Looking back, looking forward (Semester Review, part Last)

As I get ready to launch into my second September, I’ve gone over the feedback from last spring.  If you’ve read since the beginning, you know that last December, half of my class was failing and  the rest were bored. There was a lot of “why do we have to learn this?” and “is this on the test?”

By the end of this semester, no one failed, and there were some remarkable changes in our classroom culture.  One of my colleagues said “when I check labs now, they show me which findings they think are important, instead of waiting for me to tell them what important things they should have found.”

I did some informal evaluations (I stole these questions from Robert Talbert at Casting Out Nines, and they worked well.)  I started getting feedback that sounded like this.

What do you like/dislike about the grading system?

Like: Keep trying skills until you understand it

I’ve actually grown pretty fond of the skill system.  I like that you actually make us demonstrate our knowledge of the individual skills, it actually helps me remember better sometimes, specially when going over quizzes.  The only thing I don’t like is that to get a skill checked off, mainly in the shop, it can take a long time.

The grading system works very well although I think using the skills for every aspect of the course is a little too flexible.  Using skills for the lab and going back to regular marked assignments.  I need more room, I will talk to you later.

Skills for quiz bad idea.  I had no ambition to study for test/quizzes.  I like the shop skills tho.

I dislike the unstructured feel of it, simply because I do better with the assignments/tests, but I do like the ability to retest on a skill if you don’t get it the first time.

Independent learning project was fantastic and incredibly valuable in the long run.

I really appreciate you trying something new, and already there is a huge improvement.  I hope you continue to innovate and improve the system.

I think the skills are very straight forward, they let us know exactly what you’re looking for.

It all encourages independence, which is great, unless you’re unmotivated.

There needs to be more communication.

Without marks to fuel my ego, I lost my drive to excel.

I think it helps focus more on the important stuff, and less on just completing useless lab stuff.

I was able to learn more with a smaller [work] load.  This gave me time to play and experiment, by approaching labs in a way that was helpful to me.

Yes.  It’s taken the good parts out of the lab book and made them easy to learn.

It certainly kept me on my toes to make sure that I understood what was needed to do the labs and the tests.

Yes.  Previously, I would be missing a small piece of the “puzzle,” this way I know what I need to do.

What do you LOVE about this course?

A lot more feedback this semester, understand concepts easier

The learning environment, the flexibility…

I love that I am actually doing well in this course…

The ability to work at your own pace (even though you have to remember not to procrastinate)


Designing my own labs

I feel that education has in general become stagnant, and I was delighted to have a teacher who was willing to try something new.  I know this takes courage and a lot of hard work.  Having 25% of my mark based on a project I was able to pick and have it graded in a way that suited me was a blast.

Electronics 🙂

All the freedom

The instruction and the easy feeling that one understands what is being taught.

I liked the independent learning project, even if I had been a bit too ambitious in my designs and dreams

What do you HATE about this course?

I wouldn’t say I hate anything really except there’s a lot of work sometimes.


Quizzes! don’t do well on them, if get one part wrong, all wrong

Other students asking questions on things we have already covered in class, then interrupting the instructor when trying to respond

If you could change ONE THING about this course, what would it be?

More level 5 questions on tests.  It is necessary to go above and beyond to get 100% on most modules.

Give assignment due dates.

More availability with students during lab time.

Harder deadlines, required milestones for the self-directed project

Level 5 questions: being bonus because sometimes difficult or busy time schedules to get one ready and do research

Include marked assignments somehow

To have a mix of skills and assignments

Points for homework so I’m more motivated to do it

More hands-on and practicing circuits

Any other comments about the course or the teacher?

Keep on getting better, you are doing a service to your students by furthering education.

I really enjoyed the year.  I just wish we had the skill program for the first year as well.

I like this semester better than last semester.  Keep up the good work!


My students are awesome, and almost as invested in developing me as I am in developing them.

Students really get reassessment.  Not a bad place to start when introducing the “sales pitch.”

They want more feedback, and they’re asking for it explicitly.  This is fantastic.  I require work samples as part of an application for reassessment now, so that should help.  I’ll also be experimenting with BlueHarvest.

Reassessment changed the concept of “studying.”  I think this is a good thing.  I suspect that what they mean by “study” is “do a long series of identical problems until you’ve got the procedure memorized,” and I’m ok with letting go of that.  At the same time, I need to spend more time helping them learn to test themselves, so that they’re not relying exclusively on my tests as a way to diagnose and learn.

It made them look hard at who they are, what they want, and why they do what they do.  I need to be ready for that.  Students probably could use some preparation for it too.

It exposed the squirming, seething reality of the differences between my expectations about teaching and their expectations about learning.  Dan Goldner’s got a great idea about how to clarify what the teacher’s job is, and I’m going to try it.

But hands-down the most fascinating thing that happened this past semester was that my students begged for homework.  Many interesting conversations ensued (post about this forthcoming).  Removing points for homework may have been the single most useful thing I did all year.  To be continued.


  1. A classroom all about learning, for teacher and students! What a great idea. Keep up the good work. When your students finally believe that you the teacher is invested in and concerned about their learing, magical things happen! Keep up the good work. It makes me miss being in the classroom.

  2. I really enjoy reading your students’ feedback, it’s great to hear that they are so receptive and supportive to what you’re doing with your class. What have you done to help students develop better study skills, and what do you plan on doing to help them self-test?

    • Re: Study Skills — I didn’t do a blessed thing. That’s what caught me off-guard: it was what I didn’t do that mattered. I didn’t give points for homework, and I didn’t require skills to be mastered on the first test. Because they could reassess 15 times if they wanted, most people did not study for the quiz. As a result, the quizzes became a place to try something with the book closed, and find out how much you understood or could apply. Instead of writing inauthentic, perfect answers that reflected their memorization, the students made authentic mistakes that reflected their own understanding, In my mind, this is the function that homework is supposed to fulfill, but doesn’t.

      When I started teaching, I thought students would attempt homework questions, make notes about what they didn’t understand, look those things up (or ask me), then try the questions again. What they actually did was find a similar question in the worked examples, copy it (substituting new numbers) and punch the numbers into their calculator. They got no benefit from doing this, so I stopped giving assignments. What I call a “quiz” is actually just supervised homework where I enforce good study skills (like trying questions with the book closed, then assessing your answer against a known good one.) Between one hour of this and a couple of hours of formative assessment exercises per week, this year’s students slightly outperformed last year’s students, eliminated 4-5 hours/week of homework, and finished the semester two weeks early.

      What’s missing is that the students are probably not aware of how and why this style of homework (“practice quiz”) helps them learn so much faster. One thing I’ll do to tackle that this year is teach them how to create their own assignments and quizzes. It came up in class last year and they seriously don’t know.

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