Monthly Archives: June 2014

Here comes trouble

Sometimes it is fairly evident that a particular student was in trouble well before he or she ever started with my class. Some of these are students who think that getting an education is like getting a haircut: you show up, someone does something to your head, and when they’re done you’re educated (or your hair is shorter).

Some are students who are chronically unaware. This might be the result of laziness, but I suspect it is more often because a student has simply not understood the responsibilities that he or she has taken on by coming to university. Everyone gets confused now and then, but there are some things one really should make an effort to know.

These are students who email me regarding a question about the geography class they are taking from me. They ask what room the lectures for their distance education class will be held in. Throughout numerous back-and-forth email conversations, they get my first name wrong. Most memorable would be the student who showed up at 7am for a 7pm midterm. Despite being assured otherwise, he complained bitterly and publicly that I had changed the time of the midterm without telling him.

If a student is firmly committed to taking a passive role in his or her education, or is eager to remain blissfully unaware that he or she is blissfully unaware, then the extent to which I can help is limited.

The problems these students inevitably run into are mostly self-inflicted. There are other situations, though, where that may not be the case, and I am at a loss as to how to deal with these instances. What I am referring to are students who appear to have deficiencies that could make it next to impossible for them to succeed in my class, or probably any other university course: I’ve had two students in as many years who have English as their first language, and who appear to be barely literate.

I’m not complaining here about poor spelling and grammar (both of which I tend to overlook, given that I must pick my battles). These students submitted assignments that contained words from approximately the right part of the textbook. The words were grouped into what were clearly meant to be sentences, but the sentences themselves were only the barest fragments of disjointed ideas. Here is a characteristic example, in response to a question about the evolution of four-legged vertebrate animals (tetrapods) during the Paleozoic era of geological time:

Paleozoic tetrapods: (term) Latin: four feet-both vertebrates either to water-dwelling and land-dwelling vertebrates expand.

Another error was the persistent reversal of cause-and-effect relationships. Instead of my dog having muddy paws because it rained, the rain was caused by my dog’s muddy paws. Attributes and the things they described were also reversed. Instead of “muddy” being a characteristic of my dog’s paws, “muddy” was the thing being described, and its characteristic was “paws.”

Overall there were serious problems with reading comprehension, even where the root cause was unlikely to be a misunderstanding of the course material. For example, the sentence below is from the textbook:

Decimation of life at the end of the Permian Period 251 million years ago has been described by Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin as “the mother of mass extinctions.”  (Levin, The Earth Through Time, 10th ed., p. 308)

The student wrote the following:

Smithsonian paleontologist Douglas Erwin, who is “the mother of mass extinctions” has concluded in the 251 million years ago in the Permian Period, that all other extinctions have diminished by changes of the Earth.

Presumably it would occur to even non-experts in geology that someone named Douglas is unlikely to be considered the mother of anything.

So what’s going on here? Are these students who just could not care less? Are these students with learning disabilities?

I dealt with the situation by grading the parts of the assignments that made sense, and recommended that assignments be proofread before they were submitted, preferably with help from a friend. That resulted in a slight improvement. I struggled with what else I should be doing. If the assignments are indeed indicative of these students’ abilities, then the students need to be learning the basics of reading and writing, not going to university.

If these students really are as ill-equipped as they seem, then someone has done them a grave disservice by allowing them to graduate from high school, much less enroll in a post-secondary institution. Do the students themselves know they are in trouble, or have they been led to believe that their skills are sufficient? Is it my job to tell them? Perhaps it is, insofar as I can demonstrate as much with respect to their coursework. Maybe the reluctance of well-intentioned people like me to be frank with them is how the problem started in the first place.

These students will be spending an awful lot of time and money on their educations, and it is troubling that they may have been doomed to failure before they ever got started.

Categories: Challenges, Student preparedness | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Repeated class, repeated assignments?

When I grade assignments I tend to add a lot of comments to explain errors and address misconceptions. If I ever deduct points from a student’s assignment without explaining why (often in some detail), it’s simply because I’ve forgotten.

The situation I’m facing now is that my good intentions have come back to bite me. What happens when a student whose assignments I’ve so carefully annotated has to repeat the course? Ideally, the student would use my comments to supplement his or her understanding, and then do a better job of answering the question in his or her own words. There may be only one correct answer, but there is often more than one way to explain why it is correct.

That’s how I’d like it to work, but that isn’t what I’ve got. What I’ve got is Rosalie. (Rosalie is not the student’s real name, and may or may not be consistent with the student’s gender.) Last term was a continuous struggle with Rosalie over plagiarism. She copied passages from the textbook and internet verbatim, even after I tried to explain that this was not acceptable and allowed her to revise her work instead of giving her a zero outright. Unfortunately, Rosalie failed the final exam with a sufficiently low grade that she also failed the class. This was the last course Rosalie needed to graduate, but her final grade was so low that it was well past any help from discretionary wiggle room.

So Rosalie is back in my class this term, and as you may have guessed, Rosalie had no qualms about plagiarizing my comments from last term’s assignment. It appears she started from the Word document that I graded and then proceeded to swap out the odd word for its synonym, or change a verb tense. Sometimes the synonym did not make sense in the context of the sentence. Sometimes she added her own comments that directly contradicted a previous sentence which she copied from my comments. In some places she forgot to delete more conversational parts of my comments along the lines of “As you pointed out earlier in your answer, …”

I started by giving her the benefit of the doubt, but the problem soon became too obvious to ignore. She had not made a good-faith effort to answer the questions in her own words, or even to improve her understanding of the course material. Toward the end she ceased altogether any attempt to modify my earlier comments, other than changing the text colour from red to black.

I don’t know what to make of this behavior. Did she forget the ongoing discussion about plagiarism that we had last term? Did she not understand it? Did she think I wouldn’t notice? Did she feel entitled?

What I’ve done in this case is to review her assignments from last term and look for questions where her grade could benefit from revision, but where I had not expounded at length on the answer. I will let her resubmit those questions but use last term’s grades for the others. This means she will not earn a passing grade on one of the assignments. I’m not sure how she will take this, because I suspect that she has no expectation of passing the final exam. I think she intended to pad her grade with high scores on assignments, and she hopes to scrape by that way. I can’t fathom why she thought this would be the best way to do it.

I don’t know if there is an official policy to cover this sort of thing. I certainly haven’t come across any guidelines. In a different context the assignments could be varied from one offering of the course to the next, but in this case the course is intended to run several years before revisions are authorized. Even if the assignments could be changed up each time, it might not be desirable to do so. The assignment questions were chosen to focus students’ attention on key concepts. These are central ideas that need to be addressed each and every time the course is offered, so creating new assignments would involve finding multiple unique pathways to get students to exactly the same place. How many ways can you ask what colour a buttercup is? Limiting overlap between assignments could undermine what the assignments were intended to do in the first place.

So how do I proceed? Should repeating students be given the benefit of the doubt each time, and then be dealt with if and when they behave unethically? Where would the line be drawn, and how could it be applied consistently? Should limits be fixed at the outset on what can be resubmitted? What about cases when the time limit for document retention has run out and I don’t have my original comments to reference? What if the student failed all of the assignments the first time around and I annotated the heck out of everything in an effort to be helpful? (Sigh. It would be so much easier if they all just passed the course.)

Even if I find a way to manage students who are repeating the course, I realize that not all students cheat in ways that are conveniently foreseeable. If the ones who should know they are likely to get caught still cheat, what is the extent of the problem with students who fly beneath my radar?

I have decided to do two things that I really don’t want to do. One is to go back to having a “must pass” stipulation on the final exam. This means that even if a student has full points on all of his or her assignments, failing the final exam would mean failing the class. I stopped doing this because there are students who work very hard throughout the term and are just not good exam writers… but I don’t see any way around it.

The other thing I’m going to do is limit my comments. If an answer is missing information I will pose a question that prompts the student to look up the information, but not supply it myself. If an answer is incorrect, I will indicate where the problem is, but not go much further than that. If there is a misconception, I will address it briefly and refer the student to additional reading. This doesn’t mean I won’t answer questions to the best of my ability if students ask them. It just means that they will have to ask.  Unfortunately, they don’t do that very often.

Categories: Challenges | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

The Poll Everywhere experiment: After day 15 of 15

The marathon geology class is over now, and I have a few observations about the Poll Everywhere experience. These things would have helped me had I known them in advance, so here they are in case someone else might benefit.  Some of the points below are also applicable to classroom response systems in general.

Getting started

Signing up the students

As I mentioned in a previous post, this went fairly smoothly.  One reason is that the process is an easy one, but another reason is that there were enough devices for students to share in order to access the website for creating an account and registering. While students can use an “old-fashioned” cell phone without a browser to text their answers, they can’t use that device to get set up in the first place. I used my iPad to get two of the students started, and students shared their laptop computers with each other. My class was small (33 students), so it was relatively easy to get everyone sorted.  If the class is a large one this could be a challenge. I would probably have the students sign up in advance of class, and then be willing to write off the first class for purposes of troubleshooting with those who couldn’t get the process to work for themselves.

Voter registration

One thing I would do differently is to have students register as a voter regardless of whether they plan to use their browser to respond to questions or not. I told the students who would be texting that all they needed to do was have their phone numbers certified. This is true, and they appeared on my list of participants. The problem has to do with the students who are responding using a web browser. If they forgot to sign in then they showed up on my list anonymously as an unregistered participant. More than one student did this, so it wasn’t possible to know which student entered which answers.

If everyone were registered as a voter, then I could have selected the option to allow only registered participants to answer the questions. Those not signed in would not be able to answer using their browsers, and they would be reminded that signing in was necessary. The reason I didn’t use this option is that students texting their answers are prevented from responding unless they have also registered as voters. I could have had them go back and change their settings, but I opted instead to put a message on the first question slide of each class in large, brightly coloured letters reminding students to sign in. I also reminded them verbally at the start of class.

Grading responses

With the Presenter plan students’ responses were automatically marked as correct or incorrect (assuming I remembered to indicate the correct answer). Under “Reports” I was able to select questions and have students’ responses to those questions listed, and a “yes” or “no” to whether they got the right answer. The reports can be downloaded as a spreadsheet, and they include columns showing how many questions were asked, how many the student answered, and how many the student got correct. There is a lot of information in the spreadsheet, so it isn’t as easy as I would have liked to get a quick sense of who was having difficulty with what kind of question. Deleting some columns helped to clarify things.

In the end I didn’t use the statistics that Poll Everywhere provided. I was having difficulty sorting out the questions that were for testing purposes from the ones that were for discussion purposes. Maybe a “D” or “T” at the beginning of each question would have made it easier to keep track of which was which when selecting questions for generating the report. I could have used the statistics if I had generated separate reports for the discussion questions and the testing questions. Instead I made myself a worksheet and did the calculations manually. This approach would not scale up well, but it did make it a lot easier for me to see how individual students were doing.

Integrity of testing

Timed responses

At the outset I decided that it would be extremely inconvenient to have students put their notes away every time they had to respond to a testing question. My solution was to limit the time they had to respond to testing questions. I figured that if they didn’t know the answer, that would at least restrict how much they flipped through their notes.  It also helps to ask questions where the answer isn’t something they can look up.   It turned out that 25 seconds was a good time limit, although they got longer than that because I took time to explain the question and the possible responses. (I wanted to make sure that if they got the answer wrong it reflected a gap in their knowledge rather than a misunderstanding of what the question was asking or what the responses meant.)

There is a timer that can be set.  One way to set it is when using the Poll Everywhere Presenter App… if you can manage to click on the timer before the toolbar pops up and gets in your way. (I never could.) It can also be set when viewing the question on the Poll Everywhere website. The timer starts when the question starts, which means you have to initiate the question at the right time, and can’t have it turned on in advance. With the work-around I was using, there were too many potential complications, so I avoided the timer and either used the stopwatch on my phone or counted hippopotamuses.

Setting the correct answer to display

If you set a question to be graded, students can see whether or not they got the correct answer, but you have options as to when they see it. I noticed that by default there is a one-day delay between when the question is asked and when the answer is shown (under “Settings” and “Response History”). I wanted the students to be able to review their answers on the same day if they were so inclined, so I set an option to allow the correct answer to be shown immediately. The problem, I later discovered, is that if one student responds and then checks his or her answer, he or she can pass on the correct answer to other students.

Ask a friend

Another issue with the integrity of testing done using Poll Everywhere (or any classroom response system) is the extent to which students consult with each other prior to responding. I could have been particular on this point, and forbidden conversation, but the task of policing the students wasn’t something I was keen on doing. Judging by the responses, conversing with one’s neighbour didn’t exclude the possibility of both students getting the answer wrong. In a large class it would be impossible to control communications between students, which is one of the reasons why any testing done using this method should probably represent only a small part of the total grade.

Who sees what when

There are two ways to turn a poll on, and they each do different things. To receive responses, the poll has to be started. To allow students to respond using their browsers, the poll has to be “pushed” to the dedicated website. It is possible to do one of these things without doing the other, and both have to be done for things to work properly. The tricky part is keeping track of what is being shown and what is not. If a question is for testing purposes then you probably don’t want it to be displayed before you ask it in class.

When you create a poll, it is automatically started (i.e., responses will be accepted), but not pushed. Somewhere in the flurry of setting switches I think I must have pushed some polls I didn’t intend to. I also noticed one morning as I was setting up polls that someone (listed as unregistered) had responded to a question I had created shortly before.   As far as I knew I hadn’t pushed the poll, so…?  The only explanation I can think of is that someone was responding to a different poll and texted the wrong number.  Anyway, as an extra precaution and also to catch any problems at the outset, I made the first question of the day a discussion question. Only one question shows at a time, so as long as the discussion question was up, none of the testing questions would be displayed.


One other thing to keep in mind is to check before asking a question that one hasn’t written the answer on the board. If the class suddenly goes very quiet and the responses come in as a flood, that’s probably what has happened.

Accommodating technology and life

Stuff happens. If a student misses class, he or she will also miss the questions and the points that could have been scored for answering them. If the absence is for an excusable reason (or even if it isn’t) a student might ask to make up the missed questions. As this would take the form of a one-on-one polling session, and the construction of a whole suite of new questions, I knew it was something I didn’t want to deal with.

One could simply not count the missed questions against the student’s grade, but that wasn’t a precedent I wanted to set either. Instead I stated in the syllabus that there would not be a make-up option, but that each student would have a 10-point “head start” for the Poll Everywhere questions. Whatever the student’s score at the end of the course, I added 10 points, up to a maximum of a 100% score. I had no idea how many questions I would be asking, so 10 points was just a guess, but it ended up covering the questions for one day’s absence, which is not unreasonable.

Another thing the 10 points was intended to do was offset any technological problems, like a student’s smart phone battery dying at an inopportune moment, or someone texting the wrong number by accident, or accidentally clicking the wrong box on the browser. The 10 points also covered miscalculations on my part, such as making a testing question too difficult.

I still ended up forgiving missed questions in two cases: one because of a scheduling conflict with another class, and the other on compassionate grounds.

The verdict

I will be teaching in September, and I plan to use Poll Everywhere again. Even if it happens that my classroom is outfitted with a receiver for clickers, I’ll still stay with Poll Everywhere.  For one, my questions are already set up, ready and waiting online. Another reason is the flexibility of being able to show a question without actually showing the poll (i.e., the window with questions and responses that the Poll Everywhere software creates). This started out as a “duct tape” fix for a technical problem, but in the end I think I prefer it because I have more control over what can fit on the slide. As far as I know, Turning Point questions (the usual clicker system) can’t be started unless the slide that will show the results is the current slide.

One more reason is that the system will be free for students to use, outside of whatever data charges they might incur. I will either cover the cost myself, or, if there is no Turning Point option, attempt to convince the school to do it. A plan exists where the students can pay to use the system, but I’d like to avoid that if possible. On the off chance that something goes horribly wrong and I can’t get it working again, I’d prefer to not have students wondering why they had to pay for a service that they can’t use.

Over all, I really like the idea of having a diagnostic tool for probing brains (also referred to as formative assessment, I think). I suppose my teaching process is similar to the one I use for debugging computer code: I perturb the system, observe the output, and use that to diagnose what the underlying problem might be. Poll Everywhere is not the only tool that can do this, but it is probably the one I will stick with.

Categories: Learning technologies | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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