Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Midterm #3: A New Record

My Rome students made a significant contribution to a new record for number of views of Echo recordings on a single day.  Unsurprisingly, the day they set this record was the day before the third midterm.  I wasn't surprised.  After the second midterm and in part in response to a lot of grumbling from students that they didn't find class a good use of their time (unsurprising since 75% of them were unprepared and so unable to really participate in the various polls and discussions), I decided to make attendance optional.  I expected a big drop off: November is a very busy month for students (and faculty) and they knew that everything for the Rome class was available on demand.  In fact, most days saw about 25% of the enrolled students in class.  It was largely the same students who came for every class (not coincidentally, several of these same students have test averages over 100).

I wasn't that surprised that students decided not to come to class.  When I recorded my lectures last fall, attendance dropped to about 30% of the class most days.  I wouldn't say that there was a significant difference between the two cohorts in this respect.  If given the opportunity, a lot of students will opt not to come to class, regardless of what is happening in the classroom (lecture or review/discussion).  This semester I saw very clearly just how poorly most of my students manage their time; and the depths of their denial about how much work they have to do to catch up.  When I offered the attendance "opt out", I expected that 70-75% would take it.  But I also expected that most of them would view the recordings of class at some point, perhaps even regularly.  In this respect, I was completely deluded.  While I don't have data from last fall showing me WHEN the students viewed the recordings of class lectures, I do have it for this semester.  What I saw was disheartening.  Despite repeated warnings not to save everything for the last few days; and despite being told repeatedly that 90% of the exam questions were taken from the material covered in class (about 50% are taken word for word), they apparently did no work whatsoever for 2.5 weeks and then attempted to cram everything in at the end.

I have a handful of altruistic students who have made a number of different study aids intended to help students review the lectures.  They also collect all the iclicker questions from class.  I am sure that many students skimmed the posted PPTs of lectures and then went to these study aids.  But, in various ways, these study aids were insufficient (notably, they didn't include images of architecture, which played an important role in the last third of the class).  The exam was on the Monday before Thanksgiving.  Starting on Wednesday, I received daily updates of the viewing stats; and over the weekend I received them every 12 hours.  As expected, they skyrocketed in the 24 hours before the exam.  Also as expected, many of the students did not make it through the entire list of assigned lectures.  This ended up causing them a lot of problems since the short answer portion of the exam put more emphasis on the later lectures (I wrote the exam before seeing these stats and had done this in part because I assumed that these would be easier questions for everyone, and especially for those who had been in class).

The stats for this exam aren't really comparable to previous cohorts because I also had a reasonably large group of students who were earning As or Bs blow it off (I allow them to count their lowest midterm for 5%--something I won't do again).  But, overall, the performance on the exam was dismal.  Typically, students score about 10 points higher on this exam than on the second midterm.  This group actually scored lower on this third midterm.  The reasons for this poor performance were apparent from their learning habits.  As several of them have subsequently explained to me, they had exams for their "important" classes (calculus, chemistry, computer science, etc.) during the same period and so put the Rome class on the "back burner".  Interestingly, though, they think that the problem is that the class is too hard, not that perhaps they should accept the consequences of not keeping up in a reasonably demanding class.

If I ever had any doubts about my plan to overhaul the assessment structure for future cohorts, they were laid to rest when I watched the train wreck that was the third midterm.  I also realized that I will never be successful in changing student learning habits by talking to them and trying to reason with them.  I have to simply put a structure in place that gives them constant feedback and forces them to engage or drop the class.  If I don't want them to cram for midterm exams, I need to put less weight on midterm exams and start attaching grades to their daily assignments.  Many of my students come from the natural sciences, engineering, vel sim.  They are used to doing daily homework.  It will be a change for them to do that in a large enrollment, humanities class, but I think they will settle into the habit relatively fast.  One of the biggest lessons of this semester has been that students will repeatedly make bad decisions if the negative consequences of those decisions are not immediately apparent.  In some sense, they WERE apparent when they came to class and couldn't engage, but their response was to devalue the classroom experience rather than to change their behavior. 

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