Monday, March 17, 2014

Giving Extra Credit: Second Chances or Unfair Coddling?

Hi there, GTC!

Recently in the GTC, we were fortunate enough to participate in a workshop on extra credit facilitated by Matt Dumlao. What follows is a summary from Matt regarding both the main points of the workshop and the reactions of participants to the points being raised:

As we near the end of the quarter, TAs and professors alike are always besieged with students looking for ways to boost their grade. When performing well on the final assignments or exam is not enough, students may resort to asking for another assignment they can do to earn extra credit. In this week’s GTC meeting, we took up this timely topic and explored the ins and outs of extra credit in university instruction.

We began by discussing how we have seen extra credit used in courses before. We noted that usually extra credit assignments are essays or exercises that mirror what was done previously in the course. For example, students in music classes may be required to attend a concert and write a response to it, and the instructor may give them the opportunity to do more of those assignments for extra credit. Or, in a science class students may be given more practice on a particular procedure. In general, we noted that the extra credit assignments are something that can be performed individually and without resources from a classroom or lab. Also, the assignments typically cover material that was already tested on earlier in the term; anything that is truly fundamental to the course should be part of a regular assignment, not extra credit. Finally, we pointed out that some classes use extra credit to make up for poor performances on earlier exams.

Who is eligible for extra credit was another point of discussion during the meeting.  Sometimes students on the bubble between a passing and failing grade are given the opportunity to earn a few more points. Other times, the opportunities are open to everyone who is willing to do the work. In the latter case, we lamented that at times only the high-achievers went for the extra credit and the people who could benefit the most from the grade boost did not try.

We digressed a bit and noted that extra credit is often considered along with curving grades, particularly when the entire class performed poorly on an exam. If an exam was poorly written and the bulk of the blame rests with the instructor, we all agreed that curving the class might be the fair and necessary course of action. Under no circumstances, however, should students be assigned extra credit to correct for a problem that the instructor created. If the instructor is not to blame for the low scores during the term, extra credit may be used to give the class another opportunity to practice and learn the material.  In this case, it may be appropriate to carefully choose the words for the assignment: instead of calling it “extra credit” it may be more appropriate to call it “additional practice”.

Our discussion of curving grades lead us to the idea that students should know exactly where they stand at any point during the term. Students should not be ambushed at the end of the term when they are powerless to do anything. Keeping students in the dark until the very end will most likely lead to more requests for extra credit and create a more anxious classroom atmosphere.
We ended our discussion on extra credit by summarizing the pros and cons to using it in university instruction. We said the reasons to use extra credit included: (1) giving the students another opportunity to learn the material (that’s the main goal of any class anyway!), (2) some students may not “get it” the first time around (again, learning is the ultimate goal), (3) extra credit can reduce anxiety and build confidence, especially for students who aren’t “good test takers”. On the other side, we said extra credit should not be used because: (1) it could reinforce bad behavior or a poor work ethic (why work hard when other opportunities will be there); (2) it takes time, both from a student’s and a TA’s perspective; (3) it may be completely unnecessary, especially if only the high achievers do it; and (4) it may lower academic standards and put the instructor at odds with a department that may view extra credit as grade inflation. 

Extra credit will always be something instructors have to wrestle with. In my opinion, if you are not a grade curmudgeon philosophically opposed to extra credit, you will have to find the approach that in the end facilitates learning and makes the class as fair as possible.  Providing extra opportunities and second chances to students may be appropriate under certain circumstances. That said, other times it is important to put your foot down and refuse extra credit to some out of fairness to the rest of the class who worked hard on the assignments everyone was given.

What do you think? When, if ever, should extra credit be used? How have you used extra credit or seen it implemented by others? Add your comments below!

Grading Basics: Structures, Practices, and Philosophies

Hi folks!

Our recent workshop on grading basics, facilitated by Melita Denny was the pinnacle of organized discussion - in fact, you can take her streamlined and itemized summary (below) as an example of the benefits of proper grading practices. This workshop - designed around four essential questions related to the philosophies, structures, practices, and products of grading - helped us all to realize that, when we take the time to carefully plan ahead, grading can be an incredibly useful and not entirely time-consuming way to encourage the intellectual growth and development of our students. Want to know more? Here's Melita's recap: 

Question 1
What is the purpose of grading?

- Of students:
Grading used as a measurement of mastery of skills/knowledge
Showing completion of the process required by the class
- Of teachers:
The information received from grading might also be useful in evaluating the class design or teacher performance

- Graded assignments and tests can help to organize and set goals for a class

- Giving students feedback on work – let them know how well they did and help them see  
how to work to achieve the goals of the class

Don’t forget institutional requirements
 - It is important to know the grading procedures required by the institution at which you teach 
- Particular departments may set standards regarding what constitutes acceptable grade distributions for courses or programs

Question 2
How can we make the structure of the class work with grading in a cohesive way?

First know what your goals are for the class
- What sort of skills/knowledge do the students need to master?
- How can the tests/assignments reflect these goals?

Think about different ways of assessing knowledge
- Different types of tests
- Different types of assignments
Example: written tests vs. multiple choice scantrons
group projects, presentations, etc.

Think about what aspects of the assignment are most important 
- For example, do you take off points for spelling?

Sometimes the institution imposes requirements for your class. 
- For example, a music literature class that needs to have a writing component
- think about what this means for the overall structure of the class
Comment from workshop participant: “A test should be an opportunity to show what the student does know – not what the student doesn't know”
Do you agree or disagree?
How can your reaction to this statement be reflected in your assessment

Tests or assignments could give students choices of topics or opportunities for creative answers.

Question 3
What are some optimal practices for communicating about grades?

How can you best articulate what you expect for the class?
You might give
- Rubrics or other criteria to help the students understand what you are looking for
- Sample assignments
- Study guides for tests
- Clear statements in the syllabus regarding why you don’t provide study guides, rubrics, etc. (encouraging independent thinking, creative expression preferred over conforming to particular standards, etc.)

Exactly what skills do you want your students to learn?
- Maybe you want your students to learn about figuring out these answers on their own?

Turning back work
- Confidentiality
It can be a good idea to write the grade at the end of the assignment.
- Helps ensure confidentiality of the grade, especially if assignments are returned en masse and not directly to the individual authors
- Encourages the student to read through all your comments

Try to give the students a chance to review the first assignment before finishing the second one, etc.

Comment from workshop participant: “I don't want to spend too much time explaining how grades work...”
- Be clear at the beginning about how the assignments and test, etc. are weighted for the whole class (there is no curve, there is extra credit, etc.)
- On tests, be clear as to how many points each questions is worth... or be prepared to explain why you don’t want to provide that information

Subjective grading
- Save part of the total grade for “wow factor” or give points for the student who uses the assignment as an opportunity to challenge themselves
            This will encourage you to be more subjective on other areas of the assignment

Check for mistakes when adding or subtracting points
- Encourage the students to check your work
Motivates them to read the corrected tests and think about the questions they missed

Question 4
How can we grade effectively?

How much feedback should we give?
- What about not correcting everything?
Focus on just one concept, correct some errors and ask the student to finish the corrections

Format and Submissions
- Electronic vs. paper
This is a personal choice -what works best for you as a teacher?
Consider the accessibility of electronic resources for students who don’t have personal computers, printers, etc.

Time management
- How to not spend too much time with grading?
See above

- What might be subjective about your grading?
- Rubrics
Important for students to know how you grade, what you’re looking for
- Be sure that your grading is accurate
See above

Summary of Tips for Effective Grading

How do you ensure fairness?
- Allow time to review grades, ask yourself “Why did I assign this grade?”
- Collaborate with other TAs to see how your grading compares.

Have a good rubric
- If the professor doesn’t have one, you might want to develop a rubric with other TAs you work with to ensure that you are grading in the same way
- Rubrics can help the student to know what you are looking for
- Possible downside - too formulaic?

Give yourself a time limit
- Don't spend too much time with each assignment
- Too many comments can sometimes be overwhelming for students

Process and policy for re-grading
- Ask the student to submit a formal petition explaining why they think it should be re-graded
Discourages frivolous requests and encourages further learning on the part of the student

Consider your own schedule when you make assignments due
- You do have a life outside of your work!
- If you’re teaching multiple courses, don’t have all assignments due at the same times
            Especially true if you don’t have a TA to help you

So, what do you think about the points Melita has raised about best practices for grading? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dealing with Attendance in a University Class

Howdy, GTCers!

Below you'll find a recap of the GTC's recent workshop on Dealing with Attendance in a University Class, facilitated by Matt Dumlao. Curious about what was covered? Here's the scoop:

College instructors face very different challenges than K-12 teachers when it comes to student attendance. College students are adults who are not compelled legally to attend class. College funding is independent of student attendance unlike K-12 schools, which lose money each day or period a student is absent. 

It may seem completely unnecessary to consider the issue of attendance in college instruction, but whether a student is present or absent may have real consequences for the quality of instruction in many college classes.  In this week’s GTC meeting, we discussed the issue of attendance in college classes and the consequences that can arise when attendance is mandatory.

We opened the discussion by sharing some of our own experiences regarding student attendance. We noted that most classes do not take role in the traditional manner of calling a name and waiting for a response. That may be done in smaller classes during the first week, especially as part of an icebreaker activity or as a way for the instructor to learn the names of the students. In large lecture classes, checking attendance in this way is completely impractical. But, attendance may be recorded by asking questions that the students answer using clickers. Their responses are recorded and the instructor can determine after class who was there. Finally, we noted that some classes have strict attendance policies during the first week of class. For example, many labs require students attend the first class and if they do not, they are dropped from the class. Also, some instructors may be reluctant to admit a student to class if they miss the first week of instruction. 

Our opening conversation segued into a discussion of when attendance should be mandatory. Classes with group work, lab classes, discussion sections, or performance art sessions were all considered classes that should have mandatory attendance. The common thread among those classes is the fact that the work cannot be done outside of class or at a later date. In classes with group activities, the group members can be enlisted to monitor and encourage attendance; group members can evaluate each other and students who do not attend will receive poor evaluations that will ultimately influence their final grade.

When attendance is mandatory (whether to a specific class or to all classes), several issues can arise. First, the absence can be considered excused or unexcused. In some courses, proof (e.g., a doctor’s note) is needed for an absence to be excused. Some schools have official policies regarding the number of absences that can be excused. Student-athletes are usually given excused absences when they participate in school events. (However, there are cases of athletes colluding to get more time to study for an exam by claiming they had a game on the day the exam was scheduled.) If the instructor is given discretion to decide whether an absence is excusable, the student’s privacy should be taken into consideration.  A student may not want to divulge much personal information. One person pointed out that she has a policy of one absence per quarter with no questions asked. From the TA’s perspective, that removes much of the hassle (no need to question the student or ask for proof), and students appreciate the flexibility it provides.

Another issue that can arise when attendance is mandatory is how make up work is handled. Some classes may be impossible to make up and the instructor may need to assign an alternate assignment. Some lab classes offer students a chance to make up the class at the end of the week, before everything is set up for the next week.

Also, making attendance mandatory may have negative consequences on student motivation and the classroom atmosphere. Students who don’t really want to be in class may become a distraction to others. As TAs, we have all seen students texting and goofing around on the Internet. One person even mentioned that she’s seen students making out in the back of the class! Clearly, that can be a major distraction and it might be better for everyone if they aren’t in class. 

Finally, we raised the question of what happens when attendance is rewarded with points. That could inflate grades slightly and it may be unnecessary because students who show up tend to do better anyway. Also, it may send the wrong message that just by showing up you can be rewarded.  

We ended our meeting by going over a few suggestions for dealing with attendance. First, we said the policy should be determined beforehand and it should be clear and stated in the syllabus (if possible). Second, you should check with the university to see what the policies are regarding reporting absences. Some universities have mandatory attendance and a system for reporting absences. Third, we said that we should acknowledge that the students are adults and life happens. Finally, the instructor should determine how to handle make up work for each assignment at the beginning of the quarter. By being proactive and planning ahead, a policy can be developed that is fair and the instructor does not need to scramble when something arises. 

What is your experience dealing with attendance in class? If you have a hardline approach to attendance, how have you made it work? Add your comments below!