Wednesday, October 10, 2012

BlendKit 2012 Week 3: Assessments

This week, the readings and conversation in the BlendKit course focused on the issue of assessment, that is, evaluation of student performance/mastery of content.  My hybrid course is a very large one, without discussion sections, so the majority of the grade is made up of midterm exams.  I give 3 midterm exams, about 4 weeks apart; and then an exam during the finals period that covers the content since the third midterm + a written analysis of an ethical case study.  These exams and writing assignment comprise 90% of the final grade.  The additional 10% is attendance taken via i>clicker on days when we are doing ethical analysis in class.

One thing in the reading jumped out at me, and I wanted to respond to it in detail.  I realize that my response might me somewhat controversial and I welcome comments that take issue with my stance.  One of the suggestions in the reading was that we instructors design courses that "avoid a 'high stakes' environment that sets students up for cheating/failure."  Here's the thing: I think a very big part of my job is precisely to create this sort of environment for them, and teach them how to navigate it (including how to avoid succumbing to the temptation to cheat and how to manage failure).  If my students don't learn these skills in college, they are going to go out into the world and be confronted with high stakes environments, where a lot is on the line, and have no coping mechanisms, no skills for managing that level of stress.  Employers will then turn around and say that colleges and universities aren't preparing students for the workplace.

Now, I am a big advocate of doing everything in my power to set students up for success: give them as many tools as possible to master the course content and practice analysis/application; make my expectations for the exam as clear as possible; hold review sessions and otherwise be available for meetings.  But my students are adults and they need to learn some basic life skills, among which are how to manage high stakes situations without breaking down or cheating.  Cheating, in particular, is rampant.  But the solution is not to remove the incentive so long as we can control the environment enough to catch them when they do cheat.  I understand why it makes sense to offer lots of low stakes assessments in large online classes--it may reduce the incentive to cheat on any particular assessment.  But my students are taking exams in a classroom with proctors.  We also talk about why the ethics of cheating, why cheating is a moral wrong and who gets harmed by it.  If at all possible--and it *is* possible in a hybrid class--I want them to confront the temptation to cheat and be able to rationalize for themselves why it is wrong.  I know that they are going to face the same temptations in their real, post-college lives and I want them to be ready to cope.

Learning how to fail is another key life skill (see this essay from Inside Higher Ed on the importance of teaching failure).  It's also one that most of my students don't have when they arrive at UT, thanks to our infamous "Top 10%" rule.  Most of them got here because they clawed their way to the very top of their high school classes.  They avoided doing anything that would risk lowering their GPA, they fretted about grades.  Failure meant that they might not get into the college of their choice, the family alma mater.  Failure had seemingly huge stakes.  They fear it, as if it were a monster looming under their bed waiting to devour them.  They arrive at UT and, for the first time, they might fail an exam.  Or get a B.  They freak out, they blame the TAs, they claim that the grading was too nit-picky (aka we wanted precise answers to precise questions).  These are kids who have no idea how to handle not getting an A (or, in some cases, an A+).  Part of my job is to absorb their shame, their fear, their attempt to lay responsibility at some other doorstep and to force them to dig in, work harder, and realize that failing (however they define that) is not the end of the world.  In fact, what matters is persistence.  When they fail (by their standards), it gives me a chance to teach them about the value of persistence.  And we adults all know that it is persistence that is so closely related to professional success, not perfectionism.

I have not tried to integrate online assessments into my class.  I can imagine, in some future iteration, doing something like a weekly quiz instead of midterms.  I am hoping to be able to create a purely online version of my class, which would certainly use weekly, randomized quizzes in place of midterms.  I would also try to make use of auto-scoring software (though, for humanities, there are still a lot of kinks to be worked out on that front).  I am teaching this class again in spring 2013 and fall 2013.  I am thinking that, in the fall, I might add low stakes weekly quizzes in addition to the midterms.  I also like the idea of student-generated questions.  I might even start accepting those for my course this semester. 

No comments:

Post a Comment