Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Are they really studying?

The strangest and most unexpected thing happened in my class last week. Let me catch you up to speed:

Some of my students have been complaining because they have to write short answer questions on my exams, in addition to multiple choice. They say that there's not enough time, that the questions take to long to read, that they can't figure out what it is I really want them to say. So one of my brighter students, who happens to have trouble taking exams, suggested that I share the short answer questions with the class ahead of time.

I thought about it, and talked to some colleagues who reported that even when giving students the questions ahead of time, the distribution ends up being about the same. I decided it wouldn't hurt anyone, but thoguht I should let the students discuss it so they could feel like they were part of the process. I just assumed that everyone would think it was a great idea and vote it in.

Boy, was I wrong.

We ended up having a heated debate that I had to cut off lest it eat up too much class time (I let them finish their discussion through an anonymous discussion thread on WebCT). Although several students responded as I had expected, I hadn't predicted the number who would be totally against the idea. They argued that they had been studying hard and doing well. They stated that the point of college is to learn, and to develop the skills needed to identify what's important about a topic. They felt that it was totally reasonable to be expected to think on their feet. They didn't want everything handed to them. And they challenged their classmates, asking them if they were really studying at all.

I opened up an anonymous poll using the survey tool (found under assessments) on WebCT. I thought that maybe those against the idea were just the loudest, and that maybe other students were afraid to ask for help. But I was surprised again. So far, the clear majority of votes are against having the questions available ahead of time.

Although the polls are not yet closed, I'm heartened by the unexpected results thus far. I'm proud of my students who don't want everything handed to them and actually want to think and learn. I'm also really glad that I let my students in on this process rather than making the decision for them. Regardless of what the end result ends up being, this has been a learning experience for us all.

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