By last winter, the second year students were pretty frustrated. They were angry enough about the workload to go to my department head about it. The main bone of contention seemed to be that they had to demonstrate proficiency in things in order to pass (by reassessing until their skills met the criteria), unlike in some other classes where actual proficiency was only required if you cared about getting an A. Another frequently used argument was, “you can get the same diploma for less work at [other campus.]” Finally, they were angry that my courses were making it difficult for them to get the word “honours” printed on their diploma. *sigh*
It was hard for me to accept, especially since I know how much that proficiency benefits them when competing for and keeping their first job. But, it meant I wasn’t doing the Standards-Based Grading sales pitch well enough.
Anyway, no amount of evidence-based teaching methods will work if the students are mutinous. So this year, I was looking for ways to reduce the workload, to reduce the perception that the workload is unreasonable, and to re-establish trust and respect. Here’s what I’ve got so far.
1. When applying for reassessment, students now only have to submit one example of something they did to improve, instead of two. This may mean doing one question from the back of the book. I suspect this will result in more students failing their reassessments, but that in itself may open a conversation
2. I’ve added a spot on the quiz where students can tell me whether they are submitting it for evaluation, or just for practise. If they submit it for practise, they don’t have to submit a practise problem with their reassessment application, since the quiz itself is their practise problem. They could always do this before, but they weren’t using it as an option and just pressuring themselves to get everything right the first time. Writing it on the quiz seems to make it more official, and means they have a visible reminder each and every time they write a quiz. Maybe if it’s more top-of-mind, they’ll use it more often.
3. In the past, I’ve jokingly offered “timbit points” for every time someone sees the logic in a line of thinking they don’t share. At the end of the semester, I always bring a box of timbits in to share on the last day. In general, I’m against bribery, superficial gamification (what’s more gamified than schooling and grades??), and extrinsic motivation, but I was bending my own rules as a way to bring some levity to the class. But I realized I was doing it wrong. My students don’t care about timbits; they care about points. My usual reaction to this is tight-lipped exasperation. But my perspective was transformed when Michael Doyle suggested a better response: deflate the currency.
So now, when someone gives a well-thought-out “wrong” answer, or sees something good in an answer they disagree with, they get “critical thinking points“. At the end of the semester, I promised to divide them by the number of students and add them straight onto everyone’s grade, assuming they completed the requirements to pass. I’m giving these things out by the handful. I hope everybody gets 100. Maybe the students will start to realize how ridiculous the whole thing is; maybe they won’t. They and I still have a record of which skills they’ve mastered; and it’s still impossible to pass if they’re not safe or not employable. Since their grades are utterly immaterial to absolutely anything, it just doesn’t matter. And it makes all of us feel better.
In the meantime, the effect in class has been borderline magical. They are falling over themselves exposing their mistakes and the logic behind them, and then thanking and congratulating each other for doing it — since it’s a collective fund, every contribution benefits everybody. I’m loving it.
4. I’ve also been sticking much more rigidly to the scheduling of when we are in the classroom and when we are in the shop. In the past, I’ve scheduled them flexibly so that we can take advantage of whatever emerges from student work. If we needed classroom time, we’d take it, and vice versa. But in a context where people are already feeling overwhelmed and anxious, one more source of uncertainty is not a gift. The new system means we are sometimes in the shop at times when they’re not ready. I’m dealing with this by cautiously re-introducing screencasts — but with a much stronger grip on
reading comprehension comprehension techniques. I’m also making the screencast information available as a PDF document and a print document. On top of that, I’m adopting Andy Rundquist’s “back flip” technique — screencasts are created after class in order to answer lingering questions submitted by students. I hope that those combined ideas will address the shortcomings that I think are inherent in the “flipped classroom.” That one warrants a separate post — coming soon.
The feedback from the students is extremely positive. It’s early yet to know how these interventions affect learning, but so far the students just seem pleased that I’m willing to hear and respond to their concerns, and to try something different. I’m seeing a lot of hope and goodwill, which in themselves are likely to make learning (not to mention teaching) a bit easier. To be continued.