Small changes, big effects

Robert Therrien, No Title (Blue Plastic Plates), 1999

I’ve made many small changes in my classes, and am pleased with the result. (It’s especially pleasing because so many times I make big changes to little effect!)

1. Lotsa Quizzes: I got rid of the textbooks for most of my classes and wrote factual quizzes based on my lectures, giving the quizzes weekly instead of every two weeks. There are more questions but fewer points per question, and they get hints for each question because they can change their answer (I actually didn’t intend this, but I kind of like it). This format helps them keep up and review during each quiz.

2. Separate Multiple Choice and Essays: I’ve separated the multiple choice lecture/factual questions from the essay questions. The quizzes used to be a small number of factual questions plus one essay, given every two weeks. Students would have to wait to get the results until I graded the essay. Now they get the quiz results immediately.

3. Three Essay Exams: Instead of having a short essay due every two weeks as part of the quiz, I’ve instead created two major essay exams plus the final exam. They seem to be spending more time and effort on these and the quality is much better. And I grade less often but it’s more in-depth so I hope my comments are more helpful.

4. Grading Criteria Inside the Exam: Instead of just relying on a Grading Information page, I’ve included the criteria for essay grading as part of the essay question itself. That seems to be helping the essays also.

5. Seminar Hybrids: For my San Elijo hybrid classes, I’m using a seminar format. Some would call what I’m doing “flipping” the classroom, because all lecture reading, forum postings, public writing, quizzes and essay exams are online. We meet an hour and a quarter a week, and spend most of the time talking together about primary sources and how they fit into the era. It’s so wonderful to work in this seminar setting — I learn as much as they do. I will miss it very much. (It’s unlikely I will be able to do it again because hybrids are new and thus enrollments were low.)

6. Encouraging Late Source Posts: Each forum is one weekly topic, so I normally encourage moving on. But students will need the sources they post later for the essay exams. So now I encourage those who want more sources for their essay to go back and post them. This way everyone can use them, and the source collection is bigger.

7. Grading Late Quizzes By Date: I close each quiz with a password after the due date, but students may take them up to a week late for reduced credit. I’ve always reduced the score the same amount for a late quiz. But now when they email me for the password, I tell them I’ll take off less if they turn it in as soon as possible, and email me the minute they’re done (so I can change the score manually). This encourages them to finish up the quiz so they can move on to the next week’s material.

These changes were labor intensive to set up, but actually save me time and effort during the semester, so I have more energy to actually talk with students and tend to their learning as we go along. Far more of my time is spent encouraging and teaching rather than grading, and this is true of both my hybrid and online classes.

It’s shaping up to be a good semester.