Sunday, October 10, 2010

Uniformly bad

A little over half of the courses I have taught over the years have been "uniform" courses.  These lower level math courses have multiple sections each semester, so the department has decided to appoint a course coordinator to oversee all the instructors.  While there is some variation on how coordinated these courses are, usually it goes as far as common exams and group grading, although most instructors are allowed to write their own quizzes, group work (if any) and assign homework as they see fit.  I understand the allure of running courses this way, and there are many arguments in favor of this approach.  The problem is that not one of those arguments are for the benefit of the students.  Sadly, the more uniform we make our classes, the worse they will be for our students.

Not every college professor is a great teacher.  I think we have all run into professors who don't prepare classes well, don't write relevant exams, grade those exams unfairly, and fail to cover all the material the course is supposed to contain.  Ideally, uniform courses would correct these problems.  They do not.  Classes can still be poorly prepared.   Exam, unless the coordinator happens to be this bad professor, will be written well, but for students in the bad professor's class, they will not be relevant.  Exams will be graded uniformly over all sections, but not uniformly over the exam itself: one page might have a reasonable partial credit policy, while the next be all or nothing.  Worst of all, if this poor professor does not cover everything he or she is supposed to in class, then either those students will do badly on that part of the final exam (for not having seen the material ever) or all the sections will drop the material from the exam. 

The more uniform the course, the more uniform the level of instruction.  Unfortunately, this level drops to near that of the worst teacher in the group. Consider two examples, each occurring this last week.  In a class with common exam, graded communally, all sections had to delay returning exams because one professor was too busy to get his pages graded.  Another class, again will common exams, although not graded together, a professor decided to let some student take the exam late, resulting in a ban on returning (fully graded) exams to students in other sections.  Now in this case, neither professor is the proverbial bad teacher of the previous paragraph: both just happened to find themselves in less than ideal situations.  But because of the uniformity of the courses, this non-ideal situation spread to all the sections.  Getting exam back quickly is not the most important thing in a college course, but it does benefit students to see their graded exams as soon as possible, as they will then be more likely to look over their mistakes and remember why they made them.

I understand that math departments need to have standards and that universities need to be assessed and accredited.  We do not want some student coming out of calculus having just learned the basic derivative rules (without proof) and others getting a full course in real analysis.  Some level of coordination is necessary.  Here is how I would do it: everyone uses the same textbook, and everyone covers the same sections (with perhaps one or two optional sections, left up to individual instructors, as time permits).  Everyone has the same number of exams, worth the same percentage of students' final grades.   Exams are graded individually, but the coordinator sends out instructions on the level of partial credit to assign.  If the university has a final exam time for all lower level math courses, then there is a common final.  For all other exams, instructors are welcome to collaborate, and the coordinator can be the one to write these, but they do not need to do so.  That way, if one instructor misses a day and needs to push back his or her exam, there will not be conflicts.  All exams should be sent to the coordinator, for approval and record keeping.  That is all.