Recently there was an interesting article in the NY Times called “How I Helped Teachers Cheat” about an academic ghostwriter. While I have no experience with ghostwriting, I found the following quote from his article interesting, which I will get back to later in the story:
In 2004 it was revealed that more than 500 students in a Birmingham, Alabama high school had been urged by teachers or principals to drop out of school before the test, for fear they would bring the school’s test scores down.
I was a teaching assistant (TA) in graduate school. This was back in the days of chalk blackboards (we didn’t even have dry-erase boards) and we had just gotten rid of mimeograph paper and gone to regular copies for printing. At that time, grades were kept in a little book, by hand, and that is how results were calculated. I was the first TA to try to calculate grades on a computer in my field of study.
I don’t remember a lot about teaching but I remember the first day pretty clearly. I was teaching an introductory accounting course that was required for graduation by many schools at my university, and it also held a lot of introductory accounting majors that could be described as highly motivated. Thus when I stood in front of the group it was a mix of fifth year seniors trying to get this course done so they could escape the university and first semester sophomores taking their first accounting class to get started on their profession. Since I graduated undergraduate early, I was younger than probably half the students in my class (the fifth year seniors).
While you could use the word “teaching”, it really was just a Friday TA session and the main work was done in giant lecture halls on Monday and Wednesday by a professor. We were supposed to go through problems and discussion tied with the course curriculum, and go through problems with the students.
I had no training whatsoever and little preparation. Oh well. I just kind of winged it. Unlike regular classrooms you don’t have discipline problems or any of that when you are teaching accounting… this wasn’t some sort of “hard knocks” episode.
There were a few major tests and a project required to calculate the grade. After the first exam, I looked at my section against the 25 or so other sections (this is a big university) and noticed that the average score of my section was near the bottom.
Even though there wasn’t any pressure on me to be a good teacher or even to help my students get better, my competitive streak kicked in and I was not happy that my section was low on the list. So I sat down and looked at the types of students that I really had in my group:
- first semester accounting sophomores – these students aced everything and were great. Frankly many of them likely knew a lot more about the details of the material than me
- fifth year general majors, particularly agriculture – these students were a mix but generally on the low end. They were just trying to get through this class and get out of the university
- Students who were clearly failing, not attending class, and not trying
- Sophomores – Ignore them. They were doing well anyways. They always asked the hardest questions, for example problem #55 (out of 1-55), where all the assumptions were reversed because it was a corner case. But it turned out that when I answered THEIR hard questions, the rest of the class was completely lost because they didn’t even understand questions 1-10 (the easy ones). Those kids even asked me for more comments on the homework I graded. If I had enough sophomores like this, I’d cruise to the top of the rankings anyways because they were all self-motivated
- Fifth year seniors – Teach them. The fifth year seniors were people that I saw at the bars around campus and actually could learn if you talked to them. So I would call on them in class and basically humiliate them a bit. “Do you understand this problem?” A few seconds would prove that they didn’t. Then I would say “Why don’t you ask a question?” and after a few sessions of this they would mostly perk up and put a little bit of effort into this. No one wants to be humiliated by being asked direct questions in front of a class and then heckled
- Failing students – Get them out. At the time in order to get funds to stay in school you had to go past the “drop date” and then you’d get your state money. Apparently it didn’t matter if you were failing or not because they’d just take my class and not drop and be failing. Whenever we had exams (which apparently they had to sit for?) I would say hello to them loudly in front of the section and ask where they had been in class and everybody laughed because I would start class by calling attendance only on the students that never attended, so people recognized their names. I don’t know if I succeeded in getting them to drop faster but it was all I could do since they didn’t come to class and apparently didn’t care about failing. The last power I had left was to call them out
Based on these (primitive) tactics, my section moved up against all the other sections and by the end of the year we were above average, which is all I ever could have accomplished when you match up 5th year seniors in the agricultural college from actual accounting majors in the prime of their motivation. That felt good.