The Change All Around, Part 3

Here is my third post about environmental factors that are affecting my teaching this semester. My previous posts on the subject are here and here. This time I thought I would explore my situation from the standpoint of student behavior.

First item is this screenshot of the Canvas LMS gradebook. I use a grading system in which each assignment is worth a certain number of points, and a student’s final course grade is a function of the total points he or she has earned by the end of the semester. Individual assignments do not receive letter grades and are not graded on a percentage basis with a 0-100 scale.

I inform students — both verbally in the classroom and via text in the syllabus — that the percentage columns in the gradebook are absolutely meaningless in terms of their course grade. Yet they still fixate on these figures, and get dejected whenever they see a number that they perceive as conflicting with their self-image. (I attribute the innumeracy and the construction of a fragile self-identity to parenting and the K-12 education system.) I suppose my next attempt at a solution to this problem will be to turn it into a question on the syllabus quiz at the beginning of semesters.

Second item is student note-taking. In an attempt to reverse the increasingly prevalent practice of sitting passively in class, I finally instituted unscheduled quizzes for which students can use handwritten notes for reference. More students are taking notes, but the prevalence of the practice follows a sine wave pattern, with peak activity just after a quiz. I suspect this means note-taking increases when students are reminded of its usefulness, and then it drops off as students forget. This leads me to conclude that they did not develop the habit of taking notes before college and that I will need to use these quizzes for the entire semester. Whether this will change students’ behavior in their other courses, I don’t know.

Last item is illness. A wave of respiratory infections cycles through campus at the beginning of every semester, but this semester seems worse than usual. For any given day of class, there are two or three students who claim to be sick and are absent. I do not have an attendance policy tied to the course grade because I refuse to waste my time tracking “excused” versus “unexcused” absences. Invariably students who don’t attend class don’t perform well, and their final grades reflect that. But in a class of ten or twelve, the absence of two or three students lowers the room’s energy level and reduces the ability for people to engage with each other through discussion. I can’t think of a remedy to this problem other than higher enrollments, which probably isn’t going to happen for many of the courses that I teach.

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