What makes a good student?

September 21, 2004

I teach the US history surveys. As part of my class prep I read other peoples' syllabi. I also pay attention to what works in my classes, and to what does not work.

Teaching at several institutions, ranging from open enrollment community colleges to elite public universities, and following news and advice from other institutions, I have noticed a couple of patterns in what makes a good student: Good students read faster and with better comprehension.

One constant that I have noticed between schools is that, to the first approximation, elite schools and open enrollment schools cover about the same stuff in their classes. Every US1 survey will review, say, Bacon's Rebellion. The difference is that the better schools expect the students to have done more reading. One extreme of this is Cornel West's philosophy seminar at Princeton, where the undergraduates might be asked to read 300 pages of Aristotle for that week's class, and then spend the entire class session talking about some of the implications of the thought. They don't spend any class time reviewing what Aristotle wrote; West assumes, correctly, that the kids will have done the reading and understood it well enough to talk about its implications.

So, when I am talking to high school students about their own college choices, I point out that in the humanities the thing to check is their own reading speed and reading comprehension skills. If they are high, go for the better schools. If they are a slow reader with poor comprehension, be careful not to go to a school that will bury you under pages and pages of stuff.

I have in the past formed a poor impression of the reading comprehension skills of students at Urban Research University, largely because many of them really struggled to make it through the monographs I assigned them. I used perfectly readable books like Olivier Zunz Making America Corporate, Edmund Morgan American Slavery / American Freedom, and T.H. Breen Myne Owne Ground, and the kids hated them, struggled to understand them, and left me in a situation where I had to walk them through the book's argument even AFTER the kids had written a paper about the book.

I bring this up because I am teaching an identical syllabus at URU and at Suburban State University. This week we read excerpts from Ouladah Equiano's famous slave narrative. The kids at URU got it - they told me not to bother with the recap and we moved straight into analysis. And, sure enough, we had a good discussion of the book and it was clear that all 45 had read it, most had gotten it, and many could talk intelligently about it. Yesterday afternoon we did the same class at SSU. This time only 4 kids out of 35 could talk about the reading, and even though all wrote me a 200 word homework on it, it felt like most of them had either not done the reading or not understood the reading. So, I spent half an hour pulling teeth to work up the basic narrative of Equiano's life before moving on to new material and making my actual arguments. It was a very frustrating class.

I am still not sure how much of the difference in student quality comes from the two institutions, how much because URU is meeting at prime time while SSU is meeting at slacker time, but I am now 20 minutes behind in the SSU class. I will cut short their discussion of the middle colonies in order to tell the tale of Bacon's Rebellion and the shift from class-based to race-based hierarchies in the colonial Chesapeake. I think I can make time for that.

EDIT
I have now graded the homework that the kids wrote for that class. They had done the reading. Most of them knew the stuff we were talking about. But, for some reason, they did not feel confident in that knowledge and certainly were not forthcoming with what they knew. I have to think about my teaching style for that class and see if I can come up with something that might give them a little more self-confidence and thus get them more involved.

Posted by Red Ted at September 21, 2004 08:23 AM | TrackBack