Friday, October 19, 2012

Student Resistance and "Cram for the Exam"

The students in my Intro to Ancient Rome class had their first midterm on the 26th of September.  Overall, the performance was very strong.  The median grade was about 87.  About 2/3 of the class got As and Bs.  Interestingly, though, there was some not insignificant amount of grumbling after we returned the exams.  The grumbling focused on the short answer portion of the exam, specifically on the fact that we deducted points on the short answer portion of the exam because they didn't include important details in their answers.  The reasons for the grumbling seem to be multiple: first, (my fault) the graders deducted points from the number possible rather than giving them the number they earned.  We spent a lot of time justifying deductions because they were working from the assumption that they started out with 5 points, not 0.  Second, (again my fault) I didn't practice short answer questions with them so they could see what it meant for them to be graded by a rubric and could see the level of precision that we were expecting.  Third, they worked really hard for the first part of the course, staying on top of the video viewing and being able to take advantage of the in class practice.  They felt that all this hard work should give them an A and were discouraged when it really earned them an A- or a B+ (or, in some cases, a 96 instead of a 99).  I also think that part of the issue was the number of points that each question was worth.  For various reasons, I reduced the total number of questions but made them worth more points.  This meant that even small details ended up being worth 1.5-2 points.  That struck them as a lot to lose for such a small detail.  But it was really an artifact of the shorter exam. 

More surprising to me, however, was the complete change in learning behavior following the first midterm.  Up to the first midterm they had been energetic, engaged, clearly staying on top of the material, and sharp.  After the first midterm, they hit a major slump.  At first, I thought that the issue was feeling upset about their grades on the exam (although they were very high, perhaps these were students who all thought that they would get an A just by studying?).  After several more weeks of observation, however, I realize that the problem is more complex and more banal: these are students who have survived and thrived by "cramming for the exam."  Given the different model of learning before the first exam, they were unsure what to expect and so did what was asked of them in terms of keeping up week to week.  But once they realized that the exams were normal and even not very hard (because of how they had prepared...), they lapsed.  Like addicts, they fell back into the familiar behavior once they felt more comfortable and once the pressures of their other classes and commitments hit them.  Since the first midterm, only about 25-30% of them come to class prepared; the i>clicker response accuracy dropped by about 25%.  And, overall, I find myself doing more of the talking because so few of them know anything.  Peer instruction is more difficult because there aren't enough of them who are prepared and can teach their peers (and the class is so large that I can't know who is prepared and who isn't so that I might pair them up more effectively).  All in all, I'm disappointed and frustrated.

I will write in more detail about student resistance to the flipped model in another post.  Clearly, that is part of what is happening here.  More precisely, it's student resistance to working hard; and resistance to not being in total control of the pace of their learning.  It's not actually that they find the in class activities useless (though they surely aren't that enjoyable if you are utterly unprepared and three weeks behind).  Rather, it's that they want to learn on their schedule, not mine.  And, more to the point, they want to stick with what is familiar and comfortable: cramming.  So, they still access the videos--it's just that now they are accessing the prerecorded videos as well as the recordings of class sessions during this week before the exam.  Instead of seeing a steady pace of access, there's a big spike.  Before the first midterm, we saw a big spike, but it was students who were reviewing.  This time, it's going to be students watching for the first time.  Some will likely try to get by using the elaborate study guides constructed by some of their more ambitious classmates.

I've learned a lot in these three weeks: first, my spring class will have weekly "small stakes" assessments and then probably two midterms, both of the cumulative (so that the students can see the relationship between the weekly work and the cumulative exams).  Second, I won't "require" attendance.  I will let them decide what they think is best for them.  Something I am learning is that some/many undergraduate students fully believe that they know what is best for them and will not listen to facts and reason and data.  They dig in their heels and moan and vent, usually on Facebook where they pollute the environment for the rest of the class.  I am there to teach anyone who want to learn.  But if a student truly believes that s/he can learn better on his/her own, I am happy to give them that opportunity.

These past few weeks have given me a lot to think about on the subject of student learning and my role in that process.  I have struggled to understand why they reverted back to old habits after using the flipped model to do so well on the first exam.  I have struggled to figure out how to manage the emerging student resistance to the flipped class model and the extra work it brings.  Most of all, I have struggled to accept that some students just don't care about learning--and that nothing I say or do is going to get them to care.  They just want to check off a box on their way to a diploma, and want a grade that will help their GPA.  I have thought long and hard about what to do next.  First, of course, I will see how this second exam goes (I'm concerned).  Then I will take a day of class to revisit the flipped model, my impressions thus far, and ask them for comments on their experiences.  I will validate their discomfort and acknowledge that I am asking them to do something difficult. I will also offer them the opportunity to "opt out" for the last month of the semester.  I am curious to see how many will do so, and I'm curious to see how that will correlate with their performance in the course.

I still believe in the flipped classroom and I know that it can drastically improve learning.  I know that many of my students are having an excellent experience and appreciate how deeply they are able to engage with the course material.  Still, it's discomforting to confront the reality that there are others who hate the flipped class, who don't want to be taken out of their comfort zones.  Even more, it's discomforting to realize that, until the flipped class becomes the norm (or at least more pervasive) on my campus, I will always be fighting against this inclination of students to cram for exams.  I can't blame them, either: it's exactly what I did as an undergraduate.

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