Category Archives: Michael Beltz

The Last Day to Withdraw from a Course

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

At the University of North Dakota, Thursday, April 5th, marks the last day of the Spring semester that students can withdraw from a full semester course. This date has vexed me for several weeks. It is not because this is a sign that the semester is coming to a close, but because it causes me to think about my educational responsibilities toward a specific set of my students. Like many faculty who teach introductory level courses at the university, I am surprised that some students are still enrolled in my courses because I have not seen them. In my 100-level course, this semester, I have a small number of students who have not attended class in over six weeks; these students also have not completed major assignments for the course (such as an exam or major writing assignment). When I look at the grades these students have earned throughout the semester, many of them no longer have the ability to complete the course with a passing grade. This has caused me to worry that these students might have forgotten they are enrolled in the course.

These factors have got me thinking about whether instructors have an educational responsibility to these students. Do instructors have an educational responsibility to contact students who cannot pass a course, do to their own negligence, to remind them of the deadline and encourage them to withdraw from the course?

Several faculty who I have discussed this issue with have given strong arguments against this responsibility. The argument that is presented tends to follow the same trajectory. Students bear responsibility for being an equal partner in their educational success. If a student fails to meet the most minimal level of their responsibilities, such as not attending a class in over a month, not completing their work, and not seeking instructor’s guidance, then those students have relinquished their claim to instructor advice on this issue (including a reminder that they are enrolled in a class that they have not been attending. A second argument has also been given that focuses on paternalism. This argument claims that this type of reminder and encouragement would be a form of unwarranted paternalism. The students in our classes are adults, who may have different values and goals than the instructor. Attempting to intervene in this type of student decision would deny the students’ autonomy to determine their own educational path.

I am sympathetic to these concerns, but they do not necessarily convince me. The first argument hinges on the idea that there is a minimal threshold of student activity that must be surpassed in order for the instructor to have an educational responsibility towards them. This seems mistaken to me. Instructors have a responsibility to any student enrolled in the course. Fundamentally, instructors have a responsibility to provide each student with the tools, resources, instruction, and aid that the student needs to reach their own standard of academic success. If we accept that some students would not define failing a course as any level of educational success, then an instructor has the responsibility to provide the tools and resources necessary for the students to make informed decisions about whether to stay in a course or not. This seems no different from the responsibility an instructor has to make sure that a student has the necessary prerequisite course work to enroll in a class. If a student cannot be reasonably expected to be successful in a course, the instructor ought to inform the student of this, whether that occurs before enrollment or before the deadline for withdrawal.

The second argument hinges on student autonomy in their educational decisions. However, true autonomy relies on both an understanding of the student’s educational goals and an understanding of the relevant information in how to accomplish those goals. If an instructor is, as I am, concerned that some students on the course roster might not remember they are enrolled in a course (or if the student might have believed they withdrew from the course earlier), then filling in this information gap encourages, not discourages student independence and autonomy. If a student is informed of the relevant deadlines and the fact they are registered for a course, and they still choose to stay enrolled, then that is their choice. However, an instructor does have an educational responsibility to provide this basic information to students.

As such, I feel that it is an educational responsibility to take responsible steps to inform students of this deadline directly. A statement on the syllabus and an announcement in class are not enough for me. A reasonable step, to me, seems to be a blanket email to all of my enrolled students reminding them of their enrollment in my courses and this withdrawal deadline.

The Future of Term Papers

Once the staple of academic assessment, the term paper is now being challenged as an ineffective and harmful to student progress. Does the term paper still an important tool in higher education? This topic was recently brought up in a the New York Times by a Duke professor that argued that the term paper should be replaces by the blog as a teaching and assessment tool. It was also highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education as being potentially anachronistic. Over the next several weeks, Teaching Thursday will be exploring a wide variety of perspectives on term papers and blogs.

Bill Caraher, Department of History, University of North Dakota

Since the 19th century, the term paper has stood as a central component of the professional training of historians. Inseparable from the seminar system developed by the first professional historians in Germany, the term paper represented the standard delivery method for new historical knowledge. Grounded in primary sources and situated in relation to secondary literature, the term paper encapsulated the professional standard of the discipline and formed a first step in training students to produce theses, dissertation, scholarly articles, and eventually monographs. Along the way, historians have argued that term papers introduce students to a number of transferable skills from clear writing and organization to research skills, precise argumentation, and respect for the work of others.

The digital revolution and the changing landscape of higher education have begun to challenge the value of traditional terms papers with their roots in professional, vocational training of historians.  In my classes, I am shifting to shorter (<1500 word), more structured and focused assignments that have less room for creativity, but also owe less to traditional models for professional training.  I suspect that these shorter more focused assignments have more obvious applications in a wide range of setting (such as web writing, memo writing, and other professional, non-academic areas of work). I am also starting to include more “public” types of writing into my class with students having to prepare discussion posts – for example – that can be read by their fellow students. This not only adds a level of peer pressure to the assignment, but also creates an immediate and easily recognizable audience for their work.  Finally, I am beginning to toy with more collective writing assignments that would leverage resources like the Scale-up classroom (where students work in teams linked digitally) or using Wiki type interfaces that allow students to produce synthetic works but still get recognized for their contributions to the final product. These kinds of corporate, public, and focused writing assignments mark a serious departure from the traditional practices of term paper writing and the goals of those assignment.

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

One of the subtle arguments forwarded in the debate over the future of term papers focuses on the disconnect between the term paper as a formal assessment tool and long-term, job-related skills. Several writers have argued that the term paper does not correspond with the main skills that are applicable to the modern workforce or modern citizen engagement. These authors tend to highlight alternative assignment and assessment tools that have a more direct relationship to non-academic activities. Coupled with this criticism is a corresponding argument that the term paper is an assignment with no clear audience and assignments like blogs avoid this by having a more immediate and intimate audience.

I think that this set of criticisms is a red herring argument that misses the role of the term paper in two ways. First, in many ways all of the assignments and assessment tools used in higher education have limited connections to non-academic life skills. Most formal examinations and quizzes have limited connections to the non-academic life; on the job or at home, it is rare that we will every encounter a fill in the bubble form or have to do a term-matching exercise, under time constraints, for our supervisors. Students are unlikely to be in moderated large or small group discussions on the theoretical concepts in an academic article. Even the blog is not directly applicable to non-academic life, since instructors put significant constraints on topic, structure, tone, and style. Personal blogs and interest-based blogs, in non-academic life, do not have the constraints. Equally important, the issues that authors of personal blogs and interest-based blogs have to deal with (like flaming, trolling, anonymous posting, etc) tend to be structured out of academic blog postings. I am certain that many people will be able to find examples from non-academic life that provide counter-examples to my individual points above, but it is my contention that in general there is a disconnect between most academic assignments and non-academic life. The term paper seems different in some ways, but this seems to be more of a problem for all assignments rather than just the term paper.

The second way that I think that this argument is a red herring is that it underestimates the relationship between the term paper and non-academic life. It is a mistake to think that the term paper is an audience-less form of writing. The term paper has a specific audience, even though it is an audience of one: the instructor. However, much of the writing that is done in non-academic life is written for an audience of one. Reports, performance reviews, letters, policy prescriptions, white papers, policy memos, etc. all have a very narrow audience size (often only an audience of one). The fact that different disciplines and different instructors have different expectations and requirements for term papers strengthens the skills taught by term papers. These differences demand that students learn how to address an audience of one and how to be adaptable in their presentation of ideas. However, these varied term papers help students develop: the skills of research, a deep understanding of a new topic in a short period of time, the ability to use evidence to make claims, and the ability to reach reasoned conclusions based on this research. The term paper probably should not be the only assessment tool we use, but that does not mean that the term paper is a relic of the past that should be abandoned as outdated.

Checking in on the Experiments

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

At the beginning of this semester, I decided to change some of the aspects of my teaching methodology. Instead of changing components of my teaching in a random manner, I set out to address and correct some specific problems that I have encountered in past semesters. I also hoped to address some of my own teaching deficiencies. Below, I will focus on an analysis of three changes I implemented. Now that we are to the middle of the semester, it is time to assess whether these experiments are showing signs of success and whether they have led to any unintended consequences.

Problem meant to be addressed: I have found, over the past several years, that I am not especially good at learning students’ names. However, most of the teaching literature in higher education indicates that students perform better when faculty take the time to learn their names.

Core idea of the solution: On the first day of the semester, I had each student fill out a placard with his or her first name and first initial of his or her last name. At the start of each class period, students are expected to pick-up their placards and have them visible from the front of the classroom and visible to the rest of the class. At the end of each class session, students leave their placard at their desks, and they are collected by me for distribution during the next class period. The core idea behind this approach is to provide me with constant reminders of the student’s name. This should help me learn the student’s name more efficiently, refer to each student by his or her name in a more meaningful manner, and to have a stronger immediate connection between the quality of comments made by the student and their subsequent grades. At the same time, by having students’ placards developed during the first class period, no class time would need to be spent by me learning the student’s names through repetitive role calling.

Results and observations: The solution was implemented this semester has yielded some unexpected results. It turns out that I feel that I actually know fewer of my students’ names than I knew at comparable times in previous semesters. However, the students, themselves, may not be aware that I do not know their names. When each student has their name in front of them during the majority of my interactions with them, I am easily able to address each one by name and establish a sense of positive connection. The problem is that before I refer to any student by name, my eyes in variably glance to his or her placard for reassurance. In short, this solution has done exactly the opposite of what it was intended to accomplish; knowing that I always have the students’ names available to me means that I never spent the hard work at the beginning of the semester to memorize the student names. Equally problematic is the fact that their placards have their first name and first initial of their last names. Because I never am reinforced by their last names, whenever I need to recognize their last names (like on deficiency reports, etc.), the names seem as foreign to me as they did on the first day of classes.

Having made these observations, it turns out that I would not declare this experiment a failure; it turns out that this approach has had a major unintended beneficial consequence. This semester, the number of students that arrive late to my classes is significantly lower than in past semesters. This low rate of tardiness seems to be a product of the placard system. Since students need to collect their placard at the beginning of each class from a collection at the front of the class, there is a strong disincentive for tardiness. Any student that is late ends up standing at the front entry of the room finding his or her placard. Thus, a student cannot sneak into a classroom unnoticed by the instructor or their peers. Without ever having to address tardiness directly to the class, after the first week of classes, the number of late students has dropped to a negligible number.

Problem meant to be addressed: As occurs in many lower-division courses, students tend to rely heavily on how the instructor interprets primary texts. In the context of ethics, this means that students generally learn the history of ethics and the development of ideas, but struggle being able to see ethical problems and have a difficult time applying ethical theories to novel situations.

Core idea of the solution: For one of my courses, “Ethics in Health Care,” I carved out one class period a week (a third of my total class time) for students to explore ethical issue on their own. The class is divided into analysis groups of five or six students. These groups explore 50 pages of primary source material each week (in this context they are exploring two journalistic accounts of health care decision makers). The students are each expected to bring 2 discussion questions each week and the instructor provides five discussion questions. These class periods consist entirely of the groups discussing their questions and thoughts on the ethical issues involved. At the end of each discussion period, each student is responsible for submitting a short summary of the discussions relating to their discussion topics.

Results and observations: In many ways, this experiment has been a great success. After the initial few weeks, the students in this class have taken to this type of project. Even without direct guidance for how to be successful, each group rapidly developed strategies for how to approach the texts and how to discuss the ethical themes in the books. In six of the eight groups, the students engage in the discussions to such a level that they do not get to each student’s second questions. The groups hold each other accountable and engage in ethical analysis that is closer to most medical ethics analysis. Individuals and groups must make sense of the subject matter themselves, rather than having analysis strategies and answers provided by outside sources. The individual students’ work has shown a strong willingness to try to use the discipline’s methods in novel circumstances. At the group work level, the results are even stronger. Since groups have been given limited guidance on how to reach consensus or compromise for ethical issues, the groups have developed their own understandings of what ‘compromise’ and ‘consensus’ mean for ethics and how to reach group conclusions. None of this came immediately to the individuals or the groups, but the rate of progress has been more rapid than I had anticipated.

There does seem to be a negative unintended consequence to this approach. By defining one day a week as time for students to work through issues as a group, students seem much more passive during the other class periods each week. In the past semesters, this course had involved quite a bit of full class discussion of cases and ethical issues. This semester, students seem like they cannot wait to talk on the group day, but are quiet the rest of the days. I suspect that this is a result of how the class time is framed. When one day a week is set aside for students’ voices to be heard, this implies that the other days student voices may be less welcome. While this is not true, the students’ perception of how the time is to be used does seem to have affected students’ understanding of the course.

Problem meant to be addressed: I want to provide positive incentives for students to contribute to class discussions. I also want to provide short-term incentives for students to be properly prepared for each class period. However, I recognize that not all students feel comfortable discussing personal ideas within a large classroom environment. Equally important, I want to avoid creating incentives for students to ‘participate’ in class discussions in an uninformed manner.

Core idea of the solution: To deal with this problem, I decided to change the way I talk about student engagement and participation in my classes and my syllabi. I have relabeled all ‘participation’ components of the courses as ‘engagement’ components. At the beginning of the semester, I spent some time discussing the difference between ‘participation’ and ‘active engagement.’ This included examples of when participating in a discussion is not engaging other students or ideas from the textbooks. I talked about how people can engage with the course material and discussions, even if they do not participate. These discussions focused on student concerns, and allowed them to talk about these issues in the first week of class, rather than having them distributed in a top-down manner.

Results and observations: The experiment has been a complete success. Across my classes this semester the shift to engagement points has significantly improved the quality of discussions. A higher number of students contribute to the discussions, and those that contribute tend to have their ideas more closely connected to course concepts (as opposed to emotional responses based on no evidence). Students seem to have embraced the idea that quality is more important than quantity. My observations at this point are too anecdotal to reach general conclusions; for example, it is possible that the strengths I am seeing are a product of the specific students I have in my classes this semester. This is unlikely, though, because the benefits cross lower-level and mid-level courses and cross majors and non-majors. A more likely possibility is that the reframing of the course language was not the causal factor. Instead, the results could be based on the fact that I spent more time and energy in the beginning of the semester discussing proper engagement and incorporated the students’ frustrations and perspectives.

What Do Students Owe Their Teachers?

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

As the modern university system becomes more focused on a contractual model of education, an increasing attention ends up being paid to the various obligations and rights that the different members of the contractual relationship have to one another. This focus seems to have its philosophical basis on the notion that higher education is a social institution. Like any social intuition, higher education not only has common goals and values, but it also establishes distinct role morality for all of its members. The social institution places individuals into discrete positions and establishes the proper standard of conduct for individuals within those roles. One important aspect of social institutions is that the roles and obligations generated by those roles are primarily in relationship to the larger collective values and goals. Thus, the responsibilities of a student role end up emphasizing what students owe higher education itself.  For example, a student may have the obligation to be academically honest. This obligation tends to focus on how dishonesty undermines the goals of higher education, like creating an informed citizenry; if large numbers of students are regularly dishonest, the end result is a citizenry that is no more informed than if those students had not attended a higher education institution.

Understanding the contractualization of higher education as only establishing obligations between the individual roles and the goals and values of the social institution misses a key component of contractual relationships. Contractual relationships do not just establish obligations between the roles and the social institution; they also establish the obligations that the individual roles have to each other. Instructors in the higher education social institution often think through what they owe the students. What is less often considered is the question of what students owe their teachers.

In his 1988 book, Another Sort of Learning, James Schall directly addresses this question. Schall focuses his third chapter on the title question “What a Student Owes His Teacher.” Before explaining what students owe teachers, Schall gives a compelling vision of the social benefits and core value of education. He argues that education is about finding ‘inner truth.’ By this he means that students will come to a better and more accurate worldview that is based in reality. When the student has done learning, they will grasp the working of the world they live in better than they did before starting the educational process. Schall states: “The student ought to become independent of the teacher to the point of even forgetting his name, but not the truth he learned.”

To reach this goal, Schall lays out a list of four obligations that the student owes his or her teachers. At first glance this list may seem overly narrow and modest, but this is intentional. Schall is attempting to focus on the interrelational obligations of the student to the teacher, not the student’s obligations to the social institution or the student’s obligations to himself or herself. He argues that the student owes: (1) In the first week of classes, at least, the student owes the teacher a moderately good will towards the teacher. This is a confidence to admit to oneself that the teacher probably has thought through the subject and knows where the instruction will lead. (2) An amount of faith that the student can learn something that seems unlearnable in the beginning. This is a trust the student must have in himself or herself. (3) “The virtue of docility,” which is the fact that they must allow themselves to be taught. He further articulates this as open-mindedness to the subject and instruction. (4) A willingness to engage in the effort of study. This is the ability and desire to ignore distractions and other desires to try to learn.

While some may look at this list of obligations and consider it to be too small to capture all of the things a student owes a teacher, my reaction is that this list may actually include too many obligations. When we consider the nature of obligations, we must be able to find a harm that might occur if the obligation is not fulfilled. In the case of an obligation to a person, there must be a potential that the person to whom we have an obligation will be worse off if the obligation is not fulfilled. When we consider what students owe their teachers, as articulated by Schall, it is not clear how the instructor is being harmed when any of the obligations are not fulfilled. Consider two different students who might enter the classroom. The first student has good will toward the teacher; this student fully embraces the fact that the teacher has a more thorough understanding of the subject and knows where the course will lead. The second student has absolutely no good will toward the teacher; this student does not believe that the teacher better understands the subject matter or course trajectory. This second student cares nothing about the subject matter, but has the desire to meet the credit requirement. This student does not want to learn, but wants the outward benefits of passing the course (for example, they want the course credits on their transcript and want positive benefits to their grade point average). There is good reason to believe that the second student has harmed the goals of ‘inner learning’ and being party to an informed citizenry; that student has not learned anything and will not make more informed decisions that they would have without having taken the course. But this does not mean that the second student has harmed the teacher. We can further imagine that the second student has learned how to appear to be a student of good will. Without having learned this, the student might not pass the course or might negatively affect his or her grade point average. In short, the student owes it to himself or herself to appear to be a student of good will. The first student, on the other hand, we might imagine, has not developed the social skills to seem to have good will. When he or she attempts to make statements expressing good will, they come out awkwardly and are easily misunderstood as being of bad intention. Which of these students poses more potential harm to their teacher? It is the first student that is most likely to disrupt the flow of the teaching, to agitate the teacher, to undermine the confidence of the teacher, and to sow discord within the fellow students about the competence of the teacher.

It does not seem that students actually owe their teachers the inner mental state of good will. Instead, the student owes the teacher the appearance of good will. I believe that the same conclusions can be reached with the other three points that Schall argues students owe their teachers. The student owes the teacher the appearance of good will, the appearance of being open-minded, the appearance of trust in himself or herself, and the appearance of being willing to ignore other distractions. This does not mean that the four qualities that Schall highlights are not valuable for the student; they are. These seem to be qualities that the student owes himself or herself, but not the teacher. This is because it is the student who is harmed when they do not have these internal mental qualities; the teacher is only harmed when the student does not have the outward appearance of these qualities.

Blink Grading

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

As the fall semester at University of North Dakota comes to a close, many instructors, myself included, are shifting their thoughts to the most difficult and stressful aspect of the teaching profession: grading. The amount of work that needs to be graded at the end of each semester poses a problem that does not occur during the rest of the semester; namely, final grades must be submitted to the registrar within 48 hours of the administration of final exam. During the rest of the semester, when students submit papers or written exams, it may take me as much as two weeks to evaluate, comment on, and grade these types of assignments. While I have less other work to do during finals week, I still worry that the limited amount of time that I have to grade final work for students is not sufficient to accurately evaluate these projects, papers, exams, and assignments.

It turns out that having less time to grade this work might mean that I am more accurate in my evaluations than if I were to have more time. In his book, Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell argues that we may be better in our evaluations if we think less about those judgments. He argues that snap judgments are better and fairer reflections than when long analysis is conducted before the judgments are rendered. This may seem counterintuitive, but Gladwell’s analysis consistently shows how immediate judgments tend to be more accurate and superior to carefully weighed judgments.

In the context of evaluating students’ work, the principle is simple. If we eliminate those factors that might produce biased evaluations, then allowing the intuition of a professional to come forth will make the evaluations quicker and a better reflection of a student’s work. Since most instructors have years of experience and have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of assignments, the subconscious of the instructor will be a better judge than when the evaluations are made consciously.

One area of Gladwell’s argument seems particularly troubling for traditional grading strategies. In what he calls “The Storytelling Problem” Gladwell highlights a variety of cases where individual judgments are different when the person is required to explain why they reached a conclusion. When a person makes an evaluation immediately, but are not forced to justify their evaluation, those evaluations tend to be more consistent with their previous judgments and with the judgment of others. However, when the same individuals are required to first establish criteria for evaluation or must first explain how they are thinking about something and then make the evaluation, their judgments become more sporadic and random. The reason for this, he postulates, is that your thoughts become confused and we end up focused on the wrong aspects of our evaluations. When professional tennis players are asked about how they hit a tennis ball, the top players in the world cannot adequately explain a skill that they have mastered. People engaged in speed-dating end up giving unacceptable partners higher scores and acceptable partners lower scores. In the context of grading student work, when we feel that we need to provide students with feedback, we are really providing a text designed to justify the grade we are giving the piece of work. During the process of justifying an activity that we have done innumerable times, like grading, we often end up talking ourselves out of our initial judgment.

If I read a student paper that initially seems to be a B+, I should be confident that my professional ability to evaluate an assignment is accurate. However, if I then look at the comments in the paper or at my comments on a rubric form, I will expect these comments to be consistent with that grade, i.e. the amount and types of comments should be equivalent with other papers that are earning a B+. They should be less critical and fewer in number than those receiving a B and more critical than those papers earning an A-. When the justifications on the paper do not fit within the expected severity or amount, we are faced with a problem. We might change the amount of comments to reflect our judgment. Unfortunately, in most cases we change our judgment to reflect the justification. Thus, we override our immediate judgment to fit our story (our justification). Why do we automatically believe that our comments or our rubrics are a better judge than our snap judgment? Galdwell provides an overwhelming amount of evidence that conforming our judgments to fit a story is less accurate than allowing the judgments to stand alone without any justification.

This does not mean that our snap judgments are always accurate reflections; personal biases and subconscious mechanisms can often make our snap judgments inconsistent and flawed. The good news is that these biases tend to occur in regular patterns and can be guarded against. Gladwell argues that there is an important way to guard against these biases. He argues that the more information we have when we make a judgment the less accurate it will be. This is not to say that we should make evaluations capriciously; instead, we should eliminate any information that might push us to a certain decision, when that information is not what is being evaluated. A well-meaning mentor of mine in graduate school gave me advice on grading final assignments. He argued that I should tally up each student’s scores before I started to grade the finals. This would allow me to know how many points each student needed to earn on the final to receive each grade. I then would only need to determine whether each student had reached that threshold score. When I tried this approach, I was amazed at how many students seemed to submit final work that hit almost exactly on the border score. Was it just a coincidence that this high percentage of students ended up right on the border of two grades? The more likely explanation was that this additional information was clouding my judgment. Since I had a score in mind at the start, when I looked at each paper that score would carry more weight and significance than any other grade. Thus, I was biasing my judgment towards those scores and was not accurately judging the student’s work.

So what additional information might get in the way of accurate snap judgments? There are three types of information that seem relevant in the context of grading finals. First, it is the information that identifies irrelevant features of the student. This includes their name, major, gender, race, ethnicity, etc. None of these factors are relevant to the quality of work produced by the student. If we know who a student is before evaluating his or her work, we are likely to have personal thoughts or feelings enter our evaluations. Knowing a student is a major or a first-year student or even a nice person, is likely to bring inappropriate emotions into our judgments. These emotions, since we are not evaluating how the students make us feel, can only skew our opinions of their final work. Second, any information about what students need to score should not be known. As mentioned above, this information plants a preconceived benchmark in our minds. To me, this seems no different from a student asking what they need to know on a test so they can get a C. When students ask me this, I find it very problematic because the question indicates that they want to do the exact minimal amount and no more. Instructors should avoid this temptation, just as we advise students to avoid it. Finally, instructors should eliminate knowledge of the previous work the student has submitted. If we know that a student has earned B’s on their previous exams, we are likely to end up starting with the assumption that they will earn roughly a B on their final work. While this assumption may be accurate in many cases, it does the student a disservice. Ideally we evaluate each assignment on its own merits, and not in conjunction with the student’s other work. This information is likely to end up biasing us towards the status quo rather than being reflective of the actual quality of the assignment.

Where does this leave us? Gladwell’s argument, when applied to grading, presents us with two core principles for more effective grading: 1) grading fast can mean grading better; and 2) less information can mean more accuracy.

Thinking through Attendance

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

Over the last several years, I have had a shift in my thinking about attendance in my courses. Now, as I think about my courses in the spring semester, I may be changing my views once again. The specific issue I am currently wrestling with is whether to formally take attendance every class period. This is not an issue I am concerned with for most of my courses. I do not feel that it is necessary in small seminar classes. In those classes, because of their discussion format, I am able to learn student’s names rapidly and naturally. Nor am I concerned with large lecture classes (over 75 students). In these classes, developing a personal connection with the majority of the students is unrealistic. My concern is whether to implement formal attendance in mid-size classes (between 25 and 75 students). My structure for this size of a class is a hybrid format of lectures, group activities, and whole class discussions. In the large scale lecture course, even in an active discussion, only a small minority of students will be able to contribute to the discussion. In the small seminar class, time typically permits all students to contribute to the discussion. The hybrid nature and the number of students in the mid-size courses make these classes problematic. In these classes, it is possible to hear from a majority of students, but not all students. This is a challenge because these mid-size courses demand that students be involved with the collective learning activities. This requires that students be present and prepared for the class; missing either of these undermines the class goals.

The question is: Should I formally take attendance in my mid-level courses?

Argument against attendance #1: Formally taking attendance is overly time-consuming (or counterproductive).

At the University of North Dakota, if a class meets three days a week, each class period is only 50 minutes long. Even if attendance is only takes 5 minutes (which for me is optimistic in a 75 student class), this means that 10% of any course is spent on this activity rather than on the course subject matter. There is a two-fold problem with this. First, students are paying for this time, but it does not have any direct value to their learning. Second, by adding formal attendance taking to a course, I would only be able to cover 90% of the material that I would otherwise be able to cover. In addition, since this missing 10% would not come from a single course period, all of the daily course plans would need to be revamped and revisited.

There seems to be at least two different responses that might be given to this argument. First, it might be possible to formally take attendance without spending valuable class time. One solution might be to hand-around a sign-in sheet (or some other strategy like daily quizzes) where students record their attendance while the class is going on. Unfortunately, this approach comes with two costs. There is the potential for students to cheat the system and falsify attendance (by having someone else sign them in). Additionally, having a sign-in sheet pass through a class means that every student will be distracted from the class concepts and activities at some point; thus undermining the argument in favor of the sign-in sheet. Second, this argument can be criticized for conflating amount of time in the class with productivity in the class. If taking attendance were to make students more attentive, understand concepts better, or learn more, then it would be worth the lost 10% of the total course. This, obviously, does not mean that taking attendance makes students learn more efficiently (more data would be needed for this claim); it simply means that the use of time in this manner is not sufficient grounds for rejecting attendance.

Argument against attendance #2: It is not the proper role of an instructor to take attendance.

An instructor’s primary role in any class is to provide a quality experience for students. This experience should be based on the professional expertise of the instructor combined with the instructor’s judgment as to what should be learned and how the content and/or skills are best covered in the course. Formally taking attendance is not often seen as the most appropriate role of the instructor. Students’ have a role in their education, too. This is usually understood to include being present and prepared for each class period.  In this understanding of the roles of the instructor and the students, being present would clearly be the students’ responsibility, not the instructors.  By taking attendance, the instructor is taking the burden of this responsibility.

This argument revolves around the idea that all individuals in the learning process have obligations and responsibilities; if either the instructor or the student fails to meet their responsibilities, the learning process breaks down. I am receptive to this general proposition, but the idea of multiple responsible agents does not mean that the responsibility rests just on one individual. Attendance in a class is not just the students’ responsibility, even if the responsibility is unevenly on the students’ shoulders. For example, one responsibility that students have toward their own education is to ask questions of the instructor when they do not understand the course concepts. Instructors have the ability to discourage or encourage this type of discussion. Even though it is primarily the students’ responsibility to ask for clarification, the instructor has a reasonable responsibility to be accessible to students, to answer questions, and to be open to a discussion of the concepts. This same principle applies to attendance. Attendance is primarily the students’ responsibility, but instructors have some limited responsibilities (like giving incentives for attendance and making sure there are not disincentives for attendance).

Argument against attendance #3: Students are adults with free-will and should be allowed to make up their own minds as to whether they come to class or not.

Different individuals have different values. As adults, students should be allowed to establish their own priorities and act on their values (as long as those actions do not harm other individuals). If a student has determined that some other activity has a higher value to them than attending a class period that is his or her choice. To supersede this judgment is to see the students as less legitimate decision makers than the instructor. This is a clear case of paternalism. Equally important, students who do not attend class regularly will be found out. In the end, their grades will likely be lower than their classmates.

This argument hinges on the relationship between paternalism and attendance policies. It argues that formally taking attendance forces students to conform to the values of the instructor and not to act in ways that they might normally choose. There are two problems with this argument. First, there is nothing about formally taking attendance that undermines the students’ autonomy. They still are allowed to make decisions based on their values. Class attendance is still voluntary, but the consequences of noncompliance are clear and reinforced in every class period. If anything, attendance policies make students better decision makers because they have more information available to them when they compare their values. Secondly, paternalism is rampant and beneficial in mid-size classes. Instructors have guidelines for all sorts of class behavior (both within the classroom and outside activities involving the course). Students respond to these guidelines all of the time. Taking attendance shows students that the instructor values students being in class and that the instructor believes that regular class attendance increases the effectiveness of the course. This is no different from telling students that they cannot sleep during class. This is paternalistic, since it tells students how to behave, but this does not make it wrong to try to stop this behavior.

Argument for attendance #1: It holds students accountable for their actions.

Like most people, students do not want to do things that they will not get credit for. Since most educators see attendance as beneficial to learning, formally taking attendance creates a direct and immediate benefit to the student. It gives them credit for the action and costs them when they violate the expected behavior. Students know what is expected of them and can act accordingly. Even if attendance corresponds to success on class assignments, these evaluations are more sporadic. Formally taking attendance gives daily feedback to the student about whether they are meeting the course expectations. This direct and immediate feedback is more meaningful and lasting because of its regularity.

I am sympathetic to the idea of creating positive incentives to encourage beneficial student behaviors. However, it is not clear that formally taking attendance is incentivizing the right behaviors. Taking attendance does create an incentive to be in class, but only that action. It does hold students accountable for whether they are in class at a specific time, but it ends there. The incentives push students towards coming to class even if they have not prepared, are sick, or cannot stay awake for 50 minutes. Taking attendance, by itself, encourages students to come to class, but does not encourage them to be actively engaged with the class.

Argument for attendance #2: It provides data about the effectiveness of teaching.

In theory, there should be a correlation between class attendance and final class grade. This does not mean that a student with perfect attendance will get a good grade or that a student could not receive a strong grade despite spotty attendance. However, when we look at a cohort of students, there should be a direct benefit between class attendance and what students learn. Formally taking attendance provides direct evidence as to who was in each class and how often a student was not present. This data should allow us to determine whether what we do in class is effective. If the correlation between attendance and final outcomes are strong, this indicates that classroom time is important to student progress. If students who attend regularly and students that attend irregularly earn the same grades, this indicates that class times and activities do not provide students with information or tools necessary for success. (It is important to note again that this should apply to large groups of students and might not reflect every student outcome). The additional data provided by taking attendance also allows us to examine the success of class activities. We can compare the correlations between attendance and grades to determine what activities have the greatest impact (not just what students prefer).

This defense of formal attendance is nice in theory, but does not seem strong in practice. It is true that we end up with more data to think about, but that data is only useful when it is actually analyzed. This means that we would need to use this data in a systematic and sound manner to analyze a course. This seems unrealistic for most instructors, since it would require timely (and potentially massive) data analysis. Instead, it seems more probable that this additional data would only be used anecdotally and it would be susceptible to confirmation bias.

Argument for attendance #3: It provides supporting evidence for determining some components of students’ grades.

Many classes incorporate points in their grading schemes that come from discussion, participation, attendance, or some other structure that rewards students for being prepared and involved in collective learning. Unfortunately, most assessment in these areas is highly subjective. Having accurate and complete attendance records provides a defensive argument if a student challenges any of these subjective grades. If a student complains that they ended up with a B for class participation, an objective number can be used in a disagreement. As the university structure moves increasingly towards a contractual and legalistic framework, this objective data protects instructors’ interests.

This argument seems to be reversed from the previous argument. It may be great in practice, but it is problematic in theory. It may prevent challenges to individual grades, but it provides false security and seems to be based on a lie. Attendance is clearly a necessary condition for participation and active learning, but attendance is not a sufficient condition. Students cannot participate in class if they are not there, but mere presence does not affect participation. Using class attendance as a sole justification for a participation grade conflates these two aspects of education. It also provides a false sense of objectivity to how these grades are determined.

Rethinking the Case Study Model for the Humanities

Michael Beltz, Department of Philosophy & Religion, University of North Dakota

Over the past decade, there has been a resurgence within higher education teaching literature, of advocates for using case studies as a tool for successful student engagement. The idea is that instructors can increase learning outcomes by providing concrete and detailed cases for students to explore. This exploration can occur at many levels of instruction, from individual explorations, to small-group interactions, to whole cohort focusing discussions. What is most striking about this resurgence is how the values promoted by this approach have developed out of specific disciplines. Specifically, the benefits and weaknesses of the use of case studies are products of the two academic disciplines (Engineering and Health Sciences) that have been at the forefront of this resurgence in the use of case studies. It is my proposal that the use of case studies in the humanities rethinks the potential advantages of case studies, without abandoning the strengthens that have made their use appealing.

The use of case studies as a tool for educational development has three main advantages. The main strength of case studies is how they frame the students in their own learning. Caroline Whitbeck, a prominent engineering ethicist, warns against how modern engineering and modern ethics courses are structured. The danger is that we allow individuals to passively experience their educations. Formulas are presented in their finalized and whole forms; problems are explored after they have been resolved; and, entire educational fields are explained to students in linear and concise narratives. Whitbeck argues that the goal of ethics should be to design courses so that students will be engaged participants who design good choices, rather than detached spectators who merely criticize choices made by others. Case studies can help this transformation to occur within our students, by shifting their perspectives. Instead of being docile bodies that absorb completed solutions, well-constructed case studies force students to place themselves in the shoes of the characters in the case. They are forced to confront how they would act in the situations that are presented. This occurs in a controlled and safe environment, so there is less pressure; case study activities are akin to the science laboratory (constructed problems, all of the equipment necessary for completion is provided, assistance on working through tough parts, etc.). It is this advantage that has led many academics to include case studies as a form of experiential or hands-on learning.

The second advantage that the case studies provide is richness of details. When case studies are fully developed, they provide information and details that make any subsequent discussions more enlivened. This is because they provide situations that are overdetermined; there are multiple ways to explain the events that are presented and multiple details that may be addressed by different students. The idea is that case studies allow for the inclusion of details and contributing factors that are often left out of contrived and artificial examples. This helps students develop their critical thinking skills by allowing students to make their own determination of what details are important and relevant. The use of case studies in health service education benefits greatly from this advantage. Nursing students, when presented with a rich set of details need to be able to distinguish which details and factors are relevant to the underlying condition and which are red herrings. The same general principle is important for other disciplines, providing students with the opportunity to sort between relevant information and irrelevant information, argue for these distinctions, and defend those determinations.

The third advantage that case studies have is their underlying reality. In both engineering and health sciences, case studies tend to be derived from existing real-world situations. Thus, when students are presented with a case study, the significance of the student’s decisions is amplified. The individuals presented in the case study are robust and complicated individuals; in many cases, these people’s health and welfare are in the balance. It is true that the student decisions do not change the outcomes, but they often provide glimpses of how options turned out for these real people. This allows students to see the actual ramifications that some of the decisions led to; ideally this can instill in students the costs that some decisions have for the participants.

It is my contention that the humanities could benefit by using case studies more, if the model for the use of case studies was reframed. The use of case studies by Engineering and health science has direct benefits that can be preserved. However, this experiential learning approach to case studies may not be appropriate for the humanities. There are many potential benefits that can be enhanced by shifting away from the hands-on paradigm to an alternative model. The model I propose comes from the idea of the natural philosophy experiment. This approach is the traditional thought experiment in philosophy. The instructor proposes a short, but complicated scenario and asks students to provide possible solutions to the scenario. A classic example of this type of thought experiment is to ask students: “Can you provide a solid argument for why you know that you are awake right now, and not still asleep in your bed dreaming this conversation?” These scenarios have two pedagogical advantages. First, they force students to take a position and defend that position. These types of scenarios allow all students the opportunity to participate, whether they have read or not and whether they understand the rest of the course material or not. This occurs in a classroom environment, where the risks involved in a wrong answer are low and potential for group contributions are high.

The second advantage that natural philosophy experiments have is less obvious; they have the ability to test the consistency of students’ thoughts. The thought experiments are constructed and controlled by the instructor. This means that the instructor has the flexibility to change parts of the scenario to challenge the students’ initial arguments. If a student argues that it is acceptable for a person to steal a loaf of bread to feed her starving family, the instructor can change the scenario to not be about theft of bread but the theft (and reselling) of illegal drugs. Any changes to the scenario are at the discretion of the instructor. Any changes in the way that a student argues his or her position can be highlighted and explored. The ideal situation exposes our unstated assumptions, the contradictions in our thinking, and any conclusions that are obscured by our own biases.

This approach to the use of thought experiments has been challenged in a variety of different ways. One of the strongest critics of this approach comes from the field of feminist ethics. Carol Gillian has used criticisms of this approach as the basis for her argument against traditional models of ethics. There are several criticisms that are leveled at this method. It is argued that these scenarios are too removed from people’s actual lives. The scenarios are presented in such abstract ways that the options do not seem real; it is rare for a person to have no other option than to steal a loaf of bread in order to keep her family from starving. The second criticism is that these types of scenarios privilege thought-patterns that move from abstract principle to concrete case, but not from concrete case to abstract principle. Students tend to get positive feedback when they start with a principle (like stealing harms innocent people) and progress to the case where the principle is applied (this is a case of stealing, so it is wrong).

By rethinking the way that case studies are used in the humanities, I believe it may be possible to maintain the advantages of the Engineering and Health Sciences use of case studies and the advantages of the natural philosophy experiment, but also avoid their limitations. Both the case study and the natural philosophy experiment move students from spectators to participants. Their value is primarily in encouraging students to actually engage in the decision-making processes, rather than just comment on the mistakes made by other people. Both of these methods allow students to explore their attitudes and assumptions in closed, safe environments. There are limited risks involved and the actual scenarios are created for a purpose and carefully controlled by the instructors. The second and third advantages of the ways that Engineering and health sciences use of case studies  seem missing from the use of natural philosophy thought experiments in the humanities.

This does not have to be the case, though. If we use case studies the same way that thought experiments are traditionally used, we can keep the advantages of both approaches to student learning. Instead of using short and direct thought experiments, there are advantages to using complex, dense, and real-live case studies. This does force instructors to give up control over how the discussions will progress, but this trade-off comes with many benefits. By using a case study as the basis of the thought experiment, we maintain all of the richness of details. This, in turn, requires that students be able to discriminate between the relevant and the irrelevant. It allows students to see the real world implications of some of the decisions. This combination also avoids the problems within natural philosophy experiments. First, the cases are not abstract, they are based in real people’s experiences. Second, the complex richness of the details avoids biasing the activity toward students who more easily work from abstract principles to concrete cases; instead, students who work from the particular to the universal have as much to work with as those who work from the universal to the particular.