Thursday, February 13, 2014

Just call me Prof Softie

I graded the exam promptly but didn't post the grades for three days. I wanted to think first about what why half the class bombed the exam and what, if anything, I ought to do about it.

That's three days of second-guessing myself (and third-guessing and fourth-guessing and on up to zillionth-guessing). On the one hand, the students had plenty of warning: a study of guide with sample questions, a list of essential vocabulary terms, even a repeated warning that "open book" does not mean "easy."

On the other hand, none of the students who bombed the exam have ever had classes from me before and seem to have been blind-sided by the number of questions and the amount of writing I expected from them. Many of them did well enough on the questions they answered but ran out of time to finish the exam, leaving whole pages blank.

Those blank pages included questions about concepts that will be foundational to our discussion for the rest of the semester, so I need to make sure the students understand those concepts. On the other other hand (picture me as the many-handed goddess Kali, only less ruthless and certainly less blue), I don't want to reward bad performance by offering extra credit on material they should have mastered for the exam.

But after three days of pondering I decided to give them a second chance. For each student who earned less than an A on the exam, I've created a personalized Second-Chance Quiz featuring one or two questions the student left blank on the exam. Their performance on the Second-Chance Quiz may improve their exam grade by up to 10 points, which for many of them will make the difference between failing and passing.

Is this solution fair? Probably not: students who earned an A on the exam don't get the chance to improve their scores, but on the other other other hand, they don't need it. I also fear that these students will expect similar second chances in the future, so I'll be careful to let them know that this is a one-time deal. I've already warned them that the Second-Chance Quiz is coming on Monday so they'd better spend the weekend mastering those concepts they skipped over on the exam, but those who don't bother may get nothing out of the exercise, which is fine.

I never grade on the curve and I rarely offer extra credit and I know I provided plenty of warning about what to expect on this exam, but even the students who've taken many exams from me before admitted that this one was especially daunting. On the one hand, giving them a second chance makes me feel like Professor Softie; on the other other other other hand, posting such a high percentage of horrible grades makes me feel like Kali the Avenger. Just for today, I prefer to put down the sword and let the pen prove its might. In the end, it all comes down to whether I can live with myself, and in this case, the pen wins--hands down.


Good Enough Professor said...

You're no softie. What you describe is sound pedagogy. The point is to teach the material, not punish students who don't get it right the first time. People learn by screwing up, figuring out where they went wrong, and trying agin.

Just had conferences with my kid's teachers at her rigorous and highly rated h.s. They all have similar kinds of mechanism in place for students to learn from the questions they miss on quizzes. I particularly like the way the math teacher does it--students can get back half the points on a wrong question by doing it right, but they have to explain the mistake they made in addition to supplying the right answer,

Bev said...

And the results are in: of those students who took advantage of the Second Chance Quiz, all demonstrated improved understanding of key concepts; all earned at least 5 additional points; and several earned the full 10 points available. Win/win all around.

curiousing said...

I agree with GEP: This is sound pedagogy. BUT I have gotten kickback from students who didn't get a second chance before. They disagreed with where I drew the line for the second chance, felt it was unfair some people got it and not them, etc. That kind of griping over mercy can make a prof want to really take (re)venge. In the end, I still do it, because the important thing is that struggling students learn the stuff and catch up with those already getting it right. But wow, does the point-obsession among today's students tick me off.