Sticking it to the man

We’ve already reached the last week of teaching this semester, so it’s been time for me to round up my feedback from students.  In particular, I’ve been keen to find out what they thought of both my use of sticks to randomly select seminar presentations and the open book multiple-choice exam.  As before, I started from an ABC exercise to generate some data to open the conversation.

In both cases, the students were very happy to discuss the pros and cons, which suggests that they have at least engaged at that level.

With the sticks, there was a considerable amount of unhappiness about their use. “It’s unfair”, “they make people not attend”, “if people haven’t prepared very well, then we just sit around doing nothing” were some of the comments.  At the same time, several people had made positive comments about the random nature of the system and the way it had made them prepare more than they otherwise might have done.

Reading more widely across the comments, a couple of people noted that seminar leaders hadn’t been consistent in ejecting those who hadn’t prepared and my feeling from the discussion was that this might have been a key part of it all: if there was strong confidence about others preparing, then students would themselves prepare.  This is certainly one point that I will be taking into the next iteration.

On the MCQ, the picture was less clear.  Some pointed to all the assessment being test-based, when they would prefer at least one essay.  Others liked the MCQ, but not the open-book part of it: “it’s not fair that I got a high mark” was one telling comment.  Others still obviously enjoyed the experience, although how much that is a reflection of the high marks I cannot tell.  The argument about essay-based assessment is a fair one and fits my general tendencies in this, but for now my inclination is to try it for another year, perhaps without the use of computers or smart-phones, or even more conventionally closed-book.

Beyond this, some of the comments seemed to suggest that these (first year) students hadn’t all grasped that they are not expected to be active learners, rather than people to be taught.  They enjoyed my lecturing style and the (metaphorical) ‘love’, but wanted more detailed powerpoint slides and discussion focused on revision/assessment topics, as well as more direction on what they needed to know.

In all of this there is the central difficulty of balance, between giving students want they want and giving them want they need.  As I said in the class, I’m always happy taking on feedback, because it’s the best way for me to square that particular circle.