Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning to the Test and Haggling about Grades Afterward

I just finished getting my course grades submitted to Banner and am now "done." I've held off writing this post till I reached this milestone. Evaluating student written work is laborious and I had a good chunk of that to do. It took me several days to get through it all. My entire adult work life has been peaks and valleys - bursts of productivity interspersed with seemingly longer lulls in which Lanny is a dull boy. The grading itself was like that. I used the clerical/administrative work in managing scores in Excel as a way to provide some time for the lulls. But I also procrastinated with more leisurely activities, hoping to grab a bit of inspiration and thus return to reading the student work. I normally like writing blog posts, but they can be open ended regarding time commitment. So I put this one off till I was no longer time constrained.

Last week here was final exams week. In the one class where I gave a final exam (the other had a term paper) the exam was Wednesday at 7 PM. There were some unusual events for me before, during, and after.

On the Monday, Tuesday and through early Wednesday afternoon, I offered extended office hours to any student who contacted me and wanted to arrange a session. I don't actually have an office on campus anymore, so during the semester I met students in the Commons area on the first floor of the Business Instructional Facility. During finals the space was lightly occupied and a good place to meet with students.

Only a handful of students tried to have office hours with me during the semester. One of them was the top scorer on exams in the class. The others in this group were also reasonably good students. Perhaps before the first midterm many of the students couldn't gauge what they didn't know and I wasn't able to provide them with a practice exam in advance to study from, since I taught the first third of the course in a manner unlike how I used to teach the course. With the building of online course content during the semester and the reading and commenting on their blog postings, it was all I could to just to produce an actual midterm. The students found that exam quite tough and I believe some, perhaps most of the class, were discouraged by it. Rationally, those who performed less well on that first midterm should have sought out my help then and there, but it didn't happen that way.

My second midterm, for which I did produce a practice exam given the results on the first midterm, I wanted the diligent students in the class to be prepared, ended up with even lower scores than the first midterm. The topic was consumer theory, income and substitution effects and the like, a subject many students struggle with. Even armed with the practice exam and going over that in full the week before in the lecture, many students still did not understand the reasoning in working through the problems.

Not too long ago I saw Salman Kahn on Charlie Rose and Kahn reported that traditional schools often fail teaching technical subjects because the process is to cover a topic and then, irrespective of whether the students understand that topic, move on to the next topic when the previous one is completed. So many students get a very shaky foundation and it becomes increasingly difficult to learn on top of that. It certainly appeared that I had fallen into this trap in my class, one I didn't know how to extricate myself from.

I had decided before the semester started to grade on a point scheme rather than on a curve. I don't like the idea that students compete for grades. There is a large chance that such competition creates low self-esteem in many students. I believe students should focus on their own performance and not worry about the performance of their peers. But given how tough my midterms proved to be I needed a way to make my final exam more approachable. So I took 50% of the final questions, suitably tweaked, from the earlier exams, with the remainder of the test on material that hadn't previously been tested. And I wrote a practice exam in this manner for students to prepare.

Whether for this reason or because students had larger chunks of free time during finals week or for some other reason, many more students came to office hours than previously had and among those were several students who had not done well on the midterms at all. Those students were at risk of failing. So they had a clear extrinsic motivation to come to office hours. But rather than this motivation constricting them and their trying to be very formulaic in working the problems in these office hours, they seemed genuinely motivated to understand what was going on. We'd discuss each problem from the practice test. If they didn't see how to do one I'd give them a bit of explanation about what was going on. I'd also give them some coaching to try to understand the information provided in the setup of the problems.

The students were open, about their own lack of understanding and what they got from my explanation. They would ask me further questions for clarification and sometimes to verify their own understanding. And occasionally I would ask them questions, a bit of a drill to check whether they were getting it. When they did it was as if you could see the light bulb go off. Each of these students did better on the final than they had on the midterms, some dramatically so. And during the sessions I know I had the feeling that I was teaching, a feeling I had lost during the semester. Lectures can feel like teaching if students ask questions frequently and if it is several students who are offering up the questions. It feels much less so when it is the instructor playing Socrates and the students either reluctantly or not at all offering up a response.

I am puzzling now about whether it is necessary to go through an entire semester of flailing before one can get to such a productive office hours session. Does failure in the course need to be imminent to spur the students into responsible action? Better late than never, but still better would be to do it early. I'm also puzzling about how I might introduce some elements of these office hours into the regular class sessions, where there was fixed seating and thus where it would be hard for students to work in small groups, though possibly they could work in pairs.

And I'm wondering if somehow there were mandatory hours if that would work as well. For that to scale to the entire class, it couldn't always or even mostly be with me. It's why I've favored relying on undergraduate peer mentors for the last several years. But I wonder if some of those should be with me. After the final was over and the scores on that were posted I got a thank you email from one of those students who had been on the borderline but came to office hours. It wasn't just that he got help from a tutor. It was that he got help from the professor in the course. I believe that commitment matters in bringing out the students own commitment. For those near the borderline they need to make an active choice not to fail. We have to help them come to that choice.

* * * * *

A different sort of thing happened during the exam. One of the students, an engineering major who had to take the course as a distribution requirement, shook my hand as he turned in his exam. I can't recall that ever happening before. He was graduating this term, so I probably won't ever see him again. The handshake was an act of appreciation. Our class offered a non-standard approach to the subject matter, one of my own creation. In many ways I didn't think it worked. But it was different than other courses, with a dual track, one narrative-based where the students blogged about the readings that we later discussed in class and the other modeling-based where the students did homework and where the exams tested on the models only. I suspect he hasn't had any other class like that. So whether it's the correct interpretation or not, I took the handshake as support for having tried the approach.

Then I began to notice that as other students handed me their exams they said thank you, a polite gesture. Politeness is something that doesn't first come to mind when considering their generation, but this was a class of polite kids. That itself has made an impression on me. Whether the thank yous were simply an expression of politeness or a milder form of the handshake, I don't know. I am very curious now to read their course evaluations and see if any of what I'm inferring here also appears there. I should get those in the next week or so and then might write a bit of follow up on this issue.

* * * * *

For many of the students grades are currency, one they try to accumulate. And though I tried to diminish the impact in my class, these students are used to competing for grades. Alas, one aspect of that is the post final exam negotiation with the instructor to try to guilt the instructor into raising the course grade. If as an instructor you otherwise try to make yourself available to the students, you then inadvertently open yourself up to this sort of negotiation. I had a bit of that, with a couple of students I liked. I wish there were social norms that proscribe this sort of negotiation and that the students perceive it so proscribed. But electronic communication is terribly easy. It would take a rather large taboo to block the negotiation when the electronic pathway is available.

In one of these the question was raised, from a normative perspective what should the grade represent? Is it, first and foremost, a signifier of effort? The student who posed that question was a very hard worker. When he didn't get the top grade after putting in maximal effort, he was disappointed. How does one respond to such a student? My point scheme counted the early performance on the midterms in significant measure. Like much of the class, this student's performance on those exams was mixed. Does catching on at the end of the semester nullify the early performance? I was sympathetic with the student's argument. But an instructor can't change the grading procedure as it is described in syllabus, once the course is near completion.

Learning is about failing. But grading doesn't seem to allow failure as part of the process. How do we rectify that? I wish I knew or even had some clue as to what to try. We fail the students by not more fundamentally accommodating their expected failures into the process.

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