Dr. Jamie Kleinman (CLAS, Department of Psychology)

Jamie Kleinman: Innovating with spec grading

Jamie Kleinman, the only full-time psychology professor at the Avery Point campus, stumbled into teaching. After earning a PhD in psychology from UConn in 2007, she was working as a clinical research associate on a research grant when she was asked to teach a graduate course whose instructor had fallen ill.

“I did that, and I loved it,” she said.

One course led to another –an undergraduate W class in abnormal psychology. When she learned of an opening to teach at Avery Point, she was all in.

Considering how much she had loved school and having close relationships with teachers, she is amazed that she did not embrace teaching earlier.

Kleinman is an assistant professor in residence at Avery Point. She received CETL’s 2018 Teaching Innovation award and a 2014-15 Faculty Excellence in Teaching award for UConn Avery Point. She earned a BA in psychology at Davidson College and was a research assistant at the Yale Child Study Center before earning her PhD in clinical psychology from UConn.

Her teaching is informed not only by her psychology research, but by new tools and technologies, from Prezis to podcasts. That includes new directions in pedagogy, like specifications grading, which she adopted last year and now champions.

Her graduate and postdoctoral research focused on the early detection of autism. “Now my research focuses on active learning and teaching effectiveness,” she said. The two are not unrelated. With her students, she looks early on for behaviors that affect outcomes. Metacognition – becoming aware of their own thought processes – can lead to interventions that help students learn.

She is particularly interested in “kids who are slipping through the cracks” at either end of the confidence spectrum. That includes students who are overconfident and those who are overly anxious but earn A’s. Kleinman gives pre-tests in which students answer questions and then rate how confident they are about their answers. The students who are over-confident because they have some knowledge of the subject often do worse than they expected. “Familiarity with things gives students a false sense of knowledge,” she said. Those who studied hard but expected to fail often perform really well.

Based on the data provided by the pre-test, she can work with students on learning strategies, like scheduling more time to study or re-directing their energy from anxiety.

Grading that self corrects

She wants students to master the material, not focus on grades. That led her to adopt specifications grading, a system that can include a series of pass/fail projects and exams that lead to a final grade. Passing requires students to master 70 percent of the material. They can use tokens, some that are earned and some that are given at the start of the course, to correct their failures for half credit. The more projects they pass, based on a rubric of specifications for the work, the higher their final grade.

Arguing with the instructor over a grade is eliminated because the specifications are detailed and clearly spelled out at the beginning of the course. The up-front burden of teacher preparation makes grading easier in the end, Kleinman said.

“My students really seem to like it,” she said. Some may not want to put as much effort into the course, and they know what they need to do to earn a C. The rubric makes clear what will be considered outstanding, good, fair, or poor work and assigns a point value to each.

Self-correction proved its worth in a 2000-level course where students had to use APA style for a paper. On the first try, most failed because they did not get their citations right. But they used tokens to re-submit, and in the next try, their citations were perfect.

“They did not like getting zeros at all,” she said. Self-correction also provides her with an opportunity to give feedback not tied to a grade. “It allows me to engage in a much more helpful dialogue,” she said.

Correcting your own work is also much more like the real world, Kleinman said. If you turn in a report that doesn’t meet your boss’s expectations, you will have to rework it. College should prepare a student to fail and then correct their work, “not just demonstrate how clever you are,” she said.

Technology and psychology tools

Kleinman sends students a video before the course begins to explain specifications grading. She also uses Kaltura for video hosting and sharing, and she requires podcasts as well as papers and presentations from students. She prefers Prezis, a Cloud-based presentation method, over PowerPoints because Prezis are easily updated, cover material in modules, and allow her to embed media.

In her teaching philosophy, Kleinman calls on a concept borrowed from psychology’s dialectical behavior therapy, in which two seeming contradictions – acceptance and change -- can apply. It is possible, she believes, to cover a lot of complex content in a course and to slow down instruction to accommodate curiosity. Her focus is not on how much material she can cover, but on what is most important. With that, she concentrates on the process of learning.

That means finding ways to engage students and make content memorable long-term. She has them braid and bead a keychain that represents a neuron and name each part with its scientific name – dendrites, axons, etc. They need to be able to explain their keychain to their friends who ask what it is.

She tells them to consider their work, whether it is a paper or a podcast, directed toward others. “You’re speaking to an audience,” she said.

“What is college for, if not becoming educated and becoming a lifelong learner?” she asked.

Learn more about Jamie Kleinman: https://psych.uconn.edu/faculty/jamie-kleinman/

See examples of her Prezis: https://prezi.com/user/9huhc4gmdvnb/

Read an essay about specifications grading by Linda B. Nilson, who also wrote a book about it: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/01/19/new-ways-grade-more-effectively-essay