I am considering implementing a new policy this fall in the lab portion of my primary course. The short version is: students would need to read/watch certain things before coming to lab that would prepare them for the day’s activity. Before entering the lab classroom, they would be handed a (relatively easy) quiz on those materials. These practices are pretty standard in lab courses, in my experience. Here’s the twist: if a student didn’t get at least a 75% on the quiz, s/he would not be allowed to participate in the lab, and would forfeit all points associated with it.
If you’re like me, your first reaction to that is, “Wo. That’s pretty harsh.”
Is it? Let me give the long version before you decide. It only took a few minutes for someone to convince me it might actually be brilliant. (But there are some serious questions that need answering, listed at the end of the post.)
It seems to be de rigueur in most lab courses for students to read a pre-lab handout describing that week’s activity, perhaps accompanying an article or two. In my case, the pre-lab handout will follow a video lecture covering material broadly related to that day’s activity. The purpose of these videos will be to provide enough background content that lab time can be used for more rigorous engagement with that content. Likewise, the purpose of the pre-lab handouts is to eliminate the need to verbally provide instructions and allow us to hit the ground running with each activity, also freeing up more time.
It’s also common for students to take a pre-lab quiz on the reading/video/pre-lab handout as a method of enforcement. By design, the quiz should be pretty easy if the student has read/watched the assigned material—questions would ask things like “what will you be measuring?” and “what will the control treatment be?” And maybe there would be one or two questions based on the video content.
Whereas in previous courses I’ve instructed, these quizzes were taken for credit but were not related to lab participation, here I would be taking the reverse approach: the quiz would not be for any direct course credit, but would serve as a ticket into the lab. If a student earned at least 75% on the quiz, s/he could enter and participate in the lab. If s/he earned less than 75%, it would indicate that s/he was not prepared enough to participate, and would thus not be permitted in. S/he would then forfeit any credit accompanying that lab (typically ~1.5% of the total course grade). Each student would get two free tickets per semester, to be used at any time.
The purpose of this strict approach would be to minimize the amount of time the TA and I have to spend explaining things to students who simply didn’t pay attention or bother preparing (“No, you aren’t measuring the females, you are measuring the males!”), which comes at the expense of time we can spend engaging with more prepared students on “real” stuff (“Do your data seem to support your hypothesis?”). To achieve this higher-level engagement, students need to arrive with a general sense of what they are doing and why. The purpose would NOT be to require students to memorize every detail of the activity—that seems both cruel and pointless. Designing quiz questions that require a reasonable level of understanding but not memorization would be difficult, so one solution I’ve come up with is to allow students to use their handwritten notes, but NOT the actual lab handout, during the quiz (if they want to copy over the handout ahead of time, be my guest—not very efficient, but probably effective enough to get 75%+).
In my perfect world, this policy would result in high-functioning lab periods that operate like well-oiled machines because we will have weeded out the students who demand the most attention due to their own unpreparedness, and will be left only with students who have come ready to work.
Ha. In reality, it would probably result in more than a few mutinous students who see this policy as totally unreasonable and as an affront to their very existence. But perhaps they will be outnumbered by the students who are grateful to have more productive lab periods and receive more instructor attention? Perhaps the feelings of rage will subside after the first couple weeks, as the students come to accept (if not embrace) the policy as “just how it is in this class”? I try to give students the benefit of the doubt regarding their approach to their own education, and most of them don’t disappoint—especially in an upper-level course like this one, with primarily junior and senior science majors.
But I see some unresolved issues to this policy that worry me a bit. Here are the ones I can think of—feel free to add to this list:
1) Is two free passes per semester the right amount? 20 students per section x 2 free passes each ÷ 13 lab weeks = average of 3 unprepared students per week. Too many? Not enough?
2) Similarly, is 75% the right cutoff for entry? Too high? Not too low, as I would want to keep the quizzes short—maybe 5-6 questions, some with partial credit.
3) Students are occasionally late to lab for excusable reasons unrelated to preparedness, and are thus students I wouldn’t want to exclude. How best to deal with this? I could take off one percentage point per minute late, such that being ten minutes late results in a 10% penalty on the quiz, bringing one closer to the 75% cutoff.
4) For someone whose current position is purely teaching and advising (me), and whose job performance thus depends heavily on student evaluations (also me), would this be job suicide?
5) The one that gives me the most hesitation: by implementing this policy, do I risk excluding the very students that need my help the most? For example, the student who did watch the video and read the lab handout, but who lacks a strong grasp on the scientific method, and therefore can’t correctly identify the control treatment, or the independent variable, etc. Two ways to avoid this would be to make the questions 1) more about memorization, or 2) absurdly easy. Ugh. Maybe letting the students use their notes during the quiz would ameliorate this?
6) Is this approach fundamentally unethical? If so, why?
If you have thoughts on these questions or this proposed policy, I’d love to hear them. I’m especially keen to hear from anyone who has actually implemented this method—did it work? What roadblocks did you encounter? Will you use it again?