Why do I keep doing that?

examsExams have been central to higher education for as long as there has been higher education. We often take them as a given in our course planning and structure the end of the semester around a comprehensive final. Take a moment to ask yourself why you give exams.

Got an answer?

It may be a very good answer. Sometimes accrediting bodies demand specific objectives be met through exams or the exams may prepare students for a particular goal. However, for many of us, we do not have a good answer or we may give exams assuming they assure students learn concepts. A growing community is questioning the relationship between exams and learning (Jaffee, 2012; Struyven, Dochy, & Janssens, 2005) while proposing alternatives like low-stakes assignments and clicker quizzes (Dobson, 2008; Leeming, 2002; Weimer, 2011). These are not great fits for all classrooms, but we should take a minute and ask ourselves: Why do I keep doing that?

A more creative take on a similar topic appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow the link if you want to make a choice: Final Exams or Epic Finales


Final Due dates

due datesAs due dates for final papers and projects approach, how do we respond to students who ask us to review drafts before turning in the final product? We know that writing is a process, and that formative feedback is critical to student learning. Many of us build in intermediate due dates along the way—project proposals, annotated bibliographies, outlines, drafts, etc.—to help guide students to successful outcomes. The Good Teacher in me knows this, and is gratified when students embrace the iterative write-and-revise process.  The Overworked Teacher in me sighs when yet another student email comes in asking, “Can you look this over before I turn it in?”

What’s the difference between helpful, directive feedback and feedback for a student looking for grade insurance or a copy-editing service? When does the extra review shift from productive to double-the-work exploitative, and how do we help students see the difference? Check out the recent entry on this topic from the advice forum in Vitae, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s career site. The range of answers is interesting, and offers some good practical tips for managing these requests. Not surprisingly, the major takeaways involve setting reasonable limits (I liked the “Rule of Three”) and making the role of (and process for receiving) feedback clear to students from the beginning of the course.

*  Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Developing a Good Rubric

One way in which my teaching has changed over the years is my increasing use of rubrics as a grading and feedback tool. I used to associate them with the “miserable love of system” with which the 18th century philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher Friedrich_Daniel_Schleiermacher
disdained the prevailing rationalism of his time. The rubric grid seemed to me to unnecessarily mechanize feedback and homogenize the students’ work, to disqualify any surprising, coloring-outside-the-lines approach to the given assignment. But I have come around, at first out of desperation to save a moment or two of grading time, later because I came to see their pedagogical value and their unlimited flexibility. Because really, a rubric is nothing more than a list of things that make for good work on a given project, and these can be defined however you like.

Rubric can be elaborate matrices that define multiple desired features of an assignment and assign points to varying levels of success in achieving them, or they can be as simple as a checklist of required elements. Developing a good rubric can help us clarify what we really want students to do, help us maintain consistency in evaluation, give students a sense of what to aim for and encourage them to reflect on their work, and actually increase the quality of feedback while reducing time spent writing comments.

Here are a few tips for using rubrics well:

  • Create the rubric when you design the assignment so that your instructions for the project or paper or presentation or discussion post are aligned with the desired outcome. If you’re looking for creativity and innovation, say so.
  • Give students the rubric before they begin the assignment. Even better, engage them in the process of creating the rubric, or of weighting its different elements.
  • If you can, personalize the rubric with a comment or two. Under a “visual presentation” heading, for instance, you might simply note “nice graphic—very effective!”
  •  Use student-friendly language. You know what “complies with discipline- and genre-specific conventions and demonstrates language fluency” means, but your students might not.

And because your colleagues have been at this awhile, you needn’t reinvent all the wheels. Your department may have common rubrics for given learning outcomes, and here’s a link to our campus General Education assessment resources that includes rubrics for written communication, oral communication, and critical thinking.  The AAC&U VALUE initiative has also developed a rich collection of rubrics on everything from informational literacy to intercultural knowledge and competence.  These offer models or at least starting points for the creation of your own assignment-specific rubrics.  And remember that rubrics can be created in or imported into Blackboard for online assessment.

* Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.

Finals Week Tips

Some semesters you just want collect their final assignments, send them away, and get back to your office and collapse. Occasionally the last class feels like more like saying goodbye to those cool friends you met on vacation when you made that intense trek up the mountain together and nearly died in the avalanche but it was worth it because you got to hear the monks chanting at sunrise while you shared pots of smoky tea and watched the peaks emerge from the clouds. Okay, maybe not quite like that. But surely some significant connections have been made as this group has worked together over the past 15 weeks. The last couple of class sessions offer a chance to help students crystallize what was really meaningful about that experience, which in turn can help us see our teaching work more clearly.

Here are four things you might try this last week:

  1. Ask students to write a note of advice to the students who will take the course next semester.  What should they look forward to, watch out for, or prepare for to get the most out of the course? These can be turned into a how-to-succeed guide for your next group of students, with the benefit of having been crowd-source by experienced authorities.
  2. Take five minutes to discuss or have students write about questions or problemsthe course leaves them with. What piqued their interest but needs more investigation? What turned out to be more complicated than they suspected? Especially if these problems can be linked with further coursework they will do in their program, this is a great way for students to see your course as part of a larger field of inquiry.
  3. Here’s my favorite:  For years a magazine I sometimes read ran a guest-authored column called “How My Mind Has Changed.” When I first started teaching I stole the idea and on the last day of class asked my students to write a one-paragraph response to that prompt in relation to our course. They could reflect on new information they had assimilated, new opinions on a topic we had explored, even revised attitudes toward learning itself. The exercise allows the students to look up from study guides and exam schedules to glimpse the bigger picture of their growth as educated people.  Sort of the point, right?
  4. Make sure the people who formed the temporary community that was your class have a chance to say goodbye to each other. Maybe it’s two minutes set aside for classmates to swap contact info; maybe it’s just a full eye-contact handshake when they give you their final exam. Ceremony is powerful. With or without chanting monks.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Assessing Participation

Many of us list a category called “class participation” in the grading systems on our syllabi. In this era of carefully articulated SLOs and grading rubrics, that heading might be code for “I need to protect a little subjectivity in determining final grades.”  It’s natural to want to put a finger on the scale to help the student who made the extra effort to revise the assignment she botched that week when her grandmother died (it happens!), or to reign in the student who has accumulated a thousand extra credit points but only phones in the regular assignments.  If the touch is light enough, I would defend that practice.  But fairness and good pedagogy oblige us to think about what we really mean by class participation, and how we measure it.

Not surprisingly, there are rubrics available; check out this one from a recent post at The Scholarly Teacher. But you can develop your own system for assessing student participation pretty simply, once you think though what types of involvement are really important to student learning in your course.  Coming to class regularly? Smiling and nodding during lecture? Connecting reading with issues raised in class? Engaging others’ ideas? Once you inventory what you really want students to do (and why), you can develop a simple three- or-four-point scale that can be multiplied to reflect the appropriate weight in your grading scheme.  Maybe regular attendance and not being disruptive gets you a one, while a four requires evidence of preparation, regular contributions, and demonstrated listening skills.

And thinking about how to assess participation might prompt us to think about how to enhanceparticipation. For instance, must participation be verbal? Cultural and personality traits can make jumping into a lively class discussion extremely difficult for some students, who might nonetheless be completely intellectually engaged and have good ideas to contribute. Frequent mid-class quick-writes or anonymous index card responses—which you can read selections from or have them swap and respond to—can offer quiet students an opportunity to engage the material and each other without saying a word. (For easy assessment, you can collect any of these that you have asked them to put names on, stick them in a folder, and then simply count them at the end of the semester as one measure of participation. Very helpful for grading class participation when you haven’t learned all 85 names.)

However you measure student participation, it’s good practice to let them in on it.  Share the rubric or set of criteria you’ll be using, and explain why it matters.


*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


Remember that resolution to Stay on Top of the Grading Load this semester?

Remember that resolution to Stay on Top of the Grading Load this semester? This is often when it slips through our fingers.  No matter how many times we re-count the papers left in the stack, or rearrange them in tidy groups of 5, or calculate how many we’ll need to grade per hour to make the latest self-imposed deadline, there they remain.  And a new batch is coming in any minute.  And the “stacks” that come in online seem to proliferate at the same frustrating rate.

Do not despair!

Here are 4 things to try to make grading assignments more manageable (and maybe more effective).

  1. Put the pen down. You are not a copy editor. Correcting every error makes for very slow going, and a paper overwhelmed with corrections is actually less effective in improving student writing than targeted feedback, especially when followed by revision.  If your students are submitting drafts before the final paper, try the “minimal marking” technique with the first go-round:  Read about two paragraphs closely, marking errors with simple check marks or coded marks explained on a handout, along with a few specific comments about the whole draft. Then return the paper asking students to find and fix the errors in the next draft. This will make for cleaner (read: quicker to grade) final papers.  Even if you only see one draft, a few very specific corrections will have a better chance of making an impact than a bloodbath on the page or screen.  And by the way, if your students submit Word or PDF assignments in Blackboard, are you taking advantage of the very handy inline grading tool? Check out this TLP grading tutorial.
  2. Before the assignment is due, do an in-class review of an sample from a previous semester.  When students actually see and discuss the difference between a topic sentence and a thesis, or how to fix a comma splice, they are much more likely to get it right on their own. I often also do a micro-writing lesson (3 minutes tops) when I return a set of papers, based on common problems in that stack. This assuages my guilt about not explaining each error on every paper and has the benefit of coming at them visually and verbally, instead of just in a small, marginally legible note on page 3.
  3. Regulate the flow. When planning your courses for next semester, make sure you don’t have assignments coming in from every class in the same week.  You can also stagger the delivery of papers in a single class. If you want students to do 3 short papers, for instance, try assigning 4 and letting them choose which 3 they will do.  That way you get 4 slightly smaller stacks spaced over a longer time. Clever, right?
  4. Change coffee shops every 10 assignments. Best advice my department chair ever gave me.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.


It’s week 8, and the Scantrons are flying

exams Multiple choice tests don’t get a lot of respect. But in addition to helping overworked instructors save time, they can, when done well, also be effective measurements both of basic understanding and precise discrimination.  Too often, though, they are simply a measure of how well students take tests.  Here’s an article from Faculty Focus on “7 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Multiple Choice Questions.” (Note: This is not an endorsement of the webinar promoted in the article.)

Other suggestions for writing good multiple choice questions include these from McKeachie’s Teaching Tips (available in MLIB 458 if you want to read more):

  • “The item as a whole should present a problem of significance in the subject-matter field” (78).
  • “Emphasizing in the multiple-choice test introduction that the students should choose the best answer may help prevent lengthy discussion with the student who can dream up a remote instance in which the correct alternative might be wrong” (81).

Even the discussions that follow that persistent student’s defense of her answer, though, are instructive, and should be used to refine future versions of the test.  (Another argument for reviewing tests in class.) My colleagues and I also often swap tests before administering them to weed out items that are unclear or exploitable by the test-savvy. This also allows us to show off our cleverness to each other.

Really good multiple choice questions are hard to write, but developing a bank of them for a course you teach frequently can be a good investment of your time.

This tip was:

  1. helpful
  2. a waste of time
  3. meh

Using Video to Enhance Learning and Teaching: A Hands-On Workshop.

Wednesday, October 22, 12:00-1:30 PM

MLIB 002 TLP Training Lab

Description: The current generation coming through Chico State are visual learners, used to turning to YouTube videos and Video Blogs for entertainment, personal edification, and self-expression. Come and hear how one faculty member has successfully incorporated video introductions as well as video assignments into her class, then start learning how to use our free tools to enhance your own courses with video.

*Authored by Dr. Katherine McCarthy.