Answering “no” to that question is a great way to send whatever I’ve just said right to the bottom of a student’s Things I Have to Care About list. Imagine the consequences of answering “Yes, but the exam is optional.”
Yet this is the approach John Boyer (a.k.a. the Plaid Avenger) takes with his World Regions geography class at Virginia Tech. He and his technical assistant Katie Pritchard have pioneered innovative uses for classroom technology, enabling him to offer his students one-of-a-kind experiences. Earlier this week the ILT community learned more about how John does it.
In his course, students choose how they will accumulate points toward their final grades. They can take exams and quizzes, but they can also tweet in the persona of a world leader, follow and comment on news feeds, and view and report on international films. I wondered, operating on the principle that the threat of a measurement means that there will indeed be something to measure, how he can offer so many choices and still point his students in the direction of the necessary content. If “content” means a specific set of facts and figures, then it seems he doesn’t.
It appears to be possible (in theory, and in 2012) for a student to earn more points than are required for an A by doing activities that do not involve predetermined content. An example would be following and commenting on a news feed: a student could be learning about any event, occurring anywhere in the world.
I imagine there is specific information that John Boyer would like his students to learn, like where Africa is. Judging by the amount of work involved (in 2012) to get points by means other than exams and quizzes, students probably do opt for activities where content is controlled, and could face questions about things like the location of Africa. But what if a student fails to learn Africa’s location during the course because he or she is not required to produce that information? Maybe this isn’t a problem. If John Boyer’s students develop a life-long interest in global current affairs, odds are they will eventually want to know where Africa is, and more besides.
Is this for everyone? It depends on the goal. In the context of geology, it would be a great way to produce a generation of students who, for the rest of their lives, inadvertently scanned gravel driveways for interesting rocks, and the walls of stone buildings for fossils. I would be more cautious with geology majors, who need specific knowledge to succeed in their advanced classes, and whose grades are used to decide if they are sufficiently equipped for more advanced material. If an A means more about work ethic than knowledge, we could be setting students up to fail.