Finding Out if My Students are Actually Learning Anything…

Being a teacher involves a minimum of two things:  conveying information to my students and making sure that they are learning what I want them to learn.  Sometimes, the teaching part (conveying the information) involves lecturing, showing documentaries and feature films, and discussion.  Figuring out what my students are learning–that often becomes evident when I start grading their exams.  Occasionally, it can be a both an entertaining and a disillusioning experience when I see what they remember from what occurs in class and from their readings.  And, of course, the exams themselves are one way I can measure student learning in my classes.

One of the many “hats” I wear as a college history professor involves assessment—to put it more simply, how I measure what (or if) students learn in the classroom.  My experience with assessment takes many forms:  serving on a university-wide assessment committee, preparing the accreditation report for our nationally recognized social studies education program, and being our department’s assessment coordinator (which often involves cajoling my colleagues to provide me with data).  As a result, I have become infected with the culture of assessment, and, with the current trend toward imposing a business model on higher education—think instead of “No Child Left Behind” it’s “No Adult Left Behind”—I have slowly (and reluctantly) become convinced of the importance of assessing student learning and of the need for accountability (yes, I know, those are blasphemous words for academics).

Now to the main point of this blog post:  determining whether the students in United States History since 1877 actually learned something when I had my adventure in technology earlier this month (before you read any further, you should read the earlier blog post on “Technology and Teaching” if you have not already done so).  The best way to do this, in my mind, would be to include the guest speaker (Charles Shaughnessy) on the first exam.  Typically, my exams in this course include two components:  essay questions (that have multiple parts) and short answer/identification (in which students identify/describe and give the historical significance of various terms, which include people, events, etc.).  The students are also directed to consult only the textbook, assigned readings, lecture notes, and PowerPoint slides.  Incidentally, the exams for this class are take-home, so the students are able to consult these materials while preparing their responses.  When explaining the best approach to answering the exam questions, the students were reminded that they could only include information covered in class—in other words, they cannot look up one of the terms on Wikipedia to get the information for their answer.  They are also strongly encouraged to write everything in their own words; I have already informed them of the consequences of plagiarism in my class (filing academic dishonesty charges with the administration and having a sticker placed on the “Plagiarism Wall of Shame” in my office—42 stickers and counting since 2003).

Rather than include Charlie’s comment as part of an essay question (which the students could avoid, as they only had to complete two out of four essays), I listed him as one of the people to identify in the Short Answer section.  As an incentive to get the students to select him as one of the terms they had to define (after all, they did still have some choice by answering six out of ten terms), I informed them that the historical significance part related to what Charlie said in class in response to the question about why he chose to become a naturalized citizen.  That way, I didn’t have thirty students write “he played Mr. Sheffield on The Nanny, my favorite TV show” as the historical significance (while I will admit that does have some historical significance, it does not really relate to what was covered in class during the first 1/3 of the course).

A total of 30 students submitted the first exam in class on Wednesday, February 23.  Out of these, 9 (or 30%) provided a definition/explanation for the term “Charles Shaughnessy.”  Based upon student response, I was sort of able to obtain a random sample, as more than 10% of the class chose to write about Charlie.  However, I was hoping for at least a 50% response, so next year I probably will have the “respond to what Charlie said” assessment as a bonus question that is due the class period following the immigration lecture (and thus his words will still be fresh in their minds, rather than the students scrambling to recall them over two weeks later).  The following examples demonstrate that indeed it was a worthwhile venture, as the students had diverse recollections of what Charlie said to the class.  I have retained the students’ own spelling and grammar but have not identified them in any way (although if they recognize their own comments, they can “out” themselves if they choose to do so).

“Charles is an actor who is an immigrant from England; who played on the show The Nanny. Significance: Charles said in the interview he came to America because there is no other place like it with the freedoms.  Also, he said he did not want to be here on his green card because he felt like it is our right to be able to vote and be part of what goes on in this country and he wanted to do his part.”

“Charles Shaughnessy is an actor who is an immigrant from England. The significance of Charles Shaughnessy is that he became a naturalized citizen. Charles Shaughnessy became a naturalized citizen because he thinks that America is the greatest country in the world. He believes in America and wanted to be part of the process. Charles Shaughnessy wanted to have a voice, so he became a naturalized citizen.”

“Shaughnessy is an English immigrant actor. This is significant to the class because he spoke on a radio show; Dr. Guenther called in to, and said why he wanted to officially be an official citizen of the United States instead of being on a visa.”

“Actor who is an immigrant from England.  Significance: Became a naturalized citizen and promoted for other immigrants to do the same.”

“An actor that was a British immigrant. The significance of this was that he believed that becoming a citizen of the U.S. was very important to all immigrants. He said that the United States provided a lot of opportunities for those immigrating and even more for them once they become a citizen.”

“An actor who is an immigrant from England. Significance: He wanted to be a part of the American process because he believed in America and what the founding fathers created. He wanted a voice and simply having a green card wasn’t good enough for him.”

“English actor famous for his role in The Nanny among other roles in television, movies, and stage productions.  He was featured in class being asked about his decision to become a naturalized citizen in the United States.  He mentioned wanting to be in the American Experiment that this country is based on.  For him, being a part of the process of government was important to him.” 

“Actor who is an immigrant from England.  Significance:  People from all walks of life were immigrating to America to start a new life.”

“foreign born actor who became American citizen, Shaughnessy said in answering your question that becoming an American citizen was never a question for him, he wanted to be a part of the great nation and the opportunities this country provides.”

Conclusion:  While I am not entirely satisfied with the students’ responses to this question (after all, I would have liked more students to attempt this term, especially those who only answered 5 of the required 6), it is evident that most of the ones who provided an answer did get the point of Charlie’s contribution to class that day—and remembered it several weeks later.  Plus, none of the responses will be appearing on my next blog, “Revisionist History Spring 2011 #1,” unlike some of their other answers on the exam.  Overall, I would consider it a qualified success, one that will encourage me to explore additional ways to enliven my classes as well as continue to find ways to determine what and how students learn in my classes.

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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15 Responses to Finding Out if My Students are Actually Learning Anything…

  1. skat35 says:

    This was a great idea and a interesting topic. The radio show was exciting and I think when people hear someones (an actor) personal story, they tend to remember it longer. Immigration such as our ancestors journeys to America is important to understand the reasons why folks came and choose to become citizens. Since we were born here sometimes take it for granted. Also, so important to our melting pot history: that we are a nation composed of many different ethnic groups. That they all had their reasons for coming, staying, and having their children here. Was pretty cool that he shared that with us. Course in his case, i think their was a significant other involved too. lol

  2. Adrianne Leigh says:

    I find it interesting that you came to appreciate assessment slowly. Although it’s different from me, I guess that it’s true for most academics who appreciate assessment (an N about equal to 16).
    I like the way you set it up – and I think your results are more meaningful having asked them a couple of weeks after they “encountered” him. Knowledge comes and knowledge goes – but learning is retained. That’s what we should be assessing: learning. reading the responses, it seems that most of the students learned a valuable lesson in hearing a contemporary talk about the US in terms of important freedoms and, more importantly, that he obviously understands that with rights come responsibilities. That lesson, in itself, is priceless.
    Just my 2 cents…

    • Karen says:

      I think it might relate to my natural stubbornness. You tell me I have to do something–unless it’s something I really want to do, I’m going to complain, rebel, etc. But once I figured out that I’m already doing assessment–it was a lot easier to “buy in” to the point of it. I think I started getting convinced when preparing the accreditation report for NCSS back in 2005 and realized that I was already doing assessment when I tweaked my classes every semester in response to the information on student evaluations. Of course, back then I had to deal with how another department handled assessment–and trying to figure out what educators do regarding assessment is like learning another language.

      And thanks for suggesting that this actually was a better way to assess student learning than having an immediate/next day response. It is evident that the message did stick with the students who chose to respond–and, if I can get 30% to remember weeks later something that they probably didn’t record in their notes, I think that’s not exactly a bad thing.

  3. Adrianne Leigh says:

    another thought:
    I believe – and have nothing more than anecdotal evidence as I’ll be darned if I’ll bother setting up a trial to verify my hypothesis – that people learn what they’re interested in. Our job as educators – at least one of the more important ones – is to make that happen: get them interested (perhaps passionate) about a topic, and thus they will learn more about it than rote memorization produces. Over time, this can morph into developing a true love of learning, regardless as the context. That’s the change I want to effect.

  4. jeannie says:

    I agree with Adrianne, people resist learning about something they’re not interested in. I’ve sat in college math and physics classes wherein the teacher has a passion for the subject and makes it interesting. It makes us students want to learn more. I’ve also gone to teacher open houses at school for my own children and have sat and listened to math teachers who have no enthusiasm for the subject. They speak in a monotone voice and are not engaging with their students. I love math and these classes would bore me to tears. It takes a great teacher to continually find ways to improve their class and to make the subject exciting.

    • Karen says:

      At the same time–occasionally you get lessons/lectures that are memorable, and I hope the one with Charlie was one of those for my students. I still remember the one day in Calculus I when we were going over a word problem from a test that nobody answered correctly (and, of course, none of us got credit–it’s not like the prof threw out the question). It involved a formula, and a farmer driving a tractor down the road…and, using the formula, we were supposed to figure out how many cars would follow him before one started honking a horn. Great word problem for visualization–lousy one to try and figure out an answer.

  5. JoAnn(ZMT) says:

    I love that they REALLY paid attention to the content of what Charlie said, and not just “Wow, Dr G met Mr Sheffield”. Says a lot about how much he “connected” with them, without even being in the room. Of course, meeting the man in person and remembering what he said is a WHOLE different ball game 😉

    • Karen says:

      I hear you on that one! That’s one reason why I like the radio interviews; at least you can go back and listen later to what you (and he) said, because when it’s going on…well, you know what I mean. It didn’t really register with me what Charlie said until the next day when I played that part for my mother. Yet my students seemed to get it right away (probably because I was able to edit it to include only the section about becoming a naturalized citizen, leaving out the other parts of the radio interview).

      And in my case, I still remember what we talked about when we met, although I don’t recall the exact words. I do know it involved something about blogging–big surprise.

  6. valerieRN says:

    Karen, just as I thought! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog post. I’m glad to hear that your students were able to retain the information that you had given them as well as the fact that Charlie had made such an impression on them. So nice to see everyone “connecting”! Charlie has a way of doing that with everyone, doesn’t he?!

    • Karen says:

      Val, It sure seems like it. In fact, as I’m grading the exams for the class, it’s almost like Charlie can connect with them better than I can. At least it looks like I’ll have some rather interesting interpretations of history for the next blog.

  7. RT44DVC says:

    Great blog post Karen! It seems like the students really paid attention to what Charlie said. A couple of the responses were really well thought out and thorough. I’m very impressed with the way the technology all came together for you and Charlie was able to make an impression. The only problem is that you’ve left yourself no room to improve. I mean there’s no where to go but down after you had Charlie in the classroom!

    • Karen says:

      I know. I did set the bar pretty high with this experiment/adventure. But I will get the chance to talk about it at a technology conference in May (along with showing off an online chat I did for a class last summer). Plus, Charlie wasn’t really in the classroom…just his voice.

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