Difficult Conversations: Report from CHEP

Members of the Graduate Academy for Teaching Excellence partnered with the Academy of Teaching Excellence to host a packed session on facilitating difficult conversations in the classroom at last week’s Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy. The write-up is below: Standing room only for the @VT_GrATE panel discussion on having difficult conversations in the classroom! @VTCIDER …

Is Grading a Necessary Evil?

In preparation for this week’s discussion, I have decided to post on the question, “Is grading a necessary evil?” In order to answer that question, first you would have to define a “necessary evil”. The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “necessary evil” as something unpleasant that must be accepted in order to achieve a particular result. I, however, … Continue reading Is Grading a Necessary Evil?

No More Grades

I’ve never really liked grades as a student. I remember in one stats class, I rushed through an exam and miscalculated something, although the formula was right. I got partial credit and I thought about how silly that was. I clearly understood the subject matter, and outside of a test situation I would have had time to check my work. I absolutely hated how easy it was for your GPA to drop from one bad class, but your GPA couldn’t go past a 4.0 no matter how well you did. But still, I was motivated by grades… in my mind my entire future depended on it!

As I started doing this weeks readings and watching videos, I initially thought about how grades motivated me to do “better” and how they might be useful for those it helps. But then I came across a point from Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades” about how motivation through grades can undermine the true purpose of learning. I also really liked the idea brought up in Dan Pink’s TedX talk about how money can only be used as motivation. He says if you pay people enough so that they are not thinking about money, they will think more about the work. Just like that I think grades can motivate people, just like some amount of money can motivate people, but in both cases it’s not the right type of motivation to foster creativity and mindfulness in what you are doing because you are not focused on the right thing. This sentence also came to mind from Kohn’s paper… “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing.” This all ties back to last week in class and our discussion around mindful learning versus mindlessness.

I really think I would like to incorporate these ideas into my teaching philosophy and teach without grades (or at least diluted grades). Kohn has some great ideas about providing qualitative feedback to students instead and not falling into the trap of categorizing students still. I wonder though if teaching in this way too late in the game (college level) is too late for students to become mindful learners. I also think about my ability to apply this concept to the fullest as a teacher, since I have been brought up by grades. I hope I can!

Keep Calm and Dismantle the Grading System?




Last semester a student came up to me after class upset over receiving an 85 on an assignment. She was a senior and didn’t want to end up with an A- or B for the course after three years of a stellar GPA. She was nearly distraught. I wanted to tell her 100 things about how one (still good) grade for one course in undergrad means very little in the grand trajectory of her life. But it wasn’t the time to belittle or minimize her emotions. I told her to rewrite the essay, an offer I extended to the entire class, and she pulled her grade up to an A. But her rewrite wasn’t at all like I’d hoped. I could tell she went through the motions of adding in my suggestions with little growth or depth of thought.

In The Case Against Grades, Alfie Kohn offers an example of how to give feedback and determine a final grade (as require by the institution) without actually assessing and offering letter/number grades on individual assignments. During the semester one professor offers students feedback on what they are doing well and what they need to improve on, making notes in his grade book. At the end of the term, Kohn said this professor meets with each students and asks them what they learned and how they learned. He then asks them what grade they believe reflects their work, and they arrive at that value collectively.

I love this idea, in part because I love working on larger projects with students — longer papers with several peer reviews and revisions or projects with video editing — but students hate having their grade rest on one single assignment, even if I grade multiple drafts or aspects of the assignment throughout the semester. This kind of arrangement would (hopefully) allow students to feel less pressure about meeting the marks and focus on their project by focusing on what they learned/gained through their work on the project.

I want to find out more about this system, like how open the professor was in explaining how the grades would be assigned at the beginning of the course and if any students bucked at the system.

This is absolutely the kind of system I would love to try, BUT what are the implications for a doctoral student or a new professor? How might my department feel about this, especially if a student (after the fact) challenges their final grade? Would I be left defending (instead of the grades I’ve assigned on concrete assignments) an entire teaching philosophy? Is this the kind of grading system that only tenured professors secure in their positions feel comfortable trying? Has this grading system ever been implemented at Virginia Tech?

I’m interested. I want to do it. But there takes a certain nerve to pull off something like this, and I’m not sure I have it yet.

Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

Reading The Case Against Grades brought up a TON of emotions for me this week. Some of the emotions this pieced evoked from me were anger, frustration rage and even a bit of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed for my present self, but embarrassed for my younger self, the me 10-15 years ago who wasn’t among her high-achieving peers in the classroom. I went to school in a county, on a particular side of the county were high grade marks and straight A’s were an expectation of almost everyone. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t one of those students. I excelled in my elective classes like music/choir classes, home economics/teen living and sociology but could never seem to master’s subjects like physics, geometry and chemistry. It was embarrassing to receive my test scores and they sometimes be significantly lower than my peers.

In The Case Against Grades, Kohn mentions that several of the effects of grading are that grades tend to diminish what students are learning, grades create a preference for the easiest possible task and that grades tend to reduce the quality of students thinking. All of these statements resonate with me on a personal level. Within my discipline, Higher Education Administration, we reference Pedagogy of The Oppressed by Paulo Freire. In tis book, Freire mentions the baking model which American elementary, secondary and postsecondary education systems seems to adhere strictly to.  Because this system adheres to this restricting system of education, students are not allowed to think freely and make meaning of what they learn for themselves (e.g. Mindful Learning), but rather they are “learning” to regurgitate information for an exam. Grading restricts students and forces them to not necessarily meditate on what they’re learning but rather they can skim books and lessons for what they need to know. They are not told that it is okay to challenge the author, the professor(s)/teachers and each other on their thinking and thought process. Essentially, students are not taught to think at all. Grades are a way of inhibiting students learning. If students do not receive good grades, they are thought of as less than adequate and labeled as “problem” children when in fact, many of those labels could not be further from the truth.

I was never labeled a problem child, but I was told that college may not be in the cards for me. I was a good, well-mannered, well-behaved young girl with many big hopes and dreams. In high school, no one EVER thought I’d be the one to go to college, much less obtain a master’s and thinking about pursuing a doctorate. Grades do a huge disservice to our students because they label our students and put them in a box, typically a good, okay or bad student box. These boxes, these labels send the wrong message to our students. By not allowing them to practice mindful learning and engage in an academic learning space that not only encourages them to ask questions but REQUIRES it of them; think of the culture shift that will take place in the education system. I think it’s past time that we change the way that we evaluate our students learning. While many believe that this shift needs to start in the primary and secondary educational settings, I believe it starts in the post-secondary world. If we change the way we evaluate our undergraduate students, high schools will make the switch, then middle then elementary. It’s a chain reaction that ultimately starts on our level. I dare you as an educator, as an administrator to be a part of making that culture shift.

Are grades problematic? The grade polemic?

Grades are tricky. Students always ask what should I know for the exam, and I have to answer in some manner. But I always answer with the same response, the big ideas, the concepts you wrestled with as the course came to fruition. Thinking about what you actually learned is a revealing process, because what if I learned nothing at all then what? I believe that is the fear of grades, that they provide evidence of what you do not know, when in fact they provide evidence of my failure as an instructor in not simplifying the material in a way in which the student can understand. With this said grades are important to a point, they provide evidence of what one knows. Although, the inverse is true an A in a class does not indicate they know the information, merely they know what the professor wanted them to know and they will probably forget a large sum of that information they learned. Again grades are tricky, and what professors should encourage is outside learning and conversations about the material. This way students can engage with the material they struggle with, what they do not know, and perhaps gain an acumen for the material. The grade matters in terms of a degree,  and the rubric for a specialty is garnered at this level. So it matters, but the pursuit of knowledge should matter more. As Mark Twain once said,  “I will never let my schooling get in the way of my education.” Encouraging outside learning and specialty is perhaps the best way out of the grade trap.

Bring real-world problems into assessments

Real-world problem is not usually reflected on written exams [1]. Incorporating the real-world tests into teaching and assessment can help students better prepare for their career, and this may also be a motivator for students to engage more with a course, especially when they intend to work in industry. My concern is that: how much teachers and professors in colleges aware of and understand the real-world problems in their own field? How difficult it is to include real-world problems into both teaching and assessments? I guess that, comparing to traditional assessments, the evaluation of students’ capability and creativity regarding solving real-world problem is more complex and challenging. Even though many classes have included real-world examples for teaching, few has examined the effectiveness of current authentic assessments.

I have a personal experience about the divergence of the real-world-problem based teaching and the authentic assessment. I have been in a Business College for my bachelor degree in Beijing, and many courses have tried to connect with the real-world practices. We had a lot of group projects on business cases, and we have even participated in a real estate planning and marketing for a famous company. Finally, I can feel that my communication and coordination skills have improved, but this course is graded mostly based on our ranking in the project competition with other groups (which was not high) and I have never received any feedback from the lecturers about our insufficient performance and how we might improve. Now as a PhD student in the College of Engineering, many courses I selected are more theoretical and methodological, I have less opportunity to digest them in a real-world context and many assessments relied on grading-based assignments and a final exam. I guess that there is a difference of assessment among distinct disciplines and the types of courses, but it is still very important to get connections with real world problems consistently during teaching, assessments and feedback.  I will keep exploring the pedagogies to better combine theory and reality in assessments and feedbacks for my future students.

[1] Lombardi, M.M., 2008. Making the grade: The role of assessment in authentic learning. EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.

[2] https://pic4.zhimg.com/v2-571ec909524c73e6f246ad7ff7eb2bb6_r.jpg

Purpose, Mastery, and Autonomy. Which one is more powerful motivator?

When I listen to Dan Pink’s TED talk, I realized I already experienced them all, purpose, autonomy, and mastery, but did not know exactly the difference. Since I know right now, I can say that I absolutely agree with him and none of the assignments or grading system works well as much as those.

When I was working in D.C. before coming to Blacksburg, I was not a supervisor, but nobody was telling me what I should do because I already knew what needs to be done. I had an autonomy on my job. Actually, that situation was a great motivator for me. I was happy and never thinking to quit. The quality of my life was better when I look from outside, but my purpose was set even before starting to work. I wanted to do Ph.D. and had a purpose to go back to academia as a professor. I quit the job, left my home there and moved to Blacksburg. It was quite challenging decision for me because I was living in Istanbul before and love living in big cities, personally. It is interesting because I am actually here, in this class, Contemporary Pedagogy, and in Blacksburg, just to learn something and be a good educator at the end. I aimed to gain different perspectives, but now I am forcing myself to write a blog as an assignment. It means, I have a purpose but still grades are important somehow.

On the other hand, I can tell that I started to learn more in grad school because I was trying to keep my grades high until grad school. My first concern was a grade, so I did not study for learning. In other words, I tried to memorize whatever the professor showed us and did not learn really. I never ever learned anything in my life without learning purpose. If my purpose or motivation is not learning, then I do not learn at all. Particularly, memorize something is not my cup of tea. But after I started to grad school, everything has been changed. I knew that nobody would care about my grades anymore, and nobody would judge me by looking my grades. My purpose was learning that time and I did not care grades, I cared to learn but got good grades. Because my professors also were caring teaching more than our grades.

I first realized that the grade is not a purpose, learning is the most important factor when I was taking my Quantitative class. As many of us in the Contemporary Pedagogy class heard the Professor name David Kniola thought me that the school or university whatever is not just for giving grades to students, they are actually for teaching how to be a better learner -and also a teacher- in life. Knowing yourself and your own style of learning and teaching was the purpose of his Quantitative Research Method class. Which is extremely important and meaningful to me because I never saw a professor like him before. And I never understood before that the mastery is one of the best ways of teaching or learning. Even the best professors considered grade as a motivator in my life. And I think, I got used to that idea and cared about grades too much unintentionally.

I think each professor should think about motivators. They should think about if the grade can be a motivator. Or they should think about what is their aim in the class. For example, a professor punished me with a grade last semester. She asked me a tricky question and I kindly give feedback to her about the course as an answer, and then she gave me a lower grade and she decided not to be in my dissertation committee anymore. I thought she was serious when she asked me my opinion about that course. I did not say anything wrong or rude for sure, but she was expecting compliments I assume. She forgot something: I came here not for a grade, I came here to be a better researcher and a better educator. It means, I always should have ideas about courses, about educators and everything because I am observing and evaluating faculties and students, of course. And I am thinking how can it be better? Because I want to be a professor soon and should develop a good strategy and perspective about it. Did her punishment motivated me? Of course not! It only made me sad because it is sad to see institutions have those kinds of educators. But understood that, I know that if I am not ready to hear, I will never ask any student about feedback for my course or my research 🙂

Sweeter carrot and sharper stick

I believe it! For mechanical activities, the concept of the rewards and bonus would work better. But when we are talking about the rudimentary cognitive activities the reward idea would not work at all.
Our current system in universities are mostly based on the reward-punishment methodology. A number of advisors, even here, are asking their students to stay in their office, they might check on them three times a day to see where they are there or not. I would say it does not work at all, and they kind of know it. Even some of them force their students by saying that “you know who is the boss here, and if the boss asks you to do something you got to do it”. Nope that is not the way! Having a conversation with Dean DePauw, we might call some of these actions as academic bullying, but that is what we are faced with in many places. I mean a person who chooses to go for a higher level program, definitely knows that he or she should be a hard-worker, but people who are in charge they have this conspiracy theory that the student is running away from working and they have to push them harder with ridiculous rules and silly works, or set up some reward-punishment program.
My experience tells me that the intrinsic motivations are far more important than extrinsic ones, I mean as the financial issues are solved by the first step; the rest is purely about intrinsic motivations. I wish we could tell folks in academia that the world has been changed, the carrot and stick game does not work anymore. They are trying to box students in, not letting them to fly over new areas and find the real things. Take a look on the greatest achievement people came up with before, In how many of them money, bonus, rewards or punishment were the main reasons for such achievements? Probably none.
I personally agree that Autonomy, mastery and purpose are the hidden golden keys for individual better performance. I had so many related experiences with these three golden keys. I know people who came with absolute great ideas when they were chilling on their vacation doing whatever they wanted to do (Autonomy). I know people who dance for themselves without getting paid, and their videos are being watched like crazy on YouTube (Mastery). How many doctors we know that they work voluntarily just because they feel they have the responsibility for the human being wellness, and many neat medical techniques are just developed right there while helping other people (Purposes).
I wish we could let people working in all the university disciplines know that the old-fashioned educational methods of sweeter carrot and sharper stick do not work anymore. But, this question remains for me and it is: How can we get people to change their rusty mindsets?

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