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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.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Affordance & Limitation of Letter Grades (Part 2)

As part of the affordance & limitation of letter grades module (#beyondlettergrades), I'm spending some time comparing one of my old syllabi with a more current one.  Both syllabi come from BIOL 2107 - Principles of Biology I.  The course is intended for individuals majoring in biology or working on requirements for Pre-Med.  Though many don't get it until it is too late, students really need to get an A in this class if you have hopes of going to Med school (this is from our Pre-Med advisory board and talking to Med school admissions).  More important than the grade is the idea that this is a foundational class for all of our other biology courses.  The material that students are exposed to will appear again in every course they take, and I have had far too many seniors that did not remember the basics reviewed in this course.
I mentioned the grade because this is a driving force for students that want to get into medical school.  They will take easier classes, get good grades at first, but then over their undergrad, they start having problems with higher level classes.  One of my goals for about five years is to work on ways of getting them to stop focusing on grades, and instead focus on learning.  But 40 can't tell 20, and 20 won't understand until their 40.  (so I started tricking them).

The first syllabus is from 2007 Spring Semester.  The document is a PDF in Google Docs with public access.  It was originally a single web page that was loaded into our LMS (hence some strange format issues).

As a state school, there are a number of things we have to put into our syllabi.  Not everyone put them in, but over the last few years there has been a concerted effort by the administration to make sure all required areas are in the document.  One area that is required are the "Course Learning Objectives".  Most of these I got from other instructors, and some I decided upon.  The issue though is that they really never directed the course, for me or the colleagues I talked with about the course.  Instead, we just tried to make it through all of the chapters of the textbook that were assigned for this class (about 25 chapters).  The textbook is a TOME.

About four years ago, I realized that the textbooks for general biology had become unwieldy.  They were reference books, not instructional books.  Everyone crams too much in without regard for what is critical for students to learn; hence my renaming them as reference books instead of textbooks.  What got me more though as the idea that I was letting a publisher (who may not even have a degree in biology) decide what was important to teach students.

Students see course objectives as meaningless, because teachers have a tendency to down play them.  Each semester, I've asked students if they ever look over then.  I'm no longer surprised when they say no.  As for this 2007 syllabus, the learning objectives play no role in how the students will be assessed.

Next stop is with the class policies.  The first is about assignments (think mini-papers), and you will see No Late Assignments Are Accepted.  Of course, this is tempered with reason.  If someone is sick for three weeks (and it has happened), then I'll work with them.  The one thing I don't work with is someone waiting until the last minute.  Should make a note here:  our campus assumption is that all students have access to the internet.  It is part of the student handbook that they can either use private access or school access (many computer labs).  Even in 2007, internet access was not a problem.

I've come to realize that for many educators, the idea of work at your own pace has become important.  One problem I have with that concept is that we also need to train people to be successful.  Most of these students want to either be in medical school or research.  Medical doctors don't have the luxury of waiting a few weeks before they get a patients file over to a hospital for a critical surgery (with the doctor's notes on the patient).  If you do research with industry, your on a time line.  If a meeting is called, and your suppose to show results, then you need to quickly make a presentation about those results.  I always give time limits on assignments in order to help them learn to work in what can be high pressure fields.  

Next comes the exams, and you will find that there is a cut off for when you can start the exam.  This policy was based on a few ideas: 1) I don't want to give out an exam after people start leaving the exam, and 2) you don't get to come late to a pre-professional exam. 

(I've been trying to finish this post for nearly six days, so I'm going to jump down to the grade breakdown)  The grade distribution is based on a 1000 point scale that is easily converted to a percentage system.

25% of the grade is determined by their lab.  The lab is taught by Graduate Teaching Assistants, and is coordinated by a separate faculty member.  I have little say in the grade that is given to me regarding their lab performance (and little to no influence over the lab).  When it comes down to performance in my class, it counts as 75% of the grade.

Three exams constitute 30% of the grade, so 10% of the grade is determined by a single exam.
The final exam counts for 20% of the grade, so exams in general count for 50% of the grade.

25% of the grade is determined by formative assessments and projects, with 18% of this counting for pre-lecture quizzes.  These are online quizzes that students take prior to the topic section, and are meant to gauge the students understanding of their reading (they get to take the quiz multiple times, and the highest is kept).

I kept looking at how I was designing the course, and how I was assessing the students.  One big question I had on my mind was: "what do I want these students to look like when they finish my class?"  In other words, where do I want their competencies (this was a thought that finally matured when reading over information from the Bologna Accords and the participating in a Lumina Degree Qualification Profiles evaluation).

My next post is regarding my current syllabus, and the transformations that have taken place.