Sunday, November 9, 2008

My Gordian Knot

I need some advice.

The requirement to pass a class that I teach is to pass a series of 6 tests. It is a one credit, pass/fail class. Pass the tests; pass the class. I teach all the necessary material during the first half of the semester. We don't meet the second half of the semester. The materials are all available online, so class attendance is not mandatory. There are an unlimited number of attempts allowed on each test.

How do I motivate people to get the tests passed? Or rather, what is the ideal set of rules to put in place to minimize the whining I have to listen to? The following are the constraints I'm working with:

I don't care when they take the tests - they just have to be done by the time I submit grades at the end of the semester.

I don't want to have to track anything, just pull up a list at the end of who passed all the tests.

It has to be simple - preferably one sentence. It's not just about whether I can track my class's progress, but that I have to be able to get the students to understand in very simple terms what is required of them.

I don't mind failing people - I just don't want them to call or email me with excuses, asking for more time to take the tests. If I haven't pulled the grades yet, I tell them they have more time.

Every time I've taught, I have done it differently. I have tried requiring one test be passed each week. I have tried 3 tests by one deadline and another 3 by a second deadline. I have tried requiring a paper on one of the test topics to make up for missing a deadline. I have tried giving students weekly deadlines with one automatic one week grace period. I have asked the students to decide as a class how to handle the deadline. I tried having a set deadline a week after we stopped meeting as a class, with an unknown-length grace period. Nothing has worked very well, although some have worked better than others.

Something I've considered but not yet tried is along the lines of requiring attendance for people who are behind on their tests (although that is counter to my constraints of simplicity and not wanting to have to track anything separate). It would be possible to require that each student take at least one test each week, whether or not they pass. I've never done one big deadline during finals week, and I don't think I ever will, since people will put off their tests until then, and they have to worry about deciding whether to study for my tests or finish work for their other classes.

It just seems that as long as there is a penalty for not getting your work done, there will be someone bothering me to avoid the penalty. Unfortunately, the penalty of failing the class seems a little harsh. Again, I don't mind failing people, but when that is the penalty, many people start coming to me to try to figure out a way to avoid it. For most people, if you hand in an assignment late and drop from an A- to a B+, it's not worth bothering your professor over. However, if the penalty for one late assignment is an F, people start to panic. The other problem is that some people figure they have failed the class if they miss a deadline, so they give up, even though I'd tell them they have more time if they asked me. But I don't want them to have to ask me.


Sterling said...

I had an online class that was similar. It was 6 weeks long and had 6 tests to pass to complete the course. The course assigned you a goal of one test per week, but you could technically take them all on the last day and still pass the class, or on the other hand take them all on the first day and not worry about the class for 6 weeks.

Of course this was an online class and it simply emailed you a reminder if you fell behind. Something like this"

Dear Tuition payment # 3765438,

I noticed you were three weeks behind on taking your weekly tests. The first week we were concerned to the point of raising an eyebrow, last week we were concerned enough to yank the glasses off of our heads and say "This is concerning!" Now we are concerned enough to have the police on the phone with visions of you laying in a ditch, gurgling on your own blood.
Please take your tests so that we can get some sleep at night, because a dead student means we don't get paid and the Dean just bought a new convertible. Thank you!

Dr. John Doe
Professor of tetherball studies
Evelyn Spedwether's Offshore College of Video Gaming and printer repair shop.

robmba said...

So you're recommending I collect the tuition up front. Smart.

Nathan Toone said...

One thing that I like to do with my students is to impress upon them the fact that we are really trying to prepare them for the "real world" - and I explain things to them in those terms...

For example, miss a deadline at work once - and you boss will probably call you in to talk to you. Miss deadlines consistently, and you'll be looking for a new job.

This past semester, I tried as an experiment to have my students send me weekly "status reports" - where they list what they are expecting to get done in the next week - and what the completed the previous week. I found that this helps them to focus on what they are required to do - and they tend to see that stuff starts piling up pretty quickly if they don't move forward. They also seem to like it because it gives them the flexibility to say, for example, "I can't do anything in your class this week, because I am swamped at work and I have a midterm coming up in my Math class."

Generally, it helps me to know what my students are going through - and it helps them to see (and get a bit of real-world taste) of managing themselves and their own schedules.