Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Sippy: A question on Ethics

First, I would like to propose something smaller than a Big Thirsty. Why? I'm not terribly thirsty, just curious. The weekends often seem to calm down here, and I propose a Saturday Sippy--like a wine tasting, but for general teaching/pedagogical inquiries. I want a sip, not a guzzle a la Big Thirsty.

My Saturday Sippy is this: Is it ethical to only have high-stakes assignments (i.e. midterm and final only, homework recommended/small portion of grade) rather than more of a hand-holding style classroom (daily graded homework, frequent quizzes, in addition to examinations)? Without outing myself, the traditional pedagogy in my field leans more towards hand-holding. The truth behind my question is that I don't want to work any longer/harder than absolutely necessary to do the minimum for my new, more autonomous and shittier paying job.


  1. In my setting (UL, 'squeezed middle' university), we are NOT ALLOWED low-stakes assignments - too much work/pressure for the students. The faculty sets a word count tariff for a module along with some equivalencies (e.g. a Level 200 module will be assessed via 5000 words or equivalent, 2500 words = 1 x 2 hour exam etc.). The department has also set a 'no more than three assessment items per module' rule, meaning that a student taking three modules in a semester (our normal full timer) will not have more than nine assessment items.

    This isn't ideal, as it encourages the bunching of all the assessment items at two points, mid-term and end of semester, so that students complain they're over-assessed.

    We can also have formative work, but aren't allowed to apply penalties for not doing it, so of course very few students do it... sigh.

  2. It is ethical, but it isn't good practice.

  3. Shitty pay or huge classes = no daily homework. It's not ethical to pay people crap or cram students into huge classes.

    However, may I introduce you to my friend Mr. Scantron? Mechanical grading = a handful of lower-stakes quizzes.

    1. And if you're using a LMS and don't even want to feed the Scantrons through the machine, you can probably do quizzes-in-advance-of-class on the Scantron. This works best for content- and/or reading-based classes of course; skills (e.g. writing) classes are harder, but I hope they're not teaching writing in really large classes yet (though our administration would certainly like us to try).

  4. Grumpy Academic: Wow. That's a level of persnickity handholding I've never even heard of before. That's not education: that's tiddlywinks.

    I'm with F&T and WW: it may not be pedagogically ideal, but under the circumstances....

  5. I agree with F&T; the ethical question has to be expanded to include the instructor. How much work is it reasonable to expect you to do? Answer: no more than 60 hrs/week (averaged over the term) should be spent teaching during term time, and that is an absolute maximum. Also, no more than 20 hrs/class (averaged over the term) during term time, and that again is an absolute maximum (since if you're teaching less than 3 classes per term either you're a contract worker, you're getting paid badly and they don't own you, or your job has a significant research component as well.)

    If you're teaching 4 classes/week, each one only gets an average of 15 hrs/week each. And so on.

    So, frequent small quizzes or similar depend entirely on the size of the class. I was teaching an Early Hamster Language class with 15 students last term. They got a weekly quiz and a weekly assignment, 4 major quizzes and an exam. I was also teaching a 300-person Intro to Hamster Theory class. They got 4 scantron quizzes and a paper.

    Maybe more hand-holding is pedagogically sounder, but I don't think it's necessary. Every class I took as an undergrad had a midterm/paper/exam format. Classes were much, much smaller then. And I seem to recall that nobody felt hard done by, and we all learned a lot if we had a mind to.

    1. Oh, Merely, I wish I had a full load. I only managed to beg a single class at a CC. They haven't taught my subject at this CC in at least five years, and every time I asked a question about what part of the subject they wanted emphasized for transfer to the big State Uni down the way, they say, "Up to you."

      The pay is the most painful part. I make more in my current job, but my contract is officially up and with the current financial crisis, I refused to wait until August to find out if I was going to have a job for the fall.

      So, I gave notice at my current job, and decided to take the new gig. My OH has a real job, and will support me, but it will be the first time that I am won't be making enough to put my own roof over my own head. It is my misery. We don't want to get married. Not yet anyways.

      If I do too much in terms of assignments in the new job, then the pay will become smaller and smaller until it is less than minimum wage. At my current gig, I make between $60 to $80 an hour for all the work I do, including health insurance. The amount of prep work I have put into the new job has already got me making $15/hour assuming it only takes me 50 hours total for the quarter to do all the work, including instruction. I also will have zero benefits, but I will (through some bureaucratic magic that I can't explain without outing myself) be able to keep my current health benefits for a year if I pay for them out of pocket.

  6. I don't think it's unethical. Most of the classes I took at my public SLAC many years ago had just a midterm and a final or some combination of that plus research essays--all high stakes.

    At LD3C, I do a lot of low-stakes stuff. I find it necessary for a number of reasons, but it's tea-partying time consuming.

  7. I agree with the comments above; it's not pedagogically ideal, especially in introductory classes (I'd actually argue that weaning them off hand-holding/scaffolding and expecting them to do some of it for themselves should be a part of upper-level and certainly grad classes), but it's not unethical, either. You do what you can in the time they're paying you for (and you leave time to take care of yourself and your larger interests, whether those be health, household, relationships, career-building, or whatever. If they're treating you as contingent/disposable, you need to reserve time and energy to build toward the next stage in your life/career, whatever it may be).

    If you can get away with it, I'd lean toward having students do more than you can actually read/grade in any detail, and employing some sort of very simple credit/no credit, complete/incomplete, ontime/late model of grading. Many students will skip those assignments, or do them so perfunctorily that they barely get anything out of them, but, if you design them well (and that isn't always too hard/time consuming for someone who knows the field; obviously, don't labor over something most students are going to ignore), the students who choose to spend time on them will get something out of them, and that will almost certainly be reflected in the higher-stakes assignments you do grade carefully.

    All this goes out the window if you are being closely watched/assessed, and/or if student evaluations are a big part of the equation, and they're going to complain about every "late" grade or less-than-minutely-assessed assignment. In that case, you assign what you can grade quickly and thoroughly, and *only* that. In such situations, scantron and/or the LMS quiz tool (and, if necessary, the publisher's test bank, since writing the #$%! questions takes time, and arguing about the right answer to questions you wrote takes even more) are your friends.

    1. Actually, the more I think about it, in the situation you describe, making heavy use of publisher-created content, if available, may well be the way to go. If you have some leeway in choosing the text, pick the one with the best ready-to-go "extras," and use them. It will never be as good as a hand-crafted course, but it might help you hit a happy medium here, and you can always borrow the publisher's materials explaining why their/your approach is the most pedagogically sound one. Put a bit of work into a few individualized assignments and/or activities that *you* care about, to keep you mentally alive and give you material in the case of internal review and/or searching for a new job, but try to let somebody else create, and, if possible, assess, the majority of the week-to-week stuff.

    2. The CC is using an outdated textbook because they have the book rental racket going on. The material has lots of errors, and I do not get access to the LMS until about a week before I start. I've never used their LMS before, and although I know I can learn quickly, I will only have three days in the new city before the job starts.

      I'm doing what I can right now to make sure that the class goes smoothly. The more prep I do now, the less prep I will have to do later, since New Boss hopes to offer my subject every quarter there is sufficient student interest, as long as I work out and can keep my class minimum.

    3. So "everything is up to you" *but* the textbook? And the textbook dates from when they last gave the class, over five years ago? This does not sound good.

      Given the scenario you describe (which, frankly, sounds less and less attractive the more details you provide; am I correct in assuming this switch gets you something besides the guarantee of one class now, such as moving closer to/in with your OH?), I'd be inclined to keep tests and other materials you create *off* the LMS as much as possible, so there's no question of whom they belong to, at least until the setup is a bit more clear and/or secure. Creating an up-to-date class using an outdated textbook is a pretty big job, however you look at it, and you don't want to do it only to find that someone else (someone already in the department, someone in the department's SO or protege or whatever) is then hired to carry on, using your approach and/or materials.

      If you're going to do this (and it sounds like you are), it sounds like you're going to need to devote a substantial portion of the summer to prep, and probably resign yourself to focusing almost solely on the course for the first quarter, concentrating on creating activities that are easily repeatable, adaptable if/when they update the textbook, and very quickly gradeable. After that, you *might* have a course you could tend in a time that bears something approaching a reasonable relationship to the salary (though I still think that's very, very hard to do on adjunct pay anywhere, since adjunct pay simply isn't reasonable).

      Can you tell that what I really want to say/ask is "are you *sure* you want to do this?" Do you want one of us to ask that?

      Do you think you might have any bargaining power if the course goes well and demand is steady? If the college really needs the class, but hasn't been able to staff it for years, you should have some leverage. If it doesn't really need it, well, I'm back to "are you sure you really want to do this?" Because however you structure tests, assignments, etc., I don't think there's any way to avoid it dominating your life for the quarter, plus some of the summer. And at the pay you've been offered, and given the lack of guarantees, that doesn't necessarily sound like a good investment.

    4. A bit more detail. I cold-called the CC and asked for the job. I looked up the chair in my field and sent my resume in blind.

      Once the chair realized I was serious about being physically on Swamplandia campus to teach about Swamps, and I didn't want to online teach, the chair was elated.

      I tried to negotiate for a better starting salary, but because I cold called them, they want some guarantees that I am not a train wreck and a half. If first class goes well, they'll give me the rest in the sequence, and I can fill them up with bodies, they'll let me do Swamps 1, Swamps 2, and if it goes amazingly well, they'll give me Bogs 1.

      From the start, I have been told that there will be no full time employment, but that there is a big Uni within reasonable driving distance if I want to seek a position over there.

      I'm only taking the job because I don't want a gap in my work history. My friend who does hiring in the CORPORATE WORLD, said to me that taking anything more than six months off screams, "I really just want to be a housewife, so give me shit pay and hours until I quit and go live off hubby's salary." My friend looked at my angry/horrified face and continued, "It's not PC, but it's the truth. Work at fucking McDonald's if you have to, but do not have a gap in your work history. If you get pegged as a housewife wannabe, you're screwed."

      If all goes well, I'll get two courses the following term, and I'll be allowed to repeat Swamps 1 while teaching Swamps 2 for the first time. While the course prep is exhausting, I will be able to reuse all this material and the plans with only minor modifications the following term.

    5. Ah, okay. That sounds more like a carefully-considered gamble, with some clear parameters. I made a geographical decision at one point in my career (because it was clear the job market wasn't going to make it for me, and I value connection to a community), and haven't really regretted it, though it does mean I'm full-time but not tenure-track (whether I'd be in a tenure-track position if I hadn't made that decision, however, is an open question; I watched friends be geographically flexible for years without coming out any better than I did).

      Who knows? Maybe you'll even manage to build a program, if not a FT job. I hope you get control of textbook choices soon, but it sounds like that, too, might come once you're a known quantity.

      The inability-to-step-out thing is tricky. While it's especially true in the corporate world, I have the feeling it's also true, perhaps even more so, in academia. I wonder how many of us are hesitant to give up teaching altogether, even for a year or two while we experiment with something else, because we suspect we'll never get "in" again, or at least would never be considered for TT jobs?

  8. It's completely ethical though there is one thing that I am not necessarily a fan of in classes with all high stakes assignments.
    I have had classes with two or three grades and for the most part I was just as happy (if not more) in them as I was in the classes with homework, quizzes, and other low-stakes stuff. Not to say my happiness matters at all, but either way I have to get my shit together and learn the material, do the work, etc.

    My main pet peeve of sorts is weighing two high stakes grades the same. More specifically this is in a class with only a midterm and a final and in which the final is cumulative. So if you're giving a cumulative final I'd say weigh it more than the midterms/mini midterms or whatever you're giving but that's just me.

    Other than that do whatever the heck you want- it's your class. My friend has a professor who assigns small writing assignments that don't count towards the final grade but if you "fail" three (I think) then for each failed one after that she shaves a third of a letter grade off your final grade. Not sure if it kept the snowflakes in check but it sounds like an interesting idea.

  9. I'm going to go way out on an unrealistic limb here and suggest that if it's the amount of material they retain at the end of the course that really counts for anything, then there should just be one final exam worth 100% of the final grade. Lots of homework of course, for practice and feedback, but none of it should count towards the final - the students should just do it because it helps them to learn....

    Bwaahahahaha! Teeheehee! I knew I couldn't say that and keep a straight face!

    Actually, I do believe what I just said, and in an ideal world, the student's mastery of hamster husbandry 101, would be assessed via a careful and nuanced test at some unannounced time after the course is finished. But I realize that is hopelessly unrealistic down here on planet earth.

    So I try to structure the grades so that assignments intended for feedback are worth just enough to get the students to do them, but not so much that they worry about the grades and are afraid to try. Then a cumulative final (worth more than the midterm as Wanderer suggests) Of course the assignments are as quick to mark as I can make them, and all of the forgoing should be adjusted to how much time the uni is actually paying you for.

    1. Agreed. What you describe in the first paragraph is, of course, the English system (or at least still was the English system as of 20+ years ago, when I had a brief encounter with British public (private)-school teaching. There are downsides, especially when dealing with students in their early teens (hard to impose discipline when you can't threaten them with pop quizzes), but there are major upsides.

      Some of the best students I get are those who do, in fact, face big, cumulative exams at the end of their educations, e.g. aspiring R.N.s Even though what I teach won't be included, they seem to get the idea that learning is cumulative, and that carries over even into non-major classes.

  10. A 100% final exam would be a terrible idea. You'll end up with everyone learning practically nothing because they'll take bong hits for the first 17 weeks and cram for the last 1. Probably manage to pass too...because undergrads are like cockroaches...hard to kill.

    Personal philosophy is no single item should be work more than 30-35% of the overall grade. At the same time having 5-10% items or "padders" like attendance/participation is also silly.

    1. participation isn't necessarily a "padder" - in higher level classes. it is a good demonstration of several things: attention to assignments, ability to summarize and explain those readings, and the ability to speak publicly.

  11. "Unethical" isn't the right word here. I'd say, "regrettable."

    Let's do a little math. Suppose you're given a class of 100 students, and no help for grading. If you spend 10 minutes grading each student's homework every week, it comes to 16.67 hours. Add the three hours per week you spend in class, and 20 minutes per week for prep time (a very generous assumption, considering that whenever I teach any class for the first time it takes me 5-8 hours of prep time per classroom hour), and it comes to 20 hours per week. That's half the 40-hour work week promised to the American worker by Woodrow Wilson.

    If you have more students, need to do more prep time, teach other classes, do service for the university, or do research and publish, you will need more time. Therefore, I agree with F&T that Mr. Scantron can be your friend. Never mind how Jacques Barzun has railed against multiple choice: I doubt he ever had to teach a class of over 30.

    I use Scantrons for some of the weekly homework in my general-ed astronomy class for 100 non-majors. It helps to mix the questions up each semester, so if they're going to cheat by using solved homework from previous semesters, they'll at least have to read the questions.

    I also have some assignments that are only writing. One is to describe, in 1-3 sentences, why the sky is blue and in another 1-3 sentences why sunsets are red, and to do both in a way that a 9-year-old could understand. (Therefore, just writing "Rayleigh scattering" and "Mie scattering" won't count as correct answers, since even I wouldn't have understood what those big, funny words meant when I was 9.) Another homework assignment is, in 50-100 words, explain how we know that Earth is round, or that Earth moves, or that atoms and molecules exist, or that Earth is 4.6 billion years old (and again, just writing "radioactive dating" or "fossils" isn't enough: they will need to explain what the funny words mean), or that stars are similar to the Sun, only farther away. One-page papers and similar short writing assignments can indeed be useful for large classes. I grade then on a three-point scale: -1 for poor composition, -1 for poor research, and -1 for being factually just plain wrong, as for the student who claimed one can prove that Earth moves because one can see stars rise and set throughout the night. (The ancients thought this was obvious proof that Earth was stationary and the stars went around it: how do we know that's wrong?)

    Of course, I have tenure and seniority, and therefore have the luxury of caring about my students' education. There's trouble on the horizon: my departmental colleagues are having trouble supporting their medical physics program, and want me to take another intro astronomy section of 100 students. Aside from this not doing my astronomy program any good, another bad effect of this may be that I have cut back on homework. There are only 168 hours in the week, you know.

  12. CC and F&T pretty much hit it dead on, but I'll add my .02 worth.

    High stakes testing is the way of the world in American secondary education. The HS across the street from my campus makes doing homework virtually worthless--their grades are determined by tests and quizzes. Teachers still assign homework, but it's not worth very much and it is possible to pass the class without doing the practice.

    Homework (low-stakes work, if you prefer) is practice. Practice is what helps you get better at whatever you're trying to learn how to do (cf. Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" and the 10,000 hour rule). At least that's how I see it. I used to require more of it when I was young and fresh and didn't have a family or a social life. I still don't have a social life, but I have an SO and 2 kids under age 8, so I had to stop assigning weekly 1-page chapter summaries because I couldn't grade/give useful feedback on all of them. [I teach mostly comp, BTW, so it's a lot of grading.]

    My compromise is to do as others have said: I use the LMS to have them practice. They are required to write a minimum 150-word post almost every week for the first 3/4 of the semester, plus two responses to their fellow students' posts. Each post is worth 10 points, the two responses are 5 total. I can grade them relatively quickly using my rubric, or I can grade them even more quickly pass/fail.

    I had more students fail my class this semester because they skipped the "homework" than I have at almost any other point in my teaching career, because a 100-point hole in a 500-point semester is hard to overcome, especially when the students who aren't doing the practice aren't good enough to begin with. Vicious cycle. And they don't get it.

    The stakes are going to get higher in my comp classes, because I had students get Ds on the final project and still pass because they *HAD* done the homework--and that is not a good thing. They should be able to meet the minimum performance standards for a C on the research paper to pass the course, and if they don't, they shouldn't be able to pass the class with a C. I think about what my colleagues would think when they get the dullards who ignore MLA format or don't bother with a thesis AFTER they've managed to pass my class...

  13. I have decided!

    70% will be examinations (quizzes, midterm, final). 10% will be daily homework that will be C/NC. 20% will require outside work/practice/preparation but will be graded during class time.

    This way, I'll only really need to grade the quizzes and exams, and the daily work will benefit them for the exams.

    Thanks everyone!

  14. When I was in college, there were no low-stakes assignments outside the introductory foreign language classes, which I think had quizzes. Class grades were put together out of 3-4 elements, sometimes equally weighted, sometimes not. Something like 1) major writing assignment 2) minor writing assignment 3) midterm and 4) final. I do not recall trauma or a deep feeling of abuse or resentment. Very few of my cohort are alcoholics.

    Where I am going to school now, to prep for my second career, there is only one formal, graded assignment per class, either a paper or a test. I still do not feel traumatized.


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