February 15, 2012

Distributing Points and Percentages Across Assignments and Activities

By: in Teaching Professor Blog

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I started thinking about the topic of points distribution when I wondered in a previous blog whether the 5 or 10% that many of us give for participation was enough to motivate students, or whether being such a small part of the grade, it actually devalued what students contribute in class. Since then I’ve been thinking more about how we decide on the allocation of points or percentages for the various assignments students complete in a course. For many of us (that includes me), it isn’t as thoughtful of a process as it should be. Rather, we do what we’ve done before, or we ask around, get a general sense of what everybody else is doing and follow suit.

The assumption is that students will work the hardest and learn more from those course activities that count the most. In many courses, exams count for the lion’s share of the points or percentages used to determine the final grade. This means that whatever is being assessed on those exams is what’s most important in the course. Some exams (or, according to several studies, a lot of exams) assess facts—whether students know content details. They don’t assess whether students remember those details unless the exams are cumulative and even then they only need to be remembered until the final. Is factual knowledge what matters most in the course? Exams also test the ability to recall knowledge or to demonstrate thinking within time constraints and without access to resources. Is that one of the most important skills students should take from the course and their college learning experiences?

Assignments like quizzes, homework and participation are worth trivial amounts compared to exams. What’s message does that send to students? Does it tell them that the skills and knowledge acquired from participating, taking a quiz or doing homework aren’t as important as what they learn by taking exams? That these are parts of the course they don’t need to take as seriously? That there’s something less significant about the quality of the learning these activities promote?

If this sounds like I’m challenging point distribution systems that make exams significantly more important than anything else that happens in the course, you could call me on that. I do think we over emphasize exams. I don’t think most exams promote the kind of deep learning or sophisticated learning skill development we’re after.

For any class activity or assignment, our thinking should be clear about what the student will learn by completing that work. Actually, as Wiggins and McTighe propose in their model of backwards design, we should start with what it is we want students to learn (that can be knowledge or skills) and then we design assignments and select content that will promote that learning. Unfortunately, for most of us the assignments and content come first, which is all the more reason why we should take stock of what we are having students do and the priorities we’ve established for those various activities.

Beyond the actual point distribution and how we make those determinations, what we know about how that distribution influences student behavior in our classes. Have you ever talked with students about this? The discussion is not about how they would distribute the points in the course (although that might be interesting to hear), but how the current distribution affects their efforts to learn, how it affects when and what they study, and what they think they learn by spending more time on certain assignments.

This is also a topic profitably discussed with colleagues. The goal of the conversation should not be determining the “right” way to distribute points or percentages. The right way is the way that accomplishes the learning goals and objectives of the course and those are different depending on the course.

Like so many aspects of instruction, we tend to do things the way we’re used to doing them. That may not be the wrong way, but right or wrong we should have probed the reasons why. So take a look at your points or percentage allocation, share what you do and more importantly what justifies the particular allocation you use.

Reference: Wiggins, G. and McTighe, J. Understanding by Design. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Merrill Prentice Hall, 2006.

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Comments

Jennifer Leigh | February 15, 2012

I appreciate this blog topic because it raises fundamental issues about what we value and how that is manifested in our syllabi. We are signaling what's valued explicitly or implicitly in nearly every aspect of a syllabus. There are teaching methods, most notable Team Based Learning by Michaelsen, Knight & Fink, that advocate for direct student involvement in deciding participation allocations. I have utilized this basic approach for years with minor adjustments such as adding ranges and the use of course management systems technology (i.e. polling) for voting in some instances. The benefit of sharing some of this decision with students is that it puts everyone's values and needs on the table explicitly in the beginning of the semester. While it is powerful for us faculty to hear these conversations, it is even more valuable for students to hear each others' perspectives.

drjeffreyp | February 15, 2012

Including students in allocations assumes they're equal partners with the instructor in the class. Are they?

I agree however that we overemphasize exams and what we get is a mind numbed robots who can regurgitate really well, but learn almost nothing. And yet, don't have exams and see what happens to you from your peers.

I have a really hard time with learning outcomes to begin with. I'm guessing that's cause I'm not an educator (which I'm not sure is necessarily a bad thing) thus the whole idea of allocation is problematic for me. That said, I'd much rather allocate far more to participation, but in a f2f class how to assess that?

stacyesq | February 15, 2012

I have been following the Wiggins and McTighe approach without even knowing it. When I sit down to write a syllabus, I start with the learning goals and objectives for the course. In the past, I used quizzes as a way to encourage and reward reading, but too many students were willing to gamble on guessing the right answer and still refused to read. When I redesigned a course last fall, I eliminated quizzes and added assignments from the readings to go with each learning objective, Similar essay questions would appear on the test to see if they understand and retained the information. I had much greater success with this strategy. Grades were better, but, more importantly, I truly believe that learning increased. Students from the course still approach me to tell me how much they learned in that class! And to think that I didn't want to teach it because the first time was a catastrophe!

In the supplementary evaluation, I asked students their opinion of the daily written assignments. Most of them really enjoyed them and commented that the assignments made them read and learn. A few complained that there were too many assignments (there were more than 20; they could do them all for possible extra points or they could do the minimum required). One thing that many students agreed on was the value of the assignments. They believed the value was too high. In a course this semester, I am using a similar structure of assignments but will slightly fewer points at stake. I made the change based on students' suggestions. If the quality of the work and the amount of learning diminishes, I will increase the value again. No, I don't think students have equal say in the classes, but I do believe they are better judges at what motivates them than I am. I will continue to make changes until I get it right. In other words, I'll make changes until I die or retire, but at least I'll still be trying to get students to learn. :)

Betsy Ott | February 15, 2012

Sometimes, point value is determined by factors other than motivating students to learn. If too many points are allocated to non-proctored assignments (such as homework), then the reward for cheating can increase sufficiently to tip the balance of the course away from learning. Just as stacyesq's students would gamble rather than read, some students will copy another's work rather than read or study. This penalizes the honest students by devaluing their effort, since they get the same grade for doing it right, as the cheater gets for copying. I think this is a primary reason that proctored exams count for most of a student's grade.

Molly Baker | February 17, 2012

Stacy
Could you give us an example of the type of daily assignment tied to your outcomes that you assign?

Jeffery P | February 17, 2012

Don't we teach adults?

Matt Birkenhauer | February 17, 2012

I quit assigning points for class participation years ago, since, for the most part, however I assessed it, it always seemed highly subjective; and–when quantified–often encouraged the kind of rote, hand-raising class participation that resulted in empty, not-very-helpful responses–or, punished those students who were introverted but who, from what I could tell, were still actively participating in class.

Now, I put the onus of class participation on myself, not my students, and it has changed my whole approach to encouraging discussion, in, for example my literature classes (as opposed to my more skills-based, introductory composition classes). Now, if class participation isn’t happening, I figure I’m doing something wrong, and I try a different approach . . . .
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Carol Harvey | February 20, 2012

Two or three times during a semester, I give students the opportunity to gain up to 5 extra points on an exam by having them evaluate their own class participation, up to that point in time, using the rubrics on the syllabus. I have found that the opportunity to get those 5 points (which I see as minor extra credit) really promotes more accurate self evaluatio and often improves the level of participation going forward. I always respond to these self- evals ( "right on" = 5 points, "you were overly generous in estimating your actual participation here" = 1 point, etc.). Most students are fairly accurate but those that evaluate themselves too highly on participation, do have a chance to improve it before it is too late.


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