Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A little venting...

I just finished grading the first exam of the summer, and I am a bit baffled, although I really should know better.

So the situation is this. I created a 3-question, take-home, open-book exam. Students received the questions 2 weeks in advance of the deadline and had a "review session" during which they had a chance to ask questions. The exam questions were (read: should have been) no surprise, as they were directly related to the objectives of the lessons from that unit.

So when I read the answers I was confused/frustrated/demoralized/enraged. Don't get me wrong, many students did very well, and the average (both mean and median, with the mode being somewhat higher) was a B-. Totally acceptable. But still - I thought this should be easy! Everyone save one student has consistently been in class! We covered all of the material - some of it twice (in class and in readings)! They had all of the answers at their fingertips! Didn't they?

Well, I considered, especially for the final question on the exam, whether or not I'd actually covered the material sufficiently. But looking back over my lesson plans, which I habitually stick to, I made sure to do in-class assessments, group work, discussion, etc. based on this material. When all was said and done, they should have known it backwards and forwards, inside and out. And yet...

I've had this sneaking suspicion for the past week or so that I have not been doing a very good job of making sure everyone is participating/contributing equally in class. Although everyone "seems" to be following along, I realized last week that there is really a core group of students who do most of the talking. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Not surprisingly, I suppose, these were the students who did fairly well on the exam.

So I guess my job now is to find some ways to get the quieter students to actively take part in class and then report back to you as to how it all worked out.

How will I do this? Stay tuned...

(Picture credit to quinn.anya)

At some point it just clicks

Does this look at all familiar to you? This is the old-fashioned way to poll a group of students. Green = Yes, Red = No. Or Green = True, Red = False. Or Green = 1, Red = 2. You get the point.

These little cards have been especially helpful when polling large classes (think 50 or more) - you see a sea of color in response to a question. But wouldn't you rather see something like this:

This is what you can have if you use TurningPoint as your audience response system. These graphs are automatically generated after you poll your students, and show up on your PowerPoint slide or on your screen (if you are not using PowerPoint). There is also a wide array of other exciting features, from quizzes (including multiple choice and number/text response options) to games.

TurningPoint is the brand of audience response system (A.K.A. clickers) that the U has officially adopted. I was just at a training session, and discovered that not only do these fun little gadgets have a lot of features, they're also easy to use, both for the student and for the instructor. If you'd like to learn more about clickers - both how to use the technology and how to use this tool to support effective teaching - register for one (or several - there are a few different options) of the upcoming training sessions in August.

What's the cost? Training is free to you as a member of the U community, and instructors will receive a free receiver (which you'll need to collect responses from students' clickers) each time they order 100 clickers to the bookstore. (There are also a few receivers that can be signed out from IMS, and some departments are purchasing their own.) Students will buy their clickers from the U Bookstore, and will be able to use them in any class that incorporates this technology into the classroom throughout their time here at the U. For those who don't want to buy a clicker just for one class, they have the option of paying a small fee to use the service via the web or their cell phone.

What are the benefits? Student engagement, anonymous polls, graded questions, automatic attendance taking, etc. See this video of a recent workshop to learn more!

Photo courtesy of mathplourde

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Exam Averages

I received this email this week:

"Is there an exam average that instructors should be aiming for with exams? I hear that an average of 80 is good with at least half the class above 80. Is there any rhyme or reason to this?"

This is an interesting question, and one that people tend to disagree about. My response assumes that this question is asked regarding grading exams, as usually this is when most people ask this question.

The advice that this instructor had received seems to suggest is that the ideal would be to have a relatively normal distribution of grades around an average grade of a B-. Something like this:

However, this also seems to suggest that you can control this distribution. Of course, you can if you choose to grade on a curve. Grading on a curve is generally not advised, however, as it can have many unintended consequences. For example, students generally don't understand that if you are truly grading on a curve, their grade could potentially go down in order for you to be able to fill the "quotas" you've created (e.g., half of the class gets less than a B-). Also, it creates a situation in which students are assessed based on the performance of others in the class, as opposed to being evaluated against a set of standard criteria. I always tell my students that I will be happy to give them all As if they all exceed the expectations set out at the beginning of the course.

This brings us to another point. An "A" doesn't mean that you completed all of the necessary requirements. It means you exceeded expectations, or went above and beyond the call of duty. Indeed, a B is considered "above average" work. I think that many people fail to recall that a "C" is truly an average grade. (Ever heard of grade inflation? But that's a topic for another time...)

This doesn't mean that you should norm your grades around a C either. What it means is that we need to set standards for performance in our classes, be clear about what is required to earn a particular grade, and then evaluate students according to those standards.

Of course, looking at the grade distribution can be helpful. Once you have graded exams or papers against your preset criteria, I do suggest plotting out the grades to see the resulting distribution. If it is positively skewed (meaning that the majority of the grades are above a C), you may want to review the assignment to ensure it was sufficiently challenging given the requirements of the course, and was designed such that it could discriminate between average and excellent work. If so, congratulations - this may be a sign that you are an effective instructor and your students worked hard to learn the material.

If the grades are negatively skewed (meaning usually that a lot of people failed), you may find that your test was too difficult, or did not adequately represent the material covered (it's probably unusual to have an entire class of students who simply don't put in the work). In these cases, you may want to do an item analysis (review the pattern of responses for each question in turn), and drop the items that you deem unfair or ineffective from the assignment. This allows you to bump up grades based on standards relevant to the course material, not simply due to poor grades. Finally, it is not unusual to see a bimodal distribution (where many students did very well, and another subset of students performed quite poorly). Again, I would do an item analysis, but if everything seems to look kosher (the questions seem fair, there wasn't anything special about the group who performed poorly, such as all being from a preexisting group such as ESL students), you can probably chalk this up to a small group of students failing to adequately prepare.

I hope this helps to answer your question!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


I love teaching during the summer semester. The classes are usually smaller, the pace is a bit easier (no back to back meetings!), and students even seem less stressed, even though many of them are still working full time as well as taking classes.

The one challenge that becomes more prominent in these summer classes, however, is how to teach to students at different levels of ability, interest in the subject, and preparedness. Summer classes seem to have a way of dividing up the usual mix of students until you are left with mainly two distinct types: (a) those who are repeating the course because of a failing grade the first time around, and (b) those who are incredibly ambitious and using the summer to help them fast-track by finishing up their requirements.

These two sets of students seem different in many ways. The first group tends to struggle, which is made all the more difficult given that they've seen this material before and still can't get a handle on it. The latter students often pick everything up with ease, and you worry they are becoming bored. Sometimes I feel like the only thing they have in common is that everyone wants to get out of class, and be done with the credit, as soon as possible.

How do you teach to these seemingly disparate groups of students in the same class? How do you help support the struggling students while at the same time not losing the attention of the others?

Gosh, I wish I knew.

But I guess since this is a blog about teaching I should at least take a shot at it. I think the secret is motivation. When you ask students why they are taking a class, well at least for the classes I teach, a majority of students will say that it is a requirement for their major, or fulfills a general education requirement. Few of them ever exclaim "I have a burning desire to delve into the complexities of developmental theory and research!" But some will mention some personal interest in the subject - in my classes, I will always get a few folks who are parents, or about to become parents, so child development is particularly interesting, or at least relevant, to them. Then I try to design assignments and bring in examples that relate to how the course material applies to the real world. I also try to stir the pot a bit, and bring up controversial topics that can start discussions. If I can find something - anything - to draw those students in, they seem to get hooked and come along for the ride.

Case in point - last semester I had three African-American football players in my class. You could tell they didn't want to be there (although that may have been aggravated by the fact that they had 5 am practices before my class). After the first exam, it became clear that although they were there physically, that was about the limit of it. Then I showed a video in class, that I chose specially for them. It was of an African-American teen athlete discussing his dating life (we were doing a unit on adolescence). Luckily, my bet paid off, and they seemed to be able to relate to the video. And although the teen in the video didn't talk like the rest of the mainly Caucasian middle-class kids in the other videos on the subject (or like many of the other students in class), he was obviously an intelligent, thoughtful young man. Suddenly, my football players came alive, and although I can't thank this one video for everything (there was also a lot of support from me and their coach, and a lot of hard work on their parts), all three of them did quite a turn-around, and one of them wrote one of the best papers in class at the end of the term.

I didn't ask these students what in particular helped them, what inspired the change, but I like to think that part of it was I made an attempt to figure out who they were. I took them seriously, didn't write them off, and tried to find ways to motivate them to learn the material.

Motivation is going to be different for every student, and sometimes I can't quite figure out what makes a student tick. I think some of them are so focused on grades (both those who aren't getting them, and those who are excelling) that tapping into what interests them about the material is difficult. But every semester I feel like I've reached a few more, and that keeps me going.

Photo by crd!