Saturday, May 12, 2012

Student responsibility and motivation rant

Another honest rant that I needed to get out.  I just hope by the end I make sense to myself and can figure out what I should do.  Any advice from personal experience is appreciated... I know there's not one right answer to anything I'm frustrated about below, but anything is worth a try at this point!  I also want to mention that these frustrations are in regard to my CP Algebra 1 class, not my Math Analysis Honors class.  These are students who came into my class in September with a failure mindset (all of them had received C's, D's, or F's in their previous math classes; most of them with D's and F's).  We did not flip until the end of December, so the whole first semester many of them struggled to grasp the basic concepts... but yet we moved on anyways... Now, we see the results:

I just graded my Algebra 1 Chapter 11 test. I knew ahead of time this test was going to be a struggle - it is the hardest chapter of the year.  It covers Rational Expressions, and requires students to have mastered the skills from  Chapter 1,2,7,8, and 9 in order to succeed.  This chapter incorporates so many skills into one problem that if one skill is lacking, the whole problem can be wrong.

I decided to grade this test on a 50-100 scale.  What that means is (out of 10 questions), students got 5 points on every question just for trying, and then the other 5 for getting it perfectly right.  No in between partial credit, no "almost there"... just right or wrong.  I guess I graded it this way out of selfishness - I didn't want to spend 3-4 hours grading this test trying to figure out where to give points and where not to, so I spent about an hour.  I figured getting the free 5 points for trying made up for the lack of partial credit otherwise.  No matter how big or small the mistake was, if it was wrong, it was fully wrong.  I also graded it this way to try out a method that has been shown to us to be "motivating" to students, because the lowest grade they can get is a 50%...and if a student gets a score lower than a 50%, it is just completely de-motivating and they will all but give up - so give them that free 50% as a baseline.

I know there are pros and cons to the way of grading I just described above, but what's done is done and I'm not going back at this point to re-grade just so students can earn some more "points".  If they had mastered the material, they would have it right.  I did have 3 100%'s and about 8-10 more A's (out of 93 tests).

There are several things that trouble me about this test:
1. We started this chapter a month ago.  We spent a good 3 weeks on the material, took a week off to review for state testing, and then spent the last week alone just reviewing and practicing the material in class.  Nothing new this week, just practice and review. 

2. The students could tell me the steps of what to do out loud... they could repeat the chants we use to memorize the steps... they could identify how to approach the problem in class... then what happened on the test?

3. Every day this week we did a whole class "warm-up" where I did 2-3 problems with the whole class.  We did a total of 10 problems on Mon-Thurs as warm-ups.  Those IDENTICAL 10 problems were the ones I put on the test.

4. I am available for extra help every day before school, during lunch, during class (with the flipped classroom, I'm there to help all the time), and after school.  My students will be working on problems and I'll be checking on them, guiding them through steps, etc.  Several of them will be doing fine, and I'm hoping that test anxiety just got in the way (another issue itself).  However, there are several that I have in mind right now that I can visualize every day...I check in with them, they say, "No, no, I got it!" and so I move on.  I guess I should sit down with them and say "No, show me".  A few times, I did that and I tried to make the kid aware that he was doing things wrong and needed to practice some more... but that led to ZERO change in behavior.  Those are the same kids spending several minutes in front of my worked out answer book copying my work down step by step.  I guess they think that by copying the problem down step by step from me they are learning??!?!?!  I don't get it!!  How can I help them if they refuse my help?  How can I help them if they are LYING to themselves saying they get it, I tell them (nicely) that they aren't, try to point them in the right direction and tell them to practice some more similar to that, I go to help another kid, and that student is going straight to the answer key to copy.  They LIE to themselves all the time about their progress and do I teach them that? How can I teach them to know what they know and know what they don't know so they can get help? How How How? 

What troubles me about handing this test back:
1. Their scores are a lie. If a student got an "80%", that really means they got 6/10 problems correct.  If a student got a "70%", that means they got 4/10 problems correct.  It just doesn't match up to me.  Now, several people at our school have asked us to start considering/using this 50-100 scale instead of the 0-100 scale.  It is just so hard for me to grasp how those percentages line up.  If a student gets four questions right out of ten, how come they have a C?  That is not even close to mastery/proficiency.

2. I really want to give the kids a wake-up call and tell them what their REAL scores are, but I don't know what benefit that give them.  Half of them wouldn't care, half of them would be grateful I graded differently, put the test away, and move on, and the other half would get depressed and feel like a horrible person for doing so poorly on a test. (Yes, I realize I just made my class have three-halves... deal with it :)).

3.  There are some kids that really did try - ones that don't fit into the molds I mentioned above.  Ones that actually asked for extra practice and went over problems...and it just didn't stick for the test. I don't want them to feel like their efforts were in vain.

4.  I know every kid in my room (well, most of them) will say "I'm going to come in and retake this... I'll do it this week... I will". And they won't show up. Because it's happened all year.  I changed my test retake policy this semester to where students had to fill out an "application" to retake.  I used to FORCE every kid to retake any test they got below a 70% on. I would remind them every day. I would send a form home. I would have a signup calendar.  I would schedule times with them.  Basically I would hold their hand and baby them into retaking it.  This semester I tried to put the responsibility fully in their hands.  If they wanted to re-assess, they would take the initiative.  Out of all my classes (even math analysis), I have had TWO retakes all semester, and one of them only happened after two parent conferences and setting up a tutoring schedule/contract between parent/student/teacher.  Without the hand holding, the students don't re-assess.  So, I have a choice - do I go back to the hand-holding because the students obviously "need" that, or do I continue to let the freedom be in their hands and hope they figure it out?

To tie this post into things I have been considering regarding the flipped classroom, several things stick out to me right now:
1.  Why do I have students working on and testing on Chapter 11 when many of them haven't mastered Chapter 1,2,7,8,9?  If they haven't mastered those skills, they automatically are not set up for success.  This is what leads me to wanting to do some sort of mastery system next year, where the students can't move on until they've learned it.  I just have no idea how that will work with some of the low motivation I have with my students right now.  Will they commit themselves to learning the material when they have "sucked" at math their whole lives?  Will they work hard enough and practice enough to master it?

2. Where is the balance between quality assignments and drill and kill?  I don't really assign that many problems for classwork/homework, because I want those problems to be done well and correctly.  Quality over quantity is what I always say.  In addition, with my students, if I assign them 15 problems, they won't do them all or they will just rush/copy/BS/etc.  So, I assign them 4-8 and expect them to be done well.  I give them the answers because I want them to check and be motivated enough to figure out what their mistakes are if they get it wrong.  But, instead, what I get is a bunch of students looking at the answer first and then writing a bunch of stuff down to look like they ended up at the answer that is on the back of the key.  I have had several personal conversations with students this year about this and they smile and admit that it is the truth... but they don't change any habits.  When will they learn?  I have started to feel like I need to give my students MORE practice so they can master the material, because what I am giving them doesn't seem to be enough, and they aren't independent enough to want to do extra practice because it's good for them - they will only do what is assigned, if that.

3. I have been leaning towards the idea of "test deadlines" for next year and having the students test when they are ready.  I have been experimenting with this using my Concept Quizzes to see how it goes.  For some students, it works great... for others, they just end up taking ZERO quizzes the whole chapter because they are "never ready".  I know a little bit of that has to do with the fact that we are so far into the year at the point, that the pre-requisite skills they never learned in Chapters 1-5 (before the flip) are affecting their ability to succeed at these later chapters.  So, how would having "test deadlines" work?  I feel like there would be students in my Algebra 1 class who would not "be ready" to test on Chapter 1 until Christmas Break!  Where would that put them with even getting a grade for first semester Algebra 1?

In conclusion...

1. We have one chapter left (much easier than this one, at least it should be!), a project, and a final.  I am now leaning towards not doing the end of the year project and just spending that week having students re-assess in class.  Of course, I would love to see them in the next two weeks coming in on their own time and being proactive in their learning... but I can't really see that happening and considering the # of D's and F's I have right now in those three classes due to so much missing or incomplete work, I may not have much of a choice but to find a way to help "raise their grades".  I'm not a big fan of extra credit - they need to show me that they know the material.  But, if I really do set aside five days in class to do this, will students actually care?  Will they actually be productive?  Will they actually learn, fix mistakes, and retake stuff?  Or will it just be a frustrating waste?  What will I do with my kids who don't need to re-assess (have them be tutors maybe?).

2.  There is just so much wrong with this picture for me!  But, a lot of it goes out of my walls and out of my control.  Student intrinsic (and even extrinsic!) motivation, valuing education and learning, perseverance and hard work, dedication to a task/goal, integrity and honesty in all you do, focus and determination, effort at even the hardest and most arduous tasks... I feel like these have all but disappeared slowly in my five years as an educator.  Every year it seems to get worse.  Is anyone else sensing that?

3.  If you actually made it through this whole post, I'm impressed :)  Thanks for following me on my honest journey and I hope you might have some insight for me... or at least let me know that I'm not the only one who feels this way.  Thanks for reading :)


  1. I am a 6th grade math teacher in Massachusetts. Everything you describe is also my experience in a different grade and different state. Sadly, after 14 years of teaching math, I am learning to accept that I can only do my best (which is what you are doing). No matter how we structure the classroom (flipped or not), no matter how much intervention and reteaching we provide, no matter how many hours and extra support we offer, the unmotivated failing student exists. It is also my experience that this type of behavior increases each year. What I can't understand is the parent's response and/or lack of response to their child failing. Perhaps this explains the failing student's inability to change their learning behavior. In my classroom parents sign all tests, sign midterms that say their child is in danger of failing, they can access the online homework grades and online gradebook for continuous information on their child's progress. Yet, I met with parents this week that were surprised that their children are failing and have been failing all year. A typical parent response is they ask me why their child is failing. I want to say (but don't), "I am doing my job, are you doing yours?" I don't always think it is the parent's fault but I do see many parents that don't know how or don't have the time and energy to teach their children the importance of education. I fear this is a cultural change in America. Perhaps because of our busy technological daily living, perhaps the stress on today's families, but in any event we have a large number of students not learning what they need to be successful in their future. Each year more is expected of the educator and less of the parent. The question at hand is how do we, the educators, bring about change in these students and families. I do believe by middle school, it is difficult to change the learning behavior of students (as you explain so well). I wonder if we could identify these students at elementary what early interventions could change the failing path these students have begun before it is too late. The intervention plan would have to include both school and family. I am not saying there is no hope at middle or high school to make a change in a student. But the evidence shows with each year, changing this failing behavior is more difficult.

    Ending with a positive thought.....All the above efforts you describe that are best practices of a great teacher, do make a difference in the lives of your students, even the failing ones. Believe that even the failing ones have learned a great deal from you and are better people for having spent a year with you. You do make a difference in all their lives whether or not it shows in the data.

    1. Wow. Thank you for your comment and encouragement - definitely something I needed to hear!
      It is also encouraging to hear that it is not just me dealing with this, and that hopefully together we can work to find solutions, or at least support one another through the struggles.

      Thanks for reading :)

  2. I just lost a great comment because I clicked something in my browser wrong. Ugh.

    Anyway, you are not alone in your conclusions - especially conclusion #2. I want my students to persevere! I want them to have the self-control to follow through on their necessary activities to learn what they need to learn. The Algebra 1 class I had this year was 9 students - one perseveres and gets it, one perserveres but gets distracted, the other 7 have gaps in their math learning - distributive property, cross multiplication, GCF, solving for a variable, positive/negative numbers, etc - that thwart their ability to be as successful as they can. I am there after school every day for an hour - one kid may come in for 30 minutes but other than that that kid may never look at their assigned work again and it comes back undone. Even in class this last quarter I have had one kid in particular that didn't even finish the in class work where I was there to redirect and reexplain. I know I have to do something different next year and flipping my class may be it but obviously I have to strongly consider student responsibility and motivation because those that dont' do work now will likely be ones that don't do work later.

  3. Hi there,

    I have a similar situation, where some of my students did not pay attention in French 1, 2 & 3 and now have a really hard time with French 4. What I have done is paired them with students who I know understand those concepts for a conference. They then have to come explain the material they have reviewed to me and go back and try the assignment again. When they can do that, they can move on to the next assignment. Now they automatically ask each other. I'm thinking of making review videos for next year.

  4. Just like Carla up there, I had a great comment... but I lost it cause I deleted it. It was the same circular argument as you have here.
    And I work in a school where most of the kids are motivated... and families give pretty strong support!
    You know, we push and hope, and often get sucked in to focus on our failures rather than our successes. Even though they may not succeed in the insignificant specifics of the subject we teach (yes, teachers suffer greatly from tunnel vision), sometimes our real purpose as educators is to let them know that we believe in them. That's more important than knowing how to factor.
    You talk about "engaged students" as being the norm, and chances are discipline issues are not so much a problem. Those are victories. Think about it... kids confidently talking math to each other... MATH? It is so cool to see that. Teaching is about planting the seeds, and providing the environment to help them grow... we don't know what the seed is going to grow into. It's not like cooking with preset ingredients and procedures that will turn out the way it's expected.
    So no solution here, just some heavy-duty rationalizing.
    But if I may be so idealistic - our job is teaching kids, not teaching math.

  5. Thank you everyone for your comments - just knowing that I am not alone in my struggles is HUGE.
    MathManTP, you make some great points. It is so much easier to focus on the failures rather than the successes that we have every day. I was reminded of that today when 2 of my senior students, who have struggled throughout the year (one still currently has an F), came up and asked if they could take a picture with me because they are putting me in their senior exit project as "most influential adult" in their lives. It's little things like that that we need to remember - we may not see it, but we are making a difference.

    I may copy some quotes from your comments to put on a card and keep in my desk next year... especially the one about planting the seeds - very important to remember.

    Thanks again to everyone for joining in on the conversation!


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