The Flourishing Academic

A blog for teacher-scholars published by the Duquesne University Center for Teaching Excellence


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Just a TAD – Transparent Assignment Design

laurel-2013 

by Laurel Willingham-McLain, Director, Center for Teaching Excellence, Duquesne University


Imagine
a simple practice you can do that strongly promotes student performance on assignments.

In several national studies of courses using transparency in learning and teaching, students report in pre/post surveys significantly increased academic confidence and sense of belonging compared to students in courses not using the transparent assignment design.  This finding is statistically more significant for students from underserved populations. Prior research connects academic confidence and sense of belonging with student persistence and grades (Winkelmes et al., 2016).

Transparent assignment design is a systematic way to be transparent about the purpose, task and criteria of assignments to promote students’ learning.  It can apply to all kinds of assignments, small and big.  Focusing on these three components of assignments is beneficial to both faculty and students.

tad chart

We invited Duquesne faculty who have implemented transparency over the past year or so to provide insights.  Rebecca Cepek reflected on it in a recent post, Parallelograms and Poetry.

Some faculty told us they embrace transparent design because it builds on what they already do: “Smaller changes seem far better! They don’t lead to destroying things that are here, but build upon them. It’s not the ‘throw out’ culture and making change just for change sake.” “I can utilize the ideas I have and combine them with things others have already tried and validated. [This] gives me the language to discuss and understand the techniques I try in class.”

Transparent assignment design can help instructors develop confidence because it provides both structure and flexibility. One faculty member said this is “a very practical method to structure assignments.” Prior she had just been “trying to replicate assignments that other instructors had created.” By using the transparency framework, this instructor began to find her own teaching identity.

Students want to connect learning to their lives. One instructor noted that by explicitly calling attention to “how an assignment will relate to [students] now and in their future careers,” she can better demonstrate the meaning, value, and relevance of assignments. Another wrote: “Transparent assignment design has helped me make clear how exactly the assignments they complete in my class will prepare them for the future.”

Faculty noted that the exercise of implementing transparency helped them recognize how sometimes they weren’t even sure themselves what they expected students to get out of an assignment: “I haven’t always consciously stated (to myself) exactly why I want students to do certain assignments/tasks. […] I have come to better understand how each individual assignment I give contributes to the course’s learning goals.”

Respondents talked about imagining student perspectives: one person reported trying “to escape my own perspective more when designing even ‘straightforward’ (or so I think!) assignments.”  Another reflected that “This design process has really helped me put myself in my students’ places so that I can make it crystal clear what I’m looking for in their work.”

Transparency surfaces confusion and knowledge/skill gaps. For instance, “when students complain about something I ask them to do, it isn’t necessarily because they don’t want to be challenged to learn new material; rather, it’s more likely they don’t understand either how to do the assignment or how the assignment contributes to their learning.” At first the instructor equated transparency with hand-holding, but she now sees how being more explicit in helping students with the what, how, and why of an assignment can foster more rigorous learning, because transparency has “removed the obstacle of figuring out why an assignment is important and opened the door to the real obstacle of learning the material.”

Finally, re-writing one or two assignments and seeing the resultant changes in students’ attitudes and performance energizes faculty to integrate transparency into other assignments, as well as into their communications with students during class, lab, and lectures.

Steve Hansen, Erin Rentschler and I recently submitted a chapter expanding on these perspectives for the forthcoming book,  Transparent Design in Higher Education Teaching and Leadership (edited by Mary-Ann. Winkelmes, Allison Boye and Suzanne Tapp, Stylus Publishing).

Learn more


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Parallelograms and Poetry: helping first generation students connect

Cepek Photo

Rebecca Cepek, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of English, Duquesne University

A friend recently posted this joke on a social media site.parallelogram

This reminded me that students often do not understand the value of an assignment, especially first-generation college students, who often find themselves overwhelmed by minutiae that traditional students easily navigate. How to read a syllabus, paper prompt, or rubric are hurdles that must be cleared before they can even think about completing the assignment itself.

First-generation students are thus often doing twice the work of traditional students before they even begin an assignment. If, at this point, students cannot see or understand how these assignments align with their overall educational, career, or personal goals, they are likely to become discouraged, and to question why they are learning about parallelograms—or poetry—rather than something that seems more practical.

Transparent assignment design addresses this issue by explicitly communicating the skills and knowledge that students will acquire or increase through completion of the assignment. These skills are articulated as both discipline-specific and “real world” skills.

For example, a transparently designed close reading of a poem explains that students will gain and improve skills in understanding and analyzing literary texts and analyzing how literary devices help create meaning in texts, as well as critical reading and comprehension of complex texts.

Cepek assignment flow chart darker

Close Reading of a Poem Assignment

 

Furthermore, transparent assignment design also requires an explanation of when and how these skills will be used. For this assignment, I explain that the ability to comprehend and analyze difficult texts is a skill that they will find necessary in other classes, and also one that will be essential to their success, both personal and professional, outside of academia. Mastering the analysis of poetry specifically, which is often dense and multilayered, will prepare them for any similar texts they may encounter and will help them come to an understanding and appreciation of the many nuances and levels of language.

This type of transparency is particularly useful for students who cannot see the connections between reading a poem and reading a report. Indeed, many students struggle to make these connections, but it is of paramount importance for first-generation students who need to be reassured that the benefits of higher education are worth the sacrifices – emotional, personal, and financial – that they are making to pursue that education.

In addition to helping first-generation students understand the value of assignments, it also aids in the successful completion of those assignments. This requires a change from what Mary-Ann Winkelmes, creator of transparent assignment design, calls “a ‘gatekeeper’ perspective,” the mistaken idea “that if a student can’t figure out the unwritten but implied purposes, tasks, and criteria for an assignment, that student shouldn’t succeed in the course and shouldn’t continue in the discipline.”

Instead, transparent assignment design lays out the steps needed to complete an assignment in a simple and easy to understand way, explaining terms (such as close reading) that are often unfamiliar to first-generation students. This is crucial to the success of students, who hesitate to ask for help, especially for understanding something that it seems like all of their peers already understand.

In my experiences with freshman composition, transparent assignment design has been immensely helpful for both traditional and nontraditional students alike. It has also forced me to articulate the value not only of my assignments but of my discipline, as well as how my chosen discipline is interconnected with other disciplines. Finally, transparent assignment design is a minor change that instructors can make, with huge benefits for everyone, but especially for first-generation students.  Because ultimately, it is always parallelogram season.


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Helping Students Reflect on Study Habits

In January 2017, CTE interviewed Pamela Spigelmyer, Faculty, School of Nursing about her use of exam wrappers to help students learn. thumbnail_pamela-spigelmyer_0003

What is an exam wrapper?

It’s a reflection by students on their exam performance. It stimulates them to think about the effort they put into studying for the exam, and the barriers to achieving their best score. I ask students to do the following:

  • tell how much time they studied and estimate the percentage of time they spent on various study methods
  • analyze the reason for the points they lost on the exam
  • state their study plans
  • suggest ways I can support them for the next exam. [see sample wrapper below]

Tell me how you have used exam wrappers.

I have used them on the midterm exam in three different courses. Students can use their reflection on the midterm to improve their learning in the second half of the semester.

In my freshmen class this fall it went really well. I was surprised at the list of things they said they were going to do to improve for the next exam. When I asked, “what can I do to help you,” there were only minor comments. This makes sense, because I was already administering frequent quizzes and giving them clicker questions in class. They were getting practice.

What have you learned in the process?

Some of the comments I got back really opened my eyes to what students thought was effective study. For example, some students created 50-60 page study guides by cutting and pasting from the book. They explained that this guide was all they used for studying and claimed that it should have been enough. But they didn’t do well, and I was able to provide that as evidence back to them.

I put student grades into two ranges and made a chart of the study methods students in each range said they used. Then I presented it saying, “if you want to achieve a higher grade, here’s an idea of what some of your classmates did.” chart-low-high-performance

Once I had a student who honestly reported on the exam wrapper that she had studied zero time. She had not looked at any material in preparing for the midterm exam. She apparently didn’t implement the study methods we talked about after the midterm, and performed poorly on the final exam. Then, at the end of the course, she challenged the grade. The exam wrapper served as evidence that she hadn’t put in the effort needed to achieve a better grade.

Do you have a way for students to refer back to their reflection? How do you administer the exam wrapper?

They always have the wrapper available on Blackboard. Right after the midterm exam closes, the exam wrapper assignment opens up. I tell them it is not graded, but it is required. Most students complete the 10-15 minute reflection within the 24-hour window.

Here’s the sequence: students take the online exam, receive the score immediately and then are asked to reflect on the exam and their studyingexam-wrapper-assignment-sp2017

I tell students that I use exam wrappers to identify areas where I can help them improve, and that they should use it for looking at their learning and areas for growth.

How have you used exam wrappers to help students?

Several students have mentioned stress anxiety. This gives me an opportunity to guide students to the Counseling and Wellness Center. In the past, they could have struggled without me knowing, but now I can pick that up at midterm.

Here’stwo-answers-multiple-choice another example. I can see from exam statistics where students get it down to two answers and can’t pick the right one; this is very typical for nursing exams. That tells me that I need to be more explicit in helping them choose between the two. There’s always something in one that makes it better than the other, and they’re just overlooking it. So we do practice questions that are specifically close in two answers.

Sometimes they say, “I just didn’t know the content,” which suggests that they didn’t prepare enough and I outline the way high achieving students study.

Before the exam, I also provide a study template. It just lists the course objectives and tells how many exam questions will be related to each objective. It shows the importance of sections. When there is a lot of material, it’s only fair for students to know how to prioritize their studying.

I like that way of tying it to the course learning objectives.

I also do frequent quizzing – which helps them gauge their learning. I don’t give them answers for items they miss, but just indicate the reading chapter it came from. That forces them to go back and find it.

Do you have any suggestions for your colleagues? Is anyone else doing it that you know of?

Several faculty colleagues have asked me for this assignment, and they have started to implement it. Others use a similar kind of method that they have created.

Do you tie this assignment in with a nursing competency?

I haven’t, but that would be a good idea. I never thought of that. It would fit under “professionalism and growth.”

Related posts: Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests   The Finals Lap: Tips and Ideas for Final Exam Review

SAMPLE EXAM WRAPPER

  1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam?
  2. What percentage of your test-preparation time was spent in each of these activities?
Activity Percentage of Time
Reading textbook section(s) for the first time
Rereading textbook section(s)
Reviewing homework-quiz question/concepts
Reviewing in class practice questions
Solving case study questions from textbook
Reviewing your own notes
Reviewing additional materials/websites posted in class weekly folders
Other: (please specify)

3. Now that you have looked over your graded exam, estimate the percentage of points you lost due to each of the following (make sure the percentage add up to 100):

Reason for lost exam points Percentage
Did not know/remember the content on the exam
Did not understand the question
Did not read the question/item carefully
Missed key words in the question
Did not read all distractor /potential answers carefully
Had difficulty choosing between 2 answers
Read/inferred more into the question than what was stated
Careless mistake (selected the wrong response accidentally)
Changed the answer
Experienced test anxiety/ inability to focus
Other: (please specify)

4. Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you plan to do differently in preparing for the next exam. For instance, will you just spend more time studying,  change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), solve more case studies, practice more questions, or something else?

5. What can I do to help support your learning and your preparation for the next exam?

 

 


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The Finals Lap: Tips and Ideas for Final Exam Review

by Steven Hansen, Associate Director for Faculty Development at the Center for Teaching Excellence at Duquesne University

Though it may seem to students that finals are eons away, professors and teaching assistants know that these last weeks fly by all too quickly. And so, as you prepare (or prepare to prepare) for that final lap, you may want to consider how you want to prepare your students and avoid those desperate emails at 5am on the day of the final. You know the ones. If you didn’t know better you could swear that the droplets of nervous sweat somehow traveled through cyberspace and into your inbox along with them. Reviewing for final exams is a valuable way to help students learn and reduces student anxiety related to finals (Weimer, 1998).

Here are some tips and ideas from CTE’s Teaching & Learning Tips Archive for those final reviews both in and out of the classroom.

Offer a Final’s Feast

A final’s feast is like the last supper for your class.  Have door prizes, snacks and review materials.  Marvin Druger (2006) calls his review session a Biofeast.  “Near the end of the General Biology 121 course, I organize the Biofeast.  This is designed as a celebration of the completion of the course.  A dining hall manager sets up a special meal, complete with hors d’oeuvres, tablecloths, and a huge cake, and students get a ticket for this event.  A review session for the last exam and door prizes are part of the festivities.  TAs also attend, and the Biofeast serves as a memorable climax to the first semester of the course.”

(not a realistic representation of a Final’s Feast)

Review an Old Exam

“I hold a review session before each major exam.  Basically, I review an old exam, and many questions on the actual exam are modifications of questions asked on old exams.  The rationale is that I know what I think is important for students to know, so why not tell them?  Students should not have to guess what’s important in the instructor’s mind.  For example, I want students to be able to analyze inheritance of ABO blood groups.  So, I tell them that a question on the exam will be similar to the following question: ‘If the mother is type A and the father is not AB, which of the following could not be the blood type of the child?’ The actual question on the exam will simply change the blood types in the question.  Also, former exams are available on reserve in the libraries, so that students can review content and get an idea of the style of the exams.” (Druger, 2006)

Set a Phone-in or Email Time

On the night before an exam, a professor (or a TA on duty) sets up block of time dedicated to taking calls or emails from students to help answer last-minute questions (Druger, 2006).

Give a Practice Exam

“Practice tests help students gauge what is expected of them. But practice tests are most effective when students take the tests, rather than read them as though they were study guides” (Davis, 2009).  If you let students spend half of the review time taking the practice exam, use the remaining review time to answer their questions.  Having taken the practice exam, students will have plenty of questions during the remaining time.

Interactive Review with Students as Experts

“Plan your test review sessions to be as interactive as possible. Instead of doing the usual ‘Q and A,’ organize the material in a more meaningful way. For example, you could send out an outline of major topics in advance and have students e-mail their questions to you ahead of time. Compile a list of the best questions and ask students to prepare answers prior to the session. Direct these questions to the students in the review before answering them yourself. You should have some ‘experts’ in the audience when it’s time to review. If students omitted some important questions, guide them to design questions for remaining topics. The practice in writing their own questions and answering them will be invaluable” (Joanne Holladay, “Your Role in Preparing Students for Finals,” University of Texas).

Resources:

Davis, Barbara Gross. (2009). Tools for teaching. San Francisco: Wiley Publishers.

Druger, Marvin. (2006). “Experiential learning in a large introductory biology course.” In Joel Mintzes & William Leonard (Ed.), Handbook of college science teaching (pp. 37-44). Arlington, VA: NSTA Press.

Kearney, Patricia , Plax, Timothy G. , Hays, Ellis R. andIvey, Marilyn J.(1991) “College teacher misbehaviors: What students don’t like about what teachers say and do.” Communication Quarterly 39: 4, 309-324.

Weimer, Maryellen. “Exam review sessions.” In Maryellen Weimer & Rose Neff (Ed.), Teaching college: Collected readings for new instructors (pp. 123-124). Madison: Atwood Publishing.


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Helping Students Learn from Returned Tests

This teaching and learning tip has been compiled by Dr. Steven Hansen, Associate Dir. of Faculty Development at Duquesne University’s Center for Teaching Excellence

With approximately one month left in the semester it’s not too late to adopt a new practice that could increase your students’ learning gains. In this post, Dr. Hansen uncovers some simple ways to help students see beyond their test scores and examine their own learning process. Visit CTE’s webpage for more teaching and learning tips.

exam

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.

Exam wrappers, post-test surveys, and error analysis exercises are useful tools to help your students to learn from returned exams and to perform better on future tests.

“All too often when students receive back a graded exam, they focus on a single feature – the score they earned. Although this focus on ‘the grade’ is understandable, it can lead students to miss out on several learning opportunities that such an assessment can provide.” (Ambrose, et al, 2010)

The next time you return a test or exam, consider assigning your students an exercise to help them learn from the test.

What can students learn from an Exam Wrapper, Post-Test Survey or Error Analysis Exercise?

In the Error Analysis Exercise outlined by Du Bois and Staley (1997), students analyze their wrong answers to find three dimensions:

  1. Students “identify the informational source(s) of the questions” that they missed. Did the information come from the text, lecture, other source, or a combination of sources?
  2. Students then “identify the strategies they should have employed to make information more meaningful and memorable.” Did the students have the information marked in their text? Were their notes about the topic sufficient for review?
  3. “Once students identify error patterns on our test, they generate a study plan to repair the deficiencies encountered in the analysis.”

What are some examples of Exam Wrappers or Post-Test Surveys?

Sample Exam Wrapper for a physics course might include the following:

1. Approximately how much time did you spend preparing for this exam? ______2  What percentage of your test-preparation was spent in each of these activities?a. Reading textbook section(s) for the first time ______b. Rereading textbook section(s) ______c. Reviewing homework ______

d. Solving problems for practice ______

e. Reviewing your own notes ______

f. Reviewing materials from course website ______

g. Other _______

(Please specify) _______________________________

3. Now that you have looked over your graded exam, estimate the percentage of points you lost due to each of the following.

a. Trouble with vectors and vector notation ___________

b. Algebra or arithmetic errors __________

c. Lack of understanding of the concept __________

d. Not knowing how to approach the problem ________

e. Careless mistakes _______

f. Other ________

(Please specify) ___________

4. Based on your responses to the questions above, name at least three things you plan to do differently in preparing for the next exam. For instance, will you spend more time studying, change a specific study habit or try a new one (if so, name it), make math more automatic so it does not get in the way of physics, try to sharpen some other skill (if so, name it), solve more practice problems, or something else?

5. What can we do to help support your learning and your preparation for the next exam?

(From Ambrose, et al, 2010)

A General Post-Test Survey might include the following items:

Part I — How did you Study for the Exam

1. Which part of the exam was easiest for you? Why?2. Which part of the exam was most difficult? Why?3. Activities completed prior to exam (answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’):a. All required reading assignmentsb. Review of lecture notes

c. Make study sheets from reading and lecture notes

d. Self-testing/reciting of material

e. Prediction of possible questions

f. Study with friends

g. Other:____________________________

4. Which of the above did you find most helpful in preparing for this exam?

5. How many hours did you spend preparing for the exam? On how many different days did you study?

6. Did you feel prepared when you walked into the exam? Why or why not?

7. How might you study for the next exam in this course differently than you studied for this exam?

 

Part II — Identify the Problems You Had with the Exam

1. Write the number of each item you missed in the top row of the chart.
2. Check each sentence that fits the missed question.
3. Total the checks in each row.
4. Look at the sentences with the highest totals and decide what you can do to get a better test score next time.
Question Incorrect          # Totals
Insufficient Information
The information was not in my notes.
I studied the information but could not remember it.
I knew the main ideas but not details.
I knew the information but could not apply it.
I studied the wrong information.
I did not read the text thoroughly.
Test Anxiety
I spent too much time daydreaming.
I was so tired I could not concentrate.
I was so hungry I could not concentrate.
I panicked.
I experienced mental block.
Lack of Test-Wisdom
I did not eliminate grammatically incorrect choices.
I did not make the best choice.
I did not notice limiting words.
I did not notice a double negative.
I carelessly marked a wrong choice.
Test Skills
I misread the directions.
I made poor use of the time provided.
I wrote poorly organized responses.
I wrote incomplete responses.
I changed a correct answer to a wrong one.
Resources:

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C. & Noman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Du Bois, N. F., & Staley, R. K. (1997): “A Self-Regulated Learning Approach to Teaching Educational Psychology. Educational Psychology Review 9 (2): 171-197.