Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hard work, grades, and study strategies

There was an article in the New York Times last week about students' grade expectations. (Summary: student expect high grades, especially if they feel that they worked hard. Professors disagree.) Much commentary ensued, at the NYT, in academic blogs, like Female Science Professor, and in my work e-mail.

Like most professors, I think my grades mean something. Exactly what depends on the class. Usually the grade says something about my confidence that the student will be able to use the concepts and skills from the class in future work, either in classes, research, or a job. But then there are general education classes, where the students could be anything from future geologists to future teachers to people who will need to live on this planet for the rest of their lives - I'm less confident that my grading methods match my goals for all of those students. But I keep trying.

I've never had a student formally challenge a grade in one of my classes, but every semester I've got students who do poorly on the first exam or paper, and want to do better on the next ones. And that's where it gets tough: if hard work isn't enough for a good grade, what kind of advice do you give to a student who wants to do better?

Like most professors, I suspect, I've got quite a collection of ideas about how to study effectively, and how to get better at doing things that aren't easy. Sketch and label diagrams from the textbook or lecture. Write definitions of unfamiliar words. Get together with friends and explain things to one another. Try to write questions that I might put on an exam. Etc., etc., etc. But they don't always work.

I heard an incredibly depressing geoscience education talk at last fall's GSA (McConnell, 2008). Dave McConnell had students report the strategies they used for studying in their intro class, and coded them as "rehearsal" (such as re-reading notes or the textbook), "elaboration" (such as many of my suggestions, I think - writing definitions or labeling sketches), and "organization" (such as outlining or categorizing material). And the correlation to class performance? None. (Well, except for one outlier, who did nothing and got a grade of 20 or so on the exam.) All of the students preferred to use the easier study strategies (such as reading notes or memorizing terms), and disliked the more difficult ones (such as drawing pictures or writing summaries) - the students who did well in the class didn't use the more challenging strategies any more than the struggling students did. Nothing seemed to help - some students just did well, and some students did poorly.

When I came home from the meeting, I graded my intro class's first exam, returned it, and told the students who got D's or F's to come talk to me. And then I had no idea what to tell them. I had just heard this talk that showed that effort had no effect on mastery of the course material, and there I was, trying to tell students how to study for their next test. What was I going to say? "You know, when I took tests, I just re-read my notes, took the test, and got an A. Except for math classes - I never studied for them at all. So good luck, and I have no idea what I'm talking about - and I'm not sure the geoscience education researchers know, either." No way. I teach certain material, give certain assignments, and put specific questions on tests because I think they're important, either as life skills or as knowledge about the world we live on. I want the students to do well enough to get A's or B's, not because it would make us all feel better, but because if they don't, they've missed something worth knowing.

I gave the students the same advice. And met with some of the same students after the second exam, to keep brainstorming new strategies for learning.

I hope that somebody does a study that focuses on struggling students, because I want to know what strategies help people learn better. I don't want to be a gate-keeper, separating students who would succeed no matter what they did from students who aren't going to make it. I want to help people get over barriers, or open doors, or... well, pick your metaphor. This planet is too cool and too important for geology to be restricted to those that learn it easily.


Chuck said...

This is such an awesome attitude- I love this post. Have you tried asking your networks about people with lousy grades who somehow managed to have successful careers as geologists?

I know they're out there, even if I can't come up with any names...

Anonymous said...

What do students need to do to answer your test questions successfully? Do your tests center around terms? Around labeling figures? Around writing explanations? Different scaffolds work better to help students do well on various types of test questions. I've written rubrics for all of my commonly used question types on exams; it seems to help my students. I think often about assessment; if you would like to dialog about your specific course situation, feel free to send me an email... academic crossroads at gmail dot com (no spaces anywhere and make the appropriate symbol shifts).

Kim said...

I know my undergrad structural geology prof described himself as an average student. He was an average student at Carleton (the small one in Minnesota, which has produced an absurd number of geology PhDs), though. I know some of my college friends with successful research careers are pretty critical of their undergrad performance, and thought I should have done better than they did, but they were actually pretty talented and intense as undergrads. They underestimate their awesomeness.

A lot of the successful industry geologists that I know describe themselves as average students. They were mostly students when a C really was an average grade, though. (A B was average when I was in college, and I have trouble being tougher than my professors were. I don't think about "average" much, but my grading scale is calibrated against my experience, not that of people who were in college in the 60's.)

One of the great things about a good undergrad research program (which we have - everyone does a year-old research project) is that it can allow students to shine, even if they don't do well on tests. (Tests are a compromise - they're an imperfect way of evaluating a student's competence, and good tests are a pain to grade, but they take less time than the ideal situation: spending about six weeks one-on-one with each student, watching them figure out how to solve problems in the lab or in the field. Senior theses let students show what they can really do in at least one subfield.)

Kim said...

Academic - That's a good question, and I could probably use a more organized rubric for grading questions. I use a lot of different types of questions. I try to make at least some of the test involve higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy - problem-solving or application (though usually not the highest level, because I think that needs a more open-ended kind of exercise). I try to avoid anything involving pure vocabulary or labeling diagrams. I do expect students to understand terms in questions, though, especially relating rock types to plate tectonics, or to minerals, or to other things important for recognizing or interpreting them. (Usually these are things that I know they would need to know in order to make sense of the next geology classes, if they take them.) I ask students to draw and explain diagrams or graphs. I ask students to compare and contrast things. I give students problems or puzzles to figure out, sometimes the kinds of puzzles that geologists work on (like a geologic history from a sequence of sedimentary rocks) or the kinds of problems that might affect a person (like evaluating the risks of flooding or landslides). I use multiple choice for parts of my tests, but I hate it and feel guilty about it. (I didn't feel as bad this year, because the textbook came with questions that I thought were better than the ones I write myself. But I still feel guilty.)

I usually have a lot of small questions, rather than major essays. (I find essays difficult to grade. Maybe if I had a rubric... no, I would still need to deal with handwriting.) I usually give a lot of partial credit (based on a rubric that I develop after I see what kinds of answers I get - I find it hard to develop a rubric before I have some idea of the common pitfalls of any assignment).

Penguindreams said...

I think there might be some different interpretations of the results of that experiment. Let's suppose that the students have adopted the strategies they have because they are generally successful. May not be so good, for some, in geology, but generally successful. In that case, the random distribution of results is more a matter that for some students, the generally successful strategy may, or may not, be successful in geology. Related is, some students may be satisfied with a C/D even if their professor wants to pass out nothing but A/B.

So in your meetings with the students who got the D/F results on the first exam, an early question would be "What is your goal for this class?" -- for grades, purpose for being in it. For intro class, of course, many of the answers are going to be "get the science requirement out of the way". If a D does so, you might be looking at a lot of students who really aren't upset about their D exam grade and not about to change their study habits to something unfamiliar and harder.

The ones who do want to do better, well, you've both got an experiment in hand. Their current methods are not being effective. So time for some changes.

One thing firmly established in education research is that different people learn differently. And their best strategies may not be the same in all classes. Certainly I had to approach math-heavy classes differently than vocabulary-heavy classes.

From your examples, for instance: I'm very much a 'draw a cartoon and toss labels' person. Works for me. But some people, you'd be better off handing them something written in hieroglyphics. Text can be better than picture or diagram. And for others, it'd be better to make it text read out loud (perhaps by a friend) than text on the page. Or send them to a video of the process in action. Or, as worked for a student of mine on 'angle of repose', give them a home experiment they could do -- get their hands into the process. Watching someone else do the experiment was no help. Hands on, helped.

So I'd go more for 'let's see what kinds of questions you found hard, how you studied for them this time, and how you might do things differently for next time'. Writing definitions of unfamiliar words is only one way of approaching vocabulary issues. And for me, one of the least effective. Much better for me is to read text that is using the word in good context. Lots of text, many contexts.

Just my 2 cents. I have no proof that it's any better an approach than anything else.

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