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Saturday, December 17, 2005

"Nice lady, but she grades way harsh"*

I spent two hours of my hellish first flight yesterday (well, to be more specific, I spent the one hour we spent parked on the tarmac, and then the first hour of the flight itself) calculating final grades for my afternoon survey class. And . . . they were not so good. I've known all along that it's a weaker class than my morning survey, but nevertheless, as the semester ends, I'm left wondering whether perhaps my grading really IS too hard.

The possibilities, as I see it, are these:
a) the assignments I design and the way I grade them are genuinely too hard or not pitched appropriately for my students' ability levels

b) some of my students don't care enough to do the necessary work, so fuck 'em

c) some of my students are perfectly content with their B-minuses or even C-minuses, and I'm projecting my own undergraduate grade anxiety onto individuals who don't have those same anxieties

d) I'm not adequately conveying my expectations or standards to my students at the outset
I think it's probably a combination of items b, c, and d. I do have students getting As on assignments, and although I only gave course grades in the A range to 4 of my 59 total survey students (3 in my morning survey and 1 in my afternoon survey), 66% of each class got grades between an A and a B-. That span seems quite reasonable to me, and I was fairly generous in calculating those grades, especially when it was just one assignment that destroyed someone's average (I bumped one student up from an F- to a D, two students from Ds to C-minuses, and at least three students from C-pluses to B-minues).

Still, I know there are some individual students in both classes to whom I gave C range grades who have never gotten a C in a class in their major before, and I'm torn between feeling really sympathetic (and bad about being such a meanie!), and feeling really pissed off at them for not sacking up and doing the work.

Since it's obvious to me that not all students--even really good and dedicated ones--can write A papers (and that in a largish survey course, with only two essay assignments, I'm unlikely to be able to help a B- paper writer morph overnight into an A- paper writer), I built in a number of other ways for students to display their abilities. In addition to the midterm and final, 15% of my students' course grade is based on homework/participation, and 15% is based on quiz average.

That's THIRTY PERCENT of a student's grade that should be an easy A or at least B if they're keeping up with the reading and making a couple of comments per class period. But those students who have 50% quiz averages, and who never speak in class? What the hell am I supposed to do with you?

My quizzes, like Bardiac's, are really straightforward: "where does Character X go after doing Action Y?" "what does [literary term I'd written on the board, put on a handout, and discussed in the previous class] mean?" I also typically offer a bonus question, I drop the lowest quiz grade, and I offer two extra-credit assignments that are worth the weight of a quiz apiece. Consequently, I had students in my morning survey with quiz averages ranging from 90%-120%, some of whom were only very indifferent essay writers.

But then there were those others, who bitched about how OBSCURE my questions were, pointing to questions that dealt with, uh, the major actions of a major character in a very short work. Finally I said, look: you do have to study for this class. If your quiz grades aren't what you want them to be, it's probably because you're not allowing yourself enough time to read, and because you aren't taking notes on what you read. You wouldn't take a Chemistry class and think that you could get an A by reading the chapter through once before taking a test. You can't do it in an English class, either.

Manorama and Dr. Crazy have debated the pros and cons of monitoring students through quizzes and the like, and although I'm impressed and inspired by some of the things Mano says about her teaching style, I'm ultimately on Crazy's side (additional exchanges between Mano and Crazy here and here). Like Crazy, I think that part of my job is to teach my students, in a very immediate way, that they have duties and obligations to my class in precisely the same way that they have duties and obligations to their jobs and to their families--it's about helping them to be responsible and successful learners AND responsible and successful adults.

My quizzes are unannounced and can't be made up, which acts as a powerful incentive to attend class regularly (about half of my students are commuters, and at least as many of them work full-time while also attending school full-time). By giving quizzes, I think I'm also showing my students the minimal level of care they have to bring to their reading--which is to say, they have to at least know the main characters and the plot! I'm also ensuring that they're keeping up with the reading, which will be essential to their performance on the midterm and final.

Ultimately, I think that the rather low grades in this class show that I have certain expectations of my students, but I really don't believe that those expectations are too high. What I think I want to do differently next term is to really spell out for my students, on the first day of class, how they should approach this material (which for many of them will be the most challenging and unfamiliar stuff they'll encounter as English majors); why I give quizzes; and what opportunities they have to prove or develop their skills.

Another thing I think I need to change is my general policy of not calling on students who haven't volunteered to speak. In my morning survey, it was rare for 10 seconds to elapse after my asking a question and someone raising a hand. In my afternoon survey, it was quite the other way around, and six students did almost all of the talking. I always dreaded being called on in college, which is why I've been reluctant to do it myself, but the thing is, the questions I ask only gradually build to more complicated and abstract issues. Generally I start with more-or-less factual questions ("let's talk about the place where this story begins--what's it like, and what details do you remember?") or very open-ended ones ("what strikes you as interesting about this passage we just read?"), where I feel the bar is low enough for me to, in the inimitable words of HK, "get Socratic on their asses."

This, I hope, will improve classroom discussion, increase the engagement level of my quieter students, and help out some participation grades along the way. Again, it's about showing my students that I expect something out of them.

I really do believe that most of my students are good and well-intentioned kids, but many of them, if I left them an easy out, would take it. I'm not a Rousseauian. I believe in the improving effects of putting the fear of God into people now and again.

*This is, of course, a quotation from one of my INRU teaching evals.

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link | posted by La Lecturess at 3:53 PM |


Blogger Bardiac commented at 10:59 AM~  

Great post, LL!

I really like your idea of spelling out for your students how they should approach the material. In the past, I've shared my reading notes with students in my first year writing class in order to show them the level of attention to texts I expect, and I think that's helped some of them.

But your comment makes me think I should do that even in upper level classes. The difficulty there, at least for Shakespeare and such, is that my starting notes are all over the place, and then have to be put in a sort of order as teaching notes, so I'm not sure they'd be as useful. I'll have to think about it!

Thanks for the thought provoking post!

Blogger What Now? commented at 11:53 AM~  

Great post indeed. A big adjustment for me in moving from teaching at my Grad School to teaching at St. Martyr's corresponds to your point c: My students now tend not to be aiming for law school or medical school or any of the other things that used to drive my Grad School students crazy with anxiety about getting less than an A. So, for example, I had a student in my office the other day who was just hoping for a B-; that was as high as she was aiming. On the one hand, this attitude is a little discouraging, since it means that students aren't busting their butts to do well in my class. On the other hand, it's been a fabulous relief to have almost no student grade-grubbing, which used to be a regular feature of my days at Grad School.

Congrats on finishing the semester!

Blogger Dr. Virago commented at 7:29 PM~  

You know, I was thinking about writing a post in response to the Crazy and Mano exchange, but you've pretty much written *exactly* what I would've written! Even the details about your quizzes -- bonus questions, dropping the lowest, what you ask, unannounced quizzes as incentive for attendence, etc., etc. -- sound exactly like my quizzes! Weird!

Anyway, in my classes, especially my Chaucer class, comprehension is so key that I think quizzing on plot points is actually really important, even at the college level, because they're reading Middle English for the first time. (In my other classes, a few things are in ME, but most is in translation.) And I also give passages and ask about the meanings of otherwise ordinary English words spelled in ME ways (which sometimes trip them up and lead to misreadings), all of which sounds rather elementary, but is an important part of learning to read closely, which my students, like yours, need to be taught.

I especially thought "hear, hear Lecturess" when you said: You wouldn't take a Chemistry class and think that you could get an A by reading the chapter through once before taking a test. You can't do it in an English class, either. I may quote you verbatim as that's a great analogy, and it's a lesson my students need to learn. My first semester at Rust Belt University, after my students bombed their midterm, I made them write about their study habits and countless numbers wrote that, at most, they "look over" their notes before a test. Wow.

Anyway, thanks for a great post.

Blogger La Lecturess commented at 1:07 AM~  

Dr. V,

Yea, verily, we must have been separated at birth--or at least at some point during our professional development.

I really like your suggestions for dealing with ME, and I may adapt some of your "translation" exercises on quizzes in my survey next term. On the whole, I was impressed with how well my students seemed to understand the CT, and even with their pronunciation (when we read passages aloud, I'd go around the room and have each person read one line, so that no one was on the spot for too long), but I noticed on my midterm and final that a lot of students had trouble with the CT IDs, often discussing the passages in bizarre ways that indicated how imperfectly they understood what was being said, even if they got the general gist.

(And may I say that I'm totally having medievalist envy here? I so want to teach a CT class! In fact, if I'm at BU next year, I'm proposing one--as far as I can tell, there's no actual medievalist on the faculty.)

Blogger USJogger commented at 6:04 PM~  

Prof. L,

I guess I'm late chiming in on this one. I just found it.

It has worked for me in the past to make an index card for each student and to physically mix them up and pull one out before calling on someone cold. That takes some of the anxiety out of it. "Why did he call on me? Is he mad at me? Is he trying to embarrass me?" Nope, just random. I throw the cards in a pile and at the end of the lecture, I put the date on each one, so that I can tell which students haven't been called on recently, or at all. (OK, so I don't do it entirely random.) You'll still get students who freeze up when you cold call them, but it's not quite as confrontational.

I have similar problems with students with lower standards than I. I just don't get students who are happy with a D. The open joke in our department is that a D in Abstract Algebra stands for "Diploma." Get the first and you get the second. The problems are exacerbated by the fact that my institution does not give plus or minus grades. We give A, B, C, D, and F. So if someone has a middling D going into the final, there's no incentive to work hard. They won't score high enough to raise all the way to a C, and it's precious little work to score high enough to avoid an F.

Finally, I don't know about Chemistry, but I can tell you that students try to pass mathematics courses without reading at all and too often, without doing homework. This is rarely an effective stratgey.


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