December 15th, 2009

Helping Students Fill Gaps in Basic Knowledge


I once observed in a class in which the instructor returned a quiz. One of the questions indicated that an employee had just received a 10 percent raise. The employee was now making $50,000. The question asked what the employee’s previous salary was.

There were 63 students in this entry-level economics course. The instructor announced that only three students got the answer correct and then laid into the students: “Come on people, this is eighth-grade math. This is simple, simple, simple. I can’t take class time to review what you should have learned in grade school. If you missed this problem, you are going to struggle in this class and the rest of college. You need to review math and get these basics down. Start thinking! This is college. We expect you to use your minds here!”

There is no question that some college students today are missing fundamental knowledge and skills that will jeopardize their success in college and in life. The question is how do we show students where they are as compared with where they will be expected to be with a college degree? And how do we get them motivated to make that long journey? Is berating them the best way to get them going?

Avoiding discussion of missing skills and knowledge is certainly not the solution. If faculty don’t provide those benchmarks, students are left to make these determinations on their own. Most of my beginning students happily conclude that spelling is not important (it certainly doesn’t matter to any of their friends). Facing inadequacies is tough enough for mature, seasoned adults, let alone an 18-year-old in a brand-new environment.

Sugarcoating the truth seems equally unethical. If a student can’t do simple math or write a coherent sentence, this is not the time to hint around that there may be a bit of a problem but that the student should feel so good that he or she has made it to college.

Finally it seems less than professional to pass the buck: “You need to go to the Learning Center and see about math tutoring.” Messages like that make folks in the Learning Center the bad guys, and that makes it even tougher for them to successfully interact with students.

So we’re back to whether a faculty member bluntly laying it on the line gets students moving in the direction of the help they need. I’ve seen a technique used in both math and psychology courses that offered an interesting alternative. It was a kind of diagnostic, not-for-credit assessment (although students were not told this up front).

In math, students took a 10 question quiz on the first day of class. The quiz was corrected, and when returned, students were told these were the kinds of problems they needed to be able to do now. Attached to each quiz was a list of resources students could review, names of available math tutors, and Web links to other problem sets that could be used for practice.

In psych, students were given a two-page list of terms and concepts they needed to identify with the help of the person sitting next to them. The worksheet was returned with incorrect, incomplete, or inadequate answers marked but not corrected. Attached was a list of references (very specific, concrete referrals to chapters and pages, not whole books). Students were told in no uncertain terms that success in the course depended on mastery of this prerequisite knowledge.

It’s good to remember that teachers can’t force a student to learn what they need to know. But it’s also good to remember that teachers can be a source of motivation. The question is how best to get students moving in those directions that close the gaps between what they need to know and don’t know.

Adapted from Berating Students for What They Don’t Know, The Teaching Professor, December 2006.