SoTL SHOWCASE: A Requiem for Exams, Discussion Questions, and Textbooks (5 min lightning talk in 90 minute roundtable)


  • Justin Ramsdell George Mason University, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Assistant Professor - Psychology



NOTE: This is a 5-minute presentation that is part of a 90-min SoTL Showcase Lightning Talks and Roundtable Discussion.

A. Challenge-Large class sizes can be overwhelming for professors whether these classes take place in face to face or in an online learning environment. In addition to that, textbooks are expensive, discussion questions can often feel like busy work for students and professors, and exams (especially when administered infrequently) can cause significant anxiety in students. Textbooks that are not used, discussion questions that do not assist students in meeting the course learning outcomes, and the anxiety caused by high-stakes exams do not help students, yet are a staple of many college courses. How can these practices be curbed, while still meeting the student learning outcomes in an engaging and accessible way in a large-enrollment course?

B. Solution Strategy – When problem solving these issues for large-enrollment courses there are three things to consider: First, assessment is not synonymous with testing. Exams or quizzes should facilitate learning (as opposed to being a means of assigning grades). Second, providing quality feedback is more important than grading. Third, more feedback is better than less feedback. Peer-graded assignments, journal entries, video quizzes, group work, and breaking large written assignments into smaller pieces can lessen the load for instructors, provide students with more feedback, and possibly eliminate the need for textbooks.

C. Context/Evidence – This presentation will provide evidence from two different courses in which these techniques were used. This includes the comparison of measures of student learning outcomes from one version of the course (“basic course”) in which students took a midterm, final, and wrote a large research paper and another version of the same course (“low-stakes course”) which followed the considerations listed above. Based on end-of-course testing, students in the “low-stakes course” scored equally as well, or better, on student learning outcome measures with less time spent by the instructor grading work.

D. Teaching Principles and Research That Inform This Practice – Both courses outlined in the presentation use real-life case examples as the backbone of the course (and the primary driver of the format of the course). Assignments have been created, and tiered, in a way that incorporates all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy into each course. Essentially, each course is designed so the students feel as though they are taking a walk through a forest in which they have never been… but have no chance of getting lost either.

E. Format – The presentation will outline previous version of the courses, describe the changes made to each course and differentiate between the “basic course” formats and the “low-stakes course” formats, and will explain the driving force behind the changes. The presentation will also highlight the ways in which the “low-stakes course” format decreases the grading load on the instructor and improves student learning outcomes. Following the presentation of factual material (and depending on the length chosen for the presentation) the presentation can review the ways in which participants can redesign their own courses to fit the “low-stakes course” model, and (if time allows) participants will break into groups to create new assignments for their own courses. F. Take Aways/Adaptation – Faculty will be able to re-think their own course design and assignments to provide more (and more relevant) feedback to students while still reaching the stated learning outcomes. Participants will also understand how to achieve this goal without increasing the overall work load on the students (while simultaneously lowering the overall instructor workload).

Author Biography

Justin Ramsdell, George Mason University, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Assistant Professor - Psychology

****TEA 2019 Winner****

Dr. Ramsdell is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. In addition to teaching psychology at the undergraduate level he also works as a forensic psychologist; serving as an expert witness consultant, primarily in cases involving law enforcement officer use of force and crisis de-escalation with individuals experiencing mental health crises. He also serves as a trainer for federal and local government law enforcement agencies and local police Crisis Intervention Teams.





THURSDAY 1:00pm-2:30pm SoTL Showcase: Lightning Talks & Roundtable