Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Midterm #1: The No-Cram Exam?

The first midterm for my "stealth-flipped" Intro to Rome class took place yesterday.  I was dreading this first exam, not only because I needed to make sure that the exam itself was more challenging than than one I gave in the fall; but because the 3-4 days before the exam were going to tell me how well my stealth flip was working to encourage a "learn as you go" approach.  It would also tell me a lot about how well I'd done to manage the students' expectations for the exam.  I focused a lot of energy on defusing potential anxieties: I created a short video about the short answer section of the exam (something that they had not done before in the class); the TA who is running Supplementary Instruction sections focused the week's meetings on preparation for the short answer questions; and I gave the students a list of all potential short answer questions and encouraged them to work collaboratively on it as a Google Doc.  I reminded them that the exam questions might be worded differently, but that the questions would test the same content.  I wanted them to focus their energy on study rather than fretting, speculating, and anxiety-posting on Facebook.

I suspect I was more nervous for the exam than some of my students.  In the fall, I could accurately predict class performance on an exam from the lecture viewing data.  The steeper the spike in the 48 hours before the exam, the lower the scores would be.  I felt like I was watching a car crash unfold in a dream, completely helpless to change the course of events. (I wrote about the most spectacular of the two crashes here).  As it turned out, the current class behaved nothing like the fall class.  The weekend passed quietly with few questions posted on Piazza--and all of them legitimate and reasonable questions rather than the "I am too lazy to look this fact up" sort.  Nobody on the teaching team, including me, was inundated with emails.  When I received data about their viewing of pre-recorded and in class lectures, there were no notable spikes.  Throughout the day on Monday, I was waiting for a spike that never came.

Instead, by all appearances, the students were refreshing knowledge that they already knew pretty well; and working through the study tools I provided (practice multiple choice questions for the content not tested by a quiz + potential short answer questions).  Starting on Saturday, they were hard at work on the Google Doc, refining and adding details (and sometimes acting like trolls, but that's a topic for a separate post).  Their behavior suggested that they knew what to expect on the exam and that they were focusing their energy on study rather than anxiety-driven, unproductive speculation.  From what I heard, there wasn't much chatter on FB and Piazza remained almost completely silent throughout the lead-up to the exam yesterday afternoon.

I don't yet know how the students performed on the exam, but I am optimistic.  It was a difficult exam--intentionally so, because I don't want them to get overly confident and then perform poorly on the next exam, which covers much more complex content.  To be honest, I am a bit in shock that--at least so far as the data suggests--the class as a whole was not cramming.  I'm sure some students did cram, but the vast majority clearly did not.  Hopefully, they realized that the weekly quizzes kept them on top of their learning for the class and that preparation for the exam wasn't nearly so stressful because of this regular preparation along the way.  Certainly, their behaviors before and during the exam suggest that, on the whole, they knew what to expect and what to do to prepare.  They clearly felt oriented to the course expectations and understood that it was on them to put in the work to learn.

We are planning to do an exam wrapper after we return the exams next week, primarily to encourage the students to actively reflect on their study and learning process (but also to collect some preliminary feedback about their experience in the course thus far).  I am eager to see what they say, to see if their own sense of their preparation process matches up with my observations of their behavior.  I can say with a lot of confidence that this group approached the midterm in a completely different fashion from the group in the fall.  I won't declare the stealth flip a success until we are deeper into the semester (and until their time management skills are really being challenged).  Nonetheless, it does seem that the combination of weekly quizzes and providing a very long list of potential short answer questions has had a remarkable effect on changing student learning behaviors--and anxiety levels.  Most of all, it lets students who have little experience with learning in the humanities know what to expect and how to study.

I can tell them that it is not possible for 90% of students to do well in my course with a "cram for the exam" approach until I am blue in the face, but everyone wants to believe they are in the select 10% who *can* learn this way.  This false belief has been reinforced repeatedly during their secondary and even post-secondary education.  As well, many (most?) of them lack the time management skills to discipline themselves to learn regularly even if they know better unless a grade is not involved.  It is absolutely fascinating to me to see that, by creating an assessment structure that rewards a "learn as you go" approach; making a very big effort to orient the students in the class; and training them in the methods of learning in a humanities/history course, I am seeing significant and positive changes in their behaviors and (so it seems) attitude.  Knock on wood.

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