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Taking time and giving time on assessments

June 5, 2012, 8:00 am

I haven’t given many updates lately about, well, anything, but especially about my Calculus 2 class. Freakishly, we are 2/3 of the way through the course now. First of all let me say that there’s something seriously wrong with having a midterm in a class after three weeks, and then a final exam three weeks later. Students should have more time to dread those things.

I kid, but actually the biggest adjustment I’ve made in the class — and teaching a class that’s as compressed as this one is all about paying close attention to everything that happens and being nimble about making adjustments — has been the testing scheme. I know that I posted earlier about my idea of having in-class assessments that were smaller than the usual test, more frequent, and which leveraged student collaboration and the real-life social network of the class. But after a couple of tries with this, I dropped it, and I have gone with all take-home assessments (except the midterm and final exam). And it’s been a very positive change.

The timed assessments with a mix of group and individual work were not going poorly. In fact they engendered some of the best peer-to-peer interaction I’ve seen among students, because the group work was (1) available and (2) scarce. But in the end it just wasn’t working for us. I wanted to have students do things on assessments that really prove they have master the learning objectives for that section of the course. Even with the group work to kickstart their thinking on those problems, there wasn’t enough time for students to show me what they know. With the third assessment coming, covering improper integrals (= conceptually hard) and approximation techniques (= not hard but time consuming unless you want to give trivial problems), I knew it was either simplify the problems or do something about time constraints. I opted for the latter.

The results have been surprising. The averages on the first two assessments, done in-class using the hybrid system, were 84% (on the first assessment, no surprise) and 75%. After the switch, the third and fourth averages were 79% and 74%**. You would expect a significant jump in averages when students have virtually unlimited time and the full use of notes and technology, but not so much here. Also, the midterm exam — which came after the third assessment — was done entirely in-class; if students were having it too easy on the assessments due to the take-home, you’d expect them to do poorly on the midterm. But the student did extremely well on the midterm with a class average of 85%.

So it appears to me that students are being challenged just as much by the assessments whether or not they are done in class, are showing that they really know the material (based on the timed midterm), and are happier and have more time to think and write when the assessments are take-home. This brings up the question: Why do we give timed assessments at all?

I think there are good answers to that. The best for me is that timed assessments are useful, as on our midterm and on the upcoming final, for counteracting any false positives that arise from take-home untimed assessments. This includes answers/solutions obtained dishonestly. The door is wide open for academic dishonesty on a take-home assessment, but rather than put my course on lockdown, I prefer to write cheating-resistant questions, give students the means and support network to do well without cheating, and ultimately to trust them. If a student betrays that trust, then it wouldn’t be the first time (and it won’t be the last), but I’d rather have trust violated than not extended at all.

But I also think we teachers rely too much on timed assessments, and it’s worthwhile to explore untimed options whenever we can. By making my assessments take-home, I can feel free to ask questions that don’t rely on oversimplified contexts, that require use of technology without having to worry about technical snafu’s during testing periods, and ask students to give really good verbal explanations of what they are doing, all without worrying about whether I’m asking too much for the time required. Students like it too, and more importantly they feel that they are better able to show me what they know. This is pretty clearly a win for everybody. It makes me think that our preponderance toward timed testing is one of those situations where we are adhering to a system of doing things, but we don’t have a clear idea of why we’re adhering to it or where that system came from in the first place, and it’s never occurred to us that we can change.

** Each of these include a score in the single digits out of 50, which drags the average down, but not by much. Eliminate those scores and the means go up by 2%.

Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/albertogp123/

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