How do you give 400 intro students the opportunity to “do sociology”1 and not burry yourself under a mountain of grading? This was my nut to crack this summer after I found out I was to teach 400 students in a movie theater this fall2. So I devised a two track system that allows motivated students to choose to participate in experiential learning. I decided early on that if this was going to work I would have to follow two rules:

  1. Don’t create headaches for the teacher
  2. Take less than an hour to grade

The “Two Track” System

Female Track Athlete on Starting Block

I have split up my Intro to Sociology class this fall3 into seven thematic modules. Each module has two online quizzes that students take so they can get immediate feedback and find out early if they are struggling to understand the material. Motivated students who want to learn sociology in a more hands on way can opt to complete a “Doing Sociology Activity”. If students complete the Doing Sociology activity they only need to complete one of the two module quizzes. Students can take the traditional track (2 quizzes) or jump on the experiential track (1 quiz + Doing Sociology activity).

“But who wants to keep track of which track each student is doing?!?”

Agreed. If you had students sign up for a track, that would be a pain to keep track of and violate rule #1. So to side step this problem, students don’t sign up; they simply turn in the Doing Sociology activity on the day its due. If students don’t turn in the Doing Sociology activity then they need only take both module quizzes.

“But who wants to deal with all the late work 400 students could create?”

Indeed. So no late Doing Sociology activities are accepted. I write in my syllabus and tell my students that late Doing Sociology activities will not be accepted for any reason. The Doing Sociology Activities are due 3 days before the module quizzes are. If students miss the deadline or decide at anytime they no longer want to complete the activity all they need do is take the second module quiz. It’s simple: Doing Sociology activities are due on Friday, if you don’t turn one in you have to take both module quizzes by the following Monday. No late work, nothing to keep track of, nada.

It’s simple: Doing Sociology activities are due on Friday, if you don’t turn the Doing Sociology activity in you have to complete both module quizzes by the following Monday.

“But what about the grading?”

First, let’s keep this in scope. This is an optional track which means only the most motivated students who are on top of things will participate. This is designed to have the best students self-select into the track. If more than 10% of my class did any of these activities I’d be floored. Now on to the grading.

Educators frequently fall into the assumption that the only way to assess student learning is by reading their answers to questions. I spent the summer coming up with activities that asked students to make something that I could grade simply by looking at it or quickly scanning it. The first activity has students develop a survey to find out why their peers don’t complete their assigned class reading. I have them use Google Docs to make the project easy to carry out and a snap to grade.

All of the other Doing Sociology activities will ask students to do something that is either visual, tangible, or if it asks them to write something it will be kept under 140 characters. Their completed works will be a synch to grade so even if the entire class does it you’ll be able to grade it quickly.

“But who has time to design these activities?”

I do. I’ll be publishing them with each Class Pack 2.0 module. So check ‘em out. Enjoy and tell your friends.

Why having your students “do sociology” is awesome.

When your students do sociology they learn that it is more than facts and concepts in a text book. They can experience the process of sociology and learn firsthand that it is a methodology and an applied science.

Because the finished work is highly visual and quickly consumed, it will be very easy to pull excellent student work into your class lecture. Students love seeing themselves and even their peers on stage. This will give them the opportunity to do great work and then bask in the spotlight.


Footnotes:

1. I know, I know. “Doing Sociology? That’s the buzziest of buzz words in sociology.” I hear you. Don’t worry, I’m not going to start throwing around “teachable moments”, “lecture launchers”, or any other flimsy catch phrases on SociologySource. I couldn’t come up with a better name, so this once, I ask for a cliché affordance. Thank you in advance.

2. To be clear, I am excited about this opportunity. While many folks focus on what a large class can’t do, I’ll be spending this semester doing things that you can ONLY do with a class this large. I want to turn this limitation into an opportunity and then share with you here how I did it. So stay tuned to SociologySource.com this semester to hear about my experiences.

3. Check out the Class Pack 2.0 to download all the resources I use in teaching my Intro to Sociology classes.

Most sociology 101 students don’t actually do sociology. They read about sociological research, but they themselves don’t typically have the opportunity to partake in it. Imagine an intro to physics where students weren’t expected to do physics, an intro to composition class where students didn’t write, or even a spanish 101 course where not a spanish word was uttered. Each would be preposterous. And yet a sociology class where students don’t actually do sociology is par for the course.

The reason for sociological research absence in soc 101 classes is somewhat obvious. It’s hard to get a class of 30 students to independently conduct sociological research and most of us are teaching intro to soc classes with hundreds of students. Also, sociological research is a complex beast and it takes practitioners years to really learn how to do sociology. This summer I’ve made this issue my nut to crack and I think I have found a way to offer your students a chance at doing sociological research in your soc 101 class regardless of how many students you have. I have developed a solution that I will be using this fall when I teach a Soc 101 class that has 400+ students in it.

If you are going to have a class this size do anything you need to have 1) really clear directions, 2) a way to automate most of the tedious repetitive work, and 3) you need to simplify the complex research process down into a few key ideas. To address all three of these I have created an activity that asks my students to conduct survey research on why students don’t do the readings assigned in their classes. The students have to write their own hypothesis statement that identifies an independent and dependent variable and then design and implement a survey that will allow them to test their hypothesis.

Sounds like a whole lot of work right? Well the process is radically simplified by using Google docs. Google docs allows users to create “forms” (a.k.a. surveys) to collect and analyze data. It’s dead simple to create a survey, make it a stand alone webpage, get users to fill it out, and then use Google’s “Analyze data” wizard to get simple descriptive statistics and graphical representations of your data. After students have collected and analyzed their data they can “share” their form/survey with you and you can easily see all their survey, the data they collected, and their statistical analysis.

I’ve created the base directions for this activity which you can download here. I’ve also created a handout for creating surveys on Google Docs that walks students through the process step by step with images and clear directions, download them here. I also wanted my students to learn a little about survey methodology so I created a “Do’s and Don’ts of Good Survey Question Design” handout which you can download here.

Hopefully this assignment will allow our students to experience sociological research without creating mountains of paperwork and unnecessary hassle for us. If you use this or you have your large classes conduct sociological research in another way I’d love to get feedback from you. Send me an email at Nathan@sociologysource.com and tell me what’s worked for you.

Waiting to assess student learning until the first test 5 weeks into the term is setting your students up for failure. It’s too easy for your student’s to nod along during the first few weeks of class because as the saying goes, “everyone’s a sociologist”1. I’ve found that students, especially Mr./Ms. Nods-a-lot, are shocked when they do terrible on the first test. If that first test is worth a third of the total class points, then a terrible performance can be a deathblow to a student’s grade.

Good assessment then, comes early in the semester and frequently. By having frequent small assessments you can distribute the points across a set of assessments which lowers the points and the stakes of each individual assessment.

Last year in my Intro to Sociology classes I had weekly quizzes every Monday over the previous week’s readings/lessons. Instead of a multi-chapter exam we had several single chapter quizzes. The quizzes were all administered on GSU’s online learning management system (a variant of Blackboard). The benefits of online quizzes are that they are automatically graded by the server, so this is a solution that can scale (I had 350+ students last semester). The downside is that exams have to be open book and unfortunately open classmate (even though this is explicitly outlawed in the syllabus). However, this can be overcome, by 1. not releasing the graded quizzes until the quiz availability period has closed 2. having a large pool of questions that each student only gets a few out of and 3. asking application questions that can’t easily be Googled or looked up in the textbook’s index.

Online quizzes aren’t right for all of my classes, especially the advanced courses. However, small frequent assessments are a part of all my courses. In a upper division course I often pass around 3×5 notecards and ask students to answer a short direct question that only students who’ve read could accurately answer. The 3×5 note cards are easy to flip through and I like to pull out the best answers and through them up on the document camera2. Also, a 3×5 note card promotes succinctness and doesn’t burden me with a ton of grading everyday. I also like to have students write short application papers that require them to really understand the concepts discussed in class. I simply grade these with a ✓, ✓+, or I write “come see me” on their paper. In a class of 35 I typically only have 5-10 students who I need to chat with and after class they bunch around me and we talk it out. The important point is that they find out early on that they aren’t getting it and this lesson doesn’t cost them a whole letter grade.

To be clear, frequent small assessments can not replace more nuanced forms of evaluating student learning. Even in my 350 student classes I had my students take an essay test and write a 4-5 page paper. It was excruciating to grade them all, but it can be done. If you feel forced into only assessing student learning via multiple choice tests, you can still incorporate frequent small quizzes into your classes without too much additional work.

So to wrap the last two posts up. Good assessment provides students with as much feedback as you can give them, early in the course, and gives them an opportunity to recover from early poor performances.


Footnotes:

1. “Everyone is a sociologist” is bull, yet “everyone thinks they are a sociologist, but they relay on anecdotal evidence, “common” sense, and self-serving logic” is fair.

2. A good idea is to pair a 3×5 card question with a small group discussion to start class and then you have the time to flip through the cards and pull the best ones out. My students love it when I provide them with real time feedback.

Hit them hard, early, and often. That’s how a good teacher assesses learning. Might sound mean, but I think the “standard” 3 tests 1 paper class is actually meaner. To be honest assessing student learning is one of the things I struggle with the most, but knowing when to assess and how high to set the bar is crystal clear to me. This week I’ll be discussing what I mean by hit them hard and next week I’ll cover the early and often portion.

I call my approach to grading, rather dramatically, “instilling the fear of god.”1 As soon as possible you need to assess student learning, grade it uber-strict, and provide lots of written feedback that tears down every thing that could be improved. While you should be a tough grader in regards to the number of points you give the students work, your written feedback should be graduate level detailed. Tell them everything they could improve and show them in your written feedback that expect the world from them. To be as explicitly clear as possible, don’t give all your students Ds and Fs, but write feedback all over their work.

For this to work and if you want to avoid a student revolt, you have to repeatedly offer support to your students. When I hand back the first assignment to students I tell them that,

“This first assignment wasn’t exactly what I am looking for and many of you are going to see that you got a grade that you aren’t used to getting. But I want you to know that I will be happy to meet with each one of you during office hours or by appointment to go over your assignments and help you develop strategies to do well in this course. Keep in mind this is just the first assignment and I know that all of you can do very well in this course if you put in the hard work.”

After I hand the papers out I typically get a handful of panicked students and I sit down with them and go over my feedback in detail and provide LOTS of encouragement. My feedback hits like a ton of bricks, but my face-to-face interaction is all “you can do this”. You need the right balance of challenge and support for this to work. If you are going to go nuts on the challenge side of things with your written feedback, then you have got to be enthusiastically supportive in your face-to-face interactions.

“I don’t have time to give graduate level written feedback on every assignment,” you may be thinking right now, but hear me out. To reap the benefits of this approach you only have to do this one or two times at the beginning of the semester (And keep in mind this is typically when faculty are least busy). Your setting a tone of excellence and ideally you are implanting that uber-strict grader voice in your students heads. The approach is to “instill”, or maybe implant is the right word, the expectations you have for your students. I’ve found once students know what you expect of them, they will start to expect it of themselves.

Maybe I sound like a jerk and you are hoping that if you can “win over” your students with kindness they will like you and want to work hard for you. Maybe that’ll work, I dunno. However, keep in mind that my approach is to be Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hide. Be tough in your written feedback and supportive in your verbal feedback. Also, It’s better to have your students think you’re a bad ass and then ease up on them then it is to be a softy and then be like, “come on guys!” about their rigor. Flex early, not late.


Footnotes:

1. Now this sounds like I have delusions of grandier and a hierarcial approach to teaching, but remember it’s just a catchy name to make it easy for me to remember.