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Clarissa's Blog

An academic's opinions on feminism, politics, literature, philosophy, teaching, academia, and a lot more.

Not Teachable

The reason why I’m against the famous pre-req is that it punishes students like I used to be in order to spare a few ne’er-do-wells the inconvenience of having to withdraw from a course that proves to be too hard for them.

I don’t understand why we keep sacrificing the interests of good students in order to cater to people who aren’t interested in the material and aren’t making an effort. 

There are people who are simply not teachable, and no amount of futzing with pre-requisites, pedagogy, textbooks, etc will change that. If they don’t want to learn, there’s nothing you can do. So I’d rather we let it go and concentrated on people who do want to be taught. 

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25 thoughts on “Not Teachable

  1. If they don’t want to learn, there’s nothing you can do.
    There are people who are simply not teachable,

    With you all the way. Warning: Rant ahead.

    Whenever I suggest that some people are not teachable, usually a combination of low aptitude for the subject and simply not giving a $hit, I get inundated with “anyone can learn, you can’t say people don’t have talent” and apparently it’s even worse if I imply that say someone is lazy or just doesn’t give a $hit.

    I just came out of grading midterm 3 for my giant class, which took the better part of a week. As you say, there is a percentage of people, I’d put it at 30-40%, who really should not be in this major. Their math skills are atrocious, they think they can cram the material in half-a-day beforehand, the types of mistakes they make make me wanna kill myself because they reveal no understanding of anything under the sun (including goddamn fractions), and they just somehow want to tunnel through the course, presumably without having been affected in any way by the material in the course. It’s like they are purposefully rejecting the material, avoiding having to understand or remember anything. They are going through this major like it’s a series of unfortunate but unavoidable obstacles that they have to somehow suffer through on the way to the other side, which presumably is a degree and then what? The math and physics and everything else is a nuisance on the way to what exactly? What do they think working in the corporate world is going to be like? All fun and oodles of money, red carpets awaiting their glorious a$$es, even though they sure as $hit haven’t learned anything and thus have no skills of use to anyone?

    I have been able to help lots of struggling students whose problem were poor high-school preparation or poor study habits, but who really are willing to learn, adapt how they work, and put in the requisite time and effort; who are grateful for 1-on-1 attention and focused help. I am always happy to help those kids, and that’s part of my job. Many, most in fact, students are wonderful, engaged, learning, and happy to have quality instruction. These are the people I want to work with — people to whom a teacher doing a good job (versus a bad job) makes a real difference in what they learn and retain.

    But then there are little $hits like the one who comes to my office just a couple of hours before the exam and asks me, “What is A?” where A denotes a key physical quantity that we’d spent the last three weeks talking about. I have never been so close to yelling at an undergraduate in my life. What I wanted to say was, “Are you fuckin’ serious? This is what you ask me hours before the exam? Get out my office and stop wasting your parents’ tuition money.” Instead, I took a deep breath and repeated the definition of what A is as calmly as possible. Of course, this kid turned in an incoherent jumble of garbage as their test, and I am supposed to assign partial credit to their stream-of-consciousness scribbling of formulas; they will come to grade-grub for an extra point here and there, whereas in reality they should be kicked out of our program and shamed for taking someone else’s place.

    It kills me that there are bright and hard-working kids who can’t afford college or who are in such crappy schools that they never got a chance to realize their potential. On the other hand, you have these kids from comfortable middle-class backgrounds who are afforded (figuratively and literally, for there is considerable money involved) this wonderful opportunity to learn, to better themselves, to expand their horizons, and all they can do is behave like ungrateful little $hits who can’t be bothered to learn because the material is hard or boring or not in small-enough bite-sized pieces to digest without effort or whatever else sorry excuse they have for being pathetic underachievers despite every privilege.

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    • This reminded me of the student who emailed me last week to say, “I’m preparing for the final exam. Could you help me and answer this question?” And the question is such that I need to reteach the whole course in response.

      I didn’t answer the question and explained why, so he went and complained that I refuse to help prepare for the exam.

      It also really annoys me when people want to memorize and reproduce. I want them to engage their brains, not practice memorization.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I keep running into students who have very obviously been taught very explicitly that memorization and “test taking skills” were education, and that learning and grades were unconnected. I have come to the conclusion that they do actually learn this from (some) faculty. That is: certain whole departments. (Not all.)

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        • “I have come to the conclusion that they do actually learn this from (some) faculty. That is: certain whole departments.”

          • YES. I had to quit a committee last semester because there were too many people who were very aggressively pushing for this model of education and I was completely outvoted on every issue, so I gave up. I wouldn’t have believed it before having that experience but no I know it’s a fact.

          Liked by 1 person

    • AcademicLurker on said:

      They are going through this major like it’s a series of unfortunate but unavoidable obstacles that they have to somehow suffer through on the way to the other side

      It’s surprising that students like this would choose to major in physics, or any of the physical sciences for that matter. Most large-ish universities these days have a selection of fake majors – “Recreation Science”, “Event Planning”, & etc. – that are designed specifically to cater to students who just want to party for 4 years and collect their degree.

      Why major in a subject that’s known to require actual work if you’re not interested in doing any?

      Liked by 1 person

      • They’ve been told that everybody must go into STEM because STEM means big bucks. Which is why I’m opposed to the current “we need more STEM majors” mantra until it’s modified to we need GOOD majors.

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        • Speaking of STEM, what do you think of this article?
          http://www.bbc.com/news/business-39579321

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        • Alex on said:

          “Which is why I’m opposed to the current “we need more STEM majors” mantra until it’s modified to we need GOOD majors.”

          CLARISSA FOR PROVOST!!! VOTE CLARISSA!!!!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Shakti on said:

          They’ve been told that everybody must go into STEM because STEM means big bucks
          Or they figure they don’t have a lot of time to get into a job that pays a living wage so they can pay off their student loans and have health insurance. Or that a mediocre engineer has an easier time than a good to above average humanities student. Or their networks suck so much that a career with a humanities degree is a non-starter.

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          • It’s the same thing but worded more generously. 🙂

            “I want to be rich so I need to be an engineer. Eew, math, I hate math.”

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            • Shakti on said:

              Sure if “rich” means “able to buy a house before the age of 30” and “not needing to go to grad school.” Look there are people whose networks are very good for those things and absolutely terrible for any thing else. There’s this perception for a lot of students that passing a bunch of hard tests is more doable that having the right network if you don’t already have half of it.

              Incidentally, I know someone who majored in finance instead of physics because he did need to make money in a hurry.

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      • AcademicLurker, the students in this major and the college in general have excellent employment opportunities.

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      • TomW on said:

        I’m curious about the “fake majors” at other universities. I strongly suspect that “Entrepreneurial Management” is a huge fake major at my institution. I’ve had lots of business students over the years, and they run the full range from mediocre to fantastic, but the past few years I’ve seen more and more students in “Entrepreneurial Management” and they are not like the rest of the business students. This major is supposed to be about fostering innovation and cutting edge ideas, but the students all seem to be passive lumps with zero personality. I can’t imagine any of them starting a successful lemonade stand, much less a cutting edge, innovative business.

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        • Shakti on said:

          Business majors are all about fitting into someone else’s business hierarchy. Maybe this major is for when their personal business fails (as most do within five years). Nobody thinks they need an MBA to go work for themselves and the process of applying seems to assume you’re middle management somewhere.

          Credentialism gone amok. 😆

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  2. Alex on said:

    “So I’d rather we let it go and concentrated on people who do want to be taught. ”

    The problem is that there are also people who don’t want to be taught but do want to be credentialed, and The Powers That Be want us to make that happen. And for very good reasons we can’t bring ourselves to simply say “OK, if you want a C, here’s a C, now leave me alone, but if you want to learn then show up and work your ass off.” Partly because some idiot might collect unearned C’s for a few years and then suddenly decide that they want a B and we have to help them all the way to that B, even though they’re a few years too late to start learning the material.

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  3. Shakti on said:

    So you believe motivation should carry you though.

    The reason why I’m against the famous pre-req is that it punishes students like I used to be in order to spare a few ne’er-do-wells the inconvenience of having to withdraw from a course that proves to be too hard for them

    I’m guessing the pre-requisite is to ensure people are on some particular level before taking a course. Also, I don’t know about your current institution but the drop without being charged deadline is far too early for most students to reasonably know if they should withdraw and cut their losses, especially if they’re not already great students. Of course prerequisites mean more money for the institution.

    Most students aren’t terribly motivated especially in lower level courses taken for distribution requirements. :/

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    • The problem is, one can detain even the best students on the level of language courses indefinitely, in efforts to ensure complete linguistic purity before they are allowed to proceed anywhere else. We already have a situation where people are graduating with a degree in Spanish without having taken a single literature seminar. All their degree entails are endless permutations of language courses. Because their language is never completely perfect.

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      • And the worst part is that after a certain point, language courses stop improving the language. They become a total waste of time. What works is to place students in a situation where they take real college courses but in Spanish. And that forces them to improve. Or not. But that’s a gamble that has to be taken.

        Liked by 1 person

        • “after a certain point, language courses stop improving the language”

          It always amazes me how many language teachers (who might otherwise be perfectly nice people) don’t get this point.

          A few years ago I had an amazing student with extremely good English (as in she would be able to study any subject of interest in any English speaking country) and then she enrolled in an English philology program and after a year her English was completely wrecked as in she was hardly able to say anything… (that was that department’s policy – break them down completely and rebuild them, even if they don’t need it).

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  4. I wonder if this is a way in which languages differ from more STEM-like disciplines?

    I’ve been expected to waive pre-reqs for students because they are keen, have a good attitude, etc. etc., but have ended up ALSO being expected to do the necessary work to make sure they can do well in my course. That isn’t as simple as sending them off to the book for the course they missed, of course, because it turns out that for most students at my (regional) university, that’s not enough – they’re apparently incapable of teaching themselves stuff they missed from a book (I think that’s more about expectations and self-belief than ability) AND they’re being told from every corner that the university is there to serve them, the customer, and ‘support their learning’. Which means I end up teaching condensed versions of past material to these students in extra office hours or around my other work, and then of course the students who DID take the pre-req, but last semester so they don’t really remember it, start wanting extra help too because it’s “not fair” that the students who didn’t take the pre-req are getting help, which usually leads to some sort of complaint to the Student Experience Lead (yes, a poor member of faculty has this job) and to me being expected to add some extra classes to the timetable (we don;t work by seat hour), and generally it’s a mess.

    In STEM subjects, pre-reqs exist for a reason, for the vast majority of students, especially at universities like mine where students mostly had quite weak high school backgrounds, may have lacked a specialist teacher, have been working for money not taking tutoring or enrichment activities or whatever… If I was in charge, I’d let each discipline and, at higher levels (e.g. final year honours classes), each teaching team determine their own rules about pre-requisite knowledge and how it is demonstrated – whether through having taken and passed previous classes (which as xky shows does not actually mean students bring anything with them, but it’s clear, fair and can be applied neutrally to every applicant), or through showing up in the profs office and having a quick conversation in Spanish which shows sufficient comprehension to have a decent shot at passing the class.

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    • It’s not really an argument about whether prerequisites are needed sometimes — they are — but about how language is acquired and what is important. I have come to the conclusion that since many language teachers are native speakers and have not learned any language other than their own really well, and many others are non-native speakers who learned the language however they did, but have not learned more than one, they can, oddly, be some of the least informed people about this issue. Even though so much is known and so much research has been done.

      The thing is: you don’t get perfect without a lot of practice, and you can’t delay learning other things in and about the language until you reach some supposed level of perfection. But many people resist, say, teaching students about anything until their grammar is deemed flawless. This is counterproductive.

      I redesigned our whole curriculum such that all third year courses could be taken in no particular order, and also most four year courses. This was so as not to hold people back for grammar, but actually put them into a position to improve grammar as they worked on other things. But then other people went through and made all these prerequisites, and stuck in all these advanced-language courses, where once again students are asked to memorize rules rather than put language into practice. Then they wonder why so many of our students can’t speak Spanish. Duh.

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      • “I have come to the conclusion that since many language teachers are native speakers and have not learned any language other than their own really well, and many others are non-native speakers who learned the language however they did, but have not learned more than one, they can, oddly, be some of the least informed people about this issue.”

        • That is so true. And yes, absolutely, this is such a huge issue.

        “But many people resist, say, teaching students about anything until their grammar is deemed flawless.”

        • And it’s never going to reach that stage of flawlessness. Never. So we are stuck in an endless loop where students end up hating language because they are tired to death of hearing the same grammar rules recited at them.

        “I redesigned our whole curriculum such that all third year courses could be taken in no particular order, and also most four year courses. This was so as not to hold people back for grammar, but actually put them into a position to improve grammar as they worked on other things. But then other people went through and made all these prerequisites, and stuck in all these advanced-language courses, where once again students are asked to memorize rules rather than put language into practice.”

        • This is literally the same thing that I’m experiencing. I have no idea why educators, foreign language professors, my colleagues find it so hard to believe that you do improve both grammar and vocabulary while learning about literature, history, culture, etc in Spanish. That’s how I learned! And it worked. This should not be that tough of a concept.

        Liked by 1 person

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