TITLE: Tactical Decisions That Affect Students AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 03, 2012 4:46 PM DESC: ----- BODY: My recent post about teaching with authenticity and authority is about attitude. Some teaching behaviors happen in the moment. They are tactical decisions in response to specific events, but they, too, can have long-term effects on how our students see us and on how well a course proceeds. A conversation with a colleague this week reminded me of a situation I've encountered several times over the years with faculty from across my university. Many have a lot of experience teaching yet seem to make a particular bad tactical decision. Our university has a policy -- approved by the faculty -- that students are not to be penalized for missing class to participate in university-sanctioned events. These often involve representing the school in athletic and other extracurricular activities such as debate, but sometimes they relate important on-campus functions involving scholarships and the like. Many faculty have attendance policies in their courses. For instance, they may take roll each day, and if a student misses more than four class meetings, then the student's grade in the course is reduced. These faculty genuinely believe that class participation is essential and want to encourage students to take attendance seriously. Because they have a large allowance for absences, many do not distinguish between "unexcused" absences and "excused" ones. That simplifies bookkeeping, and in the end it almost never matters to the student's final grade. Still some students worry that they'll end up with unexpected reasons to miss the allotment of "free" days. When they have a university-sanctioned activity, they want the professor not to hold it against them. Don't worry, the prof tells them, it's unlikely to affect your grade, and if it does, I'll reconsider. Still the students worry, and point to the policy that they should not be penalized for the absence. When I have talked to faculty in these situations, often in my roll as a faculty rep on my university's athletics advisory council but sometimes as department head, I am surprised by the faculty's responses when they learn of the faculty-approved policy. "My attendance sheet is a record of fact. I cannot mark students present if they are absent." Couldn't you treat the sheet as a record of unexcused absences? "No. It also indicates that students have participated in class that day, and at what level. If they are absent, then they have not participated." I am careful in these conversations to respect their autonomy and their control over the classroom, and the conversations go quite well. They understand the student's concern. They readily acknowledge that the absence is unlikely to have an effect on the student's grade and assure me that they have assured the student as much. They just don't want to mess with their systems. And they are baffled by the student's continued unhappiness with the result. This baffles me. If attendance or absence on that one day is unlikely to have an effect on the student's grade, what is the advantage of falling on one's sword over such a small issue? And, metaphorically, falling on one's sword is what happens. The student is disenchanted at best, and unhappy enough to grieve the action at worst. I have come to see such situations in this way: "unlikely to have an effect on the student's grade" creates an element of uncertainty. As teachers, we can bear the uncertainty, or we can leave our students to bear it. There may well be good reasons to leave uncertainty in our students' minds. We should ask ourselves, "Is this one of them?" If not, then we should bear it. Tell the student clearly, "This will not affect your grade", and make whatever change in our system of recording or grading needed to make it so. The result of this approach is, most likely, a student with a positive outlook about us and about our course. The lack of fear or uncertainty frees them to learn better. The student may even think that the prof cares more about the student's learning than about his or her system. Of course, all bets are off for repeated offenders, or for students who exhibit patterns of disengagement from the course. Students have to be invested in their own learning, too. This scenario is but one of many in which instructors are required to make tactical decisions. The effects of bad decisions can accumulate, in a single student and in the class more generally. They then have negative effects on student attitude, on the atmosphere in the classroom, and on teaching and learning. The good professors I know seem to reliably make good tactical decisions in the moment, and when they err they are willing and able to make amends. The decisions one makes in such situations is a direct result of one's general attitude, but I think that we can all learn to make better decisions. It is a skill that teachers can learn in the process of becoming better teachers. -----