Skip Class Calculator Makes The News

I was saving this for another Conversation With Myself, to show that there are too many kids in school. But it’s more appropriate as a lead-in to another story about the Skip Class Calculator, which has now made national news.

Here, except for the name, is an exact email from one of my students that I received last week:

Hi. i missed class on tues and i was wondering what i missed.

Regular readers will know that I can forgive the occasional typo, so I cannot fault this student for forgetting to capitalize the “I”s etc. But the content; well, that’s another thing.

Now, I have no direct proof, but it is at least a possibility that this student used the Skip Class Calculator. If so, it shows yet another flaw in that “decision engine”: it offers no advice on what to do after you’ve skipped. Since I can be a good sport, I’ll provide that advice.

For starters, you certainly do not write an asinine email, one which offers no explanation or apology, but instead contains a request to be privately tutored. This will not endear you to your professor. Best thing is to say nothing, not in an email nor in class: pretend your absence never occurred.

Emergencies do occur, and sometimes you must miss—not skip—class because of them. But do not be tempted to invent an emergency to explain your absence. We professors are a superstitious bunch, and we’re beginning to think that the mere existence of our courses kills off more grandmothers than heart attacks.

But to the news.

Dennis Carter, of the eCampus News, did a story on the Calculator, which includes quotes from Yours Truly. Registration (an act which I did not complete) is required to read the entire article.

Carter also tracked down our pal Michael Anderson from the University of Texas at San Antonio (one of my favorite places on Earth), who has a different take than I do.

“If a class is moderately difficult, it could make [a student] think long and hard about making it to class and paying more attention,” said Anderson, one of many educators and students to post reviews on the Skip Class Facebook page. “It’s another way for them to go out and get independent advice. … We can tell them all day long to come to class, but students tend to trust that kind of objective source much more.” [quoted fully from the original]

Anderson, like me, acknowledges that students “have to miss class sometimes.” But I go further and say that they don’t need the assistance of an idiotic internet toy to tell them when they should miss. Besides, very few of the “weightings” included in the SCC are valid reasons to skip. And once more, skipping is vastly different than missing.

Other news outlets have picked up on the story, including the venerable KQED. There, Tina Barseghian writes:

Who among us has not decided — for better or for worse — to forgo a lecture for an afternoon of productive studying, unavoidable appointments, or even just simple decompressing.

Barseghian must be a generous soul, because she has forgotten a host of reasons why students skip: boredom, laziness, immaturity, improper or misplaced feelings of self-importance and convictions of intelligence, insobriety, contempt, and so forth.

I suggest that any student missing class for an earnest “afternoon of productive studying” would not need the SCC to confirm to them that their actions are justified.

15 Comments

  1. Matt:
    I think the issues around the SCC have already been delightfully articulated. However, the email your student sent, despite its brevity, is wonderfully intriguing. One could, of course, hypothesize what he or she was thinking and it is hard to put a positive spin on it but I believe that it would be better for you to have a dialogue with the young man or woman to determine what they thought that they were trying to achieve by the email and what led them to conclude that such an email would lead to their desired result. I recommend taking a look at a classic Harvard Business Review article by Chris Argyris, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”. (http://open.spps.org/sites/7b80d6e6-4d91-4cbb-a292-60cfcde3d05d/uploads/ArgyrisTeachingSmartPeopleHowtoLearn.pdf) Please note I am not making any attribution about the writer of the email as being smart.

    If you have the time, patience and inclination, I suggest that you expand on this little vignette for the sake of uncovering how this particular student and perhaps many others think about the roles and responsibilities of student and teachers at a university. I suggest creating a dialogue along the lines illustrated in the article by taking him or her back to the point where he or she made the decision not to attend the class. Have them try to recall what was going through their mind at that point and with what intent. Then go on to the decision to write the email. Ask them also how they thought that you were going to react. Try to note exactly what they say. The challenge, I suspect, will be for you to keep an open mind and to avoid making the same unsubstantiated attributions and evaluations of motives and intents that the student is likely to reveal. You will undoubtedly have some additional data to discuss as part of why you think too many young people are going to college.

  2. “…boredom, laziness, immaturity, improper or misplaced feelings of self-importance and convictions of intelligence, insobriety, contempt…” = Decompressing.

  3. Dang! My 15 minutes of fame, wasted on that dopey Skip Class Calculator!

    I’ve been asked the “I missed class, did I…?” question so many times, that I added a FAQ to my course syllabus. Here’s THAT question, with my answer:

    I didn’t attend class last time. Did I miss anything important? YES. Many instructors try to encourage class participation by telling students to be uninhibited about asking questions. “There are no stupid questions,” they say. What a crock. “Did I miss anything important?” is the original stupid question.

  4. What about the flipside story–professors that refuse to make allowances for reasonable absences? Here’s something I observed in an MBA program (about a decade ago), from a professesor that got tired of so many students missing his class:

    One of the guys missed because his wife went into labor & he took her to the hospital.

    The professor insisted on his “no excuses for absences” policy — and refused to hear or consider the extenuating circumstance.

    Somehow the Dean of the University heard about it before that class session ended (and the student involved didn’t text/phone/etc. upon his return). This led to a wide-ranging & somewhat persistent on-line discussion about the evils of tenure with this prof presented as “Exhibit A.” Which is to say a lot of students, many who didn’t even know the new daddy or never had or would take that prof’s course worked at getting even out of principle. What was very clear to all is that this particular prof was just lazy about stepping beyond his formulaic course program.

    Ultimately the school gave the prof a very undesirable office…

    The prof didn’t present a particularly substantial course & didn’t work particularly hard at it; pretty much “canned” material he’d presented by rote for years.

    Its not just that many young folks aren’t really cracked up to be college material….many college-level instructors aren’t/are no longer up to their responsibility either (they’ve lost the drive & ambition that got them tenure, and now coast along). These few “bad apples” are rotting the whole barrel. Undoubtedly some of those contribute to the mindset that lead to one viewing the skipclass calculator as something serious instead of a silly toy.

  5. I have to say I don’t (and haven’t) “skipped” class in the sense that Mr. Briggs bemoans. I can however shed light on the phrase “Did I miss anything important?”

    By that question, the student is asking the following. Did I miss anything that:

    1) Will be on a test/quiz during this course? (most common reason)
    2) That isn’t in the textbook, or is not well described in the textbook?
    3) A quiz, homework or project that was discussed for the first time?
    4) Something you (the professor) deem to be especially important, eg. fundamental idea that is built upon going forward.

    A simple example of this one is the idea of a “right triangle.” If one believes a right triangle is one that is simply facing a particular direction, trigonometry will be very difficult.

    Usually, the student is not asking for a personal tutoring session. Students are usually requesting a quick summary of topics addressed, covered, or otherwise discussed so they know where they are in the course material, what to study to make up for lost class time and whether they need to ask another student for notes (or help of any kind).

    Of course, all that said, it’s a terribly simple question that comes off sounding ignorant.

  6. Bobman:
    I agree with your analysis although there are probably additional meanings behind the question. You analysis moreover suggests that we cannot know what the student was actually asking, signalling or assuming without a potentially lengthy dialogue. The opportunity cost of answering the question properly, therefore, may be high and set the wrong precedent. I can see a certain value in Mike Anderson’s FAQ approach – which amounts to a set of groundrules or expectations for the students in the class.

  7. I agree… It’s probably better for students to ask each other “Did I miss anything?” rather than the professor or a slightly better form of the same question “What did I miss?” See how the second form at least assumes something was missed?

  8. Briggs – with your classes, it is grandmothers. With mine, it was always aunts. After several years as a grizzled veteran TA, I warned the students on the first day that my class in past semesters had proven to be “hazardous to the health of aunts, but strangely, uncles have been unaffected.” The mix of facial expressions in the class is forever etched in my memory: some chuckled, some were obviously confused, and others appeared horrified that I had a priori busted them.

    No aunts (or uncles) took ill that semester.

  9. Dear student. You must be mistaken. The class in question was fully attended. Perhaps it was another class or professor you had in mind. s/Professor WM Briggs.
    PS: Mr. Gates has expressed deep satisfaction with the statistical qualifications and preparation of the class members he interviewed and hired after the lecture. WMB

  10. “Dear Student: Don’t worry, nothing important was discussed. Whatever we talked about will not appear on any midterm or final. You probably already know everything we teach in this course, anyway. Skip some more classes. It’s fine with me.”

  11. Hi. i missed class on tues and i was wondering what i missed.

    It looks like that some of us don’t know exactly how to answer the student’s question. Let me help you. I think the correct answer is:

    Section 2.2.

    ^_^

  12. “Don’t worry, nothing important was discussed.” Love it!

    If pressed, I embellish: “All we did was tell stupid jokes and eat baloney sandwiches.”

    Of course, I do occasionally mention that some Old People (like me) take great delight in tormenting Young People (like them), especially when (a) there’s no chance of a comeback and (b) we can so easily get away with it. “Old People love to mess with you just for the Hell of it, so don’t go walking around with a Kick Me sign on your ass.”

    The flip side of all this is that I do hold very aggressive, well-attended office hours, as does my teaching assistant. Students who missed a lecture can get a 5-minute chalk talk of the key ideas, usually in conjunction with working a homework problem. Sharp questions that prompt deeper explanations of lecture material get posted to my course website for everyones’ benefit.

  13. Dear student,
    There are no re-runs until next semester. I am undecided about Tivo.
    Sincerely,
    Professor Briggs

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