Friday, December 11, 2009

Collaboration II: Electric Boogaloo

Today's collaborative extra credit session for Calc I is slightly better attended than Monday's was, with 26 people plugging away at problems while they partake of tooth-rotting holiday-themed treats, 7 more than the 19 who showed on Monday.

I'm not sure if this should be surprising: final exams end this evening, so in a way it's shocking to see so many people still engaged enough to make it to this session; on the other hand, perhaps enough people are desperate enough to do anything to add a few points to their grades that attendance is thereby boosted.

I don't sense desperation on most people's parts, though. Of course, everyone wants to get a good grade, but as a whole the students in these two sections of Calc I have done a good job in focusing their efforts on understanding and not on realizing largely artifical benchmarks of excellence. "I think our class already de-emphasizes grades," one of my students told me just a couple of hours ago as we were talking about my plans to further de-emphasize them next semester in Calc II. "I've felt all along that as long as I'm working on the homework and keeping up then I'm going to get a B."

"For the most part, that's true," I told her. "If you're doing what you need to to stay involved and engaged in class, and you're finishing the homework and doing decently on the exams, you'll get a C or a B, and most people in my classes get Cs and Bs. If you go above and beyond the basic expectations, you'll get an A, but you have to work pretty hard to get a D or an F."

I talked with her a bit about what a portfolio-based course would look like, and I admitted that I still haven't worked out all of the details for myself. "You have to turn in a grade at the end of the semester anyway, right?" she asked. "How would you do that?"

"It would be determined by looking at the products of the work you'd done throughout the semester and making sure that it demonstrates your achievement of various learning goals that we'd agreed upon in advance. Maybe we'd have said 'You need to be able to compute integrals of these types,' or maybe 'You need to show that you know some basic problem-solving techniques,' and I'd look to see that your portfolio contains assignments that show you can compute those integrals, and assignments that show you can solve some complicated problems."

I think we both ended the conversation with a better understanding of what our class would look like if I switched to portfolio-based grading, but I indicated that I'm still not sure that I'll implement that system in Calc II next semester. "I may try it out in my upper-division class," I told her, "and if it works out well there I'll contemplate using it the next time I teach a calc class of some kind."

But is this fair? I think now: one of the aspects of my own teaching I'm most critical of is the relative eagerness with which I apply techniques like inquiry-based learning and discovery learning and whatnot in my upper-level courses and eschew those same techniques in lower-level courses. To some extent this is understandable, since my lower-level courses are generally considerably larger than my upper-level ones, and such student-centered methods are much more easily implemented in smaller classes. Would portfolios present the same difficulties?

I don't think so. So why not go for it? Maybe I'm just clutching uncharacteristically conservatively at tradition, afraid to take that long, long leap all at once, preferring a few baby steps in its place.

I'll sort it out.

For now I'm going to sit back, close my eyes, and enjoy the pleasant hum of my students' voices as they puzzle through their extra credit problems.


Bret Benesh said...

I find that there is another barrier toward experimenting too much in lower level courses: department expectations. Most colleagues do not mind experimentation so much if it has no possibility of affecting them. So it is much easier to experiment in a terminal course. Experimenting with a class that is a pre-req for others has a higher potential social cost for the experimenting professor--a failed experiment could lead to complaints about "unprepared" students.

Of course, I should think about the potential benefits, too. I might find that experimenting in pre-req courses cause my colleagues to congratulate me on having such wonderfully prepared students.

DocTurtle said...

Bret: your excellent comments deserve robust responses!

Your point is a good one, and one to keep in mind. In my experience I've never had students complain about being underprepared once they advance to the next stage...but admittedly, with all the nontraditional things I've done I've not yet taken the portfolio plunge.

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