While philosophy is about inquiry and students should be encouraged to ask questions, there used to be one question I hoped students would not ask. That question was “do I need the book?” I did realize that some students asked this question out of a legitimate concern based on the often limited finances of students. In other cases, it arose from a soul deep hope to avoid the unbearable pain of reading philosophy.
My answer was always an honest “yes.” I must confess that I have heard the evil whispers of the Book Devil trying to tempt me to line my shelves with desk copies or, even worse, get free books to sell to the book buyers. But, I have always resisted this temptation. My will, I must say, was fortified
by memories of buying expensive books that were never actually used by the professors in the classes. Despite the fact that the books for my courses were legitimately required and I diligently sought the best books for the lowest costs, the students still lamented my cruel practice of actually requiring books.
Moved by their terrible suffering, I quested for a solution and found it: technology. Since most of the great philosophers are not only dead but really, really dead, their works are typically in the public domain. This allowed me to assemble free texts for all my classes except Critical Inquiry. These were first distributed via 3.5 inch floppies (kids, ask your parents about these), then via the internet. While I could not include the latest and (allegedly greatest) of contemporary philosophy, the digital books are clearly as good as most of the expensive offerings. The students are, I am pleased to say, happy that the books they will not read will not cost them a penny. Yes, sometimes students now ask “do I have to read the book?” I say “yes.”
Since I make a point of telling the students on day one that the book is a free PDF file (except for the Critical Inquiry text), I rarely hear “do I need to buy the book?” these days. Now students ask “do I have to come to class?” I have to take some of the blame for this—my classes are designed so that all the coursework can be completed or turned in online via Black Board. Technology is thus shown, once again, to be a two-edged sword: it solved the “do I have to buy the book?” problem, but helped create the “do I have to come to class problem.”
When I was first asked this, I was a bit bothered. After all, a reasonable interpretation of the question is “I think I have nothing to learn. I believe you have nothing to teach me. But I’d rather not fail.” Since I have a reasonably good understanding of what people are like, I am confident that this interpretation is often correct. Honesty even compels me to admit that the student could be right: perhaps the student does have nothing to learn from me. After all, various arguments have been advanced over the centuries that philosophy is useless and presumably not worth learning. Things like logic, critical thinking and ethics could be worthless—after all, some people seem to do just fine without them. Some even manage to hold high positions. Or at least want to. However, I am reasonable confident that the majority of students do have something to learn that I can teach them.
After overcoming my initial annoyance, I gave the matter considerable thought. As with the “do I have to buy the book?” question, there could be a good reason for asking. This reason could be that the student needs the time that would otherwise be spent in my class to do things for other classes. Or time to grind for engrams and materials in Destiny. The student might even need the time to work in order to earn money to pay for school.
This was not the first time that I had thought about why students skipped my class. Since April, 2014 I have been collecting survey data from students. While as of this writing I only have 233 responses, 28.8% of students surveyed claimed that work was the primary reason they missed class. 15% claimed that the fact that they could turn in work via Black Board was the reason they skipped class. This reason is currently in second place. 6% claimed they needed to spend time on other classes.
There are some obvious concerns with my survey. The first is that the sample is relatively small at 233 students. The second is that although the survey is completely anonymous, the respondents might be inclined to select the answer they regard as the most laudable reason to miss class. That said, these results do make intuitive sense. One reason is that the majority of students at Florida A&M University are from low-income families and hence often need to work to pay for school. Another reason is that I routinely overhear students talking about their jobs and I sometimes even see students wearing their work uniforms in class.
While it might be suspected that my main concern about attendance is a matter of ego, it is actually a matter of concern for my students. In addition to being curious about why students were skipping my class, I was also interested in why students failed my courses. Fortunately, I had considerable objective data in the form of attendance records, grades, and coursework.
I found a clear correlation between lack of attendance and failing grades. None of the students who failed had perfect attendance and only 27% had better than 50% attendance. This was hardly surprising: students who do not attend class miss out on the lectures, class discussion and the opportunity to ask questions. To use the obvious analogy, these students are like athletes skipping practice and the coursework is analogous to meets or games.
I have been testing a solution to this problem: I am creating YouTube videos of one of my classes and putting the links into Black Board. This way students can view the videos at their convenience and skip or rewind as they desire. As might be suspected given the cast and production values, the view counts are rather low. However, some students have already expressed appreciation for the availability of the videos. If they can reduce the number of students who fail by even a few students each semester, then the effort will be worthwhile. It would also be worthwhile if I went viral and was able to ride that sweet wave of internet fame to some boosted book sales. I do not, however, see that happening. The fame, that is.
I also found that 67.7% of the students who failed did so because of failing scores on work. While this might elicit a response of “duh”, 51% of those who failed did not complete the exams, 45% did not complete the quizzes, and 42% did not complete the paper. As such, while failing grades on the work was a major factor, simply not doing the work was also a significant cause. Interestingly, none of the students who failed completed all the work—part of the reason for the failure was not completing the work. While they might have failed the work even if they had completed it, failure was assured by not making the attempt.
My initial attempt at solving the problem involved having all coursework either on Black Board or capable of being turned in via Black Board. My obvious concern with this solution was the possibility that students would cheat. While there are some awkward and expensive solutions (such as video monitoring) I decided to rely on something I had learned about the homework assigned in my courses: despite having every opportunity to cheat, student performance on out of class work was consistent with their performance on monitored in course work. It was simply a matter of designing questions and tests to make cheating unrewarding. The solution was fairly easy—questions aimed mainly at comprehension, a tight time limit on exams, and massive question banks to generate random exams. This approach seems to have worked: student grades remained very close to those in pre-Black Board days. Students can, of course, try to cheat—but either they are not cheating or they are cheating in ways that has had no impact on the grades. On the plus side, there was an increase in the completion rate of the coursework. However, the increase was not as significant as I had hoped.
In the light of work left uncompleted, I decided to have very generous deadlines for work. Students get a month to complete the quizzes for a section. For exams 1-3 (which cover sections 1-3), students get one month after we finish a section to complete the exam. Exam 4 deadlines at the end of the last day of classes and the final deadlines at the end of the normal final time. The paper deadlines are unchanged from the pre-Black Board days, although now the students can turn in papers from anywhere with internet access and can do so round the clock.
The main impact of this change has been another increase in the completion rate of work, thus decreasing the failure rate in my classes. As should be suspected, there are still students who do not complete all the work and fail much of the work they do complete. While I can certainly do more to provide students with the opportunity to pass, they still have responsibilities. One of mine is, of course, to record their failure.