By Corrine Bent-Womack

At Guelph presents this story as part of a series that highlights University of Guelph leadership in teaching excellence and the scholarship of learning. Writer Corrine Bent-Womack conducted the interview while completing a service-learning placement at U of G as part of her master’s program in higher education at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Prof. Trent Tucker

Prof. Trent Tucker, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, is completing a research study on how students respond when given the chance to influence the weight and distribution of their marks on individual and team-based assignments. His study, which compares “surface” learners to “deep” learners, will be presented at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education annual conference to be held June 20 to 23 in Sydney, N.S.

In this article, At Guelph provides an inside look at Tucker’s research study and findings.

AtG: Tell us about your research project and what prompted you to conduct this study.

TT: I was redesigning my first-year “Introduction to Business” course and thought it might be interesting to learn more about how students make decisions regarding course elements. I attended the University’s Design/Redesign Institute in June 2012 to get ideas about course redesign.

One of my fellow faculty members, Ralph Martin (Plant Agriculture), mentioned that he allowed his students to change the weight of their course elements. I thought this was a great idea and decided to incorporate it into my course. I felt it would give the students more sense of control over their grades. Teamwork for example, was always an issue: high-achieving students resented being part of a low-performing team and having their grades in the hands of others. This would give those students the option of moving part of their grade away from teamwork to play to their individual strengths.

As I began to flesh out the details of this grading policy for my course, I figured there was a research project therein. For example, what strategies would students use when making their decision? Would they maximize their gain, i.e. put the weight on their strengths, or minimize their pain, i.e. move weight away from their weaker areas? Likewise, what were the motivations for students who chose not to reweigh their course work? Did the students make good decisions: what is the overall net effect of these weighting scheme changes, and did their overall averages increase, decrease, or stay the same? Also, are there patterns associated with the teamwork course components? For example, do all members of a poor- or high-performing group lower or raise the weight of their group component? Finally, is there any difference between the choices made by “deep” learners vs. “surface” learners?

The policy was easy. Students were given four course elements with default weights. They could take five per cent from any one element and move it to any other element. They had to make their decision by the 40th class day (course drop date), so they were making a decision with incomplete information. I surveyed the students using a 20-item Likert-style questionnaire called the revised two-factor study process questionnaire (R-SPQ-2F), which measures surface- vs. deep-learning approaches. There were also two free-form questions for students to describe their strategy.

AtG: What are some of the key findings that you would like to share?

TT: I’m still in the process of analyzing the data, but a few interesting bits have been revealed. My naive idea was that students would either maximize their gain or minimize their pain, but many students employed both strategies simultaneously. The bulk of the elections saw students moving weight from their final exam. I think a great deal of this was due to the unknown: they didn’t have a mid-term (so no comparison exam), rumours about the difficulty of last year’s final exam were rampant, and they had already received marks (usually very good marks) for various team deliverables. So it was a case of “the devil you know.” The original exam weight was 30 per cent; many students moved it down to 25 per cent, however, there were some students who actually increased the weight to 35 per cent since they were confident in their abilities and didn’t want their grades impacted by the team elements.

AtG: How would you say the results of this research could impact pedagogy of teaching and learning for faculty?

TT: A number of students have commented that they liked this approach because it gave them a feeling of control. They also wished other faculty would adopt the same philosophy. I would keep the re-weighting policy in future but ask different research questions. For example, if a student moved weight from their final exam, did that action result in the student decreasing the amount of time studying for the exam? Or, if they moved weight from a teamwork element, did that decrease the amount of effort they gave to the team?

AtG: What are your thoughts on innovation in higher education curriculum design and future impacts?

TT: I’m all for innovation! One thing about teaching is that it tends to be a very solitary pursuit. Here at Guelph we have hundreds of faculty who are delivering thousands of classes, but the gems of curriculum design and the reflections of what worked and what didn’t work don’t go very far. Of course, you can scale this idea up across the globe: I wouldn’t have thought about allowing students to reweight course elements without that chance encounter with Ralph. My findings won’t help other faculty unless they actively seek it out. This AtGuelph article is one way, and I’m planning on presenting and publishing these findings, but I think for real innovation to occur, we need more sharing of teaching and learning ideas.