Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"Like": Awesome on Facebook, Not for Grading

(Time for more appreciation: My blog has been alive for about 5 months. Word continues to spread and I feel so lucky. Heartfelt thanks to everyone who is sharing and supporting my passionate message about student-professor communication. Students, please bring questions my way as you start school. Also, I'd love to hear your first impressions about your classes. You can reach me at chattyprof@gmail.com or "Like" The Chatty Professor page on Facebook. Your thoughts will remain anonymous and I'd be glad to help, or find another expert who will!

Regarding this week's post... I'm seeing some concerning advice over and over again. Here's my response to it. Read on!)

Let's talk about two different students: Student A and Student B.

(I know, you are blown away by my creativity in characterization!)

Student A came to my office all the time, frequently stayed after class to chat, shared career goals, family background, etc. We had a very good relationship; our conversations were always engaging and enjoyable.

Student A started strong: Early submissions for me to review. Excellent grades.

Later in the term? Student A's proactiveness fell off. Life apparently got in the way.

Unfortunately, when Student A started to falter, it was with an assignment that had a lot of points attached--200 points, to be exact, which could definitely impact an A-grade goal.

Student A wanted an A.

Student A ended up with a C.

(Not that there's anything wrong with that... remember this post? However, Student A strove for more).

Before I get on to Student B, let me be clear that Student A did continue to communicate with me. Not at the same level as when the A-work was happening, but Student A was honest that other personal situations were impacting work quality. 

Okay, now for Student B:

I'll cut to the chase and say that we had a similar excellent relationship. Student B submitted work early and achieved strong grades on speeches, outlines, and written work.

Student B kept momentum through the term. Not surprisingly, at the end, Student B's average was a 94.5%. Rounded up, 95% = 4.0 (I always round up).

There was never one moment in my mind where I thought, "I know these students really well. I see them all the time. They come to my office, they talk with me after class, they work really hard... therefore, I'm going to help Student A out with a higher grade because of a good attempt, or round up Student B's grade because of my familiarity with him/her." 

This post from Campus Splash (and don't get me wrong... I LOVE their material!) seems to indicate a different philosophy about subjective grading than mine: 

"...But going to office hours could change your professor’s mind – and maybe even help your grades."

So does a line from this post on freshman tips from USA Today College (another outlet I respect immensely): 

"Sometimes professors are more likely to give a good grade to a familiar face if they know you are trying."

Students wrote these posts and apparently they've had profs who offered a little boost based on the "familiarity, likeability criteria."

Am I saying that that profs never do this?

No. I suppose either some do, or students have a perception that some do.

My worry is that students read this advice (and there is far, far more of it out there than these two posts), and then hold out hope that this "familiar, subjective grading plan" could happen for them. There are many reasons why it doesn't, and many reasons why it never will for me.

(Now, I know some of you are probably thinking, "Ooh... I really liked Chatty Prof, but now I'm thinking she's sort of a hard-ass...")

I'll explain myself:

1.  Let's say I'm called into a grade dispute (and I'm proud to say that I can count those on one hand in 13 years--I'm a super-transparent grader who offers tons of samples, rubrics, early review. And I'm also a hard-ass. Kidding!). My division chair or dean is going to expect me to show hard numbers. I can't just say that the GPA spirit (you mean there isn't one?) moved me to give the student a different grade than he/she deserved because I knew the student really, really well.

2.  Okay, so what if I do grade a student that I know and like a teensy bit higher than another? Students compare grades all the time. "Like" is awesome on Facebook, but shouldn't be my criteria for grading. Let's not even mention my credibility as a fair prof if I grade based on how well I know a student. Gone. And, what if the student with a lesser grade also worked hard, but had a job that prevented him/her from becoming more familiar with me during office hours or staying after class? Again, not fair.

3.  At the core of my educator's soul, I wholly believe that grades are earned, not given. One of my degrees is in education. I believe in objectives. . .  I believe in outcomes. . .  I believe the children are our future--oh wait, that's Whitney Houston . . .

Seriously, I believe that grades should reflect a student's individual level of mastery of the material learned, based on the assignment's requirements. At times, I will take into account a student's individual level of improvement, such as quality of speech delivery from one speech to the next.

So what's the communication lesson here? (Because there always is one!)

First and foremost, my message from me to you--with love:

If you believe that some students get better grades because they chat up the professor a lot, and the professor seems to know them well, you probably aren't getting the whole story.

The reason those students are likely getting better grades is because in the midst of the chatting, the student and the prof are talking about the assignments more, the student is asking for help more, and the prof is reviewing the work... more.

Think about it: If you're hanging around talking to a prof about something you've seen on television, or about your mother, or about your job, a strong possibility exists that one of you is going to bring up an upcoming assignment. You might say, "Yeah, you know I'm a little worried about that speech." Or, your professor might move the conversation out of the personal and into work: "So, how's it going with your outline?"

Then, the comfortable relationship between student and professor creates a feedback loop.

Let's look at a conversation I might have with a student after the "chatty" is out of the way:

Student: "Yeah, you know, I'm really struggling with that outline. I have no idea where you find credible sources."

Me: "Well, where have you looked?" or "Have you talked to one of the librarians? You know they have Ask-A-Librarian 24-7, right?"

Me again: "You know, you can send me your outline so I can review it ahead of time. I'm glad to give you feedback."

Then, the student would hopefully take me up on that offer and submit work early, I would make comments/suggestions for improvement, the student would make the changes and possibly even ask if the changes are correct.

Voila! In so many cases, a better grade ensues! It didn't happen because the professor simply knew the student. It happened because of the conversation and subsequent feedback on the work.

I would not count on sheer familiarity with your prof translating into getting a little help for your grade. It's a gamble that you don't want to risk!

Want a better bet for your grade? Say these things:

-"Professor Jones, I'd like to meet with you to discuss how I can reach my grade goals in this class."
-"Are you willing to accept early work? How early?"
-"Once I submit work to you for review, are you willing to review again? How much time would you like to do that?"

If the prof refuses to review work ahead of time (I hear that some simply won't review), then do the work early anyway and ask him/her a couple of strategic questions:

-"Can you look over these two equations and make sure I'm doing them correctly?"
-"Can I run my thesis statement by you to see if I'm on the right track?"

Then, if you get a lower grade than expected, your comfort level with the prof could give you the courage to say:

-"Can you give me more information about what I could have done better?"
-"What part of the requirements did I miss?"
or even
-"Can I redo this and turn it back in?" (May not be realistic, but at least if you got a better grade, it would be based on action, not just the prof liking you).

Do you see where I'm going here? All of this conversation revolves around work, your involvement with the work, and your ownership and responsibility for the work.

Certainly, if your prof were to ever write you a letter of recommendation, he/she will discuss characteristics about you. However, hard examples or stories about you will revolve around tangible action. In other words, your work.

I'm going to close this post by quoting my tweep, Allen Grove, English Prof, Alfred University (@Gotocollege on Twitter). He made this great statement in a recent CollegeBoundNet tweetchat:

"Knowing your work ethic is more important than knowing your face."

I definitely welcome any and all comments on the subjective grading discussion. I think it's a hard one! Students, do you agree with the posts that I noted here? Colleagues, add your thoughts! 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Why Asking for Help is the New Smart

Here is an actual e-mail chain with a student:

Student:  Bremen.  Looked at my grade. Lower than I was expecting.

Me:  Well, I show that your journal is missing. That would have been worth 100 points. An outline checklist wasn't completed--another 25 points. I sent the class an e-mail asking everyone to check their grades and it's great that you've done that. Were these assignments completed and I didn't receive them in the drop box? Or were they missed?

Student:  I didn't understand what to do, so I didn't do them.

Me:  I would have loved to know you were having trouble. I could have helped.

Student:  (No reply).

I'm actually still waiting for a reply and suspect it's not coming...

This scenario is one that I experience frequently in the course of an academic year. Students would prefer to avoid an assignment (and lose the points) than to simply ask for help.

I guess I shouldn't be surprised. There was quite a buzz on Twitter a few months ago about this Ed Week article, which discusses high school students' unwillingness to ask for help--even their idea that doing so is a sign of weakness (Look at the part: "Real men don't ask for help.").

If asking for help is considered weak in high school, what happens when the anti-help high schoolers transition into college?

College is the place for exploration, open inquiry, agreement/disagreement, and everything in between.

Isn't it?

How can a student maximize those opportunities if he/she is afraid to ask for help or believes that there is some failure in doing so?  

I would love to see a widespread re-think, based on this idea. A revolution, if you will! Try it on for size:

Asking for help is "the new smart"!

Let me back it on up here...

I teach my public speaking students that when they verbally cite credible sources in their speeches, they should picture themselves carrying the experts from those sources piggyback... sort of like a "credibility totem pole." Or, like acrobats who flip and land on the shoulders of a "catcher."

This is the mental image you should have when you use the "smarts" of others to support you. Asking others for help means that you carry their knowledge and wisdom on your shoulders. Then, you  become stronger in your own knowledge because: 

-You look pretty darned smart for being able to say, "Hey, I am not sure if I'm doing this right and I want to check and see if I am."
-You become someone that others seek out because you found the right answer and now you're "in the know."
-You are ultimately seen as a trusted someone who knows where to find the right resources if you can't figure out the answer yourself.

These are all qualities hugely sought-after in the workplace, and they are rare to find.

Given the fact that unemployment is at an all-time high AND communication skills are the #1 desirable employability skill, wouldn't the ability to not only have the right answers, but also to communicate the right questions to find them be one hell of an important skill to have?

Isn't school the place to practice the communication skill of asking the right questions?

So what's the communication lesson here?

Pretty simple:  Ask for help!

You can phrase it any way you like from:

-"Can you help?"
-"I don't know what in the heck is going on here and I need to figure it out"
-"I'm totally lost and would like not to be."

You can even approach the question somewhat covertly or abstractly:
-"I think I have an idea of what we're supposed to be doing, but just want to ensure that I'm correct"
-"I'm missing the mark on this particular concept and I think I know why."

Bottom line: 

Smart people don't have all the answers, but they know when they don't have them. Then, they strive to figure out where to get them.

A few examples:
-A dear, dear friend of mine just took a job that requires a ton of work in Excel. She was up front with her supervisor and said, "I don't want to say that I don't know, but I'd really like to learn." Now she is taking a class in Excel, paid for by her employer.

-When I decided that I wanted to get out of health care (long story, but it was my former profession for seven years before I went back to school) and start teaching college-level communication, I literally picked up the phone and cold-called a college professor who taught speech communication. I said, "I'd like to know how you got where you are because I want to do it, too. Can I take you for coffee?" I didn't even have a Bachelor's degree yet. See where asking for help got me with that one??? 

And, finally, something really personal...
-I have lost 90+ lbs over a period of 13 years. I have a morbidly obese family. I didn't have too many inherent "smarts" to control the problem, myself. When I decided that I was "done", I became an anthropologist of weight loss. I lost my weight without surgical means (Hello! It took 13 years!); I learned from those who knew more than I did about nutrition, exercise, and, later, ultimately jogging and marathoning. To this day, I rely on a trusted instructor at my local YMCA for wisdom and guidance. I even started seeing a specialist every two weeks who is the head of non-surgical weight management at a local hospital. The instructor taught me about running and knows far more than I do about exercise. The doctor knows about the science of long-term weight loss. I need their help! Why?

Because the minute I become too proud or ashamed to ask for help could be the minute that I begin to backslide.

Now, I consider myself a pretty smart woman, but I don't attribute my smartness to my degrees or my academic career.

I am smart because I am unafraid to find the people who know more and learn from them.

Whether you are in high school or college, be selfish. Build your own "smart totem pole" or "acrobatic routine of brilliance."

At the very least, open your mouth and ask for help from the people who have signed up to give it to you.

Need more ammunition? Read this USA Today College piece by an actual student who got over her fear of asking for help and went for it--with impressive results!

Students, I challenge you to ask for help... either by e-mailing a college-related issue or question to chattyprof@gmail.com, by posting a comment, or by telling your strategies for getting help when you need it. Colleagues, what about students who don't ask for help because they think we're too busy? Or that we'll think less of them? Or??? Weigh in! 

Friday, August 5, 2011

Let's Chat About... Six Tips for Getting into a Full Class (and One on What to Do if You Don't)

(Hello, wonderful readers! With fall term fast approaching, I'm going to start a new segment that I'll bring on intermittently called "Let's Chat About..." This will be quick lists/tips for timely issues that students may be dealing with. Little commentary, but some back-story, and always with my communication twist! 

Side note: Before fall term ramps up, I'm going to enjoy a bit more time with my family. We're doing a little vacationing and staycationing, so my regular blog will return on August 22nd. In the meantime, enjoy these guest posts from other sites: The 12 Most Effective Phrases a Parent can Borrow from a Professor, The 12 Most Unexpected Ways I Relate to My Students as a Back-of-the-Pack Runner, and What to Say About That Retake)

You need a class that you can’t get into. Here are seven behind-the-scenes talking tips to help:

1.     Resist making excuses.

It’s an early, important lesson for you in college:  Profs care about you, but don’t care for excuses. Profs move to solve problems, so your excuses will just take time away necessary problem solving. Don't say, "I didn't register because..." The reasons don't matter. Bottom line: You need/want the class, so focus on what to do to get in (and read on…).

2.     Ask about the purge.

Get in touch with someone in the Registrar’s office and ask, “When do you purge students for nonpayment?” Different colleges manage this in different ways, but often, students on waitlist are then moved into the class when existing students don't pay. Here's the thing: I can’t tell you how many students on waitlist decide they no longer want to be there. This means on the date of the nonpayment purge, you may find openings where there were none previously.

3.     E-mail the professor before going to his/her office.

Certainly, you can show up in the prof’s office and beg to be added, but there is likely nothing that the prof can do until the actual first day of class. It’s fine to e-mail the prof instead and say, “I am interested in getting into your CMST 101 class. Should I come to your office to discuss this? Do you have any advice on how students typically get into your class if it is full?”

3.     Actually go to the class.

When students come to my office and ask me to sign an add/drop form, I often tell them come to the first class. I have no idea who is actually going to fill the seats and I’m far more likely to sign a student in, even on overload, if I can see the actual number of students seated in front of me. At my college, the waitlist shuts down on the first day of class. Therefore, if a student shows up in person, their chances of getting in are far better. So, introduce yourself to the prof after the class ends and say, “I am not enrolled in this class right now but thought I’d come to see if there is room. Is it possible for me to stay in this class?”

4.     Stay in touch with the prof.

For my online or hybrid classes (that start on a Wednesday night, usually), I will ask students asking to get in to e-mail me on the first, second, and third day of class so I can watch the roster numbers for changes. With distance ed classes, I can’t physically see if a student is going to participate, so I have to wait until day three (or when the introductory post is due) to find out. For the want-to-be enrolled students e-mailing every day and checking in, they have first dibs on space if one comes available. Ask the prof, “Is it all right if I stay in touch with you for a few days to see if the numbers change?” But then…

5.     …Ask the prof about the last possible date to add.

I have points-bearing assignments due the first week of class. Therefore, my comfort threshold to add late-coming students is usually not past the first week. Ask the prof, “What is the last date that you are comfortable adding new students to the class?” Also, say, “May I have a syllabus so if I do make it in I can make sure I’m up to speed?”

6.     Ask the prof to make a call.

I recently had an advisee who was trying to get into a closed class in a department with which I’m unfamiliar. I called a prof from that department and said, “Hi, Joe. Have a student here wanting to get into CLASS 101. I know that class is full. What’s the usual movement for students who want to late add? Do they typically get in? Do you have any advice for this student who is trying to get in?” "Joe" told me that if the student is seventh on waitlist, the chances are usually not good. I’m not saying that every prof will call other profs, but if you can catch one during an office hour, they may at least be able to find out the enrollment/waitlist/add and drop patterns of another department. Likewise, if the prof can’t take you in his/her own class, they may be able to call a  prof who teaches the same subject and find out how their enrollment is going.

7.     Don’t take it personally or blame the prof.

Let’s say you strike out and don’t get into the class you want in a particular term. Don’t take it personally and don’t say a snarky, “Well, thanks… for nothing!” There are many reasons why a prof says no to adding additional students: First, class size can be a union issue at some schools and some faculty are cautious about how far they can or will overload a class due to those rules.

Second, I am proud to be a prof with generally high retention. My class also requires three major speeches. Therefore, if I have 32 people seated in front of me on the first night of class (our class size is 28 for speech classes), I have been known to keep, say, 30 of those students.  Those 30 students all have to deliver three speeches. I literally couldn’t take any more students without compromising the quality of the class. 

So, there are behind-the-scenes reasons why a prof may simply say “No.” But let’s hope the other six tips will get you the class you need!

Colleagues and students, I’d love to hear recommendations or how you navigate the closed class situation! How does add/drop work at other schools?