Student Perceptions of Learning Goals – More from My Course Evals

Yesterday I blogged about the challenge of setting appropriate grading standards in my first-year cryptography course. Today, I’d like to follow up by reflecting on some student course evaluation comments about the learning goals of the course. Grading standards and learning goals are, of course, tightly coupled!

One challenge of this course was that it featured four relatively distinct learning goals. Here’s how I described them in the course syllabus:

  1. To understand and appreciate the ways in which codes and code breaking have impacted history, technology, and culture—and ways they continue to do so
  2. To understand and apply important concepts and techniques from abstract mathematics used in classic and modern cryptography
  3. To improve skills in communicating in writing technical information and opinion- and evidence-based arguments
  4. To gain proficiency in creating and breaking simple codes and ciphers

In short, the learning goals center on mathematics, cryptography, writing, and critical thinking. Addressing all of these in a single course (even a 15-student seminar) was challenging, and integrating them in meaningful ways was even more challenging! The students had a few things to say about this in their course evals. For instance:

“It was very difficult to have a math curriculum in a writing class. The material taught in class didn’t necessarily reflect the essay topics. The majority of learned material counted for the minority part of the grade. Writing curriculum was minimal and yet the essays account for over half of the final grade.”

It’s quite true that the mathematical component of the three essays was minimal. The second essay was an expository paper in which students explained the origins and use of a particular code or cipher, and some of the students’ papers involved communicating mathematical ideas, depending on the code or cipher they selected. The first and third essays were squarely about the role of cryptography in society and had no mathematical content.

However, I wouldn’t go as far to say that “the material taught in class didn’t necessarily reflect the essay topics.” Sure, the mathematics discussed in class didn’t, but we spent a lot of class time discussing the role of cryptography in society! Those conversations were clearly reflected in the first and third essay assignments. Similarly, I don’t agree that “the majority of material learned counted for the minority part of the grade.” That would only be true if you ignored the critical thinking component of the course.

The mathematics discussed in class showed up in the problem sets. The role of cryptography in society showed up in the essays. While I might have liked to have integrated these two learning goals more, I didn’t see a clear way to do so this fall. This meant that the activities and assessments associated with these learning goals were separate. I don’t see that as a bad thing–it makes sense to assess different learning goals in different ways. But it’s clear from student feedback that some students found this separation by learning goals unsettling.

Where I fully agree with this student comment is in the amount of writing instruction in the course. We devoted five class sessions to writing instruction, three of which were peer review sessions. That’s not bad out of 30+ class sessions, but I think the students would have benefited from more time focused on writing and different kinds activities addressing writing. I have a much better sense of what kind of learning needs my students have around writing now, and I have several ideas for in-class and out-of-class activities designed to address those needs. More on these ideas in a future blog post!

Here are a couple of other fun comments:

“I was sometimes irked by the amount of math that we focused on. I would have liked to have a greater amount of emphasis placed on writing, as it is first and foremost a writing seminar.”


“The course was interesting and clear, however the excess of writing seemed unnecessary… I think this course could have been more effective if it was not given as a writing course and more emphasis was placed on greater/more understanding of course material and less on the theory/ethical implications that the topic of the course touches as a whole.”

See? One student wanted more writing, the other wanted less. Fun!

I wonder, what does that last student mean by an emphasis on “understanding of course material” if not “the theory / ethical implications” of cryptography? I see that theoretical / ethical component as front-and-center in the course! Perhaps the student was more interested in the mathematical and cryptography components of the course and less in the critical thinking component? Since the critical thinking component was expressed in the writing assignments and the student doesn’t seem keen on the writing parts of the course, that would make some sense.

Regardless, there’s no chance I’ll reduce the emphasis on writing in this course. It’s a first-year writing seminar, so if anything, I’ll increase the amount of attention paid to writing next time! Most of the students are with me on this, I think. Of the six students who addressed the balance of mathematics and writing, five asked for more attention and/or support for learning to write.

Here’s one more student comment about writing in the course:

“My only complaint would be that, while this is indeed a writing course, the student’s grade depends too much on the quality of a student’s writing and not on his understanding of the course material. Especially in the first paper, it seems as if a good writer could receive an A with little to no knowledge about the course material itself.”

If you check out my rubrics, you’ll see that each essay assignment was graded on both content and clarity, so there was always some attention paid to “understanding of course material,” unless you restrict the definition of “course material” to the mathematical component of the course. However, I’ll agree with this student’s statement about the first paper! The goal of the first paper (an opinion piece) was to let me see what kinds of writing skills the students brought with them to the course, not to see how well they understood the course material up to that point in the course.

This leads me back to an issue I raised in yesterday’s post: student expectations and assumptions about the course. Did I clearly communicate my intention for the role of that first paper to my students? Not completely, given this student comment. Did I clearly communicate the notion that problem sets would assess mathematical skills and essays would assess critical thinking skills? Again, not completely given the student comments above. I certainly made some efforts to communicate these expectations of mine, but they didn’t take with all students. I’ll have to find some new ways to go about this next time around. Conflicts in expectations between students and instructors can lead to all kinds of frustrations, and I’d like to prevent as many of those as I can.

What about you? How do you go about communicating to your students your expectations and the roles various activities and assignments play in your courses?

Image: “Darts,” Bogdan Suditu, Flickr (CC)

·It was very difficult to have a math curriculum in a writing class. The material taught in class didn’t necessarily reflect the essay topics. The majority of learned material counted for the minority part of the grade. Writing curriculum was minimal and yet the essays account for over half of the final grade.

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