Why this faculty member lets students set the value of their exams

Daily Briefing

Why this faculty member lets students set the value of their exams

Increasingly, faculty members (and other leaders on campus) are looking for ways to give students more control over their learning, with the ultimate goal of improving student outcomes.

But this can be a challenge in large, introductory courses, which can have hundreds of students. In a recent article for ChronicleVitae, James Lang shares the story of one faculty member who experimented with a possible solution to the problem in her classes.

Toni Weiss, a senior professor of practice in economics at Tulane University, attended a summer institute in 2017 and came away ready to empower her students. But much of the advice she’d received for giving students more control in the classroom was designed for small courses of a few dozen students. Though she initially felt stumped, Weiss eventually designed a solution that she started using with her classes last fall.

Weiss allowed students to choose how much each specific assignment would count toward their final grade. For example, each student could decide to make her midterm exam count for between 17% and 21% of her final grade.

All students submitted a grading plan to Weiss a couple of weeks into the course, after they’d had a chance to preview each type of assignment. Weiss encouraged students to adapt the learning plan to their work style—suggesting that those who get jitters during tests, but do the homework every day, give more weight to the homework than to the exams.

Weiss used algorithms on spreadsheets to keep track of each student’s individualized grading plan (she shares her advice for creating a similar setup here). In her interview with Lang, she assured him that it’s “much easier than it sounds.”

The response from students to the new grading plan was overwhelmingly positive, even though they could only affect each assignment’s weight by four points, at most. “The percentage ranges in Weiss’s course are tiny, but the message they send is large,” Lang writes.

In post-semester course evaluations, an overwhelming majority of students appreciated the sense of control they had over their final grades. However, a few felt intimidated by it because having so much autonomy was unfamiliar.

“Besides giving students a stronger sense of control in the course, Weiss’s strategy also encourages them to reflect on their own strengths and weaknesses as learners,” Lang notes. This self-analysis allowed students to appreciate the value of different assignment types, instead of getting bogged down in misconceptions that strong test-taking skills, for example, are the be-all and end-all of success (Lang, ChronicleVitae, 3/14). 

Instructional costs, primarily faculty compensation and benefits, are the largest single budget line item for nearly every university—and they are on the rise. For most institutions, these costs are largely fixed, making resource flexibility a significant challenge in an era of declining per-student funding and tuition revenue.

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