ABCing Yourself

In reference to Simon’s post about using the ABC method to get formative “feedfoward” while a course is still running:

After some end-of-semester reflection and a helpful, informative meeting with my department chairperson, it occurred to me that the ABC method can also be constructively applied to oneself, if one is honest enough.

Each item in my pedagogical repertoire typically falls into one of two categories: either a classroom activity works fabulously the first time I try it, or it never works but I’m reluctant to abandon it.

So, in the spirit of self-evaluation, here’s a quick ABC analysis of my past semester:

Abandon: assignments and classroom presentations explicitly intended to teach students how to ask good questions, especially for exams that are supposed to measure how well they can synthesize knowledge.  Despite tweaking the activity associated with this goal, I didn’t see any improvement. Like critical thinking, maybe asking good questions requires more domain knowledge and practice with meta-cognitive strategies than my students can acquire within a single course. In any event, it’s time for me to admit that I don’t know what I’m doing with this and should simply stop doing it.

Begin: writing assignments and student presentations that are more problem solving-oriented. As Joe Jaeger has pointed out, much of what I assign students is abstract. While IABC do well at explaining the big picture, I don’t do a great job at helping students connect grand theory with the real-world experiences of individuals. If I can also figure out how to get one group of students to build off of what another group of students has said or done, all the better.

Continue: offer multiple routes for student success in a course. As a freshly-minted Ph.D., I was concerned about producing a grade distribution shaped like a bell curve. Now I’m not, for a couple reasons. First, grade inflation is so endemic that I won’t do myself any favors career-wise if I fail every student whose final average is more than two standard deviations below the class mean. Second, students who do more reading and writing on a subject than is necessary should be rewarded for it since there’s a good chance they’ve more than they otherwise would have. So in all my undergraduate courses, students have a number of ways in which they can go beyond the minimum bar I’ve set. If their work meets or exceeds the standards that I’ve set, they’ll get rewarded for it in their final grades. These opportunities are built into a course from the first day of the semester — I leave it up to students to decide whether and how they want to take advantage of them.

5 Replies to “ABCing Yourself”

  1. We’ll leave grading on a curve for another day, but under your point on abandoning elements, might it not be that you are not asking the right sort of questions to let students demonstrate their abilities? Obviously, I ask in complete ignorance, but it’s worth a thought. A case of not ‘teaching to the test’ but ‘testing the teaching’ (which might become next week’s blog from me…)?

  2. Actually I’ve been letting students create the questions — as part of written reflection exercises, to build presentations around, and for possible inclusion on the final exam — and the results have been disappointing. In my view a bad question increases the likelihood of a bad answer, so I’ve had to frequently intervene by suggesting alternatives.

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