Sunday, April 2, 2017

Midterm time...again?

How many exams?

I attended undergraduate studies at the Universita' di Bologna, Italy. At the time, most courses entailed a single exam, typically oral, to be taken sooner or later after the year-long course ended. That system has procrastination and last-minute cramming written all over it.  My flipped genetics course is the antithesis of the "exam later" model.  In the ten weeks of the term there are five midterm exams, one every two weeks. Some students complain about the frequency of the exams, others grow to like the "exam now" model and recognize its usefulness. For what it is worth, the exam now strategy could be named "no man [or woman] left behind".

The no man left behind model

A typical 10-week course has ~2 midterm exams. I decided to administer more frequent midterm exams as part of a plan to prevent procrastination and improve curriculum immediacy. The need is exemplified as follows: consider three related concepts, A-B-C. Understanding C requires a good grasp of A and B. I found it frustrating when teaching C was hampered by A-B ignorance. 

Figure 1. Responses to a clicker question.
Green marks the correct answer
The existence of a widespread lacuna in the class becomes obvious when you use clickers. Fig. 1 exemplifies a lost class: only 1/4 are answering correctly. My teaching strategy is not to leave any such gap uncovered.

Students may experience difficulty in answering a given quiz for a number of reasons. Addressing the problem in a timely manner, however, is easy only if clarifying the matter does not involve re-explaining key, fundamental concepts. 

Implementing the model

Avoiding procrastination and ensuring student adherence to the course information flow requires intruding into students' study habits and often colliding with their expectations, as exemplified by this post in an online prof evaluation site:
"Best way to describe this class: heavy. Flipped class means a lot of external work (videos, readings, online quizzes) and a lot of attention required in class (clicker points). He goes from Mendel to CRISPR in deep detail, with tricky questions. You HAVE to know your stuff ridiculously well to get a A or B. 5 midterms."
Yes, this student did not award me the hot chili pepper award. But, as explained in the student response post, many other students appreciate the benefits of the model. Its effect on study habit is demonstrated by students use of the Canvas site (Fig. 2), which peaks at most midterms.
Figure 2. Weekly page views to BIS101 Canvas site.


Five midterms come with some overhead: preparing and administering them requires extra effort. Nonetheless, I see obvious benefits in the class consistency and ability to enter new genetics grounds. 

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