The gravity of personal responsibility
Tuesday, July 24, 2018
Despite articulating my professional responsibilities in a written and signed commitment to my students and asking them to reciprocate, disinterested and disengaged students did not become interested and engaged, nor did they become responsible, not even in the slightest.
To each class, they continued to come unprepared, continued to fall asleep, and continued not to not participate. Surely, I thought, at the very least, they know they are going to fail the course.
What else could I do to save them from themselves?
My spring 2018 reading and writing students were a mix of attentive, diligent ones and apathetic — perhaps even embittered — others, leaving me at once exasperated and curious.
When the commitments my students and I made to each other did not spur the uninvolved to involvement or the irresponsible to responsibility, I created a self-reflection and self-assessment. As with the commitment document, I designed it to be a reading activity.
However, while I designed the commitment document activity to be completed in groups, I designed the self-reflection and self-assessment to be completed individually because students were farther along in the course and were preparing for the required standardized reading and writing exam, which they’d be taking solo. Because of time constraints, I had to abbreviate the self-reflection and self-assessment.
Initially, I considered having students anonymously complete the forms, thinking of Cross and Angelo’s caveat for student assessment of teachers, "Anonymity is a necessary precondition to honest assessment."
Even though I was not asking students to assess my teaching, I wondered if students would be swayed in any direction if they were required to identify themselves. For example, I did not want students to rate themselves poorly or to extol the virtues of learning English even if they saw none because that’s what they thought I wanted.
After deliberating, I decided I’d have students identify themselves. Because having students use the self-reflection and self-assessment document would be a pilot project, I reasoned that I could make revisions upon reviewing responses. Should I find that an anonymous inventory would prove better than the pilot inventory, I could make the change.
From the responses, I learned why some of these particular students’ believe they are successful; for the most part, I have provided students’ unedited responses: "I’m always on time and always have my homework finished."
"I’m not really always activate [active], but I often do activate [am active]."
"I think I was actively participate [have actively participated] in class recently."
"Because I always have book and folder and don’t late [and I’m not late]. And I do my homework at home and bring it to class. I participate class [in class] when I know answer about question [know the answer about the question]."
Students made no mention of successfully demonstrating the required skills detailed in the course syllabus. Upon reflecting on students’ responses, I understand that I need to address the concept of success and how it relates to education, if not on a grand scale, then on a classroom scale — education in our reading and writing course — from which we can extrapolate.
I also learned why some of these students believe they are unsuccessful: "I don’t finish my homework and participate in class sometimes. Also, I don’t concentrate (in) the whole class time."
"Because I didn’t participate in class well."
"Because I have volunteered to participate in class only twice."
"I have never met with Debra during her office hours."
"First, I was absent too much, so I can’t follow the class. Second, I couldn’t find (the) homework (on the [Learning Management System]). I know I [should ask] Debra, but I didn’t."
"Because I don’t have a interesting for english, so I am so boring [Because I’m not interested in English, I am bored]."
Again, most students mentioned nothing about demonstrating (or not demonstrating) the course’s required skills.
However, I was taken by one student’s response: She wrote that she is not successful “because I think I’m still not good at english and I need to learn more. So I’m not ready to be successful PERW student.”
Throughout the course, the student consistently had proven her command of the requisite reading, writing, and critical thinking skills, the errors in her sentence notwithstanding. Still, she was critical of her skills. She set a high standard for herself, and although she was meeting the course objectives, she was not meeting her own.
With the freewriting questions, I wanted students to accomplish two tasks: one, to demonstrate that they knew how to freewrite after all the work we’d done with it, and two, that, upon self-reflection, they could articulate the importance of being a responsible student and of learning English.
Not all students answered these questions. I found that the students who had minimal skills did not finish. I saw them struggling to read, and some of them never finished.
Others, if they did finish, had trouble writing what they wanted to express. One student, who had done absolutely nothing all semester and wrote nothing in the writing portion of both midterm and final, simply stared at the self-reflection and self-assessment.
She made no mark on it. Writing nothing or writing very little was as revealing as writing copiously.
"I will ask for help if I didn’t understand," was the only response from a student who should have delineated a page full of what she needed to do differently — and she never answered why, nor did she answer the second freewrite question.
“I have to go first class, and every class. Because when," was all that a frequently absent and habitually unprepared student wrote. She struggled to read everything in the inventory, and she had no time to finish the self-reflection and self-assessment.
"Do my homework more perfectly, because in many homework I forget one of them, so I was as same as students who don’t do everything about homework," wrote a student. He was referring to losing points because he did not have all his homework completed, and as a result, could not fully participate.
His reference to "perfectly" should be "fully" or "completely." Even though I emphasize that students should not aim for perfection but instead should try their best, the message is a tough sell in a culture in which perfection is expected.
Another student saw the value in participating, "If I return to the beginning of the semester, I would volunteered to participate in class many times, because it can help my English reading and writing better than before."
I’m enchanted by the use of friendly in this response, "I wasn’t friendly with moodle, so I couldn’t do my homework completely in the beginning of the class. So If I can go to the beginning of the semester, I can do my homework completely every time of the class. Because, now I can use moodle homepage easily than past."
The student meant that he wasn’t familiar with the Learning Management System (LMS), but friendly strikes me as a far more effective word. Be that as it may, I certainly wish he had asked for my help in learning to use the LMS as soon as he ran in to trouble.
Alas, he never asked for my help, and I wish he had noted that, if he had to return to the beginning, he’d ask for help.
In Korea, a country and culture in which perfection of all kinds (most obviously in grades and test scores — which are separate from knowledge — and in physical appearance, regardless of gender) are valued, students rarely make the connection between authentic learning and the grades and test scores they desperately seek.
The students can’t be faulted, as generally they’ve never been exposed to authentic learning: they are at the mercy of rote memorization and standardized tests from their early days as students, a common approach to what is considered teaching and learning in Asia.
Hence, it comes as no surprise that a representative answer was, "I will do my homework every week. When I was bordering, I didn’t do my homework. And study for exam. I’m not satisfied my score so I’ll study more than before. Because I want to get high score and good grade." Although I’m not sure what bordering means, I infer that it means "bored."
Some may argue that I should be jubilant with a student whose self-reflection brings him to seeing the need to do his homework, and that’s fair, but for what purpose? For a high score and good grade?
No; that reason makes me despair. Here, students believe that if they just study more, then they will "succeed," which means earning high grades and scores. As it is, Korean students study upwards of 16 hours each day.
A particularly skilled student noted, "I think I won’t change a lot when I go back to the past. But I think I will do my homework faster. I have PERW class on Thursdays, but I did my homework on Tuesdays and Wednesday. I will do my homework after class or until Mondays. I think the faster I do my homework, the more comfortable I start to feel."
Her groupmate observed, "I want to watch movies only in English (no korean subtitles) so that I could hear English more and this can make me understand speaking (in english) more easily. By this, I could talk and hear more english and participate well in class."
And a young man who often was in their group had perhaps the most incisive response, "If I go back to the beginning of the semester and start PERW over again, I start studying hard for not only English but all subject. And I don’t spend a lot of money, and don’t waste my money." I have no idea if the financial lesson he learned is related to the cost of university or a general conclusion, but either way, it’s astute.
While some students saw the value in learning to speak, listen, read, and write in English, others were again—still—fixated on their grades. In answer to Freewrite question 2, one student responded that he could "get good English grade" and another wrote that he would be able to "speak well in PERW."
But most students observed that they could travel abroad with ease, make foreign friends, join the International Students Club "to make foreign friends and talk about their culture," watch movies in English, read books in English, and easily play video games that are in English only. One student observed that having a command of English "maybe [will be] helpful to my career."
Despite the various self-reflection and self-assessment inventories I’ve asked my students to complete over the years, I’ve yet to find one with which I’m fully satisfied, but I’m getting closer.
As I mentioned in my previous article, early in the semester, I need to present a lesson on self-responsibility, one that sets the stage for students’ self-reflection and self-assessment throughout the semester.
Then, students need to use an array of inventories and other indicators throughout the semester so they see the inextricable nature of self-reflection and self-assessment.
Likewise, from my self-reflection and self-assessment, I know I need to present a lesson in which students examine the connections and differences between grades and scores and authentic learning. When I design, implement, and assess those lessons, I’ll share what I find.
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