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This blog was started as my reflections on the 2011 Change MOOC. It is now an on going journal of my thoughts on Higher Education, specifically teaching Biology.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 1)

As I finish inputting grades for the minimester Freshmen Learning Community, I've been thinking about the Affordance and Limitations of Grading module for #beyondlettergrades.  The module asks us to look at a syllabus, but what I really want to do is a look back at my teaching and how I've viewed grades; a retrospective as it were.

I started teaching after finishing my Masters of Science degree in 1993.  My Master's experience was HORRIBLE.  The one ray of light was that I loved teaching labs.  I got a job at Darton College in Albany, GA.  At the time, it was a two year community college, and I loved it (I think my love of teaching Freshman came from there).

As with most science teachers, I had no formal training in education save for the experience I gained from good and bad professors.  I was in my early twenties, and a little out of my depths.  My chair, who was a biologist, gave me their syllabi and copies of their tests.  No homework assignments, just tests.  Three tests and a final to be precise.  My chair also coached me a little, and would observe my progress over the next few years.  I did exactly what I had gone through:  lecture, test, lecture, test.  Over the years I started to change things up.  I built PowerPoints (new technology at that time), animations, and even HTML and Hyperstack based quizzes. 

The most amazing thing about Darton College was the president.  Dr. Peter Sireno was above the curve when it came to vision.  He was eager for us to embrace new instructional technology.  I always felt the campus to be an encouraging place to experiment with education.  During my time there, I was even given the opportunity to go to a series of digital training workshops sponsored by the GA Board of Regents (our higher ed governing body).  Unlike most administrators I've known since, Dr. Sireno would listen to us when we talked about the benefits and drawbacks of instructional tech.  If we said something didn't work, he wouldn't push it.  Instead, he would let us look for other options.  (Of course, I know that some colleges from back then will have different impressions.  For me, it was an encouraging environment).

It was during that time that I started experimenting with different ways of assessing students.  In the end, exams were still the mainstay, but I was branching out.  I tried quizzes, worksheets, and projects.  As reference, the main classes I taught were Anatomy & Physiology and Microbiology for nursing students.  I had great success during October when students would buy a cheap skeleton and build muscles on it.  Still, the main focus of the class was lecture.  I was still clinging to the idea that if I did not address all of the topics, the students would not feel they needed to learn it.
In 2000, I left to finish my Doctorate.  My head was clearing from my Masters degree, and I found I wanted to do research again.  I still loved teaching, but decided to finish this degree.  While completing my doctorate, I helped some of the faculty with instructional technology.  I built online quizzes for labs as well as tutorials.  After my doctorate, they needed someone to take over a class, so I agreed to come on board as a PTI.  This quickly changed to visiting lecturer, and then I got a job as an academic professional (Faculty/Administrative) in charge of microbiology and genetics lectures/labs (really it is the labs, but I work with the lectures to make sure we're all on the same page). 
When I first started, I wanted to bring new ideas to the classroom.  Nothing extreme, but I had the students do quizzes before lecture based on their reading (heck, I wanted them to read).  The first semester was difficult.  It was Anatomy and Physiology, and I didn't lecture.  I started the class seeing if they had questions about their reading.  We went from there (OK, only three students ever had questions).  Half the students were not doing the quizzes, even though the online assessments were a significant part of their class.  They were not interested in actual cases, and even when I did lecture on difficult topics, most people slept.  It was heart breaking, but an instructive lesson.  Every semester I adapted, altering assignments, altering feedback systems, changing lecture modes.

At this point, I should mention a few things.  I started using digital presentations back in the 90's.  I even taught a Continuing Ed series on Power Point.  I even did informal experiments where I would use Power Points in one class, but the chalk board and overhead acetates in another.  I realized that PowerPoint dumbed down my students.  If I gave them the slide ahead of time, they zoned out.  If they had to copy them in class, they stopped listening.  The classes were I didn't use PowerPoint always did better.  I only use PowerPoint now for images/art/cartoons, and that is so I don't have to draw out every structure.


The second thing are clickers.  Back in the 90's we did a number of things that involved clickers.  Heck, one classroom was rigged so that there were buttons on the desks that corresponded to A-E.  Even when I started teaching again in 2005, I used analog systems (e.g., index cards)to do classroom polls.  I HATE THEM.  I HATE CLICKERS.  Yes, I said it.  I have yet to get meaningful results back from students; instead, I've found that they focus on the question, and not the concept.  Most are utterly confused when they see a different example of the same concept.  It just goes hand in hand with all multiple choice:  the answer is here, just pick it.  I've had better luck getting them talking about the concept, and then letting them dissect the examples.

A moment about multiple choice:
I realized a while back that I want to train my students, not just in the discipline material, but in being successful.  Most of the courses I teach have either a large number of pre-nursing (pre-allied health) or pre-medical students.   Both groups have to take multiple choice pre-professional exams.  Most of these students don't know how to effectively take multiple choice tests.  Yes, they have done them for years, but do they do it effectively?  No.  They make common mistakes, like comparing answers to each other and not the question, or more importantly, they don't read the question.  Multiple choice for me is a chance to help them learn where they make mistakes on "objective" tests (NOTE:  I really don't think they are all that objective...we just say it to make ourselves feel better).


At Georgia State University, I continued to "experiment".  I made the labs I teach writing intensive, and in most cases rapid turn around (nursing and med schools are brutal...finish a clinical and have 10 page paper ready the next day).  My "lecture" classes had a large number assignments for the students, and I was regularly marked down on end of the semester student feedback for "expecting too much" or "being hard."  My goals for my students evolved during this time:  Instead of teaching them, I wanted to help them be better learners.

In 2010, I started to hear about MOOCs, and started to join some of the ones being offered.  I slowly but surely kept changing things in class.  #change11 changed everything, and it was during 2011 that I yanked the bandage off my classes and changed everything.  They are still a work in progress, but I am far happier with the outcomes.  Happily, our administration (especially our Provost, Dr. Rita Palm), was very supportive of faculty exploring new methods.  We even have a "Digital Champions" program to help encourage people to break out of the old school instructional box.

In 2012, our system changed our LMS to D2L.  I had been exposed to D2L, and was initially happy with the switch.  Then I discovered that our system was using the old D2L (not the current), and had either not purchased or locked down the functions I was happy about.  I frequently say that the current LMS has pushed us back a decade.  I had established external portals before the switch, and have returned.  One lesson learned:  Bureaucrats who don't involve educators can seriously screw up educational innovations. 

In the next blog, I'm going to look at a syllabus from 2006 and my current one.
If you're interested in some of what I'm doing, you can visit my course portal at:
www.bologsu.us/BOLO