Getting students to want to do pre-class work

January 6, 2014, 4:26 pm

Look into any discussion about the inverted classroom and you will find one particular concern rise to the top of people’s questions: How do you make sure students come to class having done the reading and the viewing? Actually, in my experience giving talks and workshops about the inverted classroom, that’s a charitable way of putting it – many times I hear this, it’s more like, I already know my students won’t put in the work outside of class, so why bother?

I saw this tweet yesterday which brought this up:

My response was:


Students are rational actors when it comes to the work they do. They are a lot like faculty in that regard – if the benefit of a task appears to be worth the cost, they’ll do it. If not, they won’t – or they will, and harbor resentment about it.

I used to think that the simplest way to “sell” an assignment to students was to attach a grade to it. After all, students won’t do their work if it’s not graded, right? Well, in one sense this is true but only because we in higher ed have perpetuated extrinsic motivation in our course design. We attach grades to work because we think students won’t do the work without the grade, but students do the work because the omnipresence of grades trains them to believe that grades are the only things that matter. And then we look at the importance that students attach to trades and assume that they won’t work without trades attached. And on it goes.

I’m frustrated with the role of grades in my students’ lives, and that’s why I really appreciated this blog post about formative assessment. There are lots of good things to hear in this post, especially as the semester begins and we can implement these ideas. This particular thought stuck with me:

Formative assessments are fluid and flow seamlessly in the learning process because they are a part of the learning process. Most situations involving formative assessing are not and shouldn’t be for a grade. Formative assessing is similar to what happens in real-life, thus students and their learning won’t even skip a beat.

I think that’s right. In order for formative assessment to insinuate itself as a natural part of learning – without which learning may not even occur – then it has to be natural and not a top-down add-on, and that means de-emphasizing grades on formative assessments. And then students can begin to value assessment and not just try to score points with it.

Last year when I was teaching the peer-instruction based linear algebra class, I gave entrance quizzes every day to students over their class preparation assignments. It was intended as formative assessment. But what it ended up being was ubiquitous testing – every time students took a breath they were being quizzed for a grade. It was downright oppressive. So, I replaced the quizzes with online homework that students were supposed to complete prior to class, with unlimited attempts until one hour before class. So it was graded, but the grade was just feedback and not an end in itself. Not only did students’ comprehension improve in class, so did their morale. They saw that the homework was there to help and not merely to judge – so they did it.

This semester I am teaching a discrete structures class and a cryptography class, both mostly flipped, and I’ve decided that I’ll assess student learning on the pre-class activities – but I won’t grade them. Students in both classes will be doing Guided Practice with exercises and feedback questions, and I’ll start classes with clicker questions over the pre-class activities. But they won’t be graded; instead I will be trying to design the in-class activities so that the value of class preparation and this formative feedback will become obvious. Like I tweeted, that’s what’s hard about the flipped classroom.

This may not work. In the flipped calculus class I had several top students tell me they would never have done the pre-class viewing if not for the daily entrance quizzes. But I figure it’s worth a shot if it can help develop that intrinsic motivation that’s so important, and get away from conflating grades with learning.

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