September 8, 2014


Volume 9, Issue 10 – September 8, 2014


Engagement Coming

As most of you already know, we will be doing a pilot project just after the third week this fall to see which of our students are engaged in their studies. Faculty will be asked to enter one of the following grades for each of their students:

  • Engaged: Showing up to class, participating in class, turning in their assignments, getting decent grades on early assignments.
  • Not Engaged: Spotty attendance, not participating in class, missing assignments, getting low grades on early assignments.
  • Not Present: Not present at all, or missing nearly class days.

We’ll then collect and analyze the engagement grades. Students who are engaged will get a letter congratulating them. Students who are not engaged in some of their classes will get a letter offering them help and encouraging them to take advantage of the various resources available on campus—office hours from their instructors, help from our tutoring centers, to speak with an advisor or counselor, etc.  Later, we’ll correlate the engagement grades with mid-term and final grades, and with retention to see the patterns that are present.  Please note that this does not replace the current MTS system–you should still use that to report students who are in trouble.

There’s a lot of evidence that indicates that students who get off to a good start tend to finish with higher grades and have better retention rates and graduation rates. In fact, doing engagement reports after the third week of the term is now a best practice, as identified by several agencies that study this sort of thing.  This isn’t very surprising—students who engage early have more of a platform to build on and don’t have to rely on last minute cramming. Back at my previous college, some faculty used the engagement grades in a proactive manner—they told their students about the engagement grades, and explained about how important a good early start was. The result, they reported, was that their students did better throughout the semester.

Coin coin 2

To try to get our students to focus on their studies, I’ve also adopted something from the military. When the military wants to celebrate an achievement, they issue a challenge coin.   I’ve already told our students that in conjunction with our student veterans organization, we’ll be giving each new student who successfully completes their fall semester with a 2.0 average or better and in good academic standing a special SUNY Canton challenge coin. It wouldn’t hurt to mention both the engagement grades and the challenge coin to your classes when you get the chance


Flunking an Exam is Good?

f-school-letter-grade-600x400[1]There was an interesting article in the New York Times on Sunday entitled “Why Flunking Exams Is Actually a Good Thing”, written by Benedict Carey (a science reporter for the Times and the author of the book How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens). You can see the full article by clicking here. In the article, he asks:

Imagine that on Day 1 of a difficult course, before you studied a single thing, you got hold of the final exam. The motherlode itself, full text, right there in your email inbox — attached mistakenly by the teacher, perhaps, or poached by a campus hacker. No answer key, no notes or guidelines. Just the questions. Would that help you study more effectively?

“Of course it would,” he declares. Having a copy of the final in advance would allow you to focus on what the professor thinks is important in the course. Every time the professor mentions something that was on the exam, your ears would perk up. You’d wind up with an “A” on the exam, but would have gotten it by cheating.

Now suppose that instead of getting a copy of the actual exam, he argues, you were given a similar pre-test on the first day of class. You’d fail it, of course, since you haven’t learned the material yet. Nonetheless, by seeing the sort of questions the professor asked and seeing what you got wrong, you’d know what to pay attention to in the class and would do better. Some faculty have tried this method, and found that on average their students did 10% better on their final exams. He concludes:

The (bombed) pretest drives home the information in a way that studying as usual does not…Testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It’s a way of enriching and altering memory.

The article goes on to explain that part of the reason that this works is that we often misjudge how well we know something—we think we understand it better than we actually do. We also think we’ll continue to remember what we know now, even though we forget over time. Highlighting and chapter outlines only make enhance this feeling of false fluency. Testing overcomes this false fluency—it exposes what we don’t know. Studies show that if quizzes are given soon after a student has read a particular passage, the student will remember the material better on a final two months later than if the quizzes were given two weeks later.

Carey states:  This is the idea behind pretesting, one of the most exciting developments in learning-­science.

Since this article appears in a major newspaper, and is based on a forthcoming book, there is an implication that pretesting is something new. In fact, it’s not new at all. Lots of faculty are well aware that pretesting is a good idea and there are even better ways of doing it than giving a pre-test to be failed on the first day of a course.

One of the best versions of pretesting I’ve seen was from a math professor who (for example) on a Monday, assigned her students three basic questions about the material that was going to be covered the following Wednesday, and so on each day. This was done on an online Learning Management System (LMS) like Angel, so that the students could be randomly assigned the questions from a test bank of different versions of the same type of problem. The students would be expected to read ahead, try to answer the questions, and then bring their attempts as an “entry ticket” to the next class. No entry ticket? No entry to the class. The result was significantly better comprehension and higher grades.

These results are not surprising. Every faculty member knows that if the students look over the class material in advance, even if they don’t understand it, the subsequent lecture (or lab or whatever) becomes far more effective and the student learns more. The problem is that most students don’t look over the material in advance. The “no ticket, no entry” policy is one way (and not the only way) to get them to do it and to help themselves in the process. No doubt you can think of other ways that will be effective in your courses to get the students to look over the material in advance.

There’s a second form of pre-test that I personally have found to be extremely effective. About a week before an hour exam, I give students a very big homework assignment with questions that are of a similar nature to what will appear on the exam. In fact, I often take the questions off of previous years’ exams. Instead of calling this a “Big Homework Assignment”, I use a little psychology and label it “Practice Exam”. I ask students to try solving it themselves and then give an extra help session some evening a few days before the exam. They have to bring their attempt at the practice test as an entrance ticket to the help session, and that help session is the only place they can get a copy of the answer sheet to the practice exam. This method accomplishes lots of good things:

  • Students become more familiar with the type of questions you want them to be able to answer.
  • Students thank you for giving them a practice test, whereas they groan when you give them homework assignments.
  • Trying to solve the practice test focuses the students on what is important in the course.
  • Since the students will want the answer sheet, they will attend the help session in very high numbers—my experience is that most of even the poorest students will show up.
  • The help session becomes very effective, since the students have prepared for it, and are highly focused since they know that similar questions will appear on the exam.
  • Grades on the exams improve, as do grades in the course, without having lowered standards in any way. This leads to better retention and graduation rates.
  • Students realize that you are on their side and trying to help them, resulting in better evaluations for you.

Something else that this article advocates is also well known—test early, and test often. A course with only a mid-term and a final as assessments is not a very well designed course from the point of view of student learning. Students need to be assessed constantly, from the very beginning of a course. Homework, quizzes, pre-tests, etc. should be given, which give students a chance to get things wrong (and learn what they didn’t understand) when the stakes are low and when there’s time to remediate the situation.

So now you know the secrets to helping your students do better and improving your evaluations in the process. And just think, if you do it and measure the results, you too can get an article published about you in the New York Times.

I’d love to see some comments on this from our faculty. Please use the “Leave a Reply” box at the bottom of the blog to do so.


Thank You Admissions!

It has been a strong recruiting season for SUNY Canton, due to hard work by our admissions staff, ably led by Molly Mott, now joined by our new Director of Admissions, Melissa Evans. Of course it’s not the admissions staff that are solely responsible for bringing in the class—our faculty, financial aid office, student services, and so many others are involved in the effort. It may be a cliché but it’s absolutely true that attracting and retaining students is everybody’s job. Now that this fall’s class is in, it’s time to turn our attention to retaining them and bringing in this spring’s class. The admissions recruiters are about to go on the road to their respective territories around the state, telling prospective students about the great education they can enjoy here.

To thank our admissions staff, I had the pleasure of hosting a party in their honor at the Alumni House. We had planned it as an outdoor barbeque, but the weather didn’t cooperate. Our food services colleagues braved the rain and still did the cooking outside, but we eaters had to move indoors. The food was excellent as always—hamburgers, hot dogs, Portobello mushrooms, and lots of side dishes went well with the wine, beer, and soft drinks that were served. It was great to meet all the recruiters and other admission staff and their significant others, and a pleasant time was had by all. Now back to work!


Sports News

The good news continued for the men’s soccer team. On Friday at 4:00 PM, I was there to watch them beat Sage College by a 1-0 score. While Sage put up a good fight, SUNY Canton dominated most of the game. Jose Menendez scored the winning goal in the 28th minute, deflecting in an excellent free kick by Nick Escalante. Austin Lamay got his second clean sheet (no goals scored) as goalie. A fun aspect to the game was the participation of large numbers of pee-wee soccer players from the local area who came out hand-in-hand with the varsity players at the beginning of the game, and who played their own mini-game at half-time.

On Saturday at 2:00, I saw what may be the game of the year, with SUNY Canton playing Skidmore. Skidmore had come loaded for bear (sorry, couldn’t resist), defeating SUNY Potsdam 4-1 the previous day. Skidmore was predicted to be #2 in the Liberty League in the pre-season coach’s poll, behind only St. Lawrence, and ahead of Union, Hobart, RPI, Vassar, RIT, Clarkson, and Bard.

I had gotten to the game a bit early and the weather seemed dubious—it had been raining on and off all day. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the weather cleared a bit at 1:45, and stayed clear throughout the game.

In a wonderful surprise, just before the game started, I was called onto the field and was awarded a framed jersey to welcome me to the community and as a strong soccer supporter. The jersey was personalized with my name and with the number 11, which was significant to me for two reasons: my favorite professional soccer player is the great Didier Drogba (who plays for Chelsea) and whose jersey number is 11; and in graduate school, my research was on nuclear magnetic resonance of Boron-11. You can see the award video below.

The first half of the game was very hard fought, with both teams being roughly equal, though Skidmore dominated the number of shots. The half ended in a deserved 0-0 tie.

Early in the second half, Hunter Mowery tore down the left hand side of the pitch and cut in sharply. He passed the ball perfectly to Randy Mayer who was cutting from the other side, who put it nicely in the left corner, scoring his first collegiate goal.

Skidmore tried hard to tie it up but to no avail—the game ended 1-0, giving goalie Austin Lamay (who had 7 stops) his third clean sheet in a row. The ‘Roos are now 3-0, and well positioned for the rest of the season. Great job, men!



Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Last week’s contest had questions all had to do with the word fair.  Our winner was Terri Clemmo. Others with all five correct included Lenore VanderZee, Donna Matoes, Rajiv Narula, Brandon Baldwin, Nicholas Kocher, Alan Gabrielli, Bruce Hanson, Carmela Young, and Rhonda Rodriguez. Here are the correct answers:

  1. Snow White, Rapunzel, and Hansel and Gretel. Fairy Tales.
  2. ________ in love and war. All’s Fair.
  3. 1964 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison about making a Cockney flower girl into a society lady. My Fair Lady.
  4. The Simon & Garfunkel song asks “Are you going to” there. Scarborough Fair.
  5. Someone who deserts you when the going gets rough. Fair-Weather Friend.


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

Just to show that the BLAB is always fair, and since the weather has been a bit rainy as of late, all answers to today’s challenge contain the word “rain”. As usual, the first with the most takes the prize.  No looking up the answers now!  SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!

  1. It precedes “Come Again Some Other Day”.
  2. Someone stupid forgets to do this.
  3. According to both Longfellow and the Ink Spots, “Into Each Life” this happens.
  4. What always gets the Carpenters down.
  5. Movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise about Charlie Babbit’s savant brother, Raymond.
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