Hi ALPS land! I recently attended the 2016 POD Network conference in Louisville, KY, and while my recollections may be due to bourbon-fueled fantasy, I’m pretty sure that they schooled us American political scientists in how to run a conference. Now, granted, they had only about 950 people whereas our national conferences draw thousands, but I still think that we have a lot to learn about how to make a weekend very productive.
My continual problem with conferences is that there is rarely a reason to attend traditional panels. Usually they consist of four or five presentations of papers made available on a website,, discussant comments aimed at the papers rather than engendering conversations, panelist responses to those comments that, again, focus on what they tried to do in the paper, and, if the chair has managed to keep everyone to their time limits, perhaps 5 minutes of Q&A.
It’s time for another specifications grading update! These posts are my attempt to be highly transparent about the benefits and challenges of using this method in my research methods class this semester, with all the trials and tribulations and the reflection and changes they prompt here on display. Check out Posts 1, 2, and 3 if you haven’t already, or for a deep dive into the ins-and-outs of specifications grading as a system, take a look at our extensivediscussions on thesubject over the last year.
Today’s topics: requiring so much that I set up my students to fail; dealing with late work; and how all that grading is going. In other words, let’s talk about how even extensive reflection and consideration can result in basic syllabus mistakes that pose unacceptable challenges to students.
Let’s start with this basic question: Why in the world did I require 21 assignments? Yes, pedagogically speaking, this made sense: these assignments, collectively, added up the basic knowledge required of an introductory methods course. They covered topics such as writing research questions and hypotheses to measurement, ethics, sampling, correlation v. causation, and everything else. Back in the summer, I spent a lot of time considering whether to require everything, or allow students to complete some smaller number or percentage of the total.
Here’s the problem: if a student completes twenty assignments with a satisfactory or higher score, but misses assignment #21 because they forgot or overslept or had a family emergency, then according to my syllabus they fail the course outright. Sure, the tokens help with this, letting students get a 24 hour extension per token, up to 72 hours—but what if they don’t have enough tokens in the bank, or they completely forget for a week or more? These students FAIL THE COURSE.
This week the ALPS team is mourning the loss of Dr. Danielle Langfield, who passed away of natural causes on September 26, 2016. Dr. Langfield was a celebrated teacher and scholar at Marist College, where she was an assistant professor of comparative politics, as well as a former VAP at College of Wooster, and an occasional guest contributorto ALPS. Her work on the use of real-world cases in simulations was published recently in Journal of Political Science Education. She was a passionate teacher and many of her students since her death have called her an inspiration and cited the incredible impact she had on them. It is a great loss to the entire political science profession and the scholarship of teaching and learning community.
I’m taking a break from specs grading this week–not because I don’t have anything to write about, but actually because I’m too busy writing specs and grading homework modules to write up everything that’s going on. Plus we are in the midst of a search, and I’m buried in applications. I’ll be back on topic next week with my thoughts about grading, and some micro adjustments I had to make to the course as a result of my reflections.
When I’m not talking about specs grading, I try to share some quick and easy ideas for teaching that can make a big difference. These often fall into the vein of James Lang’s Small Changes in Teaching, both his book and his series over at the Chronicle of Higher Ed (definitely worth checking out!).
Today’s idea is about using audio and oral assignments in the classroom.
I really thought I’d have little to write about on this subject until the midterm, but it turns out this specs grading experiment is requiring all kinds of reflection and micro-adjustments on my part, and thus I have plenty to share this week.
Week 1 of my newly-transformed specs grading course, research methods, is in the history bin, and I have much to report. As you may recall, I decided to overhaul my research methods course with this new system over the summer, and am teaching it for the first time this semester. Here on ALPS I will be chronicling my experience with the course, sharing with you the ups and downs over the course of the semester.
Check out my initial post on Day 0 here, and previous posts on specs grading here, here, here, and here.
Today’s lucky winner is… and The other side of presenting–two posts that look at how to approach student presentations, from requiring all students to show up ready to present on the day’s topic to teaching students how to be the audience for a presentation.
And finally, because every class benefits from a bit of lego, take a page from Susherwood’s playbook and think about using legoinyourclasses.
Hello, ALPS readers! I’m back after a long summer and spring sabbatical, and am eager to get back in the classroom and talk all things pedagogy here on ALPS. I’m starting a new series where I outline in excruciating detail my experiences using Specifications Grading. I’ll be sharing my materials, talking about the ups and downs, and reflecting on this unique grading system throughout the semester.
We’ve given quite a bitofattention to specifications grading in the past few months. I did a presentation on it at the ALPS workshop at the University of Surrey in May as I started working on adapting one of my own courses to this new system. I also consulted several former students and children-of-friends about what they thought of the system in abstract, and the general consensus ranged from “shrug” to “that might be cool.” Experts in analysis, my young consultants.
In a nutshell, Specifications Grading is a system where all assignments are clearly linked to course learning outcomes, given clear specifications on what students need to do to earn a passing mark, and graded on a pass/fail style system, where a pass is a high bar (typically a B). Assignments are bundled together by learning outcome, and course grades are assigned based on the bundles that students complete. So, higher grades go to students that either complete more bundles (achieving more learning outcomes) or higher-level bundles that demand students complete more complex work. The course also employs flexibility mechanisms such as tokens to let students revise or reattempt a failing assignment, forgive a course absence, or gain some other kind of benefit. This system is supposed to ensure that all students who pass the class are achieving the minimum learning outcomes for the course, but also puts their grade into their hands by removing the mystery behind grades (no longer 170 out of 200 points, but ‘excellent’ ‘satisfactory’ or ‘unsatisfactory) and letting them choose which grade bundle to achieve.
Check out our previous posts for more general information on Specs Grading, or check out this great community of scholars working with the system.. For this new series, I am going to write throughout the semester about my experience in adapting and teaching my research methods course to this system.
Last month I participated in the annual Reading of the Advanced Placement US Government exams. In May, over 300,000 students in US high schools took this exam, consisting of a series of sixty multiple choice questions and four free responses, usually in the hope of earning college credit or placement in a higher level course. The multiple-choice items are easily dealt with, but someone has to score the free response questions. Enter the AP Readers, a collection of several hundred college professors and high school teachers who voluntarily spend a week sitting in a convention center, scoring essays for eight hours a day, seven days straight. Sound awful? It gets worse: we actually score responses to the same essay question, over and over again. On a good day, I score about 450 essays, all answering the same question.
So why have I put myself through this tedious exercise for nine of the last ten years?
With our latest workshop all safely put to bed, myself, Victor, Amanda and Chad took some time to sit down and talk about what we’d covered and discovered during their time here in the UK. You can listen to the results on our latest podcast.
We talk about the differences in US and UK universities, how we adapt ideas to new situations and about our future plans. And Shot Jenga (which I am totally trying to fit into a class).
Thanks again to the PSA/APSA for their generous funding which made it all possible.
There’ll be more posts from us in the coming days on what we covered, so do keep an eye out for them.