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Singing the Mid-Term Blues

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21 Oct 2014
Stories from the Front
Tags: student learning   |   assessing learning   |   assessing teaching

Maybe you’ve been here before.

It’s the middle of the semester. Your undergraduate survey class has been rolling along fine. Brick-wall
Students are fairly engaged, and you feel you have a good rapport. Then along comes the mid-term, and you realize that the situation is not what you thought.

In my case, the course is an introduction to ‘world religions’ (yes, I know it’s problematic). So far, we’ve read a book of easy theory (William Paden’s Religious Worlds), and we’ve been introduced to Judaism and Christianity – in each case through a book chapter (Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One), selections of ancient texts (Genesis and Exodus for Judaism; Mark and Galatians for Christianity), and a modern text (Abraham Heschel; Martin Luther King, Jr.). It is clear to me that, while not all students are reading carefully, a number of them are keeping up. They do a 5-minute essay at the beginning of each class about the day’s reading, and I spend most class periods trying to make sure they’ve gotten something out of it. Other days we do some type of small group activity (such as comparing Genesis 1 and 2 or the genealogies in Matthew and Luke). When given frequent chances to ask questions, they have none.

Empty-classroom2The mid-term this week was a chance for them to show what they’ve learned. It was worth 50 points: 30 points of multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and a timeline, plus 20 points of mini-essays. Even though I was as generous as I could be on the essays, the high score among 40 students was 41.5. The average score was 31 – a low D.

Now comes the soul searching: What am I doing wrong?

If there had been at least a handful of A’s, I would have worried less. An extremely high percentage of students in my classes are there to fulfill a humanities requirement; they aren’t necessarily interested in religion, and they hope it will be an easy course. These students don’t expect to work much and a bad mid-term grade can be a useful wake-up call. But when even the most engaged students can’t break a low B, it’s clear that something is amiss at my end of things.

A professor I admire says his teaching philosophy is to have high expectations for his students; expect the best of them and they will never fail to give it to you. So I continue to require (what I hear is) “a lot” of reading in my intro courses, because I am trying to set the bar high and let them rise to the occasion. I also don’t spoon-feed them information in bullet points; although I occasionally stand and use slides, I usually sit and lead discussions about the readings… in which I often end up doing most of the talking. Most of them sit slack-jawed and take few notes, but some answer questions or make comments. Even so, here I am at mid-term, with students who think Constantine lived BCE and don’t know the names of Abraham’s two sons.

The question for you, dear readers, is: What do I do now?

Do I “dumb down” the class – tell them exactly what to memorize from each chapter so that they can just Google terms and don’t actually have to read? Do I just plow ahead with my current plans, knowing some of them will fail or drop out, while hoping others will be inspired to work harder? I have seven more weeks to get them to want to learn something. What would an excellent teacher do? 

Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. I hope readers will comment here – I genuinely would like to know how you handle such situations!

  2. Kate, how much of the rest of the class assessment is or has to be test-based? If an important goal is to get them to do better on the next test, a postmortem, with them, of what went wrong on this one and what might go better on the final might help. If the students admit they didn’t really study, then you’ve delivered the needed kick in the pants. If they really don’t understand the material or know what to do better, some more lecture/leadership might be in order.

    If, however, tests are only part of the course, maybe you could focus on the other work (papers or projects), even to the extent of making the remaining test(s) worth a smaller percentage of the overall grade. A project the students get to shape might engage them more than an exam over content you chose on their behalf. Whatever you end up doing, your students are fortunate to have you as their instructor. It would be far easier at this juncture to blame them rather than to blame yourself, but you’re willing to take a share of the hard work, too.

  3. Kate, i dont teach undergraduates, but the first question that came to mind for me is whether or how you make the material relevant to the daily lives of your students…or help them make connections of relevance. Maybe talk about intersection of religious texts/images and popular culture (eg, rap music). I think you continue with high expectations but make every effort to provide the support (including motivation) to help them meet those expectations, which will involve creativity on your part.

  4. I agree with Elesha. I have experienced this situation, and it was frustrating! But one of my growing edges as a professor has been to not only look at my methodology/content, but also to insist (and help) students take more responsibility for own their learning. And so, I have put things on “pause” and debriefed when I get a significant number of poorly done assignments/exams. Sometimes its as simple as instructions that made more sense to me than the students. And sometimes students have been used to being “spoon-fed” and aren’t responding well to their first “self-feed” experiences–especially when they require a lot of chewing! 🙂 Although we often expect that students are coming into our classrooms prepared to think and to organize themselves to engage the work, I have found that I can’t make that assumption, and that along with setting a high standard, I may have to give them some “technical” advice (and tools) on how to meet that standard. It takes some extra time, but my students have always said that it was helpful, not only in my courses but also in others they took. Good luck!

  5. Thanks, everybody! I talked with my students this week about what went wrong; some of them admitted to not having studied “dates and stuff.” I ended up giving everyone 5 points (10% of the grade) in order to ease the immediate pain and acknowledge my part of the equation. I also reiterated the many “optional” assignments that are in the syllabus (e.g., make a site visit; do a presentation; meet with me in my office for discussion), and several students have already come to see me about them this week. In addition, their final paper and exam are worth double their original paper and mid-term, so I assured them they still have plenty of time to do better. So far it seems that many of them are taking the exam as a wake-up call rather than defeat. Please keep the suggestions coming!

  6. Kate,

    Thank you for your reflective writing and honesty in trying to solve a problem. I am a high school biology teacher and I teach about 110 fourteen year olds. To be transparent, I use a standards based learning environment with my kids where the focus is on mastery of objectives. When I give a cumulative summative test, I expect the written mastery to be somewhat reflected in the test performance. Many times it is not. So, in peeling back the onion to figure out why we are asking great questions that other teachers simply address by curving or ignoring.

    Yesterday I faced a similar situation as you. I give cumulative monthly tests that cover recent objectives and objectives that go all the way back to the beginning of the semester. The goal it to test mastery of new objectives and the retainment of old ones.

    My kids did not do very well overall. For the summative, I am relying on the grade to communicate mastery which is different from what is done in most of my course. So what to do?

    The first thing I did was create a simple Google spreadsheet with an anonymous survey asking them questions regarding study habits, cramming, how they studied, and how they thought they did. Since it was anonymous, I got honest responses and most of them completed it. So my first suggestion is to ask your students why they performed poorly. The more I communicate with them the more I know and the more problems I can solve.

    In my survey, 25% said they flat out did not study but in the other 75% I learned more about them in terms of time management, how they study, and how they view assessments. I also got voluntary feedback on things that they wanted me to do, which in most cases I can compromise on.

    Secondly, if I get scores like these I have to reflect on my goals that revolve around learning and not grades. I want them to learn biology in a conceptual, problem solving way. Often I will allow a complete retake with new questions or I have a protocol I use for test corrections which has them working with both correct and incorrect responses to figure out why they missed what they did.

    Lastly, before a test is coming up and during the regular operations of class, I will build in checks for understanding along the way. These are short, formative checks that give me an idea for what they know and what they are struggling with. I can adjust my pacing and ultimately how I formulate questions. I think you could probably do this with checking for understanding for the reading in your course.

    I am not sure any of this is helpful, but if you want to bounce off ideas, feel free to email me at ucapugulator@gmail.com

    Bob

  7. Kate, Great questions that we have all struggled with. I’m wondering if the test itself did not align well with what they actually learned. Might you use another way to assess the learning that is taking place?

  8. I’m struck by how focused this is on the reading–whether they’re doing it and a class built around making sure they got something from the reading and assessing how well they knew what they should have learned from the reading. And I understand because reading is important to learning and I’m in favor of that but it comes across here like you’re covering material and your main goal is for them to know certain things.

    The reality of being a teacher, though, is that I can stand there and tell my class over and over and over the same piece of bullet-pointed information and they will not get it. If it’s a manageable amount of information, they will memorize it dutifully. If it’s a lot of information, they will give up or cheat. But in either case, even the kids who know to repeat it back correctly don’t really get it. They just know they’re supposed to say it. Spoon feeding might produce higher scores on certain kinds of assessments for some students but it isn’t going to produce real learning–and you know that intuitively, which is why you resist spoon-feeding.

    Anyway, my teaching changed as I developed a clearer sense of the skills and qualities I wanted my students to have. I started to think about the big picture questions and how I’d want them to approach answering a foundational question–what resources should they know to look to and what approach should they take?

    The clearer I got on all of that, the more inductive the whole thing became. I obviously still have information I want them to know but now the order in which they encountered readings is really important to me because it shapes how they see the information we study. Or I’ll design a class activity with the intent of confusing or unsettling them so that further class work can address their confusion or show them possible solutions to whatever dilemma. Or I’ll spend two class periods building their understanding of a pair of concepts and then give them a question for discussion that requires them to synthesize the two ideas and then let them flounder, knowing that I’ve equipped them to accomplish the task at hand and knowing that the understanding they come to on their own may not be as sophisticated as what I might tell them about it but it will be more genuine and therefore more lasting.

    I’ve also started giving them high level conceptual questions as a review. They write answers to the questions in class and then we talk about together and they begin to see how inadequate what they have written is. Their next task is to figure out what parts of the information we studied should be part of a fully realized answer to each question. In other words, they end up studying the material but with an organizing principle in mind so it isn’t a lot of mindless memorization of disconnected facts.

    When it comes to assessment, the questions I ask are conceptual and they generally have to do with with synthesizing different parts of what we studied but they are more specific and focused than the study questions, so they know exactly what information they need. This creates a situation where earnest, engaged students can usually find their way.

    This is an epic comment. Maybe something in here is useful to you.