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2015 January 19

Community colleges as farm teams

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 18:55
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In Confessions of a Community College Dean: Farm Teams, “Dean Dad” responds to an article in Inside Higher Education, describing a program at Western Governors University (a private, non-profit, online college) that hands off weaker students to the StraighterLine (a cheaper, unaccredited program of online college courses that does not lead to a degree, but which are accepted for transfer by WGU and a few other colleges).  Dean Dad does not talk about this specific program, but writes,

But the basic idea makes sense. When selective institutions—especially public ones—are physically close to community colleges, sending “near-miss” applicants to the community college to prove themselves and get up to speed offers a smart answer for everyone involved. The elite public institution gets to manage the difficult trick of maintaining both standards and openness to the public at the same time. The near-miss student gets a chance to prove herself, and at lower cost. And the community college gets a pipeline of strong students with something to prove.

It’s especially smart for students who have a distinct, isolated area of need, such as English language learners or students with math gaps. In those cases, students would benefit from the relative specialization that community colleges offer. For the strong-ish student who just needs a little more time to get to the next level, a setting with small introductory classes taught by faculty hired to do exactly that is probably better than a 300-student auditorium lecture in which the main interaction is with a t.a. And I say that having been one of those t.a.’s.

A farm system is different from the “transfer” system we have now. In the usual “transfer” system, a student applies first (or simultaneously) to the community college, and moves on when ready. (Ideally, that’s at the point of graduation, though many students leave earlier and hurt our “performance” numbers even as they succeed at the next level. But that’s another post.) In a farm system, the student applies initially to the elite institution and is referred to the community college. I see no reason the two systems should be mutually exclusive.

I see a lot to like in the “farm team” system that he proposes. We certainly get a fair number of students at UC who are not ready for UC-level work (thanks to the “eligibility in the local context” admission policy, which admits students even if their high school teaches only to grade-school levels of competence). It would be useful to be able to encourage some of these students to do remedial courses in the community colleges first, since UC does not do a very good job of remediation, and the community colleges do much better.  And it isn’t just the weakest students who could benefit from taking some community college courses—there are plenty of standard courses (calculus, physics, intro to programming, chemistry, … ) that are taught as well or better at the local community college.  According to the undergrad assistant dean for the School of Engineering, our transfer students do slightly better in courses that depend on these as prerequisites than the students who took the corresponding lower-division courses at UC.

The current system is set up to discourage students from taking community college classes once they are admitted to UC, making the transfer paperwork far more onerous after admission than before, both for the student and for the advising office. Perhaps this is a practice that needs to be rethought by the UC faculty and administrators.

2014 December 28

Public univerisities as mass quality

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:55
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Chris Newfield, in Trends we can work with: Higher Ed in 2015 ~ Remaking the University, wrote

I never tire of pointing out that the only reason for the existence of public universities is mass quality—mass access to top-quality teaching and cutting-edge research—that puts regular folks on the level where they can genuinely match elites. It’s not too soon for faculty to join students in putting the quality back in mass quality, while creating new kinds of quality to reflect on current conditions. The success students had this year in holding off major politicians like Jerry Brown—and in getting cited in revenue arguments by governing boards—signaled to at least some faculty that it’s time to step up.

Chris Newfield, like me, teaches at the University of California (though he is on a different campus). I think we both see the University of California as having a combined mission: teaching and research at a very high level of quality and at a low price to the students. Unfortunately, high quality does not come at low cost, so the only way to achieve a low price is through subsidies. Because the public universities do not have the massive endowments and enormous philanthropic contributions that schools like Stanford get, the subsidies have to come from the state.

Unfortunately, our state politicians have been fooled into thinking that the University of California can be simultaneously controlled by the legislature and paid for by the students—thanks in large part to Regents who sincerely believe that unregulated markets are the best way to achieve everything.  As a result, the University of California has become much more expensive for students while having a lot less money for instructional purposes.  It’s been a slow process, played out over the past 20 years, but the UC educational experience has gradually been cheapened while becoming pricier.

The problem is not inefficiency on the part of the University or spiraling costs (see Cost of college remarkably stable), but simple cost shifting from public funding to student loans.  The legislature and the governors have given up education as a public good and decided to slowly privatize higher education in California. This is not a popular position with the people of California, so they disguise the moves and find ways to make the University look like the bad guys in raising tuition.

The University administration has been aiding and abetting this political movement to privatize the University, by raising tuition every opportunity they get and by paying their top executives ridiculously large salaries, while simultaneously treating the faculty and unionized workers worse and worse (health benefits are much worse now than when I joined UC 28 years ago; salaries are about the same, after correcting for inflation; and workloads are higher).  I think the UCOP (University of California Office of the President) made a particularly bad mis-step this year in the way that they raised tuition right after giving top executives pay raises—it made it look like they were just interested in lining their own pockets.  It would have been better to come out with a plan for lowering tuition while raising state contributions—then the legislature would be properly seen as the ones causing the problem, rather than offering the legislature an opportunity to look virtuous while cutting funding for the University.

Quite frankly, I’m not convinced that the UCOP executives have any interest in the University as a university—they certainly seem to pay much more attention to ways that they can extract money from it (like using the retirement funds for speculation on UC venture capital projects) than on education or research.  Neither UCOP nor the Regents listen to the faculty or the students, and I think that they have no idea what damage their self-centered decisions have already done to the University, much less what damage their most recent decisions will do.

2014 December 27

We create a problem when we pass the incompetent

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:55
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I finished my grading earlier this week, and I was little distressed at how many students did not pass my graduate bioinformatics class (19% of the students in the class did not pass this fall, about equally divided between the seniors and the first-year grads—note that “passing” for a grad student is B– or better, while for an undergrad is C or better). Some students were simply unprepared for the level of computer programming the course requires and were not able to get up to speed quickly enough.  They made substantial improvement during the quarter and should do fine next time around, particularly if they continue to practice their programming skills. Others have a history of failing courses and may or may not make the effort needed to develop their programming skills before their next attempt.

I don’t like to have students fail my courses (particularly not repeatedly, as some have done), but I can’t bring myself to pass students who have not come close to doing the required work. When I pass a student in a course, it means that I’m certifying that they are at least marginally competent in the skills that the course covers (most of my courses are about developing skills, not learning information).  I’ll give the students all the help and feedback I can to develop those skills, but I grade them on what they achieve, not on how much work they put in, what excuses they have, nor how many times they’ve attempted the course.

I often feel alone in holding the line on quality—I’m afraid that there are not enough faculty willing to fail students who don’t meet the requirements of the courses they are teaching.  Those teachers are just kicking the problem of inadequately prepared students on to the next teacher, or to the employer of the student who graduates without the skills a college graduate should have.

In The Academe Blog,  in the click-bait-named post Nude Adult Models, William Bennett, Common Core, Rotten Teachers, Apples, Robert Frost, Ulf Kirchdorfer wrote

The reality is that many teachers, whether prompted by supervisors or of their own volition, continue to pass students so that we have many that reach college with the most basic of literacy skills, in English, math, science, the foreign languages.

Tired of listening to some of my colleagues complain of college students being unable to write, I went to look at learning outcomes designed for students in secondary education, and sure enough, as I had suspected, even a junior high, or middle-school, student should be able to write a formulaic, basic five-paragraph theme.

Guess what. Many college students, even graduating ones, are unable to do so.

While I don’t often agree with Ulf (who often takes extreme positions just for the fun of argument), I have to agree with him that many of my students are not writing at what I would consider a college level for senior thesis proposals, even though they have had three prerequisite writing courses (including a tech writing course) as prerequisites to the senior thesis.  And it isn’t just writing coherent papers in English that is a problem, as evidenced by the failure rate in my bioinformatics course due to inadequate programming skills (despite several prerequisite programming courses).

In an article about Linda B. Nelson’s “spec” grading system, which attempts to fix some of the problems with current grading practices, she is quoted:

“Most students (today) have never failed at anything,” Nilson noted, since their generation grew up receiving inflated grades and trophies for mere participation in sports. “If they don’t fail now, they’re going to have a really hard life.”

It doesn’t do anyone any favors to pass students who do not meet the minimum competency expected—the students are deluded into thinking they are much more competent than they are (so that they don’t take the necessary actions to remediate their problems); future teachers are forced to either reteach what the students should already have learned (which means that the students who had the prerequisites get shortchanged) or lose a big chunk of the class; the university degree loses its value as a marker of competence; and employers ratchet up credentials needed for employment (as the degrees mean less, higher degrees are asked for).

There is pressure on faculty to raise pass rates and pass students who don’t have adequate preparation.  The University administration wants to increase the 4-year graduation rate while taking in more students from much weaker high schools. I worry that the administration is pushing for higher graduation rates without considering the problems caused by pressuring faculty to pass students who are not competent. The reputation of the university is based on the competence of its alumni—pumping out unqualified students would fairly quickly dissipate the university’s good name.

Four-year graduation is not very common in engineering fields—even good students who start with every advantage (like several AP courses in high school with good AP scores) have a hard time packing everything into 4 years. Minor changes to course schedules can throw off even the best-laid plans, so an extra quarter or two are completely routine occurrences. And that’s for the top students.  Students coming in with weak math preparation find it almost impossible to finish in 4 years, because they have to redo high school math (precalculus), causing delays in their starting physics and engineering classes. If they ever fail a course, they may end up a full year behind, because the tightening of instructional funding has resulted in many courses only being offered once a year.  There is a lot of pressure on faculty to pass kids who clearly are not meeting standards, so that their graduation is not delayed—as if the diploma was all that mattered, not the education it is supposed to represent.

There are things that administrators can do to reduce the pressure on faculty.  For example, they could stop pushing 4-year graduation rates, and pay more attention to the 5-year rates. The extra time would allow students with a weaker high school background to catch up.  (But our governor wants to reduce college to 3 years, which can only work if we either fail a lot of students or lower standards enormously—guess which he wants. Hint: he favors online education.) Students who need remedial work should be given extra support and extra time to get up to the level needed for college, not passed through college with only high school education.

Or they could stop admitting students to engineering programs who haven’t mastered high school math and high school English.  This could be difficult to do, as high school grades are so inflated that “A” really does mean “Average” now, and the standardized tests only cover the first two years of high school math and that superficially (my son, as a sixth grader, with no education in high school math, got a 720 on the SAT math section).  It is hard for admissions officers to tell whether a student is capable of college-level writing or college-level math if all the information they get is only checking 8th-grade-level performance.

Or administrators could encourage more transfer students from community colleges, where they may have taken several years to recover from inadequate high school education and get to the point where they can handle the proper expectations of college courses.  (That would help with the attrition due to freshman partying also.)

Or administrators could pay for enough tenured faculty to teach courses with high standards, without the pressure that untenured and contingent faculty feel to keep a high pass rate in order to get “good” teaching evaluations and retain their jobs.

Realistically, I don’t expect administrators to do any of those reasonable things, so it is up to the faculty to hold onto academic standards, despite pressure from administrators to raise the 4-year graduation rate.

2014 November 3

Advising too many students

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 21:39
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I’m advising between 300 and 400 students this year, plus teaching two classes each quarter, meeting with 3 grad students, and being department vice chair. This makes my week a busy one—I don’t get any convenient large blocks of time for doing research, and  I probably spend about 6 hours a week in one-on-one meetings with undergraduates.

Because I have to meet with students a lot, and I have a lot of scheduled classes and meetings, I need to keep an appointment calendar. But I’m not willing to have students signing up on it directly—no one gets to put things on my calendar except me.

I’ve set up two open office hours a week, for which students can reserve a place in line by e-mail, or just show up and wait until those with reservations have all been served. I stay until all the students have had their time with me (I made the hours 4–5pm), which means I’m usually doing 4 hours a week, not 2, but I can leave as early as 5pm if there is no one waiting (which has happened, but not often).

I also allow students to make appointments at other times—but they have to send me their schedules, and I look for an opening on my calendar. Because some openings are more valuable to me than others, I try to give them a slot that will fit their openings but minimize disruption to my day (an optimization that never happens if others put appointments on my schedule). I never give the students multiple options when they are asking for times outside my allocated office hours. They tell me when they are available, and I ask them to come in the first of those slots that fits my schedule. If they don’t come then, I mark them on my calendar as a no-show, and wait for them to reschedule (but I’m less generous about giving up prime slots to no-shows).

Why do I have so many advisees this year? Simple: the bioengineering major has been growing rather rapidly recently, which has converted a reasonable load into an unmanageable one. Also we completely revamped the curriculum last year, so that it is effectively 4 different majors, with only about 30% overlap in courses. That means that there are 7 different curricula students could be following (the 3 old concentrations or the 4 new ones), and considerable confusion on the part of students about what their options are—they hear something about the new curriculum and assume it applies to the old one, or vice versa.

There is a staff adviser whom students are supposed to see before coming to me (the bioengineering advising is a full-time job for her), but I have to handle all the exceptions and all the “what-elective-should-I-take” questions.  I also have to sign the independent study requests and approve the senior thesis proposals. I like reading the thesis proposals and talking to students about what courses can help them learn what they want or need to learn—that is the rewarding part of the undergraduate director job.

One of the most useful questions I ask students is “what do you plan to do with your degree once you get it?” Somewhat surprisingly, many of them have never been asked that and never thought about it—they are so focused on the B.S. as a goal that they’ve never realized that the B.S. is not a goal: it is a means to an end, a stepping stone. Where they intend to go after that should be determining what electives they take, what concentration they choose, even what major they choose. My job is help guide them on their path, but if they don’t know where they’re going, I can’t help them get there.

Not all my interactions with students are that much fun, though. Just before the add/drop deadline and just before the declaration of major deadline, I get all the students who were too disorganized to do things in a timely fashion, who are also often those who’ve made a hash of scheduling their courses and are looking for exceptions so that they can graduate despite having missed some requirement that they should have fulfilled years ago. Dealing with these students is often a major pain—particularly since they are so late in making their requests that they often expect me to drop everything else so that they can make their deadlines.  Sorry, kids, a failure to plan on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part.  I’ll deal with them fairly and do what I reasonably can to help, but I’m not going to say “there, there, you don’t really have to take that tough course that you’ve been avoiding for so long that your financial aid has run out”.  Luckily, I don’t have the power to waive prerequisites—I can honestly tell the students that they have to convince the instructor to give them an add code, as only the instructor can waive the prereqs.

I avoid some of the problems with handling so many advisees by sending out e-mail to the entire list of majors and premajors occasionally, when something comes up that I think will be a common question or that may students would benefit from hearing. I also handle a lot of routine questions and approvals by e-mail.

Based on the load last year and this quarter, I can tell that I’ll be inundated in the spring quarter, when all the sophomores will have to declare their majors. My teaching load will be a lot heavier then also, as one of my two classes will have 6 or 12 hours of lab time a week (depending how many students will be taking it), with no TA. So I’ll need help. I’m going to try to get some other faculty to start advising in a couple of the concentrations, so that the load can be spread a bit.  I’ll still end up with the thesis proposals and the exceptions, but some of the major declaration and guidance for elective choosing can be done by others.

Update 2014 Nov 7: This week, I have gotten three other faculty to agreed to serve as faculty advisers for the students in Assistive Technology concentrations (the smallest part of the workload).  I will be looking to get some faculty advisers for the biomolecular concentration (the largest part of the workload).

2014 October 25

Grading based on a fixed “precent correct” scale is nonsense

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 10:12
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On the hs2coll@yahoogroups.com mailing list for parents home-schooling high schoolers to prepare for college, parents occasionally discuss grading standards.  One parent commented that grading scales can vary a lot, with the example of an edX course in which 80% or higher was an A, while they were used to scales like those reported by Wikipedia, which gives

The most common grading scales for normal courses and honors/Advanced Placement courses are as follows:

“Normal” courses Honors/AP courses
Grade Percentage GPA Percentage GPA
A 90–100 3.67–4.00 93–100 4.5–5.0
B 80–89 2.67–3.33 85-92 3.5–4.49
C 70–79 1.67–2.33 77-84 2.5–3.49
D 60–69 1.0–1.33 70-76 2.0–2.49
E / F 0–59 0.0–0.99 0–69 0.0–1.99
​Because exams, quizzes, and homework assignments can vary in difficulty, there is no reason to suppose that 85% on one assessment has any meaningful relationship to 85% on another assessment.  At one extreme we have driving exams, which are often set up so that 85% right is barely passing—people are expected to get close to 100%.  At the other extreme, we have math competitions: the AMC 12 math exams have a median score around 63 out of 150, and the AMC 10 exams have 58 out of 150.  Getting 85% of the total points on the AMC 12 puts you in better than the top 1% of test takers.  (AMC statistics from http://amc-reg.maa.org/reports/generalreports.aspx ) The Putnam math prize exam is even tougher—the median score is often 0 or 1 out of 120, with top scores in the range 90 to 120. (Putnam statistics from  http://www.d.umn.edu/~jgallian/putnam.pdf) The point of the math competitions is to make meaningful distinctions among the top 1–5% of test takers in a relatively short time, so questions that the majority of test takers can answer are just time wasters.
I’ve never seen the point of having a fixed percentage correct ​used institution-wide for setting grades—the only point of such a standard is to tell teachers how hard to make their test questions.  Saying that 90% or 95% should represent an A merely says that tests questions must be easy enough that top students don’t have to work hard, and that distinctions among top students must be buried in the test-measurement noise.  Putting the pass level at 70% means that most of the test questions are being used to distinguish between different levels of failure, rather than different levels of success. My own quizzes and exams are intended to have a mean around 50% of possible points, with a wide spread to maximize the amount of information I get about student performance at all levels of performance, but I tend to err on the side of making the exams a little too tough (35% mean) rather than much too easy (85% mean), so I generally learn more about the top half of the class than the bottom half.
I’m ok with knowing more about the top half than the bottom half, but my exams also have a different problem: too often the distribution of results is bimodal, with a high correlation between the points earned on different questions. The questions are all measuring the same thing, which is good for measuring overall achievement, but which is not very useful for diagnosing what things individual students have learned or not learned.  This result is not very surprising, since I’m not interested in whether students know specific factoids, but in whether they can pull together the knowledge that they have to solve new problems.  Those who have developed that skill often can show it on many rather different problems, and those who haven’t struggle on any new problem.

Lior Pachter, in his blog post Time to end letter grades, points out that different faculty members have very different understandings of what letter grades mean, resulting in noticeably different distributions of grades for their classes. He looked at very large classes, where one would not expect enormous differences in the abilities of students from one class to another, so large differences in grading distributions are more likely due to differences in the meaning of the grades than in differences between the cohorts of students. He suggests that there be some sort of normalization applied, so that raw scores are translated in a professor- and course-specific way to a common scale that has a uniform meaning.  (That may be possible for large classes that are repeatedly taught, but is unlikely to work well in small courses, where year-to-year differences in student cohorts can be huge—I get large year-to-year variance in my intro grad class of about 20 students, with the top of the class some years being only at the performance level of  the median in other years.)  His approach at least recognizes that the raw scores themselves are meaningless out of context, unlike people who insist on “90% or better is an A”.

 People who design large exams professionally generally have training in psychometrics (or should, anyway).  Currently, the most popular approach to designing exams that need to be taken by many people is item-response theory (IRT), in which each question gets a number of parameters expressing how difficult the question is and (for the most common 3-parameter model) how good it is at distinguishing high-scoring from low-scoring people and how much to correct for guessing.  Fitting the 3-parameter model for each question on a test requires a lot of data (certainly more than could be gathered in any of my classes), but provides a lot of information about the usefulness of a question for different purposes.  Exams for go/no-go decisions, like driving exams, should have questions that are concentrated in difficulty near the decision threshold, and that distinguish well between those above and below the threshold.  Exams for ranking large numbers of people with no single threshold (like SAT exams for college admissions in many different colleges) should have questions whose difficulty is spread out over the range of thresholds.  IRT can be used for tuning a test (discarding questions that are too difficult, too easy, or that don’t distinguish well between high-performing and low-performing students), as well as for normalizing results to be on a uniform scale despite differences in question difficulty.  With enough data, IRT can be used to get uniform scale results from tests in which individuals don’t all get presented the same questions (as long as there is enough overlap in questions that the difficulty of the questions can be calibrated fairly), which permits adaptive testing that takes less testing time to get to the same level of precision.  Unfortunately, the model fitting for IRT is somewhat sensitive to outliers in the data, so very large sample sizes are needed for meaningful fitting, which means that IRT is not a particularly useful tool for classroom tests, though it is invaluable for large exams like the SAT and GRE.
The bottom line for me is that the conventional grading scales used in many schools (with 85% as a B, for example) are uninterpretable nonsense, that do nothing to convey useful information to teachers, students, parents, or any one else.  Without a solid understanding of the difficulty of a given assessment, the scores on it mean almost nothing.
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