Letter to the Editor 3-31-16

Rotary phones. Newsreels. Slide rules. Tube radios. Floppy disks. All obsolete, and for good reason. My $6 calculator is literally a million times more precise and blindingly faster than that $16 slide rule from 1972. It would take $10,000 worth of floppy disks from 1988 to equal the capacity of a $5 flash drive today. We get news from the web or TV almost instantly, so who needs a newsreel? Surely each obsolete item had its place for a while, but no longer. It’s called progress.

Eons ago when I was a freshman, chemistry was a midterm exam and a final exam – a fairly common arrangement. Since the midterm was about half the total grade it was usually a reasonable metric of performance.

But it’s 2016. Courses often have three or four exams and a final. Quizzes. Graded homework. Class participation, group activities, term papers, etc. The sheer variety of material, along with scheduling of class activities, means that less than half of the material – sometimes (usually?) much less – has been administered by midterm.  The situation is compounded by the foolish requirement to post midterm grades at seven weeks – BEFORE the middle of the term.

Then there’s the issue of high school background and introductory courses.  In first-year chemistry, physics, biology, calculus and other courses, the first exam often covers material that was studied in high school. Many students do better –sometimes much better – on that material than on the new material that follows. A midterm grade based on such an exam may mislead students into thinking they’re doing better than they actually are. This is a serious problem.

Let’s stop clinging to the obsolete past. Let’s use a better way.

What about Canvas? The grades posted there can be fully up-to-date.  And it’s already here! The student who cares can easily see his/her progress every step of the way. Frankly, I do not use the Canvas gradebook.  But I’ll change to it immediately if we use it to replace midterm grades.

“But some students won’t look at their midterms!” Agreed. Having spent a few years on Academic Appeals, “I didn’t look at my midterms” was a common admission. It’ll be true whether or not midterm grades are posted.

If there is some pressing need for an office or department to know a particular student’s grades, can’t the student give permission for that office to view his/her posted Canvas grades? Or arrange to have those grades sent to the appropriate office?

If we’re to post grades, let’s do our best to make them meaningful. “We’ve always done it this way” is not a reason. We have technology.  Let’s use it.

Letter from Terry McCreary, Professor of Science, Engineering and Technology