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New Approach Gives Students’ Ownership of Their Learning

By Clarke News  |  November 16, 2021
O'Neill Kingston (right) discusses a coding project with a group of students.

Following some inspiration from professional development activities throughout 2021, Professor of Mathematics Amanda Matson and Visiting Assistant Professor of Mathematics O’Neill Kingston have launched a brand-new lesson plan for statistics that gives students more control over what they learn and when. 

The method shifts lessons away from hypothetical, test-based scoring to using real-world examples. Students showcase what they have learned through achieving a series of competencies spread across previously existing course outcomes. Students need to have demonstrated competencies in all of the course outcomes to pass the course. Their grades are determined how many competencies they have demonstrated per outcome. Students also support one another by submitting data that demonstrates competencies witnessed in classmates.  

Our goal with this approach is to create a grading system that allows students to grow, and gives them ownership of their learning.

“One day in class, the students were all talking about their favorite fast-food places” Matson said. “We were able to do a quick poll and turn this into a conversation about convenience sampling and how we might extrapolate this data to the larger community. It was interesting to them and helped them apply these concepts to some real-world situations.”

Kingston has also applied lessons with real data in his sections of the course. For example, students were presented with the full cast and crew of the 2020 live-action remake of the Disney film “Mulan” and using the statistics programming language R, as well as some research, were able to calculate the proportion of cast and crew that were ethnically Chinese. “Statistics can help us gain a deeper understanding of demographics and lots of other information. Because the students are able to choose which projects they complete, they can align the assignments with the data points and topics that interest them,” Kingston said. “We’re learning new tools and techniques alongside the students, so it’s been a time of discovery for all of us.”

As the semester progressed, milestones such as midterms function as opportunities for students to self-evaluate and present a plan to their instructor that explains how they intend to get from where they are to where they want to go.  

“We call it a ‘base camp to summit’ approach because the students can create their own path, but they are all working toward that same goal of a greater understanding of statistics and how to translate that knowledge into their daily lives,” Matson said. 

By emphasizing goal-setting, personal responsibility, and teamwork, we are helping them develop both personally and professionally.

The class set-up has also encouraged students to welcome members of the community and discuss issues facing Dubuque and the region. Dr. Becky Bodish, a program manager from Four Mounds, which provides youth and community programming, invited students to help them turn their anonymized numbers into a story. Students shared local data as part of their presentation, again giving the students opportunities to apply what they’ve learned to real-world concepts. The class was also broken into groups and allowed to choose a topic of their own to research.

“My most memorable activity in this class was our Bee Branch project,” said Business Administration and Accounting major Lydia Lange ’25, who worked with team members to analyze average temperatures of the Bee Branch Creek, which has major environmental and social impacts on Downtown Dubuque. “It made our whole group work together to get all the data we needed to make our graphs. Plus making our PowerPoint was pretty fun for me.” 

Matson is hoping to expand the model to other courses and encourage further collaboration with campus and community groups. This includes the Clarke Compass, which rewards student involvement and volunteering while helping them develop the skills to learn, live, lead, and give in their careers and communities. 

“At Clarke, we talk a lot about contributing to the common good through our core values,” Matson said. “It is my hope that this class and others like it not only create a more equitable learning environment for students but empowers them to take that knowledge and do good in the community.”