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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 3)

In my last post, I discussed my syllabus from a 2007 Principles of Biology I course.  Now I'm turning my attention to my current Principles of Biology I syllabus, and looking at the changes. 

The first change in the syllabus is to rearrange it into a number of easily identifiable web pages.  The goal of this was to help students easily reference sections in the syllabus, and to easily find how they will be assessed.  In terms of looking over the syllabus, I first want to focus on the tab labeled "Instructional Model."

From conferences and workshops, I've heard repeatedly that instructors should be open about how they plan to teach the course.  One aspect of college courses I've come to notice is that we focus a great deal on the material (especially in the sciences), and less on being successful (both in academics and the world).  Many of my students have come from secondary schools burdened by standardized tests and unrelenting oversight, with the result being most have never learned to take notes, study, or more importantly, be active learners.  In many cases, I think the idea of learning was beaten out of them and replaced with the idea that learning is a chore.

While helping my partner study for a leadership course (he had gone back to school for another degree), I came across the idea of situational leadership.  I loved the idea from the moment I read about it, and I could see the idea fit perfectly to the transitional stage that freshmen and sophomores goes through.  I kept reading about the application of this model to business and education, and decided to use it as the model for the class:  trying to help students move from dependent passive learners to independent active learners. (NOTE:  still working the bugs out, but I have to say that students are responding better than I had thought).  Assignments and due dates are all based on getting students to actively engage in the material, hopefully on a daily basis.

Why daily?  The goal of the undergraduate degree is to start thinking in your academic discipline.  For me, biology is a daily activity.  When I watch TV, when I read, heck, even when I eat, I can find my thoughts going to things I've learned or worked on in biology.  What I have found is that our graduate faculty is expecting that our Juniors and Seniors have started to think like biologists.  From what I've gathered from professional schools, they are expecting the same thing.  The problem, I don't see it in my juniors or seniors.  They are still too concerned about the grade.  Thought they don't realize it at first, the instructional model is a trick to get them to start thinking about biology daily.

The "Learning Objective" have become more integral in my course design.  Instead of taking something from another instructor or a publisher, I presented the competencies I wanted the students to have at the end of the semester.  Each of these is ultimately reflected in the assessments.  At the end of the semester, I have to assign grades to the students.  This semester though, I decided to take the learning objectives and instructional model to heart.  No assignment has a letter grade; the assignment is either complete or incomplete.

"Grading" is based on task completion.  The student (now called a Learner in my LMS) is presented with a number of Learning Opportunities or Learning Tasks.  It is now up to them to complete the assignments they want. 

In some categories, like projects and personal development, there are more opportunities than they need.  They get to pick what they want to do.

You will notice that there are exams.  These are multiple choice online assessments to see if they are showing an adequate level of understanding (70% on the exam is what I eventually went with).  It doesn't matter if you got a 71% or a 99%.  Reason:  majority of the time, the student that got over 90% crammed, which means they don't understand the topic later in the semester.  I don't want them to cram, I want them to demonstrate their understanding, their learning.  (As a note:  the milestone papers are due before the milestone exams.  Writing the papers in previous semesters increased exam scores about 10%).

There is a final exam, but unlike most, they have two attempts.  It is a comprehensive final.  If they don't do well on the first, they get a second attempt.  I've done this in previous semesters, and generally most people can pull up the grade.  The few times it does not work, either the student really did not know what was going on (they low balled the semester) or they just could not let go of just memorizing facts (the stated goal was that they should understand the biological process, and not just the chemical or cell names).

A+ has the most stringent requirements.  The A level is achievable by most students. 

Why all the work? 
When you have a job, you are not given a letter grade, and you will be working on multiple projects at the same time.  Part of your yearly evaluation is on what you have accomplished.  Are you known for getting tasks completed?  Are you know for the quality of your work?  Even in professional schools, you have to perform.  The goal is to get them to start working at a higher level, move them to a point where they realize that engaging with material is critical to learning.

So far, the results have been amazing.  I have students tell me that they are actually thinking about things we talk about in class.  When we dealt with metabolism, a student told me she was actually talking about the breakdown of sugar over lunch with friends.  Students are writing forum/discussion responses almost daily, and they are starting to read various levels of articles.  I'm getting more questions in class, and the students seem more engaged.  We are now moving into the guest lecture and case study phase, so I'm eager to see how it works.