Argument over Weekly Quizzes

Caileigh and I had a preparatory meeting with Kara Moloney to discuss the specifics of our course. I ended up spending half the hour-long meeting with my eyes locked to the floor, scared that I might say something that would permanently jeopardize my course from being offered (which, by the way, is a lot further away from reality than I think). Why was I so upset? The course is supposed to cover the general history of computers and then give students the opportunity to study a person, timeframe or use of computers; in other words, we provide the breadth, you pursue the depth. Even though the course will be Pass/No Pass, Caileigh and I are still responsible for assigning students to one of those two categories. Grading the "inquiry-based project," as Kara calls it, will provide half the equation, but we need some way of testing whether students are covering the breadth (doing the readings and paying attention in class). Rather than defaulting to a midterm and a final, a structure that I hate, I decided to copy what my Time Series Analysis professor does - small, weekly quizzes (for those curious, his name is Professor Aue and he is easily one of the best three professors I've had at Davis, tied with Professor Rogaway and Sean Davis). I prefer this for two reasons. First, no cramming. Learning takes time, and the midterm/final model undermines that by encouraging/forcing/permitting students to cram. But cramming strategy doesn't work when you are tested weekly. Second, less stress. If you have an off day or a lot of work the days leading up to the midterm, a poor midterm grade might guaranteed you a C. But if you have ten weekly quizzes, then messing up one or two of them will have less of an impact. I talked to him in office hours today (and I'll discuss that conversation more below) and he recommended two papers on educational theory on this topic. I found this article myself, which basically confirms what Professor Aue claimed and what I have experienced in his class.

This is where the disagreement with Kara begins. She said, "The key question is this: What matters more? Students learning and engaging, or that we can monitor what students are doing?" (Note: generally, the "quotes" that you'll see on my blog are usually paraphrased. But to help me stay calm, I took notes on what she was saying, so these are precise quotes.) Weekly quizzes, she argued, "reinforce that you're in charge and that you're responsible for learning." This raises two questions. First, if the instructors aren't in charge of the class, who is? Second, if the instructors aren't responsible for learning, who is? But I was more troubled by her leading question ("What do you care about, student learning or your thing?") that presumed weekly quizzes are to "monitor" students and prevent learning. She suggested weekly check ins, in which students would explain what they've learned from class, or weekly written reflections, in which students demonstrate that they're learning. As she said, "I know I've learned about something when I can write about it or explain it to someone else." I don't understand the functional difference between those two options and what I'm proposing, but I was too busy winning my staring contest with the floor to clarify. She then launched into a monologue about how this is her career and she cares about instructional quality and that she doesn't mean to be adversarial but that she cares that we follow best educational practices. To be honest, I stopped listening when she said "I was teaching on 9/11. We could have lost that whole semester!" Additionally, this pattern of "Read, Discuss, Demonstrate Understanding" is exactly what Kara uses in SLSP (last meeting, she assigned us to write a reflection of what we learn from Christie's assigned reading material and the discussion Christie led).

Meeting with Shaw

A bit after my meeting with Kara, my group and I met with Professor Shaw for our ECS193A project. We ended up chatting for a bit about his curiosity in programming - he picked up the books for ECS10, 12 and 30 and walked through them When I asked why, he said he was bored. I wanted to ask if he doesn't have any hobbies, but I couldn't think of a polite way to ask.

College in Germany

After my meeting with Shaw, I went to Professor Aue's office hours to see if he knew of any good academic papers that provided evidence that weekly quizzes are conducive to learning. We ended up having a discussion about college in Germany and his personal education. Readers might be aware that higher education in Germany is free, but what I didn't know is how competitive colleges there are. First, college isn't just free; student meals, housing and transportation is subsidized. Second, there's no such thing as a GPA or letter grades - you either pass or fail a class. Third, while that might sound easier, passing a class is very hard. I might misremember the size of his first class, but he said that only three students in a class of a hundred and twenty passed, and only barely. Fourth, to make sure students are actually understanding the material, students are required to take multiple exams at the end of year 2 and year 4 (or 5 or 6). This ensures that students cannot progress without truly understanding the material. This also ensures that our American practice of learning the material well enough to pass a class's final and subsequently forgetting everything immediately after doesn't work. We also discussed professor evaluations, and he's a strong proponent of incorporating student performance in later classes into professors' evaluations (i.e. if Chem 2A is a prerequisite for 2B and 2C, a professor is judged not just on what his or her 2A students say in evaluations, but also by how well those students perform in courses that depend on 2A). Clearly, it doesn't work for all courses, but I think it makes a lot of sense. I can't say I'm surprised such a policy hasn't already been implemented.

"The New White Flight"

This article popped up in my newsfeed today. I haven't made a decision yet on whether the article is racist, but what did catch my eye is the statement, "Grades are so high that a 'B' average puts a student in the bottom third of a class." Professor Aue and I were discussing this earlier (although, if I'm being completely honest, it would be more accurate to say Professor Aue told me his thoughts on this while I listened and tried not to say anything that would make me seem like an idiot, which I now think probably makes me an idiot). Grading is theoretically a metric that measures how well a student understands the material. In classes where professors curve, the measurement is comparative, but it doesn't have to be. That said, grade inflation has risen to the point where almost half of all college grades are As. At some colleges, As make up over half the grades. At Yale, 62% of all grades are As or A-s. As he pointed out, when more than half of your students are given an exemplary grade, there's little to no point in having grades. He told me that he does not include students grades in his personal letters of rec, but their class ranks as that information is specifically comparative.

People think they understand statistics.

Towards the end of our conversation, Professor Aue made an interesting comment about the nature of statistics. He noted that the common perception is that statistics is a subfield of math, but that the two operate in a very different manner. Math is top down - you begin with assumptions, and then see what can be derived from such a setup. Statistics is bottom up - you begin was data, and see what generalizations can be made from that data. This, in part, is what makes statistics so special; statistics relies on math, but statistics uses math in a very different way than math was created for. He then said, "Many people have think they have an understanding of what statistics is. And I would say most of their understandings are wrong." I don't quite understand what he means in the context of statistics, and I don't think I can without a deeper understanding of the field, but I left wondering if there are similar occurences sprinkled throughout the rest of my life. I constantly make allusions to a variety of sources and arguments, but my references rarely contain specifics. Do I really understand all that I claim to, as well as I think I do?

"Let us stay in our ivory tower"

Professor Aue also found a story of mine amusing, so I thought that I would share. In my first year here, I helped Patrick with a proposal to weight an A+ as a 4.3 (lol). In retrospect, I think that the proposal is a bad idea, but I was a freshmen and I wanted my A+s to mean something. We presented the proposal to the Undergraduate Council, a body of the Academic Senate, and the Council was very much opposed to the idea. But rather than explaining why, one member looked at us and said "Let us stay in our ivory tower." That was my first experience with the Senate.