Monday, June 25, 2012

How To Replace "Class Participation" With "Professionalism" (Brilliant Idea!)

Sometimes you go to a conference and come away energized - full of new thoughts and ideas.  And sometimes you go to a conference and are lucky to come away with just one new idea.  The American Association of University Professor's Annual Conference in DC a few weeks ago was more of the latter than the former for me -- but that one idea was a real doozy!

I had been paired serendipitously with Dr. Alice Armstrong, a computer science professor from Shippensberg University, on a pedagogy panel.  While I gave my presentation on "The 5 Myths Of Game-based Learning" (more on this later this week) to the, shall we say, "modest" crowd that had assembled for the 0830 start time, Alice really engaged both me and the crowd with her approach to instilling professional standards in her students (It all revolves around the chart below -- but more on that in a moment).

Alice (and her co-author, Dr. Carol Wellington) were facing a serious problem.  Their capstone class, like many capstone classes, asked their students to pursue an independent, long term project.   Despite their best efforts to keep these students in the game, they were still facing failure and incomplete rates that were (combined) hovering around 33%.

Their analysis of this problem indicated that the difficulties were not technical or knowledge based - the students had the skills to do the projects.  Instead, the problems were behavioral; sticking with a schedule, staying in touch with their technical mentors, meeting intermediate deadlines, etc.  Solving this problem seemed difficult if not impossible.

Now comes the brilliant part...

Their solution to the problem was to separate the course grade into two components.  The first part is your standard, old grading system based on how well the students did the various assignments.  Like any standard course grade, you start with a zero and then, as tests and assignments accumulate, your grade emerges as a function of the average of how well you did on those tests and assignments.

The second part is where they did something different and very, very cool.  The second half of the grade is a "professionalism" grade.  Students start with 100% and can only lose points for being "unprofessional." 

I will define "unprofessional" in a second but think for a moment just how clever this is.  In the first place, it does away with the nebulous "class participation" grade.  In the second place, it emphasizes something that faculty in applied professions, like law, medicine, engineering, architecture, computer science and intelligence, value dearly -- professionalism.  Third (and I love this one), it mimics the employer's opinion of an employee.

Think about it:  You just got hired by a company or agency.  You were selected to fill a slot over a bunch of other qualified applicants.  The assumption is that you are the best available candidate for that job.  Because you are new, you are going to be watched and because you are being watched you are going to have chances to disappoint - to make the boss wonder if he really did hire the best candidate - not just with respect to your knowledge but also with respect to your behavior.  It may not be particularly fair, but it is true.

Talking about it is all fine and good, but how do you make it real in the classroom?  If you are like me, you have probably seen a number of potential flaws in this approach.  Here is once again where our friends at Shippensburg impress.  Look at the list below.  I am hard pressed to find much that is objectionable about it.  Lateness, missing appointments, etc.  Those are things we are probably counting off for anyway.
To get the final grade for each student, Alice and her colleagues multiply the content and professionalism scores.  Look at the chart near the top of this post again:  This effectively means that the best you can ever do is the lower of the two grades and that, quite often, your overall grade will be less than the average of your two grades.  Alice and her colleagues believe that this is the key innovation in this approach.

I have to disagree with that a bit.  I think the key innovation is not in the specifics but in the approach itself.  By focusing on professionalism as an attribute that you are expected to have and can only lose, Alice and her colleagues have changed its psychological value.  Loss aversion is a well understood effect and Alice reported that her students responded as any good psychologist would expect:  They hated to lose professionalism points!

Regardless why it works, it certainly seems to be working.  They cut their failure and incomplete rates in half.  They are so happy with the system that they are pushing in down their curriculum to their freshman classes (there they do give students the opportunity to earn points back, though).  One of the most important endorsements of the process actually came from outside the university:  The computer science department's industry advisory council loves it.

I am thinking about implementing some aspects of this system in my own classes.  While I think the Shippensburg system is pretty harsh, I can understand their reasoning.  I would not want half or more of my points tied up with issues like lateness and missing deadlines, though.  Frankly, those kinds of things have  rarely been a problem in any of my classes here at Mercyhurst. 

More important to me is the point of such a system:  To send a signal that professionalism matters and that it is something you are expected to have and can only lose.  Getting away from the more wishy-washy "class participation" grade and moving towards something that is both important and helps the students is a strong step in the right direction, in my opinion.