June 30, 2008

Clues for the Clueless #7

Posted in clues to the clueless tagged , , , , at 1:39 pm by profart

Hint: Any sort of assessment probably requires critical thinking skills to complete; even multiple-choice assignments.


Every semester, in at least one of my sections (and especially online), there arise the discussion of multiple-choice tests, and the skills required to complete them.


I use the multiple-choice option in my online courses for two main reasons. The first, to be honest, is that the computer grades it. Immediately. I can even put in little messages to send back to the students about what they got right and wrong, so they get instant feedback. This makes my life easier, as I don’t have 70-120 papers to grade each week, the computer kindly takes care of that for me. I need only review the papers to look for patterns of problems with the group or with each student. After all, I’m an adjunct. I don’t get paid much, and I would prefer to at least make close to minimum wage.


Second, I am good at writing them. I use a careful methodology of using the textbook, considering the language of the textbook, and providing choices and answers that reveal whether or not a student actually understood the reading- often using the language from the textbook. Skimming a chapter and trying to take my multi-choice tests is probably a bad idea. We don’t have lectures. As I add in presentations, I write questions about them, too; but the main source of your knowledge is the textbook, so it is important for you to not just read the words off the page, but to comprehend what you have read.


I have a child with hyperlexia. By the end of kindergarten, he could read at an early fifth grade level. However, his comprehension of material was closer to the early third grade level. He could read the words off the page- long words were no problem, complex sentences, no problem. But did he understand a word of it? That is harder. It is all fine to be able to say words. Being able to understand what those words mean takes an entirely different skill.


As the semester wears on, I expect the students to think more about what they are reading. We have come further in discussion. We have done more work to familiarize students with what I expect from them. This is a gradual process; I don’t just suddenly stick a bunch of super-hard, thought-provoking questions in their assignments. Actually, I start the process outside of the graded assignments, ratcheting up the discussion questions first, and then the assignments.


That is where the trouble begins. Even using the language of the textbook, students have difficulty connecting different part of the chapter to come to conclusions. For example, the beginning of the chapter on Gothic at discusses the cathedral as Heavenly Jerusalem on Earth. Then there is. Later in the chapter, a discussion of stained glass and Lux Nova, creating effects of miraculous light as a metaphor for God’s presence. Can my students connect the dots, and come up with the idea that stained glass is intended to enhance the idea of a cathedral as sacred space and Heavenly Jerusalem?


Usually the trouble revs up in the chapter on Egypt, when in the discussion, I ask students to discuss non-funerary art. To be able to do this, the student has to understand what “funerary” means. Then they have to find art in Egypt that is non-funerary.

Invariably, I get long threads about pyramids (which are tombs), mortuary temples (mortuary… funerary… um… ), tomb portraits (TOMB portraits, people…), and grave goods (grave… funerary…). Granted, there are limited examples provided of non-funerary art in an introductory textbook, but I would think a student could still be able to find them- especially if they are being specifically asked to find them. But no, they just babble on about whatever they feel like. Now, that is fine to start a new thread and discuss funerary art all you want. But discussing it in a non-funerary thread just shows me you have no idea what you are supposed to be discussing!


Now take that to the multiple-choice test; you are asked what the point of non-funerary art is. The choices include references to funerary art, plus a choice of “non of the above.” Guess what the answer is?


Yet I am inundated with email about how “tricky” the question is. Well, I guess if you have no idea what “funerary” means, and your mouse has an aversion to clicking the little button next to “e: none of the above”, that would indeed be tricky. But then, the point is to see if you understand that all of those answers are about funerary art, and not non-funerary art, that you understand the difference.


Yes, you have to think about it a little. The textbook doesn’t say, “This piece is non-funerary.” The fact that an item has no connection to death, death ritual, tombs, funerary rites, or the dead should, I think, tell you the item is non-funerary; just as I expect you to know an item in or around a tomb is funerary. And is therefore not non-funerary.


Your grade school multi-guess test this ain’t. Welcome to college. 


Clues for the clueless #6

Posted in clues to the clueless tagged , , , , , at 1:03 pm by profart

Hint: If I cannot decipher your English, I cannot grade your essay. There is a really great way to help this problem, which I recommend in my syllabus, orientation presentations, and course information (and announce several times over the semester, both in live and online classes): have someone read your essay aloud. Whenever the person stumbles trying to read aloud, you probably have a problem in your writing that needs to be fixed. Be sure your reader is a fluent English speaker. 

No, this doesn’t often result in perfect papers. That really isn’t the point. The point is that the English will at least be adequate, so I can understand what is being understood. This isn’t an English class, and my English writing probably makes my English Prof readers cringe. The point is to be understood

This isn’t just an ESL problem. I get mangled English from everyone- mangled so badly that I cannot tell if they understand the concepts.  To me, exam are teaching tools. They allow me to evaluate what a student knows while teaching concepts of writing and recall, analysis and critical thought. I offer a few different formats for getting this information back and forth, because not everyone is the greatest at any one format. Multiple choice, short answer, essay, discussion… some things timed to check for recall, some things untimed to check for understanding and research. 

Essays are untimed. I provide the questions two weeks before an exam week begins. Then they have all week to enter their answer into the computer, or have until exam day to turn it in. For upper-level courses, i do timed essays to help them prepare for timed tests such as the GREs. Timed essays are very different creatures from untimed ones. I expect some mangling in timed essays as students untangle their thoughts. But untimed, do-at-home, at-your-leisure essays? For a major exam? The least you can do is look up the artist names and spell the time periods correctly. 

If you are discussing Leonardo the winchy in an exam, you are not going to get an A on that untimed assignment. It is just one symptom of a much larger problem: and I have yet to find an essay with one such symptom that doesn’t show many, many others. Displaying your ignorance- then complaining that you are not getting an A- isn’t going to help your grade at all

June 24, 2008

Real student quotes.

Posted in student stories tagged , , , , at 2:05 am by profart

Ah, the wisdom of student writing. It is amazing what you can learn from students. Over my career, I have learned: 

Stonehenge was built of stones from blue whales. 

That there was a great deal of Hellenistic influence in Greece. 

“B ecause the art is the dunp thing in paintings, the big painters like Leonardo the winchy and other painter said a lot to the people by the paintings.” [No, this was not an ESL student.]

That art critics tend to criticize. They should learn not to be so negative. 

“When a leader stumbles his followers fall right on top of him.”


But what I really love about these kinds of quotes and paraphrases is that these are my students. I got to hunt them down and fix these problems. How many folks have such a golden opportunity to really change a student’s whole way of thinking and communicating? How many people can say they helped make someone a better paycheck down the road? 


June 21, 2008

Midterms roll in

Posted in FERPA tagged , , , , at 4:41 am by profart

Yes, I like making fun of student writing. It makes the job of grading it that much better. Before I start on my posts about midterm essays and final essays, I just want to be clear: 

I rarely choose examples for THIS batch of midterms. I have been collecting quotes for years. This way, the writer and their writing are that much more separated and unidentifiable, and therefore FERPA folks can be happy. I won’t say “never”, because then you lose that little bit of questioning, and things are just that much more traceable. 

I rarely poke fun at students who are known ESL. In fact, I prefer to poke fun at students who are known to NOT be ESL. So when you see this screwed up grammar and wild word choice, remember that the writer is a native English speaker. It makes it that much funnier. 

I think pointing out bad writing is a great way to remind students, parents, and other teachers that students are coming to college writing like this, and that this is unacceptable. It is also a reminder that though I do not teach English classes, I am still teaching writing and research skills. It is my job to help these kids learn to write and analyze. This is the raw material I am sent. It is also a great reminder of why we need to be able to communicate and use language appropriately. 

No, I do not think it is unethical to laugh at student writing. I am forever grateful for the professors who took the time to slap me upside the head as an undergrad and say “Do these words make sense to you?” Or as my son’s kindergarden teacher puts it, “Here’s what your words said… [my son’s mangled attempt at trying to spontaneously create a sentence from scratch instead of quoting/echoing someone else]… does that make sense to you?”

Midterms are rolling in. Stay tuned!




June 20, 2008

Clues for the Clueless #5

Posted in clues to the clueless tagged , , , at 1:59 am by profart

Hint: if a professor asks you to both email and telephone if there a problem on your exam, and you have a problem, the best thing to do is to email to the email addresses provided as well as call, right away. If your professor doesn’t know there is a problem, s/he cannot fix the problem. 

Corollary: if you are having trouble with images loading, and it is Thursday or Friday of exam week, and students have all week to take the exam, and the testing centers are not open on weekends, the likelihood is high that the majority of other students have both attempted the exam and not had the problem you are experiencing. Therefore, it is a high likelihood that there is nothing the professor can do about your problem, it is a technical issue on your end. Calling the professor to report the problem is still a good idea, but keep in mind that asking the professor to fix the problem isn’t going to be helpful. Getting belligerent about the professor not fixing the problem is not going to improve anyone’s blood pressure. 

June 15, 2008

Ah, Summer Midterms

Posted in teaching revelations tagged , , , at 5:08 am by profart

Midterm approaches, and with it, the usual pile of emails of “do we actually have to take a test?”, “I’m going on vacation this week!” and “What about a review assignment?”

I usually give in on the review thing, since regular semesters have whole review weeks. Why you can’t remember all of four weeks’ worth of material is beyond me, but I think a benefit of the doubt isn’t going to hurt. Here’s a review. 

The problem is the heap of emails that will file in at the end of the semester asking for the review assignments to be counted as extra credit. 

Not a chance. 

Some time ago, I read somewhere- and I wish I could remember where- that extra credit was “an attempt to make up in quantity what was lacking in quality.” It was like being hit with the truth of what you suspected all along. Invariably when I allowed extra credit, when I was a young and hopeful lass of a teacher, what I would get was a pile of steaming junk and a lot of complaining about not getting enough credit for that crap. The folks who did good work didn’t need extra credit, the folks who really needed it didn’t do it, and I was left with useless extra hours of grading poorly done “writing” and answering nasty emails. 

No more. I now know why it was such a waste of time for all concerned, and I leave it be. 

In summer, midterm season has an extra intensity. I think because they have not been in the course as long, it is not yet as routine to them to answer the kinds of questions I am asking. There is a sense of panic, of unfamiliarity, as if students don’t yet have their sea legs. In a regular semester, we would have at least two more weeks of material ahead of us, plus that wonderful review. In summer, we’re already half-way done. 

At least I’m not teaching live. Live summer classes suck, because you have to go to campus and teach for two hours every day. No one has time to process anything before you are on to your next topic. 

June 5, 2008

Online Disadvantage

Posted in student stories tagged , , , , , at 11:21 pm by profart

When I am teaching a live course, and I have a problematic student, I just head over to the department chair, consult the student’s advisor, and address the problem. Rude students are so rare that this process is also rare, but it works quickly to the advantage of student, who is given guidance about proper behavior. 

Online, I am at a disadvantage. The college I am working with does not have clear lines of command; the students are from all over the place, and departments are loosely organized and run. trying to track down a student with no clear idea of what department they belong to means tracking down an advisor- IF they have one- is complicated. Add to this the fact that these students have a greater incidence of rude behavior, and you have another reason for blood pressure medication. 

Because online students rarely, if ever, see me face-to-face, they seem to think that the rules of etiquette and appropriate behavior do not apply. They have no qualms in emailing me nasty notes, rude emails, and statements of exactly what they think of me. Even when you try to send them helpful information, they can “take it wrong” and reply in nasty, inappropriate ways. Who’s to stop them? Especially if they are sending these emails after already dropping your class? Worse yet, what if they don’t? 

So another clue for the clueless: rules of appropriate behavior still apply in online classes. Back-talking your professor is still a big no-no. Copping an attitude is still inappropriate. And I still have the dean of instruction to consult, complete with copies of all correspondence- so that what normally would be a he said/she said debate is in writing, in black and white for all to see. Don’t go there. Watch your language. 

June 3, 2008

First Assignment: Fail

Posted in student stories tagged , , , , at 11:58 am by profart

Our first week in Art 101 covers prehistoric art, including the famous Stonehenge. The textbook dedicates a god amount of time to Stonehenge, I provide extra links about the site, and of course, it is often discussed on the forums. Stonehenge is constructed of two different types of stone: the large henge most folks think of is made of Sarsen sandstone, and then a small ring of bluestone imported from a quarry in Wales. The main structure was constructed around 2000 BCE (2500-1500 BCE is more exact for covering all the stages.)

My old quizzes required a student to look at a picture, and identify the item by title, date, place of origin, materials it is made of, and artist (if known). Then they had to tell me why it was important. I have abandoned this format online for a multiple-choice open-book format, because I was getting answers like this: 

Stone Hedge, 20,000 BC, England, made of stones from blue whales. 


They still get the answers wrong, but at least I give them a fighting chance. 




Can you read now? How about now?

Posted in student stories tagged , , at 11:45 am by profart

One of the important skills needed for taking on line courses is reading comprehension. Without excellent reading comprehension skills, you are kinda screwed, because most of the course is reading your textbook and discussing the material there. You don’t get a lot of lecture time, though with advances in storage and bandwidth at my college, I am working on putting up lots more small presentations. Even in live courses, you need to be able to read and discuss ideas from the textbook(s). We didn’t assign this stuff for our health, guys; we assigned it for yours

A big red flag for lacking this skill is not being able to read and understand the syllabus. Now, granted, my syllabus has turned into a three-page nightmare plus outline of topics. There is a lot in there, but there is a lot in three pages of the textbook, too. I include all sorts of important things in there, like how to navigate the class, when the exams and assignments are due, how to submit them, etc. 

Additionally, we are now entering week three of a summer class. If you haven’t figured this stuff out by now, you’re in trouble. Yet every semester, this is the week I get snowed in with emails to the effect of “I didn’t know this was due!”, “When are the exams due?”, and “Why did I get an “F” for participation?” In the summer, I often get the addition of “I have to be out of town during Exam Week. What should I do?”

SI usually send back polite if brief replies with appropriate answers giving them the information they need and reminding them that the syllabus addresses these issues. I have some students who take issue with the reminder, but after all, that syllabus isn’t for my health… 

As for the extra summer request for being away during the exam week? There is only one choice: “Arrange and alternate proctor, or drop the class.”