What students consider unfair grading practices January 15

‘That’s So Unfair!’

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Students have strong opinions about fair and unfair practices in college courses. Previous research shows that, according to students, fair practices include clarity about grading procedures and course policies, flexibility in scheduling make-up exams and meetings, generosity with feedback, and a reasonable approach to workload in the course. If those policies and practices aren’t followed, students often raise the issue of fairness, usually with some emotional intensity. “That grade is so unfair! I worked for hours on that assignment.”

Perceptions of fairness, or classroom justice, as it’s described in this recent research, relate to three aspects of the education experiences provided in courses. Distributive justice is defined as “perceptions of the fairness of an instructional outcome” (p. 323). Grades are the best example. Procedural justice involves the “fairness of the processes used to distribute resources or outcomes in the instructional context” (p. 323). Here, an example might be the way group work is graded, be it with individual grades, group grades, or some combination of the two. Interactional justice relates to the “fairness and quality of interpersonal treatment of students by instructors when procedures are implemented or outcomes allocated” (p. 323). Does the instructor show respect for students? Is the instructor open to student opinions? Does the instructor answer student questions?

Building on earlier research completed by some of this research team, this study investigated “the cognitive, affective and behavioral processes at play in students’ perceptions of and responses to classroom injustice” (p. 324). Their almost 400 undergraduate student cohort at three different institutions responded to open-ended queries as well as survey questions.

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experiential education - hiking in the mountains December 7, 2017

What Is Experiential Education?

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For many years, I have tried to explain what experiential education (EE) is to my colleagues. In the process, I often found myself bogged down in the technical jargon of my discipline (outdoor and adventure education) as well as the writings of thinkers such as John Dewey. I’m writing here to clarify my own understanding of EE and to present a simple model that can be understood regardless of academic discipline. In doing so, I am hesitant to even use the phrase EE because I believe it represents sound educational pedagogy no matter what it’s called.

From my understanding and experience, at the heart of EE are three key elements: content, experience, and reflection. Central to effective EE is establishing a clear and relevant relationship between these three elements in our teaching practice; ideally, content, experience, and reflection are seamlessly intertwined. I imagine three overlapping circles with EE in that space where they overlap.

The traditional lecture course is an example of content-focused practice. A teacher delivers the content, and it is up to students to experience or reflect on it. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings of content-only practices are well understood and that most teachers are trying to distance themselves from relying solely on this tradition.

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UDL framework for learning November 16, 2017

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

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When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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student evaluations October 10, 2017

Improving Student Evaluations with Integrity

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Oh, how the tables do turn! Each semester, after quizzing, testing, and otherwise grading our students, they get to return the favor and rate their professors, and some of them can be harsher than we are on our most critical days. Because administrators incorporate these ratings in their evaluations of us, they can’t be ignored. Rather than wallowing in the sorrows of negative reviews, we must accept it for what it is: feedback. And although we should not in any way compromise our principles or the course content to get better ratings, there are actions that don’t undermine our integrity and do positively influence the end-of-course ratings. I’d like to suggest several that have improved my ratings.

Be transparent about your grading methods. It’s my opinion that students should never be surprised by their grades in a course. Whenever I give an assignment, no matter how small, I provide instructions in writing, a point value, and a due date. I’m a huge fan of rubrics and always take time to help students understand and interpret them. Examples posted on the course website can demonstrate what you’re looking for in assignments.

I work hard to return papers in a timely manner and share my deadlines with students so that they know when to expect the feedback. Most online grading systems make it easy for students to monitor their progress throughout the semester. By removing the mystery from my grading system, I have consistently received high scores from students on the applicable questions on the evaluation form.

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student collaboration August 1, 2017

Taking Collaboration Seriously

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Like many professors, I use group projects in my classes. When my students work together on a project, I’m hoping they’ll be able to accomplish complex instructional tasks and support each other’s learning on the project and in the course. In my experience, I’ve found that many student groups function positively and productively, but there are always some groups that do not. In those groups infighting occurs, which negatively affects the students’ work in addition to their learning, their connection to course content, and their overall impression of the class.

Over the years, I’ve tried different ways of forming student groups. I’ve put students in groups based on their schedules, their interests, and their majors. I’ve allowed students to choose their own groups and even used the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (www.myersbriggs.org) to form complimentary teams based on students’ personality types. Regardless of the system, I still have a few groups that just don’t function well. To work on this, I’ve attended different conference presentations over the last year where colleagues shared their grouping strategies. One presenter used a compatibility quiz similar to those used on online dating sites. Another described a complex online system called CATME (info.catme.org) that puts students in groups based on a series of survey responses. I was happy to discover that I wasn’t the only one interested in the best way to form groups.

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adult student talking in class June 7, 2017

Improvising Great Classroom Discussion

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I was watching a video of several of my students teaching this week. I had to be away for a conference, and they were scheduled to teach that day anyway, so I asked our Center for Teaching Excellence to record it. I would evaluate them later. Although most of the students in the class are planning to be English teachers, it’s not an education class. For that reason, I planned to pay closer attention to the content and preparation than to their actual pedagogy.

However, as I watched the video, I kept noticing places where discussion would be on the verge of beginning, only to see it die almost immediately. The students were prepared, and they were often asking the types of questions we want them to ask. Why did the discussion keep faltering? I had to start looking at their pedagogy.

What I discovered was that they didn’t know how to build on each other’s comments. A student would make a statement that could easily lead to a larger discussion, but no one responded, as if there was nothing else they could say about the comment. The student leading the discussion would then move on to some other topic. When I realized what was happening, I remembered the “Yes, and . . . ” idea from improvisational comedy.

The “Yes, and . . . ” idea has been rather popular of late, stemming from a rising interest in improvisational comedy; Don’t Think Twice, a movie about an improv group; and a variety of comedians and business leaders speaking and writing about the idea. For those not familiar with the “Yes, and . . .” idea, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like. In improv, the actors are supposed to accept whatever premise another actor begins with; they say “yes” to the setup. And then they try to build on the situation or line of dialogue, the equivalent of saying “and . . . ”

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students collaborating on project May 3, 2017

Actively Learning to Teach

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Today I had an interesting experience while teaching my biochemistry class. I had students write the Krebs cycle on their digital whiteboards while keeping track of the specific carbons in the cycle intermediates. The point of this exercise was to have students understand how biochemists study metabolic pathways and to practice writing the chemistry of the cycle. To initiate the exercise, I explained the biochemical logic of the first reaction. After that, I let them go because we had already spent a lecture discussing the reactions. This produced a fairly lively classroom with students trying to understand the flow of both carbons and energy through the cycle. While they worked, I walked around commenting here and there as needed or when I saw a misconception arising. Clearly, learning was happening. But the weird thing was . . . I didn’t feel like I was teaching.

With active learning, we often discuss the culture shock that students feel. No longer is it sufficient for students to sit listening as passive consumers of information doled out by their instructor. An active learning class compels students to become actively engaged in applying the material and uncovering the consequences of their newly learned knowledge. But for those of us instructors who never had active learning modeled for us as students, the experience can be just as alien. It can be invigorating, as it was today when my students were working hard to understand the biochemical logic of the reactions. But for me, it also felt like was I wasn’t doing my job. I was reminded of those comments on my end-of-term course evaluations: “Haave didn’t teach us! We had to learn it ourselves!”

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online student with laptop April 4, 2017

Principles that Help Make Online Courses Successful

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Beverley McGuire has taught online courses for 10 years, and she’s been a student in them for five. From those experiences, she’s learned a few things about making online courses effective. She’s also conversant with current research and collaborates with colleagues. From that knowledge and those experiences, she identifies five key design and delivery principles for online courses. She teaches religious study courses, but her principles are broadly applicable.

Humanizing the course website
It’s a simple but powerful principle. When students first open the course website, they are meeting the course and its instructor. What’s their first impression if the website is not easy to navigate? How much text confronts them during this first encounter? “By humanizing their course website, instructors enable student to get a sense of their passion, personality, or persona, which can create a sense of teaching presence” (p. 31). McGuire continues, “Although I initially gave little thought to the appearance of my course website, viewing it as a repository for syllabi, lectures, and assignments, I now approach it as a kind of virtual persona” (p. 32).

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old-style lecture hall March 7, 2017

A Different Take on “Did I Miss Anything Important?”

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When students ask us, as they occasionally do, “I wasn’t in class yesterday. Did I miss anything important?” most of us feel at least a bit of disrespect and some aggravation. If we take the question at face value, it implies that the student thinks at least some of what we do in class might not actually be important. Judging from a search of online forums, instructors’ responses range from genuine interest in helping students understand what they missed and how to make up for it, to contempt exemplified by sarcastic comments such as, “No, since you weren’t present we just filled time until the class was over.” The former response was illustrated in a 2014 article in The Teaching Professor,by Rocky Dailey, who also noted that some absences may be considered more legitimate than others (e.g., due to a student’s participating in an institution-sanctioned activity rather than just deciding not to show up). In those cases, I may feel more inclined to give the student some of my time and effort to help make up for the absence.

My focus here is neither on deciding how to respond to the student nor on the plethora of reasons that students give for missing a class. Instead, I want to turn the question around. Why do students ask this question and, more important, what does it say about my course when they do? I’m particularly concerned about students who still ask the question even after they’ve attended several class for sessions. By that time students have experienced what goes on in my classes, and I take asking whether anything important happened in class as a sign of one or all of the following:

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non-traditional students in library February 2, 2017

Fair and Equal

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“There is nothing more unequal than the equal treatment of unequal people.” This quote, attributed to Thomas Jefferson, is often used in gifted education to justify the attention, resources, and opportunities provided to those who are more academically talented than others. It’s intended to connote a sense of fairness, a feeling that not every student should have the same classroom experience. Rather, there should be an emphasis on appropriate instruction, instruction that is responsive to individual needs, interests, and abilities.

Yet the heat of the college experience often produces an uncomfortable state of tension between what is “equal” and what is “fair.” Many of us wonder whether both can be achieved simultaneously. Certainly, professors can adapt instruction so that a variety of needs can be met. But can teaching be personalized so that all individual differences and learning styles are privileged in every classroom?

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