Oh, my. I botched things this time… OR How to frighten your students in seven weeks

Originally Posted 02-27-2012

Part One: An Issue

So, things had been going too well. That is, I had to have screwed up somewhere and not noticed, right? I was completely aware of the mediocre mess that is my linear algebra course, but my other courses seemed to be swimming along.

(By the way: check out the adjustments to the Liberal Arts Math Course Task sequence. I need to adjust the beginning day or two on surfaces, but it is going well!)

So, where was the lurking issue? Dynamics. The day-to-day operation of the class is going well enough. I mean, I think we are progressing a bit slowly, but this is my first IBL attempt at this material, so I likely have an unreasonable expectation of what can be done quickly. No big deal. We’ll get through it when we get through it. Students seem to be working hard, and we are making progress.

The precipitate cause of the issue was the midterm I gave last week. Here is what happened. They asked if we were going to have one. I said, “sure. How about insert day here. And by the way, here is a little ‘anti-midterm’ to make sure you really have the basic terminology down.” Then I gave them an exam. I thought it was reasonable. Most of the class stayed to the end of the hour and looked harried. uh-oh.

Over the weekend I received a message from a student who was very anxious about her/his grade, was sure that she/he had bombed the test, and faulted me for not being up front about what to expect on the exam. In particular, the ‘anti-midterm’ was straightforward and she/he completed it easily, but it was not a practice test for the real midterm and the student felt misled.

Well, yeah. My bad. I misled my class. Now, I still gave the exam I wanted to give, and I’m not sure I’d change much about the daily run of class. Here is where I failed: I did not communicate clearly how I assess student progress in this course.

Total, gobsmacking failure on my part. I don’t have a good excuse. I do know how it happened, but it is terrible all the same. You see, I usually avoid discussion of grading policy until the students bring it up. In a class full of new students, someone usually asks about my cryptic grading statement in the first month, and then we take ten minutes to discuss it as a class, and that settles everybody’s nerves. But in dynamics this term, about half of the class has taken a course with me before. The rest of them are just trying to fit in… and no one has asked. I should have noticed this and addressed it. But it was never part of my daily plan, and I just didn’t do it.

There is nothing to be done for it except to try and alleviate anxiety that already exists. I will have to do a lot of talking, I suspect. I have started this process.

In fact, the student who wrote me to complain phrased the point of view of a student new to IBL very well and I will eventually work up some courage to ask to quote the email to make a fuller discussion of how IBL works differently and how every little facet of change must be explained to students. (Wouldn’t this make a fetching title for MathFest, Dana? “A catalog of how to fail as an IBL instructor, Part One: communication issues” No. that is terrible. I bet I can do better. See even this title is a failure.)

Part Two: A Little Discussion

How do those of you who run IBL-ish courses handle examinations? What kind of test do you use? What do you aim for?

I usually write a short test with new stuff on it. Not out-of-left-field new, but still not “please do this problem which is exactly like something I already told you was important.” I try to pick a variation of the kind of thing we’ve been doing in class and ask the student to demonstrate their mastery of both the basic ideas and simple exploratory skills. Am I out of line on that? I don’t really think so, but I guess I want to know if I am off base.

Part Three: A Broader Discussion

Now, the students message has brought up a point I have been worring about for a while. I might as well let it out.

How the hell am I supposed to grade an Inquiry-Based-Learning (IBL) course?

Here is what I have been doing: I run a careful course, with lots of interaction with the students. Usually I have an exam or two, just to keep them on their toes, but that just refines my opinion, it doesn’t form it. I invite them to discuss their progress with me whenever they would like. At the end of the term, I just know the appropriate grade. I am a professional, and I take seriously my responsibilities to fairly evaluate the students and to safeguard some reasonable standards. I can’t believe it, but no one has ever complained about a grade after the term is over. I hope it is because they can see that I am being as fair as I can be.

Here is what I want to do: use a standards-based-grading scheme. I should set up a formal list of learning objectives, provide cues to which ones have been assessed at what point, and indicate progress on individual objectives when giving feedback.

I just don’t have that set-up, yet. I learned about this sometime last semester thanks to the magic of the internet, and I haven’t yet implemented it.

So… what do you think? Is a good SBG scheme the magic bullet? It seems like a way to formalize what I have been doing implicitly. I really do have a decent list of the kinds of skills and habits I expect students to form during the semester. It also seems like a lot of work, and full of surprizes waiting to bite me… like the dreaded “reassessment process.”

But if there is a time to try SBG, it is next term! I will be teaching only classes I have taught before, including one that I have taught so often that I could do it in my sleep. [by the way, I think it is the first time since I have arrived at UNI that I don’t have a new prep. Ten straight semesters. At least one new prep every term. Seriously.]

I’d be happy to hear your thoughts. Please use the comment boxes.