I Didn’t Do My Homework
Apathy is contagious. I discovered this after only two of the forty-five students registered for the statistics class I teach bothered to do their homework over the weekend. This, incidentally, is an estimate on my part. Only thirty showed up for class on Monday, so I am assuming the fifteen who skipped were as lax as those who managed to (barely) clamber in.
I arrived two minutes before class was scheduled to begin, and there sat twenty-some kids, immobile and in the dark. Yes: not one could be bothered to switch on the lights. As usual, the shades were drawn because the previous class used the projector. No one was talking. Most look dissipated.
The situation for my High School Algebra Redux Sans Algebra 8 ante meridian class was similar; though these students also managed a dropsical appearance. This, incidentally, was a repeat of Friday’s class: those that showed then said that the missing “Went out” on Thursday night; the university I’m at has a reputation as a “party school”.
As usual, I started the statistics class by asking how they did with the homework. I do this because I do not collect homework. I warn students from the first day that this puts them at a disadvantage if they have no self discipline. They will be tempted to leave it undone, and since my exams are very much like the homeworks, they will do poorly on the exams. My prognostication was fulfilled, too: the median for the first exam (given the week before) was about 60.
I went down the row and queried, “What did you get when you tried the problem?” Answers came there none. After the tenth—yes, tenth—I gave up and asked, “Do you guys like me so much that you want to retake the class with me next semester?” Laughter and giggles. Actually, this was for effect of my part, because I’m only here for the semester.
The reader might wonder why such apathy? I asked the students. Seems the school’s football team was away and that many traveled with it. Upon returning, the travelers found their energy supplies sapped. It is also the case that (in my classes) the next exams are not for three more weeks. Plenty of time to cram.
Finally, these two classes are in the way of forced requirements. The algebra class is the bare minimum needed to graduate with a BA; the statistics is necessary for business majors, which most kids are. Not one student in either class wants to be in the class; by which I mean, they do not care to learn the material.
I know this because I asked on day one, “Tell me the truth. How many really want to learn statistics, want to really get into it? Or are you just here because you’re required to take the class?” Laughter, agreement with the later. I back this up with the evidence that only four kids (the same four) ever attend my office hours. These four—coincidentally?—also did well on the exams.
I don’t mean to exaggerate, but I put in significant time, usually on the weekends, preparing the classes, trying to find good examples, pertinent subjects, and so forth. In class, I try to will the material into the kids’ heads. In other words, I take it seriously. But when only a tiny fraction of the students do, I feel punctured, deflated, and just as apathetic as they do.
I am not sure I can get away with it, but I’d like to try to the following: come next class, I will offer every student a C if they sign a pledge to never return to class. Those that want to stay have the possibility of receiving an A or B, but only if they merit it. If they choose to come to class but under-perform or fail, they will have to live with their grade.
My bet is that most would take the offer, and be grateful to no longer be forced to learn a subject they “don’t need” (the most common rebuttal when asked why they did poorly). The few that remained would earnestly try, and probably even be serious about assimilating the material.
What a joy it is for a teacher to find a student who wants to learn! This joy is magnified many fold when the student actually can learn. But the enthusiasm is enough.
Grade inflation would earn most kids a C, or C-ish, anyway. So why not?
P.S.. The situation is not entirely bleak. The upper level calculus course I teach is a pleasure, the ratio of enthusiastic to apathetic students the exact inverse of the required courses. It is the bright spot in my week. Thus one solution to guarantee interested students is to teach only high-level courses; of course, you can see why that fails.