Face Up

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, December 9, 2009

It is nearing the end of the semester here in Wisconsin. Since it is December, winter is inevitable, and the school has officially shut down due to the heavy snow storms and blizzard warning in effect. While it is a residential campus, and most students can get to class, it does pose a problem for professors trying to make it in.

With that in mind, I posted an assignment for my statistics class on Monday afternoon that is due tomorrow at 9:00 a.m and 10:00 a.m. depending on the section. The assignment requires the use of a statistical software package that is only available on the computers in our school lab. Further, tomorrow is the last day I will be meeting with the students before the final. However, with school (and the computer lab) officially closed, several students have e-mailed to say they will be unable to complete the assignment.

Part of me wishes to give students the ol' "lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part"routine. And, the computer lab does open up at 7:00 a.m., an hour before classes begin, so students have the opportunity to complete it then. But, part of me recognizes that is an extreme situation and I should, perhaps, grant an extension. Decisions, decisions...



by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thanks to Paul Hebert for his thoughtful response (as well as those who commented) to my post below here. It’s a fitting topic, given that it was my worst day of attendance this semester. Part of that could be attributable to Wisconsin culture (it is the start of deer season), as well as the fact that classes are cancelled tomorrow for Thanksgiving and some students may have decided to get an early jump on the holiday. Anyway, here are my comments to Paul (and others):

1. I appreciate the Arte Johnson reference as I remember watching Laugh-In in my youth.

2. I’ve been teaching statistics off and on for 15 years, and have found the following to be the “Keys to Success” in the class (which I publish in the syllabus):
  • Attend class regularly. Students who attended class regularly averaged an AB/B for their final grade, while those students who missed 5 or more classes averaged a C for their final grade.
  • Do all the homework problems assigned. On one exam last semester, students who scored a 4 or higher on their chapter homework averaged an A, while those who scored 3 or lower (or did not turn in their homework) averaged a CD.
  • Do not wait until the night before to do the homework. Start the homework early. At the end of each lecture, I will try to mention what homework problems the lecture covered.
  • Come to office hours if you are having problems on the homework. If you wait to start the homework the night before it is due, you will lose this valuable asset.
  • Utilize the material on the g drive (end note: these are materials I prepare above and beyond the text, such as past exams).
  • Study and get organized prior to taking the exams.

None of the above should be particularly shocking, but it helps to let the students know what works. I think it addresses what Paul mentions as “communicating the impact of behavior” by showing with data the impact of missing class and not working on homework. Much of what I do from semester to semester is to try to influence behavior and tweak my requirements regarding homework, exams, attendance, and office hours.

3. I instituted the 10 point penalty in the Spring of 2009, after having no penalty for missing 5 or more classes in previous semesters. What impact did it have? The percentage of students missing 5 or more classes dropped from 22.8% to 15.9%. Meanwhile, the percentage of students missing 2 or fewer classes increased from 56.1% to 65.9%. However, this is a very small sample, and the jury is still out on this semester.

4. I may, on occasion, grade on a curve for exams, depending on class performance. If the top score on an exam, for example, is a 40 (out of 40), there will not be a curve. However, if the high score is below a 40, an adjustment in scores will be made. If the high score on the exam is a 36, and a student scores a 31, I will divide 31 by 36 and multiply that amount by 40 (to adjust it to a 40 point scale). This results in a score of 34.4 and this would be the grade (rounded to the nearest tenth) that will be counted toward the final grade.

5. Exams are weighted and back loaded in terms of points. The first exam is worth 30 points; the second exam is worth 40 points, and so on, until the final exam is worth 120 points. While the latter exams are not “cumulative” per se, latter chapters build off the knowledge learned earlier. Hence, latter exams are worth more.

6. Attendance usually is not a problem in the first couple weeks of class. I rarely see a student miss a class during the first week, and no more than 2 students miss a class in the first two weeks. It is around week 3 or beyond that attendance starts to slip, and chronically absent students usually withdraw from the class.

7. Students will have the opportunity to “re-take” any of the exams that are scheduled (except the final two) under the following conditions:

  • Each student is eligible to re-take up to 3 exams over the course of the semester.
  • Each exam that is re-taken will be similar, but not identical to the original exam
  • The score one earns on the re-take will replace the previous score, regardless of whether the score improves or declines.
  • If a student misses an exam for any reason (regardless of excused or unexcused), he or she will not have the opportunity to re-take it.
  • If a student accumulates 5 or more absences (regardless of those absences being “excused” or “unexcused”) over the course of the semester, he or she will no longer be eligible to re-take any exam. Attendance will be taken every class period. Further, If the student is absent (regardless of reason) on any day homework is scheduled to be collected (regardless if it is collected or not), the student will lose one re-take opportunity.
  • If the student scores a 2 or lower on any homework that is randomly collected, the student will no longer be eligible to re-take the exam for that particular chapter. So, if I randomly collect the homework for chapter 6, and the student scores a 2 or lower on it, he or she will not be allowed to re-take the chapter 6 exam. A score of 2 or lower on any homework that is randomly collected will also lessen the number of re-take opportunities by one.

8. I will definitely try gathering grade expectations of the students at the start of the semester.

9. Students who attend SHRM meetings held regularly during the semester are given 2 extra credit points for each meeting attended.

With that as background, does it change the answers to the original questions?

Sooner Than You Think

by Matthew Stollak on Monday, November 23, 2009

While the fall semester is winding down, I am already thinking and planning for spring semester. One of the classes I will be teaching (and usually do teach) is Statistics for Business and Economics....at 8:00 A.M. Not surprisingly, attendance tends to be a bit problematic. In a class such as statistics, a single absence can often have deleterious effects on grades since much of the material builds on that which was previously taught earlier in the semester.

I typically offer 4 "free" absences to students, regardless of whether they are "excused" or "unexcused." As I don't want to take time to sort out what qualifies as an excused absence, I simply treat them any absence the same. However, once four absences have been used up, each additional absence receives a penalty of -10 points (which equates to 1% of their grade on a 1000 point scale). I often find that once students reach 4 absences (we meet 4 times a week), grades tend to drop precipitously for each additional absence (even absent the 10 point penalty), and so I wanted to make the penalty punitive enough to prevent significant absences. I have found that in the absence of such an attendance policy, it would not be uncommon for students to miss 9 or more classes (I'm not expecting students to be stirred to a standing ovation based on my stunning presentation of the Poisson Distribution, so I do not take absences personally).

With that in mind, I am contemplating switching to a different attendance/absence policy in the Spring. Instead of penalizing students 10 points for each additional absence beyond 4, I am thinking of turning it around and raising the points needed to earn a grade by 10 points per absence. Hence, while it originally took a student 920 points (on a 1000 pt scale) to earn an A, it would be raised to 930 points, an AB would be raised from 880 to 890, and so on, until an F is raised from 600 or lower to 610. If a student missed 8 classes, he or she would now need 960 points to earn an A, compared to the original 920 points.

Will students react positively or negatively to this change? How will it affect student behavior? Are there unintended consequences? Thoughts?


by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tomorrow I head to Washington D.C. to participate in the SHRM Leadership Conference. One of the topics at the forefront of my mind will be the subject of student certification.

Last year, SHRM and HRCI decided to change the eligibility requirements for the PHR exam for graduating students. Currently, any student can take the PHR exam, and, if they pass, they must complete 2 years of exempt level HR experience over the next 5 years to be able to use the PHR designation. In 2011, students will no longer be eligible to take the PHR exam. They must first earn the two years of exempt HR experience.

With that said, SHRM is currently exploring alternative solutions to the PHR exam.

What should this solution look like? What would/should the alternative exam cover? As a recruiter looking at a recent graduate, what skills, competencies, or certification would give that student "legitimacy" that passing the PHR exam might currently convey?


by Matthew Stollak on Tuesday, November 17, 2009

As a fan of all things “The Sports Guy,” I recently picked up Bill Simmons new book, “The Book of Basketball” which details his fascination with the NBA. One of the early chapters focuses on “The Secret” of basketball, which Simmons learned from Isiah Thomas at a topless pool in Vegas.

What is "the Secret?"

According to Isiah, “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball.”

Isiah details the impact of creating the right team in The Franchise by Cameron Stauth:

“It’s not about physical skills. Goes far beyond that. When I first came here, McCloskey took a lot of heat for drafting a small guy. But he knew that the only way our team would rise to the top would be by mental skills, not size or talent. He knew the only way we would acquire those skills was by watching the Celtics and Lakers, because those were the teams winning year in and year out. I also looked at Seattle, who won one year, and Houston, who got to the Finals one year. They both self-destructed the net year. So how come? I read Pat Riley’s book Show Time and he talks about “the disease of more.” A team wins it one year and the next year every player wants more minutes, more money, more shots. And it kills them. Our team has been up at the Championship level four years now. We could have easily self-destructed. So I read what Riley was saying, and I learned. I didn’t want what happened to Seattle and Houston to happen to us. But it’s hard not to be selfish. The art if winning is complicated by statistics, which for us becomes money. Well, you gotta fight that, find a way around it. And, I think we have. If we win this, we’ll be the first team in history to win it without a single player averaging 20 points. First team. Ever. We got 12 guys who are totally committed to winning. Every night we found a different person to win it for us.”

For years, the Detroit Pistons struggled to beat the Celtics and Lakers until Jack McCloskey, Pistons GM, made a controversial in-season trade of Adrian Dantley for Mark Aguirre. Simmons writes “Maybe Dantley was a better player than Aguirre, but Aguirre was a better fit for the 1989 Pistons. If they didn’t make that deal, they wouldn’t have won the championship. It was a people trade, not a basketball trade.”

Simmons identified three characteristics about successful teams that went beyond talent:

  1. They won because they liked each other, knew their roles, ignored statistics, and valued winning over everything else.
  2. They won because their players sacrificed to make everyone else happy
  3. They won as long as everyone remained on the same page

Team Chemistry

Clearly, Simmons feels chemistry is crucial to the success of the team.

A recent SHRM poll “Interviewing Do’s and Don’ts for Job Seekers,” finds that a majority of HR professionals use chemistry as a major determinant in the hiring decision.

A closer look shows that 15 percent of HR professionals polled say “chemistry” is 75 percent of the final hire decision while 39 percent of those polled report chemistry is 50 percent of the final decision.”

The Questions

How does one determine that chemistry? Can one easily find those willing to know their role and value team success over their own self-serving interests, particularly in a job interview?