Last year, my college created a new structure for departments and programs. Instead of a chairperson for each department within the 3 academic divisions, we got associate deans and ‘faculty program chairs’. The associate deans are the administrative players ‘in charge’ of two or three of our old departments. In my case, math and science share an associate dean. We have 7 faculty program chairs for the two departments; I am in the role of faculty program chair for developmental mathematics. [Not much time provided in the workload, but the work is rewarding.]
Currently, I am focusing on one key idea for our program:
How do we create quality experiences for our students?
We want higher pass rates and completion (of course). However, our students need classes that serve a real purpose. Designing a course so that grades and scores are consistently higher than a student’s learning does not help students. Some people talk about this under the umbrella of ‘grade inflation’, though our interest is in the striving for quality in instruction and class design.
So, here are some issues I have been thinking about:
- Should any ‘points’ be awarded for completing homework?
- Should points be awarded based on the level of performance during homework?
- Does “dropping a low test” support or hinder a high quality class?
- If a student does not come close to passing the final exam, should they get a passing grade if their other work creates a high enough ‘average’?
- Is it okay if students with a 2.0 or 2.5 grade are not ready for the next math course?
- Do high grades (3.5 and 4.0) uniformly mean that the student is ready for the next math course?
When courses are sequential, the preparation for the next math course is a critical purpose of a math class. Assigning a passing grade, therefore, is a definite message to the student that they are ready to take the next class. In practice, we know that this progression is seldom perfect — we usually provide some review in the next class, even though students ‘should’ know that material. At this point, our efforts are dealing with the existing course outcomes, which tend to be more procedural than we would like; eventually, we will raise the reasoning expectations in our courses (with a corresponding reduction in procedural content).
Of special interest to me are the issues related to homework. Some faculty assign up to 25% of the course grade based on homework. Like many places, we are heavy users of online homework systems (My Labs Plus as well as Connect Math). When those systems work well for students, they support the learning process; most students are able to achieve a high ‘score’ on a homework assignment. Should this level of achievement balance out a lower level on a test and/or final exam? Take the scenario like this:
Derick completes all homework with a friend; with a lot of effort, his homework is consistently 90% and above. All of Derick’s tests are between 61% and 68%, and he gets a 66% on the final exam. The high homework average raises his course grade to 71%, and he receives a 2.0 (C) grade in the algebra class.
This scenario is a little extreme (it’s only possible with a high weight on homework … >15%). What is fairly common is a situation where homework is 10% of the course grade and the student passes 2 of the 5 tests; one of of the 3 not-passed tests is ‘dropped’, and the student easily qualifies for a 2.0 (C) grade. One of the cases I saw this past semester involved this type of student achieving a 52% on the final exam.
In our case,we already have a common department final exam for the primary courses (pre-algebra up to pre-calculus). In the case of developmental courses, we have a policy that requires 25% of the course grade to be based on that final exam. This design for the final exam is a good step towards the quality we are striving for. We are realizing that we can not stop there.
Like most community colleges, our courses are taught by both full-time and adjunct faculty; the last figures I saw showed about 40% by full-time and 60% by adjunct. Because adjuncts are not consistently engaged with our conversations, adjuncts tend to have more variations than full-time faculty. We will be looking for ways to help our large group of adjuncts become better integrated within the program, even in the face of definite budgetary constraints. Fortunately, many of my full-time colleagues are committed to helping these efforts to improve the quality of our program.
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