Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Choice and Reflection in the Classroom: Midterm edition

Yesterday a Twitter friend posted a tweet about what I assume was an internal monologue about telling a disruptive/unhappy student to not come to class if they didn't want to be there.

As we just passed midterms, and I have certain things I do at midterms, this struck a chord, and we talked back and forth for a while.
My students took their midterm- only one student not showing up. Despite the fact that the midterm was not for a grade. I do this for a couple of reasons. The first is that in a survey class, there's a lot of information to take in, learn, and apply and the final exam is 30% of their final grade. But a lot of them may not know how to study for that kind of test. What if they've never had to do it? It's a 200 level class, so that's not unheard of. What if they have weaknesses in how to choose the best answer? How to write timed essays? How/what to memorize/identify as key events or people?

So, from day one, I explained that they would have a midterm, we would review for it, and I would grade it, but it would not figure in their final grades. It was to help them do their best on the final.
The class period before we reviewed types of questions, with them supplying the answers.
They then created "magical index cards." I gave each of them a single index card, which they could use however they want and have during the midterm. And here's why- because it's the creation of the card that helps the student. After the exam they turn in their test, their index card, the answer sheet, and short answers. I graded the exams, looked at what they missed, and looked to see if it was on their index card.

I posted a general announcement in Blackboard about common errors, things to consider to improve for finals, and how to use their midterms to prepare for both class (preparation, what to look for, take notes on) and for the final prep.

A couple of weeks ago my students in my Survey of Early English had their first big assignment- a 2-3 page close reading paper. They chose their own topics, and close readings. I supplied these guidelines, and encouraged them to share their line/passage choices before they started writing to make sure they were on the right track. I also always look at drafts as long as it's not within 24 hours of the deadline. Some did. Some didn't. But as I told the students (both before and after), the students who do so do better. They don't have to, but it's a resource available to them, and if they choose not to take advantage of it, that's okay, but it is a choice.
Before the assignment is due we also have a conversation about what they can expect from me:
  • I'll grade on Saturday, and post the grades on Blackboard as soon as I have them. They will always have their assignments back by the next class
  • I'll make lots of detailed notes on the first few paragraphs, but then when I see the same note I'll just comment "same note" and expect you to track it
  • I'll grade, not edit. This is not high school- I won't line edit the paper, making the corrections for you. If that's help they need, they should take advantage of the writing center
  • Other than those detailed comments, at the end of the paper I will make holistic comments about the overall impression I had of the paper, general weaknesses and strengths
  • I use highlighting to color code larger chunks (green = good, yellow = unclear, orange/red= issue) so you can see at a glance bits to work on
  • Grades are not negotiable, but if they don't know WHY they earned that grade, or want to learn how to fix it, sitting down to revise together, that's when they should come see me in office hours. These conversations cannot happen over email.
I have 23 students in the class, and a handful didn't pass. I graded the papers Saturday, and posted an announcement that they could revise (anyone, regardless of grade), with the revised grade replacing the original one. I have very specific guidelines for this revision:
  • You must upload the graded assignment, with my comments to Google Docs
    • I do this so I can track all the revisions
  • You will then revise based on my comments
    • These are both surface and broad revision comments
  • You will write me a cover letter that explains what you changed and why
  • They had one week to do it, and revisions would not be graded without the cover letter
We had fall break (we got Thursday and Friday off), the revisions were due Sunday at midnight, and we had our Week 8 check in surveys.

I do the revision for a couple of reasons. The first is this- most of my students told me that they'd never done a close reading before, and most struggled with the format/set up. Since this is the type of foundational writing most of them will do the next couple of years, I think it's important to teach. And this is how I explain it to the students- If I think it's important for them to learn it, then it is IMPORTANT THAT THEY LEARN IT.
So I let them revise. 
And one student told me in their cover letter that they'd never been given this chance. That they usually looked at their grade, and moved on, that they never looked at the comments and considered how they might use them to improve on the next assignment. 
So pretty much the opposite of everything we  WANT our students to do.
But here's the thing- part of the reason this student never thought of this is because they were never given the chance or taught to do this.

Before this assignment we had a conversation in class about what grades looked like (A, B, C), that a C was average, and it was okay to get a C. That they shouldn't buy the hype, there was nothing wrong with getting a C. I had a student email me and thank me for saying that.

Only a few students took advantage of the revision. And one student in the survey mentioned it, saying they didn't do it because they were just swamped with other things, and they didn't want me to think they didn't care about the class. After the close reading revisions, I made another announcement in class.  This time it was to make sure they knew that I did not hold grudges.
That at this point, they are adults. And they make choices. That it was okay to make the choice to not revise. To prioritize other work over this class, particularly if this was not your major.
BUT...
We also have the conversation that THAT IS A CHOICE. And while it's okay to make it, now that we were past midterms, we were also going to reach the point where these choices had serious consequences.

This past week the students had their multimedia travel narrative projects due. Again, they chose their own topics. I do this because students are more likely to do the work if it's something they're interested in. I tell them that if they liked their close reading topic they might want to expand on that, or complete this project as a variation of that topic, but if it turns out they hated the topic by the time they finished their close reading topic, that's okay too, they can change it.
Same thing- encouraged them to share ideas, and drafts as soon as they had them to get feedback.
It was due by midnight Thursday (it's a TR class). But I saw a couple of students after Tuesday's class who seemed a little stressed about the timeline. Because it's a multimedia project, and because those take more time, they were concerned that they wouldn't finish in time.

So I gave the class an extension until Saturday at midnight. And here's my logic- I grade on the weekend. So if I wasn't going to grade it until Saturday or Sunday, what did it hurt to give the students some extra time? The answer is nothing. It cost me nothing to do this.
And again, I had a student email me to thank me.
And the projects were great! I've encouraged them to share them under the class hashtag #E294HBM
I also used Google Forms to grade these. Usually I grade according to this type of guideline, mainly because I think students are clearer about what an "A" looks like versus a "C" rather than what 200 points means out of 300. I think letter grades are easier to talk about so far as achievement, stretch, and where they are versus where they want to be. I also like it, because as I tell them in class, the feedback, the comments, are the way they improve- the real point of the assessment.This is a paradigm shift for a lot of them, but I like to get them to shift their perspective and how they view their work- not focused on grades so much as on what they know, where they are, and where they want to be and how they get there.

I had a couple of students who didn't turn anything in. And I emailed then and asked them to touch base with me. One did, in a panic, having misread the deadline as Sunday midnight (this happens all the time- is midnight Saturday or Sunday? I never understand it, but I do get it if that makes sense). They politely explained their misunderstanding, and asked that I take it, understanding that it might result in a grade deduction, and understanding too that I did not need to take it, and if they earned the zero, they understood that was on them.

I took the assignment. And here's why I send out the email- because IF it's a legit reason, and IF the student cares about their work they will do what this student did, in exactly the way they did it. And that should be acknowledged. The rest, I'd like to hear from, because while I won't take the assignment at this point, if there's stuff going on with them, or they need help, I want to know that.

Also, because we've completed roughly 50% of the assignments in class (30% final exam, 20% final paper/project, plus a few reading/participation quizzes left) I also looked at everyone's cumulative grades this past weekend.

I admit up until this week, I have struggled with reporting grades this semester in this class, and we've talked about it in class. I put grades in Blackboard as soon as I grade. BUT because so much of their grade depends on the end of the semester performance, the "current" grade may or may not be an accurate reflection of how they're doing in the class. Other than making sure students know this, and talking about how they CAN use their grades, I've been stumped on how to address this (so I welcome any advice).

But halfway through, I do feel comfortable making some general statements.
So I emailed everyone with a D or F. I asked them to email me or come see me during office hours and identify specific actions they needed to take the last half of the semester in order to get the grade they needed/wanted. I also posted a more generalized statement in announcements. Asking them to think about what earned them their grade so far, what they were happy with, what they needed help with, what they needed to fix.

Each of these choices, these modeled reflections are specifically designed to accomplish a couple of clear goals:
  • Think out loud in class about how students can impact their learning, grades, and performance.
  • Provide resources that students can take advantage of to improve all of the above.
  • Model for the students strategies they can use to do better in ALL their classes.
  • Show the students the benefits of brainstorming, planning ahead, revising, taking advantage of office hours.
  • Force students to think critically through choice- choose a topic, explain why they chose it, weigh the benefits and downsides of certain approaches.
  • Be transparent with them about why we do what we do in class.
I think students do better when they have choice.
I think when students have input in their learning they do better.
I think students do better when you explain to them WHY we do the things we do.
I think that my classroom should be built around what is best for my students not what is convenient for me.
I think that constantly checking in with my students, and getting their input, reflecting myself on how to improve, makes my classroom better.

Mid semester is a great time to stop and reflect on class.
What's working?
What's not?
What are students struggling with?
WHY are they struggling?
How can you help?

I can tell you that all of this takes very little work and effort on my part. I present resources and help, but the onus is on the students. And if they're willing to put in the work, so am I. It's why I'm here.



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