Specification Grading In An Online Course

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

Fight! Fight! Fight!

So, I’ve had an unusual experience this week.

I’m teaching in a summer school at another institution, and I put up a photo of the UKIP “breaking point” poster (google it), only to have several students lay into it, about its veracity, legitimacy and loads more.

In these situations I like to let things run a bit, because it often conveniently sets out points for subsequent discussion. And this did that.

However, very quickly it became a bit personal. And then a bit more.

I intervened at this point, asked for a bit of self-reflection on it and then trying to get things moving again. At the end of class, there was some apologising.

Continue reading

APSA Teaching Workshop – Call for Proposals

The APSA Centennial Center for Political Science and Public Affairs will host a two-day, teaching-oriented workshop for faculty in the field of international relations. The workshop is scheduled for October 20-21 and will be led by Joyce Kaufman (Whittier College) and Victor Asal (University at Albany – SUNY). A full description of the workshop and link to submit a proposal is here.

Please note that the deadline for submitting a proposal is August 6.

Blown up out of all proportion? Grade-inflation in the UK

So, grade inflation is back in the news over here. Using government data, the Press Association constructed tables showing how the percentages of first-class honours degrees have risen very markedly over the past five years.

It’s a dubious honour that my own institution tops the list, with the biggest percentage increase.

You can read my Vice-Provost’s comments in the story linked at the top, noting that this is both a national trend and a reflection of the efforts we’ve put into making sure we make the most of our teaching of students.

I’m in no position to comment on this, having left the heady heights of middle-management behind some time ago. However, one thing that’s not been mentioned – and which I can note – is the more mechanical effect of our changing student intake.

For the period in question, the university was rapidly ramping-up its entry requirements, as part of an effort to improve its position in university league tables. In essence, the argument was that by taking stronger students, the university’s entry tariff would go up, there would be fewer students dropping out (because they’d be more able), and they’d get better final results, and be more likely to get employed. All those things are counted by league table compilers.

And so it has proved: our rise up the tables has been very impressive.

However, as this story shows, that is not without problems. And certainly it’s not the only thing at work here.

As American colleagues will know better than I do, grade inflation is a pervasive issue and one with its own logic. Notwithstanding the very different quality assurance regime here in the UK, that logic also sticks here too.

I offer no answers on this, but will leave it as something to chew on over the summer break.

Mills College: When the Bus Leaves the Station and You’re Not On It

credit: Chad Raymond

In May, Mills College announced that its board of trustees had declared a “financial emergency” after persistent budget deficits. The financial stabilization plan sent to the board by the college’s president in June recommended an administrative reorganization, recruitment initiatives, staff reductions that include ranked faculty, and the modification or elimination of academic programs. Five tenured faculty members have already received official notice of termination. Undergraduate majors in Latin American studies and philosophy were slated for closure, as were minors in creative writing in Spanish, Latin American studies, government, and physics. Master’s degree programs in mathematics and translation were also identified for elimination. The financial stabilization plan concluded by saying:

“After years of struggle with an intractable deficit and significant cuts, we understand now that Mills needs transformational change. We cannot build a new Mills by holding onto everything we’ve been doing in the past . . . The measures in this plan are taken because actions to date have failed to put Mills on a solid financial basis.”

Will the plan, if implemented, put Mills on the road to recovery? I think not, because the plan makes the same assumptions about market positioning that put the college in its current predicament. Mills has historically branded itself as a women’s liberal arts college, but that strategy has failed to give it an advantage in the higher education marketplace. Mills needs to abandon what isn’t working and develop a radically different model, if not an entirely new mission. Continue reading

Interactive Resources for Teaching Stats

The internet has allowed the creation and dissemination of a wide range of tools useful to those of us who teach statistics in our research methods courses. I found two to be particularly helpful.

  1. Guessthecorrelation.com – As its name implies, the site gives students a scatterplot of points and asks them to guess the correlation. My students were asked to play three games and upload screenshots of their final scores as evidence that they had completed the assignment. Many went on to play more than three games; the sound effects and points make it a very addictive game. What it brought home to them very effectively is that correlation is about how tight the points are to the (imaginary) best-fit line, not about the slope of the line. Students enjoyed playing a game as homework; it was certainly less onerous than practicing calculating correlations by hand.
  2. The Rice Virtual Lab in Statistics: Sampling Distributions – The Java-based simulation for sampling distributions allows you to draw a distribution of any shape you want, select repeated samples of any size, and then plot the sampling distribution of the means (or several other statistics). I even let them draw some of the distributions and do some of the simulations so that they were convinced it wasn’t just the values I was picking. I was able to demonstrate to the class in just a few minutes that the shape of the parent distribution doesn’t matter; the means will always be distributed normally.  Watching their faces, this really blew their minds; they probably would have blindly accepted it if I just told them this is how it is, but having seen it, we had a much easier time accepting that the same property held for regression coefficients. (The chance to visit the central limit theorem was a bonus for undergrads.) The whole activity took less time than a lecture of the similar material. (A similar lab simulation exists for confidence intervals as well.)

What about you? What are your favorite interactive sites for teaching research methods or statistics?

Another Example of What You Say Is Not What They Hear

Probably how students perceive me

Back in April, I gave an example of students comprehending a question differently than I did. In that case, I identified what I thought may have caused the miscommunication — the question needed to be worded slightly differently.

I now have another example, in an online graduate course. The question was “Of the different political and religious reactions to European imperialism by Middle Eastern societies, which was the most effective? Why?” This writing prompt corresponded to chapters from No God but God by Reza Aslan and The Modern Middle East: A History by James L. Gelvin. Students referenced information from these books, something I require, so I know that they actually read the assigned material.

Instead of writing about the ways in which Middle Eastern societies responded to colonization, several students submitted answers that discussed: Continue reading