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Frustrations and Rebellions: Why didn’t I listen to Joss?

September 24, 2011

On top of a bad day of teaching last Wednesday, I also had to manage a mini-rebellion from some students in inquiry class:

Several students are unhappy about a few things, including

(1) That I use a Capstone Project for an A. In my course, a 100% for notebooks, tests, homework, and participation is the same as an 83%. It gives you a B and makes you eligible to get an A by doing an independent project.

I see it this way: You can bomb 1/6 of my course and still get an A. This puts in lots if wiggle room for mistakes, for missed assignments, struggling early on, etc.

Students see it this way: If I get an 100%, I still can’t get an A.

I see it this way:  Independent projects are optional. You can pass this course without doing one.

Students see it this way: To get an A, the teacher makes us do things that are optional.

(2) That this is an inquiry course and its different from other parallel classes. In my course, we cover three topics, so we spend a lot of time thinking, discussing, sharing, doing investigations, whiteboarding, etc. In other parallel courses, students cover a new topic each day or each week. Students simply aren’t used to classes like this and it doesn’t help my case when other classes are different. I understand that learning in a new way can be frustrating, especially when you’ve mastered the routine of (1) taking notes, (2) doing homework, (3) passing exams. There are definitely some students who are very frustrated, and I think they are frustrated for different reasons. Some are frustrated because they don’t know where we are going as a class and if we are really learning and making progress. I know that they are learning and that we are making progress, but it’s true that I don’t know exactly where we are going. Other students are frustrated because they wish they were in the other class, where it fit within their comfortable model of what a science class should be.

(3) That we are spending too much time on science In other parallel courses, instructors enrich the course by having students write up lessons plans and having students share them with each other. I am choosing to enrich my course by talking about the nature of science more and by watching videos of children doing science. I would say my course is 70% inquiry into science, 20% inquiry into the nature of science, and 10% inquiry into children’s thinking about science. Other courses are perhaps more like 60% activities related to science and 40% activities related to teaching science. Students are unhappy that the other courses are about teaching science,  where they get to collect, make, and share lesson plans; whereas my course we mostly do science.

I understand their frustrations. I also understand that not every student feels the way these students do. Many students have told me that they really enjoy the course. The Joss in my head, however, is reminding me that I didn’t spend enough time in the beginning of the course selling it–explaining why and convincing students that this way of teaching is in their best interest. So next week, it’s time to talk a little more about why I grade the way I do and why I am running the class the way I am.

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12 Comments leave one →
  1. Christopher permalink
    September 24, 2011 12:00 pm

    Uh oh! I hope I’m not responsible-even indirectly-for the mini-rebellion resulting from #1. Either way, in my experience they get over it as long as they see that the work they’re doing for the A is (1) meaningful and (2) supportive of their growth in the subject at hand.

    We had this conversation in both of my classes a week ago. One of my students in the math for elementary teachers course, playing devil’s advocate, asked, “So I don’t have to get a perfect score on anything? Just do the A Assignments and get an A? Then what’s my incentive to excel on everything else?”

    My reply was, “Yes. That’s correct. But let’s step back and look at the big picture. I’m not sure the grade should be the motivation to excel anyway. If you’re going to be a teacher, you’re going to need some internal drive. I’m not certain that I can instill that in you. I hope instead that the ideas of the course will become such a deep part of your intellectual life that you’ll explore them in more depth because YOU want to know more. If this course fails that test, then you still need to learn the material to get a B, or learn the material and do the A assignments to get an A.”

    Good luck negotiating some interesting terrain with these students.

    As you think about future versions of the course, I’d like to share my experience with the breakdown of content you describe. I find that the “inquiry into children’s thinking about mathematics” part is really motivating for my future teachers. I have constructed a course that often disguises mathematics content as inquiry into children’s thinking. I wonder whether that’s something you’ve thought about. How much of “children’s thinking about science” can be framed as really being science content?

    • September 24, 2011 11:51 pm

      It is true, Chris. Your post was a bit of the seed of the idea, among others’ who blog about capstone A’s.

      I think my plan on Monday is to talk more about the role I see this class playing in their careers as teachers–how I hope this class positions them to learn science with and from the children they teach. I hope that if they can learn to listen and take seriously their own ideas about the world (and to progress from there), they will be better positioned to listen to their children’s ideas and to help them make progress from where they are. I also hope to give them a sense of what “doing science is” and how that is different from “science fair” science, so that this sense guides them back toward doing science when school wants to drive them away from it.

      Your question about inquiry into children’s thinking as science content is interesting. Right now, talking about children’s thinking in science is more of an tack-on to the course, but I would love to think more about how to make this more a threaded part of the course, rather than an “add-on”.

  2. September 24, 2011 8:42 pm

    Brian,

    I feel for you. I have felt, on more than one occasion, the collective frustration of my students because my courses didn’t go a way that matched their expectations. I try to get a lot of regular anonymous feedback from them (more on this in a moment) and there is always this small to medium sized minority of students that are frustrated that I don’t do more examples. It doesn’t matter how much I try to discuss with them that most of their assessments don’t involve anything that even resembles traditional end-of-the chapter exercises, following examples algorithmically is how they succeeded in Physics in the past and my course is robbing them of that path to success.

    One thing that I’m really working on this year is to continuously bring the salesmanship back on stage for reminders of why my courses run the way they do. Due to the anonymous feedback that I regularly get them, I can make a slide with a bunch of their questions, concerns and complaints and use those to frame the points that I want to remake. Of course I also make sure to take advantage of the constructive feedback to tweak this and that as we go. I do hope that they don’t feel like they are banging their head against a wall when every time they give me some feedback, I am turning around and selling the choices that I made for the course. I will have to ask them about this at some point.

    One thing I wonder about things like optional projects or optional overly challenging exams to get an A is if there is a way to reframe it so that the students see it a different way. Instead of making it sound optional to do it to get an A, make it sound optional to not do it, which would then make you become ineligible for an A. If they are given the mark breakdowns for everything and it looks like

    this + that + the other = 83%; project 17%

    And then you treat that project as a regular part of the course, but tell them that you understand that not everybody has the time (or desire) to earn every last mark available in the course and thus completing the project is not required to pass the course. Make it look like a core part of the course that they can choose not to do. I don’t know. I have no experience with optional course components, but if they are losing marks for not doing it, optional doesn’t strike me as the right framing.

    • September 24, 2011 11:42 pm

      Thanks, Joss. I agree: constant anonymous feedback is key. I was planning that very day to ask for anonymous feedback for homework, but the flurry of our frustration came out 10-20 minutes before class ended. Early and ongoing feedback is what I should be thinking about, and I waited too long. That day, I also should have just said, “Great. I was planning on getting your feedback about this. Please tell me about it in your homework.” Instead, I let the conversation happen on a day where people were feeling especially frustrated. That was a mistake, I think.

      The framing of the independent projects is certainly an issue. I need to rethink that. For me, if a student has a C or D in my course, they should be focusing on core parts of the course to get up to a C or B. If a student has a B in my course, they can decide if doing a project or getting an A is something they are interested in. Maybe the best way to say it is, “Projects are mandatory if you want an A. If you aren’t interested in getting an A, not doing a project doesn’t hurt you at all.”

      Basically, the way it works is, in my class we do inquiry as a class, and we get to benefit from each others’ work, from each others’ ideas, and feedback. To get an A in the class, I am saying you have to just try doing this by yourself with the whole class’ collective efforts. I will give, of course, lots of feedback and scaffolding, but the student has to take some initiative to become interested in the world and to pursue their own ideas about it.

      • September 25, 2011 3:30 am

        I have been using online homework systems (usually Mastering Physics, but right now smartPhysics) and I find it’s really helpful to let them vent about the system (via anonymous feedback) as soon as the first assignment has been submitted. It turns the process into a conversation instead of me just telling them stuff, even if the main points I make are the same.

        Even with “If you aren’t interested in getting an A, not doing a project doesn’t hurt you at all.” they still have to ace the rest of the course to get a B if they don’t want to do the project. Plus I would guess that there are students that would like to do the project to get them from, let’s say a C+ to a B. Is the intention that this is only for students with the highest marks to give them access to an A?

  3. September 24, 2011 8:42 pm

    Oops. Forgot to sign up for email comment reminders on this post. Feel free to delete this comment.

  4. September 25, 2011 3:48 am

    Joss,

    Maybe my system is too confusing. In my system, you don’t have to ace everything to get a B, you can be anywhere between 83% and 100% to get a B. The important thing is that projects aren’t even counted at all for percentage points. Projects are not 17%, because they do not fit into percentage system at all. So, 83% + project is an A, and 100% plus a project is an A. However, a 65% +project is still a D. The way this is described in my syllabus is something like this:

    A > 83% + project
    B > 83%
    B- > 80%
    C+ > 77%
    C > 73%
    C- > 70%
    D < 70%
    F < 60%

    Where participation is 20%, Notebooks are 30%, HW is 20%, and Tests are 30%. Projects have no percentage basis.

    My main reason for having students need a B to be eligible for an independent project is where I think their efforts should be focused. If a student is struggling in my class to participate in our inquiry, to reflect on their ideas, to write about what they are thinking (all of this with my class time, guidance, and feedback, etc), then I think they should focus their efforts on improving their work in areas where I am strongly scaffolding the work they do and heavily providing feedback on their work. In my mind, the capstone projects are for students who have showed they have mastered basic skills in my course, and want to show that they have the interest and ability to apply these outside the direct confines of the course.

    • September 25, 2011 2:08 pm

      Ahhh, I get it. Well your system certainly is challenging to reframe in a way that students won’t continue to take exception to it in the same way. In Mylene’s SBG implementation, her level 5 standards (and thus the As) are only available once a student has completed the level 4 standards. But this idea is integral throughout her course as the level ones have to be completed to have access to the level twos.

      One thing that might change their perception slightly is to use a points-based system. With your mark distribution the way it is, you could assign points to the components instead participation = 100pts, notebooks = 150 pts, etc. Then your grading scheme could read something like

      B: > 415 pts
      A: > 415 pts + project (where the project option is only available once you have earned 415 pts)

  5. September 25, 2011 8:09 pm

    Brian, you’ve been about 2 days ahead of me all month. I feel the storm brewing in my class too — this week probably. Thanks for the reminder about feedback and for the point about fostering this conversation at some time when everyone isn’t incredibly frustrated.

    Joss is right — I build “conjunctive grading” into the system from the beginning, for exactly the reasons of focus that you describe (a student who’s having trouble with level 3 should probably not be spending all their time on a self-directed project). 3/5, 4/5 and 5/5 translate directly into 60%, 80%, and 100%, so it doesn’t really get rid of talk of “points.” I went back and forth about that but ultimately didn’t want the system to be conceal the reality that there will be a number grade at the end.

    My reasoning for “level 5 questions” sounds similar to yours — initiative and interest. It’s often a painful shift. One thing that helped is that level 5 isn’t a single, large project — students can earn a 5 for each topic independently. That helps students think of projects as things that should be broken into small pieces, and starts to erode the fear and intimidation that maybe they’re not “smart enough” to do it. My guideline is “an afternoon’s worth of solid work.” It also gives me a structure I can use with students who propose huge projects: we break off the first chunk, and call that a level 5 for the first unit. I also take some class time to help students develop their first level 5 project, so that everyone has a doable plan (up to them if they will complete it).

    Other conversations that help me frame this: it’s not that level 5 is optional. It’s that everything is optional. But maybe the most important one is related to what you wrote on Grace’s blog recently about understanding the genre — except that I call it “the culture of the trade.” In my class, doing what you’re told can help you learn a lot of useful skills, but it does not make you a tech. The essence of being a tech is confronting an ill-defined problem that is not quite like anything you’ve seen before and take a bite out of it. There will be problems you can’t solve or need help with — but on the job, you don’t get to not start. Until you are doing that, you are not doing tech-work, and you will not earn an A. If I’m lucky, this leads to a conversation about what happens when you “just do what you’re told.”

    I wonder if this could be part of the conversation in your class — either about what it means to do science, or what it means to teach? I also wonder how the emerging teachers in your class would respond to their students if they were in your position.

    • September 25, 2011 11:54 pm

      Yeah, I really need to rethink assessment in this class. Like, everyone is saying, its partially a framing issue and how I communicate and negotiate my class and policies. I like your framing that everything is optional, and your discussion of the difference between learning skills and learning the trade.

      The “interest” thing is really thorny, at least for some. In talking with students after class, at least one students seemed offended when I suggested that doing an independent project would show some significant level of interest and initiative. They seemed frustrated (maybe annoyed) at the suggestion that a student would have to be interested in science to get an A in my class. I said that she was free to do an independent project even if she felt disinterested, but I don’t think this alleviated her concern.

  6. September 25, 2011 8:16 pm

    Re my last paragraph — I see in one of your earlier comments that you’ve already written about this. Looking forward to hearing how it goes.

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