Sometimes it is fairly evident that a particular student was in trouble well before he or she ever started with my class. Some of these are students who think that getting an education is like getting a haircut: you show up, someone does something to your head, and when they’re done you’re educated (or your hair is shorter).
Some are students who are chronically unaware. This might be the result of laziness, but I suspect it is more often because a student has simply not understood the responsibilities that he or she has taken on by coming to university. Everyone gets confused now and then, but there are some things one really should make an effort to know.
These are students who email me regarding a question about the geography class they are taking from me. They ask what room the lectures for their distance education class will be held in. Throughout numerous back-and-forth email conversations, they get my first name wrong. Most memorable would be the student who showed up at 7am for a 7pm midterm. Despite being assured otherwise, he complained bitterly and publicly that I had changed the time of the midterm without telling him.
If a student is firmly committed to taking a passive role in his or her education, or is eager to remain blissfully unaware that he or she is blissfully unaware, then the extent to which I can help is limited.
The problems these students inevitably run into are mostly self-inflicted. There are other situations, though, where that may not be the case, and I am at a loss as to how to deal with these instances. What I am referring to are students who appear to have deficiencies that could make it next to impossible for them to succeed in my class, or probably any other university course: I’ve had two students in as many years who have English as their first language, and who appear to be barely literate.
I’m not complaining here about poor spelling and grammar (both of which I tend to overlook, given that I must pick my battles). These students submitted assignments that contained words from approximately the right part of the textbook. The words were grouped into what were clearly meant to be sentences, but the sentences themselves were only the barest fragments of disjointed ideas. Here is a characteristic example, in response to a question about the evolution of four-legged vertebrate animals (tetrapods) during the Paleozoic era of geological time:
Paleozoic tetrapods: (term) Latin: four feet-both vertebrates either to water-dwelling and land-dwelling vertebrates expand.
Another error was the persistent reversal of cause-and-effect relationships. Instead of my dog having muddy paws because it rained, the rain was caused by my dog’s muddy paws. Attributes and the things they described were also reversed. Instead of “muddy” being a characteristic of my dog’s paws, “muddy” was the thing being described, and its characteristic was “paws.”
Overall there were serious problems with reading comprehension, even where the root cause was unlikely to be a misunderstanding of the course material. For example, the sentence below is from the textbook:
Decimation of life at the end of the Permian Period 251 million years ago has been described by Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin as “the mother of mass extinctions.” (Levin, The Earth Through Time, 10th ed., p. 308)
The student wrote the following:
Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin, who is “the mother of mass extinctions” has concluded in the 251 million years ago in the Permian Period, that all other extinctions have diminished by changes of the Earth.
Presumably it would occur to even non-experts in geology that someone named Douglas is unlikely to be considered the mother of anything.
So what’s going on here? Are these students who just could not care less? Are these students with learning disabilities?
I dealt with the situation by grading the parts of the assignments that made sense, and recommended that assignments be proofread before they were submitted, preferably with help from a friend. That resulted in a slight improvement. I struggled with what else I should be doing. If the assignments are indeed indicative of these students’ abilities, then the students need to be learning the basics of reading and writing, not going to university.
If these students really are as ill-equipped as they seem, then someone has done them a grave disservice by allowing them to graduate from high school, much less enroll in a post-secondary institution. Do the students themselves know they are in trouble, or have they been led to believe that their skills are sufficient? Is it my job to tell them? Perhaps it is, insofar as I can demonstrate as much with respect to their coursework. Maybe the reluctance of well-intentioned people like me to be frank with them is how the problem started in the first place.
These students will be spending an awful lot of time and money on their educations, and it is troubling that they may have been doomed to failure before they ever got started.