Monday, March 20, 2006

I Can't Diagnose Or Solve Your Problems

As we are nearing the home stretch of the semester, there has been a noticeable shift in the types of problems that cross my desk. Our 90-day limit on grade appeals means that I've pretty much stopped hearing about things that happened in the fall, and most of the students who insisted that they "can't learn from Professor X" have managed to switch sections, drop, or figure out how to learn from Professor X.

Many of the students that I'm hearing from now are motivated by the upcoming (April 4) last-chance drop deadline. It requires more paperwork than your run-of-the-mill drop-with-a-W (which you could get until February 21), and if you're failing now, it might require some wheadling and pleading, but it's still possible to get out of a class.

And so I am starting to hear from a special type of failing student: the repeating failing student. Most of them have pretty much the same story to tell: They enrolled in a math class in the fall and failed it -- despite having taken the same course in high school. Now they are re-taking the same course and are failing it again (with a different teacher). Most of these students tell me that they're working hard. All of them tell me that they know the material but just can't do the problems on the test. They ask me what I recommend.

My initial reaction is that if they can't do the problems on the test, then they don't really know the material. (In most of these classes, the test questions come directly from the homework; instructors are urged to use the exact same phrasing as in the textbook.) This is certainly something that these students don't want to hear; it would require them completely redefining their notion of what it means to know something. Another thought I have is that the gaps in their background go all the way back to elementary school. And finally there is the question of a psychological reason: test anxiety, an undiagnosed learning disability, some other factor. Or any combination of these.

But these are just guesses on my part. I have no way to determine which -- if any -- of them apply to a given student. And even if I knew what the problem was, I don't know what to tell the students. And even if there were well-defined solutions to these problems, I'm sure that they can't be delivered in a quick email or in a short meeting. I mention that Disability Services maintains a list of educational testing professionals who can assess (for a fee) whether a psychological issue is involved, but I know that extra time on exams (the typical accomodation for any disability) is unlikely to solve these students' problems. How do I tell them that they've been let down by the K-12 system?