Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Well, I finished going through the midterms for a first pass. Oh, they were terrible! And there were many strange notes in there too, both heartfelt-sounding apologies for being slackers and very angry attacks on me as a teacher ... a very chatty class, which is odd, considering the sheer number of IDs they left blank.

And I really really hate giving credit for crap. If someone does not identify the work correctly and then writes "this was important to our class because it shows that we can relate to just about any piece of writing from olden days" or "This was written in a difficult style to really make the reader slow down and think about what is being said" AND THAT IS THE FULL EXTENT OF THE ANSWER, then NO, you are not getting ANY credit!

However, giving zeros instead of Fs for individual answers really tanks the student's midterm grade. I gave out a lot of F-level points for bad answers, too. It's just that I really really hate giving partial credit to a blank page or the answers listed above.

But these answers are so bad and the tests skew so low that I got paranoid and did a quick rundown of the IDs, answer by answer:

So in this first picture you can see this first three IDs. The pencil line is the cutoff between passing and not passing for an answer. We spent an entire week on # 2 and I swore to them that there would be a midterm ID on it since it was right before the midterm. # 3 is back from the first week of class so it makes sense that even when they ID'd it, they didn't have much useful to say about it. And do you see the number of zeros???

Number 5, interestingly enough, had an image next to it on the PP slide. That's about where I want all of them to fall in terms of quality. Number 6 is completely bimodal --- and not only did a lot of people leave that blank, even more totally misidentified it as something that sounds nothing like it. I spent an entire class period on that text (and every single one of the IDs was up on a powerpoint slide and we proceeded to close read it), but I am willing to say that this was just not a good ID and give the points out for it.

Thing is, giving an extra 12 points to someone with a grand total of 31 (out of 100) isn't going to do much.

My total midterm breakdown was as follows:
5 Bs
8 Cs
7 Ds
16 Fs
(9 of those Fs are 40 % or below)

So I'm still pondering what to do next, partly because I can't really tell what was going on in the students' heads: to what extent were they lost and to what extent were they blowing it off because it is a stupid GE course and they are about to have fall break? I'm inclined to go in there next time and give them a stern talking-to, a heads up that the quality of their tests was terrible, and that even if I were to give them credit for one of the IDs because so few got it, many of them would still be failing. Then I could give them some stern reminders about working harder and maybe do a practice question or two later in the semester.

(Thing is, I am about to do a zillion comp conference hours next week and will once again be down-to-the-minute on class prep. I haven't taught this course, or even this locale and time period, before, and I spend a lot of time just reading the stuff I've assigned (which I've never read before) and figuring out how to give a basic lecture on this crap. I never have the time in my schedule to then go back and make the effort of figuring out some quiz questions or additional sample practice midterm questions. Since I'm teaching it again next semester (oh joy!) I'll be able to use my frantic prep time for actually working out some activities and quizzes and stuff, but really I can't do that on a first time teaching a course. Maybe I'm a crappy teacher, but whatever. Them's that hired me'll have to deal with that.)

Then the question is: do I do an additional curve/bump on top of that? I dunno. I have to go talk to the chair anyway, because the angry email was not the only complaint about identifying terms or "hard stuff" (like themes. Or literary movements. The ones I have as a running title across my slides.) And the other complaint was that there were too many IDs to have time to write anything on them ---- but those are the blank midterms. I don't want to dumb this shit down! If you have no clue what these passages are, then having 1 or 6 or 10 won't make a difference!

Clearly I need to be more clear that I am an evil bitch of a grader (because I am) and that I need to be harsher on my "diagnostic" close reading essay (what I think Lucky Jane called a "handshake essay"). But really, since they were soooo much better than the comp papers, I was ok with grading them all in the C and B range. Nope. I need to just rip those early fuckers apart and warn them that I will be even meaner on the midterm, and if they don't like it, they can drop the class in week 3. Then I may actually be pleasantly surprised come midterm time, instead of have a heart attack when I open up the blue books.


Anonymous said...

In this case, given what you're describing in terms of the commentary they wrote on their tests and in terms of the ultimate distribution of the grades, I don't think that I would just curve the class up. What I think I would do would be to give everyone the opportunity to re-do the test (hard deadline, no exceptions). For the revisions, I would, since the test would now be open-book open-note, expect perfect answers on every question. Crappy answers = the grade stays the same for the test. (Which gives you license to just read one or two answers and then to toss the test into the "stays the same" pile if they put in no effort.) If the students met that standard, they could then bump their grade on the test by 25% (which would mean that some with Fs would still have Fs, but it would really help out people in the high F and D range, should they choose to take that help, and it would help out the people in the C or B range if they decided that they were interested).

Here's why I would go with an approach like the above: 1) it's fair to everyone in the course; 2) it will let you see who just doesn't care - because those students won't take the opportunity to revise - and who cares but just didn't get it; 3) it's not a free-bee like curving the whole class up would be - they are being punished for not studying and putting the effort in the first time around; 4) it has the potential to teach them something.

The downside is that it's more work for you, and I'm not sure that you care enough about them for that. Also, I don't know if this sort of approach would be reasonable at your institution - it could just make a bad situation worse. Definitely run whatever you decide to do by your chair, though.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, would you take up another class period for that? We're on a forced march between here and t-giving, so I don't want to lose a day with that.

And the big reason for doing in-class midterms (besides forcing them to read and reread stuff) is to do an end-run around plagiarism... how would you know people were doing their own work/not pulling crap of the internet if it was out of class?

Bardiac said...

I like Dr. Crazy's suggestion; I was thinking something along the lines of dropping this grade for anyone who improved by X amount on the next quiz/test.

I'd also take some time in class to talk about how it's going for them, probably.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't take more class time - I'd do it as a take-home. I'd say they were free to use class notes and the book if they chose to do it over, and any plagiarism would be handled according to the policy. (And seriously: these kids got below a 30 on this test - if they plagiarize you will know it in like one second and I doubt they are very likely to make the effort anyway - they just won't bother to do the revision, since it wouldn't be mandatory. Also, the 25% bump isn't enough to actually make it worth it to plagiarize - the revision opportunity is really more an object lesson than anything, and the opportunity cost of plagiarizing is a lot more than the opportunity cost of just taking the grade that you already got.)

Here's the thing; if you were to do something like what I described, it would be a *gift* to them - but it would be sort of a crappy gift that would require them to spend a ton of time and energy actually learning the material. The lazy ones will not take you up on it. The ones who will be likely to plagiarize won't take you up on it. The ones who were really blind-sided by the test - for whatever reason - will get something out of it.

Again, though, I can see why you might not want to do such a thing. I've been in situations like yours where I've just let them take the grades they earned, and I've been in situations where I've done what I'm describing here (or something like it). There are benefits to both, and drawbacks to both. Now, I'd probably be more likely to do something like what I'm describing here, just because I'd rather deal with the extra grading than the extra hassle that comes with sticking to my guns (averaging out the time, they end up being about equal time sucks, just with the revision I get to feel like they might be learning, whereas with the hassle of complaints and whatever I just feel like I hate them). But really, a lot depends on context, so I'm not sure what I would do in your specific situation.

CT said...

I tend to give F's in place of zeros, whether the answer is blank or so crappy that it might as well be. My rationale is that the 4 point GPA scale doesn't go into negative numbers. I guess a better way would be to design the midterm on a 4.0 scale.

As far as giving a make-up test, I like the emphasis reassignedtime puts on giving the students a chance to learn something, but I generally dislike the idea of "calling audibles" on something as significant as a midterm. Plus, it doesn't sound like you had unreasonable expectations for the students if you even covered the ID passages on the big screen.

Tree of Knowledge said...

I like Dr. Crazy's suggestion too. I was going to suggest letting them redo the IDs in class, but her suggestion sounds really good.

I also think a midterm eval conversation is in order. Write out a few questions you have for them about what the hell is going on, have them freewrite on them, and then talk about that in class and take up their freewrites. You can do this in 15 minutes.

Dr. Koshary said...

I defer to all of your lit studies colleagues, who have clearly been around this block before. I merely write in support of the idea of being a scary, prof-from-hell mofo in the beginning: it weeds out a few people at the start who can't be bothered to take a real class, and it signals to the rest that they're going to get their asses handed to them until they catch onto the program. Some will always complain, of course, but they won't have a leg to stand on if you let them know at the start that you're a tough grader and they have to measure up. Starting out the semester being a gentle soul has never worked out well for me.

Sisyphus said...

Hmm, I like that with Crazy's suggestion, they are doing the work, whereas with mine, I am doing the work, even if it is the small work of bumping up grades. The first way makes it a punishment for them doing something wrong, the second implies that I did something wrong. I may tool around with something like this.

Of course, there is the message it's sending of "well if you don't try anything at all, we'll just give you more chances," I'm not too thrilled about.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again: students learn more from Fs than they do from As. I really don't think that students are allowed to fail nearly enough. I think that your expectations have been reasonable, and if they aren't paying attention, that's their fault - not yours. The only sticky thing is that I'm sure you would like your evaluations to be good at the end of the semester. So if I were you, I'd do a midterm teaching evaluation where the students could vent about what went wrong. In the next test, you could either take or leave their suggestions, or at least keep in mind how they are learning/approaching the topic.

I'd also suggest maybe offering a small bit of extra credit that is completely separate from the midterm. I usually would do this with my Shakespeare folks by having willing participants get together and read through a whole play on a Sunday afternoon, with everyone reading a few different parts. It's fun, not a huge time sink as far as grading, and the students seem to get a lot out of it. I'm not sure what this class is, but if you could have an event like this -- to read a play together (Shakespeare or not) or a longish short story or a short novel -- then that might give an opportunity for the slackers to step up. Other options would be for the students to do some sort of extra reading or writing. Not sure how much time you want to give it, though.

P said...

Can't add anything new to the excellent lists of suggestions here. Just want to echo the importance of being a hard-ass professor with some softening (but only in terms of personality?) as the semester continues.

I've found that while students like the "cool Professor" they can all "feel themselves around," I end up having to work harder to justify their not-so-cool grades.

And, yeah, students definitely learn more if they have to work harder to get a B.


Belle said...

I've found that taking the time in class to show a bad answer pays off. It puts the fear of you into them, and shows that you are working on helping them learn. I'm totally willing to sacrifice 'content' for time teaching them to write, read, etc.. But they have to work for that time. And the comments on being a 'bad teacher' evaporate in the face of evidence. Seriously -putting up an anonymous bad answer and explaining why it's bad, and how to construct a good one pays off.

Feminist Avatar said...

Do you have any colleagues that have done this course before (or concurrently)? Because it might be worth having a chat and seeing whether this is normal for your students at your institution at this stage (because students tend to be predictable en masse), which might give you insight into whether this is typical or not, and allow you to think about how to respond (or you could see how they are responding/ responded as a guideline).