Leading Horses: notes on helping, failing and peeking

I do some shocking things to help my students succeed:

  • Questions in advance: all multiple-choice quiz questions are available in advance, with two tries to check your score.
    But, I have students who don’t use them.
  • Late work accepted: All quizzes and assignments are accepted up to a week late for partial credit. For on-site classes, homework may be turned in as a replacement for the quiz for partial credit.
    But, I have students who don’t avail themselves of this and get 0 points.
  • Samples posted: each quiz is followed by real-life examples from the exams of current students.
    But, I have students who don’t read them.
  • Help available: each class features both an extensive FAQ and a Help forum open to all.
    But, I have students who write things like “I couldn’t find this cartoon at the website, so I can’t answer the question”.
  • Access to me: via IM, email, Messages, etc.
    But, I have students who don’t contact me all semester.
  • Shout-outs and encouragement: in every discussion forum, I summarize and note the contributions of particular individuals.
    But, I have students who don’t read my posts.
  • Self-assessments and rubrics: instead of just assigning participation points, students write self-assessments comparing their own performance to that of the rubric, on which I base my grade.
    But, I have students who don’t do it, or do it as if there were no rubric, or tell me what they think they should get in the class because of all the effort they feel they put into it.

So, some of them fail. I figure that among the various rights I ascribe to them is the right to fail. I’m trying to get past the point where I think every failure of theirs is because I did something wrong.

leading horse

Flickr photo by NeuralVibrance

It’s interesting to note that, over twenty years, I have experimented with many different methods, from the bizarrely open to the strict instructivist. I’ve done this both for myself, because I take pride in my work, and to increase student success. BUT the result in terms of assessments and drop-out rate is almost invariable. My retention and “success” statistics rarely shift over the long term, but my more open methods have created less stress for me and certainly more opportunities for students, if they take advantage of them.

Last week, an instructor wrote me, distressed because students who weren’t enrolled till fall were getting into this semester’s course to look at the tests (Moodle has a self-enrollment system). I discovered in the documentation that you can change your “enrolment key” to prevent this, and currently enrolled students won’t be affected, so I sent out a message to all Moodlers. Then I started to go through this semester’s courses to put in a code on all my classes (I don’t use one).

Then it occurred to me. As with all the other things I’ve done, it won’t make much difference. If a student from next semester sees the tests, they will face two sections. One is multiple-choice, where I already give the questions in advance anyone, and the other is essay, which I won’t grade, obviously. If they look at the sample essays I’ve posted, then try to copy and paste them, I’ll probably recognize them because they are the ones I selected as examples. If they use the samples to create their own, they’ll learn something anyway. I took the enrollment keys back off.

I was told once about a professor who had a huge test bank of multiple-choice questions, which he vigorously protected. He figured, as many do, that prevention of cheating could best be accomplished by having a huge test bank so students rarely got the same questions. The very day he got up to 1,000 questions in the test bank, he found a printed copy of all of the questions left behind at a student’s desk. At first he was angry. Then it occurred to him that if a student actually studied all 1,000 questions, they were learning anyway, so what the heck? I remember that story all the time to remind me what I’m trying to do, whether the students choose to fail or succeed, sideways or otherwise.

2 comments to Leading Horses: notes on helping, failing and peeking

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    “There is no success like failure and failure’s no success at all”

  • I have those same feelings at the end of each semester when I’m turning in grades and see the number of students (f2f and online) who register and then neither show up nor withdraw.

    What can you do?

    It’s interesting that you note “My retention and ‘success’ statistics rarely shift over the long term.” Our QEP that I worked on last year addresses student success in online courses, and it has the goal of meeting or exceeding retention and success in f2f courses. I’m hopeful that we can improve, but I think our goal is overly ambitious.