Blog Archives

Good Intentions & my “Epic Fail”

I recently wrote about a cheat sheet and quiz wrapper strategy. Students are allowed to prepare one side of a 3×5 index card to be used during a quiz that’s worth 10% of the course grade.

Good Intentions

I intentionally refer to the assessment as a quiz, not an exam. I stopped calling it a test when I sensed the names “exam” and “test” increase anxiety in unproductive ways. I also wanted to make a clear distinction on the syllabus. Learning in this course is assessed in a variety of ways: homework, classwork, essay exams, multiple-choice quiz, paper, and project.

The multiple-choice format is also an intentional decision. The quiz assesses students’ ability to perform computations, interpret them, interpret related graphs, and understand the implications of a specific set of characteristics. The quiz assesses lower-level Bloom’s taxonomy learning. Understanding the concepts and preparing computations is the foundation for more advanced thinking and analysis in the second part of the unit. Unlike the essay exams, where I want students drawing graphs and explaining in writing, the mechanical basics addressed in this part of the course can be assessed conveniently with bubble sheets.

I introduced the cheat-sheet index card policy a couple of years ago, as a way to reduce stress during the quiz and promote active study strategies. The goal was to get students thinking about the material earlier and differently, prepare more effectively, and perform better on the quiz.

Unfortunately the strategy is,

as my kids would say,

an Epic Fail.

Failed Stamp Showing Reject Crisis Or Failure

Calling it a quiz has not reduced anxiety. Because this is the first and only multiple-choice assessment, students don’t know what to expect. Lack of familiarity increases apprehension, regardless of what I call the assessment.

To give students an idea of what to expect, I provide a “practice quiz.” Perhaps it should be called “sample questions.” The practice quiz has the unintended consequence of limiting the scope of material studied. At least one student noted they didn’t study anything that wasn’t in the practice quiz.

Calling this assessment a quiz may actually produce more harm than good. “Quiz” may be less stressful than “test” or “exam.” But some stress is good. An unintended consequence of the name change: students may study less when it’s “only” a quiz.

Because quizzes may be seen as less important than exams or tests, some students may conclude the “cheat sheet” notecard is unnecessary. Thus, some students were insufficiently motivated to prepare one. In one case, a student noted they forgot about the quiz. Another prepared a card but neglected to bring it. Overall, about 10% of the class didn’t have one.

To be effective in promoting learning and improving scores, the card needs to be prepared in advance. Unfortunately, I noticed some students writing on theirs in the few minutes before the quiz. Others turned in cards that were incomplete or disorganized. I haven’t been able to analyze the data yet, but early findings are clear: many students aren’t preparing the cards or studying for the quiz as I intended.

From the student perspective, the purpose of a cheat sheet card is to improve their quiz score. Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence (which is all I have at this point) doesn’t bear that out. Grades on the quizzes aren’t much, if at all higher than before I allowed the cards.

That’s at least partly due to the observations above. I tried to convince students that the act of preparing the card promotes learning. The value of the card during the quiz is directly related to the quality of time and effort that went into preparing it. The message didn’t get through. Worse, feedback suggests students may have shifted from thinking about concept interrelationships toward putting basic definitions on the card.

Readers of this blog may be surprised (disappointed?) by this post’s focus on an ineffective strategy. But there is much you and I can learn from epic fails. Here are two quick takeaways:

  1. Wrappers or other mid-semester feedback is vital to understanding our students. I’m gaining valuable insight from the honest admissions about study time and strategies used. A lot of it depressed me (more about that soon). But I can’t improve instruction or enhance learning if I’m unaware of where my students are as learners.
  2. We learn a lot from mistakes.  Be brave. Pick one instructional strategy and critically examine the intended and unintended consequences. What are your assumptions? What are your intentions? What evidence can you gather to test how well they are or aren’t being met?

I’d appreciate learning from your “epic fail.” Please share what you learned from a strategy or policy that didn’t work. Let’s learn from and with each other.

Learner-Centered Syllabi

learning

At its most basic level, the syllabus is used to communicate information about the course, the instructor, learning objectives, assignments, grading policies, due dates, the university’s academic integrity statement, and, in some cases, an increasingly long list of strongly worded admonitions on what is and isn’t acceptable behavior in the college classroom.

For some faculty, the syllabus is a contract between them and their students, complete with a dotted line where students sign their name indicating they consent to the terms of the agreement. Lolita Paff, an associate professor at Penn State Berks, is a reformed syllabus-as-a-contract believer.

“I will confess, as a former business professional, I did view the syllabus as a contract,” said Paff. “But when you really think about a contract, and you have someone sign a contract, that, by nature, sets up an adversarial relationship. The implied message is, ‘I don’t expect that you’re going to live up to this unless I have it in writing.’ That used to be the tone in my classroom—it’s not the tone anymore. That approach doesn’t foster a good learning environment.”

What is a learner-centered syllabus?
Today, Paff takes a more learner-centered approach to her syllabi. A learner-centered syllabus can take many forms, but it often includes one or more of these features:

A rationale for course objectives and assignments. A syllabus can be used to set the stage and the context for the course and where it sits within the discipline. Paff encourages faculty to be intentional about what is and isn’t included in the course, and then share that with students. Why are these assignments a part of the course? Why are we studying this particular topic?

Shared decision making. In some cases, a learner-centered syllabus means allowing students to have some say in course policies and procedures. Depending on the course and the students, Paff allows some flexibility in decision making for assignment weights and options. While first-year students typically won’t have the maturity to make these types of decisions, juniors and seniors can often thrive when given some choice in how they will demonstrate their learning.

Warnings of potential pitfalls. There are often certain components of a course that students find more difficult than others. Giving students a heads-up of what to look out for or behaviors that could impede success (e.g., “You really want to look out for X, and here’s a strategy so that it doesn’t happen.”) can go a long way. “That advice is going to be well received by students,” said Paff. “It sets the stage that the teacher really cares about them, not just what’s going to be covered and what’s expected of them, but that you’re in this together.”

An opportunity for students to set teacher expectations. On the first day of class, as Paff goes over the syllabus and outlines her expectations for students, she asks what they expect of her. The students break into groups to discuss past learning experiences and offer up one or two policies that they think will help them learn, which Paff types into a document during the exercise. Throughout the semester, the class revisits the students’ recommendations. “I might say, ‘See, you asked me to provide review sessions, so I’m extending my office hours before the next exam,’” Paff explained. “It’s another opportunity to talk about what we are learning, where we are in the course, what our expectations were for the class, and how are we progressing.”

Recommendations for staying on track. Every syllabus includes a course calendar, but a learner-centered syllabus could also provide guidance on how to tackle specific projects—from how much time something will take to strategies for gathering the necessary resources, Paff said. In addition, students might also need help in evaluating and monitoring their progress throughout the course.

“When it comes to a learner-centered syllabus vs. a traditional syllabus, it’s not really a difference so much in content as it is in tone,” said Paff. “There’s a shift in emphasis from ‘What are we going to cover?’ to ‘How can the course promote learning and intellectual development in students?’ So it’s going to contain roughly the same information, but the language used to convey the policies, procedures, and content is different in order to foster  a more engaging and shared learning environment.”

How long should a syllabus be?
One of the big questions faculty have regarding their syllabi centers on length. While there is no hard-and-fast rule about the optimal length of a syllabus, there is often a tendency for policy creep to push the page count higher than necessary as faculty try to anticipate every possible scenario that could occur throughout the semester.

“My syllabi started off at two to three pages, and then as I tried to close every loophole that would develop, it grew, and grew, and grew to the point where I had an entire page on nothing but classroom policies and procedures for missed exams and absences, and how I wanted homework submitted, and it grew to this five-page detailed tome,” said Paff. “Now there’s nothing wrong with a four or five page syllabus, if it serves your purpose and it’s the kind of document that you revisit with students, and it’s one that sets a framework for learning.”

Rather than worry about syllabus length, Paff encourages faculty to think about the tone of the syllabus and the order of the content they’re presenting.

For example, consider the following course description she used in a syllabus years ago:

Econ102 is an introduction to microeconomic analyses and policies. Microeconomic deals with the behavior of individuals and firms and how the behavior is influenced by government policy. The principal objective of the course is to enable students to analyze major microeconomic issues, clearly and critically.

Now compare that to the description she uses now:

Why should you want to study microeconomics? Alfred Marshall defined economics as the study of people in the ordinary business of life. Every choice you make, from what time to get up … whether or not to go to class … how long to study, or work, or how much to eat, or where to go on Thursday nights … ALL of it incorporates microeconomic principles. Microeconomics helps us to understand how people and firms make choices, how markets are organized, why and how markets behave differently, and the effects government interventions have in market outcomes. I LOVE this course, and I am hoping that by the end of the semester you will develop a deep appreciation for the subject.

“A lot of times I feel that students think that a course happens at them and they’re not truly engaged and a part of the learning experience,” Paff said. “If the syllabus is structured in a way and the content is delivered in a way that they’re an active part of what happens in the class, and they have some control over how they learn and what they learn, then the random arbitrariness of learning is minimized.”

With a new school year about to begin, take some time to reflect on how you would characterize the tone of your syllabus and what you could do to make it more learner-centered.

Reprint of Mary Bart article summarizing my Faculty Focus podcast, July 29, 2015. Photo credit: Alan Levine.

Ch-ch-ch-changes!

changed-priorities-ahead_phixr

I hardly recognize myself. That’s expected when you’ve reached your 50s. Inside I feel like my 20-something self, but when I glance in the mirror I see someone much older. Sigh. At least the laugh lines and crows feet have come with some wisdom and perspective.

I recently told a colleague how I was planning to finish the semester in microeconomics. Her response, “soon you will be as I was, hardly recognizing the teacher I’d become.” That got me thinking about the ways I’ve changed as a teacher. That evolution is more dramatic than the ways my reflection has altered with time.

Insecure …to… Confident

Let’s be honest. New teachers are nervous. We might be content experts, but unless you are in education, the amount of pedagogical training provided in grad school typically ranges from little to none. We end up teaching as we were taught. I didn’t read much about pedagogy until I was tenured. I had the good fortune of working with an excellent mentor. I listened to experienced teachers. But generally, I was very nervous, insecure, and ignorant about teaching and learning in my early career.

I’m more confident now, but that’s only partly because of time and experience. A big part of that confidence stems from being more informed about my teaching. I read books about learning, cognition, teaching, technology and related issues regularly. I read several pedagogical journals. I have been conducting pedagogical scholarship for several years. I reflect on my teaching practice (this blog is invaluable to me in that regard). I present at teaching and learning conferences and lead faculty development workshops. Time, by itself, doesn’t make us better teachers. Learning, testing, experimentation and reflection are responsible for growing as a teacher and thereby increasing my confidence.

Pessimistic …to… Optimistic

Perhaps it’s my background as an auditor. Maybe it’s due to my upbringing or genes. Whatever the cause, my early teaching years reflected this view: If you don’t grade it, students won’t do it. It’s terrible to admit, but that suggests the teacher thinks many students are lazy and unmotivated. That attitude can manifest in a number of teacher behaviors that hurt student learning and/or prove self-fulfilling. When we expect the worst of students, they often deliver.

Over time, I looked at my courses from the student perspective. I discovered I wouldn’t want to be one of my students! I changed the tone of my syllabus. “Students will…” statements were replaced with “We will…” Instead of assuming the worst in students and planning for that in the syllabus, I tested the alternative position. My policies now assume the best. The result is that the worst-case scenarios (missed exams, cheating, etc) are outliers, not the norm. The more positive and optimistic I’ve become about my students and their learning, the more fun and productive my classes have become for me and my students.

Controlling …to… Facilitating

Never let them see you sweat. That’s an apt mantra for the insecure teacher. If you’re unsure of yourself, you certainly don’t want students to suspect. Often, the best defense is a good offense. For many teachers that means exerting complete control. It starts with a syllabus that spells out what will happen every minute of every class. Class sessions become scripted Powerpoint lectures. Sometimes students are given a script with blanks to fill in during lecture. Complete control means students have no say in policy, content, or assessment. Although I have never used slides to lecture or scripts for note taking, my early teaching behaviors and demeanor made it very clear, the class was MY show.

How and why did that change? I believe it started when I incorporated active learning strategies in the classroom. It’s not possible to script or control how things will proceed when students are solving problems in class. As I relinquished control student interest and engagement grew. It was scary at first. Eventually I saw that loosening control doesn’t mean bedlam will occur.

That brings me to the present. I have yielded even more control of my microeconomics course. What students will investigate during the last two weeks of the course and the format of their final assessment is a choice (within ranges). I’ll be teaching some content during a portion of each class. The remainder of each period will be dedicated to group and individual work on topics they identified in the Big Questions assignment (See https://1313lola.wordpress.com/2015/08/31/big-questions/ ).

I never had a professor/teacher let the students make the syllabus/lessons and I think this is why I am doing so well in the class. It’s a great way of teaching.

When I started teaching, sharing control like this was beyond my imagination. I wish I knew then what I know now. I scarcely recognize myself.