Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Grades?

Last week I offered a perspective on student evaluations of teaching.  To summarize, I was advocating for a much more collaborative and developmental approach than the usual bubble forms support.  This week, I would like to suggest that a similar re-thinking of our goals should take place around the topic of grading.  Let me be transparent from the start: I would like to see us give up the letter grades that have been designed for ranking students and replace them with a much more developmental approach.

Years ago, my husband and I sent our children to a high school with no grades.  After having attended a traditional (and small) public school from kindergarten through eighth grade, they moved to a small private high school full of progressive learning strategies.  For my eldest, this was an easy switch.  Alex moved from a student who earned As and Bs, to a student who asked lots of questions, argued perspectives, struggled to be a better writer, and thirsted for understanding.  The small seminars were perfect for this kind of learner and Alex thrived.

For my second child, the adjustment was more complicated. Michael was not a student who thrived in the traditional structure and the same was true in the new structure.  However, the narrative evaluations that took the place of the summaries of the A, B, C grading system, helped to identify some patterns of learning that were covered up with simple grades.  For this, the switch was a benefit, even if Michael did not love the learning the way Alex did.

At the time that this was going on, I asked my students about the idea of abandoning grades in favor of narratives.  Their response: “How will you know who is best?”  Well, there it was, as clear as could be, grades are about ranking not learning. I assured them that it was very easy to determine who was best at working with the material we were discussing, but I was not sure what the value of that knowledge was to supporting learning.  I’m still not.

So, as my faculty are reading papers, administering final exams, and trying to sum up their students’ work in simple letter grades that are effective for ranking but not necessarily for learning, I am suggesting we just stop it.  Here is what I propose instead:

  1. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at a more advanced level.
  2. This student has demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit and proceeding to a related topic at the same level.
  3. This student has not yet demonstrated sufficient understanding of the content of this course to warrant the awarding of credit.

Instead of ranking students, these categories will simply facilitate progress through the undergraduate experience. We will not lose any of the rigor we currently expect; indeed, it might encourage greater integrity in the evaluation. Instead of suggesting that a D represents learning of any kind, (I’m pretty sure it just means the student attended class), the focus is on the future.  Faculty will determine a student’s capacity to participate fully and successfully in subsequent courses.

Arriving at these non-grades still involves lots of evaluation of students.  Just like in the current system, it would be best if there were many assessments on which to base this decision.  Regular feedback is an important part of nurturing learning, and that work never gets easier. However, with this system, students are incentivized to keep trying, even when they are struggling.  With grades, a few early missteps and low scores can drive a student to withdraw, or worse, give up trying.  They see the low scores as holes they cannot dig themselves out of, and they are right.  Even if they do well later, those scores will be part of their final grades. Their ranks (GPAs) will reflect the struggle more than the learning.

In the system I have proposed, the process of learning does not penalize students for struggling. In other words, if students arrive at aha moments mid-semester and start to thrive, they will not be bogged down by earlier scores.  Indeed, the changes in understanding may actually reflect the capacity to learn in ways that are more predictive of success than the “good” grades ever were. It is a truly developmental approach to assessment.

Of course, this opens the door to all sorts of next questions about time, progress to degree completion, the notion of credits, and so on.  In addition, our culture is so devoted to ranking that this will probably never fly.  Still, for just a minute, I would love for all of us to think about learning instead.  Wouldn’t that be more fun?  I’m pretty sure it would be more productive for students and faculty alike.

 

 

Agency, Evaluation, Innovative Pedagogies

Reflection vs. Evaluation

Well, it is December and we are racing toward the end of the semester. As students complete term papers, prepare for final exams or presentations or performances, faculty are making room in the schedule for teaching evaluations.  These evaluations are generally short questionnaires that ask students to give an assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching they just experienced. It is an opportunity to give feedback, which is to the good, but most are constructed in a way suggests expertise where it does not exist (students are not instructional designers, nor will they have depth of knowledge of the discipline), and there is well-documented evidence that they reflect cultural biases throughout.  So, why do them at all?  Good question.

As currently constructed at my university (and at all of the universities where I have taught), there is little value in this exercise.  We have made the whole process about evaluation instead of about learning.  We have also cast our students as consumers, who then provide ratings (stars?) of our work, without really helping them reflect on their learning. What if we reimagined teaching evaluations as course reflections? Instead of using them to tally the effectiveness of a faculty member, they could become a mechanism for collaborative course construction. Instead of seeking an ill-informed critique, we could invite our students to share what they’ve learned from us and give us suggestions for future iterations of the course.

Here’s what it might look like.

Dear Students,

At the end of each semester, I gather information about your experiences in my classes so that I can get a better understanding of what is working well and what new ideas I should explore. Please take a few minutes to reflect on what you have learned in this class and then answer the questions below thoughtfully and honestly.

  1. What was the most interesting or most important thing you learned in this class?  

Why?

    • It provided a foundation for this or another class that I will take.
    • It connected to important topics beyond this course.
    • It helped me see things from a perspective other than my own.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. What was the least interesting or least important thing you learned in this class?

Why?

    • It was too foundational/I’ve encountered it in several other classes.
    • It seemed like a tangent that was not relevant to the class.
    • Other (please explain).
  1. Considering the course overall, were there ideas or assignments that you think will help you succeed in other classes at the university? Please explain your answer.
  2. Considering all opportunities for feedback on your understanding of the material (tests, quizzes, presentations, papers, group work, etc.), which did you find most helpful? Please explain your answer.
  3. Is there an opportunity for feedback on your work that you would like to see added to this course?
  4. Considering things like grading criteria, timing of assignments, or overall organization, do you have any suggestions that you think might improve this course?
  5. Do you have any additional comments that I should consider?

Thank you for your feedback and good luck in your studies.

What I like about this structure is that it invites students to participate in the evolution of the course, instead of asking for some kind of score for performance. By using the first person in the opening paragraph, the faculty are given agency, suggesting that they are fully committed to this dialogue with their students.  It also suggests that students are speaking directly to that faculty member, not some unknown administrator who will then evaluate the professor. 

Moving in this direction, faculty can use the information to learn how students are experiencing their teaching and respond as they deem appropriate.  For example, maybe the thing that students identified as unimportant, was in fact very important.  Perhaps some reframing needs to take place.  Or, maybe several students felt the need for a presentation to be included in the course.  Digging into why would be a good next step.  No doubt some students will ask for extra credit. If the answer is no, then being clear about why not might be a good thing to discuss in the next class.

I also like that this is a disaster for quantitative summaries.  While the current scales from 1 to 5 may be helpful for creating graphs and charts, and they do provide some sense of the instruction in terms of extremes (outside of university norms), in reality they do next to nothing for teaching.  Mostly, they inspire defensiveness. I’m not worried about losing those statistical summaries, because the extremes are easily captured in the syllabi, sample assignments, and peer observations. I’d rather cultivate the reflective practice that this qualitative approach implies.

As one of the people who reads faculty portfolios in their applications for tenure, I am most interested in seeing how faculty respond to student feedback. The most compelling thing that can be included in any tenure packet is a narrative about how one’s teaching has evolved and why.  Evidence of change over time should include sample complaints and sample praise found in these course reflections. If the examples are followed by explanations of how things changed as a result, then I feel confident that I will know enough to fairly review the candidate. I will also know that I have a professor devoted to good teaching.

Let’s drop the ratings model and focus on learning about our teaching. Let’s try to foster an environment where we take student voices to heart, without ceding our expertise.  Let’s listen carefully to concerns and ideas, and work to grow in our profession. Let’s be reflective educators.

 

 

 

Agency, Dialogue, Engagement

Policy-Making as Pedagogy

This morning I joined a group of students in Dr. Anna Malavisi’s class:  Sustainability: Economics, Ecology, Ethics.  This interdisciplinary course explores the intersection of these three topics or areas of study on decisions around environmental issues. I was to introduce our guest speakers, State Senators Julie Kushner and Christine Cohen, who serve as chair and vice chair of the Environment Committee.  Their presence provided a wonderful opportunity for our students to get a sense of the complexity of developing good legislation around environmental issues.

The wonderful thing about the conversation was the way in which the Senators were able to give specific details about how communities can come together around an issue and how individuals can participate in the discussions that matter to them.  It was a positive conversation that acknowledged the challenges of budgets, differing interests, and competing needs. Their examples revealed that different perspectives are both a challenge and an opportunity to build consensus.  The examples they provided showed strong pathways to positive change.

As students asked questions about the environmental issues they had identified as important, one of them finally asked a question that sparked a particular interest from me.  She asked, (and I am paraphrasing), how can the university get involved?  Good question.

It is complicated to discuss advocacy at a university.  We do not all believe in the same things.  We do not all want to see issues resolved in the same way.  As a university, we value inclusive dialogue from all points of view, but sometimes we are hesitant to get started on policy advocacy, for fear of the discomfort differing opinions might create.  However, as I listened this morning, all I could think of was the value of the conversation.  Students did not get simple answers to big environmental questions; they got the complexity of competing needs. Perfect!  We can work with this model in so many ways.

As I have remarked in other columns, education has a great opportunity to avoid the silliness that takes place in sound bites, tweets, and communication that is meant to provoke outrage rather than solve problems.  We have the luxury of a semester long conversation on a topic.  We are cultivating scholars who can find answers to questions for themselves and then discuss them in groups. By design, we encourage deep thinking about issues and, by design, we investigate multiple answers to our questions.  Tying those conversations to the potential for real-world change could help raise the level of seriousness with which our students conduct their research and apply their knowledge.

Generally, applied research takes place later in a student’s college career.  We design our curriculum to introduce a field (100-level), engage some of the key scholars (200-300 levels), review the appropriate approaches to scholarship (200-300 levels), and then get into asking and answering questions (300-400 levels).  This all makes sense because we are helping our students build a toolkit and context for answering questions.  But, perhaps we need to re-think the starting place.  What if the introduction to the field was a policy question instead of the history of the discipline?

This approach is particularly well suited to the social sciences, because the big questions in those fields are easily connected to current challenges.  Developing policy recommendations around food insecurity, culturally responsive healthcare, treatments for addiction, appropriate punishments for crimes, or the economics of free public higher education are all likely to yield a lot of good discussion and complex policy analysis.

It can also work well for the humanities.  Consider policy recommendations on topics like censorship and the arts, ratings on various media products, displaying controversial historical artifacts, or promoting diversity in curriculum.  These are weighty topics that demand deep ethical scrutiny, prior to any policy recommendations.

Then there are the sciences.  Instead of discussing the ethics of scientific research after time in the labs, situating the pros and cons of using antimicrobial soaps, requiring vaccinations, or creating databases of DNA in a policy recommendation could be a very compelling introduction to scientific thinking.

Reimagining the beginning of the educational process this way is a great way to connect learning to action from the start.  It moves abstract concepts like bioethics to an exploration of real world implications in easy to understand ways.  Asking students to make decisions and recommendations is a compelling way to support engagement; asking them to collaborate in the process offers the opportunity to practice reasoned and civil discourse.

We would, of course, still need those other steps about the history of the field, relevant theories, and appropriate research methods.  But, if we start with application, perhaps those other courses would have greater meaning for the students, because they will have already seen the path to action.  Better yet, perhaps their advanced research projects will be informed by the notion that the results could be part of a recommendation for changes in the world around them.  Now that is a formula for engaged learning.

 

 

 

 

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Starting with Learning

The drumbeat of mergers and closures of small colleges appears to be speeding up.  Chancellors and Presidents of public systems of higher education are examining mergers, shared leadership, and stripped down administrative structures to try to preserve the range of opportunities available in their states.  In New England (and Alaska), shrinking demographics are driving these conversations forward at a sometimes alarming pace.

At the same time, we have seen other developments such as SNHU’s competency-based degrees, Stevens Point’s proposed cuts of several majors (now reconsidered and reconfigured as mergers), Hamilton’s promotion of an open curriculum (less focus on majors, more on developing an area of interest), and this morning, Wichita State’s shrinking of their general education requirements from 42 credits to 33.   And in the background is the constant credential refrain, with short certificates gaining more and more traction.

How can those of us in higher education leadership respond to this tidal wave of change in sane and thoughtful ways?  Well, I don’t really know where to begin, but here are a few thoughts.

Credit hours may be an archaic idea, but the idea that it takes time and interaction with other people to develop the habits of mind we associate with a college education is not.

I am happy to consider online or blended learning, shorter and longer times on material, and even the opportunity to test into higher levels of courses to reflect learning prior to higher education.  These considerations are driven by focus on what and how our students will best learn with us. This does not mean, however, that I am willing to consider the notion that higher education should be construed as a series of tests of existing skills in exchange for a credential.

While the complexity of non-standard times, differing learning modalities, and the evaluation of prior learning are much more difficult to manage well than the simple admissions tests of our existing structures, I embrace them because they are responding to genuine changes in the world of potential students. Information is everywhere and it is clear that people can learn to do many, many things from a YouTube video (play an instrument, develop a computer app, pass algebra, build a shed).  We must not ignore this, or the fact that some of the things we want our students to be able to do are well supported by these short tutorial formats.

Nevertheless, the more complicated abilities that are described as critical thinking, lifelong learning, cultural competency, and communication take sustained interactions with others and with the support of a professor.  The opportunity for (slower) sustained interactions is the opportunity for students to develop comfort with ambiguity, stumble on their assumptions with the chance to revise them, and learn that all knowledge is developed through insight and error. If we move to new time constructs, we must not lose this part of education.

Interdisciplinary connections matter, but they do not replace disciplinary expertise. 

I love the imaginative things that are happening with majors.  Hamilton’s open curriculum mirrors what many elite schools have done for years.  They allow students to discover connections between subjects to build a major or a portfolio of capabilities that will help them pursue advanced study or careers.  At my university, we do this through Contract Majors or the Interdisciplinary Studies degrees.  We have lots of traditional majors, but we also make room for those new or yet undiscovered connections. Making  more room for those authentic connections might be a good idea, because disciplines are evolving and sometimes students see the change before we do.

Nevertheless, a biologist is still a biologist.  A literature scholar still offers depth of understanding of genres and structures of the novel, poem, etc.  A mathematician is still the expert on differential equations.  Combining disciplinary perspectives should be the heart of a college education, but that combination should be made by experiencing learning with people who have advanced knowledge in each topic.  Without that advanced expertise, students will not discover the nuances of a topic or the complications that arise from ambiguity. Instead, they will end up with a simplified overview of a topic. That is not college, that is YouTube.  So, let’s support the pursuit of connections with new strategies, but let’s not lose the value of the expert.

Focusing on higher order learning outcomes is a good idea: making everything the same is not.

AAC&U has long supported the Essential Learning Outcomes and as we see an increased emphasis on what employers want, it turns out that they frequently list the very same things.  Everyone wants college graduates who are skilled in critical & creative thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, problem solving, inquiry & analysis, the ability to collaborate, and some understanding of the world around us (history, culture, ethics, etc.).  These essential learning outcomes (codified in the VALUE Rubrics) prevent the narrowness of focus found in course finals or major field tests and frame the outcomes of a college degree as habits of mind and skills that prepare graduates to engage with all kinds of questions for the rest of their lives.  In short, graduates should know how to evaluate information, make decisions, and ask more questions.

As a communication scholar, it is easy for me to see that at a high level of abstraction everything we do in college is about inquiry and analysis. The behaviors and skills that represent competence in inquiry and analysis can be summarized in a way that allows every discipline to demonstrate some level of mastery in these abilities.  But this does not mean that every discipline is the same. Comfort in inquiry and analysis will reflect the specific skills most emphasized in the major.  For it to reflect the whole of an undergraduate degree, it must include some comfort in the areas that are not well situated in the major. That was the point of the liberal arts degree.

So where does this leave me and my quest for thoughtful consideration of the many changes facing higher education?  It leaves me with a clear focus on learning.  We can support learning in any number of formats, time frames, and disciplinary innovation, but we must remember that to support it well means to resist the temptation to overgeneralize (make everything the same) or to reduce everything to very narrow skills (badges).  It is the fluid motion between the abstract and the specific that will help students grow, develop, and take control of their own learning.  That is the environment that I’d like to nurture.

 

 

 

 

Community, Critical Thinking, Dialogue, equity, Free Speech, Inclusion, Uncategorized

The Age of the Straw Man

Two of the six core values that support Western Connecticut State University’s mission are:

  • Dialogue. We value the conversations that explore diverse perspectives and encourage shared understanding.
  • Respect. We value the right of all people to be treated with dignity and fairness and expect this in our policies, classrooms, and community.

These statements reveal a campus that has embraced the difficult and exciting discussions that follow when people of different social, political, and cultural backgrounds gather to address current and ancient societal debates.  This is who we are, and these values should be at the heart of any educational organization. But acceptance of the challenge of exploring differences in civil and thoughtful ways may need more support than just open minds and empathy.  Given the preponderance of fallacious arguments in the ether, it may be time to commit to some direct instruction in informal logic.

For the uninitiated, informal logic springs from the field of philosophy (also embraced in writing and communication curriculum), that provides a toolkit for examining arguments for structure and validity. Much like the old grammatical diagrams that were once used in the teaching of English (helping to break down nouns, verbs and connecting parts of speech), informal logic allows us to diagram arguments in terms of claims, support for those claims and conclusions. This diagramming is a great way to identify places where the supporting evidence or facts under discussion may have strayed from the initial claim or premise.

I recall my first encounter with informal logic as an undergraduate at Hunter College in the 1980s.  Sitting in a room of over 100 students listening to Dr. James Freeman introduce the structure of argument I felt a light go on.  For years, I had felt like there were problems with the statements/beliefs/worldviews that I encountered, but I could not figure out what was wrong.  These diagrams of arguments were a first step to uncovering the weaknesses or other leaps not supported by the claims I regularly faced. That course changed my life.

Now the field of logic has many nuances that most of us will never really dig into or fully understand, but the basics should be accessible to us all.  Among the basic concepts is the idea of a fallacy.  Simply put, fallacies are irrelevant evidence for a claim.  They are included as evidence, with no real bearing on the debate. They are distractions, keeping us from examining the central claim.  Typical examples are ad hominem fallacies (attacking the speaker instead of the argument), false dichotomy (setting up an argument around two choices, when many others are possible), or appeals to authority (invoking opinions of famous people, who may or may not have a connection to the actual topic).  Learning to see these tricks is incredibly helpful as one tries to evaluate a substantive issue.

One particular fallacy that seems to be dominating our lives right now is the straw man. The straw man fallacy is a way of distorting the central claim of an argument and then arguing against the distortion, rather than the actual claim. This tactic usually relies on taking things out of context or exaggerating the initial claim.    Since any example I give at this point is likely to draw some kind of bias claim, I will relate a totally unintended version that happened in an interaction with a six-year-old, twenty years ago. The six- year-old (let’s call her Sally) came to play with my daughter some time in mid-December.  The two began to discuss holiday plans and decorations. At some point, Sally stated that “everyone” would be going to church on Christmas Eve.  Since our family would not be heading to church, I interjected, “You mean everyone who celebrates Christmas.”  Sally responded, “You mean you hate Jesus?”

Sally was not malicious.  Her words were the innocent observations of a child who had never encountered a non-Christian before. I will not say things were easy to clarify, she was young and I wanted to be gentle, but we sorted things out.  However, I think you can see that in malicious hands, this statement is an interpretation of my words that was not in any way accurate.  In adult hands, with intention, this can become very ugly indeed.

This is a strategy that is dominating political arguments from all directions (left, right, and everywhere in between).  You name the issue (environment, immigration, gun control, healthcare, equity, etc.) and you will find a plethora of straw man arguments designed to distract us from the central argument.  At their worst, they are baiting us into discussions that are entirely false or at best, beside the point.  This is not a good state of affairs.

So what of my university’s values?  Well, like all universities, we are engaged in conversations like the one I had with Sally. In nearly every course, we challenge our assumptions about how the world is, was, or should be organized. Whether studying chemistry, biology, criminology, marketing, or history, students and faculty will uncover long held ideas and assumptions that may need to be reconsidered. Our task, then, is to insure that the reconsideration does not go astray with straw man arguments, or any other kind of fallacy.

To put it more plainly, when we ask ourselves to grapple with ideas that contradict everything we have known to be true, we may feel discomfort. That discomfort should not drive us to tactics that distort the question.  We should not start casting complex debates as either/or, us/them, and allow them to be reduced to slogans. We cannot allow simplistic, straw man fallacies, to distract us from our commitment to reasoned discourse on all issues. If keeping this commitment means more instruction in logic for all of us, let’s do it!