Sex Ed in Higher Ed

College instructor teaching human sexuality rants about the dumbing down of America, the lost art of manners, grammar and (the perfect combination of both) the thank you note. Also includes random rants about life, pet peeves, and sometimes raves about favorite things.

Monday, November 13, 2006

I'm Not Really Much of a Thinker

This will likely be a rambling reflection, because it's late and I'm so tired my vision is blurring. (Wah! Boo-hoo! Woe is I!)

But: I'm starting to wonder if students aren't told anymore, "Go and look it up," or, "I don't know either - why don't you find out." Or finally, "Use your noggin. You know the answer. You just don't know you know it."

I thought about this today: My first semester teaching, I gave an exam that had a question about drug addiction and "enabling" (this is when I taught the comprehensive health course - we try not to mix drugs with our sex in the class I teach now) and one of the response choices was, "Tina is 30 years old and economically dependent on her parents because of her meth addiction." At least 5 students raised their hands for help and all asked me the same thing: "I don't know what you mean by that."

I was so taken aback when the first student asked me that, I don't think I believed her. Perhaps she was playing a joke? "What?" I stammered, "Come on - sure you do!" She shook her head - "No, I really don't." I tried to walk her through it. "Well, think about it: What does 'economic' mean?" She didn't know. After some coaching, she was able to figure out what "dependent" meant. I had to explain economic. But what about the tried and true, "hooked on Phonics" sounding (or "working" in this case) it out?

And as the semester progressed, I found that during exams, students rarely asked me questions about the exam content; they asked me questions about what words and phrases meant. Words like, "Economically dependent" and "rivals" and "impasse."

This is where the tired and rambling comes in and where maybe you can help me out: I was always told, "There is no such thing as a stupid question." But: I wasn't always given the answer, either. In fact, I still remember vividly having to stay in one recess (fifth grade) to look up every single one of the words I didn't understand in the first 3 chapters of Island of the Blue Dolphin (and write out the definitions) because I had asked too many questions during English class.

I've since tried to simplify my exams and I try to avoid using any of those "GRE-type" words. And yet, I always get questions about the meaning of words that I never in a million years thought would stump a college student.

This isn't a rant - I'm really wondering: What is going on here? Unrealistic expectations on my part? Poor reading comprehension skills? A high school focus on a small set of words that will be found on the state proficiency exams? Nerves - i.e., words they'd recognize in other situations, but due to test anxiety suddenly seem unfamiliar?

I honestly don't know. It's just another mystery that remains unsolved for now.

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Blogger Carrien said...

I think it's because kids in public school don't have to read books anymore. Two books a year and a cursory understanding of Romeo and Juliet do not lead to any kind of vocabulary or reading comprehension level.

I don't think my mother ever answered a question directly. If I asked her how to spell a word she always answered, "How do you think it's spelled?" If I couldn't figure it out on my own she would wordlessly point to the dictionary on the shelf. She had the same approach to all of my homework. She would sit down to help me with math by saying, "Okay, explain this to me." I didn't realize until 2 years after I began algebra that she didn't actually know how to do algebra, but she was really good at teaching me to think, and figure things out for myself.
I HATED it when I was young, now I do the same thing to my children.

November 14, 2006 12:59 AM  
Blogger Kris said...

Oh yes! It is perplexing! I do think that reading comprehension is a big one. It is like pulling teeth to get many secondary students to read anything at all. Unfortunately, reading is probably one of the best ways to build vocabulary. But do the students care? Not so much. So I hope they are embarrassed by their ignorance in your classes.

November 14, 2006 1:24 AM  
Blogger Gryph said...

They're idiots who refuse to learn to read, and expect everything to be handed to them.

They're the same assholes who turn on Maury Povich in a student lounge at full blast, sometimes by changing the channel on someone ELSE who was trying to watch the news! "That's boring. This is fun!"

That TV is loud enough at full blast to be heard in the cafeteria above.

They're the same lazy idiots who refuse to spellcheck or even TYPE their papers, who constantly use "ur", "u" and other babytalk abbreviations because "that's how everyone writes."

Every time someone uses "ga2go" I want to stick a pacifier in their mouth. And Ur was an ancient city. :P

Someday, Teacher Lady, life will smack them upside the head. And all shall rejoice. Hang in there!

(And I'm in my mid-20s, by the by. Not quite "old," yet. And neither are you.)


November 14, 2006 1:33 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It isn't just you. In my Abnormal Psych class the prof is constantly having to explain what "big" words mean. OK, "Allostatic load" I can see, but "placebo"?

November 14, 2006 1:38 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

A college student should understand "economically dependent". That's hardly a GRE-type expression. They should also know what "rivals" means.

I don't know how this is happening either. Unless it's the dumbing down of high school curricula to keep the kids happy.

Have you read "The Human Stain" by Philip Roth? The best part of the book is when the main character's sister, who is a school teacher, rants about school children no longer required to read the classics because they don't like them. She complains that school is now about keeping kids happy, rather than teaching them.

November 14, 2006 3:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

omg, that is crazy.

i just think vocab had gone by the wayside. And honestly, not in exams, but when ppl do readings, i have found they do not look up a hard word, but ask me about it in class. wtf? you should be ashamed i think to them... what to do? i have no idea...

November 14, 2006 6:47 AM  
Blogger Fraulein N said...

Um ... what is "exam"? I don't think I know this word.

November 14, 2006 9:23 AM  
Blogger ricki said...

I've had to read words to students off of exams, too.

I've had the occasional student that I'd label as functionally illiterate.

I think it's that there are some students who just get passed on through school, for whatever reason, without the real skills to make it in life. It's sad but it happens.

often in my case these students are athletes so there's a whole 'nother batch of baggage attached to giving them the failing grades they earn.

I also think there are some people who simply do not read unless forced to, and so do not learn words they are not exposed to. Or they forget, or whatever.

But I don't know - I'm the kid who read the dictionary growing up.

November 14, 2006 9:36 AM  
Blogger Antique Mommy said...

Your posts about your students always astonish me and leave me wondering how on earth they got into college. When I was in school, many of my teachers equired that we carry a dictionary. It was probably a good idea. And it was better to look up a word than suffer the embarrassment of asking.

November 14, 2006 2:49 PM  
Blogger desiree said...

THE DUMBING DOWN OF AMERICA. I'll tell you what happened: Imagine if a teacher made a student stay in during recess and look up words from a book this day in age and the parents would freak out, threaten to sue the school and demand that the teacher get fired for harrassing their child. That is what is happening. PC went too far and you can't teach a damn kid anything other than self esteem. hence the retarded college students. They are self empowered twits who think that they deserve an A becaue they are paying for their education (well, parents are) and we are churning 'em out dumber and dumber every year. At first this bothered me too, however, now I see it as an opportunity. With my marginally higher education and vocabulary I will be able to distract them with shiney objects and take over the world.

November 14, 2006 6:35 PM  
Blogger maikaojai said... students ask me about words all the time, but then they just recently started learning English.

My fantasy reaction to what you're describing would be to take the dictionary-eschewers by the shoulders, look firmly into their eyes, and say, "This is your NATIVE TONGUE." And let shame do the rest.

But like I said, that's a fantasy.

I think you're on to something when you talk about limited lists of words that students learn for proficiency exams. The very existence of those lists promotes the notion that vocabulary is something you deliberately memorize, not something you amass gradually by reading, speaking and (God forbid) thinking. It then follows that in the students' eyes, any unfamiliar word is not an opportunity for learning but a low blow from the teacher--it was unfairly left off the list!

November 14, 2006 7:01 PM  
Blogger Veronica Mitchell said...

My husband constantly complains about this, but about his co-workers and their strange aversion to dictionaries.

What bothers me most is not the ignorance but the hostility that frequently accompanies it. It is not merely that students don't know a word; they resent the person who used it for sounding "smart," and use questions to express their resentment. Where is the embarrassment over ignorance? When I don't know a word, I look it up or ask someone else privately. But then, I still think being ignorant is a bad thing.

November 14, 2006 8:16 PM  
Blogger Bev said...

Over the past six years I have regularly received complaints about a certain question on a quiz. Students consistently do not understand the phrase "enabled to discern." I can understand their difficulty with "discern," but what floors me is that they consistently interpret "enabled" as "unable."

November 15, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Underhill said...

I sometimes get the vocab questions on exams as well in my quantitative science field. Sometimes it's clearly an ESL issue, and sometimes I think the students are trying to get the answer to the question. After all, by the time you explain what "economically dependent" means, you've done much of the thinking for them. (It may not be conscious deception; this could be a strategy that they've learned over the years.)

November 15, 2006 11:04 AM  
Blogger Miss Peg said...

It is the "dumbing down" of America.

November 15, 2006 8:16 PM  
Blogger Rufus said...

What can you say? Some children should be left behind.

November 28, 2006 11:32 AM  

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