I want my final exam for this course to be its pièce de résistance — a vehicle for students to demonstrate how well they can apply their knowledge about the relationships between economics and the environment. I also want the application of knowledge to happen in an authentic, real-world context, where writing has a clearly-defined role, audience, purpose, and format. So here is the exam:
A Plan for Louisiana’s Future
You are the Director of the Office of Planning and Budget for the State of Louisiana.
The governor of Louisiana
Recommend to the governor whether Louisiana should either:
Raise taxes to build the southern part of the state to a 10,000 year flood standard, or
Stop all public infrastructure spending in areas unprotected by existing levees.
These are your only policy options. Write a 2-3 page rationale for choosing one of them. Discuss why your choice is economically best for the state. For evidence in support of your rationale, refer to relevant course readings and Continue reading →
A few more quick thoughts about my comparative politics course, which just ended . . .
On the last day of class, I distributed pieces of paper and asked students to write down what they thought were the two best and two worst assigned readings, and to include brief explanations of their choices. Nine students were in the room — out a class of ten. Despite such a small sample, I will go out on a limb and draw some conclusions, all of which relate to transparency:
I should preface each writing assignment with a very brief overview of how assigned readings relate to the topic at hand, because students don’t automatically know this. For the question “Does Chinese culture promote authoritarianism?” the class read an interview with Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew. Two of the students didn’t understand that Yew, being of Chinese ancestry like many other Singaporeans, was discussing his views on Chinese cultural norms.
I should also explicitly inform students that readings are written in different styles for different audiences, which means that some of the readings will be more difficult and less enjoyable to read than others. For example, in the section of the course on revolution, I assign Theda Skocpol’s 1976 article “France, Russia, China: A Structural Analysis of Social Revolutions.” Two students said this article was a least favorite reading, because of its style. Oddly, in my opinion, a few other students complained that the long-form journalism found in some of The New York Times articles was hard to understand.
Students have difficulty placing unfamiliar historical events in chronological order and parsing out how what happened before might have affected what happened after (the “history just happens” mentality). For an assignment about Iran, students felt confused about the relationship between the 1979 revolution, popular support for the post-revolutionary Islamic Republic, and more recent anti-government protests. While I find it easy to connect the dots, students don’t — for them, context can be confusing. So for some assignments I need to narrow down the reading list.
After students finished identifying readings they liked or disliked, I asked them if they would have preferred formal mid-term and final exams, or regular quizzes, as an alternative to some of the writing assignments. I was surprised that they said no, since I had been under the impression that they used test scores to reassure themselves of their performance. One senior said that he didn’t remember a thing from test-based courses he had taken, while he remembered a lot from writing-based courses, and therefore he regarded the latter as much more beneficial. Two others said that, as studies have shown, they and their friends promptly forgot whatever facts they dumped into short-term memory the night before an exam, so they regarded exams as anxiety-producing events irrelevant to their learning. If next year I use quizzes as a stick to improve attendance in class, they will probably need to be the “write a paragraph that answers the question” type.
More thoughts on the management of extremely small classes . . . especially those that convene at 8:00 a.m. Mine has only ten students, and recently attendance has sometimes been as low as 40 percent, which empirically demonstrates that a substantial portion of the class thinks regularly attending class is unimportant.
I am not one of those professors who penalizes students’ grades for non-attendance — my students are legal adults with their own lives and get to suffer the consequences of their decisions. I also don’t give many in-class exams. For the subjects that I teach, I believe that writing is a better assessment tool than tests composed of multiple choice questions.
I also believe that reading and writing before class, and discussion during class, are in and of themselves critical for learning. But, to borrow a phrase from Lenin, what is to be done?
Last night I remembered the physics exams I had as an undergraduate. Often students were allowed to bring along a single sheet of paper with notes written on it, to reference during the exam. The real purpose of the “crib sheet” was to get students to review their notes and identify for themselves the concepts and processes that were important for an understanding of physics. Also the act of writing and rewriting to make the most critical information fit on a single piece of paper helped strengthen memories of this information.
I decided to employ a similar method. This morning I announced that class on Tuesday of next week would include a quiz. I explained in detail the format of the quiz, its intent, and the fact that it would be an extremely low-stakes event — worth only 10 points out of an available total of 1,200 from all other assignments. I gave each student a blank 3 X 5 note card to write notes on; they can use the card during the quiz.
The downside is that I now have to create and grade a quiz. But even if the entire class decides to show up, I will still have only ten quizzes to grade. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion.
The first of what promises to be a semester-long series on granular-level changes to my globalization course, in which students will be partnering with a local non-profit organization:
Historically my students have been reluctant to evaluate their performance in relation to that of their peers, whether via Monopoly money, rubrics, or anonymous online rank-order surveys. Given that team-based projects account for twenty to twenty-five percent of the final grade in several of my courses, I do think it’s important to ensure some degree of individual accountability in any formally-assessed collaboration between students. No one likes being forced to work with free riders, especially in a course like this one, where students will be conducting research outside of scheduled class time by gathering information from (gasp!) members of the local community. As I have explained to students before — without much success — I can’t be aware of how hard or how well every single one of them has worked with their teammates on a group project, because I’m not always present when the work happens.
So, I racked my brain for a new method of peer evaluation, and came up with the Project Contribution Award:
Please select four people from class, other than yourself, whom you think each deserves 40 points for their outstanding contributions to the project. I will tally the results and the individuals with the most votes will win the award.
Students will submit their choices via an ungraded survey on the Canvas LMS.
The class has only twenty students, so the Project Contribution Award translates into one-fifth of them winning an additional 40 points in a course with a 1,200 point grading scale, a three percent bonus for being perceived by classmates as having performed well on the project. Although I will be dividing students into teams that will take on different responsibilities, the quality of the final product for the community partner will be dependent in some fashion on everyone’s contribution. So I’m hoping that the one in five possibility of earning the award is a sufficient incentive. If not, I can increase the weight of the award in future semesters, or assign one award to each team instead of having multiple awards for the whole class.
A mechanical note: constructing this kind of survey on Canvas requires repeatedly copying and pasting the names of all the students on the class roster. In my case, the survey has four multiple choice questions, each with the same set of twenty names, so the process only took a few minutes. But the inability to generate multiple iterations of a survey or quiz question with a “copy” command probably reduces the utility of Canvas’s quiz feature for courses with large enrollments. No one wants to paste each student’s name over and over again for a 200-student class. In this scenario, I would probably use Google Forms, which does allow the copying of questions. However, I would not be able to just send a link to the survey to students, because responses would be anonymous (allowing students to vote for themselves). Everyone in the class would need Gmail accounts. If your university uses Gmail as its email client, that’s great, but if not, this option requires some extra work on the instructor’s part getting students to create Google accounts with easily-identifiable usernames.
Slack was a great addition. I found it easy to set up and to use. Students liked it. Thanks to the resources I noted in my earlier post, I created a simple structure: channel for each week was the home of announcements, files, links, and discussion — the center of the course. The introduction channel gave students the ability to practice and the questions forum got some use, especially early in the term.
Because Slack has excellent apps for all mobile and computer platforms, I hoped that it would encourage regular communication, which it did. Total posts in the weekly channels ranged from 62 in week 2 to 90 in week 4. I posted reminders and introduced topics, but most posts were from the students. Nine or ten students active each week; one student never posted in the weekly discussion forums. I was pleased that a group of students began posting mid-week and continued through the end of the week. Students picked up quickly on hashtags for topics and connecting to their fellow students via the @ symbol, which facilitated interaction. Posts were fairly long too, especially when you consider they were writing on their phones. I had expected phone use to result in short responses to comments, but that didn’t happen. Continue reading →
As promised, here is information about the final exam I have created for my first-year seminar. As I mentioned in my previous two posts in this series, my goal is to make students more aware of what is now often referred to as “design thinking”: in this course, they are not just learning how to build games, but to solve problems.
Instructions for the exam:
Write an essay that compares one of the games that you helped design and one of the games that you played in this course. Identify which game was better by analyzing how well the games:
Incorporated the principles of the “golden rule” and “magic circle” in relation to events in the real world.
Utilized elements of conflict and cooperation.
Had clear written and unwritten rules.
Facilitated meaningful decision making.
Use information from assigned course readings to support your argument. Be sure to include references to your sources in your essay to avoid plagiarism – this applies whether you are using direct quotations or just the ideas of another author. Use parenthetical in-text citations as with reading responses to save space. An essay with few or no relevant references to the course readings will suffer a reduction in grade.
The essay should be double-spaced, in 11 or 12 point font, and the equivalent of 3-4 pages long.
There is no need for a separate bibliography or title page; please do not include them.
Work independently; do not discuss your essay with other students.
A screenshot of the rubric I’ll be using to grade the exams is below. As I mentioned about the game design beta test rubric, I am not really concerned with the exam scores generated by the rubric — my primary goal is getting students to become more aware of how their experiences translate into learning.
Today we have another post by guest contributor William R. Wilkerson, Professor of American Government and Politics at SUNY-Oneonta. He can be reached at bill [dot] wilkerson [at] oneonta [dot] edu.
This summer for the first time I am teaching an online version of my judicial process course, Law Courts and Politics. I adopted a specifications grading system, something that has been discussed by people like Linda Nilson at Inside Higher Ed and Amanda Rosen on this blog. With specifications grading all assignments are graded on a satisfactory or unsatisfactory basis and course grades are based on assignment bundles.
My course is five weeks long with a distinct theme for each week’s lesson. Each lesson includes an online quiz made up of multiple choice and short essay questions on the textbook (Corley, Ward and Martinek’s American Judicial Process ), various discussion topics on the text, other assigned readings, video and audio, as well as a 600-750 word writing assignment. Each of these elements—quizzes, discussion, and the writing assignment, along with a summative assignment for those wishing earn a B or an A—are tied to course learning objectives. The grade bundles are as follows: Continue reading →
Reading Martin’s post yesterday, just as I’m finishing my duties as an external examiner, makes me think about assessment formats.
Too often, we fall into the essay-and-exam approach: it’s simple, and easy and hardly anyone questions it. Of course, as the institution I external at is about to find out, I’m one of the people who does question it.
Assessment has a terrible reputation to deal with: in essence, it’s a hassle to do as a student, a hassle to set and mark as an instructor and the source of more academic complaints than anything else. No-one has a good word to say about it, it seems.
In our hearts, we know that it matters and that there has to be some kind of means of evaluating student performance, for their sakes and ours. But surely there’s a better way of doing it. Continue reading →
The author was investigating the use of micro-targetting of social media in the EU referendum and funding links to the US, and much of it turned on the absence of an online footprint of the various companies and entities.
This struck me as a marginal issue for two reasons: firstly, I’m a digital migrant, so I remember a time of card-filing and dusty archives; secondly, I work in a field where much activity remains resolutely off-line.
However, from the perspective of one of our students, things might look a lot different: we know that many of them seem to struggle to get beyond the first page of whatever Google search they have entered, so how do they cope with this kind of thing?
For various reasons – some political, some professional – I’m thinking about rules.
So much of the work we do as scholars is about understanding the formal and informal rules of political interaction, and how political agents use, adapt to and shape them. The norms of political life are often purely conventional, but they can exert powerful effects, even before we get to notions of (il)legality. Take a moment to look at the leader of your country and think how much of our understanding of that individual is about their mastery of rules and conventions.
Fun, wasn’t it?
And so too in the classroom. Our institutions set up rules and regulations, codes and practices: in our classrooms, we fall into roles and habits.
One of the most useful things in my development of my practice has been to tackle those local rules in a political way: to think how I can make those rules work for me, rather than against.
To be (very) clear, that doesn’t mean breaking or ignoring rules, but reflecting on their intent and their definition and how they fit (or don’t) with what I’m trying to do.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways this works.
The first is when you’re doing something and then the rules change. This tends to be the more common, because we’re always doing stuff and the rules are always changing (or so it feels). The conventional view would be to throw up one’s hands and demand to know why ‘we’re fixing stuff that isn’t broke’: if it was good enough then, then why isn’t it now?
But rules do change and almost always for a well-intentioned reason (even if that latter point isn’t always immediately obvious). Rather than having a strop about it, we can more usefully consider how the rule changes impact on what we do and how we can adapt. Remember that change is usually evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, so it’s not a blank-sheet exercise.
Moreover, rules are mostly about process, not substance, in a HE setting, so adaptions will tend to focus on broad frameworks, rather than much more invasive details. You might be told who can run a seminar, but you very likely aren’t told what has to happen (or not happen) in that seminar. Or even what a seminar is.
As any of you with exposure to any legal training will know, rules are always incomplete, so think about what isn’t said as much as what is: it’s the gap that offer the opportunities.
And this is the second category: doing stuff where there are no rules.
When I set up my negotiation module, many years back, there was very little guidance from the regulations, because they were blind to formats of sessions. As much as the regulations where there, they set expectations on how I lectured and how I assessed. The former simply didn’t apply, because there were no lectures, while the latter acted as a starting point for getting creative with my assessment. In the end, I used that to anchor a sound pedagogic model of self-reflection within a ‘conventional’ assessment regime. I was happy, my institution was happy and my students got a strong incentive to work towards the learning objectives that I’d written. Everyone’s happy.
Of course, at some rules change (see above) and I’ve had to evolve my course most years to accommodate this thing or that. We’re now quite some distance from where we’ve begun, but I still get to exercise a considerable degree of freedom, while also meeting my institutional obligations.
Of course, this can all happen at a much more prosaic level: the number of students who take your class is largely out of your control, so you have to adapt (sometimes majorly so, as I’ve discovered). Likewise, the number of students who turn up for the class, or who have prepared is a variable that you work around.
If you think of these as just variants on the rule problem, then you can start to see how you can work to the other rules in your life.