Thursday, August 26, 2010

in session

I’m not a teacher. I have done quite a bit of instruction and training in the military and developed courseware while in the service and in civilian life; I have some idea on how information is absorbed. I have a very spotty academic record over my lifetime: strong in high school, horrible in college in the 1980s, very good in class work over the last decade. I’ve created a little ‘academic’ approach ideal that I gave to L. while she was here and passed along in less depth to some fellow (younger) students at AiW*.

What brings you this post is an e-mail about students and dropping out of school that was sent to Andrew Sullivan from a teacher/professor in California. Anything I might or could say about privilege (I had mine), economic standing, neighborhoods, family life, or learning issues would be mostly anecdotal and no doubt off base. My approach, which is mirrored in the professor’s grading process for remedial courses, is this: 70-80% of your grade is showing up. (I think 70% of life is simply showing up.) Those numbers aren’t necessarily a direct ratio to your can being in a chair, they are a combination of being present in mind and body. Trust me when I tell you that the number of students in my culinary program who routinely miss class is mindboggling: and this is an almost purely laboratory-based program. Also trust me when I tell you that my attending class record during my academic downfall was as bad, if not worse, than what I see now. I guess gray hair and wisdom help. Back to the percentages and what qualifies as “showing up”. Just for a few sentences I’m going to bypass how homework fits into this equation and address the time-and-place portion. If you’re in a class that will be meeting 30 times over a quarter (what I have right now) or 10 times in 10 weeks then your presence, the ‘attendance’ grade, can only be met by you having your sweet ass at class when it’s in session. The byproduct of that ‘attendance’ grade is that if you are there for every session of instruction, and you’re paying attention, you’ll learn the vast majority of what you need to know to pass nearly all of the assessments – and by passing I’m only talking about a number around 70%. With that 70% and your 100% attendance you’ll be just fine when a final grade is publish. (Consider a course where your grade is broken down this way: 25% from attendance and 75% from assessments [quizzes/exams]. If you have 100% attendance and a 70% average on assessments, you’re final grades is a 77.5%; that equates to a C+ on most standard grading scales.) When passing a course and moving along in an academic career is the goal than you’d be hard pressed to find a simpler method than simply showing up to class.

When homework is added to the equation then it simply becomes another cog in ‘showing up’ – a part of attendance. L. had some classes last semester that included one homework assignment every week, due on Fridays. Usually it was a ten problem/question worksheet but could have been a reading assignment that was the basis for classroom discussion (Oh! The attendance issue again). As those weekly chores were added to the grading scale there are severe penalties for not showing up: even at a 10% contribution to a final grade, if you only do half your homework then you’re dropping a half-grade from your final score by simply not showing up: turning in or doing that homework being part-and-parcel to being ‘in’ the class.

My point? Who knows, but it makes perfect sense to me. Why? Well, my Baking and Pastry class – when we are in the kitchen every class sessions – is 30 class dates over ten weeks. Our final grade is based on 2.5% for each class session: showing up, in the correct uniform, on time, and participating. That’s 75% of the final number and if you attend even 28 of those 30 classes (and get the aforementioned 70% on assessments) then you’re a lock for a B+ (87.5% - I won’t do the math again). Even with this knowledge from our syllabus and first night in class, at least half the class will end up with grades lower than what they think they deserve and will try to corner the instructor and ask why they didn’t get an A. And finally, any additional work you do beyond showing up, paying attention, and turning in your homework is simply a benefit and additional ammo if you are looking for a higher grade. Can you miss a class? Sure, but if you do, you’ll have to do twice as much work – based on that miss classes percentage – then you would have had to do if you’d simply showed up.

I’ve gone on long enough. If you got all the way to the end, and read the linked letter, then you’ve shown up and you get an A.


*AiW being the Art Institute of Washington. And, the shorter version of my speech is this: “Show up to class, dude.”

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