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Undergraduate Education


August 21, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 32


Letters to the Editor

Innovating in education

I found the article “Testing an ‘Ungrading’ Approach” (C&EN, April 27, 2020, page 20) of interest. However, I believe that certain implications in the article can lead to misconceptions by the reader. It is unfortunate that grading appears to be overshadowing learning and feedback. Two issues come to mind as I read the article.

1. Are the faculty quoted in the article utilizing effective processes for course design?

2. Is there too much of a focus on quizzes and exams as assessment tools?

In spite of implications made in the article, any course, whether it is a STEM or a liberal arts course or whether it is a face-to-face or remote course, should have an effective course design. And I get the feeling that the instructors quoted in the article were not concerned about the design of their courses. Good course design should include specification of what students should know and be able to do as a result of the course (i.e., learning outcomes). Learning outcomes should then be aligned with the opportunities students will have to acquire those skills and knowledge and [also be aligned with] the assessment that demonstrates the acquisition of those skills and knowledge and provides feedback on this to both the students and the instructor. There is no evidence that learning outcomes and their assessments exist in the courses being taught by the instructors.

And without assessment of learning outcomes, how do the instructors know if the students have the requisite skills/knowledge for success in the following courses? Prior knowledge is critical towards success in any course. Prerequisites should mean that skills and knowledge have been acquired for the next course and not just earning a grade in a previous course.

As to the second issue, it appears that there is too much reliance on tests. Assessments should draw from multiple ways of demonstrating knowledge. In addition to testing, other forms of assessment could include discussions, short- and long-term projects, portfolios, papers, etc. Any assessment tool (not just tests), should be able to demonstrate and document whether students have acquired those skills and knowledge specified by the learning objectives for the course. And most important, both students and instructors should be able to receive ongoing feedback on the acquisition of the specified skills and knowledge by the students.

Howard Kimmel
East Brunswick, New Jersey

The recent article in Chemical & Engineering News on block teaching (July 6, 2020, page 17) describes the condensation of 6 weeks of classes into 6 days (a factor of 5) while students only take one class at a time. Fairly early in my 37-year college-teaching career, I taught a General Chemistry course in a 5-week summer session, where the traditional 15-week semester was condensed by a factor of 3. Students were strongly advised not to take any other courses, or work, at the same time. We had a full 90 min of lecture each day (with a 15 min break near the midpoint) which produced a 1 h 45 min schedule each day, and longer lab periods 3 afternoons each week. Class size was considerably smaller than during the normal academic year. With the scheduled class time each day plus the usual recommendation that students spend 2 h out of class for each hour in class, you nominally have 4.5 hrs/day devoted to chemistry lecture, and you still have to fit in lab time and lab report preparation. This was grueling for both faculty and students! There was virtually no time for concepts to sink in, move from short-term memory to long term. Exams were difficult to return by the next class period, and there was a longer delay in returning graded lab reports. The article admits “There just isn’t time to digest it [the material]. So . . . we cover less material.” “There is no room for you to fall behind.”

Years later I taught the course in a 7.5-week session; [a] factor-of-2 condensation. That was much better, but still difficult. The current crisis with COVID-19 may force us to consider other modes of course delivery, but I would certainly not use block teaching under normal circumstances. Students need to be highly motivated and disciplined for this to have a chance.

K. D. Schlecht
Hamlin, New York.


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