Dealing With Unprepared Students

When I reported to work on August 24, 1992 (also the day I turned 25) to begin my teaching career, I was expected to be on time every day and to be prepared for each class I was assigned to teach. Those expectations have not changed over the past twenty years. For the first five or so years of my career, I tried very hard to prepare detailed weekly plans for my courses, blueprints showing where I wanted students to begin and end. Keeping to these plans was difficult for several reasons, among them the reality that students sometimes needed altered pacing that threw us off schedule. Okay, I thought, because one of the advantages of taking their courses at a community college is that I could alter course parameters to best provide students with the help they need when they need it.

Fast forward to 2013. The expectations of me by my institution have not changed, but in all these years, there has never been any explicit articulation of expectations from our students. Apparently, all of the expectations are rather one-sided. I’m expected to do everything right, but students aren’t expected to do anything. The fall 2012 semester was especially difficult. I had a failure rate of over 50% in my introductory astronomy course. This was previously unheard of, and instructors in other disciplines reported similar happenings. Still, some of my students lodged formal complaints with my department chair and dean. Two of the complaints were especially disturbing. One student complained that it was “unfair” of me to expect him to write in complete sentences because he was never expected to do so in high school; all his tests were multiple choice. Another student, who happened to be foreign-born, complained that it was “unfair” of me to expect all students, but especially him, to write with correct English because of his having most of his early schooling in another country. I should point out that this student spoke fluent English and has been in this country for many years. As I recall, he attended high school in this country too. These complaints got no audience with me, but the students then went to my chair, who indeed gave them an audience. Oh, and only slightly less enraging was the glib comment from quite a few students that the course material was too advanced for them and more appropriate for astronomy majors. Yeah…they actually said that without laughing, which is more than I can say for me. You’ve seen my Twitter posts about my astronomy activities, all of which are written at about a high school reading level. Astronomy majors? I think not.

Afterwards, my chair (who did eventually dismissed the students’ “complaints”) suggested that perhaps I should document in writing that instruction would be delivered in English and that writing, much more than students might expect in an introductory science course, was expected in the course. Really? REALLY? Was I really being asked to state up front that all instruction would be delivered in English? REALLY? IN A COLLEGE TRANSFER COURSE? Okay, so for the spring 2013 semester, I took a cue from Linda Elder and Richard Paul and drafted a sheet showing various expectations I had of my students. Students would get this sheet on the first day of the semester, read it, and initial every expectation as indication of their acceptance. I called it a Student Understandings sheet and offer it here for inspection. It has been modified to reflect my adoption of standards-based grading and to emphasize that my courses are not to be taken specifically as preparation for standardized professional school admissions.

On page 2 of this sheet, one sees the following:

  • I understand that if an assignment is due for a class day and it is not completed when I get to class, then I am not prepared to participate in the current class period and may be asked by my instructor to complete the assignment in a designated place and to show it to my instructor before being permitted to begin the next body of work.

It occurred to me that although I am expected to do my job, I can’t do my job unless students come to class prepared to participate and to engage. I’m held accountable, and punished (or at least threatened), for not doing my job so why should students not similarly be held accountable when not prepared for class? Students are aware of my definition of teaching and are aware that I will stick to that definition. They did not, however, expect me to hold them accountable for coming to class unprepared.

My introductory astronomy students purchase no textbook, but are required to purchase a College Astronomy Kit from the bookstore for this course and its second semester followup course (the same kit works for both courses). In past years, I devoted about two hours of class time to assemble the celestial sphere, but this year I’ve adopted a flipped classroom model so I asked students to do the most time-consuming portion of the assembly outside of class, over a weekend, to free up classroom time. Most students did not do it, and thus were unprepared for class meetings. In accordance with the above previously agreed to understanding, the unprepared students (some of whom had not even purchased the kits yet!) were moved to one part of the room to do assemble their kits (or to work on some assessments on WebAssign if they had no kit with them) while the prepared students completed their kits and were given the information scheduled to be discussed in class that day. This worked. Great, right? Well, almost.

On Fridays, my two daytime astronomy sections meet concurrently for fifty minutes. This lets me better ensure that they are at the same place in the course. I had previously warned that students MUST have completed spheres with them for this past Friday’s class meeting. Still, approximate ten students showed up with either incomplete spheres or no spheres at all! I anticipated this (remember…twenty years of watching students) and asked a department co-chair (my department is split into physical science and biological science areas, with a co-chair over each area) what hu would do in this case. Well, hu told me that in hus classes, unprepared students are sent away and are counted absent. I didn’t expect to hear that! I told hu about my expectation issue and hu agreed that I should enforce it as written. So, I calmly gathered the unprepared students together and told them that they would gain nothing by attending class today and they should leave. As consideration for their showing up as expected, I would not count them absent (I have to indicate this in my attendance records however). Some were like, “Hell yeah!” while others were like, “You’re kidding, right?” I told them that I was serious about being prepared for class and that I would not compromise on that. They seemed shocked, but also seemed to accept the situation. I fully expected them to go straight to the chair or, as students more frequently do, to the dean. To my knowledge, neither happened. Meanwhile back in the classroom, the handful of prepared students from the previous class meeting ran the class and did well. One even called out a fellow student for not participating in the discussions.

Okay, so here is what I want to know. I want to know how others deal with students who come to class unprepared and prevent us from doing our jobs? Are we expected to alter our plans to accommodate unprepared students at the expense of prepared students? Are we expected to drag the prepared students down to the level of the unprepared students? Is this problem unique to community college students? Is it unique to my specific population of students? I’ll be honest in admitting that this has been a persistent problem I’ve had to deal with from day one of my career and it has not improved significantly in my estimation.

Anticipating student complaints (which, I’m sorry to report, I have to do a lot of these days), I have the following justifications:]

  • Students were aware of this policy by virtue of signing the Student Understandings sheet.
  • My chair was aware of the Student Understandings sheet and even enacted this very policy in my absence last semester (while I was at AAPT in New Orleans).
  • Students may complain that they were denied entry into class given that they were paying to take, but I contend they were denied nothing. Well, they were denied an opportunity to learn, but only because they were not prepared.
  • As students have previously been told, my job consists of ensuring a good learning environment which includes ensuring they show up prepared.
  • At the semester’s first class meeting, students were told to purchase their kits as soon as possible, and were reminded of this at least weekly.
  • I will no longer allow unprepared students to interfere with the learning opportunities of prepared students, and part of my job is to ensure that the prepared students get priority.
  • I will no longer allow unprepared students to sit idle in class, wasting their time and my efforts.
  • Since my courses are supposedly college transfer courses and must maintain a certain level of rigor, I am obligated to ensure that this certain level of rigor is present and if students are not prepared, that cannot be my problem.
  • Now, if students are truly not prepared for this liberal arts level introductory science course despite having completed, or having placed out of, developmental (my institution’s word for remedial) courses, then there is a serious institutional problem that needs to be addressed.
  • Depending on which fellow instructors I ask, students do or do not display this behavior in other courses. Turns out that this behavior is more frequent in science and math courses than in other courses. These same students complain that my course is far more rigorous than any other courses they have taken and that they consistently earn As in those other courses. My course is always the first one that they do poorly in, although their definition of poorly is not earning As.
  • If I am not permitted to do what is best for my students, then I must be relieved of my job immediately because I am not qualified to do the job for which I was previously duly hired.

After twenty years, I’ve had an epiphany. That epiphany is that I can, and will, no longer let unprepared students keep me from doing my job. I’M FREE!


2 Comments on “Dealing With Unprepared Students”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist says:

    I have 2 thoughts:
    1. I put students in groups in class a lot. I’ve been very tempted to form those groups (on a daily basis) based on their demonstrated preparedness. I then would only allow the prepared groups to dictate the pace of the course. The unprepared groups would constantly be playing catchup, likely getting very little out of the class. I’ll admit that in my fantasy vision of this, the students would start to compete in their preparedness to ensure they’re not stuck in the unprepared groups. However, I’ll also admit that my realist vision of it is keeping me from enacting this: the unprepared students just won’t care. I suppose that the prepared students will get a better experience, so maybe I should try it after all. The big question is what is the best way to measure preparedness, but I’m not really worried about the possibility of pulling that off.
    2. I feel so free in my class this semester, from this perspective of this problem. I made a conscious choice to try out introducing topics to students for the first time in class, basically asking them to only think about some simple ideas ahead of time (like “what makes sound when you snap?”). They come in pretty near blank slates, and I try to facilitate a discussion that gets them to really brainstorm what the issues are. It’s still a flipped class in that at the end they tell me what they want from a resources perspective (book chapters, screencasts, simulations etc). In other words, I don’t really ask them to be prepared, and I’m not getting crabby about it. Maybe I’ve just caved 🙂


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