Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Accountability in the News

Two weeks ago at a press conference President Bush responded to a question about accountability. The correspondent identified the president, by virtue of his support for the No Child Left Behind initiative, as someone clearly committed to the principles of accountability. In that light, the correspondent asked the president how he could justify his decision to commute Scooter Libby’s sentence and continue to support Alberto Gonzales.

The political implications I will leave to others, but the president’s response helps clarify why so many educators tend to view accountability initiatives defensively and with suspicion rather than as an opportunity to improve. The president responded to the correspondent’s question first by pointing out that Scooter Libby had been “convicted,” and the ordeal of that conviction was sufficient punishment, in the president’s view, for his crimes. On the other hand, Gonzales, the president argued, had not been convicted.

The point is clear. According to this implicit definition of accountability, as illuminated in the president’s response, education has been tried and convicted. I don’t recall the trial. Apparently the prosecution effectively made the case, including the argument that the United States’ economy, the most powerful in the history of the planet, owes not a whit of thanks to the country’s system of public education.

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Friday, October 20, 2006

Boosting Response Rates to Online Student Evaluations

One of the most frequently asked questions about student evaluations at WSU is, “How do I get more students to respond?” We have identified five key areas where simple and easily implemented strategies can boost response rates. These strategies focus on helping students to understand their responsibilities and that their voice matters.

Ask Students for Feedback. The most important step is to demonstrate responsiveness. Provide students a chance to give feedback to the course while there is time to address those concerns. Classroom assessment techniques (CATS) are a quick and easy way to find out what students think. Ask students to write down what’s working well, what isn’t, or a concept they don’t understand (muddiest point). Identify something that you can change (you don’t have to change everything) and thank them for their great ideas. You can also do mid term evaluations in class or online.

Share results from past surveys with students. Spend some time early in the term talking about past years. Share responses from your previous courses and things you’ve learned and subsequently changed. An additional twist is to share some comments with students and ask them to consider how they might respond. In one class, for instance, one student lamented, “We need greater clarity about what the right answers are.” Another student in the same class reports, “I appreciate the presentation of the gray areas of the subject.”

Vary teaching strategies. In addition to lectures, do a student project or a debate. In large classes, do a “fishbowl”—have the class observe a group of students applying concepts from lecture to a problem. Have the whole class discuss the exercise, or ask students to “think-pair-share”. That is, have students discuss their observations with a neighbor and report main ideas to the whole class. Be sure to get student feedback on the activity itself and what they learned.
Have students assess assignments. Ask students to use a rubric, or to answer specific questions about an assignment prompt, when it’s completed. CTLT can provide materials to help guide this process that you might choose to adopt or adapt. The process is good for refining the unclear aspects of an assignment, as well as for engaging your students in their responsibility for learning.

Encourage student responsibility. Recognize that response rates are indicators of students’ willingness to take responsibility for their learning. Helping students understand their responsibilities is part of the teaching mission. We want students—future employees and citizens— to engage in using evidence to carefully make and then constructively share their opinions. Help students by clearly articulating the purpose of midterm and end-of-term evaluations and discussing the results. Be a good role model; let students know what they can expect from you. Keep evaluations short. Give prompt feedback.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Draft WSU Conduct Code & Collaboration

I am particularly concerned about two aspects of the the new WSU student code of conduct draft document—the prohibitions against “unauthorized” collaboration and cross-course/disciplinary use of a student’s original work.

To understand my concerns, my first assumption is that an important goal of a research institution is to invite students to join a community of scholars, or, as Bruffee(Bruffee 1984) has long argued, to join in the “conversation.” Central to that community, then, are the conversations around ideas, inside the classroom and outside of them. Why would we discourage such conversations or attempt to oversee them by supposing we might authorize some and not others? What kind of community are we creating and supporting by asserting that academic discourse requires oversight?

I recognize the concerns that have evinced the prohibitions, but rather than pursue a negative strategy, I see a tremendous opportunity to help novice learners gain a deeper appreciation for their own and each other’s intellectual property by framing the issue in positive terms. Instead of “unauthorized” collaboration, why not invite students to share ideas and deepen their understanding of the need to have their own and their peers contributions acknowledged and even cited? And shouldn’t we leave it to the instructor’s prerogative to state other restrictions, including the need for some amount of academic work to be done individually?

Similarly, the disciplinary frameworks that shape the way academics work provide critical opportunity for novice learners to come to grips with different ways of knowing. Developing their own understanding of ideas can be substantially enhanced by encouraging students to examine their own and others’ ideas through the lenses of different disciplines. Further, new knowledge about learning recognizes that a major difference between novices and experts is in the way information is interconnected. Discouraging the exploration of the differences between disciplinary vantages, including placing prohibitions against using an idea or paper in multiple classes, counters much of our own practice as scholars and counters good pedagogy. I am distinguishing between making two copies and handing the same paper in to two different classes versus working through an idea or concept as it might be enhanced and expanded when examined through different disciplines and for different audiences. But the prohibition as it is framed unnecessarily compromises the potential of very rich learning opportunities as they can be designed in collaboration and implemented in WSU’s budding learning communities. Again, it should be the instructor’s prerogative to assert the need for a unique paper.

The discussion of what an author owes his/her readers in making citations and in exploring an idea through multiple lenses, however, is on the cusp of larger issues. The idea of “text” and the nature of ideas are changing dramatically. The notion of the sole author is rapidly disappearing. Initiatives by Google are creating a new world, and the universal document embodied in the collaboration of Wikipedia and the semantic web challenges conventional notions about the ownership of ideas. See, for instance, Brown’s & Duguid's (1995) seminal article, "The Social Life of Documents -- http://www2.parc.com/ops/members/brown/papers/sociallife.html.

Emerging from these profound changes is the overwhelming realization that information and ideas as they are negotiated and constructed online are increasingly indistinguishable from the social negotiations emerging online. The forces changing text and the world of ideas are also changing our students. We can deny those forces and risk casting all educational endeavor toward utter irrelevance. Or we can learn from them, with our students, and, as a community, perhaps shape them more productively.


Bruffee, K. (1984). "Collaborative learning and the "Conversation of mankind."" College English 46: 635-652.

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