TITLE: An Unplanned Risk AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: December 09, 2006 7:12 AM DESC: ----- BODY: Those of you who are professors or students will appreciate this. In what was either the stupidest move of my teaching career or a sign of ultimate boldness and confidence, on Tuesday I returned an exam to my students and then closed the session with student evaluations. This wasn't just any exam. The class average score was just under 43%, and only one student scored high enough to pass given the standard grading scale I use -- and that was a C. As I told them then, I doubt they will encounter many other professors who would return such an exam and do student evals the same day. For those of you who've never had me for a class, let me explain that I do not typically curve individual exams or other assignments. I've always felt that curving exams was a bad idea. I prefer to take a look at the grades as they stand at the end of the semester and make any adjustments to the grading scale then that might be necessary so that final grades reflect the work of the class and individual students. (There is probably another good blog topic for another time.) Student evaluations play an important role in the academic world. For good or bad, they are one of the few practical, low-cost ways that we have of assessing the quality of teaching. As an instructor, I often enjoy getting feedback on particular elements of my course, especially the new things I have tried, to see how students perceive them and how I might implement them better. Unfortunately, the standard "instrument" that most schools use for student evaluations doesn't give very good "formative feedback" of this sort. Worse, it asks students a lot of questions that they really can't answer with any authority. As a result, these evaluations are also of limited value providing evaluative feedback. But that is neither here nor there. Student evaluations of one form or another are with us for now, I was planning to have my done last Tuesday. Then I graded the exam. As I recorded the scores, it occurred to me that returning them on evaluation day created an interesting situation. I suppose that I could have postponed one or other to the last day of classes, but putting of either was inconvenient. And to be honest, I really couldn't see myself waiting on either. I have always prided myself in not allowing the presence of outside observers to affect my classroom behavior. As an untenured faculty member, I had visitors from my department's professional assessment committee in classes on several occasions each fall. On principle I preferred that visitors come unannounced, lest I change my behavior in anticipation of their presence -- or that they think I might have. In this case, it just seemed wrong to toy with the process, even knowing that the evaluations could be slanted by transitory emotions. Perhaps rather than being an act of boldness this was an act of trust -- trust in the students to judge the course and my teaching of it fairly, looking at the big picture rather than just the exam score or how they felt that day. Trusting them seemed only fair, as I had just asked them to trust that their final grades would reflect an honest evaluation of their work and learning over the course of the whole semester, and not the scarily low score on the exam I just handed them. Results from the assessment won't be available for a few weeks. We'll see. As for the exam, I clearly missed the mark. The students thought it too long, but even after grading it I don't think that was the real. Had I given most students twice as much time, they would not have scored significantly better. They simply didn't understand the material well enough. This exam mostly covered computation with sound, with a little bit about text and files at the end. For some reason, the students were not prepared well enough for this exam. I do not have a good sense of why just yet. The easy answer for the instructor is always that they students didn't study hard enough, or take the material seriously. While that can be true, it's usually just a reflexive excuse that saves the instructor's own feelings. In what way did my in-class exercises, demonstrations, and explanations not do the job? More work to be done... -----