I revised my Introduction to Biological Anthropology class this year. I included more active learning, added a new textbook (The Alternative Introduction to Biological Anthropology, by Jonathan Marks), and changing the exam structure.
Here's what I've learned:
1. Active learning improved (most) student learning and provided feedback on the learning process.
In-class activities improved overall class understanding of major concepts. Partly, the improvement came from the activities themselves, but frequent feedback was also important. For example, students wrote short essays in class about race as a social construct. The feedback they received drove home -- in a way I'd never been able to drive home before -- that they didn't understand the concept as well as they thought they did. When they were asked to write a similar essay for the exam, the improvement was striking. This approach was particularly useful for deceptively simple-seeming concepts, such as race and evolution, that are hard for students to a) understand; and b) recognize their own failure to understand.
Feedback is a two-way street. I learned a lot about my students that helped me shape the class, and to intervene where necessary before the exam codified mistakes into grades. For example, I'd never known how many of my students were young-earth creationists (around 15%). Some of those students did well. Others did poorly. I've always announced at the beginning of the semester that students are free to believe whatever they wish, as long as they are familiar with the scientific evidence presented in the class, but this semester I was able to speak personally with students who had conflicts, and ease many concerns.
Much of the feedback I received was not from the activities themselves, but from the 5-min reflections that students wrote afterward. The students groaned every time I asked them to write one of these, so I stopped doing them about half-way through the semester. Next time I teach, though, I'm going to include them with every activity. Even if the students didn't like them, I found them invaluable sources of information on what students had learned, and what needed to be covered again.
2. The best students loved Marks's textbook, even if they disagreed with him. Struggling students struggled.
I gave weekly comprehension checks, which were 10-min essays designed to test understanding of basic concepts (for example, "why is race a culturally-constructed category, not a biological one".) Often, the essays were based on the readings, since I had other means to provide feedback on in-class materials. Most students did OK on essay questions from the Sylk and Boyd textbook, if they'd read the book. (There were a number of students who hadn't read the book, but that's a different problem!) When the essay was based on the Marks book, however, the results were discouraging. Most good students understood the his major points, if not all the nuances, and learned a lot. Several of them told me his was the best textbook they'd ever read. But a good 50% of students regularly failed to understand Marks's basic argument. Perhaps they were less inclined to read Marks, whose chapters are longer, prose denser, and pages less adorned with glossy photos and illustrative graphs.
3. Giving students exam questions ahead of time lowered grades (for some students).
As I mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic, giving students the database of questions ahead of time lead to an increase in As and an increase in Fs. After the first exam, I gave my students a survey asking when they began to study for the exam, whether or not they'd worked their way through the questions, etc. Not surprisingly, most students who did well on the exam had begun studying well before the exam, and had worked their way through all the questions. The students who did poorly didn't fail because they had answered the study questions incorrectly; they hadn't done them at all. Unfortunately, the database of questions seemed to intimidate/depress students who were already unlikely to study long hours, and they skipped studying altogether, rather than substitute a more standard study approach.
4. This was not the outcome I was expecting.
When I changed the class, I was hoping to: A) improve concept comprehension for the average student; B) decrease the failure rate for the class (which is about 15%) by helping struggling students to learn; and C) focus the course on skill development and the application of concepts to daily life. At the same time, my biggest fear was that the class would be too easy for high-achieving students, that they wouldn't get enough in-depth coverage of materials, or they wouldn't be challenged.
Point C is a topic for another blog post. I believe that I succeeded with point A. Exam essay questions suggest that the average student did improve their comprehension of major class concepts. But I failed on point B. In fact, the class failure rate increased, and struggling students did more poorly this semester than in previous semesters.
In retrospect, I should have expected that outcome. Most of my students aren't struggling because they can't understand the material (although students with poor science backgrounds do face barriers). In general, students fail because they don't come to class, don't do the readings, and don't study. The new structure of the class exacerbated these problems. In-class activities were more important, so students who didn't come to class were missing more (both in materials and in graded activities). I demanded (and assessed) engagement with the readings, and held exam performance to a higher standard. Students who did not wish to read or study were left behind. I hoped the focus on active learning would engage students who were otherwise likely to skip class. That was clearly naive.
On the other hand, my fear that top students would find the class too easy was unfounded. In fact, students were more engaged and the grades for the top 25% of students went up as students produced some of the best essays I've read in the 7 years I've taught this class.
So, changes that were meant to increase learning for average and struggling students instead improved outcomes for average and high-achieving students. This wasn't the outcome I was expecting, and not necessarily the one I desired (although improving learning for any student is good). Students don't come to class/read/study because they are prioritizing non-academic activities over academics. To the extent that those activities are sports, games, organizations, partying, or loafing around, I consider that to be the student's problem. To the extent that the student is struggling because they work full time, are caring for their family, or face other structural barriers because of poverty, race, or gender, however, I want my classroom to be a place where they can succeed, without having to be twice as good or work twice as hard as other students. For those students, I consider the revision to be a qualified failure, and I need to rethink my policies to allow more flexibility for students with outside responsibilities.