Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Past Speaks to the Present

I was the grateful recipient of this year's University of Minnesota Morris Alumni Association Teaching Award, our main campus teaching award. Traditionally, the recipient serves as mace-bearer during commencement (I briefly set my robe on fire when the mace's glass head was hit by direct sunlight), and gives the (blissfully short) main speech at the Honors and Awards Ceremony the night before. The speech was well received, and I did not spontaneously combust even once. Win!

I took the opportunity to say a little about what lessons the deep past may have for students about to embark on the next stage of their lives. I've reproduced my remarks below, but cut off the introduction so the beginning sounds more awkward that it did during the actual event.

I’m an anthropologist, and my specialty is archaeology. I study and teach about the deep past. Like many topics that are part of the Liberal Arts, some may wonder what is the point of studying the deep past? What importance does it have to the present?

Our bodies – yours and mine -- are shaped by the past, through the DNA passed down from the parents here with us tonight, and the countless generations before them. Our communities are shaped by the past, through the history of our families, whether immigrant, indigenous, or carried here against their will. Our nation is shaped by the past, forged through the coming together of people whose struggles, for and against each other, created the institutions we rely upon today. The past, in other words, made us.

As Shakespeare once wrote: “What’s past is prologue.”

We read the prologue to a play to better understand, to better contextualize, the first act. Your first act. I teach about the past because I care about the future, and the future is sitting before me today, and you are about to embark on the great story of your lives. I could not be prouder or more confident of your ability to create a truly epic narrative.

So with that in mind, I want to bring to your attention two important lessons that the deep past can give to you (other than the obvious, like “never poke a sleeping mammoth”, or “a cave painting is worth a thousand words”)

First, the uniqueness of humanity is our ability to cooperate and create community. (No matter what your social media feed might look like). Like humans, gorillas will fight over territory, but even the most cranky preschooler could teach them a thing or two about sharing. Chimpanzees have been documented to commit murder, but never to work together in raising a child. Human cooperation – far more importantly than our technology – cultivated the landscape, raised the pyramids, and took us to the moon. All of human history is the history of community and cooperation, and sometimes, unfortunately, its dissolution. So I ask you to find your community; nurture, organize, and embrace it. United, you will do great things.

Second, we have always been more alike than we are different. Communities around the world have been connected since long before “globalization” became a modern buzz-word. Medieval kings in Zimbabwe traded with China; Arabic inscriptions have been found in Viking sites in Sweden; Midwestern farmers in the 3rd century AD traded for materials from the Rocky Mountains. We have always been interconnected.

Our modern barriers of race, class, nationalism, and religion – even warfare itself – are quite recent in human history, from the perspective of an archaeologist (which, granted, means anytime in the last 10,000 years). When the first cities rose in Mesopotamia 6,000 years ago, Europeans still had dark skin like their cousins in Africa. Two thousand years ago, Rome created a vast empire where people of many ethnicities and religions lived in reasonable peace side by side. The same could be said of ancient empires in India, China, Chile, and Mexico. When Mohammed first preached tolerance for his spiritual cousins, the Jews and the Christians, he laid the foundation for thirteen-hundred years of coexistence in Islamic kingdoms.

So, don’t let anyone convince you that hostility towards those who are different from you is inevitable. Instead, create communities that cross national, class, racial, gendered, and religious boundaries. Make the world safe for human differences by focusing on our commonalities. In doing so, you are calling on the deep history of human connectedness.

I leave you with this final, and most important message about the past: Don’t forget from whence you came. Your family and community shaped you. We count on you to return the favor.

Congratulations, honored students. I can’t wait to see what your first act looks like. I know it will do us proud.

Thank you.

Obviously, I'm focusing on the positive, but it's a graduation speech; it's probably not the best time to dwell on conquest and colonialism. And, yes, one can quibble about details, -- I had five minutes, I didn't have time to give the whole song and dance about alloparenting in chimpanzees! -- but I stand by the general message. 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Plausible but Incorrect Multiple Choice Answers

It's time to write final exams and many of us are wracking our brains to come up with 3-4 incorrect answers for each multiple choice question. I actually enjoy writing exams, but I've talked to enough faculty who struggle to write plausible incorrect answers that I put together the tips below.

One unrelated suggestion for making multiple choice exams that better reflect your students' learning: if you give an exam on Moodle or some other teaching platforms, you can create multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer. Incorrect answers will lower the point total (otherwise students would just fill in every bubble), but unless students mark all the correct answers they won't get full credit. This gives them less than a 25% shot at guessing the right answer.

Onward to tips for writing plausible but incorrect multiple choice answers:

1) This is obvious, but the first step is to include any common misconceptions. For example, if students frequently confuse evolution in general with the process of natural selection in particular, then include a popular definition of natural selection as one of the options. (If you don't know and are curious, "a" is the correct answer in all of the examples below.)
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
If there are multiple common misconceptions, include them all:
Which of these is the definition of evolution?
                  a. change through time in allele frequencies in a population
                  b. survival of the fittest 
                  c. progress toward better species
                  d. the improvement of the gene pool

2) Once I've added common misconceptions as answers (or if there aren't any for a particular question), I riff off of the main phrases in the question for plausible-sounding answers that are actually unrelated to the concepts being tested. For example:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins
                  b. Modern humans originated from the complete (or nearly complete) replacement of chimpanzee genes with new human genes
                  c. Modern humans originated when they exchanged (replaced) a reliance on instincts with learned, cultural behaviors
                 
These answers combine common misconceptions about human evolution (that we have no instincts, that we're 100% different from apes) with plausible meanings of the phrase "complete replacement". Note that the weasel-wording in choice b is what really makes that work. The whole "complete (or nearly complete)" just sounds so plausibly academic.

3) The alternative to #2 (or an addition, I suppose) is to make the wrong answers descriptions of the alternative theories taught. As so:
What is the Complete Replacement theory of modern human origins?
                  a. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then out-competed all other Middle Pleistocene hominins 
                  b. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens evolved locally throughout the Old World, sharing traits between regions through extensive gene flow 
                  c. Anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens originated in East Africa 200,000 years ago, then reproduced with other Middle Pleistocene hominins in the Old World

4) Finally, if all else fails, I include one or more "big word". If a student doesn't really know the material, they may be tempted by an answer that sounds "fancy" or "scienc-y", even if it doesn't make sense. It's best if this is a vocabulary word they're supposed to know (two birds with one stone!) Similarly, a name they don't know (of a person or place) may seem plausible if they're uncertain. Some examples:

Which of these traits was found in Australopithecines compared to modern humans?
                  a. long arms relative to body size
                  b. encephalization 
                  c. holocene adaptations
                  d. reduced prognathism
                  e. glaciation cycles


Denisovans were:
                  a. fossils from the genus Homo found in Denisova, Siberia, whose DNA is found in some  modern humans
                  b. the discoveries of Piotr Denisov, whose research on pre-modern human skulls led to the discovery of Broca's area 
                  c. fossil Homo erectus specimens found at the site of St. Denis in southern France
                  d. a species related to Australopithecus afarensis named for their discoverer, Denis Ovans. 

What tricks do you use? Leave your tips in the comments, please!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Immigration Teach-In

UMM's Students for a Democratic Society held a Day of Action on immigration this week. One event was a faculty teach-in which brought together a diverse group of disciplines to (briefly!) give their perspective on the issue. Faculty from world languages, history, anthropology, psychology, education, and political science spoke. It was one of the more effective examples of the power of the liberal arts that I've had the privilege of witnessing.

I presented on how anthropologists understand differences between people from different racial or ancestral groups. We only had five minutes to speak. As any faculty member knows, five minutes is only enough time to clear your throat and introduce yourself, so I wrote out my comments and spoke very, very fast. I'm sharing them here:

Our nation has a long history of believing that immigrants – or any people whose ancestry is different from that of the people in charge – have lower intelligence, poorer skill sets, lesser work-ethics, or lower inherent worth. The field of Biological Anthropology developed in the context of studying just this question. In the 18th and 19th century, early Anthropologists were part of society’s elite: mostly male, mostly Anglo-Saxon, mostly Protestant. They used everything from IQ tests to skull measurements to evolutionary theory to “prove” that people of different ancestries were inferior in some inherent way.
 Since then, Anthropology had learned a lot about human differences, so from that perspective I’d like to suggest two things you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin:
 One, racial categories are reflections of power, not biology. Every one of us is different, genetically and physically. But, our differences are continuous and varied; they don’t fit neatly into discrete categories, but we as a society create racial categories that are artificially discrete. Let’s consider a white woman who has two children. One child’s father is Black, the other child’s father is white. The children are siblings, so they are very close biologically, with a lot more genetic overlap than I have with any other white person in this room. But, socially, one child is Black, the other is White. Race is not a reflection of biology, but a social category.
 These social categories were created to fit social needs, not to reflect human biology. For example, Early Colonial America didn’t use racial categories the way we do. People from Africa and Europe could be free servants; people from Africa and Natives of North America could be enslaved. They weren’t “Black” or “White”. But, (to elide a lot of history) the European colonists couldn’t meet their labor demands with free labor, so they created a harsh system of slavery, different from what had been seen previously in Europe. This was slavery for life, handed down for generations. And because this system didn’t fit with moral precedents, they also created a race-based system to justify it. They invented “Black” and “White” to justify this brutal system based on claimed “inherent differences” between people.
 This isn’t the only time our culture (or others) have created racial categories to reflect or serve the power structure of society. Through history, what our nation has defined as “White” has depended on who was in power. Many European immigrant groups (Irish, Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans) were not considered White. As those immigrants were assimilated into the U.S., their racial status changed.
 The second thing you should keep in mind when you hear blanket pronouncements about the inherent characteristics of people based on their ancestry or nation of origin: everything Anthropologists have learned from the late 1800s until now suggests that environment is far more important than “inherent biological differences” in understanding differences in behavior, skills, and success between groups with different ancestral backgrounds. As I said, early Anthropologists spent a lot of time trying to measure “inferior racial characteristics” in people from different parts of the world, but we modern Anthropologists like to forget those flawed studies and instead date the founding of our field from the work of Franz Boas in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Franz Boas showed that the “racial characteristics” that his fellow anthropologists had measured in immigrant groups, such as differences in skull shape, disappeared in their American-born children. .When immigrant’s children grew up in the U.S., in the same environment as “native-born” Americans, they had the same traits and outcomes. So, the “inherent biological differences” that these scientists thought they were measuring weren’t inherent at all, they were a product of the environment
 We now have more than 100 years of data showing that when people from different ancestral backgrounds are given the same opportunities to succeed, they do. We now know that IQ, SAT-scores, and other standardized tests  -- which are very flawed measure of intelligence -- are a better reflection of socio-economic status than race, for example. We can look at twin studies of genetically identical people raised in different environments which show that environment – particularly socio-economic status – has a major impact on standardized test scores. We can look at standardized tests of Americans from different races who are raised outside the racial caste system of the U.S. and see that, when raised without constant exposure to those biases, racial differences in standardized test-scores disappear. We can look at people of color from different socioeconomic backgrounds. All of these studies show that standardized test scores reflect how many years of good-quality, well-funded schools you attended, not inherent intelligence differences between people.
 Too often, our society hasn’t given different communities the same opportunities to succeed. Our society throws up innumerable barriers in front of African-American, Latino, and Native American Indian people. Individuals in these communities face discrimination, housing segregation, school segregation and underfunding, and fewer professional opportunities and barriers to advancement. To the extent that we, as a society, put similar barriers in front of new immigrants, we can expect similar inequalities in education, wealth, or skill attainment. But, this is a social problem, not an inherent difference in ability between those who were born in this country and those who were not.
 Trust me, I’m an anthropologist. We have tried for hundreds of years to find measurable differences in the intelligence, morality, work-ethic, or inherent worth of different communities. The only differences we’ve found are the ones we’ve created ourselves.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Point of the Past

Why do we study the past?

George Santayana is famously quoted as saying "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." That, of course, is utter bullshit. The world could suffer collective amnesia of the Industrial Revolution, but we wouldn't have to re-invent the combustion engine.

I'm more partial to Marx's contention in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce." (Marx forgot to add that in their third iteration they return as blockbuster Broadway musicals.)

Marx goes on to say: 

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. 
Although we may quibble with the darkness of Marx's vision, he raises two important points about the past and why we study it: 

  1. Our present existence and course is contingent upon the past. Today we may call this "path dependency" rather than "the tradition of all dead generations", but the point remains. We are standing on a road created by all the decisions, traditions, and occurrences of the past. Although we can step off of that road, there are immense barriers to doing so. Understanding the world around us -- and what lies ahead -- requires understanding how the road was built.
  2. The past is, always has been, and always will be, a powerful political tool. It can be used to legitimize both revolution and stasis. It can be manipulated to scatter the proud and put down the mighty from their seats, or to justify the basest of injustice. Its lessons change as our society changes, as we forge a useful past for our current circumstances.

Why then do we study the past? 

Because we are the past. In our individual biology, our personalities, our political and social institutions, we are the cumulative effect of all that came before. Granted, we are shaken, stirred, and re-combined into unique constructions, but there is nothing new under the sun; in studying the past, we study ourselves. Our past is an intrinsic part of our identity, present, and future.


Because the past is political. We cannot disconnect politics from the past, but we owe ourselves and our society some veracity. Not Truth-with-a-capital-T. (Truth, as the world's most famous archaeologist once said, belongs to the Philosophy department.) Instead, we must be open to all of the past, to allow the past to speak in the voices of those who may have passed down little to the modern world except the fruits of anonymous labor, fragments of items lost, scraps of DNA. If the past must be political, then let it be democratized. Let it be representative of all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Steve King is Wrong (Obviously)

On the first day of the Republican National Convention, Representative Steve King (R-IA) caused a social media storm by appearing on Chris Hayes's show and claiming non-white "sub-groups" have not contributed as much as western and eastern Europeans to world civilization.

To anyone educated in world history, this is clearly not true. That was the reason Chris Hayes gave for not arguing with King on his Euro-centric, racist framing of civilization, calling such a debate "as odious as it was preposterous".

Here's the problem: King's view of history is not preposterous to a large number of Americans, and what he said reflects the way we teach and present history in most of our public institutions. When these views are expressed, it's important for anthropologists and historians to explain why they're wrong.

So, in order from most theoretical to most concrete, here are three quick thoughts on why Rep. King is wrong:

1) Define "white": Our racial groups ("white", "Black", "Native American", etc.) are not universal. The United States has an unusual history of colonialism, slavery, and mass immigration, combined with a tendency to disavow inter-racial marriages. Our racial categories reflect this history, as well as being a driving force in our history. Rep. King is assuming a universality and essentialism to these categories that doesn't exist through the scope of world history.

Case in point: we can all agree that the Roman Empire was powerful and historically important for the development of Europe, in particular. Was the Roman Empire "white"? It sat on three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa; in it's final centuries it was centered on Asia Minor. It's citizens had a wide variety of physical traits, and, more to the point, they would not have divided each other into the same racial categories we use today. To the extent that Rep. King was likely considering the Roman Empire as part of "civilization", he was white-washing its history considerably.

And while we're here, I'd like to point out that Rep. King was clearly using "civilization" and "Western civilization" as synonyms. I'm sure other world civilizations, such as Babylon, Han China, India, the Aztecs, the Incas, Aksum, and the Mali empire, just to name a few, would disagree.

2) Define "contribution": In a society where one race or gender is dominant, as whites and men have been in Europe/North America for at least 300 years, their contributions will always dominate history. This is not, as Rep. King likely believes, because other races or genders have contributed nothing, but rather because:
     A) elites write the history books, so they either leave out non-elites or out-right lie about their contributions
     B) elites take credit for inventions, discoveries, or feats that should have been actually or equally credited to members of other races and/or genders
     C) elites tend to focus on their role in a particular endeavor, ignoring all the work that other people had to do in order to pave the way for their success. In this way, history gives an officer credit for the bravery of the enlisted men, a factory owner the credit for his employees' work efficiency, or an architect credit for the monument built by slaves. Behind every canonical white male author is the wife, daughters, servants, slaves, laborers, etc., who provided him with the wealth, meals, laundry, and contemplative time free of those chores that are necessary for everyday life. Is he really the only one who deserves credit for his work?

3) Yeah, yeah, but...: OK, so maybe you're thinking that I'm just making excuses for why non-European or non-white men and women don't appear more often in the history books. The truth is, even if you allow Rep. King's assumptions to stand, he's still wrong. There are so many ways that world history and world civilization rely on non-white or non-European contributions that it's impossible to list them all. Obviously, the history of the world outside of Europe is full of non-European people (and, let's face it, the chapters that feature Europeans don't exactly make white people look like harbingers of civilization). And of course, you can always do a quick google search for, say, famous African-American inventors and scientists, or notable Asian-Americans. Just because you hadn't heard about these historical figures doesn't mean they weren't important (see point 2).

As an archaeologist, of course, I'm more interested in deep history, so here's a partial list of what western modern social and economic systems owe to non-Europeans:
  • the vast majority of what you've eaten or will eat in your life, including anything made with wheat (Middle East), corn (Mesoamerica), rice (East Asia), or potatoes (South America). Almost all the meat you eat, as well, such as beef (Middle East), pork (Middle East and East Asia), turkey (Mesoamerica) and chicken (East Asia).
  • mathematics, the foundation of architecture, engineering, and economics, was largely borrowed from the Arabs, along with the Arabic numerals we use.
  • gunpowder, steel, and several other critical technologies for modern warfare were developed in China. Obviously, this isn't the aspect of civilization we most like to dwell upon, but we can't pretend that the implications for human history haven't been monumental.
  • writing systems were independently developed in a number of different places, particularly China, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica. The concept of writing and record-keeping, so critical to modern societies, only spread later into Europe, where no native writing systems developed.
  • the compass and other aids to navigation -- critical aspects of European colonial domination -- were developed by the Chinese, arriving in Europe via Arab traders
  • all that which makes life worth living, namely coffee (east Africa), sugar (south Asia) and chocolate (Mesoamerica).

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Specifications grading: Part 3 - Avoiding Student Confusion


This is the second in a series of posts about creating, implementing, and modifying a specifications grading system. You can find them all by clicking on the "specifications grading" label below. Or you can follow these links: Part 1, Part 2

The previous posts laid out the development of a specifications grading system. When I actually implemented the system in 2014-2015, I ran into two major problems: confusion and anxiety. I've made a number of changes to, hopefully, mitigate those problems. I'll update next year with my success (or lack thereof). There is a lot of good information in Linda Nilson's book Specifications Grading, but I found my specific problems were not detailed in the book, perhaps because I'd already taken her advice for dealing with the problems she covered.
 
Problem 1: Confusion

I devoted an entire page of my syllabus to explaining the specifications grading system. I described it in detail in class, multiple times. After the first graded assignment, I showed students how it fit into the system. At the end of each unit, I went over the grading system again and gave students a personal update on their grades.

I still lost people.

Honestly, at the end of the semester there were still some students (granted, only a couple) who had no idea how the grading system worked. There were students who took A-level final exams to try and "raise their grade" when they hadn't done any of the C, B, or A work earlier in the semester. When I tried to explain that this was impossible under a specifications grading system, they would ask if they could do it anyway. ("Why?" I asked. "To raise my grade," they replied. "Gee, Professor, why are banging your head against the wall?")

Very few students understood the grading system on the first day, but around 90% of them understood it after the first unit exam. Even they were annoyed by the complexity of the grading system because I had to keep explaining it in class for those who didn't understand.

I'm not going to show you the original grading system because it was too convoluted (I'm happy to share if you want me to send the link), but suffice to say I've greatly simplified the structure. I have two recommendations for battling confusion:

1. Find an analogy/example students can understand. I tried a variety of ways to explain and defend the grading system. Students are so used to the standard grading system (90%+ = an A, 80%-90% = a B, etc.) that they found the idea of a mastery system extremely confusing. Even after they understood the basics, students had trouble understanding why it didn't matter whether they got an 80% or a 100% on their multiple choice exam, just as long as they passed it. Through trial and error, I found a couple of analogies/examples that helped my students understand the grading system. YMMV.

One example that worked was the one I used in my first post: my high school chemistry class. That class consisted of self-paced units, each with associated lab work, homework, and an exam. You had to pass the exam with at least a C to move on to the next unit. Your final course grade was entirely dependent on how many exams/units you passed, not on your percentage grade on the exams. If you only did a couple units, you'd fail. If you did ten or more, you'd get an A. Since the first units covered very basic material and the later units covered more complex material, if a student got a D that meant they had mastered only the basic concepts, while an A reflected mastery of more advanced material. Although my BioAnth class is not self-paced, and every student has to complete some aspect of the three course units, they still found this example helpful in understanding the difference between a percentage-based grading system and a mastery-based grading system.

Visualization of the specifications grading system for Intro to BioAnth
The visual analogy that proved most effective was a (wonky-looking) tree or upside-down pyramid. To pass the course, all students must master the foundation/root work (D-level material), while higher grades required climbing higher (and covering more material).

2. Label graded activities carefully. Even if you have a complex class structure, by carefully choosing your labels for graded activities, you can make the grading system appear simpler. In my BioAnth class, I have a lot of different assessed activities: in-class writing, out-of-class writing, multiple-choice exams, essay exams, labs, in-class activities, worksheets, etc. Originally, I went through these activities and assigned each a grade level, then asked students to do only those activities that pertained to the grade they wished to obtain (and those of the grades below, of course). So D-level students had to do the D-level in-class writing, multiple-choice questions, labs, etc. C-level students did those, as well as all the C-level in-class writing, multiple-choice questions, labs, etc. It seemed relatively straight-forward to me, but it wasn't. Students got confused about what material they needed to cover and they lost track of deadlines.

I revised the system so that all the assessments that are required for a particular grade have the same label (even if they're not necessarily identical activities, and even if there are similar activities that aren't required.) For example, I assign weekly short essays. Originally, these were all called "comprehension checks" and I gave each essay a grade level; students who wanted a D in the class had to write the D-level comprehension checks. Students who wanted a C in the class needed to only write the D-level and C-level comprehension checks, etc. This was much too complicated. Now, I have divided the same weekly essays into two categories. The easier ones, the ones that cover basic concepts, I call "comprehension checks". All students who want a D or higher must pass them. The essays that require a more sophisticated understanding of the material I call "mastery checks", and they need only be completed by students who want an A.

Similarly, I divided my previous exams (which had multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and essay questions) into different sections, gave them different labels ("basic knowledge checks" for the multiple-choice questions vs. "midterm" for the fill-in-the-blank and applied skills questions), and scheduled them for different days.  Students no longer have to ask "what sections of the exam must I do?", they know they need to take all "midterms" and/or all "basic knowledge checks". As I laid out in the previous post, all the activities for a particular grade are given the same label on the syllabus, making it easier for students to understand what they need to do and when.

I'll talk about dealing with student anxiety in my next post.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Specifications Grading: Part 2 - Assessment

This is the second in a series of posts about creating, implementing, and modifying a specifications grading system. You can find them all by clicking on the "specifications grading" label below. Or you can follow these links: Part 1

In my last post, I laid out my class goals for Intro to Biological Anthropology and assigned a "grade level" to each. The next step is determining how to assess whether or not the students have achieved each goal. Again, I lean heavily on Linda Nilson's book and the work of Dee Fink on designing courses for significant learning.

Step one: matching assessments with goals

I literally just go through my learning goals and decide what type of assessment I will use for each one. I won't bore you with all the details, but here are some examples with the learning goal in black, the grade level in red, and the assessments in blue:

Foundational Knowledge: Students should be able to explain in their own words and give examples of the following key concepts:
  • Evolutionary theory D 
    • Multiple choice questions: ex., which of these is an example of natural selection?
    • Short essays: ex., define evolution and explain why it is not the same as natural selection 
    • In-class activities: Four forces of evolution; Pedigree analysis; Creating cladograms
Application: Students should be able to:
  • work "hands-on" with materials that tell us about human adaptation and evolution (fossils, biometric data, etc.) D
    • Lab write-ups and worksheets on fossils, primate skulls, and human osteology
    • Lab practicums
  • critically evaluate scientific arguments about fundamental human nature (based on race, gender, our hunter-gatherer past, etc.) B
    • Longer essay: ex., if your local newspaper published an opinion column that claimed males are better at math than females, how would you critique this from an anthropological perspective? Make sure you use actual data and examples from class or readings.
    •  In-class activities: Data on difference; Clines and population variation; What does it mean to be human?; Race is in the cards; Discussion: Race, housing, and systemic inequality; Discussion: sex, gender, and violence
    • Extra-credit opportunities: Six words project; #BlackLivesMatter reading and summary; campus speakers as available 

You get the idea. A few things to point out:
  • Not all assessments need to be exams or even graded. I count extra-credit opportunities or in-class assignments where the students are engaged with the topic and write a short reflection. Reading the reflections helps me revisit concepts that didn't get across the first time.
  • Higher grade-level goals have more complicated assessments, such as essays vs. multiple-choice questions. YMMV.
  • The more important the issue (from my perspective) the more ways it gets assessed in the class. Note how many things are listed under "critically evaluate scientific arguments about fundamental human nature", and I left off a bunch more. Even though only B students are asked to master that goal, all students are exposed to it again and again.
I had already taught this class several times before implementing the specifications grading system, so I had a whole list of activities, labs, and exams that already worked for me. Mapping them onto the learning goals, like above, helped me see where I had blanks and forced me to dump/modify some things that weren't serving a purpose.


Step two: develop a grading system (KISS)

Once I knew how I wanted to assess whether or not students had mastered a particular learning goal, I had to structure those assessments into a coherent grading system. Here's where I part ways a bit with Nilson's book. Something I wish I had known before I started: KISS

I'll dedicate another blog post to how badly structured my specifications grading system was the first time I tried it. Here's the new, improved structure:

To earn a D, a student must show mastery of the concepts in all "Comprehension Checks". These are short (one-paragraph) essays asking for definitions and examples -- or applications -- of basic class concepts. They are assigned every other week. 


To earn a C, a student must pass the requirements for a D, as well as answer 80% of questions correctly on all five "Basic Knowledge Checks". These are computer-generated multiple-choice exams, for which they get the questions ahead of time. (That doesn't help their grades as much as you might think.)


To earn a B, a student must pass the requirements for a D and a C, as well as achieve an 80% on three midterms. The midterms are also computer-generated exams for which they have the questions ahead of time, but they include essay questions and require skill application (like correctly calculating and interpreting Hardy-Weinberg, or pedigree analysis, or reading a cline map, etc.).

To earn an A, a student must pass the requirements for a D, C, and B, as well as show mastery of the concepts in all "Mastery Essays". Like Comprehension Checks, Mastery Essays are relatively short (2-3 paragraph) essays assigned every other week. Unlike Comprehension Checks, Mastery Essays move beyond defining or giving examples of class concepts and instead require students to grapple with more complex topics (for example: "In your class textbook, Jonathan Marks claims there is no such thing as a value-neutral primate taxonomy. What does he mean by that? Do you agree or not? Why?").

In addition, 20% of the grade for all students is based on three lab practicums which are graded on a simple percentage scale. That is, if they correctly identify 80% of the bones on the human osteology exam, they get 80% of the total points. Last year, I tried to use a specifications grading system for the lab, as well, but it was a logistic nightmare. I might revisit it as a possibility in the future.

My goal is to make the class impossible to pass unless a student has mastered the basic concepts. I want to encourage students, however, to aim for a B over a C, so the requirements for a B are not really that much greater than the requirements for a C. Before the specifications grading system, I tried to pitch exams so the average grade was about 80%. Under this system, I'd like more students to fall on the B side of that line than the C, assuming they're in that middle area of what once was the standard bell curve.

To get an A, though, requires a more complex level of engagement with the material. The "mastery essays" pull from a variety of sources and themes within the class, and they really do separate the best students from those who are struggling with the material.

Next time, I'll talk about troubleshooting the grading system, re-dos, and the grading load.