Goodbye chalkboard! The opportunities and challenges of teaching in an active learning classroom

This year I have the pleasure of teaching my Population and Community Ecology class in one of McGill’s Active Learning Classrooms – this one is touted as been quite exceptional, and I’m keen to put it to the test. Over the past 4-5 years, I have been teaching my quantitative ecology course almost entirely with chalk. In fact, I have actively argued about the value of teaching with chalk, and about a move away from technology can be beneficial to student learning, to my own teaching, and overall a very positive experience for all. Now I’ll be faced with this kind of environment when teaching my class:

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A view of two of the group tables in the Macdonald Campus active learning classroom; each “pod” seats 12 students (in three wings), and each is colour coded, and linked and adjacent to a screen and whiteboard

So why change?

One problem with the Chalkboard it that it doesn’t easily allow for ‘capturing’ the content from the board. Students need to write their own notes (which is good, in my opinion), but at times there may be specific equations, graphs, or other content from the board that they wished they could have captured, but failed to do so. The Active Learning classroom allows an easy way to overcome this – as the tablet/screen that is in the room has a smart pen, and acts like a chalkboard (or, rather, kind of like a smartboard, except that the instructor uses the screen at the podium in the middle of the room). I can therefore project this board, and teach as if I was using chalk, and everything I write is projected on one of the screens. The big benefit here is that I can save everything I write as a PDF (or other file type), and upload the notes to the online course management system. This approach still encourages students to come to class and take notes, but doesn’t put them in a position to rush with notetaking, and live in fear of missing something that I write on the board. Here’s an example from the first lecture (it’s a bit clunky, and I’m not used to writing on the screen yet, but hopefully will get more seamless as the term progresses):
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Another great benefit of the classroom is that it allows a second screen to be projected simultaneously as the first screen – I am thinking of primarily using this second screen to project graphs or equations directly from the textbook, through the use of a very high quality document camera. This saves me from having to hand-draw graphs (I do this very, very poorly – drawing straight lines is NOT easy!), and will allow the students to see the very direct ways that the content relates to the course’s textbook. This photo below shows how this looks: in that example the textbook cover is projected on the left screen and some ice-breaking questions are presented on the right-hand screen.

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I have been trying to transition my course into more of an active learning course, and set an active learning challenge last year. Overall I felt this was very beneficial, but the traditional lecture theatre (where I have taught in the past) is not conducive to active group work and student collaboration. I’m excited that the active learning classroom is ideally set up for this: the 84 students in the class sit at seven separate tables, each with 12 students, and the tables are designed into three wings of four students each. This is optimal for group work, and provides many opportunities for different sizes of groups. Next to each table is a whiteboard and screen, and each table can project (independently) onto their screen. Students then have many options to collaborate and work on problems. I’m excited about this, and look forward to having groups of students work on problems together, collaboratively. The interesting thing about this space is that it doesn’t seem that big, yet is a classroom that holds 84 students! It’s also designed so that the noise level isn’t overwhelming when students are working in groups.

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Students writing out ideas/answers to some questions, with their groups (from two different groups – notice the different colours?)

During the first lecture last week, I asked students how many of them had previously taken classes in the Active Learning classroom, and of those that did, many stated they did not enjoy the classroom. A little more discussion revealed that the students who disliked the classroom said their instructor used the room as a traditional lecture hall, and taught with powerpoint slides, from a podium. This clearly doesn’t work – the podium is in the middle, there are multiple screens (students say they are confused about where to look), and there are pillars that run right through the classroom (unavoidable since these are support pillars – and the classroom is in a basement); the ‘feel’ of the room, when used for traditional podium lectures, is all wrong. To use an Active Learning classroom means moving away from a podium-style lecture.

I certainly have a challenge ahead: in order to fully use the classroom’s potential, and make it engaging for the students, I have to ensure the technology and space is used properly. I’m only at the very start of term, so I will certainly report back on the experiences as the course unfolds. That being said, the combination of the technology and design is really promising for an active learning environment for my ecology class. It may just lead to the abandonment of chalk for a smart pen…

Course outlines and student assessment methods now available for EVERYONE

I send around my course outlines, assessment details, and grading rubrics to a lot of people. Sharing these kinds of documents helps me get feedback from my peers/colleagues about ways to improve my courses or assessment methods, in turn improving the course. And my peers/colleagues may learn some ideas from me, and try new things in their own courses. I think it’s also rather useful for students to be able to access details about the courses I teach. This can help students decide whether or not to take my courses, or helps them best understand the style of assessments that I use in my classes.

Instead of emailing these documents around to people, I’ve decided to share them publicly on Google Drive*. I’ve made my course outlines from the last offerings of my two main undergraduate courses, St Lawrence Ecosystems, and Population and Community Ecology.

St Lawrence Ecosystems is a field biology course, with a deep focus on “natural history and its observation”, done via research projects (with significant science communication components), and with assessments such as natural history field journals.

Population and Community Ecology is a quantitative ecology course, with a strong focus on modeling, and I use many active learning techniques in the course. For the past few years I’ve also done a very enjoyable pod-cast assignment in the class.

Please feel free to read, discuss, and give me feedback about the course outlines and the assignment details (with rubrics). I’d love to hear the ways these may be helpful to you, and I’m always keen to hear how other people are teaching their classes too!

*I’ve now also created a resource page for this  blog, with access to this Google Drive

Ecology from geology

I recently asked a geologist* to come to speak to my field biology class. The course is about the “St Lawrence Lowlands“, and throughout the term we visit farms, forests, lakes and streams, and we do natural history research.

Why then, do I have a geologist come and speak to us?

A result of glacial till: it's now supporting biodiversity.

A result of glacial till: it’s now supporting biodiversity.

Ecology is built upon geology. This may seem obvious, but requires a deeper discussion: after hearing this guest lecture year after year, I no longer see my local landscape as some farm fields, patches of forests, and some big bodies of water**. I see lands and waters shaped by a history before our time. The local landscape is a product of past geological events. We have farm fields around the Montérégie because the Champlain Sea deposited its sediments and after it departed; what remained is a flat expanse, perfect for farming. As the sea departed, it left behind remnants of beaches still visible today, as the Plateau district of Montreal, or where apple orchards grow next to Mont St Hilaire. We have some slight elevation here and there because of sandy deposits left by the departure of the last great glacier that covered our land in the very recent past. That’s where we find great white pines, stretching up above the canopies of the deciduous trees. We have Mount Rigaud because of processes hundreds of millions of years ago: an igneous intrusion that happened long, long before the age of dinosaurs. More recent igneous intrusions created the Lachine rapids, historically important as this became a key place where First Nations people, and later Europeans, set up camp along their journey up or down the big river. This was the one of the birthplaces of Montreal.

Our landscape, and the ecology of our landscape, is built upon slow but incredible processes, and I think biologists don’t consider those processes as dynamic forces that are constantly influencing our current view of the world. Ecologists often think of time in scales of decades or centuries, and we spend considerable time looking at time frames that resonate with our own life spans (in contrast, evolutionary biologists and taxonomists look much further back, and are accustomed to time frames of ‘millions of years’. I think We need to meet in the middle a little more).

As field biologists, knowing the origin of those big rocks in the forest matters a great deal: glacial till from the past creates habitats today. Moss creeps on these ancient boulders; centipedes and spiders crawl underneath. Their ephemeral life depends on much longer time frames. It’s hard to imagine how to consider discussion land management or wildlife conservation in the region without appreciating how past geological events can either help or hinder the process. There’s a geological reason why soil development is slow in some parts of our local ecosystems; why the land may be rocky, and why it’s well-drained in some areas, and wet in others. This affects long-term planning around wildlife preserves, or housing developments. There’s good reason why Mont St Hilaire is a biosphere reserve, and how it’s flora and fauna will be different that what we find elsewhere in the St Lawrence Lowlands.

Hiking at Mont St Hilaire: there are so many reasons why it's a special place, including geology.

Hiking at Mont St Hilaire: there are so many reasons why it’s a special place, including geology.

The longer I spend living here and learning about my region’s natural history, the more I recognize the value of some knowledge about geology, and this is why I have a geologist give a guest lecture. The students also tell me, year after year, that they appreciate and value this perspective, and their understanding of this part of the world is enriched by a deeper discussion about ‘why’ the St Lawrence Lowlands exists as it does.

How often do ecological classes include discussion about geology? Perhaps not often enough.
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*the geologist in question is Dr. George McCourt, who teaches often in the McGill School of Environment. I am immensely thankful for him taking time to teach us about his passion.

**when I commute to work, this is what I see: forests, field and lakes. Others in the St Lawrence Lowlands will have a different story, perhaps one that involves highrises and concrete.

Rethinking the University Classroom: Ban the podium-style lecture, not the laptop

There has been a lot of recent coverage/chatter about bans on laptops in the lecture halls of Universities and colleges (e.g., see here, here and here). I am particularly interested when instructors implement outright bans on laptops in their classes, citing reasons related to distraction, both by students on their computers, but also distraction for students sitting nearby classmates with their screens aglow. There have also been some recent studies about how students retain and learn content more effectively when taking hand-written notes instead of typing notes. Are laptop bans the solution?

What bothers me about this debate is that most coverage actually skirts around the true issue, which to me is about a fundamental problem of podium-style teaching. A traditional lecture hall environment is not always a great place for teaching and learning. It is in those environments where the issues of note-taking and distraction arise, and where laptop bans occur. I certainly don’t hear complaints about laptops in seminar/discussion courses, or in those occurring in active learning classrooms.

The view from my seat in the lecture hall.

I was student for a day once. This as a view from my seat in the lecture hall. Students were using laptops to take lecture notes.

Here is my opinion: in most teaching environments*, laptop bans are unnecessary and should be avoided. Some students need to take notes with a laptop, perhaps because of a disability (eg, arthritis), and accommodation is needed. Sometimes it is useful for students to follow along a PowerPoint presentation, or fact-check or Google some of the content during the lecture (heck that could even provide opportunity for some class discussion!). If students are distracted, this likely indicates a bigger problem, and the instructor should look into ways to make the classroom more active and engaging. It is perhaps easier to look to issues with distracted students and laptops than it is to rethink the way material is being taught. We are living in a digital age with our students being true digital natives, and I worry that sometimes a ban on laptops is a reflection on biases by the instructor and, frankly, doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

Let’s make our lecture halls inclusive environments, and perhaps ban policies about banning laptops!

Ok, fine, but… but … but… what if other students are bothered by their peers with laptops? What if students just don’t want to be in that “required” course, and are grumpy… and become easily distracted? I think some of this can be solved. I suggest that all instructors have a frank and open conversation about technology in the classroom. A discussion about your concerns, and the concerns by students, can go a long way. It also may be useful and necessary to develop some guidelines around technology in the classroom – and perhaps adjust the seating plan to avoid issues with students being distracted. Check out if your University has a formal policy about this, and see how your thinking aligns with this policy (as an example, here is McGill’s policy). Another option to help with the “boredom” factor (a potential reason for distraction) is to allow “tech time” mid-way through a lecture. Stop halfway through**, give everyone a break for a few minutes (to stretch, nap, text or post to Facebook).

Or even better, rethink the fundamental ways you are teaching.

I posit that boredom and distraction in a classroom, and the broader concern about laptops, learning, and note taking, are because instructors are stuck in the “lecture hall rut”. The debate points again to a need to embrace active learning, and work to increase engagement within the classroom. Most profs only learned one way to teach: at the podium. It’s what we were exposed to during our undergraduate degrees: the podium is the standard. But it’s not the gold standard and a serious rethink is long overdue.

How to break the tradition? How about taking the active learning challenge? There are small, simple things instructors can do, even in large lecture halls (yes, there are infrastructure constraints – not enough of our learning spaces are built for active learning). There are amazing resources out there to better understand active learning, and why it’s important.

Learn from other instructors who are doing different things in the classroom – hang out with the innovators, and use their strategies in your classroom. Watch videos, take workshops from your teaching and learning units, and work with your chairs and Deans to rethink the classroom context.

Work to integrate technology (and laptops!) into the classroom – on-line quizzes can be done in class, with technology – perhaps with mobile devices, laptops or student response systems (aka, clickers). Try integrating social media to the classroom, via a course hashtag or course blog. Use the tools that students are using: this will work to increase engagement in the classroom. We are truly living in an exiting time for the integration of technology into teaching – it’s time to harness the possibilities and harness the power of technology, instead of ban it.

I won’t lie: rethinking why and how you teach the way you do will take time and energy. But the short term pain will lead to long term gains. Students will appreciate the efforts, the classroom dynamics will change, and I believe the amount of boredom and distraction will decrease. Active leaning is not just a catch phrase, it’s a meaningful and important way to improve the classroom experience, for the students but also for the instructor.

There is little need to ban laptops in classrooms that are active, engaging and break from the traditional podium-style lectures.

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*There are some kinds of classes in which laptop use can be questioned, such as a hands-on laboratory, field course, studio-class or with some seminar/discussion classes. However I believe these are a minority. (If there are other examples you know about, please leave a comment!)

** this strategy was shared by Prof. Matthew Cobb, at Manchester – he says it works very well!

A University in the future

What will the University of 2050 look like?

This was the fundamental question that guided a three day workshop /conference /event that I attended last weekend (you may have seen some activity on Twitter about this!). It’s a very difficult question, but an important one! Conference attendees prototyped a future university but did this in a very structured way, starting with a discussion (on the first day) about the “core values” that need to remain in University 35 years from now. There was general convergence around these values: critical thinking and unfettered curiosity, access & freedom of expression, diversity, community, and the importance of person-to-person interaction.

The second day was devoted to discussions about “game changers” – broader factors that might challenge the core values of Universities. These game changers included external factors such as shifting geopolitics or environmental catastrophes, to technological advancement such as artificial intelligence, “holodecks”, cognitive enhancement or ever-increasing life expectancy (and its implications), or some kind of Black Swan event.

Day three was about designing a future University given the core values and given the influence of game changers.

Here’s my group’s vision* for an institute of Higher Education in 2050: an institute we called “Horizon University”.

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Horizon University is still a campus, but is part of a globally connected network of Universities. Campus remains as a physical space for intellectual discussion, social engagement, clubs, activities, and a safe space for its students. The students themselves are from around the world, and many are returning to University after holding down a first (or second) career for many years. Although many students may attend HU classes virtually, there will still be students who will be present, physically, in classes. There are no longer large lecture halls, and instead HU is comprised of suites of collaborative learning spaces. Enrolment in a class may be large but the number of participants in each room remains small: the instructor’s avatar can move among the rooms. Students are paired with peers in most activities, and collaborative learning is the norm.

Our group's visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Our group’s visual representation of Horizon University, warts and all.

Failure is also the norm: the process of learning takes precedence. The instructor is less a “professor” and more of a facilitator, largely because the sum of all information is at everyone’s fingertips (or implanted in our neuro-cortex). The classes are mostly “topic” or “project” based, because Universities are nimble, agile, and a place in which research and teaching are focused on society’s needs and struggles, although there remains places and spaces to discover for the sake of discovery. Professors still exist as subject experts, but are never working in isolation. Learning is truly interdisciplinary.

Classes run 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and individuals from outside of HU may (virtually) drop into classes that are of interest to them. Many of the administrative functions of HU itself are largely run with the help of AI (artificial intelligence). In fact, AI acts as a type of “virtual assistant” for students: helping students schedule and get to class, checking in on their health and wellbeing, and doing the (objective) course assessments (i.e., to divorce this from the act of instruction), and doing the credentialing (assuming some kind of “degree” is still granted). The AI assistant can pick up on cues related to student wellbeing, and help get a student in to see a real person whether it is for counselling, advice, or to meet the facilitator for a course they are following.

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Our group then assessed what important actions would be required to see Horizon University come to fruition, and we felt there needed to be, in this order, (1) equality (ie, at a global scale), (2) teams of people to develop AI, (3) interdisciplinarity (within and among institutions) (4) rethinking the concept of “9 to 5” to the concept of “24/7” education, and (5) complete redesign of all learning spaces.

We then thought about the feasibility of those five actions, into the future, and came up with the following order: (1) learning spaces, (2) AI development, (3) 24/7 scheduling, (4) interdisciplinarity, and (5) Equality

Clearly feasibility doesn’t align with the importance of the actions, which is itself interesting, and challenging!

Caveats: I don’t believe everything we came up with, nor should you. Our group didn’t agree all of the time, and there are certainly some rather large flaws in some of the ideas, the logic, and the entire model may not be economically feasible.

But it doesn’t matter: it’s about the discussion. It’s about reflecting on the things we value in a university and the challenges we face. It’s about charting a path forward in an increasingly technological age and an age where research and knowledge is moving in new directions and where we are questioning fundamental concepts around teaching and leaning. Prototyping a University in 2050 is about starting a conversation and being part of an incredibly exciting time.

On a more personal level, the most valuable part of the experience was learning from people from different places, different career stages, and from different perspectives. The conference included writers, artists, computer programmers, undergrad and grad students from a suite of disciplines (e.g., humanities, social sciences, and STEM), professors, university administrators and more. It forced me to open my mind, listen, and reflect on my own biases. There is so much value in diversity, and tackling questions about the future of University means bringing in as many stakeholders as possible.

I leave you with a few questions:

What do you envision as the future of your own institution?

What are your ideas about how to maintain core values of a university in the face of game-changers?

How can technology facilitate higher education?

Have you had this discussion at your own institutions? If so, what have you learned?

Please join the discussion. And you can follow the Event Horizon Blog here.

Postscript: the day after the conference I did some field work in an amazing forest near Montebello Quebec (see photo, below). What a contrast after three days of intense discussions, full of technology, data and information! I breathed in fresh air, watched some butterflies for a while, heard the birds singing and there was no cell reception. It was wonderful, refreshing and uplifting. This had me reflecting a bit more about a University of the future, and how that University should perhaps be much more closely integrated with our natural systems. That would be a good goal.

The forest.

The forest.

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*  I hope I have adequately described the key aspects of our group’s vision – it was more detailed then what I have presented, and I wholeheartedly admit that my writing may not reflect everyone’s opinion of our prototype University. (Sorry if this is the case!)

© C.M. Buddle (2015)

Expanding boundaries and increasing diversity by teaching with technology

“As teachers, technology encourages us to be more creative, more influential, and more mindful of the implicit and explicit impacts our words have on students, and to explore new ways to make our classrooms more diverse”.

That’s a quote from a paper by Josh Drew, published last week. In this paper, Drew provides some fascinating case studies about how teaching with technology can help break down some strong barriers in higher education, with a focus on STEM disciplines. For example, students from the LGTBQ community, visible minorities, and other marginalized groups are often at a distinct disadvantage in a university context, whether it’s lack of access, finances, support, or mentorship. Drew argues that teaching with attention to this problem, and in a way that embraces diversity, is critically important, but is also a challenge. Technology can be a potential facilitator for this, and help overcome the challenge. To help other instructors, we need creative ideas, approaches and case studies, which is what Drew provides.

In the first case study, Drew gives an example of a marine conservation course that pairs students from a poor neighbourhood of Chicago with students from Fiji and through online resources, student learn content together, and do group projects with their peers. I was most impressed with how the capstone project in this course meant the students needed to problem solve with other students who were from entirely different cultures – something that is very difficult in a more traditional classroom setting. Typical courses in STEM seldom embrace a learning context that literally connects students from around the world.

The second case study focuses on how Drew used Twitter to continue teaching at Columbia University after hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, and many students could not get to class. Students were given access to class notes via Figshare, and lectures were delivered in 140 character packets. Given the open format, the tweets could be viewed by anyone in the world, which created an inclusive learning environment for everyone, whether registered in the class, or not. Although this is a more indirect way of teaching with attention to diversity, Drew argues that Twitter is an effective tool to help break down barriers and can be used effectively to increase student engagement. (The Twitter course was, by the way, how I got to know Josh Drew on Twitter, and his example helped me shape my own teaching with Twitter).

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

Active Learning: Watisoni Lalavanua (l) and Josh Drew (r) [tweeting!] at the Suva Fish Market, identifying species and talking about the best way to manage fisheries based in their life histories.

The third case study was a hands-on marine conservation workshop in Fiji, held jointly by Columbia University and the University of the South Pacific. The “real world” aspect of the course was facilitated by simple and inexpensive scientific equipment, and had a focus on open-access data by the participants. Of note, the students in the workshop were from six different countries, brought together to work on conservation priorities of relevance to the South Pacific. This case study certainly resonated with me, as I try to have my students tackle projects in the field (with all its challenges) as this provides a rich learning opportunity for all. However, unlike my course in Montreal, Drew’s example includes a very unique cultural experience for the participants. Teaching and learning in different places certainly embraces diversity in STEM, and although not always practical or feasible, such opportunities should be sought and supported.

In sum, Drew’s paper resonated strongly for a few reasons. The case studies are themselves great examples for all of us involved in teaching in higher education. The technological aspects are relatively straightforward and inexpensive, and many of tools highlighted are accessible. I appreciated his arguments at the end of the paper about ensuring accessibility; instructors must pay attention to ensuring class participants are able to get and use the tools, especially when thinking about students access to computers, smartphones, data plans and WIFI.

Perhaps the part that spoke to me the most was thinking about how technology can be a facilitator for increased diversity and inclusiveness in the classroom. I must be honest in saying that I don’t typically consider my own teaching with technology thought this lens, but I am now starting to look at this differently. Not all students from all communities will face a traditional classroom in the same say, and the “podium style” of teaching and learning in higher education may really marginalize some people more than they already are. Online classrooms, Twitter and active learning in partnership with peers are great examples of ways to open up our universities regardless of potential constraints, whether they be economics, race, culture or gender identification.

Thanks, Josh Drew, for making me pause and reflect, and for giving us all some good ideas.

Reference:

 Drew, J. Using technology to expand the classroom in time, space and diversity. Integr. Comp. Biol. (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv044

Do students do better when they write exams faster (or slower)?

As I was grading my final exams last week, I wondered about ‘quantity’ of answers to written questions as opposed to ‘quality’ of the answer: in other words, some students write a lot of stuff for an answer, but could have received full points on a question without filling a page with tiny handwriting. Here’s what I tweeted about this.

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The students that fill the page certainly take longer to complete an examination, and this reminded me of a little project I did many years ago* about the speed at which students write their exams relative to the grade they received on that exam. For one of my larger undergraduate classes the final exam is meant to be about a two hour exam, but some students finish in just over an hour, and some students wait until we take the exam from them at the end of the three hour exam period.

One year I tracked the order that students forwarded me their exams and after the course was over I plotted their grade on that exam relative to the time it took them to complete the exam**. I’ve always wondered whether or not students who finish quickly are the ones that really know the material, or whether the ones who take the longest are so careful to check and re-check everything that they tend to do better than their peers. Here are the results:

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

A grade on an exam relative to the order in which that exam was handed in.

Bottom line: there is NO relationship.

Some students write an exam quickly and do very, very well. Some students simply do not know the material, and write the exam quickly and hand it in early. Some students stay to the bitter end and do very well. For some students, staying to the end doesn’t help their grade. And, of course, a lot of students are in the middle.

This was a good little project to do, and actually helps me as an instructor. It helps me to NOT judge a student by the speed at which they write the exam. It provides a reminder that everyone works at their own speed, and will do poorly, or very well, even if they write quickly or slowly.

The other lesson this teaches me is that it’s important to have an exam length that aims for the middle ground. A three hour examination that takes the ‘fastest’ students three hours just isn’t fair. Every student is different and need different amounts of time to read, digest, think and answer questions. Assessments are always tricky business, but one overarching goal of assessments is to test about how well a student may be able to recall content, integrate that content, perhaps do calculations, and think about the material that was discussed in the classroom. Assessments shouldn’t be used as a means to weed-out poor students, especially when the ‘tool’ for this is the length and size of an examination.

Good students write exams quickly or slowly, and should be allowed the time to do so.

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*To preserve anonymity around this project, I will not comment on what class it was, or where I was working at the time, and the data are presented in relative terms (i.e., the actual scale is not presented)

**The order was tracked by writing a small number in the top corner of the front page of the exam as students handed in the exam: I did not look at or see this number when I graded the exam, to ensure I would not be biased or influenced by that number when I was grading. The scatter plot was done weeks after the final grades were submitted.

 

© C. M. Buddle (2015)