June 2012 Archives

A recent article in the Chronicle, A New Journal Brings Peer Review to the College Syllabus tells us about a journal called Syllabus.  Not only are the example syllabi a good source of ideas, the journal has the potential to be an excellent resource for faculty who want to calibrate their syllabi with others'. 

Why would you want to calibrate your syllabi?  I sometimes recommend this course of action to faculty and administrators concerned about "grade inflation."  Accusations of grade inflation are typically based solely on the preponderance of A-grades.  While skepticism is understandable, rarely do critics provide substantive evidence that those A-grades are undeserved. 

Two common assumptions underlying claims of grade inflation are:
  1. Grading standards are not high enough
  2. Students are not being asked to do enough work for an A-grade
Comparing syllabi is one way to investigate both of these concerns.  If a faculty member is told her course is "too easy" by colleagues, she can investigate whether faculty teaching similar courses at other institutions use a similar scale.  If this faculty member is using 80% as the boundary between an A and a B, but everyone else is using 90%, then she might indeed be viewed as being too lenient.  However, if that faculty member's standards for 80% are equivalent to another faculty member's expectations for a 90%, then she may be able to justify her grade distribution and student work may provide supporting evidence that her grades are not inflated.

Success with Course Videos

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Chuck Ghilani teaches courses in surveying engineering at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. A few years back, a publisher asked him to produce some videos to accompany a textbook he had written. Realizing that these videos could aid his students, he started developing videos of his class notes. The following semester, he and colleague Thomas Seybert piloted the videos in their own classes; when students' exam scores increased compared with those from the previous year, Chuck knew he was onto something powerful.

Since then, he's produced about 140 videos, typically about 15 minutes long. In each video, he animates PowerPoint slides so students can revisit lecture material whenever they find the need. All the while, he's providing narration that explains the concepts. "This allows students to go back when doing homework," Chuck says. "Student satisfaction went up, as well as their understanding of the topic. And they're doing it on their own, in a format they're very familiar with." (See one of the videos by clicking here.)

In addition, he reports in a paper co-written with Thomas Seybert that students continue coming to class--it seems they're using the videos mainly to review unclear concepts. His latest videos involve information on how to use the software and hardware to perform a GNSS survey in the practical field exercises. Students can access these short videos (less than 5 minutes) using their smartphones via a QR code. This allows the students to get help from Chuck even when he's on the other side of his 52-acre campus.

In the two years since Chuck started making videos, his process has evolved. Early on, when trying to edit out mistakes, he got good at editing out single words. Then he realized it was easier to redo a sentence rather than a single word. Now he redoes the entire narrative for a slide if he's unhappy with the results. (He uses the software Camtasia Studio for the recording and editing.)

Making good course videos requires a large time commitment, but remember that every Penn State location has a Media Commons installation where faculty can get support in making quality digital products. If you're interested, start out small, with a single video....

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