Intentional Teaching

Mastery Assessment with Eden Tanner

September 05, 2023 Derek Bruff Episode 20
Intentional Teaching
Mastery Assessment with Eden Tanner
Show Notes Transcript

On today’s episode, I talk with Eden Tanner about her experiment with mastery assessment. Eden is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Mississippi.

Eden had been changing up her grading practices for a few semesters, and this spring she leaned into mastery assessment. The students in her 170-seat general chemistry course could retake a new version of each of the four exams in her course basically as many times as they wanted.

In the interview, Eden shares her motivations for moving away from traditional grading practices, as well as lots of nuts and bolts about her mastery assessment practices this spring.

Episode Resources:

·       Eden Tanner’s faculty page, 

·       Episode 19: Talking about Inclusive Teaching with Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan, 

·       Episode 15: Grading for Growth with Robert Talbert and David Clark, 

Podcast Links:

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Derek Bruff 0:06
Welcome to the Intentional Teaching, a podcast aimed at educators to help them develop foundational teaching skills and explore new ideas in teaching. I’m your host, Derek Bruff. I hope this podcast helps you be more intentional in how you teach and in how you develop as a teacher over time.

One of the highlights of the most recent spring semester was facilitating a faculty learning community at the University of Mississippi. The focus of our meetings was active learning in large enrollment STEM courses, and we ended up with a lively and committed group of faculty from several departments who met regularly on Zoom to read and discuss the literature on STEM teaching but also to share our experiences in the classroom, almost in real time. 

Because of this learning community, I got to hear from University of Mississippi chemistry professor Eden Tanner every two weeks about her ongoing experiment with alternative grading in her 170-student general chemistry course. She had been changing up her grading practices for a few semesters, and this spring she leaned into mastery assessment. Her students could retake a new version of each of the four exams in her course basically as many times as they wanted. 

By the end of the semester, it was clear that Eden’s experiment had paid off, with her students doing very well on their final exam. On today’s episode, I talk with Eden about her experiment with mastery assessment. Eden is an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Mississippi. She shares her motivations for moving away from traditional grading practices, as well as lots of nuts and bolts about her mastery assessment practices this spring. 

Eden, thank you for being on the podcast. I'm excited to have you on to share a bit of your experience and your story here today. 

Eden Tanner 1:48
Yeah, my pleasure. I'm excited to have the venue to be able to talk more about this. Thank you so much. 

Derek Bruff 1:53
Yeah. And before we jump in to recent events in your teaching career, can you can you tell us about a time when you realized you wanted to be an educator? 

Eden Tanner 2:04
Oh, yeah. That's a I think that's a good one. And I think like most people, it comes from having had a really good experience in an educational setting. And so I think I realized, you know, what then became my research mentor, Jason Harper at the University of New South Wales in Australia, which is where I was born and did my undergraduate education, after hearing him and kind of working with him as he taught us and comparing and contrasting kind of his teaching style to some other educators I had, I realized what a huge difference someone who is connected to the material, someone who really cares about the students and someone who's kind of committed to pedagogy, can make in terms of your ability to not only understand the material but also become really excited about it. And so I think for me, it was really early on into my college career where I kind of discovered the power of education, if you will, in terms of connecting people to the larger concepts. You know, it wasn't just like a class I had to get through. All of a sudden it was like inspiring and exciting, and I'd never experienced that in any class before, let alone something that I perceived to be difficult, like chemistry. And so I think that's where it really began. 

Derek Bruff 3:15
Yeah. Yeah. And so when you went into your graduate work, was was that your plan to be a professor and to teach? 

Eden Tanner 3:23
Yeah. And I will say that, you know, I actually entered university thinking I was going to be a lawyer because I really liked to argue. And I thought it would be really fun if, like, people would pay me to argue with other people. I was like, Great. But after kind of meeting Dr. Harper and being kind of getting to do some research with him, he kind of sat me down and he said, I think that you would be good at this for a living. And so he kind of gave me a roadmap of what that looks like. I'm the first person in my family to go to college. So I didn't actually know that... I mean, I assumed that somebody had jobs teaching, but I didn't know what that really what that really looked like. And so, yeah, by the time I went to do my graduate work, I was pretty set on I'm doing this so that I can become a professor and create educational spaces for other people. 

Derek Bruff 4:12
Wow. Wow. That's great. Yeah. 

Well, let's let's talk about the the here and now, actually. And I think there's different ways we could try to tell this story. But let's kind of start kind of where we are now and then we'll backtrack a little bit. Sure. How well did your spring 2023 general chemistry students do on their final exam? And why is that significant? 

Eden Tanner 4:40
Yeah, so in my opinion, they did very well. I will say that the norming I've since realized the norming for these huge national standardized exams (so in this case, this is the American Chemical Society General chemistry two semester exam) is a little bit skewed because we're using the 2017 version and normally the norming happens after about five years. And so there was a pandemic in the middle and a bunch of data didn't get collected. So let me just preface this by saying the norming on this particular exam isn't as reliable as I would like for this. But on that... and they update the data every single day the exam is being taken. So when we took the exam and the norming that I had put us in the 80th percentile of those norms, which is incredible. I think in a more traditional norming, we would have been maybe closer to 60%, but that is still really good, I would say. We traditionally sit about 50% higher across all sections of the University of Mississippi. And for my sections that I taught, we were middle ranking last year and we were top ranking this year. So they definitely it definitely signifies frequently improve the scores.

I didn't really see the exam before they took it. So I want to get out ahead of that. You know, I wasn't training them on data sets of the exact questions they would see or anything like that. So I think it's really significant that this exam that I didn't write or really look at, they performed so well at. And maybe also just to contextualize a little bit and mine was the biggest section. So I had about 170 students in my section. I'm at the next biggest section was 120. And so I think it's really significant they did so well.

I'm just really proud of them. You know, I'd say they did really well. And these students are not students who were kind of hand selected because they're the best of chemistry to be in my section. You know, this was definitely general population and students, which is important because I think it speaks to the value of kind of educational interventions that really are designed and also look at helping kind of the average student like, I don't need my students to have five years of chemistry coming in for me to believe that they're going to be able to succeed at learning chemistry. 

Derek Bruff 7:02
Yeah, well, and I you know, I work at Mississippi, too, and I know the student population in Mississippi is open access essentially for the state of Mississippi. So I imagine that students with a wide variety of academic backgrounds, especially when it comes to chemistry. 

Eden Tanner 7:20
Absolutely. And I will say that most of the students that I work with haven't had a chemistry teacher yet. Might have learnt chemistry from a teacher who has some science background, but most of them haven't watched like upper level high school chemistry with someone who's been trained in chemistry. And so that's difficult. In some cases they don't run really dedicated chemistry classes and so they're really coming in, I would say underprepared, probably on a national level, which might not surprise people who are listening to this. 

Derek Bruff 7:57
Sure yeah. 

Eden Tanner 7:58
And I really work with them where they're at, you know? And I think one of my favorite stories from this semester is a student who came in and in the first week of the course course, we were working on multiplication of decimals because he wasn't quite there with like, okay, so if we multiply these two decimals together, how do we get the answer? And of course, you're a math educator, right? So this is close to your heart. And by the end, I mean, he had scored, I mean, he was he was in the top percentile of this exam. It was just like it was just incredible. And I genuinely believe and this is not to criticize absolutely anyone else, but I believe in any other structure, he would have failed that course. 

Because there's just no opportunity. We move so fast. There's just no other opportunity for someone to really like, okay, if I have to learn basic mathematics essentially, and then apply it to somewhat advanced chemistry concepts, how do you have the time and the bandwidth to do that? Normally? 

Derek Bruff 8:57
Yeah. So let's talk about I want to at some point go back to kind of the various various things you've tried over time. Yeah, but what did this spring look like? What was the structure in the intervention that you were using this past spring? 

Eden Tanner 9:12
Yeah. So the big innovation that I tried out this last spring was this idea of essentially mastery based grading specifically around the four in-class exams that my students sat, where they would be able to essentially sit those exams an unlimited number of times until they reached a level of mastery that they were comfortable with. These exams were written. I made unique versions, so I was testing the same concepts but unique questions for every version they sat. They would come and they would take the exams either in office hours or at this help desk that we have that's staffed by other students or outside my office. And then I would hand grade their retake assessments and kind of walk with them to figure out what they got wrong. 

Derek Bruff 10:03
These were multiple choice exams, is that right?

Eden Tanner 10:06
Yes, that's right. So these were 25-question multiple choice exams that were cumulative. So by the time you reached Exam four, all of the material in exams 1 to 3 in exam four in addition to the new material that they're being examined on. 

Derek Bruff 10:22
Gotcha. So if I were a student in this class, I might would I take the first... would I take the exam in class for the first time? 

Eden Tanner 10:31
Yes, you would, and then you could. So let's say that you are great and you feel really overprepared for this class. This sounds like a lot of work. You could absolutely do this course like it was a normal like it was any other section of chemistry where you just come in, sit the class exam once and then move on with your life. So it was structured to allow like maximum kind of flexibility and also for students to choose how much work they were willing to do and when they wanted to do that one work. 

Derek Bruff 10:59
Okay, so I'm your student. I take the first exam, I make a 60. I'm not satisfied with that. Then I would come to your office hours or come to one of these tutored study halls, the Help desk, you said. 

Eden Tanner 11:13
The Help Desk. That's what we call it. And so the critical part here is that to unlock that next retake, we have to work out what went wrong in the first exam. And so I asked them to write out test corrections, which essentially consists of three parts: which answer you chose and why. What was the error that now you know that the answer is incorrect? What was the flaw in your logic that led you to choose that answer? And what is the correct path to getting the correct answer, for every question they got wrong? 

Derek Bruff 11:49
Gotcha. And so I would need to do that even to take the my first retake, right, the second time on that test. 

Eden Tanner 11:55
That's exactly right. 

Derek Bruff 11:56
Yeah. Yeah. 

So I have lots of questions, but... So it's multiple choice. So grading the retakes was quick and easy, but you had to write different versions of each exam, right? 

Eden Tanner 12:11
Yes, that's right. That's right. And so I was using test banks. I should, I should say that, like, I'm not uniquely generating, I guess general chemistry, it's kind of like you would be reinventing the wheel if you wrote all your own questions. But I did modify a lot of the questions and have to change them, especially the conceptual ones, right? Because obviously then it just becomes memorization. It doesn't really test them. 

Derek Bruff 12:32

Eden Tanner 12:33
On that concept. So it would take me about 30 minutes to write a new version of an exam. 

Derek Bruff 12:41
And I'm just curious, how many versions did you have to write? 

Eden Tanner 12:45
So the most I ever wrote was seven versions of one exam and I was kind of doing this live, right? So I was kind of seeing how they did. I would generate the first retake because I thought it was reasonable that, you know, a lot of people would probably want to take that. And then I would wait to kind of see how they did on that first retake before I started generating more versions. And so the seven was really because I had one student who wanted to get a perfect score and wasn't there yet. I should say that not the whole class took all seven versions.

Derek Bruff 13:17
Oh, sure. I imagine that there's some decay rate there, right?. 

Eden Tanner 13:21
Right there is. And if you are interested, the decay rate is essentially that people improve their score by about 50% on their first retake from wherever they started from. 

Derek Bruff 13:31

Eden Tanner 13:32
And then most people got to an A, so above 90% correct, on their third retake. 

Derek Bruff 13:38
Gotcha. Gotcha. 

Wow. Okay. So if for most of your students, if they continued to retake, they would end up with 90% or higher if they kept at it. 

Eden Tanner 13:50
That's correct. And some students stopped, I guess, at a B but we also have this thing that I call Amnesty week, which is the last week of the semester, where you can do anything, you can contribute any walk with no penalty and so I had a lot of students who earlier in the semester were like, I'm going to stop here at a B, and then at the end of the semester, work for the whole week to get all four exams up to an A before the final. 

Derek Bruff 14:19
Wow. So did they have initially did they have a window during which they could do the retakes? 

Eden Tanner 14:25
Yes. So the window was essentially up until the next exam. Because I didn't want them to not be completing exams two, three and four because they were still retaking Exam one. And we have about three weeks, I would say, in between each exam so that they can do those retakes. 

Derek Bruff 14:42
And the exams themselves are cumulative, as you said, but I imagine the topics in the course are build on each other as well. Right. So if they're they're still sweating the first unit, they're going to be in trouble in the third unit. 

Eden Tanner 14:53
Definitely. And I will say one of the kind of negatives of this, although I do think it could be managed, but if you, for example, said you had a week to do the retakes instead of the whole thing up to the next exam, is that they were not strong on the new topics when they first saw the exam. They either didn't study for them, didn't prepare for them, or were still focused on the previous exam when the first exam was sat in class. They were, however, very strong on the repeated concepts, which made me feel good. So my exam 4 the kind of knowledge concepts from Exam one, pretty much everyone was getting on the first try. 

Derek Bruff 15:30

Eden Tanner 15:31
So that was great. But it meant that essentially the class exam was like a glorified practice exam, right? Like that... The initial score returns didn't improve really Exam on exam, which was not my hypothesis. I thought the first attempt scores would go up, but they didn't because of the new content. 

Derek Bruff 15:50

Eden Tanner 15:51
But the repeated concepts, their proficiency with the repeated concepts really went up. 

Derek Bruff 15:58
Yeah, let's talk about that a little bit. So, so, you know, correlation and causation and all that. But you know... that they seemed to learn the stuff by the end of the semester based on this natural chemistry exam. What do you think this retake policy enabled the students to do differently that might have been helpful to their learning? 

Eden Tanner 16:19
Yeah. And so this actually comes to some other work that I've been doing kind of separately, which is to try and interrogate why we have and in particular, this is not just for this demographic example, but for a couple of others too. But this one's the most egregious. So our black and African-American students fail at twice the rate, we fail them at twice the rate that we fail our white students and they we give them A's at half the rate than we give our white students A's. And so that was the starting point for kind of all of these investigations. And what we encountered is that there's essentially five or six factors that contribute to you being more likely to be failed for general chemistry. And so these are being black or African American, being male, having to work more than 20 hours a week, being a first generation student, those are... and being on financial aid. So it probably doesn't surprise you that those are the five factors, but the more factors you have, the more risk you are on for being failed in general Chemistry. 

Derek Bruff 17:20
Quick, make sure I heard that. So being male is a risk factor for failing? 

Eden Tanner 17:25
That's correct. 

Derek Bruff 17:26

Eden Tanner 17:27
You are much, much more likely to fail if you are a first generation African American student who is male than female in our sections that we see. And this is the trend of awarding twice the failure rate, that's over the last ten years. This data is over the last year or two. So the data that where we actually surveyed our all of our students and asked them everything basically we could think of about their lives, this is kind of what we pulled back as being useful. Importantly, we came across three what we call protective factors that if students kind of said yes to these three things, that it didn't matter their demographic alignment, they were not more likely to be failed. And so these things were knowledge of and access to resources, relationships with people in the department, particularly faculty and other students, and also study skills. So these were the three protective factors. And obviously these are students' own perceptions of these three things.

And so I think that where this really came from, why I think it was successful is because it basically hits on all three things, right? If you're doing the retakes, you know about resources because you know about the retakes, you know about office hours, you know about the you know, the help desk situation. You certainly spend a lot of time with me. And often with each other, honestly, as they were working to get ready for the retakes. And essentially what doing the retake is, is essentially it's like really fancy practice questions. Right? So you could absolutely at home grab a textbook and sit there and work through all the problems in the textbook. And then you wouldn't need to retake a single exam, right? But this kind of gave them the impetus and the drive and the motivation to really figure out if I'm getting these questions wrong on my second attempt, what is it that I'm missing? And we would be able to sit through and say, okay, so there's five things you need to line up to get this question right. Where did we lose you? What point did you not get to? And then once we fixed that, that seemed to be generalizable for other times they needed to use that skill set. 

Derek Bruff 19:45
Oh yeah, Yeah, yeah. 

Eden Tanner 19:48
So they were developing their study skills, if you like. Like how do I answer a question on an exam? How do I deal with multiple choice? How do I work out even where to start? By doing the retakes and this is not the only way to do it right? There are probably thousands of ways you could do these three things, but I think that's that was the magic is basically they spent time and energy developing these three axes that protected them. 

Derek Bruff 20:12

Eden Tanner 20:12
From other things that might have come up. And I think honestly in a in a normally examined course right you do this exam once in class, you look at the number on it and you think that's bad or that's good and you shove it somewhere, maybe you don't even take it home and you never think about it ever again. 

Right? And so that's the problem is like, why would you spend time going over the things you got wrong if there's no incentive for you to do that? 

Derek Bruff 20:39
Yeah. And, you know, maybe there is some incentive, right? In theory, there's value in doing that because I will be tested on this in the future, the material in the course does build. But, you know, I got four other courses I'm trying to manage this week, so there's not a tangible, immediate incentive for doing that. Whereas with the retake gives you gives you credit, right. For, for doing better. 

Eden Tanner 21:03
Yeah. And I also think that there's something deeply like kind of psychological about it confronting our failures when there's no opportunity to really improve. If you feel like imprisoned by this grading and imprisoned by the, you know, the grade that you get, all you're really doing is looking at this thinking, Wow, I really like failed this, I failed this. And instead it's... And so I think the other thing was the redemption. It was like, it's never too late for us to figure out what's going on and get you somewhere. It's never too late. And the purpose of looking at this isn't just to reinforce like how much you like, how much of a failure you are and how much you don't belong here. It's really the opposite to say, Well, look, this is the bits you've got, so good job. And then these are the bits that we're going to work on. 

Derek Bruff 21:43

Eden Tanner 21:44
And I think as an educator, the feedback that you get when you have students do these retakes is enormously useful, right? So I knew really for every single student what they didn't understand in a way I never would have. 

Derek Bruff 21:59
Yeah. So they're submitting in writing these, these kind of test reports that you're looking over this. And I assume I mean, I'm going to ask you in a minute about your own use of time, but like you can scan this quickly and and gain some things from it. Would you sit down and talk with every student between retakes? 

Eden Tanner 22:16
If I could, Yeah. Some of them would just email me and so I would email them back rather than having a live conversation with them. But that would that would be ideal. And I think I probably did talk to most of them at some point in the semester. There were very few students too, who didn't have like one on one in-person conversations with me. I only lost one student, I should say, out of my 170. There was only one student who didn't who gave up and didn't show up to the final. 

Derek Bruff 22:46
Oh, wow. Okay. I was going to ask you about the students' response to this retake policy. Was it positive? I assume there were a variety of responses, but how did they how did they react? 

Eden Tanner 23:02
That is a really good question. So I think on the whole, it was positive. It's hard to say because you don't have a control group necessarily. I did ask them about it too, So every week I asked them for feedback and I did ask like, do you like doing the retakes? Would you prefer to not? And they were very honest with me about what they liked and what they didn't like about it. But on the whole, I think they did like the opportunities for redemption. The fact that it wasn't just like, you have to be good at this one 50-minute performance period and then that's it. That's your that's the mark that you got. You know, so I think on the whole, they did they did like it. And the other thing that was surprising to me that indicates they kind of enjoyed it was that they all did it like that. So really surprised me. Like by the end of the semester, 800 retakes were done. That's not that's not the original exam. So it's like 800 new exams were taken. 

Derek Bruff 24:01
Across the four exams and the 170 students. 

Eden Tanner 24:04
Yeah, exactly. And every single person retook an exam at least once. And some people like this person who took it seven times, they were like, dogged. They were... This is a level of commitment that I think I'm like general discourse around like students these days. They're not committed, they're lazy, They don't want to show up. They don't want to do the work. That was absolutely not my experience. 

Like these students absolutely showed up for themselves and I showed up for them. Right? So I said, I'm going to show up for you. Are you going to show up for yourselves? And every single one of them said yes. 

Derek Bruff 24:40
How much extra time was this for you or was it extra time? 

Eden Tanner 24:45
A lot, I will say. So That is the one thing that we are working on and much you know, I'm a research chemist as well as an educator. And the first time you do an experiment, it's never going to be perfect. So I'm now experimenting with some ways to help improve the timing. The biggest timing was actually the grading, especially near the end of the semester, and the fact that students really wanted live feedback on how they were doing. But if you have like 100 exams to grade, you can't tell them within a minute how they did, you know? 

Derek Bruff 25:15
Sure. Yeah. 

Eden Tanner 25:17
And so really the last two weeks of the semester where the really wild ones were, I'd be spending like all day with them in my office. And then 6 hours at home after I went home grading the exams and updating the scores and then coming back in and making sure we had enough exams for everybody to take. And so that's it's not obviously sustainable or scalable. So the model that I'm using this coming semester, if you're interested, I can talk about how I've made some changes. 

Derek Bruff 25:44

Eden Tanner 25:45
To make it not awful on me and I should say that I should preface this by saying one of the really big reasons this needed to happen is because I'm expecting a baby in November, which is very exciting.

Derek Bruff 25:58

Eden Tanner 25:59
Thank you. Babies are not known for showing up on other people's schedules. 

Derek Bruff 26:03

Eden Tanner 26:04
so like I'm fully prepared that she might arrive at any point am and so I need to kind of proof this so that the people who step in to help me out. 

Derek Bruff 26:14
Oh, sure. 

Eden Tanner 26:15
And my students are like, Oh, we had these opportunities and then you just disappeared one day and then everything fell apart. So this is the other big motivation, but also because I want to be able to keep offering this. If I do this every semester, it's going to burn me out. I am. So what I've switched to is actually having the exams be on Blackboard, which is our learning management system here at the University of Mississippi. And then they write down all of the working for every question out. 

Derek Bruff 26:43
Okay. On paper. 

Eden Tanner 26:44
On paper. They take the exam in class like normal. It's just on blackboard instead of on paper. They then submit a photograph of the working on blackboard. It immediately tells them which questions they got wrong so they can immediately, you know, the test corrections work the same way. They either come to me or they come to the help desk to do the test corrections. They then get given a password which unlock the retake on Blackboard with adaptive release. So the adaptive release will automatically release it with a password. They then do that retake at the help desk or in office hours in person with all the people there. And then I or the help desk people co-sign the bottom of their working sheet at the end of the retake that they then upload. 

Derek Bruff 27:26
Oh wow. Okay. 

Eden Tanner 27:28
So that is the big change. I am very nervous about learning loss between having the printed exams and having them on the screen. And I'm hoping that the written working is actually the valuable part, not the having the questions printed. And of course, if there are folks who don't have access to Blackboard in a classroom setting, I will of course provide them with printed copies. Of course, you know, I have been thinking about the differential access problems. I'm nervous, obviously, about changing to the blackboard exams, but I think it will help their experience a lot because they can basically immediately take all of the exams once they've done the corrections. They're not waiting on me at the end of the semester to grade anything. 

Derek Bruff 28:09

Eden Tanner 28:10
You know, they get immediate feedback. 

Derek Bruff 28:12
The shorter feedback loop could be very helpful. 

Eden Tanner 28:15
Right. Because if you think about it, like if it takes me 20... and I was grading and returning within 24 hours, so I was doing a pretty quick job, right? 

Derek Bruff 28:22
Yeah. Yeah. 

Eden Tanner 28:23
But, but even that, if it's the last week of semester and you have four exams, you want to retake it, each one takes 24 hours. So you can start to see how that's not going to work. Well I mean one might argue that that's probably a good reason to not wait until the very end of semester to do anything but you know. Yeah. And, and also it means that it's, it's proofed for if I disappear so it won't affect their learning. If I disappear, they'll still have access to this structure. 

Derek Bruff 28:48
Let me ask a harder question. 

I can imagine that if your students are eventually achieving 90 points or better on their exams, that their overall grades in the course were pretty good at the end.

Eden Tanner 29:05
Yeah, they sure were.

Derek Bruff 29:08
Have you had to deal with any criticism about, you know, a grade distribution that may not be typical of an entry level chemistry course? 

Eden Tanner 29:19
That's a great question. Not yet, but I think I will when we come to kind of talking about how everything went and I'm pre tenure. So certainly in my next annual evaluation, I'll have to defend these choices to my colleagues. 

Derek Bruff 29:32

Eden Tanner 29:33
Ultimately, I actually think this grading is more rigorous and more strenuous than any of the other sections because you legitimately cannot get an A unless you have shown mastery. And one way that this is kind of helped is that the final, there's no like weighting of everything, right? So you have to you have to show minimum mastery to a certain level to get an A. And the final, of course, is much like running a marathon. You only get one go a year, right? You don't get to rerun the Boston Marathon after you've had your go. That's just the score that you get. And either you kind of, you know, you medal or you finish. I'm like, there's no redos of the marathon. So there is this minimum standard that the students have to meet on the standardized final to get the grade that they earned.  

Derek Bruff 30:24
So if they like if they bomb the final but did great on everything else that you've you've set it up so they couldn't get an A.

Eden Tanner 30:31
That's right.  They won't fail if they bomb the final and they do absolutely everything else, they'll get a C okay. They pass the course. They've shown proficiency but ultimately when it came down to it like they did, they weren't able to show mastery on the final. And so they got a C. And I will say that the grade distribution was pretty heavily weighted towards A's and B's, which probably doesn't surprise you, but I only had, I think three C's out of 170. So there were very few people who did fail.

They were very sad and I was also very sad. And and I had a lot of... because I was transparent with them about what their scores were, right, because they're adults and they deserved to know how they did. And I had a lot of really hard conversations where students were like, but I tried really hard and I had an A going in. Like, how am I walking away with a C? And I had to explain difficultly, Like, I'm really sorry everybody had basically an A going in. Because all of you worked so hard, you worked so hard, but like, I can't... and this is part of the reason why I hate grades in general, right? Because I don't want to have to give them a grade based on this. But this is... my hands are kind of tied here, Right? So it's like you did not show me the level of mastery that you needed to show me for me to be able assign a B or an A. 

And those were hard conversations. And I will say that that was the biggest kind of complaint about the mastery grading that I got was that students wanted the final to be able to be reattempted. And it was a huge shock to the system when all of a sudden it's like, What do you mean, what do you mean? I get one attempt at this and this this one hour period, two hour period determines my fate? Like, that's never been how we've done anything in this course, right? 

Derek Bruff 32:24
Right. Because you said by the time the third or fourth exam rolled around, they had acclimated and they they treated those exams as like practice exams. 

Eden Tanner 32:32

Derek Bruff 32:33

Eden Tanner 32:34
And mind you, I was, I was very transparent from the beginning. Like we are training for the final. You get one go at the final, there will be minimum cut off like this is how it's going to work. I'm not going to curve anything. There are just minimum standards that you have to meet. You're not competing with each other. You're competing with mastery of the material. So it wasn't like a surprise. Like surprise, We have this cumulative exam, you have one go at it! But when it became reality, they were all like, This sucks. I don't want to do this. But because of that, I think that is what is going to kind of protect me, if you like, from any potential criticisms that I'm just giving everybody and A and we're all just having like a fun time and we're all just hugging. And that's like what the chemistry looks like, Right? Right. Because this is like... it's they have to show proficiency. 

Derek Bruff 33:22
Yeah. Yeah. On a nationally standardized exam, right? It's not even that you wrote the exam to make it somehow a softball for your students. 

Eden Tanner 33:31
I mean, I would give, you know, and I stand by this. I would give every single student in my class and an A if they earned it, there's no... it's not arbitrary. Like, did you master the content? Yes. You get an A. 

Derek Bruff 33:43
It would be arbitrary to just fail some students because you have to fail some students, right. If they all mastered the material. 

Eden Tanner 33:49
Yeah. Like I'm not interested in having a distribution. Right. Like, and maybe this is what this is where I differ. Like, if, if you earned this, then you earned it. And I don't care if all 170 other people earned it, too, it doesn't diminish your accomplishments. 

Derek Bruff 34:03

Eden Tanner 34:03
You're not competing with each other. 

Derek Bruff 34:05
What advice would you give to other instructors who are interested in moving in this kind of direction with their courses? 

Eden Tanner 34:14
Yeah, I would say to think about ways to give students opportunities to grow and to show that they have grown. 

And the thing is, the reason why I have retained testing is because we know there is some evidence that frequent retesting helps people with learning and retention and motivation and things like that. And so that's why I've opted to keep the exams in there instead of, say, swapping to a different format where I'm not examining them as often. But I would say by creating these opportunities for students to really show you what they what they know, you are kind of opening the door to almost partnering with them and this education. And so you don't need to go, you know, all the way like I did. You could even start by saying that they get one reattempt and they do the corrections and they do one reattempt. You don't need to kind of dive into the ocean. You can you can dip your toe in a little bit if you want to just explore what it might look like. 

Or you could have like three retake opportunities that they have as a token system for across any exam. And so they're not using the first exam as a practice exam like they do with mine. They are genuinely taking the first exam attempt seriously, but it provides some flexibility. Also the other thing I will say that is great from an education like educator standpoint is there are no make up exams. There's no such thing. 

Derek Bruff 35:38
Oh sure, yeah. If they miss it, they just slide into the system. 

Eden Tanner 35:42
No problem. 

Derek Bruff 35:43

Eden Tanner 35:43
I have my sister's best friend's dog's wedding next week and I can't make the exam. No problem. Just do a retake. And so it was no like, all of that burden. 

Derek Bruff 35:54
Right? Which is a nightmare in a class of that size, because there there's always 5 to 10% of students who have some some weird thing happening that you then have to adjudicate. 

Eden Tanner 36:02
Absolutely. And I will say that I think it makes it far more inclusive classroom because there are people who are disproportionately affected by being called into work, their kid gets sick. You know, they themselves are managing a disability or chronic illness that they have to take time to manage and they can't. Maybe that day was a really bad day for them to take an exam. Like, not a problem. Absolutely no problem. No judgment. No, like, you're a bad student for not showing up. It's just it's fine. 

Derek Bruff 36:29
Well, thank you, Eden, this is great. Any other final thoughts on your your experimentation? 

Eden Tanner 36:35
I guess maybe just to say that the whole motivation for doing this was from an equity-based standpoint. It is completely unacceptable to me that we are failing students of particular demographics, particularly our black and African-American students, as the flagship in Mississippi with the history of enslavement and racism and, you know, white supremacy that we have going on here, that is completely unacceptable to me. And so really, I needed to change something. I couldn't just perform the status quo because otherwise I would be an active actor into it. And I will say that my students I had kind of an overrepresentation of black and African-American students in my section, which makes me happy because it means that they feel safe and they've told their friends and their advisors they feel safe working with me. And they did do better under this model, markedly better. So at the end of the semester, 70% of my black and African-American students got an A or a B. 

Derek Bruff 37:27
Oh, wow. 

Eden Tanner 37:28
Which is much higher than the other sections and much higher than the last ten year average. So it is doing what's on the ten. It advantages everybody, but it particularly advantages students who are coming in because of structural factors with less chemistry preparation. And I want to say for the record that some of these people are brilliant scientists and we are doing the world a disservice by not giving them a real opportunity, a real shot to contribute to science, which is what we do when we have these kind of absurd things that don't give anyone a chance to learn and catch up. Proud and curious about what this next iteration is going to look like and whether it's going to continue to help people and what other things I need to do in other areas of my course to kind of increase the the equity around learning. 

Derek Bruff 38:23
Yeah, well, thank you, Eden. That's a great place to end it. Appreciate you taking the time to come on the podcast today. 

Eden Tanner 38:28
Thanks so much. 

Derek Bruff 38:31
That was Eden Tanner, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Mississippi. Thanks to Eden for sharing her story here on the podcast, and for all her efforts to foster student success at our institution. 

It’s hard to follow Eden’s final remarks in that interview, but I’ll add that a year or two ago, Eden was a part of an another faculty learning community at UM, one focused on inclusive teaching. That community explored some of the inequities we see in higher education, with an eye toward helping all students succeed, regardless of their identities or backgrounds. Anyone interested in helping students do well in college should know that inclusive teaching efforts are student success efforts. For more on this point, listen to the previous episode of Intentional Teaching featuring guests Viji Sathy and Kelly Hogan.

Intentional Teaching is sponsored by UPCEA, the online and professional education association. In the show notes, you’ll find a link to the UPCEA website, where you can find out about their research, networking opportunities, and professional development offerings.

This episode of Intentional Teaching was produced and edited by me, Derek Bruff. See the show notes for links to my website, the Intentional Teaching newsletter, and my Patreon, where you can help support the show for just a few bucks a month. If you’ve found this or any episode of Intentional Teaching useful, would you consider sharing it with a colleague? That would mean a lot.
As always, thanks for listening.

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