallup/Lumina poll. Yet, in a Gallup/Inside Higher Ed survey, 96 percent of university officers believe that they’re effectively preparing students for success in the workplace.

“Something is very wrong when you see the academic leaders of higher education giving themselves an A+ on this while business leaders give them an F,” said Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education.

Just 16 percent of business leaders strongly agree that jobs at their business require a post-secondary degree or credential to be successful; 38 percent strongly disagree.

Business leaders were asked what talent, knowledge or skills will prepare graduates for success in the workforce. The most popular response was that higher education institutions should provide internships and practical, on-the-job experience. In addition to experience, business leaders most want to hire people with strong communication skills, including writing and speaking skills.

Employers value both hard and soft skills, writes Julian Alssid, chief workforce strategist at College for America, in the Huffington Post.

I’ve had conversation after conversation with leaders in manufacturing, healthcare, insurance, government, retail and other industries, and the song remains the same. The skills sets that matter across all of these sectors are too often missing from their entry-level employees, whether they have degrees or not. These include hard skills — such as producing an extended piece of writing or interpreting information contained in graphs and charts — and soft skills — such as negotiating with others to settle conflicts and disputes.

To produce job-ready graduates, colleges and universities “must teach and hone skills through learning activities that mimic real-world scenarios rather than testing students on abstract principles,” writes Alssid.

Competency-based, project-based education can narrow the skills gap, argues College for America.

Thank God I wasn’t college material

Thank God I wasn’t college material, writes Matt Walsh.

He hated high school.

I dreaded every class, every assignment, every test, every worksheet, every mound of busywork, every shallow and forced interaction with peers I couldn’t relate to or connect with or understand; every moment, every second, every part, every inch of every aspect of my public educational experience.”

One day in detention, the teacher asked what he wanted to do with his life. He thought maybe he could be a writer. Writing was the only thing that came naturally.

 That’s when she dropped the bombshell: “Well, that sounds like an amazing goal, Matt. Get those grades up and go to college for a degree in creative writing!”

. . . I have to go to college to do the one thing I’m kind of halfway good at doing? I have to finish high school and then go through FOUR MORE YEARS OF THIS? Impossible. I’m not college material. I’m not even high school material.

And I have to get a DEGREE in CREATIVITY? Wait, WHAT? Your creativity comes from your own mind and your own heart — you can’t learn how to be creative. If I can write things, and people want to read the things that I write, shouldn’t I be able to market that ability, regardless of my college experience?

Walsh never went to college. That means he didn’t “amass a gigantic debt” or “miss out on four or five years” developing his skills.  He supports his family of four as a writer.

College makes sense for future doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like, Walsh writes. But it’s a scam for most students.

Something has to change. Listen to me on this one. Something HAS to change. This can’t continue. It is not a sustainable model. There are millions of kids with no assets, no plans, and no purpose, taking out enormous loans to purchase a piece of paper they’ll likely never use. It can’t go on this way.

. . . Total student debt has gone up by 275 percent in the last decade. How far will it climb, how many more kids will be thrown to the wolves, before we change direction? Since I was born, college tuition rates have gone up by 500 percent. FIVE HUNDRED PERCENT. Why do we send guys like Bernie Madoff to prison while the academic elite get away with gouging an entire generation to death?

Don’t send your kids to college” unless they’re pursuing a career that requires a degree, he writes.

Writers can demonstrate their skills by writing. In many other fields, it’s harder to prove competence. But certifications, digital badges and such like could help young adults show what they know.

Chris Bowyer is the first person in his family not to go to college. He works for the family business, a media company. He thinks college costs too much.

ASAP: More guidance, more degrees

Easy come, easy go is the unofficial motto of community colleges. Anyone can enroll. Few will graduate. Daquan McGee escaped the community college trap by enrolling in City University of New York’s structured, guided, get-it-done ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs), writes Ann Hurlbert in The Atlantic.

McGee enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in the spring of 2010. At 19, he’d served two years in prison for attempted robbery. He failed placement tests in writing and math, but passed an intensive remedial writing course over the summer, while working full-time at a Top Tomato Super Store. He opted for ASAP in the fall.

McGee would have to enroll full-time . . . Every other week, he would be required to meet with his adviser, who would help arrange his schedule and track his progress. In addition to his full course load, McGee would have to complete his remaining remedial class, in math, immediately. If he slipped up, his adviser would hear about it from his instructor—and mandatory tutoring sessions would follow. If he failed, he would have to retake the class right away. Also on McGee’s schedule was a non-optional, noncredit weekly College Success Seminar, featuring time-management strategies, tips on study habits and goal setting, exercises in effective communication, and counsel on other life skills. The instructor would be taking attendance. If McGee complied with all that was asked of him, he would be eligible for . . . a free, unlimited MetroCard good for the following month. More important, as long as he stayed on track, the portion of his tuition not already covered by financial aid would be waived.

McGee graduated with an associate’s degree in multimedia studies in two and a half years. (I’d love to know if he’s been able to get a better job. Is he on a career path?)

In urban community colleges, the national three-year graduation rate is 16 percent, Hurlbert writes. “Nationwide, barely more than a third of community-college enrollees emerge with a certificate or degree within six years.”

ASAP, launched in 2007, aims to get half its students to a degree in three years. It appears to be exceeding that goal, according to preliminary results of a three-year study that randomly assigned students to either ASAP or the regular community-college track. “A third of the students who enrolled in ASAP in the spring of 2010 finished in two and a half years (compared with 18 percent of the control group),” Hurlbert writes.

 ASAP offers lots of guidance, a dose of goading, and a variety of well-timed incentives to its participants (average age at admission: 21), who must sign on to the goal of graduating within three years. The program is intended primarily for low-income students with moderate remedial needs, and it accepts applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. . . . The implicit philosophy behind the program is simple: students, especially the least prepared ones, don’t just need to learn math or science; they need to learn how to navigate academic and institutional challenges more broadly, and how to plot a course—daily, weekly, monthly—toward long-term success.

The City University of New York spends an average of $9,800 a year for a community college student; ASAP adds another $3,900 per student. That’s a lot — until you calculate the price per graduate. Then, ASAP is a bargain.

The ‘anyway’ argument

Stop requiring college students to write essays, argues adjunct Rebecca Schuman in Slate.

Students hate writing them so much that they buyborrow, or steal them instead. Plagiarism is now so commonplace that if we flunked every kid who did it, we’d have a worse attrition rate than a MOOC. And on those rare occasions undergrads do deign to compose their own essays, said exegetic masterpieces usually take them all of half an hour at 4 a.m. to write, and consist accordingly of “arguments” that are at best tangentially related to the coursework, font-manipulated to meet the minimum required page-count. Oh, “attitudes about cultures have changed over time”? I’m so glad you let me know.

College instructors hate grading papers,” Schuman adds. “Today’s vocationally minded students view World Lit 101 as forced labor, an utter waste of their time that deserves neither engagement nor effort. So you know what else is a waste of time? Grading these students’ effing papers.”

Schuman suggests using written and oral tests to measure students’ ability to understand what they’ve read — or been told to read.

This is The “Anyway” Argument, writes Matt Reed on Confessions of a Community College Dean.

The Anyway Argument goes like this: requirement X is widely loathed, and causes all manner of angst among both students and faculty. Outside of a few specialized fields, most students will never need the skills built by requirement X anyway. So why not just drop it?

Carnegie’s Statway is an Anyway project. Most developmental math sequences are designed to move students through algebra to pre-calculus and calculus. But most students don’t want to go into STEM fields and won’t use calculus — or advanced algebra. So why require a course that generates lots of attrition? Statway channels non-STEM majors into statistics.

In the case of Statway (and similar projects), it’s fair to ask why a prospective commercial artist needs to be able to calculate second derivatives.  In the case of Schuman’s argument, one may well ask whether a prospective business major really needs to be able to delve into a nuanced subject for ten pages with MLA citation format.

. . . The problem with the Anyway Argument, I think, is that it works best in hindsight. If you know from the outset what you want to do, and you’re right, then it’s possible to identify requirements that seem extraneous.

As a former English major I may be biased, but I think it’s a lot easier for people to make their way in the world without advanced algebra than to succeed without being able to write clearly and persuasively. Business people write reports, citing evidence to support their points of view.

Years ago, my uncle, a successful businessman, analyzed three possible locations for his daughter’s store. (He must have sent a copy to my mother — who knows why? — because I read it.) Citing traffic, parking and  rental costs, he made the case for the “boring” location. The math was simple. The writing was strong. The business has thrived.

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.


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.

Best teacher may not be an ‘elite’ prof

Higher education will be transformed by online learning, argues Jeffrey Selingo in College (Un)Bound.

“These free courses developed by elite institutions that serve tens of thousands of students at a time will likely become the content provider for the core courses that every college offers. By using online materials to power these face-to-face courses, colleges can accommodate more students with the same number of instructors or spend their limited resources on top professors teaching the courses best presented in a physical classroom.”

“Elite” professors may not be the best teachers, especially for introductory courses taken by non-elite students, responds Matt Reed,  the “community college dean,” on Inside Higher Ed.

If we’re looking at “core courses,” on what basis should we assume that an institution that hires faculty on the basis of research, and that treats intro courses as a sort of dues-paying, would do a better job on, say, Intro to Psychology than would an institution that hires faculty based on teaching ability, and that defines teaching as the core of the job?  It’s possible that a research superstar is also a gifted teacher, of course, but it’s far from tautological.

The best College Algebra instructors aren’t likely to be teaching at elite institutions, where the lowest-level math class is usually Calculus I, argues Reed. “And what are the most effective ways of teaching that level of material to college students?  (Hint: they don’t involve watching videos.)”

The majority of community college students place into developmental English, where they “read, write, get feedback, discuss and write some more,” notes Reed. Nobody learns to write by watching an eminent professor talk about writing on screen.

College (Un)Bound assumes higher education’s changes will preserve the prestige of the current elites, writes Reed. “The Harvards and Williamses of the world can keep on doing what they’re doing; disruptive change is for the proles.”

In writing about the tuition cost spiral of the last decade, Selingo ignores the “flatlined budgets of community colleges,” Reed points out.

Graduates regret education choices

A majority of two-year and four-year college graduates would choose a different major or school or both, if they had a second chance, reports Voice of the Graduate, a McKinsey survey of recent graduates. Health majors were the most satisfied with their choice. Students who had majored in visual and performing arts, language, literature, and the social sciences were the least satisfied.

Forty percent of two-year graduates and 30 percent of four-year graduates said they were unprepared for the workforce. One third of community college graduates said their quantitative reasoning skills were inadequate.

Nearly half of four-year graduates were in jobs that did not require a four-year degree, notes Gadfly’s Amber Winkler.  Many ended up in retail and restaurant work. However, most science and engineering graduates found professional work.

Liberal-arts graduates of four-year colleges . . .  tend to be lower paid, less likely to be employed full time, and less prepared for the workplace.

McKinsey says that we need to do a better job of communicating job and income trends to studentsTrue. But the evidence is also mounting that maybe college isn’t the right choice for everyone.

Fifty-one percent of underemployed young Americans wish they’d chosen a different educational path, according to Underemployed in America, a survey by the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). The survey included people 21 to 35 years old. Sixty percent with only a high school diploma, 53 percent with an associate degree and 48 percent with a bachelor’s degree regret their choices.

Employers said job seekers should acquire a broad education providing a “diverse knowledge base.” The underemployed said it’s better to learn specific job skills.

The underemployed overestimate their skills – especially writing and problem solving — and problem-solving skills – compared with employers’ views.

Both groups believe for-profit colleges and trade schools do about as well in preparing students for the workforce as four-year public or private nonprofit colleges and universities. However, both have less faith in community colleges.