Tuesday, September 8, 2009

"Back to Basics"

rain all summer = mushrooms

Last Monday was the college's Opening Day, an annual gathering where staff and faculty welcome each other back to the new semester and academic year. The president's message this fall focused on remediation and retention, and he highlighted certain facts about our student body. For example, of students who take placement tests upon entering the college, less than a quarter are able to do college-level math. Less than a quarter are able to write at a college level. And less than half are able to read at a college level.

For many staff and faculty these numbers were not surprising, and I imagine they are consistent with other community colleges nationally, but a week later I still find myself stunned. I understand that access to opportunities is part of the basic mission of a community college. We work with the underserved, the poor, minorities, non-English speakers, and people of all ages who may not have experienced high academic success in the past. However, I had previously not seen numbers such as these so starkly laid out.

The president suggested we treat the situation as a personal challenge: How can we help these students succeed? I am highly motivated to do good work, but I catch myself feeling helpless because I make many assumptions about students' abilities. For one, I have been assuming that the patrons I help at the reference desk can read. For another, we librarians try to make the library as easy to use and intuitive as possible, but what is easy to librarians with master's degrees may be very difficult for someone else.

Not to sound disheartened, but I wonder whether I am doing a good job as an educator if in the end all I can do is show students the path to success. When students are starting with such serious underlying educational disadvantages, is it enough to just show them the way? Giving everyone a chance comes naturally to me, but I struggle with the thought that that's the most I can do.


  1. Don't know if you saw it, but Marilyn Feingold (from CCC) shared this article with the IR group:


  2. There's a lot to say about this.

    I do think it's important not to put too much stock in standardized tests, scientific as they may make themselves out to be. A single high-stakes test may or may not tell you what a student can do (of course, some students may blow it off, or suffer from test anxiety, or just be really good at taking this kind of test and not so good at the sorts of things it purports to measure), so even if you know their scores you don't necessarily know their abilities. It's even more complex and problematic when it comes to measuring highly contextual activities such as reading and writing in a decontextualized way. Which, of course, is not to say that your students may not, in fact, have serious academic problems. No doubt some of them do (and the tests may not detect all of them, either).

    A couple of things I was taught as a writing tutor really apply here. One is that it's a really good idea to find out just where the student is at before you start trying to do stuff. What do they already know? What is the class like, and how are they experiencing it? Remember, they know more about it than they do. The other is that MANY of the skills (and I hesitate to use the word for reflexive theoretical reasons, but I'm using it simply to evoke something that one can do) we are trying to teach them are ones that are only learned over the long term, through extensive practice. I think this applies to research as much as it does to writing. When we worked with ESL students, it was easy to get discouraged because at the end of the 45 minutes, their English still wouldn't be perfect! Their paper may still have all kinds of errors in it, but as our coordinator reminded us, even if we didn't get to that part of the process, even if we couldn't do much for them in that regard, they got to spend time having an academic conversation with an English-speaking person. It may not seem like much, but in the long term it's essential.

    Also, the article that Doug linked is both extremely depressing and written in a way that really frustrates me.

  3. Oops, typo...

    "Remember, they know more about it than they do. "

    Should have been: They know more about it than you do.

    You know, since they're in the class and you aren't.

  4. I dunno, I thought the article was really interesting, and the "Faced with all this, even well-meaning community college personnel often evince a fatalism about their work, focusing more on students' deficiencies and who's to blame--the K-12 system, poverty, bad parents--than on what the college can do about them" part sounded a bit familiar...

    I'm not a huge fan of using standardized tests as indicators of ability either, but that data can be better than nothing, and according to certain standards might be meaningful.

    I definitely do NOT want to start assuming that the students I work with are dumb, but I'm struggling with the fact that I may have been giving them too much credit, to the extent that I might have been ineffective in my attempts to teach. As a real-time example, in my instruction sessions this semester so far I've been asking students for a show of hands if they know what a journal is. Obviously this is informal and relies on self-reporting, but it's been a steady 5-10% in every class. Previously, I had been assuming they knew what I meant when I talked about journals.

    More broadly, however, when I examine how I'm communicating and find ubiquitous examples of these types of assumptions, is it ultimately better to just say 'journals' and have them figure out what I mean, or use the (limited) time in class to go over definitions? The former tactic communicates that they should know what a journal is and that if they don't it's their responsibility to find out; the second clarifies but delays getting to the real purpose of the lesson. I'm starting to think that the first way is preferable, and that this what is meant by all the 'extending opportunities' rhetoric. I'm really not sure what to do if this leads to high failure/drop-out rates, though.

  5. Very nice post! The simple reality is that in library instruction we often don't get the chance to find out the individual skills lvls & needs of those we are teaching (at least to the extent I would want). As a result I find I often have to find a sometimes uncomfortable middle ground between meeting the needs of as many students as possible with widely varying skill lvls. I don't want to bore the more advanced or self-motivated learners but I don't want to leave those that need more handholding behind either. It's a hard razor's edge to stay on.

  6. Great post & great observation Dana. I am new to library instruction and it's been so difficult to gauge the skill level of my incoming freshmen. From years of ref desk work, I know that most students don't know the basics, but that can be handled really well on an individual basis...classes though, can be tough! How prepared are students to think critically about their research, and how much can librarians do to get them there?