Monday, July 9, 2012

So many students, so little time (Part 2)

Pie. Yes, pie.

Not only is pie delicious, but it will also help me to illustrate how I go about grading discussion posts in my large online classes. Ah, how versatile pie is!

(Yes, I promised to write about how I adapted my final paper for a large course - I'll talk about that in another post. Pie was just so tempting...)

In any course, it's important for students to have opportunities to discuss the material with one another. This gives them opportunities to articulate their own ideas, be exposed to different perspectives on the same subject, have questions answered, practice providing feedback, potentially negotiate conflict, and hopefully have fun while interacting with others. This tends to be especially important in online classes (and I would argue, large classes of any variety), where students can feel somewhat isolated and anonymous. Regardless of how intriguing or thought-provoking these discussions might be, there are still some students who are not motivated to participate unless you attach a grade to said involvement. (And yes, there are some who are stalwart enough to resist the urge to participate, despite the temptations of interesting conversation, learning, and points earned.)

My typical set-up for discussions is to split students into groups; in one current class students were randomly assigned to groups of 5-6, in the other they were allowed to self-select based on topic of interest. Students are provided with a prompt or a task for their initial post (e.g., post a picture or video that illustrates something you learned about cognitive development in the first two years of life, and write at least a paragraph explaining what concept or stage of development you think it illustrates and why). The next week, students must respond to at least two of their group mates' posts, and are given an additional prompt or task (e.g., make connections between the original post and what you have since learned about psychosocial development in the first two years - for example, how might language and attachment be related?). 

So let's do a little math. 

I am currently teaching 2 courses. In one course I have 81 students, and in the other, 75, for a total of 156 students.
156 students x (1 post + 2 replies) every other week = 468 entries 
468 entries x 5 (that's how many posts I have them complete over the semester) = 2340 entries to grade
Even at 5 minutes an entry to grade, that's the better part of my summer gone.

Okay, so clearly, particularly without any TA support, this is not actually what I'm doing. Instead, I've told students that I randomly select who will be graded each time there is a discussion and reply due, but they don't know when they will get graded, so they'd be wise to produce quality work each time around. 

Think of it this way - I don't have to eat the whole pie to know it's delicious. Likewise, I don't have to taste everything a baker makes to rant or rave about his or her creations. I can eat just a small sample, give a review, and not end up feeling sick.

This semester, I decided that each student will receive feedback from me at least twice, with the first time being within the first 3 weeks of classes. Then I plotted out a spreadsheet with all students and all due dates, and (somewhat) randomly selected who would get graded when. As I grade, I give full marks to those who posted on time but aren't selected for that week (or 0 to those who didn't post or posted late), and read only the entries written by the "lucky few". And I only grade posts once the replies have also been written, so I only go into the discussion boards (or actually, the SpeedGrader, because we use Canvas) once per grading session. 

Some more math:
I average around 12 students per class per grading "session"
So (12 students x 2 classes) x (1 post + 2 replies) = 72 entries per "grading session" on average
OR 156 students x (1 post + 2 replies) x 2 (times each student gets graded) = 936 entries to grade during the semester - that's a drop of 60% in terms of what needs to get graded, and I get my summer (and sanity) back!

This is the first time doing this for me, but it's not a particularly new approach to grading. Although some (especially students) seem to think this approach to grading is arbitrary, and thus this approach can be somewhat controversial, I stand by the assumptions of random sampling, and my students haven't complained yet. My experience is also that students are getting more and higher quality feedback than they would have if I were responding to each and every post.

So I can have my pie and eat it too. 

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