Easy A? Perspectives from Course Evaluations

 

Survey form

Jan 17’s post discussed a bold student question. “Is this course an easy A?” Asked at the start of the new semester the query lead to speculation about student motivation, their beliefs about learning and grades. Then I received my fall course evaluations.

“If you want to learn about Economics she teaches it.. if you want to get a good grade take it with someone else.”

“While Dr. Paff is a nice and a good teacher for accounting and economic students, it is unnecessarily difficult. The exams and projects add up to a course that is much, much harder from her than it is for the other professors. I would advice (sic) students in an engineering major or technology-related major to avoid Dr. Paff’s section. It is not for you. She teaches well. But, to get a good grade, based on what I have heard, the other professors are marginally easier.”

“Class is not easy, be prepared to spend some time doing projects and learning concepts. The class was informative but I do not think it needed to be as hard as it was for the concepts.”

“If you want to learn material take Paff. If you [want to] make a good grade take someone else.”

My students answered the “easy A” question and their feedback got me asking more questions. This (limited) sample suggests for some students: grades and learning are unrelated, easy is better than hard, and learning and easy generally don’t go together.

Grades v. Learning. I can’t blame students for focusing on grades. They affect career, graduate school, scholarships, etc. But these statement show why Alfie Kohn’s compelling arguments against an emphasis on grades reduces student motivation. Note the dichotomy. The choice is between learning or a good grade. In their view, grades are not integrated with or a reflection of learning. Yikes! Clearly that’s not my intent. How can I do a better job integrating and making explicit the connection between grades and learning?

Easy v. Hard. What makes a course “hard”? Is it the number of assignments? The type of assignment? How much it counts? How it’s graded? How long it takes to complete? How much mental energy is required? Something else?

I don’t plan to change the number of assessments. Each one is designed to help students learn a new concept or apply what they’ve learned. But I do need to reconsider how I am helping students make connections between assignments/assessments and their learning.

Learning isn’t easy. This is a golden nugget buried in the comments. Deep down, students know learning is hard. Some want to learn and are willing to make the effort and take the risk of pushing themselves into new territories. Others would prefer to go through the motions or do only what’s necessary. (We can say the same of faculty!) Why do some students prefer easy? Are they insecure about their ability to learn? Are they worried the effort won’t be worth it? Have I made a strong case for content relevance and the value of learning?

It’s easy to write off student comments like these as uninformed complaints.  But I’d argue they offer a perspective on student beliefs and attitudes many teachers suspect students hold. More important,  these issues lie within our sphere of influence to examine with students and address. The next few posts will explore student assumptions and beliefs about hard and easy courses along these lines:

  • What instructional strategies integrate and make explicit the connection between grades and learning?
  • How can teachers help students see the connections between the assignments/assessments and their learning?
  • What practices build a strong case for content relevance?
  • What strategies help students see their efforts to learn as worthwhile?

What other questions would you ask? Please share your thoughts, strategies, and suggestions.

 

 

Easy As & Self-Directed Learning

Hard Easy Computer Keys Showing The Choice Of Difficult Or Simple Way

The start of a new term produces lots of questions about workload, assessments, grading policy, and attendance, as students seek to determine how much effort a course will require. One can’t blame them for trying to predict which courses will be run well, and whether the hard work will be worth it, or an exercise in futility. Last week I experienced a first. At the end of the initial class, one of my students approached to speak one on one. The question- Is this class is an easy A?

What does that question imply about the student’s understanding of college and learning?

I suspect many students would like to ask that question, but don’t for a number of reasons. First, it suggests the student doesn’t want to work very hard. Second, it focuses on grades, not learning. Last, it suggests the student is shopping around for the “best deal,” reducing the educational process to a transaction.

I don’t think I handled the question very well. After I recovered from my jaw hitting the floor, I said it depends, and followed with questions of my own- What does “easy” mean? Are you willing to work hard? I’m fairly convinced both of us were unsatisfied by the answers we received.

Opportunities to promote self-directed learning

Upon closer reflection, I don’t think the student’s question necessarily reflects an unwillingness to work as much as it suggests a lack of ownership and control of the learning process. It reveals ignorance about what should be happening in college classrooms: learning about content and self.  If, in this student’s experience, learning has been confined to a focus on content and grades then the question isn’t so shocking.

To expand students’ concept and definition of learning, we need to provide more than opportunities to master content. We need to get them thinking about how they learn and provide chances for them to grow as learners. In sum, we need to develop self-directed learners. Thus, I dug out one of my favorite articles on this subject, Kitsantas and Zimmerman’s (2009) “College students’ homework and academic achievement: The mediating role of self-regulatory beliefs.”

The authors provide a Self-Efficacy for Learning Form (SELF). The survey asks questions about self-regulation in learning across a number of academic areas like taking notes, testing, and studying. Here’s a sample of topics and questions from the article:

Absences

  • If you miss class how will you get the notes you missed?
  • Is the person who will share their notes with you, able to explain their notes clearly? As clearly as the teacher?

 Note-taking during lectures

  • What strategies do you use to stay focused if a lecture becomes boring?
  • When a course covers a lot of material, what strategies do you use to condense your notes to the essentials?
  • When you are trying to learn something, do you regularly try to connect it to other things you already understand?

Collaborative study

  • When you study with someone else, are you an effective study partner?
  • What does a good study partner do?
  • What are some characteristics of a not-so-good study partner?

 Affect

  • If you are in a bad mood, or feeling restless, can you motivate yourself to finish your work? How?
  • If you fall behind, or if assignments are taking longer than you anticipated, how do you respond?

 Dealing with difficulties/poor results

  • If you didn’t do well on an exam because the questions caught you off guard, what will you do differently to better predict questions for next time?
  • What strategies do you use to help you retain and recall technical information and details?
  • When you have done poorly on a test, have you been able to go back to your notes to find the relevant information?

The questions can be used to stimulate classroom discussions about self-regulated learning beliefs. This is my intention. In some cases, students may feel more comfortable reflecting individually in writing, or sharing in small groups if the class is large. The goal is to help students recognize their behaviors and effort play a significant role in determining whether an A is easy or elusive. This is a crucial first step in shifting students’ focus from grades to learning.

Reference:

Kitsantas, A. & Zimmerman, B. J. 2009. College students’ homework and academic achievement: The mediating role of self-regulatory beliefs. Metacognition and Learning, 4(2): 97-110.

 

Tinking & Frogging

Colorful frog in terrarium

Knitters will recognize those terms. To “tink” is to knit backwards, as in undoing the work, stitch by stitch when a mistake has been caught early. Tinking is analogous to erasing a misspelled word, or restarting a short math problem. No big deal.

In contrast, frogging is much larger in scope. The word comes from the “rip it, rip it” sound of yarn pulling out stitches across a long section of fabric. Sometimes only a section is frogged. In other cases, a knitter chooses to frog an entire project.

My non-knitting family can’t quite wrap their heads around the concept of frogging. They see hours of time invested in a project and then-poof!- it’s gone. But that’s where they’re mistaken. The knitter has learned something from the experience, be it how to execute a stitch properly, pair yarn and pattern better, structure color schemes, etc. Veteran knitters view frogging as a natural part of the creative process. Indeed, knowing that a project can be frogged frees the knitter to be bolder, take more chances, and explore possibilities.

I didn’t always feel this way about frogging. In fact, the first time my dear friend and mentor told me my “lovely” wrap could not be salvaged and should be frogged so the yarn could become something worthy of it, I was horrified. Begrudgingly, I frogged. I started a different project with the same yarn and made a different kind of mistake. That project was frogged too. The more I knit, the more I frog. What’s changed is how I feel about it.

I came to accept frogging by

  • Recognizing my teacher/mentor is a wonderful knitter. If she frogs, it must be OK.
  • Reading forum posts and project descriptions/commentaries on Ravelry (a website devoted to all fiber-related crafts). It’s filled with crafters sharing how many times they started a project over, changed course, repeated segments, etc.
  • Realizing that frogging helps me produced better quality, more aesthetically pleasing finished objects.

I can help my students feel better about mistakes by making it safe to muck it up. Teachers do that when we

  • ESTABLISH A SAFE CLIMATE. I’ve purchased a stuffed frog. He’s going to be the class mascot. We’re going to start the term talking about mistakes in learning and we’re going to look for opportunities to make them, learn from them, and feel safe doing so. One strategy that drives this point is when some assignments or classwork is not graded.
  • FOSTER REFLECTION. I’m going to ask students to think about other contexts for learning. How long did it take them to become proficient? What did success require? What can they take from those experiences and apply it to academic learning?
  • LEAD BY EXAMPLE. I’m going to frog a cowl in class. I learned a new stitch over the break (brioche, for the knitters out there). Mostly it’s terrific. But there are mistakes, and the more I look at them the worse I feel about the project. I’ve got to start over. I think it’s important for students to see us struggle a bit, to see that we are mistake-prone humans.

Of course students expect and need us to be experts. But the problem with experts is that we make the work look so easy! As you prepare for the new term, keep in mind how hard it is to learn and how much students compare themselves to the teacher’s and their peers’ skill level. Consider ways you could provide low stakes opportunities for practice, where mistakes are embraced in order to promote learners who are bolder and take more chances in learning.