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Freedom of choice for 400 students

Toni Weiss, economics professor at Tulane University, was presented with the following challenge: provide the 400 students in her introductory course more control over their own learning.

This is a daunting task for a single professor teaching a class of 20 students; it can be paralyzing for a class 20x that size where the path of least pedagogical resistance is to lecture and proctor a minimum number of easy-to-grade assessments.

Undeterred, Weis met the challenge with aplomb by allowing students to choose the weight of each of their assignments within a predetermined range. For example, instead of having the final exam uniformly weighted at 25%, students could choose its weight to be 20-24% of their final grade.

The total available ranges for this course were:

  • Clicker points: 6 to 10 percent.
  • Journal entries: 6 to 10 percent.
  • MyEconlab: 11 to 15 percent.
  • In-class projects: 12 to 16 percent.
  • Midterm No. 1: 15 to 19 percent.
  • Midterm No. 2: 17 to 21 percent.
  • Final exam: 20 to 24 percent.

If the chosen percentiles fall within the predetermined ranges and tally up to 100%, students had significant control over the impact of their course assessments.

This also encourages to deeply reflect on their strengths and weaknesses. For example, if a student experiences high test anxiety, they may weight those assessments at the lower-end of the spectrum while increasing the value of in-class projects and journal entries.

Weiss’ students overwhelmingly enjoyed the opportunity to choose the weight of their assessments. Using a five-point scale (one being low and five being high), the receptive of the new assessment scale received an average score of 4.6.

While setting individual grade parameters for 400 students is no easy task—although technology does make it easier—it encourages students to more carefully consider course expectations and reflect on their own abilities. That’s an admirable accomplishment in a large introductory-level class.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and marketing strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also a part-time faculty member at Centennial College and serves on the board of the Canadian Public Relations Society.

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