Confusion reigns

My remedial reading students at the community college had their mid-term exam last week. I’ve been moaning and groaning since last Wednesday trying to get the exams graded. I’ve mentioned that the department changed the course; not so much the curriculum, but the method we are using to bring these students up to college-level reading skills. We’ve tweaked things some since the fall semester and made the mid-term more difficult. So far I’ve seen mostly low C’s, a few F’s, and one B. Not promising.

The course I’m teaching is the second in the series, yet these students are not reliably able to find the main idea of a paragraph or to make inferences about what they’ve read. Those very basic skills used to be covered in the first course and in the past I spent most of my time working on higher-level college reading skills and study strategies. It seems now that students are coming to me without those basic abilities which makes me wonder what in the world they’re doing for the first semester of the course.

Anyway, Lynne recently shared some funny student responses to math test questions. Most of them were very creative and showed that the student had a bright mind, but maybe just forgot to study for the test. It occurred to me that you might like a look at the work my students are doing. I’d like to think their answers are funny and show creative thinking, but I’m afraid not.

The mid-term was based on a short article about nutrition and students were expected to read the article and use particular strategies that they’d been taught to help them understand what they’d read. There were also questions to guide their reading that required them to find the main idea of certain paragraphs and to make inferences about the meaning of particular passages. Every single student got this question wrong:

The text reads: “Recent research shows that our food choices rival transportation as a human activity with the greatest impact on the environment. By 2020, people in developing countries will consume more than 39 kg of meat per person each year – twice as much as they did in the 1980’s. The people in industrial countries such as the United States will still consume the most meat – 100 kg a year – the equivalent of a side of beef, 50 chickens, and one pig each.”

Students were asked to explain in their own words what the italized sentence means. Some responses:

  • “Our food choices make us how we act and how much energy we have.”
  • “People who are competing for the same thing can have an impact on the environment.”
  • “It means that we ask for so much food that we will need more deliveries of it in bigger quantities.”
  • “We eat food that we can get to that is close to us.”
  • “It means that consuming more food in the future is going to be a result of people being more active than before.”
  • “People eat while on the go and don’t take time to eat a good nutrient meal. It is also easy to transport food.”
  • “Since foods are easier to transport people are eating more meats than ever before.”
  • “Food is competing with us, it lowers us in.”
  • “We can’t walk long enough because we are to fat. So now in stores they have electronic carts to help these people get around. Not a good thing.”

Can you hear me moaning and groaning? And screaming?!? I shouldn’t make fun, but they are clueless.

I don’t think this question, or the article as a whole, was very difficult. What do you think? Can you find any correct responses? Am I just being too tough?

20 thoughts on “Confusion reigns”

  1. Wow. That’s all I can say is wow. No, I don’t see any right answers and no, I don’t think you’re being too tough at all. How did these young people pass the SAT or ACT? I mean, how do they make it that far in life and not understand a basic sentence?

    All I can say is you must be the most patient person on earth. I would want to go in there and tell them to catch a clue! College professors that I’ve known in the past have done with students that weren’t doing so well. I actually had one professor that gave us a set of questions that he was going to pick from for each test, and still people failed.

    I wish you the best in this situation.

  2. I loved this, particularly, George’s head scratch.

    I score reading/math tests for Emergency Medical Technician candidates (ages 18+) and I’ve seen 4th grade reading levels several times. I send them for tutoring but I know it’ll be fruitless. I wonder how they graduated from high school.

    Your question wasn’t difficult, Laura. Hang in there.

    It is depressing.

  3. Interesting question and “off the wall” answers. If you did not understand the relationship between a meat based diet and the environment, it is a tough question to answer. Most people would not have a clue. I assume the article gave a bit more background on the subject. These students likely have never read for interest or pleasure.

  4. The italicized sentence seems a bit inelegant to me, but the meaning is clear. None of the answers were correct. I am not sure how one gets from that to electronic shopping carts.

  5. *Groan* and groan again. Sad to say, this looks too familiar. I have never taught remedial composition–just as well; I would not have the patience for it.
    None of the responses is correct. The text is somewhat technical sounding, but no one got the relationship between food choices and environmental impact.
    I agree with Mary–hang in there.

  6. Ummm…did these kids eat lead paint as children?
    I can’t find ONE answer that even comes close. And these guys are in COLLEGE??????

    What the Hell happened between kindergarten and college to lead these guys off the track so much?

    Patience, thy name is Laura.

  7. I think I’m going to have to side with Ruth on this one. Unless there’s more to this text, explaining how meat-eating impacts the environment, it’s a tough question to answer. If your students are of a lower socioeconomic background, they almost certainly never got the memo that meat has a high environmental cost.

    But given the linguistic quality of their answers, I’d say that these kids aren’t ready for prime time, regardless of how well or poorly they can understand what they read.

    “Food is competing with us”? Hilarious, if it weren’t so sad!

  8. i am so glad i peaked in tonight. the picture is perfect. no wonder you seem so frustrated. i don’t know whether you should laugh or cry.

  9. Naturewoman: It’s a community college, so the students don’t have to take the SAT. They end up in this course because they do poorly on the basic skills test given at admission. Sadly, most of them are also in remedial math and remedial writing classes.

    Lots of students seem to think showing up is enough – they don’t see a need to study.

    Tim: Yep, I agree. Maybe that’s why I can’t manage to get them graded.

    FC: I’m sure they didn’t. Books are the enemy you know.

    Mary: You like that, huh? Get this: I read recently that GWB reads more than 50 books a year – don’t you wonder how he finds the time to read so much and run the country and still look so dumb most of the time?

    I wonder how they get out of high school also. Scarier is that a few are adults – older than me – raising their own kids my age.

    Ruth and Bunnygirl: I’m glad for your perspective and tend to agree almost. The article isn’t well-written, in fact, I think it might be some sort of summary of a longer article pieced together by one of the faculty members. Meat based diets weren’t discussed in terms of environmental impact at all beyond this one paragraph.

    I’m not looking for them to be able to analize so much as just paraphrase. I would be happy to see someone write just “Our food choices affect the environment as much as the car we drive.” Is that such a stretch that requires knowledge of environmental issues? I don’t know.

    John: Ha! I know how she got there. One of the (ridiculous) strategies I (am forced to) teach is that of making connections with what you read – trying to relate it with something you know. This student did that, but didn’t go any further than that. I’m not asked to teach the deep thinking part anymore – I suppose it’s just supposed to happen by magic.


    KGMom: They are surprisingly good at BSing their way through essay questions. We’re reading The Kite Runner and their essays always sound as if they are following the story. Guess it’s a coping strategy they’ve learned to hide other issues with reading.

    Susan: *School* is what happened to them. If they had to instead milk a cow every day they would understand the relationship between a meat-based diet and the environment. Can you guess who I’m channeling?


    Dave: That’s half my problem. Gotta work on the old school marm look to scare them into doing better.

    Bunnygirl: “Food is competing with us” – she was almost on the right track though! Thinking about this, I see that the word *rivals* was part of the problem. They don’t know what that word means, so they couldn’t understand the rest of the sentence. This student, at least, used a dictionary and looked the word up. Too bad she wasn’t able to use context clues to sort out the rest of it.

  10. It is depressing, Laura. I had a most frustrating day with my students today. We were learning about factors and how to find the factors (numbers you multiply together to get another number). I gave them three steps and we practiced a BUNCH of times together.

    Step 1: write 1 x the number.
    Step 2: is the number even? if it is, divide by 2.
    Step 3: look at your multiplication chart, find the number, and write down the factors.

    How many of the quizzes (steps were written on the board) were turned in without step 1 completed AT ALL?


    I do think that the sentence is a tough one to put into one’s own words — particularly if one doesn’t have a large vocabulary.

    Paraphrasing is a difficult skill to get — from your question, I’m assuming you really wanted them to paraphrase those words or were you looking for them to see that sentence as the main point and paraphrase what that main point meant? Not that either idea seems to have been grasped by the students. Sigh.

    My personal favorite is the “It means that we ask for so much food that we will need more deliveries of it in bigger quantities.”

    Super-size me!

  11. Laura–you responded to Mary by noting the news stories that GWB read more than 50 books in a year. Personally, I don’t believe it. I am reading a book ALL the time, and being “retired” I don’t have enough time to read 50 books in a year. AND I am not running the country (or trying to run it.) Something is definitely fishy in that press release that he reads 50 books a year!

  12. all I can say is YIKES.

    but I do have a question, why are they even at the CC? and if they think they just need to show up, who is paying for them to be there?


  13. You slay me, Laura.
    You know, you should borrow a cow from someone and let them milk it. That will drain out all this nonsense you are trying to teach them and they will be happier, stupider people and they will realize that only THEY know what they should learn.
    Unschoolers unite! (and go NOWHERE.)

  14. I tak umbrance with you rud coments abowt the inteligents of studens. I am 1 of ur studens in the class and was confussed bye the questions. Nex time pleaz reframe from usin trickie questioning. I compleetly under stood the storie. It was bout truks carrieing chickens and hogs n such and that they are compeeting for the same resourzes. Truks need chickens and hogs since the drivers needs to ate and chickens and hogs need truks so they can get ate. So there. My hed hurts now.

  15. Liza: I found that I had much more patience for teaching little ones – I know you’ve taught older students – do you find that too?

    Little ones are still learning how to learn, but by college age I think it’s reasonable to expect them to know that they have to be an active participant in the process!

    I know paraphrasing is difficult – but we’ve worked on it a lot and really, it’s so necessary a skill.

    KGMom: I don’t believe it either! I read it in Vanity Fair and the editor suggested that it might be 50 children’s picture books he reads a year. Although he claims to have read “3 Shakespeare’s* of late. Can’t fathom it.

    Lynne: I’m not doing a very good job of either lately. The coursework used to be much more demanding and the students did the work and learned in the process. Now we’ve made it too easy, IMO, and they’re not even trying.

    Dawn: Dunno. I don’t believe that everyone is meant for college, but feel bad admitting that. The students I work with have a multitude of challenges, but I like to believe that lack of motivation is their only limiting factor, usually. Some are forced by their parents and others are there because they see college as something to *get through* leading to something else – having little to do with being educated or having an understanding of anything outside of their limited scope of life.

    Susan: I would like to know where the unneccesary nastiness is UNlearned?

    Kevin: You are twisted!

    Half their problem is that everything isn’t a story. I hear that all the time – this story is boring – why can’t we read a good story – life, politics, the environment isn’t a story with a happy ending that wraps everything up! Sometimes the stories are real – they don’t get that.

    When are you gonna get going on that blog?

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