Reflections about my Experiment with General Psychology

I promised to update the few of you interested in my experiment in General Psychology last semester. You can have a more thorough description of my logic and motivation here, but the basic themes were this:

  • A point system, with plenty of flexibility of how you fulfilled your points. There were points for in class quizzes and activities, points for at home written assignments, tests and presentations.
  • Pass/fail mentality. Instead of a few last minute papers of dubious quality, I wanted to instill mastery goals by requiring many many last minute papers of dubious quality. The idea was that after each paper (that satisfied basic criteria) I would raise the bar slightly, give suggestions, and move on to the next thing. I was hoping to frame the papers as deliberate practice, not necessarily as finished products.
  • Choice – related to the point system, one could choose to focus on tests, quizzes, papers or in class activities. Of course, one could not neglect any one if one wanted a high grade, but one could make up for a poor test score by turning in many papers and presentations.

So, like every experiment, this was a failure.The class did not go all as planned, and it failed to bring magical wonderment, engagement and steady hard work like I imagined in my dreams. Below, Ill review a few of the positive aspects of the class before I get to tearing myself a new one.

Interested students are interested

Interested students, pic taken by flickr user UCNISS

  1. Struggling students feeling successful. Given that I could meet students where they were, I was able to identify a few conscientious students who I am pretty sure would have gotten Cs otherwise. These students can sometimes get to college and simply feel bad at everything, despite their hard work. I felt proud that I could give them some evidence of hard work paying off.
  2. Raising interest. I think I chose a variety of good content that helped students feel more interested than they would have been if only left to the textbook (which is actually quite good) and lectures (which are also decent). The few students who listened to the radiolab podcasts reported being very interested. The TED talks (although I have misgivings about them as a phenomenon) did help to inspire some interest.
  3. Empowering students. I still like the idea of empowering students with their own educations, and giving them choice, even if many refuse it. I also like the idea of a goal to work towards, little by little, framing the semester as a step-by-step journey towards a concrete goal, rather than a weighted average of a set of tests that students often find arbitrary.

Ok. So, I’ll stick with those bright points. Now, onto the suck.

1) The endless gaming of the points. Students tried to do as little as possible, finding the assignments that required them to do the least work, and doing those as close to adequate as they could manage. I knew some of this was coming, but I thought I had done my best to make the points system clear, but also make the spirit of the rules clear.

2) It was too easy. This pains me to say, and it pains me even more that some students think this, but when it came down to it, the class was too easy. This was due to a two major reasons. My first foray into multiple choice questions revealed that I was right to avoid them like the plague my first 5 years as a faculty member. I gave the students a huge test bank, and then selected from that bank for the exams. Even though I shuffled questions and answers, and used items that I had preselected from the textbook’s bank to require some critical thinking, the students did better on the exams than I know they should have. Second, the writing assignments relied on students meetings a minimal criteria, and me holding them to continuous improvement. If they didn’t improve or meet the criteria, I needed to fail to give them points. I didn’t do this nearly enough. Part of it was that it was hard to track continuous improvement for 30 students (it was a logistical nightmare) , and moodle didn’t help with their clunky feedback and grading system. But it was also that it relied on my personal toughness, which is not something I usually rely on. My style is much more to make the tests and assignments difficult, yet straightforward to grade, but be supportive and kind as I help students get through them. To be clear, it is not that I don’t have any backbone, I would just rather the challenge of the material was apparent, rather than me being personally and charismatically demanding. I hadn’t realized that the leeway I gave myself in grading the assignments would ask for this.

3) Much of the choice was wasted, and most students did not get enough basic content and background knowledge. In my efforts to cut down on the firehose mentality, I dialed it back too far, and students did not need to spend as much time studying as they should have. The amazing choices that I gave the students, both in topics of interest as well as assignments, were mostly passed up in favor of default options (the first in the list, or the most points for what seemed to be the least amount of time). I don’t mean to be too hard on the students, not wanting choice is another way of saying they wanted more guidance. I had hoped that the tests and volume of assignments would make the workload bigger, but more clear, but it was not bigger.

4) Finally, the class discussions were pretty weak. Partly this was just the class chemistry, in that there were several excellent and engaged students who happened to be incredibly shy, and thus did not help spur class discussions. But I think it was also a big class (close to 30) for real class discussions. I had hoped that small group discussions on questions that I had carefully screened to be specific, interesting, and often related to their own experiences (c’mon, topics like why are some drugs legal and others illegal? and their own lives as students studying, as children developing, as athletes training?). Anyways, I am never satisfied with class discussions, and it often feels like a constant tug of war where students are waiting for me to take over and lecture, even when I try any number of strategies.

Ok, I’ll end there, and conclude with a few last thoughts. While I am not totally sure my students learned more because of this new approach, I know I learned something from it. I also know that this is part of why I wanted to be a professor at a liberal arts school, and why I value the freedom that I have at Randolph-Macon. While I take my students’ education seriously, I also need to have the freedom to experiment so that it doesn’t get stale and innovate with new models of motivation and learning. It also makes it think, as I consider my time on the college’s assessment committee, that while it is important to define and focus on measurable student outcomes, this should not come at the cost of ignoring those that are harder to measure, like engagement, curiosity, and confidence. Thanks for reading. I’d be happy for any feedback or suggestions, or to answer any questions with more details if people are curious.

 

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
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4 Responses to Reflections about my Experiment with General Psychology

  1. Lalsox says:

    Well, this is lovely, and also makes me all too aware that I am sitting on a bunch of half-written posts about my own professional doings this summer.

    Coincidentally, we had a speaker here at the start of the school year, who talked to us about the value of failed experiments, and the need to be public with those failures, and how that is so difficult in academic culture. I am glad to hear that your institution is open to your tinkering.

    I really like the points system that you laid out. It is a shame about the “gaming” going on, but that happens with some students no matter what kind of system they meet. The mental energy required to drag them along is exhausting.

    Do you think that you will repeat this experiment? Any thoughts about further changes?

  2. Don Schroeder says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience! It was fascinating to read about the points system which seems to be quite similarly to one that I invented myself for an introductory class on musical instruments (I was teaching Systematic Musicology in Germany for the last few years). Interestingly, my experiences with the system are quite the opposite. Right from the start it worked well, so I used the system always after for this specific class while gradually optimizing it from semester to semester and it actually got better and better. Of course there are some differences between your and my system, but basically it seems to be the same. Students had one account of points, the amount of which decided at the end about the final grade. Points could from a final assignment (only one at the end of semester, as it’s customary in Germany, but this assignment was not a classical, textual one, but “Build your own instrument”, which was always a big hit with most of the students). Then there was a final exam as well as in-class and extra work. Both the exam and the final assigment were worth 50 points each with a mandatory 40% that had to be achieved in each, totalling to 100 points. But the highest grade was only obtainable starting from 105 points with open end. (Some students in some of the classes achieved 130-140 points with extra tasks even it didn’t help them with the grade!) To get extra points, the students could select from a set of possibilities: Giving a presentation on a self-chosen topic from the curriculum, writing Wikipedia entries on instruments, live demonstration of instruments, organizing excursion (for instance to a piano manufacturer or to a church organ), and for things that spontaneouly came up by them or by me. But obtaining these extra points was a completely free choice, nobody had to do it, even if there was the rather small incentive that for really good grade you had to do one extra thing or another. And, maybe most importantly, getting points was not connected to grading. Fulfilling a task was enough to get points, no matter what quality the work had. It was just a sweat-of-the-brow compensation. And I guess, this is a very important point. Interestingly, it didn’t end in lower quality, because students typically choose tasks that are easy and/or interesting for them — and that’s why they mostly good at it and why they often want to perfect their skills even more. Another thing: Theoretically, everyone could have achievd the best grade by just writing one Wikipedia entry after another, but interestingly this never happened. Mostly studnets used the Wikipedia entries only as a compensation if they had the feeling that they had not enough points in the exam or similar. The students mostly chose their activities to get a grade which mostly conincided with my very personal assessment of their skills and talents and which I guess they also found “just” or adequate for themselves. So the studnets basically graded themselves, after basically teaching the whole course themselves. I only stepped in for the very introduction and for some topics in between. Final evaluation and feedback on the class was always extremely good, students engaged mostly in the class and they liked it. And from the evaluation I know that everyone had at least the strong feeling that they had something learned.

    P.S. A befriended university teacher of mine also experimented with the points system, but with mixed results, one good, one bad. At the end, teaching always depends on so many many factors (that I don’t want to start to enumerate them), so that’s it’s hard to find a system that always works in every ciicumstances with every students and teachers and topics. But that’s excatly why I would encouraged to give the system maybe another try. since I wouldn’t called it a failure, anyway.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      Thanks so much for the long and thoughtful reply, Don. Yeah, I think I am going to try to keep some of the good aspects of the course, and lean towards a system more like yours, where they do have to do exams, but there are also a fair number of optional points. Interesting that you mention Wikipedia, I was planning on trying to implement that in another class. The Association for Psychological Science has a big initiative trying to get professors and students more involved in editing Wikipedia entries in psychology. I appreciate your encouragement. I try to use the word “failure” in a less negative way sometimes, since I think it is necessary to fail to improve. Thanks again for stopping by.

  3. scicurious says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this! I am always really pleased to see how people trying to evolve their teaching, and I’m glad you saw positives as well as negatives. Do you have ideas for what you will try next time?

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