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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How many hours should your students (and you) study?

Hi all,

This is a post from Motley Fool, an online investment community. The particular post is by Wendy, a very bright woman (chemist), who saved lots (lived below her means) and, when she lost her job, had enough money to retire to Washington state (Sequim, a lovely place!). She took a job teaching chemistry at the local community college this fall, and I quote below most of her post. This is an issue for us as conductors/students/teachers because it deals with the contemporary student and their expectations of what it takes to learn--in particular, how much study it takes to learn well. For anyone in music, this is a critical skill. Her post:

As some of you may know, I have been teaching chemistry at a local community college. 

The course is college-level freshman chemistry for science majors, with a very fine textbook. (There are 2 lower-level chemistry courses for non-science majors and for preparation.) 

I was told to make my course equivalent to freshman general chemistry at University of Washington (UW), a world-class college. The mandate of the community college is to provide low-cost freshman/sophomore credits, but to qualify students to transfer and get their 4-year degree at UW. They need to be competent enough to take higher-level courses at UW. To make them happy with high grades but without the competence would do them no favors. They would simply fail later.

To prepare the equivalent course, I accessed the UW labs online. We had the equipment for most of them, and we performed the labs. The students actually did well in the lab.

To maintain the same level of quality as UW, I told the students they would have to study at least 10 hours a week (this is standard for chemistry classes) and do the homework problems without referring to the book. 

Although I gave online open-book multiple choice tests like other instructors, the midterm and final were closed-book tests. These were based on homework problems and labs that they did with their own hands and wrote up in reports. They were expected to memorize the names of chemicals, to figure out ionic charges from the periodic table, to determine dilutions, to know how to titrate acids and bases, to balance redox reactions, to calculate enthalpy, etc. The usual freshman chemistry stuff.

In addition to the lectures and labs, I began doing hours of extra, out-of-class lectures to students who requested them. I also started team problem-solving, since they seemed to zone out when I solved the problems on the white board.

Of the original 22 students, 10 dropped out. Of the 12 that stuck it out, 2 got As, 2 got Bs, 3 got Cs and 5 got Ds. The ones who got Ds were unable to write a simple chemical equation, even after they had been intensively drilled in it.

The average grade in my class was 2.0. I'm absolutely sure that my class would have done the same (or worse) in the equivalent class at UW.

The average grade for this same class from 2005-2010 was 3.5. (at least 4 different instructors.) Either I'm teaching badly...or I'm asking for a level of performance that is straight out of the textbook but far more difficult than other instructors. 

I asked the department head to see my teacher evaluation, since I want to improve my teaching performance. One of the questions was telling.

17.Which best describes the number of hours per week you study for this class?
Amount                    #
Less than 1 hour/week   2 18.18%
1-3   hrs/week           1  9.09%
4-6   hrs/week           3 27.27%
7-9   hrs/week           2 18.18%
10 hrs or more per week   3 27.27%

Most of the class hated memorization. They hated closed-book tests - they are used to open-book multiple-choice tests (easy for instructors, because the computer marks the test and records the grades). They are used to being spoon-fed everything they need to know in lectures. They are used to Googling and open books. They didn't believe me when I told them that the only way to get good at solving problems is to solve many problems. 

The grades lined up pretty precisely with the study times.

Today, I found this.

Working Hard or Hardly Working? Analysis Shows Decline in Studying Among Today's College Students

Jul 08, 2010

Researchers Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks analyzed data from time use surveys given to American college and university students over a 40 year span. They found a significant drop in academic time investment across all types of students, suggesting that a decline in student input may be leading to a larger slump in productivity.

Analyzing data from time use surveys spanning 40 years, Babcock and Marks found a shocking 67% reduction in the number of hours today's college students spend cracking the books each week. That figure even applies to the golden students with perfect SAT scores and flawless GPAs - the researchers found that the drop was broad-based, showing up across all student demographics, choice of major and composition of schools.

Why, if students are performing well, do the hours they spend studying matter?...
 [end quote]

Never mind the sociology babble that follows. 

Study hours matter because learning and proficiency take time. Memorization of new information takes time. Learning how to solve problems takes time. That is even true of superior students with great focus and retentive memories, like me. It's even more true of average students who are constantly distracted by social media, texting, etc., like today's  students.

There were students in my class who simply couldn't learn and retain chemistry, though they did study hard. But half the class didn't even try, if you count the ones who didn't study and the ones who dropped out.

Going back to Jeff's discussion of expectations, it boils down to reality. 

The standard of living depends on productivity. Real productivity, which comes from real work. 

Several students in the class were disappointed. Not too surprising! They are used to succeeding for just being there. 

So, what does that mean for us? If you're a teacher, how much do you demand of your students--not just in any academic classes, but in your choir? If you're a grad student, how much time do you spend studying for your academic classes? As a conductor, how many hours do you put in with score study?

I had a lovely note from one of my choir members this fall:

Also, just wanted to say that, since I've been in the choir for three years now, I've noticed some changes.  I remember my first year the instructor asked us to practice something for the following Monday.  When Monday came, I remember asking the other tenors if they had practiced, and one of them literally laughed at my question.
Although I'm sure we could practice more than we do, there is a huge difference in how much the members take the choir and its director seriously.  Keep in mind that, when I first joined the choir as a sophomore, I was one of the youngest members, and the choir was much older.  Now, the choir is much younger as a whole than it was when I joined, and yet is acting with more maturity and approaching the music with more responsibility.  I think we know that we still have a lot of work to do, but I can really see that you're building the choir's culture up.

I'd be interested in your reactions, especially those of you who belong to this generation.

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