Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Gems. From Dr. Amelia.

Gave my midterms last week. The essays were genuinely terrible - incomplete and lots of factual incorrectness (like did you know that NATO invented child labor?).

I let them bring in an index card. In the first half of the semester, I did 3 Powerpoint lectures, and most of them copied the words off the slides onto their cards and then, in some cases directly onto their test with no evidence of thinking or understanding. I actually got the sentence "As is well-known, "tangles" is an important word to understand in relationship to hamster fur."

So, do I try to reteach the material? Go over in grotesque detail how to write an essay on a college test and re-give it? Let them go down in flames?

I have never seen it this bad, and I am sincerely at a loss.


  1. If I think that I'm partly at fault, I let them have them back as take-home redos for up to 50% credit on what they missed (I assign the mean of what they earned in class and what they earn as homework). Quantitative sciency stuff, rather than essays, but I think the spirit is the same.

    I've even been know to pick out particular problems that I think were too much of a step from the in-class and homework for this treatment.

    Upside: if they really need to learn it, then this gives them a second chance without eating up class time for a complete re-teach. (I do usually, need to do the next unit slower so that I can emphasize the material that is carried forward almost as much as the new stuff.)

    Downside: You mean I have to grade these again?!?

  2. “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey ... "

    And then Sun Tzu executed the Duke's two favourite concubines.

  3. I think PP's got it right (though I like V's answer as well): don't reteach it (you've taught it, and they've got the powerpoints, and probably a textbook as well), but do give them a chance to revise, and in the course of doing so wrestle with the material, and perhaps actually absorb it.

    I'd also argue that spending a class period going over in "grotesque detail how to write a college essay" might well be worth it, since clearly they don't know what you expect (okay; maybe I'm not entirely in agreement with Sun Tzu on this one; it's possible for directions to be clear to the instructor, but not to the student, because there's a lack of shared vocabulary/assumptions, and/or* because the student is following the directions from the last n teachers (s)he had, perhaps aimed at passing those @#$! high-stakes standardized tests). As a writing teacher, I always very much appreciate it when other teachers take time to talk about writing with their classes (because we can't succeed without reinforcement in other classes, and because that gives other proffies a chance to talk about the conventions valued/expected in the sorts of writing done in their disciplines).

    I'd even argue that it might be worth giving them class time to revise/to guide them through starting the process of revision (maybe writing and workshopping a paragraph-length section in the course of a class period). That will give them the chance to ask questions as they come up, and will reduce the chances of your getting back stuff copied from the powerpoints, textbook, internet, etc. You might even provide them with the notes you think would be useful to have on an index card to answer the section with which you deal in class, so they have a model of that as well.

    And then you'll have "lost" a week of class (but perhaps have some exercises that you can integrate into class time *before* the first exam next time; it sounds like you're doing mostly active-learning approaches with only periodic lectures anyway). Assuming this is a gen ed/intro-level class, the content vs. skills tradeoff is probably worthwhile.

    And, yes, you'll have a bunch more grading to do (and probably -- one hopes -- some visits to office hours, and worried emails, and such as well). Rubrics may make it a bit easier, but that's still the price of good teaching (and why the whole thing is a labor-intensive, ever-changing endeavor, and why we need loads that allow wiggle room for this sort of on-the-fly revising of plans, and so on).

    1. *I learned yesterday from a copyeditor's comments on a chapter manuscript of mine that is almost (finally!) ready to see the light of day/publication that "and/or" is not allowed in MLA style. Good thing CM doesn't enforce MLA style in the comments; my personal style (or lack thereof) would be severely hampered.

    2. What do they expect us to use instead of "and/or", "and or or"? That's just stupid.

    3. Yes, you have to choose. The copyeditor went for "or" in every case; I changed one to "and." He strikes me as generally a very good copyeditor, and I appreciated his work, and I was definitely overusing "and/or" (and a couple of other words/word combinations, which he helpfully flagged), but I'm not sure forbidding it entirely is the path to precision.

    4. I hope he let you indulge your taste for parentheses. Congrats on the pub!

    5. Thanks! I don't think there were any parentheses (and at least if there were, they all came in matched pairs, which doesn't always happen when I'm left to my own devices). That seems to be a longstanding habit of mine, going back to handwritten childhood letters to friends and family. Believe it or not, there are probably fewer now that electronic editing is an option.

  4. I sometimes go back when it's classwide, redo stuff. Reteach.

    In my own experience, it's helped a small group of students, and been a waste for others. It made me feel better. The problem I have found is that when it comes up AGAIN in the same semester, the demand for more help (again) is high, and not nearly as successful.

    Again, I'm nostalgic. When I was in college and my class tanked...well that was what happened. I know my profs didn't handwring like many of us do from time to time.

  5. For the factual part, how about giving them a week to come up to speed on their own, and then do a test you can scan? That holds them accountable with minimal extra grading time.

    For the writing, I'm with Cassandra about using some class time to explain and model what a college-level essay looks like. One way to do this is to put a prompt on the board and ask students to write. A few minutes in, I circulate to (1) see how they're doing and (2) make sure *everyone* is writing. Then.I ask the class to break down the question, underlining and diagramming on the board. Urge them to do the same with a set of sample essay questions and encourage office visits for "tips and feedback" about these essays they will write on their own. A few will come in and do better on the next exam. The rest will crash and burn again, but you will have offered help, and that's enough.

    I empathize, Amelia.

    1. I like this idea. You could avoid the lost-time/coverage problem by implementing it with questions that help them absorb new material (i.e. material originally scheduled to be covered during that class period, or thereabouts), still hold them responsible for the earlier material, but not increase your grading load (at least so much). You'd also avoid the frustration of re-grading work that didn't get any better (though you'd still have the frustration of grading new work that showed no sign that your efforts had any effect, but at least that would be interspersed with work by students who made some actual progress).

  6. I am right there with you, Amelia, and I'm giving myself tonight to think it over and plan something. I'm leaning toward...uhoh...nothing. I believe I did what was right the first time. I fear that by going back I might be opening the whole course of study up for revision.

    I can't do that. We're too far in. I'll make sure I do a better job reviewing this material for later, but I think it was right the first time.

    Trust your instinct!


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