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Testing and Student Indignation: An Update

Thanks for all of your insightful responses to my earlier post “Tests and Grades and Assignments…”

I give my 101 tests online because there are 68 students enrolled and I feel 3 tests is the best format, but can’t possibly manage all that grading.  I accept that this means that some of them are going to be taking it together, as well as that it’s open book.  I design the test with that in mind, so that the questions are a bit less of the type you can easily look up, but rather the type you need to know something to solve or figure out.  I make it available only for about 36 hours, and it’s timed.  Beyond that, well… quite frankly, I’m not paid enough to put more extensive measures in place.  I also am open about all of this.  I know that some teachers give their students exams online and tell them not to work together or use their texts but I feel that ultimately, since this can’t be enforced, you’re kind of setting yourself up, and the students are sort of laughing all the way to their grade.

An update on the test I gave in my 300-level class though:  The average was a 62.  This is too low – I am terribly disappointed.  I don’t want to commit the cardinal teacher sin: blame the students.  Rather, I’d like to figure out why this has happened – I know that the test was fair in that it covered material I have taught and made available to them.  I went over it in class.  In one section covering material from the second unit I covered, students were responding with vocabulary and terms from a completely different unit.  This was a red flag, I explained to them, that they seem to have missed an entire unit’s worth of material that was taught, assigned as reading, and quizzed.  Surely that can’t be on me.

I said that I was disappointed and confused about the grades, because I know that the classes and textbook both covered everything I asked, and for each section of the test, reminded them of the exercises we did in class or for homework that prepared them for it.  I told them that if there’s something else I can do to make the material more clear, to please speak up.  I said that I will not be lowering my expectations, but that I can help them more, or in different ways.  They didn’t say much, other than that one student asked if I could put page numbers on my slides/handouts to refer them to the relevant pages in the text (secretly I was thinking, “you have some nerve, girl” but hey, I asked).  I reminded them of my office hour (which no one has ever come to) and the study group that an ambitious student set up (underattended), the textbook readings (7-10 pages per class meeting), and all the notes I put online.

A student who has sort of become my little mentee (more on this later) is in this class.  Later in my office, she says that she thinks that because our class is stress-free and relaxed and I am very approachable, students assume my tests will be easy and they’re surprised when they’re not.
Note: I’m never lax on deadlines, save for true emergencies like deaths in the family, etc.
Is being approachable and having a classroom that isn’t always on edge actually a disservice?

I’m meeting tomorrow with a member of the full-time faculty to see what he thinks.  He’s always been helpful and supportive and I value his opinion and respect his teaching style.  I might be overthinking this, but I don’t want it to happen again.  (And I guess, if I’m being honest, I want to hear that I’m doing this right.)

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7 comments to Testing and Student Indignation: An Update

  • Hi Emily,

    I went through something similar last semester, so I understand. I moved from giving a midterm, a final exam and two papers as the major grades to only a midterm and a large portfolio. I found that overall grades slipped a bit, and a large portion of it had to do with students skipping sections. I was shocked at the number of students (about 25% of the class) who did this, and it sorely affected their project grade and, in turn, their class grade. At first I was in the same boat as you–I didn’t want to initially blame the students. So I searched for what I could have done better to help these students.

    I discussed the portfolio for a full hour in detail the second day of class. I had a discussion day at one point mid-semester where I offered to answer questions about the portfolio and several students took advantage of this. I stopped class early the week before it was due to answer questions. And, best of all, I offered EVERY SINGLE CLASS to review drafts of sections, on which only 10% of the class took up.

    Then I started to look individually at those who did poorly. They sat in the back of the class. They never participated in class discussion unless called on directly by me. They did not ask a single question on those days where I specifically reviewed the assignment. They never once stepped into my office hours or stayed after class to discuss the work with me. The best part of this all, though, is that it was consistently these very students who frantically emailed me after grades were posted asking if there was anything they could do to raise their grades. (Don’t worry, I declined.)

    I say all of this to engage in a dialogue to say, “What more could I have done?” I don’t like to assume that it was all just the students’ faults, but after I really sat down to examine the situation, it appears to be just that. I am still offering to review work every single class, urging students every class to visit office hours, and asking if there are questions every class period during housekeeping.



  • Emily – Inquiring minds want to know… What was the result of that meeting with the full-timer?

  • Ray E. Skrabut

    Hello, Emily,

    I feel your pain, and it sounds like we are cut from the same cloth, but I firmly believe more is better, in the sense of tests/required essays.

    My literature courses have two short essays 3 – 5 pages), a research essay (6 – 8 pages), and a midterm and final as requirements. Those, plus 6 – 7 books (and a few handouts, Blackboard-based) to read during the course of the semester (it’s a W course, after all).

    The resulting early-on grading follows the usual bell curve, i.e., a few dismal results, a few astonishingly good responses, and everyone else in between.

    My courses are Global Literature survey courses, and by the second or third selection, the majority of the “everybody in between” students begin to improve, almost to a person, both classroom discussion-wise and on essays and exams.

    Stick to your guns!

  • Thanks, all. Nicole, I am inclined to agree. I have a colleague who thinks that this is always the wrong answer, and that low grades indicate a test that was too hard, or that the way we are teaching is not reaching the students. I want to agree with this and take responsibility, and because I really respect him as both colleague and educator. But I also want to acknowledge that the classroom is a joint effort between teacher and student and I can’t be responsible for 100% of it. Besides, 7 students scored in the 90s and 5 in the 80s, so a curve isn’t the perfect solution even if I believed in curves!

    Anyway, Alan, the full-time professor I met with went over the test itself and said that it looked reasonable, fair, and appropriate. Then he looked at all the grades and said that it looked like all the “usual suspects” (we don’t have a large dept.) scored as expected. There are more students with 50s than there should be – but many of the low, low grades (a 14, 21, 31, etc.) can be accounted for by a small contingent of students who never/rarely attend or do much, and that really pulled down the average.

    And Ray, I definitely agree that more is better. It allows students to get that reality check earlier on with time to improve. The other side of that though, is the grading. As a PhD student and with my other responsibilities, I’m always trying to balance what’s best for them with what’s reasonable for me.

  • Jeanette

    It was really interesting reading every ones responses about this problem. I always felt that it was my fault if the class did not do well on the exam. But then you have the few who did get grades in the 80’s or 90’s. I ended up giving 5- 5 minute quizzes. At least the complaints stopped, but now I have students who did not take the quizzes, have not informed me of a problem and therefore will be missing a percentage of their possible grade. Is it my responsibility to ask them why they did not take the quiz? These students are upper juniors and seniors and it seems to me that it would be their responsibility to notify me if there was a problem.

  • Jeanette

    After reading your comments, I sat back and thought about all you did to try to find out why the poor results and congratulate you on your efforts. Here is a silly question.. How do you take attendance in such a large class. When I have a class of 60 I tried to send around a sign in sheet, but how do you know who is signing for whom? I stopped taking attendance. Question.. do most adjuncts take attendance? I know you have to the first 3 classes for financial reasons but after that do you continue? When I attended school, you were considered a responsible adult and if you went to class or not was your decision. Since I use the textbook as a guideline and expound on the information, they are responsible for both the information that I lecture on and the book. Most of the quiz questions come directly from the book but I am finding out that the students are relying on me to give them all the information and really not doing the required reading. If I don’t take attendance, can I give a surprise quiz to the students?? Is it fair to those that are not there?

  • Emily
    I just read your idea about dropping the lowest grade! I can’t believe that I did not think of this! It is certainly something that I will use next semester. I just wish there was some way to get the students more invested in their classes. Are the overwhelmed?? Is the course work in todays world harder than what we were expected to do or is it rather that they are less accountable?
    Sometimes I just get so frustrated because this is not high school. My concern is if I am teaching junior’s, senior’s and 5th year senior’s and they are not accountable, what happens when the real world intrudes and they take jobs!