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Professor Launches Academic Boot Camp


Let's turn to another subject that interests us very much which is education. And we've talked on this program before about how more students are graduating from high school today without basic skills in subjects like reading and math. And some students have to take years of remedial courses so that they can catch up, and that's in college. And that can be discouraging and expensive.

So some professors have been coming up with creative ways to get their students up to speed. Eric Hoover recently wrote about one such effort at the University of the District of Columbia for the Chronicle of Higher Education. And he is with us now to tell us more. Welcome, Eric. Thanks for joining us.

ERIC HOOVER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: You wrote about a summer math program that was taught by Professor Daryao Khatri of the University of the District of Columbia, or UDC, and his colleagues there. And it started because he saw his students struggling with the same basic skills over and over again, and we talked to him briefly this morning and this is what he told us.


DARYAO KHATRI: So we went after those kids from the very beginning, many basic math skills. The multiplication table, 1 through 15 became a way of life for them every single day, starting at 10 o'clock until 2, it was all algebra, algebra, algebra, basic math, basic math, basic math.

MARTIN: Now tell us how he came up with this idea. I mean, he's a physics professor. So he's not a - this is not his thing. He's not trained in remedial math or any of those things. How did he come up with this?

HOOVER: Well, he's a physics professor, but he was a lifelong, has been a lifelong math wiz. And he saw just some basic holes in students' abilities to do basic math, and this would prevent them from going on to major in something like physics. If you don't have the math skills, you're not going to be able to cut it and you'll never be able to major in physics at UDC.

And so he saw this as something that he had to address because, if for no other reason, he wanted to get more physics majors. He wanted to see more people who were competent and confident enough in their math skills to go on and major in physics or any other science at UDC.

MARTIN: Now the way a lot of institutions address these deficiencies is with remedial courses that students take along with their other coursework. What was his thinking about the benefit of this approach, this kind of deep dive boat camp? I mean, he sounds like a drill sergeant actually.

HOOVER: Absolutely. I think the key word here is momentum. If you are starting off your college experience in a remedial course or maybe more than one, it's easy to lose your momentum, especially if you happen to be a student who maybe isn't sold on the whole idea of college in the first place. You're very scared about it. You lack confidence as a student, and then you're in a remedial course.

It can be very, very demoralizing for students. And so his thought was if we can start them in the summertime, we can drill down and get them ready for their first semester. They can hit the ground running and have more momentum.

MARTIN: You focused much of the piece on one student, Marc'Quinn Davis. What's his story?

HOOVER: So he was a student who just kind of coasted through high school, didn't really pay much attention, had no desire to go to college. He had a job. He thought this is what I'm going to do with the rest of my life. Make money. Buy a car. That's it. And this professor really reached him and saw that he had potential and saw that he was curious. So the professor stayed on his case and eventually convinces him to come to UDC and major in physics.

MARTIN: Major in physics. Well, this is particularly striking to me because you describe this one scene where on the first day of class, he comes in and puts his head down on the desk. I mean, this is the kind of thing that just would make some people crazy, and they would just throw him out. I mean, so what made him stay? What made Professor Khatri stay on his case?

HOOVER: Well, I think part of it was years earlier, in his first teaching experience, he figured out a way to reach students who were unruly, who were trouble makers, who didn't seem to want to be there. And I think he carried this with him for many years. So when he saw Marc'Quinn Davis put his head down on the desk, he figured that he could reach this kid. He was confident.

He's a professor who is full of confidence. He wasn't going to let this knucklehead stay a knucklehead very long. And I think he just was relentless and didn't give up on him. And I think that's what drew me to the story. Marc'Quinn Davis was a student that I think many teachers and professors, perhaps reasonably, would have given up on early on.

MARTIN: Well, he clearly had potential, but it was almost as if he was determined not to use it, not to use his potential or just to kind of not push himself.

HOOVER: I think that's right. And I think that has to do with fear or lack of comfort in an academic setting. And that's what you often find in remedial courses. Students just don't lack the basic skills in a given subject. They just don't see themselves as college students. It's a frightening concept.

MARTIN: One of the things that was interesting to me about the story is the University of the District of Columbia, UDC, is not one of these places that gets written up in academic journals as kind of a center for innovation. What is the message here? Is the message here about one particularly creative and energetic teacher? Or is it that there are specific techniques that other people could emulate if they put their minds to it?

HOOVER: I think any professor could take something from this experience that Dr. Khatri had, and that is to ask yourself, as a teacher, does your responsibility, at least to certain students, extend beyond the boundary of the classroom? And this professor decided that it did. It's one thing to think of a new and innovative way to drill down and to really teach math skills in a different way, but for some students that this professor has taught, he has taken a larger view that they need help with more than just those skills.

They need to come to see themselves as successful, confident college students. And he decided as a professor that he needed to do more than just teach them during the class period, that he had to do a lot in between classes, too, that had a lot more to do with subjects other than math than just teaching math skills.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end - that was the final question I had. I just - I think it is worth mentioning that as part of this kind of summer boot camp, academic boot camp, there was a lot of intensive mentoring that the students who passed this course, if they reenrolled and went through the academic year, they were guaranteed a lot of support as I understand it.

HOOVER: That's right. The students who went on from that program to major in science basically were boxed in by Dr. Khatri and another professor, so that they had no real wiggle room. They had to have their homework assignments checked. They had almost daily, if not daily check in meetings at the end of the week.

They weren't allowed to leave the campus unless they showed that their homework assignments were completed. The professors called themselves academic parents, and the idea was that as long as those students were on the campus they had a mom and a dad, quote unquote, mom and dad who were looking out for them and helping them learn to get in the habits that they needed to become successful students.

MARTIN: Eric Hoover is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education. His piece is called "The Human Variable In Teaching." Eric, thank you.

HOOVER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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