Monday, October 18, 2010

Midterm Moanings

Mmm. Not so good. It was the usual practice for my profs to make their TAs create the midterms, so I actually have lots of experience with that. And because TAs lead the discussion sections and review sessions, I feel like I have a stronger handle on what students can say in X amount of time and have been good in the past holding the midterms to something fair and manageable.

That was not the case with Stripey Class.

I'm not even going to comment on the nasty and horrible email I got that I read when I stupidly checked my school email on a Friday evening. Ugh. It ruined the whole night. I didn't respond and now I think I'm calmer and that it says way more about this student than about my teaching; but I think I still will need to go in and talk to the chair about this. I hope the student regretted it as soon as the student sent it, and it's really about blowing of the student's frustration at not having studied for the midterm than actually about me at all.

But then I went through the ID section of the midterm and it wasn't so solid. A handful of perfect scores, a smattering of Bs and Cs, no Ds, and then F minuses. Like 3 points out of 25 F minuses. I'm not even sure what I could do about it, as there is no way I can bump up grades on answers that were left blank. And I picked terms that I brought up repeatedly and that students suggested when I made them come up with ideas during the review session, so I thought this midterm was pretty damn easy. I'm afraid to even look at the other part.

Basically I hate reading in-class essays and find them useless if you have lots of non-majors because nobody will quote or connect things to the text, so I just did a bunch of ID passages instead. I said I wanted a sentence of the definitions and a whole page explaining the significance of the IDs. Then every single student went and bought the small blue book.

Does your school have two blue book sizes? My old school did and maybe 1 person would buy the wrong size --- or the bookstore would run out and you could see the late people buying the small size because the sizes would change as more students trickled into the room. Here they sell both sizes and everyone brought in the small one. I was also surprised at the sheer number of people who had never heard of a blue book.

But basically a small blue book is about half the size of the large ones, and I was expecting a full page on those. Instead, as I'm flipping through the pile, I got between one sentence and a half a page on the small blue book pages.

True, content is way more important than size, but if you want someone to make multiple points and to examine actual language used in the quote, they'll need to take some space to work that out. I'm afraid to grade any further tonight. I'll just drink a beer and sit in dread of them instead.

I dunno --- I could have modeled more of what I wanted for the ID part and written and displayed a sample strong answer... maybe I'll do that next time? I'm very resistant to dumbing it down from "doable in a short time frame" to "painfully easy." Maybe it's just the angry email that has me shaken. Maybe they will just need to be shocked into the recognition that this class is harder than it looks and they need to take it seriously. Or maybe, because it is a class that fulfills a requirement for non-majors, they do not care and just want to put in the minimum effort to get a passing grade and they are ok with whatever terrible midterm grade they get.

I should add that, though it was a short time frame, everyone was finished with five minutes to spare (that's when the last kid turned in the midterm) and a pretty substantial number turned in their stuff within 10 minutes. Although there's no point sitting around if you don't recognize any of the passages or terms. See, I'm a terrible judge of understanding students, since I never did that in high school or college --- I don't think I failed a single midterm. I know I had brain farts where I would blank on a name or occasionally just not recognize a passage, but never for the whole midterm.

Yeah I don't know. I guess I need to learn more about how to toughen myself up and not second-guess myself than re-learn how to make tests. It's just sucky because I want them to enjoy my class and learn useful and enjoyable things and be able to explain those things back to me. Sigh. Gotta keep in mind Dissertation Buddy's mantra: I don't need them to love me and I don't need to be their friend.


Anonymous said...

First, yes, drink beer and second, I'm sending a big hug your way.

Ok, now with that out of the way, I'm going to ask you a question. How is it dumbing down your class or the test if you explain what you want? How does modeling your expectation make the test too easy? Is the point of the test for them to be able to read you or is the point of the test for them to demonstrate their understanding of the material?

I ask these questions because before I started teaching at my current institution, I think I would have answered them a lot differently, i.e., I would have assumed that if I gave them too much information about the *format* of the test that somehow that would mean that I was making things too easy for them. Since working here, well, I don't believe that anymore. My students, who I think are a lot like yours, seriously are clueless when it comes to things like reading me or intuiting expectations. They do not get it. So for the first test, I spend a lot of time on how they'll need to approach the test - how they'll need to study, how they'll need to answer. Some of them still bomb it (what you describe with the IDs happens regularly) BUT they are not surprised when they do, and they're not angry when they do.

So here's the thing: you totally know how to write a test. Don't second-guess yourself about that. And don't second-guess yourself and think you need to be "tougher" as if that somehow will solve this problem. But do pay attention to your students. They might need things your students before didn't need. And giving them some of those things doesn't mean you're dumbing down the material for them - it just means you're recognizing how little experience they have with the conventions of academic achievement.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and they bought the small blue books because they think they are "bad writers" and that they wouldn't have enough to say if they got the big blue book - esp. if this is a gen. ed. sort of class. They thought getting the smaller book would mean that it wouldn't look so bad when they only could come up with two sentences. They probably can't conceive of being able to fill up a whole page of a big blue book.

Anonymous said...

Students who get Fs in my class always get 50%, even if they only earned, like, a 3%. I bump them up to half. It's still failing but I find it's less demoralizing.

Anonymous said...

Fs on my exams, I mean.

Bardiac said...


Dr. Crazy is on the mark, I think.

I'd give them a good model. I tend to do that on the board with the students coming up with the definition and such, and my pressing them for more if necessary.

I also give my students a copy of whatever midterm I gave the last time I taught the course. I change midterms every time, but the format's the same. I figure I don't want to examine how good they are at figuring out an exam, but at how much they've learned.

Sometimes, GE students need extra help to get motivated.

Fretful Porpentine said...

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in ourselves but in the admissions office. I'm always amazed by the sheer number of students we let in who don't know how to be students (the never-having-heard-of-a-blue-book thing is par for the course around here, as well as the students who are completely clueless about how to answer any question that involves applying a concept instead of memorizing a definition and spitting it back).

I think there's a limit to how much we can actually do about it. It's simply not possible to remediate everything they didn't learn in four years of high school (and often in two years at the community college) in the space of fifteen weeks. But I agree that models of strong answers help, if only because they cut down on the whining.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I quit giving tests in my Shakespeare class because I really wanted the students to spend less time memorizing things and more time applying concepts, which, as you pointed out, is hard to do in an in-class essay. So they would have more out-of-class writing, and thus, more synthesis. But tests are easier to grade (for me), so the temptation is always there. I have to thumb my nose at it though. Preferences are preferences, of course. But to me, tests are not helpful tools of assessment in a literature class. Response papers, close reading papers, research papers? They work.

Horace said...

My midterms follow a similar format: I give them a passage, they identify author, title, and unpack the significance of the passage. I had much the same problem in my first semester here, with some terrible terrible grades on the first midterms. And so I decided that I was going to give them LOTS of practice doing the format as quizzes, with lots of low-stakes lead-up.

The first quiz is a take-home completion quiz on the poem discussed in the first class (I always quiz them on material already discussed, so it's more a mastery assessment than a reading one). Then I give them a live-graded take-home. Each of the first two is returned with a "key" that explains what constitutes a poor, satisfactory, or excellent response, and how student actually have to use INDEPENDENT THINKING to generate an excellent response.

Then the quizzes come once or twice a week, always with a passage discussed in the previous class. By the time the midterm rolls around, students are well acquainted with the format and expectations, and I can be fairly sure that the midterm assesses actual learning, rather than simply their ability to intuit the expectations of the exam format.

In fact that reminds me. I want to give a quiz today.

Lucky Jane said...


Can I get an "amen" for the above? I've been having this conversation a lot lately, particularly with colleagues who've been on hiatus from teaching gen-ed classes. I think what the poor performance boils down to is that so many students underestimate the humanities. For a generation in which everyone gets a trophy, everyone's interpretation is valid, right? No.

Because I don't like watching people take exams, all mine are take-home, open-book, open-note ones. Yet 45% of the dears in my big gen-ed lecture earned ≤D. In the week since those exams were returned, however, the lecture hall has been a surprisingly serious, civil place. (It helps that my TAs have done what I've done in actually commenting on the essay exams, so—it seems—students know where they could have improved.) Students whom I suspected of not even owning the required textbooks have been following along, marking up their books, as I have urged them to do all semester.

What I'm saying is that, if they're smart, or intend to stay in college, or know what's good for them, they (your students and mine) will learn from their mistakes. I wouldn't be surprised to see a dramatic improvement on the next exam.

But yeah: it is unsettling when students perform so poorly that we wonder if we're not properly doing our jobs. You are doing exactly what you should be doing, so have faith that your students will rise to your challenges. They'll be learning when they do so. Hang in there!