Course Redesign and Alignment of Learning Objectives, Assessments and Content

My intro students always seem to do less well than I expect on exams, especially on the final exam.  Part of the reason is that I ask at least a few questions which go beyond what we’ve explicitly done in class.  I do this because I think exams should stretch the students: they should be a learning experience as well as a summative assessment.  I don’t want to simply ask students to memorize and regurgitate on the exams.  I stand by this, but now wonder if this approach needs an adjustment.

Assessing final exam performance is complicated.  My final exams are cumulative, in part because economics is cumulative.  Roughly half the final exam assesses content we’ve done since the previous exam (I give two midterm exams), so it’s content students haven’t been tested on before.  In addition, I’ve tended to have to rush things at the end of the semester, so students haven’t had enough time to process the most challenging content in the course.  One last point: Students need to study for other final exams at the same time at the same time as they prepare for mine.

You may recall that I use Lumen Learning’s Waymaker as courseware in my intro courses. One manifestation of the problem here is that students can do very well on the Waymaker module quizzes, but still get significant numbers of my exam questions wrong.

In my last post, about the CTREE conference, I wrote about Stephen Chew’s keynote address.  Chew observed, “Many faculty take pride in how hard they make students struggle.”  Such faculty seem to think that the more students struggle, the more they will learn.  I believe in rigor, but rigor is in large part about setting expectations for the work.  The struggle hypothesis is different. if you think about it, it cannot not be entirely true.  If you give students an advanced lecture in an intro course, they won’t get it no matter how hard they struggle. If you give students an exam from a downstream course, they are unlikely to be successful. More importantly, the struggle hypothesis is not supported in the learning science literature.  We want students to engage deeply with the course content. How can we reconcile these views?  Chew does this by using the concept of desirable difficulty.

We want students to take their studies seriously.  We want them to think, even struggle.  But the work has to be within their capabilities.  We want them to stretch, but it can’t be too far.  As my friend and colleague, Jeff McClurken says, students should be “uncomfortable, but not paralyzed in their learning.”

This reminds me of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development refers to the difference between what a learner can do without help and what he or she can achieve with guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner.  I need to do a better job of providing that guidance and encouragement in my intro courses.

Given Chew’s comments on “desirable difficulty,” I think I need to revisit what David Wiley suggested to me years ago about the gap between Waymaker module quizzes and my exams—I need to think about reducing the gap.  More precisely, if the exams assess what I want students ideally to learn, then I need to better prepare students for what the exams are assessing.  This means rethinking the content and learning activities.  I try to do this in my lectures, but the last week of school tends to be rushed.

This isn’t a novel idea for me: I went through this process some years ago in my intermediate macro course.  I had a clear idea of what I wanted my students to be able to do by the end of the course.  So, I intentionally built instruction around that goal, starting from the first day, through regular homework assignments using different content but the same process.  How can I do this in my introductory courses?

I will start by developing a/revisiting my list of learning outcomes. (Some years ago, I created an outline of the content in my course.  It wasn’t explicitly a list of learning objectives, but it included many.)  Once I have that list, I plan to share it with my students as part of the course outline.

Next, I will review/revise the course content (text, lectures and learning activities) to be in alignment with the learning outcomes. Then I will review/revise the module quizzes and make sure all is in alignment with the final exam questions.

I will do each of these tasks starting at the end and working forward, so I insure adequate attention with the content at the end of the course as well as at the beginning. This is my task for the summer. In the fall, I will assess how well the process has worked.

If you think this sounds like a lot of work, I am certain I can do it in the time available this summer.  If you wonder why I am willing to spend my summer on this project, I will tell you what a visionary colleague once told me in a different context: If you think this is important to your students’ learning, how can you not invest the time?



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