Monday, January 21, 2013

To Lab, Or Not To Lab?

What kind of question is that?

Back in college (heck, most high schools) homework wasn't really something that was negotiated.  You got it, and you did it.  I got it, and I did it.  Might have taken you a little less or more time than it took me, but it was still something that we knew was coming at us.  You and/or I may not have done all that was assigned, and if we didn't then we paid the advertised (on the syllabus) price.  Some teachers assigned more than others, and some of it was easier than the rest, but regardless, homework in college courses was, and still is, like water in the ocean.  It's there, and you know it's there, and nobody has to get wet for you to believe in it.

It wasn't till I got to the other side of the desk that I realized there was more to the equation.  There's an expectation, for example, that a student in college will spend two hours on homework for each hour he spends in class.  Let me clarify, though.  Homework includes anything expected to be done outside of class, including those pesky reading assignments, studying for quizzes, and even the AC (Annoying as Crap) worksheets.  Oh, and the ever-present writing of papers of joy, and all that other way-too-fun stuff are included, too.  It even used to include the time we spent in the library bent over card catalogs, while now it doesn't take much time to just pull up Wikipedia (kidding).

Meanwhile, "each hour he spends in class" can require qualification as well.  That is because everybody expects reading and other out-of-class activities for preparing to be successful in lecture-type activities (a category of activities, actually, that involves initial or review exposure to course topics in various ways, and includes lecture, discussion, student presentations, game play, role play, and numerous other options) yet nobody really ever expects homework assignments for lab.

What is lab?  Well, it's when you practice what you've learned, of course.  My computer and cabling classes used to have lots of lab.  So do the medical classes.  Even non-technical courses like foreign languages often march the students over to a lab environment (or these days some do them in class on their iPads).  In the courses I used to teach, it involved sitting down at a server and following the directions to install or configure something.  What homework would I have given? 

Anyway--you're probably about to ask me what is the issue.  First, though, I need to go back a little in time, back to when people were trying to figure out how to measure college efforts.  At work, you may get paid by the hour or by the job.  In freelance writing, you might get paid by either of those, but often it's by the word instead.  How, though, do you configure the system for students to pay for their education--what do they pay by?  How do we quantify how much work a college student has completed?  How, if the student transfers from one college to another, do we decide how much effort the student is exempt from at the new college in the name of avoiding repetition?

First, let me say it's not done the way I'd see it done in a perfect world.  In that world, college effort would be measured in terms of acquisition of knowledge.  That's hard to do; it's pretty much impossible, in fact, in a not-perfect world.  It requires a measurement of change, also called a delta.  You'd have to give some sort of assessment--a test--going in, and another test or series of them at the end.  The difference in score, then, would indicate the amount of academic achievement the student will be granted credit for.

That method carries three crippling negatives, though.  The first one is that not all disciplines are easily assessed in an objective manner.  Math is.  So is physics; if your experimental calculations find that the ball fell up instead of down, it's wrong (yes, that actually happened in a class I took).  Art, though?  Not as clear-cut to say what is good and what is great, is it?  I've found in my own authorpreneurial pursuits that writing quality is extremely subjective.  That's not entirely insurmountable, due to the opportunity presented by the multiple methods of portfolio evaluation, but portfolio methods aren't foolproof.  Besides, there are still other problems.  Specifically, if a student's measure of achievement is the delta between two scores, it incentivizes doing poorly on the first test.  I can see a squad of parents lined up at the hall where the entrance exam is given, chanting "Fail that test! Fail that test!"  At the same time, a third problem is that the end result in many cases should be pegged to a certain level; for example, at the end of my B.S.E.E. work I took (and passed) the Engineer In Training exam, the standards for which set a parameter for what someone with that credential should know.  All the programs at my current college have similar exit exam requirements.

The other--a fourth, I suppose--negative, though again this one isn't insurmountable, is that the person who scores highest on a test may not have the most thorough grasp of course topics.  Instead, he may just be the student with the most advanced test-taking skills. In using the delta system based on test scores, then, you're by definition measuring gain of test-taking ability in addition to any topical gains.  Thus, if you know that you're using this measurement to assign credit, you take students who initially aren't experts at taking tests, and you spend a certain number of years with them trying to get their scores up as high as possible.  What are you going to focus on teaching them, then--critical thinking as it applies to their discipline, or test-taking expertise?

So yeah--the delta method of awarding effort is problematic.  What else is there?

You're probably sitting there thinking "it's the credit hour, dummy."  You're right.  The time-honored system of academic credits works by assigning the courses a certain helping of credit hours each, which the students earn through successfully passing them and accumulate over time.

But what specifically does the term "credit hour" mean? 

I remember wondering that as a cadet.  The calculus class, for example, bore four and a half credit hours.  It also, as I quickly learned, required way more than four and a half hours of work.  Other classes bore a mere three hours of credit, and to be honest some of those required more work than the calculus class.  Take chemistry, for example.  No, please, literally take it.  Anywhere but here is where it belongs.  That was three credit hours of brutality.  I still sweat when I hear the word "stoichiometry," a term that, believe it or not, you actually do occasionally hear on an allied health college campus. And organics?  I'd rather take the IOCT every day than mess with that topic again, and you West Pointers know how huge a statement that is.

Anyway, I once heard what I think is the best way to describe what a credit hour represents, while listening to a keynote address during an accreditation conference.  The speaker explained that credit hours, rather than measuring any particular academic achievement, measure hours that the student spends with his butt in a chair.  Hence, my somewhat sardonic description of class hours as "BIC (Butt In Chair) hours."

Put more delicately, the credit hour system, working off a thing called Carnegie Units, measures a student's quantity of what appears to be effort rather than his quality of effort.

Sounds rough, doesn't it?  It's not the best system, that's for certain.  But it's not bad.  This post is getting past the "long" point and is into the "oh my God you're writing a dissertation" length so I won't go into the history of CU's.  Suffice it to say that a bit over a hundred years ago, the Carnegie Foundation decided to try to end all the dissimilar methods colleges and universities were using to measure effort, and, in doing so, bend everyone into the pleasant happiness of consistency.  They succeeded by offering a pension plan and only letting people from colleges that used their preferred system into it.  Gotta love those purse strings--always powerful.

So the Carnegie system says--well, it says a lot of things, but the way it works out for colleges is that 15 BIC hours earn a student one semester credit, while 10 hours earns one quarter credit.  Oh, but that's lecture, by the way; the system designers (neither Carnegie nor his Foundation, but I'll leave that story for later) recognized that lecture is "harder" than lab due to the out-of-class work that successful lecture efforts require.  Thus, while a student earns one semester credit for 15 hours of participating in lecture type activities, it's double that requirement to earn a semester credit in lab.  Same with quarter credits--double time.

It's been that way for well over a hundred years.  Multiple times over, for some institutions, but again, that's a story for later.

And so we teachers, at least back when I taught full-time, gave homework.  Many of us recognized that homework was figured into the credit the student was earning.  All of us recognized that it was expected.  And we also knew that it was needed.  Oh, students love it when you go easy on the homework, but once they graduate it's a bad thing.  Any institutions that doesn't, as a general rule, give good educationally-sound homework in copious quantities is sure to end up with a bad case of GTS (Graduates That Suck).

It was thus up to a few years ago, anyway.  Enter the Department of Education and a certain few Congressmen, fresh off of their rousing efforts to wrest the primary and secondary school systems in the U.S. into a nice, consistent, measurable level of success based on the delta method I described earlier (yes, I know it's not possible, and you know it's not possible, but it wasn't my windmill they were tilting at).  After a while, their attention turned to post-secondary.  That means college.  Which means me.  My windmill.  Suddenly there was a raft of new stuff being drafted, including the painful gainful employment requirements and other stuff I'll not bore you with.  While they were at it, though, they decided that it would be nice if someone verified that colleges were--and yes, I'm saying this with a straight face, hard as it may be--actually giving their students homework.

Because, you know, we colleges are such slackers.  Not only do we despise putting our poor students to work actually reading the material, we also hate assessing their efforts in order to see where they are in their learning.


The good news for DoEd is that they don't actually have to do the work to verify anything.  They're the agency that formed the agency that allows the accreditors to operate through a process called recognition.  It's pretty much a given, then, that whatever they say goes, at least until a federal judge says no.  When they say, for example, something along the lines of "you accrediting agencies need to verify that students are being assigned enough homework," then poof!  Guess what happens?

Now, the interpretation of the homework thing varies from accreditation agency to accreditation agency, but the gist is that generally it's up to the college to document that it gives a sufficient amount of homework in each course.  What does "document" mean?  Remember my binder post from yesterday?  Yeah, it means, especially if you're going to a career college, that some of the homework you do ends up in one of our pretty binders professionally organized using a tab system, and hopefully with your name blackened out, as proof that an actual human being (and, assumedly, an actual student) completed this particular bit of work.

If you're thinking, "wow, that must require a lot of binders," then you're right.  But it is Required, so I do it, and luckily the local office supply store stocks a lot of binders knowing I'm in town.

But here's the rub: what does "sufficient amount" of homework mean?  Well, you see, (enter sardonic chuckle here) it depends.  If you're in what is defined as a clock hour program (a program can be defined as such for several reasons--our massage program is clock hour for the sole reason that the state has a minimum hours-of-training requirement in its licensing regs) then, um, well, there isn't any homework Required.  Yep, that's right, no homework is required in clock hour programs.  So go tell my stepson, who is in a clock hour program right now, that he doesn't have to do homework.  I dare ya.  He's overwhelmed at times in homework.  He complains to me; I giggle inside, mentally thank his teacher, and then try to explain life, the universe, and everything to him.  Keep in mind that technically, for those programs, it's not that homework isn't required; it's just that it's not Required by accreditation agency (due to the DoEd's strange rules), and thus his homework doesn't stand a chance of ending up in binders.  Or maybe it actually does.  It's just not Required to end up in binders.

For other programs it gets more complicated.  Some rule sets Require two hours of homework for each lecture hour.  Others say two hours of homework for each class hour.  Still others use an old rule of thumb: two hours per week for each credit hour in the course.

Brass tacks, then: let's say there exists (and there does exist) a course that meets for 60 hours over six weeks of time.  That's ten hours per week of BIC time.  Thirty of the hours are designated as encumbered with lecture type activities, while the other thirty are lab.  It's a four quarter-credit hour course (you have to round down, by the way, which technically under-awards every student for his effort in nearly every course, but only by a little).  Anyway, the question for me, the Dean, isn't how much homework should be given, but rather how much homework should be Required?  By the first method, the course needs 30 times two, or 60, hours of homework.  Spread that out over six weeks and you get roughly ten hours per week, some weeks more and some less.  The second method gives 60 times two, or 120, hours of homework, which is 20 hours per week.  The result of the third method is four times two, or eight, hours per week.

Keep in mind that this is one of two courses a student usually takes in a six-week term.  Assuming the other is identical for the sake of mathematical bliss, that's ten hours of BIC plus ten hours of homework, times two classes, or 40 hours of academic work per week--roughly the equivalent of a full-time job.  The second method?  Ten hours of BIC plus 20 hours of homework times two, which is 60 hours a week.  That, by the way, is a long week.  Third method: ten hours plus eight hours times two, which is 36 hours.  Thus, you see that methods One and Three bear minimum results that are close: 40 versus 36 (the difference amounts to that rounding-down thing I talked about earlier), both solid workloads for a week, while method Two results in "Oh my God why did I think I could survive in college?"

Of course, if it happens to be defined as a course in a clock hour-based program, it's just ten BIC hours plus zero homework times two, which is 20.

But here's the rub: it's the same course, regardless.  Same learning objectives.  Same students, same classroom, same teacher.  Same books.  Same reading assignments.  Same tests.

Only differences?  The numbers advertised on the syllabus, and the amount of stuff we binderize.

Now do you see the issue?

To (require homework for) lab, or not to (require homework for) lab--that's the question that really needs to be answered.


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