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Friday, March 29, 2013

Grading followup

I mentioned at the start of the semester that I'd be trying a different approach to grading in the writing class this spring. I've finished grading the second big writing assignment and I have to say that although grading is taking just as long as it used to, I definitely notice a reduction in my level of stress about the process. There are two main things that I've changed: one, I am only assigning straight letter grades for papers (i.e., A, B, C or D, recorded as 4, 3, 2 or 1 in the Blackboard gradebook) and two, students are allowed to revise and re-submit papers as many times as they want, any time up until the last day of class, and I will use whatever grade they receive last (which will presumably be higher than where they started but only if they actually do the work).

Giving straight letter grades has greatly reduced my angst about assigning the score for the overall assignment. For the most part, it's pretty easy to tell B papers from C papers but what I really love is that I DON'T have to spend time trying to figure out if a B paper should get an 84, 85 or 86, and making sure whatever number I give one paper is consistent with the numbers I gave on other papers. I do note informally if I think there really should be a plus or minus attached, and that may come into play at the end of the semester but again, noting that a paper is a B+ is much easier than trying to decide if it's an 88 or an 89. So far, there have been two papers I just couldn't bring myself to give an A but they really were better than most B papers so I gave them a 3.5.

But even more than the straight letter grades, I think giving students the option to revise their papers is really what is making the biggest difference in my grading attitude. In the past, I would always have this internal struggle with myself about the comments I gave on papers. On the one hand, I want to give students specific and detailed comments so that they can see how to make their writing better. On the other hand, I know that many students will not even look at the comments (they just look at the grade) so why spend all that time? But by giving students the option to revise their papers for a higher grade, I free myself from making detailed suggestions about how to change things AND I feel like students may actually use the feedback I give them. Not giving detailed suggestions doesn't mean I don't give feedback - it means that now I am much more specific about WHY something is not working, but I don't necessarily give students an exact fix. For example, in the past, if a particular sentence were not clear, I would leave a comment like, "This isn't clear - it would work better if you re-wrote this as 'the higher prices cause demand to fall' instead". That is, my explanation of the problem would be a bit vague ('this is unclear', 'this jargon isn't appropriate', etc.) but I would try to give them a specific suggestion for a re-write that, by comparison, would make the problem more obvious and also help them see a way to fix things. But now, my explanation of the problem tends to be much more detailed (e.g., 'this sentence isn't clear because it sounds like demand falling is causing prices to go up instead of the other way around') but I do not give them a specific edit they can use to fix the problem, since I don't want them to just replace their words with mine and turn that in as a new revision. I do try to point them to other sources for specific help when possible (e.g., 'See the class notes about making sentences more direct'). This approach doesn't necessarily save me much time (though it is generally easier to tell them exactly what the problem is than to fix it for them) but I definitely notice a difference in my own attitude. That is, IF they decide to do a revision, I feel like I'm actually helping them but not doing the work for them, and if they don't do a revision, then I'm not "wasting" my time either.

In addition, I worry less if the grade I give them seems a little harsh (e.g., someone gets a straight B who would have gotten a B+ in the past) because they do have the option to do a little work and get a better grade. So i expect that I won't be getting any whining about grades.

So far, only one student has actually done a revision, though I expect at least a few others will be working on their papers over Spring Break...

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Call for Papers, Intl Atlantic Economic Conference

If you aren't on the tch-econ mail list, you might have missed this: Paul Hettler is putting together one or two special sessions on the use of active learning strategies in economics. Paul notes: "This is the seventh year I've created such sessions. In the past, we've seen some very interesting presentations on the use of several different strategies in principles through upper-level courses. If you are using an interesting learning strategy, others would like to hear about it. Please consider sending a brief abstract of what you are doing in for this session (Note, there are no submission fees if you send the abstract directly to me). The session will be rather informal--if you have a formal analysis comparing the learning outcomes of some active strategy to 'lectures' that's great; if you just want to describe the technique you're using and provide anecdotal evidence of it's effectiveness that is good too. In all cases, the idea is to learn more about alternative ways to get our students more involved in the learning process."

Special Conference Session
Active Learning Strategies in Economics

at the
76th International Atlantic Economic Conference
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
October 10-13, 2013

Numerous “active” learning strategies have been developed over the past 30 years to engage students more in the process of learning. Are you using techniques such as Team-Based Learning, Classroom Experiments, Simulations, Problem-Based Learning, Case Studies, etc. in your classes? Share your experiences and compare outcomes with others engaged in similar efforts. Papers for this special conference session can focus on describing the technique and how it is implemented, student or faculty reactions, or documented learning outcomes.

To be considered for the session, please send a 500-word abstract describing the active learning project you wish to present at the conference. Paper submission fees will be waived for participants in this session. (Conference registration fees will be required. Please see the Society web site at http://www.iaes.org for more information). To be considered, the abstract must be received by May 14, 2013.

Abstracts may be sent by email to: hettler@calu.edu

Or by mail to:
Dr. Paul Hettler
Department of Business and Economics (Box 74)
California University of Pennsylvania
250 University Ave
California, PA 15419

Call (724-938-5730) or email (hettler@calu.edu) with any questions.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Intended consequences: HEOA edition

As an economist, I know that policies often have unintended consequences. As an ed policy researcher, I know that the unintended consequences of many education policies arise because a) policymakers generally have no idea what a teacher's job is actually like and b) local implementation of state and federal policies often focuses more on 'compliance' than 'educational quality'. I was reminded of both these problems when I received an email from our administration about Section 133 of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which deals with textbook information. Apparently, this federal law requires that students have access to information on course materials prior to registration. This, in and of itself, seems benign. I think the prices that students pay for textbooks and associated materials are often outrageous and letting students know what they're signing up for is good (pointless, but good, since I can't imagine any student chooses classes based on textbook prices, but I tend to fall in the 'more information is always good' camp). But faculty are being asked to submit our materials requisitions FOR FALL SEMESTER by the end of March. The email I received implied that failure to adhere to this deadline will put us out of compliance with HEOA, putting our students "at risk for an estimated $51 million in Federal student assistance."

So, faculty can either decide NOW, in the middle of spring semester, what books and materials we will use in the FALL, or be made to feel like we could be responsible for students losing tons of Federal aid. So what's the most likely outcome? If I'm teaching a course I've taught before, I just use the same books as last time, even if there are other books that might be better, since I'm not going to have time to think about it before summer (the requisition deadline isn't even after Spring Break). I don't know about others but I have generally used summer to re-vamp classes, including deciding on different books and materials. Sure, I can still restructure some lectures and activities but if I've already committed to the reading materials, there's only so much I can do with the course as a whole. And if I've already committed to the reading materials, why spend much time looking at new materials (which might help me keep my course current or at least give me ideas of new ways to present content) and re-thinking the course in general? I'll just make a few tweaks and keep mostly doing what I did last time.

I realize this isn't that huge a deal - I know that if I wait a couple months to get my book order in, the Feds are not going to come swarming onto campus and cut off all financial aid. What bugs me is that no one in the administration seems to recognize that there may be very good reasons for faculty to wait until summer to get their book orders in. So I can either do what I consider 'good teaching' (i.e., reflect on what has worked and what needs changing in my course) and piss off my administration; or I can 'comply with the law' and just muddle along. These are annoying bad choices...