Monday, August 6, 2012

Implementing MLCS: Grading

The issue of grading in MLCS is in some ways the same as every class and yet also very different.  Like any other class, we need to assess learning and hold students accountable for the work of the course.  But the work is not like an algebra class, due to its diverse nature.  It's not a linear, skill-based course; it spirals and deepens over time.  So assessing it poses challenges.  Here are some ideas we've found to be successful in this course:

1.  Attendance is everything.

MLCS hinges on students interacting while working on rich problems and having lively discussions.  That cannot be replicated by watching a video or getting a friend's notes.  Those measures can help on rare occasions but they are not sufficient on a regular basis.  We have seen attendance and work ethic as two of the strongest indicators of success in the course.  Students have to be in class and do the work there as well as go home and do more work there.

To ensure good attendance, we have an incredibly strict attendance policy:  after the 3rd absence (for a course meeting 3x a week), the student receives an F.  There are no exceptions for pregnancies, military service, or long term illness.  That sounds very cruel.  In the past, we did make some exceptions and those students did not pass because they were not in class.  So the student who has to leave for military service for an extended period of time, while possibly very conscientious and dedicated, cannot overcome the structure of the course and be successful.  So we eliminate the possibly of a student thinking they'll be the exception and have a strict policy.  The reality is that students who miss 4, 5, 6 or more times don't pass.  Might as well have a policy that addresses that upfront.

This is the same approach many lab-based science classes like chemistry and biology take.  Labs cannot be made up; you are present or you get a zero.  Some things cannot be replicated at a student's convenience.

We've debated about having points for attendance, but instead opted for the real world approach that employers take.  There is no reward in real-life for showing up; it's an expected part of the job.  But there are absolutely consequences for failing to show up.

What does it mean to attend?  Students must be present from the beginning to the end of the period, awake, and participating.  Texting, coming in late or leaving early, or just generally doing nothing does not count as present.  Students do not like this but again, it's really no different than what an employer expects.

2.  Points for tests are a substantial part of the grade.

It is very important to us that we have some very typical components to the course so that students can transition into a more traditional course without issue.  One of those components is a test each unit.  The tests count for 60-70% of the course grade.  We also give a comprehensive final exam that counts twice as much as a unit test.

Our tests mirror the emphasis of the course:  skills and applications are in equal proportion.  Skill questions (worth 50% of the test grade) give students a way to show their skill knowledge in a theoretical format.  Applications questions (worth 50% of the test grade) show if students can apply those skills in context.  All test questions have a similar feel as homework and quiz problems but are not necessarily identical.  The course isn't about memorizing a "type" of problem and mimicking a solution.  It's intended to grow students into problem solvers who are prepared for college level expectations.  Thus, we do not give practice tests that look like the real test with numbers changed.  Instead, we lay out a 5-step process for studying in the book so that students really understand what it means to "study" math.  In that 5-step plan are many helpful problems that look like test questions, giving students a good preparation without reducing standards.

3.  Hold students accountable with homework and quizzes.

Students need to practice regularly so we use MyMathLab for homework and quizzes for skills in the course.  Students have MML assignments often, with several due dates each week.  All assignments earn points.

The other type of homework in the course is paper, conceptual homework.  These problems (not exercises) are more involved and require connecting skills and concepts.  They are challenging and because of that, there are not 50 of them in a lesson.  There are fewer and students are expected to do them all.

The problem with paper homework is holding students accountable.  I'm not willing to collect homework and grade it.  If we create worksheets with a sampling of homework problems, students just copy from one another.  We tried that approach of collecting worksheets regularly, hoping students would appreciate the time out of class to work on problems.  They just cheated.  We also tried short quizzes to start each class over one problem from paper homework.  These quizzes took too much time and didn't encourage students to work enough. 

So this fall we will have regular quizzes, around once per week, on paper based on paper homework.  They will be announced ahead of time so that students can make sure all paper homework is done and understood.  Students can't use their notes.  If they've really done the paperwork and worked with problems until they understand them, the quiz will be easy.  If they are only doing MML work, the quiz will be very hard.  But students need that wake up call when the consequences (in terms of points) are lower so that the same mistake is not made on the test.  That would be a much more costly error.

We will budget enough time to allow for the quizzes in class.  We've used this approach in other classes with success.  Some students will still not do the paper homework, but this measure is as good as any as encouraging that type of work while keeping the instructor's workload manageable and maintaining integrity in the grades.

4.  Encourage accountability on projects.

We use a unit project that is done in groups each unit.  Students get a group grade, meaning there is one grade and all students in the group earn the same number of points.  There is one exception:  if a student has not pulled his or her weight, we reserve the right to reduce the points they would receive or to give them 0 points.

The problem is that there will always be students who allow others to do the work and benefit from it.  To combat this, we have a substantial number of points on each test with a problem related to the project.  It becomes very clear who did the work. 


We want students to work very hard and to reward the growth they make.  So in the spring we tried a very non-traditional grading scheme that was built on a gaming/mastery approach.  In some ways it succeeded, but students felt confused about their grades and we were not able to use MML to list their grades the way we wanted.  The negatives seemed to outweigh the positives.  Since the course is so non-traditional, we've learned that there must be some typical elements for students to not feel anxious.  One of those elements includes a grading scheme that is like their other classes.  All of the grading components listed above are worth a certain number of points; we've also used a weights structure, but students struggle with understanding their grade in that format too.

These ideas are not the only way to grade in the course; they're just approaches we've seen have a reasonable level of success.  If you pilot the course and find something that works well for you and/or your students, please share with us.

Next up: Student Success

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