Thursday, May 03, 2012

Feeling the Failure

In writing classes, I spend a lot of time talking about and having students practice a couple pre-writing strategies.  We do these in class, because I think they're important and I'm pretty sure that students won't actually spend the time to do them on their own unless they've been convinced by doing them already that they're worth doing.

Today, we discussed strategies for preparing for and writing essay exams.  You might think in the context of a writing class where students have discussed and used pre-writing strategies a lot that students would mention something about using pre-writing strategies to help prepare for and write essay exams.  You would be wrong, at least based on the limited evidence of my class.  I'm feeling the failure.

On one level, of course, I could try to argue that college students have a really difficult time using what they've learned in once class in other contexts.  It's really difficult to do, and students tend not to do it easily or well.

But I'm still feeling the failure.  So, yes, I tried to convince them that actually using the strategies we've been practicing all semester might be useful. 

And I'm really feeling the failure.

Maybe freewriting really isn't useful to most students.

Or maybe they don't take what they learn in one situation and apply it in other situations.

I want to run away and join a circus (where my snow shoveling skills may well apply in other situations).


  1. I'm betting you'd end up preferring to teach however slow the students were to shoveling elephant poop. ;)

  2. I suspect that the timed nature of an essay exam may make students anxious, so maybe they feel like they don't have time to pre-write? One of the many reasons I hate timed essay exams.

  3. What PLANET are we suddenly living on, that we presume that college students--*college!*--students have difficulty applying material/skillz/info/brain stuffs acquired in one setting to the demands of another setting?! Sweet baby Jeebus on a pogo stick!

    That said, I encourage my students to at least recognize that spending a few minutes at least doodling whilst thinking through the task will render a better end product than merely diving the eff in and ending up being "forced" into supporting a thesis that is less valuable and focused than the one that comes to them instantaneously and which they've ultimately spent SO MUCH TIME developing...poorly.

  4. It's not your failure -- it's the students' failure to recognize that skills they learn in your class are skills that can carry over to other classes and/or situations. I think it's really hard to teach students to make those connections. Maybe it's a maturity thing. Or maye we're not doing a good enough job of creating what used to be a truly "liberal arts" education, where everything connected to everything else. It feels, to me, like we put different subjects in discreet boxes, especially in K-12 education, and then students get used to thinking about a math class only in math terms, or an English class only in lit/writing terms. They don't see how analytical thinking happens in both subjects, or that proofs in math are the same as thesis/evidence in English. I wish we could make this more clear to them. Maybe I should write that stuff into my syllabi... Hm...

  5. What Clio's disciple said. I wouldn't despair-- timed exams are so different from any other situation that they may well be able to apply to more normal situations.

  6. Yeah, I was going to say that I don't think students see essay exams as like any other kind of writing (with some justification, I think). After all, exams test what they know, right? That's totally different from a paper where you're creating ideas!

    (That said - I had many many professors say to me, and I said to many students, take time at the beginning of the exam to plan your essay/think/outline. But I never thought of that as prewriting until this post, and even I had a gut resistance to the idea that "prewriting" would apply to an exam.)

    Point being, I don't think it's failure on your part at all - it's the institutional difference between learning, and demonstrating knowledge for evaluation.

    (Some of this is less true if they have the questions ahead of time and they can pre-prep those questions, of course... but still, I actually think it's fairly rational to resist using paper-writing strategies when writing an essay exam. An exam isn't a paper and a student's relationship to it isn't the same - different purpose, written under different circumstances, and although technically the audience is the same - you - I could see viewing the audience differently, since we often talk about papers as part of a scholarly conversation, while exams? no. Not saying prewriting wouldn't help them, but I can see why students wouldn't think of it.)

  7. I'd suggest that many of them may not even use the pre-writing techniques when you are not coaxing/compelling them to do so. Some will, but others--if they are like my students--will persist in certain practices that make their lives harder and their work less successful. Sometimes I have a former student in a succeeding semester, yet I'm convinced ze must have undergone a memory wipe, or maybe it's a clone with an imperfect memory upload, based on the lack of skills/knowledge in areas we have studied and practiced.

  8. Keep in mind that one semester is not usually enough to counteract years of deeply ingrained habits. And sometime down the road, some of these students may have that lightbulb moment when they realize, "Oh, wow, this is what Prof Bardiac was talking about! It actually works!"

  9. The hardest thing for students to learn is the generalization of knowledge from one context to another -- something made even more difficult, I suspect, by the testing regime that they have all grown up with. Everything is discrete, and pegged to a specific context.

  10. richard6:39 AM

    I think there is a general issue about sharing knowledge and skills between classes that is perhaps a deeper problem. I have a lot of students who assume that each class is a self-contained world, and that using, for example, materials they discovered in a different class in writing a paper for my class is cheating. Sometimes they come right out and ask if they can use a book or an approach they learned in another class, but mostly they just assume it's not allowed.

    I don't know exactly where they learned this "rule," whether it was explicitly taught or just grew out of the system itself, but it's up there with the scars from grammar-nazi approaches to teaching writing for frustrating them and me both.

    Still, I don't openly encourage sharing between classes, I admit it. If I made that part of my regular syllabus, a certain percentage of students would turn in to me the work they did for someone else, which is not what I want to see. So when I have a chance to encourage an individual student to bring in material from another course, I do so, but the motivation has to come from them. I don't like this approach, but I haven't come up with alternatives....