What does it mean when students don’t do the assignment?

For today’s calculus class, I had the students read about average rates of change in the textbook and answer some questions on the reading. Most students did the reading. A few students did not. I expected this, but it is still difficult. One of the difficulties is around how to proceed with a lesson which some students are prepared for and others are not, but I want to leave that difficulty aside for the moment. The difficulty that is interesting to me right now is my interpretation of the students’ actions (or lack thereof).

This summer I read a great article — “The Emotional Practice of Teaching” by Andy Hargreaves. One of the things Hargreaves talks about in the article is emotional misunderstandings (p. 839):

Teachers frequently misconstrue their students’ exuberance for hostility, bored compliance for studious commitment, embarrassment for stubbornness and silent respect for sullen resistance. This misunderstandings seriously interefere with teachers’ ability to help their students learn.

When I have students that don’t do assignments, I leap to any of a number of conclusions. I go to that old standby of teachers everywhere — the students are lazy and want to be spoon-fed the material. Or this one — the students just don’t want to think for themselves. I go to the favorite of math teachers — the students just aren’t interested in learning math (so I guess I’m going to have to do all of the work around here).

After I had lots of these feelings in class today, I realized that I was feeling crappy about my students and about myself. So I decided I needed to write something about my feelings down here — after all, that’s why I’m blogging this semester — to give myself a way to process the emotions of teaching and a way to reflect on the relationships I am forming with students. And what I realize through this reflection is that I’m making a lot of assumptions that may be wrong — I don’t know why some students didn’t do the reading. I didn’t ask. What if I tried to find out rather than making assumptions? Digging down to the real reasons students fail to do assignments isn’t likely to be an easy task, because we all love to give nice excuses for things rather than being honest, but perhaps its a task worth attempting.

It is at least worth noting that my assumptions about why students don’t complete assignments paint them in a bad light and don’t point toward my own culpability. Maybe the reading assignment I gave was harder than the students were prepared for. Maybe it was too easy and thus boring. Maybe I didn’t give them any real reason to do the assignment aside from the fact that I’m grading it. Maybe the assignment was a complete waste of their time. Those reasons are potentially just as valid as the conclusions I came to, but they are less appealing to me as they point to my own flaws rather than the flaws of my students. I’m not proud of it, but there it is.

I’m not sure where to go with this next, but I think that I at least need to be communicating the purpose of assignments to the students, and I also need to solicit their feedback about assignments (are they at the right level of difficulty? do they seem designed to increase understanding?).

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3 thoughts on “What does it mean when students don’t do the assignment?

  1. Debbie Panasuk says:

    I can relate to “feeling crappy about my students and myself.” In particular, I am feeling frustrated and angry that some students do not complete any work outside of the classroom. From my perspective, students enter the classroom and wait for me to give them the knowledge. I explain, lecture, and scream at them that they have to actually “do” the math themselves. Yet, they do not.

    Ironically, I was just thinking today that I spend a lot of time and energy trying to motivate them to study outside of the classroom (i.e. learn) but I have never had a true discussion with a student or students about why they had not completed the homework assignment. I know that I make faulty (?) assumptions about “being lazy” or not “think[ing] for themselves.” If I reflect on my own struggles with learning and when I have not completed assignments, then I realize that it has not been because I was lazy but it was because of emotional factors disabling me and my ability to learn. So, just maybe – emotions are playing a bigger role in students’ inability to learn math.

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