F is for midterm

We’re a little past midterm and I wanted to give an update on my optics course where I’m trying and SBG portfolio approach.

A quick refresher:

  • Every day is a different standard
    • “I can explain what plane waves are”
  • Each day I assign 3 rich problems (some from the book, some I make up)
  • Each day has a quiz on a random problem from the last 2 days
  • For the oral exams students bring in their portfolio of problems, I randomly select one and ask follow up questions on it.

Midterm grades weren’t great. The most common grade was an F. I feel like crap about that. I just wanted to write about what’s been going on to help me reflect.

First the good news: I like the structure. The three problems every day help me really flesh out what I think is important and provide focus for what we do in class. I like a lot of the book problems but it’s fun to make up my own at times to (I really did use the one about 3D movie glasses that I talked about in the other post). Students come to the oral exams with their portfolios and some have some really great work done on them.

So why so many F’s? Those of you who’ve dabbled with standards-based grading know where they come from: “I can always reassess later.” While I thought knowing that a quiz was upcoming would motivate the students to take an honest stab at the problems between each class, quite often it seems that few have spent much time on them before the quiz. They know they can bomb the quiz and still reassess later. It makes for some pretty depressing quiz scores. Combine that with little pressure to reassess early and you get a bunch of F’s for midterm.

The first set of oral exams (each student does three in a week) was very depressing as well. The most common grade was a zero, which they got if they didn’t have anything in their portfolio for the random problem selected. I made it clear they’d get an immediate zero but that we’d spend the time making sure they knew how to get started on the problem.

I just finished the second week of oral exams (separated from the first by four weeks) and saw many less zeros. I would ask what the chances of a zero were and very few said “zero chance, I’ve got something for every one.” With one student I joked that he was treating the oral exams like a casino. One student only had one he hadn’t done. That’s the number that came up 😦

I talked with many of the students who got F’s and asked if they had a plan. Most had a lot of confidence that they’d pass the course but they realized they needed to start turning in reassessments much more often. While that’s great news, I also hope they start looking at the problems earlier so that the quizzes can be good enough scores to keep them from having to reassess every standard. I asked a lot of them if they were mad at me because of the F’s and no one admitted to that. Most said it was an honest assessment of their turned in work while from several I got the sense that they felt it was a far cry from their internal understanding of the material.

I know from my colleagues’ experience that most of these students will work hard if you give them a hard deadline. My only deadline is the two-week rule that says you have to get in at least a piece of crap for every standard within two weeks of it being activated (talked about in class) or else it’s a zero forever. Most standards have a quiz associated that takes care of that, but the randomness means there’s the occasional standard that doesn’t get quizzed. That’s still a pretty weak deadline compared to my colleagues’ teaching approaches. My dreamer response is that this is a lesson they should learn, but I don’t feel I’m being very successful attaining that goal.

Labs is another place where I’ve realized I have to provide a different style of support. Most labs involve up to an hour of planning, roughly an hour of data collection, and an hour devoted to analysis. What happens in practice often is an hour of planning, an hour of data collection, and everyone leaves. They know that they’ll have 2 weeks to get something in so why would they have to work on the analysis then? I think a few of the students have come to realize that I can be very useful to them during the analysis stage, but if they don’t stick around they’ll have to track me down later. One big mistake I made was to trust them to do the heavy lifting involved in getting up the Mathematica syntax learning curve to do the types of analysis I want (Montecarlo-based error propagation, curve fitting that’s responsive to variable error bars and that produces error estimates on all the fit parameters). Last week when I turned in the midterm grades I sat down and made much better support documents in Mathematica that will help them focus on the physics that needs to be studied in the lab. That’s already paid off quite nicely for a couple of students.

Well, that’s where I sit. I’m a little nervous that I’ve lost the students, though I was heartened by some good conversations with each of them this week. I think the final grades will be much better than the midterms but I’m nervous that their memory of the class will be dominated by the last few weeks of the semester when a bunch of them will be making screencasts 24 hours a day. We’ll see.

Your thoughts? Here are some starters for you:

  • I’m in this class and I gave up weeks ago. What would have really helped was . . .
  • I’m in this class and I see a clear path to success. Here’s how I’m going to do it . . .
  • Why do you put an apostrophe in “F’s”? It’s not possessive is it?
  • Why don’t you put more teeth into your quizzes? Here’s how I would do it . . .
  • Can’t you see that SBG just isn’t the way to go with this class? I can’t believe it’s taking you so long to figure that out.
  • If the students end up hating the class but learn the lesson about keeping up on their work that’s a win for me.
  • If you think that students hating a class could possibly be spun as a positive you’re a worse teacher than I thought you were.
  • Why do you do Montecarlo-based error propagation? It’s clearly getting them into a casino mentality that now you’re wasting our time complaining about.
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About Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist

Professor of physics at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN
This entry was posted in syllabus creation, teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to F is for midterm

  1. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

    Why do you put an apostrophe in “F’s”? It’s not possessive is it?

    From Grammar Girl:
    Why do you put an apostrophe in “F’s”? It’s not possessive is it?

    Making “F” capital means you can eliminate the apostrophe, though it is not INcorrect to leave it in.

  2. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

    Whoops, wrong copied text in the link above.

  3. I had a similar problem in a course I taught last spring. Everything could be reassessed, but then tests weren’t taken seriously and grades were initially very poor.

    This year I am trying a split in which 70% of the grade (homework and quizzes) is reassessable and 30% (tests) are not. Students are taking the tests more seriously, but I’m also seeing the “high stakes” aspect of the tests seemingly causing some students to do worse than I think that they should. It is a tradeoff, and I haven’t yet decided which side I fall on.

  4. bretbenesh says:

    I am busy thinking about similar issues. I have wondered how much of this is that students are young versus that students are in an environment where it is completely rational to put things off until the last minute (“I can reassess later.”).

    For instance, I wonder what would happen with a student who had SBG in every class. Then the student would not need to tend to hard deadlines in other classes before even thinking about reassessing. I would hope that this hypothetical student would diligently work toward standards in each class at a reasonable pace, although I do not claim that this is likely.

    But I wonder if there is a way line up the incentives so that students _want_ to get done with the standards early—perhaps give them less work to do if they demonstrate proficiency within, say, a month of the introduction of the standard. Then the rational student would put more time at the beginning so that there is less work at the end.

  5. Pingback: Wasted 10 minute quiz | SuperFly Physics

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