Sunday, January 21, 2018

Kids these days

When I was a new teacher, I was wary of veteran teachers who complained about "kids these days". The gist was that students of a long ago yesteryear were capable of hunkering down and rising to the challenge of rigorous academic coursework, while today's students simply cannot hack it. I didn't see it. My students were rising to the challenges I set before them. What was the problem? I never wanted to age into that seemingly inevitable "get off my lawn" stage.

Back then, a veteran teacher was anyone with ten or more years in the profession. But it was those with more than twenty years in the classroom who were most likely to shake a "kids these days" fist.

I now have more than thirty years of classroom teaching under my belt. And I now see why it happens. The struggle is real. And I don't have a ready solution.

In my own recollection, my Physics students of 1996-97 figured it out better than those of any year I've taught. (I'm referring to my Physics students in this post, not my AP1, AP2, APB, or CP students.) 

In 1996-97, I was entering my second decade of teaching and had settled on some pedagogy and policies that seemed to work for me and my students. A large majority of students in 1996-97 (N=116) essentially agreed to my terms and prospered as a result.

In contrast, my Physics students in 2018 (N=60) have largely opted out of my conditions and suffered predictably. Here's a side-side comparison of the grade distributions.

There were four sections of Physics in 1996-97; there are two sections in 2017-18. (There was one section of AP Physics B in 1996-97; there is one section each of AP Physics 1, AP Physics 2, and Conceptual Physics in 2017-18. These classes are not included in this analysis.) Seventy percent of Physics students earned an A or B in 1997; only 57% did so in 2018.

Why the dramatic difference? In my analysis, it is engagement. Engagement is difficult to quantify for purposes of comparison. My best method for quantifying engagement in 1997 relates to random homework checks. 

By that metric and its built-in tolerances, 29% of Physics students were very engaged in 1997, 45% were somewhat engaged, and 26% were disengaged. 

Since 2014, we have had a Test Correction Journal (TCJ) process by which students can earn back up to half the points they missed on each unit test. "Sweat equity" is required: students spend class time writing "journal" entries for each test item they missed. Completed journals grant students access to a ten-question quiz. A 10/10 gets you half your missed points back; 7/10 gets you 70% of half the points you missed, etc..

So I can now use TCJ performance as a measure of engagement. We have five unit tests in the first semester. Students who participated in all five are rated as "very engaged". Students who participated in four of the five are "somewhat engaged". Students who missed more than two TCJs are "disengaged". 

By that metric and its built-in tolerances, 28% of Physics students were very engaged in 2018, 27% were somewhat engaged, and 45% were disengaged. 

Here is how the Physics grades break down (2014-2018) when classified by levels of engagement. (N=382)

That infographic might take a moment to absorb. The green columns are grades earned by highly engaged students: mostly As, fewer Bs, fewer Cs, two Ds and no Fs. The yellow columns are grades earned by somewhat engaged students: some As, more Bs, some Cs, a few Ds, and two Fs. The red columns are grades earned by disengaged students: one A, more Bs, many Cs, dozens of Ds, and all but two of the Fs.

Excel is happy to make pie charts as well. Here are the grade distributions by engagement level.

Eighty percent of very engaged students earned an A or a B.

Somewhat engaged students were somewhat distributed across letter grades.

Half of disengaged students earned a D or F. One out of 382 earned an A.

My own assessment is that students who engage in the course will get a good grade. There is more to engagement than Test Correction Journals. Homework engagement is crucial. But I have no way to measure that, whatsoever.

Still though, you will most likely earn an A or a B if you are at least engaged in the TCJ process. You will most likely get a C, D, or F if you're disengaged.

Some might argue that in addition to preparing and maintaining quality physics pedagogy and policies, I have an obligation to compel or otherwise force students to engage in the course. I cannot bring myself to agree. 

At some point, students must have the option to engage or not engage. In my own highly biased assessment, I consider my course to be highly engaging as it is. And I believe there is a valuable lesson to be learned about the consequences of choices that we make when approaching an academic course. Physics is a college prep course; many students will be sitting in college courses in less than a year. 

I want my students to succeed. In my class and beyond. I know that no one will chase them down in college to make sure they are duly engaged in their coursework. If they know how to engage on their own, they will be set to succeed to the limits of their abilities.

Full engagement is not a guarantee of an A. An A represents a level of mastery that is demonstrated in various assessment instruments. Engagement puts an A, B, or C in play while virtually precluding a D or an F. Disengagement, on the other hand, operationally precludes a student from earning an A.

Choices and consequences.

Am I at the "kids these days" stage? I don't think so. Engaged students are doing very well in the course. Top grades are well within reach of anyone willing to engage. And AP students (unsurprisingly) remain highly engaged. I am bothered by the increasing number of students who choose to be disengaged in Physics.

One last graphic to convey my disappointment. This is this year's 1st period Physics class's test scores. This was the most disengaged class I've ever had. In the test scores field, red indicates a TCJ that the student missed. Yellow indicates a test that was made up during the make-up period following the administration of the test (usually about 10 school days). Blue represents a test that was missed and not made up in the make-up period. It was made up at the end of the semester. Black is a second test that was missed and not made up in time. It goes down as a zero. The letter grades are shown in the leftmost column. Green shading for very engaged students, yellow for somewhat engaged students, and red for disengaged.

Kids these days? No. Shaking my head? Yes.

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