Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hand-Holding, Or Not

This is the second year I'm teaching the same chemistry lab.  It is an intro course for non-majors, and it is fucking boring.  They spend an entire lab period measuring the density of water.*

I don't pretend the labs are riveting; instead, I tell them why we bother (to learn, for example, about how much confidence we have in our measurements, and what accuracy is, and why it is not the same as precision.)  I have a brief lecture for every week, which summarizes what they're learning and doing.

However, they must also READ THE DIRECTIONS.  I cannot prevent them from making every dumb mistake.  There are detailed procedures for every lab!  And some of them do, in fact, read the directions and do the lab correctly.  Also, despite the fact that I offer to look over their lab reports before they turn them in,** only the very clever ones ever take me up on this, which ensures the clever ones get high As instead of low As, and the ones who really needed the help... don't ask for it.

Sometimes I wonder if I'm teaching them anything, or just applying punitive consequences for being, as my spouse says, 'bad at life'.

* Which is only 1 g/mL to a first approximation.
** Due at the end of each class period, before they leave.  So they don't even have to come to office hours!!!  AND YET.

7 comments:

  1. Perhaps some of them believe grades aren't important... I'd be tempted to talk to the ones who aren't doing well. "I know you aren't a chemistry major, but I want you to succeed. There are two easy steps you need to follow. Read the directions, and ask for help when you're confused." Of course, you get paid whether they succeed or not. But correct lab reports are faster to grade!

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    1. So much faster. I did give them another round of Read The %#&@$& Directions this week. Some of them even did!

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  2. When I was a lab TA, I could not *believe* how many of my students would expect me to walk them through every step verbally because they couldn't be bothered to read the directions. Come on, people, the question you just asked is written right on the page in front of you!

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  3. When I was an undergrad, we had a hardware design class with a random number generator run at the start of class. The lucky team was quizzed on instructions and background reading, and if we didn't understand what we were supposed to be doing and why, we were sent home (and this happened at least 30% of the time). We hated it, and I'm not sure this is possible in an American university, but it sort of worked...

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    1. Hmm. I don't think I could send them home. This is a required intro lab that half the student body takes. Instead, I give them a quiz on procedures, which is a punitive consequence in the bad students and an incentive to read the directions in the good ones. Gives me a lovely grade distribution.

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    2. (Oh, it was a required intro lab, too. Mentalities in old-school, publicly funded (and free) places can be different, I guess ;)

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  4. I have contemplated the larger "why won't the students who need help the most ask for help" question often. And have no particular answer, though some of the research indicates the presence of a downward negative spiral. But the not reading the directions part I just don't get. Maybe they are, but just suck at it. Maybe they need a lesson in how to read directions.

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