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5 Assessment Tricks That Inspire Deeper Learning

Organic chemistry professor Dr. Stephen Branz shares simple tweaks to quizzes and extra credit that boost motivation—and success.

Educator

Stephen Branz, PhD

Professor of Organic Chemistry (retired; now part time), San José State University, CA

PhD in Organic Chemistry, BA in Chemistry

In an ideal world, grading is the cherry on top of the educational sundae: It can help teachers to measure just how effective their lessons have been and offer students a chance to enjoy some hard-earned validation for their work. But students—even the most motivated ones—often view grades as punitive and demoralizing.

And there is a further problem, says chemistry professor Stephen Branz, PhD, who has taught at San José State University in California for 38 years. “All too frequently, faculty lament the superficial understanding of subject matter by their students. Yet they use assessments like multiple-choice tests that tend to emphasize memorization and short-term learning.”

While it can be more challenging to test for deeper, long-term conceptual learning—the kind that depends on critical thinking about the course content—Branz says it is well worth the time and effort.

To better assess students’ progress as they move through his challenging Organic Chemistry two-semester course sequence, Branz has embraced a dynamic approach to grading. Below, he offers five grading strategies that have stood the test of time and helped students become more successful in his courses.

Context

“I believe we [as educators] pay far too little attention to the ways student assessments are able to affect student motivation, reinforce good study habits, and incorporate what we know about approaches to student learning.”

— Stephen Branz, PhD

Course: CHEM 112A Organic Chemistry

Course description: Chemistry of the carbon compounds, both aliphatic and aromatic, emphasizing underlying concepts.

 

See resources shared by Stephen Branz, PhD

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Branz’s 5 tips for impactful assessment

Course Hero recently connected with Branz to ask how he keeps a close eye on students’ mastery of material while also stoking their excitement and enthusiasm.

1. Let students “cheat” with reminder sheets

As a professor of organic chemistry, Branz is well aware that this bedrock course for future doctors, researchers, and scientists requires its fair share of memorization. But the amount of factual material needed by professional chemists is simply too extensive to be learned or memorized.

Recognizing this, Branz allows students to bring a reminder sheet to all exams—one 5 x 8 index card on which they may handwrite (on both sides) any information they might find useful during the test. “In ‘real life’ you will always have reference sources available,” notes Branz. “Why not for your exams?”

Though students might see the reminder sheets as a chance to relax, Branz sees them as a sly trick. The act of creating crib notes forces students to think through all the information they have studied, decide what is most important to include, and synthesize it to fit in the limited space available. This means the creation of the reminder sheets itself serves as a learning tool.

2. Quick-check for comprehension with ConcepTests

Like many professors, Branz wants to know whether students are absorbing his lectures. To check, he frequently uses ConcepTests, developed by Eric Mazur at Harvard University, whose questions focus on one high-level concept that is related to that lesson’s learning objectives. (Branz often uses versions similar in design to those developed by Art Ellis et al. at the University of Wisconsin, Madison). Students vote on one of a few possible answers provided. Branz bypasses clickers and has his students vote “the old-fashioned way, by raising their hands.”

While Branz acknowledges that students lose the anonymity a clicker provides, and the instructor loses collective data about how the class is voting, “the upside is that when the class is split or too confused to vote, I can have them discuss with neighbors, preferably those who voted the opposite way, then revote—generally in about one minute. Invariably, the class converges to the correct answer. The greatest benefit to ConcepTests is this revoting.”

If most of the students are confused or vote incorrectly, Branz gives hints or explains the lecture from a different perspective. “[I use these as] a check on my lecturing ability,” he explains. “I use ConcepTest questions to identify any knowledge gaps in real time, not on a test [given] two weeks later. This gives me a chance to re-lecture [on a topic] in a slightly different fashion, or emphasize the key point, instead of going on to the next topic and finding out [later that they were] lost all through the lecture.”

Then, before the revote, Branz adds a twist: “I say, ‘See who voted differently from you, and try to convince them that you answered correctly.’” This gives the students the chance to teach each other, he explains.

“As I describe ConcepTests and explain to my students at the beginning of the semester, ‘When you really learned something well, how did you learn it? Did you learn it by sitting there listening to a frontal lecture?’” he says. “No, they all agree. It’s by teaching—whether it’s Sunday school or swimming or whatever—you learn it better by teaching.” ConcepTests give opportunities for students to teach one another prior to revoting, Branz explains.

3. Incentivize textbook reading with pre-chapter quizzes

Branz believes that doing the reading prior to a lecture gives students a leg up on learning, but he has struggled to convince students to comply.

“Despite my constant reminders that reading—or even skimming—the text prior to class is the best way to get the most out of our all-too-brief 2.5 hours per week of shared class time,” says Branz, “most students simply don’t do it.”

The missing incentive? Short and easy quizzes, which Branz now gives at the beginning of class when starting a new textbook chapter.

Branz collects about a third of the quizzes, without preannouncing which will be collected and which will not. The results are less important to him than the fact that they incentivize students to read the material. “I find that collecting one out of three quizzes is a ratio that will keep students honest in terms of doing the reading,” he says.

4. Incentivize doing homework by including the same problems on the exams

Branz promises his students that up to one third of each exam’s questions will be taken from the end-of-chapter problems previously assigned as homework. This encourages students to complete and learn from all the assigned problems, even though Branz does not collect and grade them as “homework.”

5. Give students another chance with “resurrection points”

Branz understands that organic chemistry’s daunting depth and complexity can prevent students from getting consistently high grades on every test (of which there are many, including three “midterms” and a final).

After doing poorly on a midterm, “some people just give up and say they’ll take the course again,” says Branz.

To help encourage students to go the distance—and to keep their enthusiasm from flagging over the course of the semester—Branz offers the chance to complete the course with a relatively high grade, even if students maintained only average grades earlier in the semester.

Branz learned about “resurrection points” from Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, and he introduces his special “resurrection formula” early in the semester so that students can track their grade point average as they go along.

Branz’s resurrection points are based on the recovery (or resurrection) of points missed on each of the midterm exams: Each of the three midterms is worth 100 points, and the final is worth 200 points. The percentage grade earned on the final exam is applied to all the “missed” points. If a student earned a 60 on each of the three midterms, for example, that adds up to 180 out of a possible 300. This means the student has “missed” 120 points.

Once the final exam is taken and graded, the percentage earned on the final exam is applied to all points missed on the three midterm exams. Thus, if a student has improved and earned 90% of the points on the final exam, Branz’s grading scheme allows that student to claim 90% of those “missing” midterm points and add them to their total semester grade. That sum—(1) midterm total plus (2) final exam score plus (3) 90% of the “missing” midterm points—would be the student’s grand-total grade for the course. If a student does poorly on the final exam, achieving, say, 50%, then he or she will only resurrect 50% of the missed points from the midterm exams.

Outcomes

Branz has found that his five strategies combine to create more powerful learning for his students, each method playing its role.

Reminder sheets, Branz finds, shift the student focus from an emphasis on memorization to an emphasis on applying basic information toward solving more conceptually based problems on exams.

ConcepTests, he notes, “keep students more awake and engaged during our shared class time—which I still label as ‘lectures,’ even though I incorporate as much active learning as possible.” Discussing the vote that has just happened, then revoting on the answers to the ConcepTest, gives both the instructor and the students immediate feedback about what has been learned well—or not so well. And the peer teaching and learning that happens in the small group discussion, followed by revoting, forces students to both listen well and explain their thoughts clearly.

Including some homework problems on the exams incentivizes students to keep up with incremental learning of the material all throughout the semester, even when the assignments are not collected and graded. And “resurrection points are especially valuable for students who, partway through the semester, all of a sudden ‘get it’—the light bulb turns on!” says Branz. (Of course, he adds, almost all students grasp the importance of not giving up on the final exam, since it’s a final chance to do well regardless of how they performed on the midterms.)

Finally, both the ConcepTests and the pre-chapter quizzes “give me the opportunity to ask seemingly simple questions for which students will give the wrong answers,” says Branz. “Having taught O-chem for many years, I have learned that often students believe they know the correct answer, but in fact they don’t. They need to come face-to-face with their misconceptions as soon as possible. In educational psychology jargon, this is known as cognitive dissonance, and it is a powerful aid to addressing misconceptions.”

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