I was struck by a paragraph in a blog post I was reading today and had to post.
An unconscious residue of this earlier stage in the development of our institutions of higher education is the assumption that an instructor has only two options – to maintain high standards or to betray the honor of the discipline by “dumbing down” the material. Such a belief system has the secondary benefit of insulating instructors from the notion that they might have an obligation to actually adjust their teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that they are hoarding.
I have only recently started following the blog, and so I have not gone back and read what he has posted in the past. In fact, in full disclosure, this is the first post I have actually read from the blog. I am familiar with him largely through his work on the Scholarship on Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
That paragraph, and really the whole post, really spoke to what I have been pursuing and continue to pursue in my reimagining of how I teach. I am very familiar with the example he had earlier in the post — “‘We grade on the curve,’ they said. ‘The best exams get ‘As,’ the worst get ‘Fs,’ and the rest are spread out in between. How else would we know what grade to give each student?'” I remember my grad school days where I would spread out student papers in order of quality on my apartment floor, and then I would give the papers furthest to the left in front of me the highest grades and just go down from there to the lowest on the right. In other words, I graded the papers in the relative sense with each other – the best getting the highest grade, and all down from there. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with that, but it was an example I saw in my own grading, back in the pre-rubric days and back when I largely just gave that grade to the students with minimal feedback, and, if asked to justify the grade, would have had little more to say except that, in relation to others in the class, that’s where the paper fell.
This same idea was in a recent Tea for Teaching episode that I was listening to. In the episode “Writing Better Writing Assignments,” Dr. Heather Pool said, “And so, my experience as an undergrad was I got a lot of papers that had a letter grade and like the occasional ‘Good’ or ‘What?’ in the comments, and that was pretty much it. I had no idea what I needed to do to get an A and I wanted to get an A.” This was exactly what I was giving students, and it is still what I see happen a lot.
The argument (which is what I liked about Dr. Pace’s take on it) that doing anything different would be “dumbing down” the material is one I have heard many times. That, if I don’t hold my students to incredibly high standards by making sure that not many of them do well, then I am just “spoonfeeding” them the material. But in most of the cases where I have heard this, there is little effort made to help the students to do well. It is a sink-or-swim condition. The students are assumed to have the skills they need to succeed, and any inability on their part to meet the expectations of the class are taken as them just not being good enough. The responsibility is taken off of the teacher and put on the student. If they fail a multiple-choice test, they didn’t study hard enough. If they can’t write a paper, they are poor writers. If they can’t complete a project or pay attention in class, they are just lazy. They are not agents of their own, they are instead just pawns in the machine of higher education, where the best come out the other end while everyone else gets ground down.
This idea was also discussed in a book I am currently reading, An Urgency of Teachers by Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel. In their introduction, they discuss Paulo Freire’s notion from Pedagogy of the Oppressed that this type of eduction is the banking model, where it is a “one-sided transactional relationship, in which teachers are seen as content experts and students are positioned as sub-human receptacles” (4). Sub-human receptacles. Pawns. Whatever it makes them, it is certainly not what I am looking for in teaching.
So, back to what Dr. Pace said, I do not want to “insulating [myself] from the notion that [I} might have an obligation to actually adjust [my] teaching strategies to increase the number of students who have access to the knowledge that [I am] hoarding.” In fact, I want to be able to raise my students up and give them the skills to succeed. I am not “dumbing down” my content but teaching my subject and the skills necessary to understand and succeed.I have been working on this for years, and I am still working on it. I can only say it is a work in progress now, and I hope that I continue in this direction and do not turn my back on it when it does get hard or frustrating.
I have had a new idea for grading running through my head the last week or so, and I want to get some feedback on it. One of the struggles with our current department writing project is that it is hard to get the students to take the feedback from one set of assignments and use it to correct the next set. As an example, let’s take a Works Cited. I can make all sorts of comments on the first draft of it that they submit, give them screencast videos on how to do a Works Cited, point them to the Purdue OWL for help on it, recommend they go to our Writing Center, and yet they still turn in something at the end that does not really fit what we are looking for on a Works Cited.
So, the idea that has been running through my head (using the example of a Works Cited) is this:
- A draft Works Cited is due at a certain point in the semester. That draft counts for 50 points of a 100-point grade. It will be grade on a scale of 1-50 with a grading rubric and written comments on it.
- Then, when the final paper is due, it will have a (theoretically) corrected Works Cited on it that will be worth the other 50 points of the 100-point grade. It will be evaluated by the same grading rubric.
- The 100-point grade is a sum of the two different grades.
- So, if they did poorly on the first one and corrected the errors, they could have a much better grade at the end. (30+50=80)
- If they don’t care, the can turn in one with all of the same problems, and I will know not to have to look at it very closely. This saves grading time for me and lets them know what they will get if they don’t bother to work on fixing it or even learning it in the first place. (30+30=60)
- If they do well on the first one and make small improvements on the second, they know they will have a good grade (45+50=95)
What does everyone think of that idea? Would it work? Is it too complicated? Has anyone tried something like this? Is there an alternative that would work better?
By the way, here is what my grading rubric looked like last semester for a Works Cited. It was worth 60 points at that point, but it would be easy to adjust this to 50 points.
|Formatting by MLA standards||Little effort is made to format the Works Cited in MLA format.
|Three to four of the Excellent standard elements are not done.
|One to two of the Excellent standard elements are not done.
|Title of page is Works Cited, which is centered. Citations are in alphabetical order. Entries are double spaced and indented correctly. Font and size are consistent through the page.
|Sources Cited||Little effort is made to cite the sources provided for the assignment.
|Fewer than eight sources appear on the Works Cited.
|Eight sources total appear in the Works Cited. All eight of the provided sources are cited.
|Ten sources total appear in the Works Cited. All eight of the provided sources are cited. The textbook and one sample lecture are cited.
|General Elements of Citation by MLA formatting||Little effort is made to use MLA standards in citing the sources.
|Many errors in meeting MLA standards but effort is shown in attempting to reach MLA standards for citation.
|Most sources and or/most parts of the citation are completed correctly by MLA standards.
|All parts of the citation (author, title, publisher, webpage, etc.) are included correctly for all sources by MLA standards.
|Correct citation of Online and Physical Sources||Little effort is made to distinguish online from physical sources.
|Online and/or physical sources missing most of the information that shows what type of source they are.
|Online and/or physical sources missing some of the information that shows what type of source they are.
|Online and physical sources are correctly identified with the correct information to show which is which. Date accessed and website link provided for online sources.
I am coming to the close of the first big grading session of the semester. I have the class divided up into three units, with major assignments due at the end of each unit. For me, that means that my busy time starts after each unit closes. And, the first unit hits before I get any significant number of drops, which means that I grade more in the first grading session than any that follows. This session has been no different. I have had my students complete papers, discussion forums, and essay exams, which means a lot of direct grading by me. I strongly believe that my students need to write and need to write a lot, but the curse of that is that I am then the one who has to grade them. So, I have been grading since last Monday, meaning I am just over a week into this grading session, which I hope to wrap up tomorrow.
The other feature of the first grading session is that I also get my first round of drops from the class at this point. Students can cruise along in the class for the first 4 weeks, completing some basic reading quizzes and the like. However, once a paper is due, a discussion forum closes, and an exam must be taken, that’s when the first round of students are gone. There are always a number of those, so it is part of the process.
The other thing that always comes up with first assignments in the semester is that the first technical glitches hit. Luckily, this time I actually had no glitches on the exam, which is where they usually occur. Instead, this time the paper has been the problem. The students are required to submit their paper to turnitin.com (to check for plagiarism and grade easily with a rubric), but I had about 10 students who managed to miss this part of the assignment. This is despite the fact that every place that the assignment is referred to says that it is due in to turnitin.com, as well as the fact that I sent out two announcements in the last week warning students that they needed to submit to turnitin.com. What it really shows, unfortunately, is how the students seem to run mostly on autopilot. Many just click on the next thing to do without ever looking at any instructions or materials that teachers post. This does mean that often I do not get what I am really looking for, as the autopilot mode often means that students hit a very minimal level of work.
I wonder if there is a way to combat these problems, but I have yet to come up with any yet. I modify my class every semester, working on the phrasing of instructions and reconsidering the structure and order of assignments. And yet, it really doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, as the same problems continue. Unfortunately, where it ends up is that I end up just assuming a certain level of attrition with little I can do to help them. All of my efforts end up failing for a certain number of students. Of course, if they can’t meet my standards, then they probably do not belong in the class and certainly do not deserve a decent grade from me. That does not make me feel any better about it, but it is the best I can do for now.
We are just finishing up the first week of classes. It is my eighth first week of classes since I got my first full-time teaching job, and it is certainly starting to feel relatively normal at this point. I was fairly prepared this semester going into my classes, which did help. My online class is pretty much set in place at this point until I am ready to do a major overhaul. So, it is largely a matter of updating the dates and links, and then that class is ready to go. The hybrid class was a bit more work, as I really did want to make some overhauls from what I did last year. However, my best-laid plans from the summer of spending a lot of time recreating the course did not pan out. As is true most academic years, I do my primary prep in the week before the semester starts, and so I get a limited amount of work done.
I did have one big change come my way in the week or so before classes started. Late in the week before our in-service week, I was asked (with refusal not really being an option) to take on another course. Our normal course load at my community college is 5 classes a semester. I normally have an overload, so I generally teach 6. As I was given this extra course, I am now teaching 7 classes this semester. 5 covered by my normal pay and 2 more at adjunct pay ($1800/course). So, my semester is now set at the highest number of students I have ever taught in one semester (around 230). There are two good things about this. First, I was given another online course section, so largely I just have to integrate in 30 more students to my existing course. There is not an extra course prep, just more students to respond to and grade. Second, I was given this extra section with enough time to be able to compensate for it in my assigned work load. I reduced the number of assignments in my online class and changed up some of the ideas that I had for my hybrid class in order to make up for the extra grading I knew I was going to have to do.
Now, we have reached the Friday of the first week of classes. I have met each of my hybrid classes twice, and they have now been divided up into the sections that meet once a week. I have fully introduced the course to them, and I have them set to be ready to start real class work next week. My online class is in its fifth day at this point, and, while there have been some questions and issues, I would say that this is one of the smoothest starts to the semester that I have had. In fact, things are really going so smoothly so far, that I am really waiting to see when the wheels are going to come off and the fist major crisis is going to begin.
For now, however, I think that the first week has been a success. I’ll write more specifics about the classes I’m teaching in the next couple of days, so I will get more into the nuts and bolts of the particular classes and talk about what I am doing, what I plan to do, and how things are going.
So, I had no idea this was a thing until it came across my email (I just can’t say came across my desk, as nothing comes across anyone’s desk anymore). The article in the Chronicle of Higher Education ProfHacker blog titled, “Grading with Voice on an iPad,”raises the idea of leaving voice comments on graded material for students along with the normal written comments. Here is the reasoning by the guest author of the post: “One of the frustrating things I found in teaching online last semester was the lack of direct contact with students. The class felt impersonal, despite my efforts to give it life. I found that especially frustrating when I graded assignments. The feedback seemed cold and distant, even as I as I tried to point out strong areas of writing and multimedia projects. I overcame this in part by using my iPad to add audio comments to grading. This was a revelation to me.” As I said, I had never thought about this at all before. I then noted, as I am grading right now, that if you go to turnitin.com, you will also find an “advertisement” toward the top for adding voice to graded responses there as well.
I had not really noted the piece on turnitin before, considering that I normally have adblockers on my browsers and generally do everything I can to avoid advertisements of any kind in my daily life. So, this really hit me as something completely new. Has anyone else out there ever done this? Have any students out there had graded assignments returned with voice comments? I’m really curious about this.
Beyond just asking about this (which is a primary purpose here, so please let me know if this is something you have heard of), it also got me thinking about the whole concept of it. The basis on which the above instructor said they found it useful does not really apply very well to me. I have never provided verbal feedback after an assignment. History essays and work tends to be graded and handed back with no opportunities for correcting the material or working on it again. Thus, written comments work pretty well for the few students who actually bother to read them. Or, at least I assume they do. Am I missing out on a whole avenue for providing feedback here? This whole idea just set my mind swirling about the whole way I provide feedback. As I just said, I have strong doubts (and in the case of turnitin.com, which documents students who look at their graded assignment, I know) that many students ever look at the written comments. So, I’m spending a lot of time grading for a very minimal payout. Would verbal feedback in general get more of a response? I don’t mean just recorded as the article refers to, but actually sitting down with students and giving them verbal feedback. Or, would I be just as frustrated at that prospect considering most students would probably resent the fact that they were required to come in to talk to me to get feedback. I already offer to explain grades or answer questions after every assignment I hand back, with a near 0% acceptance rate for that offer. In fact, since most students don’t look at feedback and just accept the grade as given, perhaps providing verbal feedback would be just another waste of my time. I don’t know. I’m just thinking out loud (on the keyboard?) here.
It is grading time again. I have a set of projects due at the end of the semester, and I have essay exams as the final. So, I am doing a lot of grading. Luckily, I am a lot more on top of it at this point than I usually am at the end of the semester. I am generally caught up now and will just be grading exams as they come in from this point forward. This is all helped by the fact that I do not leave comments on any final projects/exams, so the grading does go faster. My general philosophy on this is that comments are intended to help the students improve over the course of the semester, and so putting them on at the final project does not help them a whole lot. Plus, as I well remember myself, few will ever go back to look at comments on things turned in at the end of the semester. Also, as I apparently had some students who did not realize until the end that I had been leaving comments all along, perhaps the whole commenting thing is overrated anyway. I always feel like I should leave a lot of comments to justify the grade, and I also use a grading rubric to justify the grade. However, it does appear that most students are just happy getting a number grade that is not too far off from what they were expecting and going with that. Makes you think (or not, in their cases).
This has also been my first semester at my community college to experiment with take-home tests. I was generally pleased with what I got from the students, as I was not sure what I might get at the beginning. Certainly the effort was mixed all the way around, but I certainly feel that I got a good level of effort overall from the students. I also do feel that I got a pretty decent level of actual thought from the students as well, which is better than what I see on a lot of other essays. I think the experiment went pretty well overall.
We also closed on our house last Friday, so we have that to look forward to once we get this semester done. My wife is graduating with her BA at the end of this week, and then I’ll be done with the semester, and she’ll be done with the first part of her schooling. We can then turn our attention to the new house and get going on working on it so that we can move in sometime in June. We are pleased overall with the house and ready to get going.
And, I think that’s it for my short update here.
OK. So, I really wanted to post to say — I’M DONE! My first massive grading session is done. I have divided up my class this semester into 3 sections, which means that, at the end of each section, I have a large amount of grading to do. I just finished the first one. I’m, of course, the crazy one for assigning so much stuff, but I have this crazy idea that students should do a significant amount of writing in the classes they take. I have the students write at least 1750 words for me (in several different projects) at every third-way point through the semester. So, if you want to consider it that way, I am basically an academic masochist, because I am, of course, the one who has to grade all of that. Still, crazy as it all is, I believe that what I am doing is right and that what I am doing is helping my students. They might not agree, but very few students like doing the assigned work anyway.
I will say that I was generally pleased with how the assignments worked out overall. This last bit that I just got done grading was a total experiment. I just assigned the first take-home exams since I’ve been at my community college. I had no idea how it would go, and I think it went reasonably well. They did have to submit the exams to turnitin.com to try and curb cheating. Still, I did have to report 4 students for cheating on them. Otherwise, I definitely was pleased with a lot of the results that I got. Some were not good, as you would expect, and a certain number of people simply didn’t do them at all. But I got a solid third of them that were actually well written and well reasoned all the way through. I consider that to be pretty good.
But what I set up here as the topic of the day is one of those weird things that all of us who teach (or have been in class) know, that all sections of a course are different. I know this is nothing new, but I felt like I needed a topic today, and not in the mood to go look at articles after just finishing up grading today.
Certainly, the section personality is one of the first things that I notice. Every section has its own personality, whether that be outgoing, shy, argumentative, accepting, humorous, depressing, apathetic, or whatever. Each has a personality that stays relatively steady through the time that I teach it. The only thing that does change the personality sometimes is if one or two people have really set the personality for the section and those people stop coming. But sometimes the personality is not keyed on any specific people and can be determined by the room, time, subject, or even my own level of energy at that time of day. I do think that instructors have as much to do with it as the students. If I’m giving the same lecture over and over, the class that generally gets it first is going to consistently have a different experience from me than the one that gets it on my third time.
The students have a lot to do with it as well. The gender ratio can have a lot to do with it, as a majority-female class has a different personality than a majority-male class. However, considering how the gender ration is skewing more and more female these days, I have a feeling that the personality of sections is going to be more and more female driven. Where students sit has a lot to do with it too. If you have a class where everyone sits in the back, you’re going to have a less engaged class in general than one where everyone sits up front. The more who sit at the sides and nearer the door, the less interaction you’re going to get. If the outgoing and engaged students sit front and center, they can raise the energy level of a class. A long classroom is easier for students to hide in than a shallow, wide one, leading to totally different interactions.
I have yet to figure out how to figure out the personalities of online sections in general. The only time I had an online section with a personality was one semester where 3-4 people tried to create a rebellion against my teaching and expectations. They didn’t get much support from the rest of the class, but that was a trying class that semester. For the others, online students are often so disengaged that it is hard to get a personality out of the section.
Another interesting difference in sections comes in the grades and completion rates. You would think that student entrance into sections would either be random or that a certain type of student would pick you, but with the variance of sections, I know that not to be true. Just to take this most recent grading session, here are the differences:
- First half of American History online – only 2/3 completed the most recent assignments, but the ones who did performed very well
- Second half of American History online – 7/8 or so completed the most recent assignments, but the results were scattered all over the place as far as grades go
- Second half of American History Mon/Wed sections – 3/4 of the students completed the assignments, and the majority did well on the assignments
- Second half of American History Tues/Thurs section – less than 1/2 of the students completed the assignments, and the grades were the worst
The strange thing about that is how it links up to the personality of the sections. The online sections don’t have much of a personality, but the first half section has some of the highest performing students I’ve seen in an online class in a while. Out of my hybrid classes, I definitely have the most fun in the TR class and find them to be the most engaged, but the fewest of them are doing the assignments and those who do are not doing them well. The MW sections are mixed, one being a 40-person section and one being a two-way video section with 15 in the room and 5 on a screen. The larger section works fine, but it always gets my first lecture, and it can be a bit slow going at times. The two-way video section is awkward at best. The students in the room are fine, but I never feel that I can reach the students who are accessing me over the video link.
I know I’ve used engagement several times already, but this really is its own category as well. The variance between sections can be huge. I’ve had classes where they all seem to be paying attention to ones where I can’t get eye contact from anyone at all. I wish I knew what it was about the dynamic of the classes that affected engagement specifically, as I would do everything in my power to affect that directly. There’s nothing better than an engaged class. Not only is it an ego boost (and who are we kidding, as that is important), but it really makes me feel like I’m doing my job well. Any secrets out there on this one?
Anyway, those are just some ideas I had off the top of my head here. I’m pretty brain-fried here from all of the grading. I’ll be back to a more normal blogging schedule for a while now until the next set comes in.