Course mechanics

This page describes the practicalities of the course for interested colleagues. SC200 students must see the Angel site for all official course material.

The 2015 Syllabus is here. In PSU-speak, the syllabus is the semi-legally binding final word on assessment etc.  The timetable is different; aside from assessment deadlines, my course timetable is pretty fluid as the course progresses so I can alter things around guest instructor availability and current affairs. This, for example, is the 2011 Class schedule as it actually played out.
There are four main elements to the course.
1.  CLASS SESSIONS. These involve some mix of lectures, polls, discussions and pop quizzes.
(a) Lectures. I give out handouts in class (also posted on-line afterwards). Handouts are usually incomplete so the students have to annotate them (here’s an example). I try to punctuate the class with discussions, videos and other activities because 1.25 hour classes are too long. I post links to any videos and websites I use in class on-line.

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(b) Pop quizzes. I run these through the semester with no warning. I hand these out (here’s an example). The students do them in class and then I go over the answers immediately afterwards. This means only the students know how well they did. The pop quizzes cover the sort of things covered in the tests and final exam, so the students can gauge how well they are doing without any pressure. Pop quizzes take 20-30 minutes of class time, but I find them an amazingly effective teaching tool. The students like them because they can tell where they stand and they can learn how I ask (and answer) questions. They are good for class arguments when the students disagree with me.  Arguing with the instructor is an excellent way to get students engaged and learning.
(c) Polls. I use Polleverywhere, which runs off the student phones (here’s an example).  This system is way more popular with the students than clickers, and I like it because it is zero hassle. It does cost a bit of money. Well worth it.
(d) Comment Wall.  I encourage students to put their hand up and ask questions. But also encourage those too nervous to text me using Polleverywhere. I can see the anonymous messages in real time on my portable computer. This portal is very popular with the students. I think this is essential, especially in large classes. It can be a little distracting for me as it moves, but it does give me a very good sense of what the students are thinking.  It explodes into action if I loose the students in scientific detail. This is especially good when a guest instructor is talking – I ask the question on behalf of the texter. The wall also explodes into action when we get on to something controversial. It’s a great way to take the class pulse.
(d) Attendance.  I only take attendance records when I do pop quizzes, which I do 12 times in semester without announcing them in advance. Obviously I do this to encourage students to come to class, but for me the best part of this is that I can see whether poor test performance is associated with poor class attendance. Really useful when students are moaning about their grade: “my records show you missed class at least three times”. I’ve refined the attendance algorithm over the years, so now they have to be present at 9 or more pop quizzes to get 10% towards their final grade; if they are at fewer than 9, they get 0% for attendance. A lead into the logic and experience that got me to this is summarized here.

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2.  CLASS BLOG (40% of final grade).  Students have to write posts on topics of their choosing relevant to the course objectives, and comment on the posts of others. This is the 2010-2011 result. The 2015 student blog is here. The marking rubric is given in the syllabus. It takes about 8 hours to mark a blog period for 100 students. The main rate limiting step is giving the students individual feedback, although this is usually a copy-and-paste job listing what they have failed to hit from the rubric. I am a fan of blogging and associated assessment for the reasons summarized here, and here. Way better than class essays. zzzzzzz.  There are three blog periods during semester. I take the best mark from the three. A smart student does the first blog period to get quality feedback, and then pulls all the stops out on the second period to get a great mark and free themselves from homework for the third period.
3.  THE TESTS.  There are four of these during semester (26%), plus a final exam (20%).  They are on-line and they all have the same format. Each has 28 multiple choice questions, about half of which are on things covered in class (recall and comprehension), and the other half are on the analysis of a science report in the media, testing critical thinking (here is an example). I mark the tests out of 25 so that students who get three questions wrong still get 100%. This eases the stress on students and allows me to continue to set challenging questions. The tests have been the hardest teaching challenge for me. Most students find them too hard and are affronted that simply coming to class does not result in an A. The tests are open book (which means of course that you can’t pass them from lecture notes and Wikipedia), and they can be taken twice. After the first go, the system tells students how many questions they got wrong, but not which ones. Most students do worse the second time around; I take the best of the two goes.

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4.  REVISION TUTORIALS. I offer several of these after every test to go over the answers.  These are the only venue where I make the answers public. Revision tutorials are voluntary. Only a minority of students attend, and most of those are students who did well on the tests and want to do even better. I think these sessions are extremely valuable for those who attend. They are time consuming and exhausting for me, but I also find them really valuable because its the only venue I have for figuring out what they are not understanding.
Other motivators.   
(1) The students can get extra credit for
(a) outstanding blog posts (lucid, stimulating or lateral)
(b) Suggesting exam questions I use
(c) finding a mistake in a test or exam that requires me to regrade things.  This happens rarely but it motivates students to question me – an excellent learning tool
(2) I offer the best bloggers from each year paid TA-ships to run the blog the following year.
A note for connoisseurs of assessment rubrics. We all know the rubric is everything. Students do things only for marks. I set this course up so that student trials, tribulations and disorganization would not ruin my life. I take the best mark from three blog periods, the best two marks from four on-line tests, and allow the final exam to be live on-line for a week so they can do it from anywhere. They even get 100% for attendance if they manage to be at nine of the 12+ pop quizzes. I think this system means that I am using grades to force them to participate, without ruining my life when wheels fall off their life. I also think this system rewards those who are trying to improve. The reality is that it is hard to do well on my course without full participation, and that comes out very effectively in the test scores….
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Last updated Aug 27, 2015

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