Sunday, 23 October 2016

How do assessment and grading practices at Waikato compare with U.S. universities

Bill Walstad and Laurie Miller (both University of Nebraska-Lincoln) have a new paper in the latest issue of the Journal of Economics Education, summarising the grading policies and practices across the U.S. (sorry I don't see an ungated version anywhere). The data comes from a survey of 175 instructors of principles courses (whether microeconomics, macroeconomics, or combined).

The most interesting thing about this paper was the comparison with our two first-year economics papers at the University of Waikato. Now, we don't actually teach principles of microeconomics in a single paper. Instead, we have ECON100 which is essentially business economics, and ECON110, which is more of a survey course with a welfare economics flavour. However, both fit a similar role to principles courses as taught at U.S. institutions. So, in this post I look to see how they compare.

First, Walstad and Miller look at average grades, and find the average grade is a B-. Now, a direct comparison of grades between U.S. and New Zealand institutions is somewhat unhelpful, but it is interesting that the average grade for ECON100 is usually in the high B- (in the Waikato grading scale), and ECON110 is usually in the mid-high B range. So at least on the surface, things appear similar there.

In terms of grading practices, Walstad and Miller note:
The grading policies that instructors adopt to determine a grade are quite different across instructors. The majority of instructors (74 percent) calculate grades based on an absolute standard such as the percentage of points earned in a course.
Count us in the majority for both ECON100 and ECON110. Next, Walstad and Miller look at grade adjustments. They note:
Regardless of whether an absolute or relative standard is used as the grading policy, student grades can be adjusted at the margin... An instructor can decide at the end of the course to give students bonus points to increase the class average or for meeting some requirement, such as having excellent attendance. The bonus adjustment, however, seems to be more the exception than standard practice because it is used by only 15 percent of instructors.
Again, we are in the majority here for both ECON100 and ECON110, but then:
Another type of positive adjustment is to increase a grade near a grade cutoff. This cutoff adjustment is more widely used than the bonus adjustment because while 13 percent say that they will increase a grade if it is very close to a cutoff, another 56 percent replied that maybe they would increase a grade.
This is something we often do. Given that marks are measured with some error, it makes sense to give students who are on the boundary of a grade the benefit of the doubt (in most cases - if a student wasn't attending class or missed handing in assessments, we are less inclined to move them over the grade boundary).

Next, Walstad and Miller look at extra credit:
What is more popular for increasing grades than bonus points or a cutoff bump among almost half of instructors (46 percent) is to give students extra credit for some type of activity or project. The ones most often given extra credit are for participating in an instructor-sanctioned event or activity outside of class (46 percent), such as attending a guest lecture on an economic topic. Also considered highly valuable is doing something extra for class such as writing something (35 percent); taking an extra quiz, homework, or class assignment (14 percent); or bringing new material to class (10 percent). Students also can be rewarded with extra credit points for good attendance (10 percent); contributing to a class discussion (6 percent); or participating in a class experiment, game, or project (5 percent)...
Among the 46 percent of instructors who use extra credit, the average allocation to the course grade is 4 percent, and the median is 2.5 percent, indicating that the percentage allocation for extra credit is positively skewed, but with large clumps of responses at 3 percent (29 percent) and 5 percent (20 percent). 
I have given extra credit in ECON110 for the last few years, both for attendance (at randomly-selected lectures) and for completing in-class experiments, exercises and short surveys (where the data will be used later in the same topic or a later topic). This semester in ECON100, we gave extra credit for the first time, for being in class for spot quizzes in randomly-selected lectures. In ECON110, extra credit could be worth up to 3 percent of a student's overall grade, and in ECON100 up to 2.5 percent. So, even though we are in the (large) minority here, both classes are around the median in terms of the weighting of extra credit in the overall grade.

Lastly, Walstad and Miller summarise the types of assessment used:
Exams constitute the largest component of a course grade (65 percent). The number of exams that are administered can range from as few as one to as many as six, but the majority of instructors give three exams, in which case the exam grade weights are 30, 30, and 40. When a final exam is given, it is most likely comprehensive (69 percent) rather than limited to the content covered since the previous exam (31 percent). The predominant type of questions on these exams is multiple-choice (56 percent) followed by numerical or graphical problems (21 percent) and short-answer questions (15 percent). Very few instructors (8 percent) allow students to retake an exam to improve their score, and if they do, the exam is a different one from what they previously took.
The other contributions to a course grade come from homework or problem sets (15 percent) and quizzes (10 percent). The majority of the type of items for homework or problem sets are numerical or graphical problems (49 percent) followed by multiple-choice items (26 percent) and short-answer questions (16 percent). By contrast, multiple-choice items are more likely to be used for quizzes (50 percent) than problems (18 percent) or short-answer questions (14 percent).
Exams here include tests, so ECON100 (80 percent tests and exam made up of 15+15+50) and ECON110 (60 percent tests and exam made up of 30+30) are similar to the U.S. institutions. Both the ECON100 exam and the ECON110 final test are comprehensive. ECON100 is predominantly multiple choice (60%), and the rest is short answers or graphical problems, while ECON110 has no multiple choice but is all short answers, numerical or graphical problems. We don't allow students to retake an exam or test.

Where we differ most from the U.S. institutions is in the use of homework or problem sets. ECON100 doesn't use these at all, but does have quizzes (using the online testing system Aplia). ECON110 doesn't have quizzes but does have weekly assignments (similar to homework or problem sets, but more applied).

Overall though, to me it seems that in both ECON100 and ECON110 we are following current practice in U.S. institutions in our grading and assessment practices. So our students can feel pretty confident we are following best practice. Phew!

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