Tag Archives: College Life

Discussion thread: Student responsibilities

I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the following statement about responsibilities in college:

In college, it’s the student’s responsibility to initiate requests for help on assignments, and it’s the instructor’s responsibility to respond to those requests in a helpful and timely way.

Do you think this statement is true or false? If false, could you modify it so that it’s true?

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Filed under Education, Life in academia, Student culture, Teaching

Course evaluations: The more, the merrier

This post at ProfHacker reminded me to write about something I’m trying this semester in my calculus classes (the only freshman-level class I have right now). I’m giving not one but four course evaluations during the semester. I’ve given midterm evaluations on occasion in the past, but it seemed to me that even twice a semester isn’t really enough. So, I’m giving evaluations at the end of the third, sixth, ninth, and twelfth weeks of the semester.

The first three of these are informal and very loosely structured. They each have three basic questions:

  1. What do you LOVE about this course?
  2. What do you HATE about this course?
  3. If you could change ONE THING about this course, what would it be?

The 6- and 9-week evaluations have two additional questions: What’s changed for the BETTER since the last evaluation? and What’s changed for the WORSE since the last evaluation? In week 12, students will do the official college evaluation for my course which has all the usual questions on it that probably are found anywhere.

To give credit where it’s due, I stole this idea from Eric Mazur in his book Peer Instruction: A User’s Manual, wherein he steals it again from another professor at UC Berkeley. I modified the idea and form so it works for a series of evaluations rather than just a one-time evaluation. I really like the questions, even though they’re loaded and ambiguous, because the elicit only the one or two most strongly-held opinions about the course from students rather than a laundry list of minutiae or slogans that often show up on written evaluations. When you bring students to the point, the things they often complain about the most are not things that they really feel all that strongly about — certainly not strongly enough to call it “hate”. Similarly for “love”. It’s easy to write about nice little things that happen in a class, but students aren’t often asked to reflect on what they “love” about a class.

We’re about to start the eighth week of the semester, so I’ve already given the first two of these evaluations. I posted them as a questionnaire on the course Moodle site and let students fill in their responses over a Friday-Monday period. They were not required to do so, but I ended up with nearly 100% participation. What’s been great about the results is the change in the responses from week 3 to week 6.

In week 3, the responses were all over the place. The students — mostly freshmen, some of them still unpacking from moving-in day — loved a lot and hated a lot. About half the class loved the technology focus of my class. The other half hated it and wanted it all gone. Many students hated that I wasn’t collecting homework from the book and grading it, hated that the class didn’t consist entirely of examples being worked on the board for them and that the tests weren’t exactly like the homework, and so on — in other words, they felt strongly about how the class was going, but it sounded a lot more like the ongoing struggle to cope with college intellectual culture than it did a serious beef with me or my teaching.

I took the results from the week 3 evaluation and discussed them with our associate dean, who works with faculty on teaching issues, to get his perspective on things. After we met, I blocked off 25 minutes — half a class — before the week 6 evaluations to debrief the students on their responses. The responses on Moodle were anonymous, so I just put them all up on the screen for students to see. This allowed students to see two complementary things: That some of the things they thought everybody hated were really just issue that they alone had, and that some of the things they thought they were alone in loving were actually shared by others. The anti-tech faction saw that there was a significant pro-tech faction, and vice versa, and so the notion of abolishing all technology and using only pencil and paper (one of the actual “one things you’d change” repsonses) became suddenly complicated. During this debriefing session, I showed them some of the things I’d done to respond to the things to change that made sense to change, and I made my case for not changing the things that didn’t make sense to change.

After the week 6 evaluation, it was clear I hadn’t made everybody happy, but the “love” section of the evaluation almost doubled in size, and the “hate” section was about half its previous size — and consisted in large part of the response “I don’t really hate anything about this course”. Given that it’s freshman calculus and I have a reputation, well-deserved, for being a hard professor, that’s kind of shocking. The statements in the “hate” or “change” section that were substantive took on a different tone: Instead of “We should stop using WeBWorK!” it because “I wish WeBWorK weren’t so hard to use.” Through this reflection and evaluation process, and my responses and ongoing conversation related to it, students are refining their ideas about what they like and dislike about a course.

These shifts are crucial for getting students to think clearly on the official evaluation of the course, which is coming up in week 12. I’m not guaranteed to get all-positive evaluations, but I think that after three practice rounds of informal evaluations, after each of which I demonstrate my seriousness in listening to their concerns and doing things about the stuff that can or should be changed, students should be able to write on the official evaluations in a serious, mature, and meaningful way — rather than latching onto one little thing in the course that bugs them and turning it into a wholesale rant, or letting feelings get the better of their judgment.

This entire process is just an example of using both formative and summative evaluations in a class, which is a mirror of the kinds of assessments we should be giving students. The formative part — my informal evaluations — let the students act as “spotters” for the course while it’s developing and running its course. The summative part — the official evaluation — is for students to look back over the entire course and evaluate it. I think that without at least one, preferably two or three, formative evaluations, it’s hard for novice learners like (most) college freshmen to know how to write a good summative evaluation.

I’m tenured, so I’m only doing this to make my students’ learning experience better. If you’re not tenured, this kind of formative-summative evaluation scheme is even more important. Having been on my college’s Promotion and Tenure Committee for five years now, I can definitely say that evaluations of a single course don’t usually provide much meaningful data. It’s the changes from one course to the subsequent ones that matter. Every instructor is going to have one course every now and then that just doesn’t work out, and the evaluations are miserable. The question that the P&T committee has is: What did that faculty member do about it? Did the same complaints crop up over and over again? Or was there some effort expended to address the issue (if the issue is worth addressing)? By giving multiple evaluations in a semester, faculty get the chance to scale the multiple-evaluation process down to fit within a single semester rather than across semesters.

Do you have a similar experience doing something like this? How did it go?


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Filed under Education, Higher ed, Life in academia, Profhacks, Tenure

You can’t become an expert in college

Cover of "Outliers: The Story of Success&...

Cover of Outliers: The Story of Success

Here’s something of an epiphany I had at the ICTCM while listening to Dave Pritchard‘s keynote, which had a lot to do with the differences between novice and expert behaviors in problem-solving.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, puts forth a now-famous theory that it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a true expert in a particular area, at the top of one’s game in a particular pursuit. That’s 10,000 hours of concentrated work in studying, practicing, and performing in some particular area. When we talk about “expert behavior”, we mean the kinds of behaviors that people who have put in their 10,000 hours exercise as second nature.

Clearly high school or college students who are in an introductory course — even Dave Pritchard’s physics students at MIT, who are likely several levels above the typical college undergrad — are not there yet, and so there’s not a uniform showing of expert behavior. There are more hours to be put in. But: How many more?

On the one hand, if a person spends 40 hours a week working at this activity, for 50 weeks out of the year, then it will take 5 years to reach this level of expertise:

(10000 hours) x (1 week/40 hours) x (1 year/50 weeks) = 5 years

But on the other hand, a typical college student will carry a 16 credit hour load, which means 16 hours of courses per week. If the student does this over a 14-week semester, and if the student takes the standard advice of spending 2 hours outside of class for every hour inside of class, and if the student undergoes two semesters of classes every calendar year, how long does it take to get to 10000 hours?

10000 hours x (1 week/48 hours) x (1 semester/14 weeks) x (1 year/2 semesters) = 7.44 years

That’s fairly close to double the usual time it takes for people to earn a bachelor’s degree. And it assumes that all that coursework is concentrated into one area, which of course it isn’t.

So there’s an important truth here: Nobody can become an expert on something just by going to college. College might add the finishing touches on expertise that was begun in childhood — for example, with kids who start playing music or programming computers at age 6 — but there’s just not enough time in college to start from zero and become an expert.

This has implications for college coursework. Many of us profs have “expertise” in mind as the primary instructional objective of our courses, but this is quite possibly an unreachable goal for most students. Instead, along with reasonable levels of mastery on core subject content, college courses should focus on what students need for the remaining hours they need to get to 10,000. We should be teaching not only content in the here and now, but also processing skills and broad intellectual tools that set students up for success in continuing towards expertise after college is over.

We can’t make students experts in the time we have with them, probably, but we can put them in position to become experts later. Ironically, the harder we try to make experts out of everyone, the less we stress broad intellectual skills, and the less likely they are to become experts later. How are students supposed to continue to learn, practice, and perform to get to that top level if nobody teaches them how to think and learn on their own?

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Filed under Education, High school, Higher ed, Life in academia, Problem Solving, Study hacks, Teaching