Thoughts on Teaching – 6/17/2012 – The trouble student
There’s always one. The student who can cancel out all of the good comments you get. The student who can make a semester that seemed to be going well into one that seems like a descent into madness. The student you can’t get out of your mind. It’s the trouble student. I have already had one this summer, and I hope she is the only one. She is dropping the course, so she should be out of my hair soon, but she has already had a negative effect on my attitude toward teaching.
This one popped up earlier this last week, so about 1 1/2 weeks into the summer session. The first email I get is about a legitimate problem she had with one of her assignments being recorded. I referred her to the support system for the textbook site. Along the way, I had noted that she had listed a completely ridiculous amount of time she had been working on this particular assignment. As to the assignment, for each chapter, the students have to complete a quiz. The quiz is 45 questions long, multiple-choice and fill-in-the-blank. The students can redo the questions as many times as they like, open book, with the only grade being given when they get 70% of the questions right, at which point they are given a 100. It is a testing mechanism inside the textbook website, so I don’t have any control over it beyond that. So, for this assignment, essentially 32-33 questions of an open book quiz, she was claiming to take 5-6 hours for each chapter. I commented that it should not be taking her that long and asked what she was doing. At that point, I started getting the exploding walls of text from her. She started slamming the course as being incredibly difficult and unreasonable in expectations. I tried to calm her down while still insisting that something was not going right is it was taking her that long. That exchange of emails lasted from Wednesday through Friday.
On Friday, I was contacted again about something different. This weekend, the Critical Mission assignment is due. They had 2 weeks to work on this Critical Mission, although the majority will, of course, do it all at the last minute. The Critical Mission has the students put themselves in the place of an advisor to a historical figure. In this case, the students are to take the role of an advisor to a member of the Continental Congress and advise this person as to whether they should vote for or against revolution. The students are given a timeline, a map of events, and four primary source documents. They are then asked to identify some themes they would use in making this argument (ie. they are given 5 themes and have to pick the 3 that would make a strong argument for their case). For each of the themes they pick, they then are given a list of evidence (mostly quotations) that they could use to help support their theme, and they have to choose which ones would support their themes. So, by the end of the Critical Mission, which should take most students 20-30 minutes to get through, they have an argument to make, 3 themes to present (3 paragraphs), and a list of evidence to support those themes. Then, I ask the students to write it up in a paper at least 500 words long, or about 2 pages or more. Then, they have to contribute to a discussion forum over the topic.
So, on Friday, I got an email saying she had just spent hours going through the material, was completely lost, had no idea what was going on, and was throwing her hands up in the air and giving up on the class. Note, she did not ask for help, she just threw the assignment in my face. She said I was unreasonable and incredibly difficult. She said she had talked with another person she knew who had had me in the past (and dropped me, she was sure to note), who had said I was also difficult and unreasonable. She lambasted me for the structure of the course, for my unrealistic expectations, and for tricking her into giving up her time and money to take a summer course from me. I tried to give her a reasoned response, but by this point, my patience is running thin. I told her that she was apparently overthinking all parts of the course, since everything was taking her about five times longer than it should. I also noted that the layout of the course and the assignments were actually fairly straightforward, as I pride myself on explaining what needs to be done pretty well, although I do err sometimes on the exhaustively long explanation. I ran the email by my wife before sending it, as I was trying not to be offensive while also trying to defend myself (which is not an easy balance to draw).
The response I got back was basically, I’m dropping the class, good riddance, and I’m sorry I wasted my time and effort.
My main problem with all of it was that I feel like I never had a chance to actually help her. It seems like she had already given up by the time I talked to her, and I was left with the feeling that I had failed the student. The sad thing, and, of course the thing I can’t say to a student, is that I already feel like I have dumbed down the class a lot more than I would like. I already feel guilty that I am not asking enough of the students and that my class should be a lot more demanding than it is. I feel like the level of effort that the majority of students put in is very low, and I have to keep my expectations lower than I would like just to get students through my course. So, while I do hate students like this, they also make me laugh, because if they can’t do my course, then I don’t know where they will have success. The comment I get more often than not from students who successfully complete my course was that it was relatively easy, that you just had to sit down and do the work and put in effort and you will do reasonably well. That doesn’t make me proud necessarily, but it is the opposite of what this student said. And, or course, it’s this student that will stick around under my skin and grate at me over and over. I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but it does.