Friday, November 27, 2009

Congratulating Good Performance

I have written extensively about the emails and SMS messages I have sent to students at risk and the difference it has made to some students.  I have not just concentrated on the negative, I have also been sending congratulatory emails to students who have performed well.  For each assessment item, I sent an email congratulating all students who achieved a mark in excess of 85%.  I have also sent congratulatory emails to all students who achieved Distinction and High Distinction grades.  The final group of emails I sent were to a few less talented students who achieved great results through hard work and perseverance.  I do not know if these emails have had any impact on these students' performance but I like to think that the positive reinforcement made them feel better at least.  A few students have written back to me thanking me for my messages.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Gripe: Students lack of Punctuality

I have been driven crazy by students arriving late to class.  They seem to think there is nothing wrong with arriving 5 to 10 minutes late.

This problem was highlighted in one of my final tutorials for the semester.  At the scheduled starting time, there were 8 students in the class.  I divided them into two groups of 4 students and had each group look at a question from last semester's exam paper.  They moved the furniture around so they could work in groups and got started on their problem.

A couple of minutes later, two more students arrived so I explained what we were doing and added one to each group.  Then another pair arrived.  I don't like having groups of more than 5 students so I pulled the earlier tardy students out of their group and formed them into a group with the more recent tardy students and gave them a different problem from the exam to solve.  I now had three groups of 4 students.

Another two students arrived.  I added one student to two of the groups.  Another student arrived and I added him to the remaining group.  Each time I had to explain what we were doing in the class and furniture needed to be shuffled to get the groups working together.  Just when I thought I had it settled, another student arrived.  I had to extract the 5th student from each of the groups to form a new group and added the latest arrival to now give me four groups of 4 students.

It was now 15 minutes after the scheduled starting time.  One group was just starting their task.  The other groups had not progressed very far on their tasks due to the disruptions of students being added and withdrawn.  These disruptions meant that the tutorial only covered half the material which I had intended to cover in that class.

The problem with lateness is exacerbated by some of my colleagues who are routinely five minutes late to class.  How can we expect better behaviour from students when the academics are setting the bad example.

I know that some students have valid reasons for being late but I doubt all the reasons for tardiness are valid.  I have worked in Thailand, a country renowned for its flexible concept of punctuality, and have not experienced this level of unpunctuality.  I teach in a business degree; Haliburton claimed that "Punctuality is the soul of business."  I can only wonder if students carry this behaviour to their professional life; I do not think many clients would put up with this treatment for long.

When I was at School, if you were late to class you had to go to the Principal's office to get a late pass and, if it happened too frequently, to be disciplined.  This approach cannot be applied in University however; I cannot imagine the Vice-Chancellor dispensing late passes.  In my ideal world I would develop an appropriate punishment for lateness.  As professionalism is a desired generic skill, students who are late to class will be docked marks for failure to demonstrate they can behave professionally.

Now, where is my horse and lance.  I see a windmill in the distance.

Innovations in Contemporary Issues in Accounting

This semester I trialled a number of innovations in Contemporary Issues in Accounting. These included:
  • Automated marking of practical assignments
  • New methods of communicating generic skills
  • Improving engagement in tutorials
  • Actively pursuing students at risk
It is now time to review the success of these activities.

Automated Marking

This process appeared to work reasonably well. The worst part of this system was the time taken to prepare the questions, check them and provide sufficient margin of error in the answers to allow for differences in assumptions. I did not receive any complaints from students about the time taken to complete the online submission of the answer. There were a couple of the individual questions where I did not allow sufficient range in the accepted answers. One group of students managed to make a mess of their submission by included a comma as a thousand's separator; Moodle does not recognise this as a numerical answer and is a weakness in Moodle. The system, as I had established it, did not allow for late assignments. The system did achieve its objective of providing quick marking.

Communication of Generic Skills

This was a partial success I think. This is purely a subjective view and I do not have any data to support this. The reason it was a partial success was that I listed the generic skills included in the topic. I did not explain how this topic delivered the generic skill nor did I identify the component of the topic which was associated with the delivery of generic skills. I will try to improve this in the future.

Improving Engagement in Tutorials

The techniques I applied worked well early in the semester but were not as effective later in the semester. The reason they lost effectiveness is that the engagement was already present towards the end of the semester and the techniques added little value. I will concentrate on applying these engagement techniques early in the semester only in the future.

Actively Pursuing Students at Risk

I used email and SMS to contact students at risk. Students were identified as "at risk" based on their non-attendance at tutorials, non-submission of assessment items, and poor performance on assessment items. I estimate that this program resulted in three students withdrawing from the unit before they failed and five students drastically improving their attitude to their studies during the semester. I think it also had an impact on other students and resulted in a slight improvement on their performance.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Attendance at Tutorials Revisited

An earlier post covered my concerns about students failure to attend tutorials. I now have the full data available to look at this more closely. The basic evidence remains pretty much the same, more than half the students attended less than 75% of tutorials. What this post adds is the data about the association between tutorial attendance and overall marks.

The correlation coefficient between overall mark and the number of tutorials attended is 0.70. However, a number of students who missed tutorials saw me during consultation times to review the work they missed. If I give those students credit for attending tutorials for when they saw me about their missed work, the correlation coefficient rises to 0.75.

For the students who attended more than 75% of tutorials, every one of them passed. The average mark for these students was 72%. 12 of the 15 Distinctions and High Distinctions earned in the subject came from this group.

For the students who attended between 50% and 75% of tutorials, just over 90% of them passed. The average mark for these students was 62%. The other three Distinctions and High Distinctions came from this group.

For the students who attended less than 50% of tutorials, just over 50% of these students passed. The average mark for this group of students was 43%. No students from this group earned more than a Credit.

All of this is telling a consistent story: attendance at tutorials has a reasonably strong association with academic performance in the unit. The question which remains however is how do I get students to act on this association.

Student Rationality: Marks, Risk and Perceived Wasted Effort When Preparing for Exams

I have been observing revealed rationality of students when preparing for exams. My exam in Contemporary Issues in Accounting was divided into two sections: Part A was designed to assess depth of knowledge; Part B to assess breadth of knowledge. Part A comprised four essay questions from which students could select any two. Students were given the essay questions in the third last lecture of the semester - one month before the exam. Part B comprised a series of short answer and calculation questions. Students were given no guidance about the content of these questions. Students were not permitted to take cheat sheets into the final exam ("cheat sheets" is University of Canberra students' slang for when students are allowed to take notes into an exam).

Students were encouraged to work with others to prepare answers for the essay questions prior to the exam. In their exams, it was apparent that most students had prepared extensively for the essay questions they has chosen to attempt. Very few students had prepared for the Part B short answer questions. Several students told me in consultations prior to the exam that their strategy was to prepare for the essays only and not to prepare for the short answer or calculation questions at all. This strategy appeared to be followed by many students from the work displayed in the final exam.

The students who told me about their strategy prior to the final exam justified their choice based on their limited time to prepare for all of their exams. Most of my students faced three exams in three days. One of the subjects that most students were taking had an evil reputation among students and students admitted they were devoting most of their time to that subject. The rationale for this strategy, as it was explained to me, was that there was a perceived strong correlation between effort and marks when preparing for the essay questions as the questions were known. There was a much weaker perceived correlation between effort and marks for the Part B questions. As students did not know what the questions were nor the topics from which they were drawn, they perceived that much of their study time could be "wasted" in that it would not lead directly to higher marks on the exam.

The question facing me for the future is should I pander to the students by providing greater information about the Part B questions prior to the exam. If I do provide them with more information, how much more information is needed to change their behaviour to one that is more satisfying for me; that they prepare thoroughly for the Part B questions and through that, develop a broad understanding of the issues which lead to the learning outcomes of the unit?