Alignment Problems

Flickr CC photo my Michael Maclean

I avoided grading all morning. I cleaned out my in-box (down to 76 messages!), worked on a project that’s not due for weeks. All because I wrote a really bad essay question, and the results were terrible.

The question was:

“Choose any specific piece of art from the Modern Art and Music section of the lecture, and explain in thesis style how it represents the prevailing ideas of this timeframe.”

Most students couldn’t answer the whole thing; either they didn’t tell me about an artwork (I got movements instead) or they didn’t know what the “prevailing ideas of this timeframe” were (this was for the 1920s). It didn’t matter that I linked to the lecture section; the answers were awful. A total disaster.

When this happens, I think my question is bad, and I make a note in Zoho Writer to change it next semester. But I think it’s a bigger issue. It’s not just a bad question. It’s out of alignment with what I’m doing now in discussion, where they create their own stockpile of primary sources each week then work on creating historical theses.

That method I’m very happy with, and I think it is bringing more students toward satisfactory work toward the important Student Learning Outcomes of using evidence and creating interpretive historical theses (our outcomes are based on historical skills, not content knowledge).

All my classes feature seven evenly spaced quizzes during the semester. Each have some multiple-choice questions from the text or lectures, but at least 30% is based on two essay questions. In my on-site class, I create the essay questions on the fly each time, because they are based on what we do in class. I am gradually making the questions imitate the format I’m teaching them: thesis, followed by three pieces of evidence or eras/topics supported by evidence.

But online, I create the essay questions in advance, because I like to get all my online classes “set up” before the semester starts. They tend to check content, or try to get it combined with the context (like my lousy question). Only near the end of the class do I do the thesis-evidence pattern. And now that they’re doing it in discussion, this doesn’t make sense.


1 comment to Alignment Problems

  • Alignment–good word. I catch myself making this mistake all of the time-I think it can happen with class activities too–and sometimes that is good–explore a tangent–discover something new–but so I often I catch myself structuring a class activity that does not really align with what I want to accomplish in the course when I think big picture.