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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Sometimes I think vague is OK

Just to follow up on my earlier post about grading participation: I decided that contract grading was going a bit far and instead will have a chunk of the semester grade that is based largely on completing assignments, attending class and otherwise engaging in the behaviors that should lead students to do better on their other assignments anyway. Taking a cue from Lisa Lane, I'm calling that portion "Class Contribution" and I've purposely left it vague how that portion is scored. What I say in the syllabus is that this will be determined in part by the peer evaluations (from their teams), completion of all assignments and participation in class, which I will track with their responses to clicker questions. Specifically, the syllabus says:
Attendance and due dates: The team nature of this class requires you to be in class and to do your part as a member of your Team. This includes completing the individual component of Applications and submitting responses to clicker questions in class. These assignments will generally not be graded for content and they cannot be made up. However, you can miss up to two individual Applications without any impact on your grade; more than two missed assignments will reduce the Class Contribution portion of your final grade. Missing more than 10% of the clicker questions will also reduce your Class Contribution score (it should also be noted that missing class or any assignments could reduce your ability to make useful contributions to team discussions, which may then show up in the Peer Evaluation scores).

Class Contribution makes up 15% of the semester grade and I am purposely not assigning points to each assignment or clicker question. My thought is that if someone has done every assignment, attended almost every class, and gets solid evaluations from their teammates, then they will get the full 15%. If they have missed several assignments, skipped lots of classes and/or get low evaluations from their teammates, I have some flexibility in how much I lower this part of their grade.*

Because of my experience with my writing class (where a few students were still writing at a C level but got B's because of the way I assigned points for simply completing a number of things), I felt it was important for the Class Contribution portion of the grade to be worth enough that it 'matters' but not so much that it could mean someone gets a grade I don't feel comfortable with, given their grasp (or lack thereof) of the content of the course. So I settled on 15% as the weight after playing around with the numbers a bit - if someone has a solid C (75%) on everything else (tests and individual projects), then getting full credit for Class Contribution bumps them up to a C+, but not into the B range, which I can live with. Of course, hopefully if they are doing everything they need to get full credit for Class Contribution, then that will be reflected in their graded assignments but we'll see...

* There are also some good ideas about grading participation in this ProfHacker post.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Taking risks

In the last few weeks, I've found myself saying, on more than one occasion, that one reason I'm so stressed about this data course is that I think it could either go really well and students will really get a lot out of it, or it could be a total disaster and students will hate it. Putting aside my black-and-white thinking and my personal tendency to worry about worst-case scenarios, it has occurred to me that maybe these binary expectations are a good thing in the sense that they indicate I'm taking a risk (I remember someone making a similar observation about one of the winners on Top Chef - he was often either in the top three or the bottom three and that was seen as an indication that he was taking risks and being more innovative than others). If I never fail, it's a lot more likely that I'm not challenging myself enough than because I'm perfect.

So I guess I'm proud of myself. But I also realize that I would probably not have taken this kind of risk as an assistant professor. I simply could not afford to have my teaching evaluations drop too much, even it was because I was doing something that was ultimately better for the students. I also feel much better equipped now to try things that mean giving up some control in the classroom; I have a lot more confidence that I can handle whatever happens.

A recent post on ProfHacker, from an instructor who begins classes with a minute of focused meditation-like breathing, made a similar point:
Although I think this one-minute focusing time has tremendous benefits in my classroom, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it to everyone. Why has it worked so well for me? To start with: I'm tenured, I'm in my 40s, and I've been teaching for 18 years. I don't think I would have tried this activity when I was a graduate student instructor or even a new faculty member. I have enough experience now to be able to experiment with new things and cope with the consequences, whatever they may be.

You could replace 'one-minute focusing time' in that first sentence with many innovative teaching techniques and I think the point would be just as relevant. At the same time, by the time faculty are tenured and have been teaching for several years, how many of us really want to invest the time to adopt new innovations in the classroom? All of which makes me think that if economics is going to ever move, as a field, to more active learning techniques, it's even more important to develop teaching resources like SERC, where instructors can get lots of information about the potential challenges plus ready-made examples so that the risk is lowered and the time-investment is minimized.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Twitter makes texting reminders easier

Twitter just announced a new feature that allows anyone, even those without Twitter accounts, to get someone's tweets via text. I immediately thought about using this for my students - I can create a Twitter account for each class/course and then students can choose to get reminders via text by texting (for example) "follow @Econ301" to 40404 (it's not 100% clear to me whether the @ sign is needed or not - the Twitter blog doesn't include it, this ReadWriteWeb post does). The reason I like this so much is that I've always thought this would be a great use of Twitter but I didn't want to force students to get accounts (way fewer students use Twitter than the mainstream media would have you believe).

Lisa Lane also had a recent post about how to use Google Calendar to help students get text reminders of due dates but I'm not sure how many of my students use Google Calendar (and I think that method gets complicated if any of the due dates change). But I know that almost all of my students text and for the vast majority of them, that is their preferred method of communication, so it's definitely worthwhile to find some way for them to get text reminders. I guess I'm going to go open another Twitter account...

Monday, August 9, 2010

Do you bookmark?

A couple posts in Inside Higher Ed about Delicious.com got me thinking... I have a Delicious account but I almost never use it. I never really 'got' social bookmarking - it just has never seemed all that useful to me. From a personal standpoint, if there are websites that I use a lot, I bookmark them in Firefox so I can just go to the address bar and start typing what I remember of the page's title and it will show up in the pull-down menu (for example, when I need to access the SDSU homepage, I just go to the address box, start typing 'SDSU' and the homepage is the first thing in the suggested links box that pops up). If there are websites with information that I think I'll want later, I might save them to Delicious but even if I do, I have to go searching for them later and really, it often seems easier to simply Google whatever I'm looking for. I'm sure this is just a reflection of the way my memory works but if, for example, I come across a recipe or a 'how-to' tip that I think is useful but I'm not doing to use right away, I know I could save it to my Delicious account and tag it but then when I do want to find it again, I still have to a) remember that I ever saw it in the first place and b) remember how I tagged it, or else simply search ALL my bookmarks anyway, in which case it seems just as easy to use Google, which will either come up with the original site or something else equally, if not more, useful.

BUT I've been thinking about the fact that one of the good and bad things about prepping this data class is that I'm constantly reading articles that would make great examples for this class (this is good because I've got plenty of material; this is bad because at some point, I have to stop adding material and just live with what I've got!). I was thinking about setting up a Facebook page for the class so I could easily post links throughout the semester but it also occurred to me that I would want to keep track of those links somewhere else, in case I want to use those as examples in future classes (though I still have the problem of having to remember that it's there!). One good option would be saving those links on a social bookmarking site, tagging them with the course number, and then simply use the RSS feed for that tag to have those links automatically show up on the Facebook page.

In addition, the first comment on the Inside Higher Ed article is from someone who points out that Diigo.com 'leaves Delicious in the dust' and that Diigo has features tailored for academics. So I checked it out and am definitely intrigued. It seems that the big benefit of Diigo over Delicious, for the purpose of classes, is you can highlight and annotate webpages in Diigo and then share a link to your annotated page. So I could highlight the parts of an article that I want students to focus on and add comments or questions for them to think about, connecting it to what we are doing in class.

Do you use social bookmarking, for classes or in general? Any advice or suggestions for specific sites and uses?

Saturday, August 7, 2010

How do you grade participation in the process?

ProfHacker had a post last week on contract grading and it's been simmering in my brain ever since. The particular contract that is discussed in the post is for a writing class and lists several things that students must do; as long as they do all the things on the list, they will get at least a B in the class. Some of the items on the list can be satisfied with participation ('meet due dates', 'complete all low stakes assignments like journal writing') while others are a little more subjective ('give thoughtful peer feedback', 'make substantive revisions') but none really has to do with the quality of a student's writing. In order to earn an A in the class, students must meet all the contract requirements for a B, plus produce 'exceptional' writing. The instructors essentially make the argument that if a student actually does everything on the list, they are likely to get a B anyway, and the contract allows both the instructors and the students to focus on the writing instead of the grade (for example, the instructors feel freer to give more negative feedback because it does not affect the grade; students can decide for themselves whether or not to incorporate that feedback into their next draft, which can foster more critical thinking about whether the value of those comments).

One reason I am so intrigued with the idea of this kind of contract is that in my writing class this past spring, a good chunk of the overall points were for items like those on the list (e.g., students got points simply for turning in a first draft or completing a follow-up evaluation) and because all my students completed all those things, the lowest grade in the class was a B-minus. That felt a bit weird to me because there were at least a couple of students whose writing still needed a lot of work but they had done everything I asked them to do and those points added up. I think that if I had been using a contract instead, the outcome (in terms of grades) would not have been very different but I could have spent a lot less energy trying to assign grades to papers and more energy on simply critiquing them. So I definitely am considering adopting something similar when I teach the class next year.

But a big reason why I think a 'contract' like this could work in a writing class is that for many students, their writing will improve simply by going through the process. That is, in order to improve your writing, you simply have to write and write a lot. So students who write multiple drafts of papers and who give critical feedback on papers written by others will likely improve, as long as they are putting true effort into the process.

By the same token, I'm not sure this would work in most economics classes, where assignments usually have more clear-cut 'correct' answers. But I am really debating whether it might work for the data class, which is more similar to the writing class in that a lot of what students need to do is simply do the stuff I ask them to do. Because I am using team-based learning, there are several assignments where students need to do something before class (like get data or read something) that they will then use in class with their team. So there will be a number of times when I will ask students to turn something in (or complete a short quiz) just to make sure that they did the prep work. This prep work does not really need to be graded; it just needs to be done, with enough effort that the student should then be able to make a reasonable contribution to the group discussion. In addition, at least a couple of the individual assignments (separate from the group work) are the types of things that I'd like to give feedback on but where I think it would be really hard to grade for content (e.g., students have to take a graph they think is bad and make it better, which could be done in a bunch of different ways - I imagine that trying to differentiate between an 'A' graph and a 'B' graph will be more effort than it's worth). I've been trying to figure out the best way to include these sorts of assignments in the grading scheme and am wondering if some variation of a contract might work. So, for example, as long as students do all these assignments with appropriate effort, they get at least a B, and then they can also earn an A with exceptional scores on the quizzes and final exam?

If anyone has used a similar approach, I'd love to hear about it...

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Who sets the academic calendar?

Whoever it is, at least at San Diego State, seems oblivious to the fact that starting on a different day of the week every semester is really annoying for those of us who try to organize our classes consistently. I am annoyed by this every semester because no matter what days of the week I'm teaching on, I have to adjust the deadlines for my class assignments every single time. For example, this fall, classes start on a Monday, so the first meeting of my Tuesday/Thursday classes is on Tuesday and we will meet twice that week. In the spring, even if I still had classes on Tuesday/Thursday, the first class meeting would be on Thursday and we would meet only once the first week. Since I try to assign larger assignments over the weekend, that means I have to re-arrange things somewhere to get back on the same day-of-the-week assignment schedule as what I did in the fall. When I taught the large lecture on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I tried to have exams on Fridays and every single semester, I had to make adjustments so I could still do that.

On top of that, I just realized that for some reason, the spring 2011 semester will be slightly longer than the fall 2010 semester. In the fall, my Tuesday/Thursday classes will meet 28 times (15 weeks, minus two classes canceled for Veteran's Day and Thanksgiving). If I were teaching Monday/Wednesday, we'd meet 29 times (Labor Day off instead of Veteran's Day but we could technically meet the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, though I probably wouldn't). But in the spring, my Monday/Wednesday classes will meet 30 times (Tuesday/Thursday classes also meet 30 times). I went back and looked at last year's calendar and Tuesday/Thursday classes met 31 times in the fall and 30 times in the spring while Monday/Wednesday classes met 30 times in the fall and 31 times in the spring. So maybe the shorter fall semester this year is just an anomaly but I wonder if anyone actually thought about this when setting the calendar.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Data class, so far

Geez, where the heck is the summer going? I can't believe it's August already! I had planned to have the data course completely prepped by now so that I could spend August working on other things but of course, things never turn out as planned. Thanks to several trips in July, I'm not nearly as prepped as I'd like but I thought I'd share something about what where I'm at. As I mentioned earlier in the summer, this course is not a typical statistics course - it really is a data analysis course. And I'll be teaching it using team-based learning. The TBL website and listserv have been incredibly helpful with that part.

When I say that this is more of a data analysis course, I mean that we will talk about things like choosing what to count (e.g., if you want to know how income is distributed across households, how do you define 'income'? Once you settle on a variable, do you look at mean, median, different percentiles?) and how to measure those variables (e.g. the Current Population Survey is a household survey so what issues might arise when people self-report income? how do we compare income across geographic areas and time?). Then we'll do a whole section just on reporting data (choosing what type of graphic is most appropriate for your analysis, why the scale of the axes matter, how to read/create tables, etc), and finally, discuss the type of comparative analysis that economists do (e.g., correlation vs. causation, confounding variables). Along the way, they will have to go get data and do stuff with it (calculate descriptive stats, simple regressions) but that is all stuff that technically, they should already know how to do so I'm not going to take any class time to talk about those concepts (though I'll spend a little time talking about how to compute them in Excel).

That last part is tricky - I'm going to be strict about enforcing the prerequisites but just because students have taken a stats class already, that doesn't mean they actually learned (or have retained) much. They certainly need the basic stats concepts in order to talk intelligently about the data, but although they should already have seen those basic concepts, my understanding is that I shouldn't expect them to really have retained much. On the one hand, I don't want to spend too much time on stuff that they should already know; on the other hand, we really can't do much with the data if they don't really know the basic stats concepts. Right now, I'm planning to give students a knowledge survey at the beginning of the semester that will include all the statistics concepts that I will expect them to have at least a basic understanding of; I will tell them that they should use that to gauge how much extra review they will need to do. Then, for each of the modules (I've divided the course into five, maybe six, main topics), I will give them a reading guide that will include the specific stats concepts that they will need to review. Even though they don't have a stats textbook for this class, I'm going to provide some online sources and put a few stats texts on reserve at the library so they have the resources if they need them (if I have time in the future, I may develop some notes of my own but I am pretty sure that's not happening this summer). In general, the students need to have a conceptual understanding of the statistics, more than the technical ability - they need to know what a 95% confidence interval REPRESENTS but I'm less concerned with whether they can CALCULATE it.

In TBL, each module begins with a Readiness Assurance Test which is based on the readings and, in this case, the students' own review of the stats concepts. Then we'll spend class time doing application problems. I'll still in the process of writing all those questions, plus fully fleshing out the individual assignments that students will do on their own outside of class. But it's all definitely coming along...