Blog Project: 2013

So I’m doing the blog project in one section of Calculus for Life Science I, and so far, the students seems to really be embracing it.

I had five students transfer into the class after they heard that there was going to be a huge project worth 50% of the course grade, and that exams were going to be worth a total of 35%.  I spoke to each of them, and made sure they were aware that this didn’t mean the class would be easier, and they would probably have to do more work rather than less.  They still joined our class.  (We also had two students who transferred out, one because he didn’t have the prerequisite).

So I have a lovely class of 17 students, most of whom seem enthusiastic about the blogging project, and at least for now, none of whom are resisting the idea of this nontraditional math assessment.

The blog project will be graded three times, at week 5, week 10, and week 15. I’m calling these “checkpoints” for lack of a better name. For the first checkpoint, students have to schedule a meeting with me to go over their blog. They have to have six posts by then, and they’ll have until the Monday of week 6 to make changes to improve their grade. So next week, I’ve got a bunch of student meetings to look forward to.

The grading scheme for this class is:
Blog Project Checkpoint 1   10%
Blog Project Checkpoint 2   15%
Blog Project Checkpoint 3   25%
Daily Grade Average     15%
Exam Average     25%
Final Exam     10%

One of the things that surprised me with the first time I did the blog project was how much students objected to getting letter grades for the project.  So numerical grades it is.  Not that I feel obligated to give them everything they prefer, but when I’m asking them to come this far out of their comfort zone, I can keep the superficials familiar.

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Grading Philosophy

I’ve decided to put my grading philosophy on my pseudo-syllabus.  Many students come in with strange ideas of what grades are/ought to be, that I’ve decided to be very explicit about what they are in my class.

Grading Philosophy

A grade is a way of classifying a students performance in the class.

D : The student has a minimally acceptable level of understanding and skill

C : The student demonstrates mastery of the majority of skills and at least superficial understanding of all concepts

B :  The student demonstrates mastery of all skills and solid understanding of concepts

A : The student demonstrates excellence

Excellence goes beyond mastery.  Not only has the student mastered the skills from our curriculum, they understand the concepts at a deep enough level that they have the ability to apply their knowledge in a new and different context.  They can make connections between elements of the material being studied.  I want to emphasize that making connections for yourself is very different from recalling connections that have been pointed out to you.  One is a symptom of A-level work, the other is something that can be found in C-level work.

The important thing to recognize here is that an true evaluation of this can only come toward the end of the semester.  Grades given during the semester should be approached from the point of view of feedback.  Feedback should not be confused with praise or blame.  I give feedback to make you aware of the current quality of your work, so that you can adjust your performance.  I am always happy to meet with you individually and help you come up with strategies to improve your mathematical performance.

Later on in the syllabus I talk about the actual grading policies that mean that your course grade can recover from a bad exam (and this semester I’m going to point out from the beginning that quiz grades are weighted so small that they should be viewed as opportunities for getting feedback, rather than a time to worry about points.  Now when we go over all that, I have this to point them back to.

Also, I think I’ve decided the word of the semester is “Feedback”.  More on that later.

The Point of Points

So last week, I commented on a post over at Frank Noschese’s blog (actually, I commented on another comment)

Robert Talbert commented:

I can say that the average university student will not do work unless it has points attached — not because they’re lazy, but because they are chronically overscheduled. An assignment’s point value is, for them, a measure of its significance. An item with no points translates as “optional”, and optional stuff might catch the interest of a student, but they’ll look at such an item only if they have time with no competing claims on it, which they don’t. That’s not a failing of the students necessarily, just a fact of the schedules of those students.

Interestingly, the one exception to what I just said is online homework. I assign 2-3 problems each class meeting that’s set up and done through WeBWorK (http://webwork.maa.org/). The online homework is worth 5% of their grade total, and there are over a hundred such problems assigned in a semester, so the point value of each item is vanishingly small. But I’ve seen students attempt some of those problems dozens of times before getting them right. That’s a mystery to me, and I feel if I understood that mystery better, it might tell me something about the other stuff I assign.

You can read my original comment over there,  but this has been popping back into my head repeatedly this week.  For my students, I really don’t think that they necessarily judge an assignment’s importance by its point value, or sometimes even recognize the great disparity in values of assessments—I’ve had students panic about one bad homework grade, even though that homework assignment counts as just over a tenth of a percentage point of their course average.  I give homework and quiz grades out of 10 and exam grades out of 100 in an effort to encourage them to think of some as smaller than others.  I used to be afraid to emphasize exactly how much smaller they were, thinking that students wouldn’t do the work.  But more recently, I’ve started actually listening to the students (imagine that!) and they’ve really internalized the idea that doing homework is necessary in order to master the concept.  So now, when students express concern about their poor quiz grades, I remind them that I want them to think of quizzes as practice for the tests (actually I’ve always done that) and that their entire quiz average is 5% of their grade, while a single exam is 20% of their grade (bringing that part up is the new part).  And that takes some of the grade-focus off, and then we can talk about about how sometimes you don’t realize how well you know something until you’re in a quiz/test situation, so the quiz is a chance to learn something about your own skill level.

Of course, that raises the question of why grade quizzes at all.  If I think of them as a practice exercise, why should that receive a grade?  Feedback could still be given without a grade.   I wonder whether students would take quizzes seriously if they weren’t graded.  My gut feeling is that many of them would, but some of them would dismiss them.  It would be an interesting experiment.  (But I have several other ways I want to experiment on my students before I get to that.)

But I would be surprised if there were very many people out there that thought that I shouldn’t grade quizzes.  There are, however, a lot of people out there who think that I shouldn’t grade homework.

I have made the choice to collect and grade homework every class day.

But I don’t think that points for homework is what makes students do it.  Points are almost completely irrelevant.  I think what makes students do the homework is the deadline.  And I’m not sure how to go about assigning due dates without giving at least some points.  Honestly, I don’t really care to.  Five percent out of the course grade comes from homework.  I’m okay with that.