It’s been a while since our last 4+1 interview, so I am very happy to get this series going again. In these interviews, we pick an interesting person somewhere in math, education, or technology and ask four questions along with a special +1 bonus question at the end.

Our guest this time is Linda Nilson, founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She’s the author of numerous papers and books on teaching and learning in higher education, including the essential Teaching At Its Best, and she gives regular speaking and workshop engagements around the country on teaching and learning. Her latest book, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time, is IMO maybe the most innovative, provocative, and potentially revolutionary one she’s done, and that’s the focus of the interview.

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:

The hardest thing in #flipclass#flippedclass is to engage students with activities out of the class apart from videos.They dont wanna do it

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…

So, what about grading in that inverted transition-to-proofs course? Other than the midterm and final exams, which were graded pretty much as you might expect, we had four recurring assignments that required grading: Guided Practice, Quizzes, Classwork, and the Proof Portfolio. Let’s discuss the workflow and how it was all managed.

Let’s start with the easy stuff: Quizzes and Guided Practice. Quizzes were done using clickers, so the grading was trivial. Guided Practice was graded on the basis of completeness and effort only, on a scale of 0–2. So it was almost instantaneous to grade. Students would submit their work using a Google form that dumped their responses into a spreadsheet. I would just sort the spreadsheet in alphabetical order, look through for any glaring omissions or places where effort was lacking, and then put the grades right into Blackboard. A grade of “0”…

This semester, I made the decision to phase out paper from my professional life. Little by little, and over the course of perhaps a couple of academic years, I hope to shift as much as I can over to digital versions of everything I use in teaching, scholarship, service, and mentoring. There are several reasons I want to do this, but the main thing that convinced me to make the choice to go “as paperless as possible” were my grading practices. At some point during this semester, I became convinced that I simply must move away from paper when dealing with student work. Why? Here are a few reasons:

1. Paper-based student work is cumbersome. More than once this semester, student work has gotten lost or misplaced because it was put into the wrong stack, stapled to the wrong thing, or in one case the staple for one student’s submission got hung on the staple for another student’s submission…

When we moved to Michigan from Indiana over the summer, my wife moved to a sort of “standby” status with her employer, a conglomerate of medical labs based in South Bend. They are considering opening up a new lab nearby, and if they do, my wife would not only work in the area in which she was trained — cytotechnology — but she would also be the general do-it-all lab worker for clients. To prepare my wife for her possible new duties, her employer is paying for her to take a class in phlebotomy this semester at a local college. That means she’s learning how to draw blood.

I joke with my students that if they think Calculus 2 is bad, then they should try taking a class that consists of sticking each other (and being stuck) with needles — literally, bloodletting — for 4 hours every week. But all jokes aside, there happens to be some pretty interesting pedagogy that takes place in my…

If you give a major, timed assessment (test, exam, etc.) and nearly all of your students do poorly on it — as in, really poorly, 3/4-of-the-class-failed-it poorly — do you give a re-test and let them try it again? Or do you stick with the grades they got the first time? Do you invoke some kind of wigged-out grade curving scheme (no offense, Dave)? Or what?

Fortunately this hasn’t happened to me this semester, but it has happened to at least one of my colleagues, and we have an email discussion going on right now about what to do about it. Here are my thoughts on this. (Most of this post is verbatim from my contribution to the email discussion.)

For simplicity, I’m leaving the question of curving the grades out of this for now, and focus on whether you simply have a do-over for the exam or not….

The teacher who graded this dismal paper from a physics class is either a lot braver than I am or cares a lot less about his/her relationships with students; and s/he certainly has better artistic skills and a lot more time on his/her hands than I do:

Read the whole essay and especially the teacher’s marginalia. I think it captures the temptation of every teacher to grade papers by unloading our own cleverness onto hapless, writing-impaired students.

But the article has a fair question — how does something this bad get a 3/3 grade?

We interrupt this blogging hiatus to throw out a question that came up while I was grading today. The item being graded was a homework set in the intro-to-proof course that I teach. One paper brought up two instances of the same issue.

The student was writing a proof that hinged on arguing that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive on the interval 0 < t < π/2. The “normal” way to argue this is just to appeal to the unit circle and note that in this interval, you’re remaining in the first quadrant and so both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive. But what the student did was to draw graphs of sin(t) and cos(t) in Maple, using the plot options to restrict the domain; the student then just said something to the effect of “The graph shows that both sin(t) and cos(t) are positive.”

Another proof was of a proposition claiming that there cannot exist three consecutive natural numbers such that the …

The video post from the other day about handling ungraded homework assignments went so well that I thought I’d let you all have another crack and designing my courses for me! This time, I have a question about really bad mistakes that can be made in a proof.

One correction to the video — the rubric I am developing for proof grading gives scores of 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, or 10. A “0″ is a proof that simply isn’t handed in at all. And any proof that shows serious effort and a modicum of correctness will get at least a 4. I am reserving the grade of “2″ for proofs that commit any of the “fatal errors” I describe (and solicit) in the video.

I am a mathematician and educator with interests in cryptology, computer science, and STEM education. I am affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan. The views here are my own and are not necessarily shared by GVSU.

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