Saturday, December 04, 2010

Observations: a follow-up

[Note: I first wrote much of this post as a comment in response to a comment one of my colleagues from grad school left on my last post; I thought it was strong enough to stand as a follow-up post in its own right. Meredith there left a link to an NPR story on teen neurochemistry some might find interesting.]

My colleague Meredith left the following comment on my last post:

A bit more about those non-traditional students. I would love to see a push on research on the neuroscience of the teenage brain and the "wisdom" of pushing ever-more high school students to take Calculus, at the expense of time spent on functions, trig, etc.

As I hinted in my previous post, it's really no surprise that the nontraditional students are outperforming the younger ones: it happens every semester. The relatively high percentage of such older students at UNCA is one of the things that makes our school such a fun place to teach. Because of the relative affordability of UNCA we get far more than our share of returning students (something one couldn't count on at schools like Davidson, Drake, or Bucknell), and I can't count the number of more mature students I've had whose presence has measurably improved the dynamic of whatever class they're in.

"Measurable"? This semester offers an extreme case: my morning section of Calc I has about three times as many "returning" students as does my afternoon section. Yesterday I noticed that every single one of the fifteen or so questions (every one of them reasonable and deep) raised by students in my morning section during our discussion of integrals was asked by a nontraditional student. Every one. They're simply less fearful of appearing "stupid."

It's this fearlessness that's helped deepen the level of the discussion that goes on in that course and that has ultimately, I really believe, helped lead to the startling difference in grades between the two sections: my morning section's overall course average is almost a full letter grade higher than my afternoon section's. There are other factors which contribute to this differential, to be sure, but it's difficult to discount the involvement of so many older, more mature students.

I absolutely agree with Meredith's placement of priority, and I'll bet she'd agree that we need to stop pushing kids straight into college after high school unless they're truly intrinsically motivated to pursue college coursework on their own. Some kids (even very, very smart ones) simply are not ready for college, and go there only because they've been told by their teachers, their parents, and their guidance counselors that it's the "next step."

Often, though, the best next step is to burn off some energy taking a full-time job for a few years, traveling (perhaps in service of a humanitarian organization like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps), or even joining the military for a tour or two. Though I'm not a fan of many of the things the military is called on to do for our country, I believe one of its most beneficial functions is providing order and structure to kids who sorely need order and structure in their lives.

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