TITLE: Two Kinds of 50% Student AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 06, 2011 9:00 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I returned graded Homework 1 today at end of my Programming Languages class. I'm still getting to know faces and names in the group, so I paid attention to each person as he took his assignment from me. Occasionally, I glanced at the grade written atop the paper as I was handing it back. One grade caught my eye, and I made eye contact with the student. The grade was 10/20. Or it could have been 12/20, or 8/20, no matter. The point is the same: not an auspicious start to the semester. Earlier, during class, I had noticed that this student was not taking notes. Sometimes, that's the sign of a really good student. He looked confident. Halfway through class, I gave a small exercise for students to work on, box-and-pointer diagrams for Scheme pairs and lists. Still nothing from the students. Perhaps his head was roiling in furious thought, but there was no visible evidence of thought. A calm sea. When I saw the grade on his assignment, I leapt reflexively to a conclusion. This guy will be an early casualty in the course. He may drop early. He may limp along, scoring 50%, plus or minus a few points, all semester, and end up with a D or an F or, if he is truly fortunate, the C- he needs to count it toward his program of study. That may seem like a harsh sort of profiling, but I've seen this situation many times, especially in this course. If you don't take Scheme seriously, if you don't take functional programming seriously, ideas and patterns and challenges can snowball quickly. I have a firend at another university who speaks of a colleague as telling his students on Day One of every course, There are only two ways to take my course: seriously, and again. That's how I feel about most of my courses, but especially this one. We can have a lot of fun, when students are present and engaged, seeking mastery. If not, well, it can be a long semester. Don't think that my reaction means I will shirk my duty and let this student fail. When students struggle early, I try to engage them one-on-one, to see if we can figure out what the impediment is and how we night get them over it. Such efforts succeed too rarely for my tastes. Sadly, the behavior I see in class and on early homework is usually a window into their approach to the course. So, I was sad for the student. I'll do what I can, but I felt guilty, like a swami looking into his crystal ball and seeing clearly a future that already is. After class, though, I was sitting in my office and realized that all is not lost. I remembered that there is a second type of student who can start the course with this performance profile. That sort of student is rarer, but common enough to give me hope. I did not actually think of a second set of students. I thought of a particular student from a recent graduating class. He started this course slowly. The profile wasn't quite the same, because this student took notes in class. Still, he seemed generally disengaged, and his homework scores were mediocre at best. Then, he did poorly on Quiz 1. But at that point I noticed a change in his demeanor. He looked alive in class. He asked questions after class. He gave evidence of having read the assigned readings and of starting sooner on programs. His next homework was much better. His Quiz 2 was a complete reversal of the first. This is the second kind of student: poor performance on the early homeworks and quizzes are a wake-up call. The student realizes, "I can't do what I've always done". He sees the initial grades in the course not as predictor of an immutable future but as a trigger to work differently, to work harder. The student changes his behavior, and as a result changes his results. The particular student I remembered went on to excel in Programming Languages. He grasped many of the course's deeper concepts. Next he took the compilers course and was part of a strong team. Sometimes, students are caught off guard by the foreign feel of the ideas in Scheme and functional programming, by the steep learning curve. The ones in the second group, the ones who usually succeed in the course after all, pay attention to early data and feed them back into their behavior. So, there is hope for the student whose grade I glimpsed this afternoon. That strengthens my resolve to hang in there, offer help, and hope that I can reach him soon enough. I hope he is a Group 2 guy, or can be coaxed into crossing the border from Group 1 to Group 2. The future is malleable, not frozen. -----