Glencora Borradaile

         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

October 11, 2010

Experiments in teaching: am-I-ready-for-this? quiz outcome

Last week, I gave the students in my grad algorithms class an am-I-ready-for-this? quiz.  I promised to report back, and I’m already a little late on that.  The average for the quiz was ~ 70% – I was hoping for a higher average, given how easy the quiz was (in my opinion).  Two students did not take the quiz (and have dropped the class) and two students (who were in the bottom 10%) did drop the class; so perhaps the quiz had the intended effect.

I am more interested in hearing what the students in my class have to say, though.  So, I’m opening up the comments to them:  Was the quiz useful?  Did you study for the quiz?  How could I make the quiz more useful?  I will try to use this feedback in future years, so please be honest.  Feel free to respond anonymously with a fake email and fake name.

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  1.   Soroush — October 11, 2010 @ 5:57 pm    

    It wasn’t useful I think. It was pretty easy. Instead you can prepare an assignment with harder question, and ask students to work on them individually at home. This kind of “quiz” has lots of stress with it, and the result might be fake.

    p.s:will you post a blog regards “solving problem session” at the end of quarter?

    btw, I still have problem with q.3.e 😀

  2.   by-partite — October 11, 2010 @ 6:15 pm    

    The questions were quite easy. Except the wording of “a matching”!?1? But the idea was good to bring students up to speed with the foundations.

    PS: I wanted to write here earlier, but didn’t know if you’d mind 🙂

  3.   Shahed — October 11, 2010 @ 6:24 pm    

    well, it was useful.
    I would not argue on if it were “easy” or “hard”, but it atleast ensured reading (revisions of the previously learnt materials) that might be necessary for this course onwards. But I agree, the results might not a good representation of the class performance.

  4.   victim of master theorem — October 11, 2010 @ 7:33 pm    

    I agree with Soroush. For many students who are new to the graduate program at a state university, the pressure of suddenly changing lifestyles combined with, what appears to be, a very important deciding factor in our success for this class can lead to false negatives. I was one of the middle-of-the-road students and I think that about half of my wrong answers were simply stupid mistakes. However, I’m not sure a take-home test would be the best solution either. It would be too easy for students who value grades over understanding to fudge their way through without double checking what they do and do not actually know.

    Perhaps the best solution would be somewhere in between? Find a way to do the quiz in class but take the pressure off?

  5.   honez — October 12, 2010 @ 3:47 pm    

    This quiz should not count toward our grade. It could still be a guage to use to decide whether the class is for you or not, but if had not been worth any points, it would have taken the pressure off.

  6.   anonymous — October 13, 2010 @ 3:54 pm    

    It is really quite absurd to give an exam on a semester’s worth of work when you have not taught the material to the students nor explained the level of detailed knowledge expected yet plan to include it in an evaluation of their performance in your class!

  7.   Glencora — October 14, 2010 @ 7:57 am    

    For additional context:

    In my experience, if something does not affect a students grade, then they (on average) will not put in enough, or any, effort. Even a small effect on the grade (5%) appears to work.

    Last year, I had an ‘Assignment 0’. Like this quiz, it covered background material with harder questions afforded by the extra time the students had. Having this assignment seemed to have no effect. Students who had (significant) difficulty with the quiz and perhaps should have waited another year to take the class did not.

  8.   Adam Smith — October 14, 2010 @ 8:12 am    

    Disclaimer: I am not actually one of your students.

    In my experience teaching a similar (not required, but “core”) class at Penn State, I’ve found that lots of students who would have done fine on a test like that were still unprepared for the class. [There are also “false negatives”, although I think those are less problematic since if a student really feels she understands the material, she can always talk to you personally or take the class next year.]

    Here are the “undergraduate” skills that I’ve found most consistently problematic:

    – turning a vague description of an algorithm into a clear, unambiguous one (e.g. pseudocode)
    – writing proofs
    – distinguishing correct proofs from incorrect ones
    – analyzing simple algorithms using ideas like loop invariants or induction
    – writing/understanding recursive algorithms

    That is, almost all of my incoming students can do the mechanical steps (apply the master theorem, sorting functions, etc) pretty well. It is the slightly less structured tasks at which they perform very poorly unless they have taken the “right” kind of undergraduate algorithms class.

    I haven’t tried in-class tests, but I find that the score on the first few homework problems where students have to write algorithms and proofs is a decent predictor for overall performance in the class. Short tests like the one you gave are also skewed against incoming students with poor English skills, who can’t read and process the questions fast enough.

    Perhaps, since you will have the data at the end of the semester, you could look at what best predicts the difficulty a student will have in your course: the first homework or the in-class test? I realize that homework has its own problems as a means of evaluation: plagiarism, etc.

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