Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Are my students getting smarter?

Or am I becoming a better instructor? It seems like I give the same lectures in the same format with the same enthusiasm as I always have. My exams are basically the same. I tweak them a little from semester to semester, but I don't change a lot. I offer my students the same individualized attention as I always have. I respond to their emails within hours at most, usually within minutes. I talk to them on the phone when they need help. I even offered to drive one to school last week when her car was broken down. She did not take me up on the offer but managed to get to class anyway.

For a reason that I can't really pinpoint, my students seem...well...smarter this semester than they have in the past. Or maybe they are more motivated. Or more on top of things? I'm not sure what the deal is. I just returned their first exam and had several perfect scores which is really an anomoly. Okay, the perfect scores might be attributable to the fact that I let my students keep their exams and the old exams are circulating so it's easier for students to study. But, really, most of the questions I ask can be found in a related form on the textbook's review website. And I tell my students to use the textbook's review website as a study guide. So the study aid has always been there.

Here's something else I do: I tell my students to send me their papers a few days before they are due so that I can give them feedback. It seems like a no-brainer to me -- I mean, if your instructor looks at your paper before it is due and gives you feedback, and you do what she says, how can she give you a bad grade? I've always told my students to let me check out their papers ahead of time and I've always been able to count on one hand the number of students who have taken me up on the offer. And (predictably) it's always been the students who don't really need much help with their papers. But this semester I've already read at least fifteen papers for an assignment that isn't due until next Tuesday night. Out of about seventy students, that's a lot of papers. And I'd guess that I've got more coming since their final draft isn't due for several days.

So, what's the deal? Why are they more motivated or more on top of things this semester? I have only one thought as to what might be causing it: the internet. I started using an internet-based course companion last semester but this is the semester when I've really got it figured out and I've begun using it to its fullest extent. All of my course assignments are posted online along with class lecture notes, the gradebook, and communication tools. I've got sample papers posted there, guidelines for writing in APA style, and even the rubric that I'm using to grade papers this semester (a new arrow in my quiver, thanks to my smart English teacher pal, Jen). My students are turning in all of their coursework electronically now, too (which is awesome and I'll never go back to accepting paper papers).

I think it helps that, having taught this particular course with the same textbook for five semesters now, I'm able to predict what my students will fail to pick up on and what I need to emphasize or explain more clearly. That has, certainly, been a contributing factor to my students' improving exam grades. But I still think that being able to access all of the course materials online is making a huge difference. And I don't think that my students are just getting better grades; I think they're learning more. That makes me smile.


Fulton said...

oh man! they get to keep their tests? that's huge!! id be willing to bet several people are using a "koofer" (that's the term VT uses for a previous year's test).

but i will agree, the online tool would be a huge help as well.

Hillary Dickman said...

I kinda figured that at UCCS, where there are not that many student organizations, not many students living on campus, lots of non-traditional students, letting them keep their tests wouldn't be a huge deal. And, honestly, I'd rather have them learn the material than not. So, in a way, I like that the tests are out there. And I don't think it's unfair since all the same info is basically available to them online.

I had a developmental psych professor (took three classes from him, actually) who left his previous exams in a box outside his office door so we could come photocopy them and use them to study. I learned more in that class than I did in any other college classes. If I had an office, I'd do the same with my students. Sigh...maybe some day! I suppose I could just upload them to the internet like I do with my notes. Duh.