Do We Create Student Failures?

Recently, I sat down with one of our counselors and discussed the numerous reasons for so many freshman failures and failures in general. Of course, the normal reasons sprang up: student apathy, teacher ineffectiveness, absences, disconnections from school, and more.

The one that bothered me the most, surprising as it may seem, is a failure to turn in enough work.

I honestly couldn’t believe this would be one of the top reasons. I mean, really, why is the simple completion of paperwork considered such a problem? Aren’t content knowledge and skill mastery the real aims? If students don’t need to complete every practice assignment before a test or project, why should they?

I don’t want to create failing grades in my classes. I don’t want to create unnecessary barriers.

I have started to change my teaching to reflect this. This year I still gave points for the practice assignments, but I excused any missing practices and low scores on practices if mastery was shown on the test, paper, or project. Students bought in more, and I actually had fewer missing assignments (even with my new policy). Students told me they realized that the practices couldn’t hurt them, so they had no reason not to complete them or at least to attempt part of them.

With the anxiety level lowered, students attempted more and performed at higher levels.

I think I will make this a more formal practice next semester.

22 thoughts on “Do We Create Student Failures?

  1. Steve Rosenbaum

    Here’s one possible answer. I equate this situation to what businesses face. They get a lot of new employees especially first timers who simply don’t know how to show up and go to work. If you look at the two year colleges, they are starting to make a lot money offering work readiness programs.

    So when kids show up for their first day of college, they have to figure out the system and how to do college. This is why you see those who stick around start to do better in their second or third year.

    They’re also going from a fairly structured environment to a very unstructured environment.

    What I think would be a good idea is to try to mirror some of the successful onboarding processes that businesses use to a school setting.

  2. Jen

    First of all that’s one of my favorite quotes of all time! Second, I just started blogging and found some of the things you stated quite poignant. I will take the time to read your archives.

  3. Steve Rosenbaum

    I know GE uses a process called a Manager Quick Start to integrate new managers with their team. They say it cuts several months off getting new managers up to speed.

    In general it’s a matter of structure the first weeks with key activities and usually some type of mentoring to help make a smooth transition and a quick start.

  4. Steve Rosenbaum

    I’d start out by identifying what it would take to be a successful college freshman. The I would find out from those who did it well, what exactly they did including possible mistakes. From that I’d create a unboarding path that mirrored what these successful students did. It’s probably everything from study habits to selection of courses, developing a support network to finding a mentor. It’s been so long since I’ve been in college I’m not sure what’s all included.

    I know there are freshman intros and freshman weeks, but that’s just a starting point, not an ending point. It’s really going from a sink or swim approach to something more structure and productive.

  5. drpezz Post author

    I think what you are describing is what good teachers foster (maybe not the system as a whole, but the best teachers), where time management, organization, study skills, and the like are part of every class taught. Filling the students’ tool boxes with with tools is a critical part of a teachers’ job. Creating independence is a paramount duty in the classroom, which is also why I have started grading on mastery rather than work completion; it forces students to use what is in their tool boxes and moves students up Bloom’s and Marzano’s taxonomies.

  6. Steve Rosenbaum

    What I was refering to was the original post out improving freshman success. One teacher wouldn’t do this. It’s really the school in a more broad sweeping context. If you’re teaching freshman english, you’re probably not dealing with how to manage that workload with the other three or four courses.

  7. Jim Van Pelt

    Hi, Doc. Interesting thoughts on grading and failure. We’re looking at some alternative ways to evaluate, particularly since so many students fail by not turning in work (a zero hits their average so disproportionally). I’ve implemented numerous strategies to head off student failure. Nothing makes me feel most like I’ve done my job poorly if a student fails.

  8. drpezz Post author

    You couldn’t have said it any better, Jim. That feeling when a student fails a class is why I decided to make a change (or at least it precipitated conversation leading to my change). I just think the more I and the students focus on content and skill mastery, the more accurate student grades will be.

    The coming second semester will answer more of the questions I have.

  9. Jim Van Pelt

    One of the biggest stumbling blocks for student grades reflecting their actual achievement (at least in high school), has been draconian late work policies. There’s a mindset among some teachers that late work should not be accepted or that it should be taken at drastically reduced credit. I’ve pretty much dumped that thinking for my classrooms. I want the students to do the work (that’s why I assigned it in the first place), so the kid who doesn’t have it ready on the due date gets to talk to me about ways to get the work done. I don’t mind pestering a student for it either.

    I also think tests are one of my best teaching tools, so students have numerous opportunities to retake tests in my class until they’re happy with their achievement.

    The teachers, who are strong proponents of the classroom teaching the values of getting work done on a schedule, and the (essentially moral) argument about the class room as a place to reward the hardworking and to punish the “slackers,” don’t agree with my practices. Their feeling is that I’m creating bad work habits. I don’t think so. There’s nothing about work habits I can teach the kids that two weeks working at a fast food joint won’t teach them, but my room is the only place where someone is going to work with them on their reading and writing. I can’t work with them if I don’t see the work.

    On the surface, my policies look like they might create chaos, but, surprisingly, I haven’t found that. The same percent of kids who turn in work on time are still turning it in, but now the kids who would fail the class have a chance to learn the material and pass.

  10. Steve Rosenbaum

    It’s important that when you look at getting work done on time that you aren’t committing one of the three sins of performance management. Ask yourself:

    1. Is good performance punished? (I get my assignment in on time so next time we won’t give you as much time.)

    2. Is poor performance rewarded? (I don’t get my assignment on time so you get more time.)

    3. Performance is ignored. (Get it in on time or not, everyone is treated exactly the same.)

    These are all very powerful ways to shape performance. When consequences are misaligned, you will get a lot of behavior you don’t want. It’s basic human nature.

  11. teachmiddleschool

    I preach balance to my staff. Students do need to learn how to produce a product for a date. As an administrator I need to have reports in on time, not when I have the time. I also have flexibility with some projects. I conduct my class the same way. Some assignments I give the class flexibility, other assignments have rigid due dates. I just make sure that my expectations are clear for my students.

  12. Dorothy

    My experience in college, grad school and teaching college math, is that doing homework is completely up to the student. We certainly never graded calculus homework nor did we take attendance. Quizzes and tests were the only assessments. Students who had at least attempted all the homework before quiz sections (where the TA would answer homework questions) found the discussions much more useful. Some students had to learn that the hard way.

    When I started teaching high school math at a private K-12, I did not want to collect and grade homework. What’s the point? These were juniors and seniors, not far from college years and I felt that my hovering over them with respect to monitoring homework was inappropriate babysitting or hand-holding. However, when some kids took advantage of this and started getting poor quiz scores, some parents hit the roof. Instead of letting the kids work it out for themselves and learn how much homework they needed to do in order for *them* to learn the material, I was supposed to make them do the work by grading it. When were these kids going to learn internal vs external motivation?

    Another thought related to a different ed-blog talking about hodgepodge scoring, is that if a student can demonstrate mastery of the material on a test without having done any homework, that indicates to me that the student is not being taught at the frontier of their knowledge, they are not being pushed for achievement at the level they are capable of. Some teachers just can’t accept that conclusion so get dogmatic and power trippy about making sure all kids do all the homework or get penalized.

    The analogy with business isn’t perfect because homework (at least in math) is more like daily progress reports. Successful employees don’t need to be babysat by their bosses and prove every day that they are working on a task, they pace themselves and are responsible for getting the final report done on time.

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  15. dave n

    where do all of you think you got the work habits that you have as good teachers…they were innate? don’t think so. maybe, just maybe, you learned that only through hard work can you be the best you can be. rewrites for poorly completed work…are you kidding me. “I’m sorry my site plan didn’t follow the customer specs…can I do it over? I always got to do that in high school.” sure. do it over for someone else…you’re fired. “I didn’t know I had to teach that. can I do it next year?” sure…but not in this school. what employer allows you to do subpar work over until its good? before I became a teacher I worked in the private sector for 12 years and they don’t allow that. If you can’t do the job right they will find someone else that can. “but some students can pass the course without the homework. why should I fail them or lower their grade for lack of work” I bet some of your students learn and pass your course in spite of you and don’t even need to attend your course. Shouldn’t we pass them. “we’ll they haven’t attended my class.” so what. if the emphasis is on standards isn’t that all that counts. I agree. homework should not be a large portion of a grade, but it should be a portion.

  16. drpezz Post author

    You know, the business example does not fit with education. It’s a false argument. The two do not equate.

    Students have to be given multiple opportunities because the goal is not a grade but learning. I cannot hire and fire students; I teach them. If you can find any standard in the state Language Arts listings that states that I am teaching business skills, I’ll teach it; however, the standards state that I teach the students analysis, composition, and revision skills.

    I’m also guessing most bosses do not place employees beneath their skill set. Those employees are advanced into positions of more responsibility and prestige. I do not have that option. If someone already knows how to do something in my class, why have them repeat a known skill? I would challenge them at their level.

    I have no problem arguing points with you, but your vitriol is offensive and unnecessary.


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