Start of Semester Introduction

With spring classes starting today, it is worth providing a brief discussion of how I handle the first class. In general, the first class is an opportunity to establish a framework aimed at facilitating student learning and performance.

My first class typically starts with a short diagnostic exam. The exam allows me to gain some insight into student knowledge in the areas I plan to cover during the semester. It also allows me to establish a benchmark against which I can measure the amount of student learning potential that was realized at the end of the course.

I also discuss key portions of my syllabus. I believe it is important that students understand the course objectives, my expectations, and how I will evaluate them. Early ambiguity can lead to students seeking tactical grading changes that deviate from the measures set forth in the syllabus. Some popular requests include, but are not limited to, pleas for applying generous curves and “special projects.” I do not curve. I do not offer special projects. I let students know early on that I evaluate student performance strictly by the criteria laid out in the syllabus.

In my opinion, curves can increase the risk of grade inflation. They decouple reported student performance from actual student performance, masking the gaps that might otherwise provide opportunities for instructional revision. Special projects can be unfair to high-performing students. Those students have no need or opportunity to boost their grade above an A. Yet, others who partake of special projects can raise their grade. In short, I believe the drawbacks exceed the benefits when it comes the above two interventions.

I also inform my students that the final exam is cumulative. More often than not, my students do not greet that announcement with any measure of joy. My goal is to encourage lasting learning. Although I cannot empirically demonstrate that such exams have a statistically significant effect on such learning, those exams do require students to go over earlier course work. At a minimum, there is a degree of reinforcement for that work that would otherwise not occur.

In addition, I discuss outcomes from the preceding semester, in cases where I taught the same course. I identify the areas and concepts students found difficult. That allows me to more effectively target my instruction and to give a degree of advance notice to my students about that prioritization and the reasons for it. It also alerts students to areas and concepts to which they should devote additional time and effort.

Finally, tying back to the diagnostic exam, I inform my students about the degree of learning potential that was realized during the preceding semester (in cases where I taught the same course). Students are often surprised, as realized student learning potential has typically ranged from 35%-45%. Such information shifts the early discussion from grades to student learning. From that perspective, one can discuss the potential barriers that inhibit student learning and collaborate with the students on lowering those barriers.

In the end this discussion gives students a realistic starting point from which they can proceed in my course. The common understanding, shared expectations, and insights into areas of challenge that flow from this conversation increase the possibility that my students will learn the material identified in the course objectives.

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