Does remediation help?

Maybe and maybe not. According to The College Puzzle:

Being assigned to remediation appears to increase persistence to the second year and the total number of credits completed for students on the margin of passing out of the requirement, but it does not increase the completion of college-level credits or eventual degree completion. Taken together, the results suggest that remediation might promote early persistence in college, but it does not necessarily help students on the margin of passing the placement cutoff make long-term progress toward earning a degree.

The full study is available from one of the coauthors.
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How I used the presidential primaries in class

This is a presidential election year, which can provide plenty of fodder for non-academic research. Usually when I am approving topics, I eliminate those which require primarily the use of news sources. Though the reading level in Opposing Viewpoints is often not a lot higher than that of a newspaper or online news source, the articles are generally longer and more complete. However, because I think it is important for students to know what is going on in the country they live in, even if it is not their country, I like to have controversial issues papers during the election cycle.

Introducing these can be difficult. I can’t simply list these off, because while I pay attention to politics, I ignore a lot of issues that are controversial. This may be my own bias in thinking that those topics aren’t controversial or it might be that I have read a lot and haven’t been persuaded one way or another, so I avoid the elephant and her doo-doo. And sometimes trying to look up a complete list of controversial issues online just drops you down a rabbit hole.

This year the way I introduced them in some of my classes was through online quizzes, before the primaries were finished. There were several news quizzes that listed issues and had you pick whether you agreed or disagreed with them. Then it let you know which candidates you were most in agreement with. One of those,, now presents a list of issues for you to agree or disagree with on a continuum and asks you to rate their importance. Then it tells you whether you are closer on the issues to Obama or McCain. I am not sure how they can do that when politicians swing like weathervanes, but at least they have made a stab at it.

After the students had identified themselves with certain positions on various issues, I asked them to take one of those they felt strongly about and research two candidate’s sides, looking for persuasive arguments. Right now this would come out more as a position paper, describing McCain and Obama’s rhetoric, so I used this before the primaries in the spring. Now I would ask them to look for arguments on both sides of the issue, not relating to a candidate. Often the candidate’s are asked to speak in sound bites, so their presentation might be minimal. However, people arguing on both sides of an issue can be found in the stronger political blogs. I would refer them, perhaps, to some of those: Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, Michelle Malkin, and Townhall. From there it would be easier to follow links to other sources.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

How to get your students to do extra credit

Often my students want to tell me what is wrong with the side they are presenting for their research paper, when I make them write the side they disagree with. I let them. I just tell them they have to keep this “on the other hand” discussion out of the paper itself. But I will allow a one-page refutation, in which they take issue with the side they have presented. This refutation may be the only argument paper for their side if the class is only doing one controversial issues paper. Or, as I prefer to use it, this can be extra credit.

I assume you have had my experience with extra credit, which is that the students who do it aren’t the students that need it. The refutation, however, sometimes gets written by the students who aren’t as concerned with their grades, but are committed to the issue they wrote about. I like that. It’s their way of telling me that they discovered something out of kilter with the arguments they have presented, even if they are the strongest arguments for that side.

I will say that the refutation more generally gets written when one of two things happen, either I have a day between due dates of the research paper and the refutation or there is only one research paper. It seems that students want me to know their side, even if it means more work. So I give them a chance to tell me.

Other people approach this issue by having the students include in their research paper a counterargument and its rebuttal. Either approach works, but I personally find it easier to separate these out.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

How to teach a controversial argument paper

After the defining of controversial, we go to Opposing Viewpoints, one of my favorite databases, and look through the lists for interesting topics. Some students didn’t know there was another viewpoint aside from theirs. They have an opinion on a topic they did not know was controversial. “Doesn’t everyone support the development of nuclear energy?” Or “Of course animal testing is wrong.” The database lets them see that these clear delineations of truth are murkier than they thought.

Other students say that they don’t know what they think or what they believe on any controversial issue. And some of them honestly don’t. They’ve never thought through a single substantive issue. I tell them they don’t have to know which side they support in that case. They only have to pick a side, perhaps the one with the seeming preponderance of information.

Once the introduction of the argument paper has been presented, how do we get our students to look at both sides of the controversial issue that they have chosen to address, an issue of which they most likely have a strong opinion? When students deal with controversial topics, they like to write on the side they agree with and, unfortunately, they will often make sweeping logical errors because of that. I tell my students that they don’t see the holes the people on the other side could drive a Mack truck through, but another particularly relevant metaphor is that they will describe the living room and not see the elephant. There’s a sneaky way to get around that though. It is to require them to write on the side they disagree with.

Students don’t want to do this. It’s an issue that is important to them, so we can’t just say, “Okay. Now we’re going to write on the side you disagree with. Bill, are you for or against capital punishment?” Many of them will tell us that they support what they oppose if we start from that question.

Instead, what I do, is ask them to brainstorm on their topic. We may already have done multiple brainstorming on the possibilities of topic at this point. They should now have a clear idea of which topic they want to write on. So I ask them to write down what they believe and why, specifically detailing what they think are the best three reasons for that. I am clear that these may not be the arguments that the write their paper on, but I want to know what they know about the topic now. Then I take the papers up. Don’t skip this step. Only after I have all the papers in hand do I let them know that they will be writing on what they disagree with.

Usually I will get groans at this point. I don’t want to break my streak, but so far when I have explained why I am doing it, while not thrilled, they are more comfortable.

What rationale do I give them? Well, I start with the Mack truck metaphor. Then I explain that it is easier to see the tiniest flaws in the opposition than it is to see the glaring errors in your arguments. It also helps them realize the other side does have legitimate and cogent arguments. If they didn’t, I remind the class, it wouldn’t be a controversial issue.

The papers themselves, I tell the students, will be stronger if they don’t agree with what they are telling me because they will know what the best arguments are for the other side because those are the ones that they are most willing to at least listen to. Also, I tell them, it increases their thinking to have to come up with reasonable arguments for the other side and thinking is a skill that the college educated person ought to have. Finally, of course, I tell them that they have to and as I’m the grader, they’re kind of stuck. Usually they will grin about that.

This is the point at which we begin our research. If we are only writing one paper, then they only research the side they disagree with. These papers come out okay, but they are not the strongest.

The best way I have discovered to get great first papers is to have a second one coming. If I am going to do two research papers on the same topic, then I have to know what the best arguments are for my side and for the other side. That makes the arguments for the other side better because there is a balance. So if we are going to be able to do two research papers, I have them do the research for both at the same time. It helps them to see the whole picture of the issue. I have them find their articles for both sides and take notes on both sides. In my classes, it’s been the best way to get solid research papers.

At this point, I make sure and acknowledge that I know that they are writing on the side opposite of their beliefs. I tell them that it may be hard for them to find arguments that they think are convincing. Or it may not be. I remind them that there have to be some good arguments for both sides for the issue to be a controversial one. This is a good time to discuss the philosophical underpinnings that prioritize arguments. If, for example, the topic is abortion, is the bedrock belief behind the presentation an issue of life, life at all costs, liberty, personal liberty, or pursuit of happiness, often an economic issue? (Yes, I sneak in a little history here.)

There are reasons for the weight given various arguments and people’s belief system determines the best arguments. It helps the students begin to articulate their own worldview. And it gives the students a way of appreciating and accepting the other side’s arguments, even when they do not find them convincing. It also lets them examine their own conscience when they find themselves being persuaded to a different viewpoint, which is always an interesting experience to watch.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

What is controversial?

When I am introducing the controversial arguments research paper, I start with that discussion of what it means to be controversial. This is an aspect of the paper that I once thought did not have to be explained, but I have learned it does.

Since this is a controversial issue paper, I tell my students, there must be a controversy. If one side is clearly right, there is no point in making an argument. Very few people write papers about how the Americans were interventionalists in the 30s and that is why World War II got started. There are some, but not many. There’s a reason for that.

If one side is patently obvious, what’s the point of arguing? It is only when thoughtful people disagree that there is a topic suitable for a controversial issues paper. This discussion helps me avoid the students going after the least controversial things just to prove me wrong about people arguing the topic.

This is from my TYCA-SW talk on controversial issues in the classroom.

Four corner debating, a possible game for controversial issue

Description found here. It’s where you all talk about the issue, and move around the room based on how you feel after each person talks. Of course, that assumes that you don’t have a strong commitment to the topic which stays the same regardless… I guess “big” issues like abortion wouldn’t work with this.

And this wouldn’t be good for work where the students have done previous research. But it looks like it might be fun. And there are some questions that would work for a college freshman class provided in the paper.

Remedial Courses Cost Big Bucks…

and we shouldn’t need them except for exceptionally slow students because everyone coming to college has graduated from high school or, at least, gotten their GED.

The Higher Education Roundup this week has an interesting section titled “Remedial Courses Cost Colleges and Taxpayers $2.3 Billion, a New Report States”

Nearly four out of five students who are required to take remedial courses in college had a high school grade point average of 3.0 or higher, according to a new report from Strong American Schools, a group advocating more rigorous academic standards in high school. The report, “Diploma to Nowhere,” calculates the cost of remediation, borne by colleges and taxpayers, to be between $2.3 billion and $2.9 billion each year. Overall, the report states, more than one-third of college students take remedial courses. The rates are highest at community colleges, where 43 percent of students take remedial courses.

What is developmental writing?

If you are teaching, you know this is the class for the student who doesn’t write as well. But what student is that?

It depends.

And it depends mostly on the college you teach at.

I have taught developmental writing where the students didn’t know grammar rules at all. They didn’t know that sentences started with capital letters and ended with periods.

And I have taught developmental writing where the only difference between those students and the regular freshman composition students is the speed with which the two groups can write. If the student needs time to think before they write, then they are in the developmental course.

I am not sure that developmental writing as it is often taught helps those students. They still have plenty of time to build up to their writing in developmental writing. And how much time will they have to build up to writing in other courses? I am not sure.

What developmental writing is depends a great deal on the school.

Things our Freshmen Need to Know

Casting Out Nines, the blog of a college math prof, has five big ideas for Freshman Orientation. Obviously we’re not teaching orientation, but I think the first one is worth mentioning to our students in our classes on the first day. We can’t assume they know it.

The basics of college-level academic expectations and how they differ from those of high school.
This is by far the biggest need. I cannot count how many freshmen I’ve had, many of them academic standouts in high school, try to operate in college using high school parameters and end up doing poorly. The common refrain is “I never had to study in high school!” (High school teachers: What’s the deal with that?) Yes, in college, professors assign stuff for you to do, but no it’s not always taken up for a grade, and yes you are still supposed to do it. Yes, professors will expect you to complete the readings prior to class, and yes, you will look like an idiot if you don’t do them. Yes, we are serious when we say “two hours of studying outside of class for every hour inside”. Freshman orientation is a chance to set the academic tone for the entire college for the entire year. In fact one could argue that it always does so, and it’s just a matter of whether the formative impression students get is one of games and pizza parties or one of rigorous, rewarding learning.

It’s a phenomena that I am uncomfortable with and about, but it is true that students often don’t need to study. And, unfortunately, sometimes they don’t need to study in our classes either. (Well, perhaps not ours, but our colleagues’ classes.)

Honestly, some students top the charts in IQ and even a major project won’t take them long. And others happen to not only be good but skilled in our field, so that they can start and finish a major essay quickly. I know a college sophomore who hasn’t studied more than an hour a week for any class, including tests and essays, so far because he hasn’t needed to. But students like him are the exception.

Our students need to know, and how will they know unless they hear?, that high school and college are not the same.

I think that for most of them the level of education between middle school and high school changed. But maybe it didn’t. And maybe that was so long ago, almost a quarter of their life, that they have forgotten even if it did.

So take a few minutes out on the first day (or at least within the first week) to mention to them that your expectations will be different.