Rethinking the Grade: Risky, but Necessary

One of the most unfortunate feelings I experienced in my undergraduate courses was the feeling of disappointment, and really outright betrayal, when something that I had learned for an exam never actually appeared on that exam. “Well, dammit, why did I waste my time learning it if I wasn’t going to be tested on it?!” I would think to myself. I felt as though the teacher had tricked me into learning something and taking up valuable space in my already crowded head.

Of course, this is the opposite of what learning is all about. Learning should not be valuable only if it is necessary to some immediate goal, but undergraduate Jackson didn’t see it that way, not when he had to cram for three exams in one week (or even one day, at times). The assessment system as the majority of students have experienced it is broken and backwards, emphasizing rote memorization for the purposes of getting a good grade rather than actual learning.

Of course, this isn’t a secret; most educators will readily admit that the way that student learning is assessed is fundamentally flawed, or at the least in serious need of retooling. Yet, changing the grading system that is now fundamental to US education is a monumental task and one that requires great acts of bravery and defiance. That may sound dramatic, but think about it from the point of view of, well, me!

I am going to complete my PhD program soon, and am beginning the process of applying to institutes of higher education, with the goal of teaching as my main focus. In crafting my teaching philosophy, a large part of me wants to passionately espouse how I am going to reinvent learning and integrate all these newfangled active learning techniques while doing away with categorical grading. However, unless I am applying to an institution that does not use standard grades, I will be required to supply a letter grade for each student, and, more than likely, have a three exam a semester normative syllabus, especially if I teach introductory biology.

I want to get a job, more than I want to be a champion of change. I need to provide for my family and heralding a massive upheaval of the current education system is not likely to help. And, when I do hopefully get that job, I will want to get tenure, and not cause waves by teaching my introductory classes differently than the other sections. So, what do we do, as new teachers do we risk derailing our careers, or not even getting a career in the first place, by championing for change? Do we only apply to institutions like Warren Wilson that already “get it,” thereby changing nothing? Or do we wait patiently until we have our valuable tenure and then begin implementing the changes that we desire, that is if we have not already become mired in the standard grading system and too disimpassioned to change?

I only bring these questions up because I think they are important to consider. Of course we can champion change in smaller, bite-sized amounts that hiring committees will see as appropriately progressive, and departments will not balk at. My passion may scream out “To Hell with anyone who stands in my way! We need to change the entire system NOW!” but change, especially on an individual teacher basis, needs to be both strategic and iterative. Instead of giving exams, for instance, have students write review papers on a topic of their choosing (within the greater subject) and have their peers review those papers for quality and accuracy. The student then may make changes based on their peer review or not (though have them defend their decisions in a written statement) before presenting their paper to the class. In this way, you may assess whether concepts are being sufficiently learned while mimicking the real world of scientific discussion. There are no standardized exams in the real world, and you do not get a grade for each paper you write or talk you give. That being said, it may be a good idea to give weekly quizzes to ensure that the basic, necessary factoids are sinking in, but make them pass/fail.

As I apply for positions, I must keep in mind that I can make change, and stand up for what I believe, without doing away with everything standard at once. As future educators, it is our duty and responsibility to improve how we teach, and how students are assessed. There will undoubtedly be pushback from fellow faculty, the administration, students, and even parents, but we must be firm in our convictions and loyal to the success of our students.

Mindful Learning in Today’s Academia

As a caveat, I apologize for the cynical and ranty nature of the following post, but I think that the issue of improving how administrations approach education is often overlooked and important.

It’s easy enough to look at drop-out rates, standardized test scores, and percentages of our population achieving degrees above the undergraduate level and say, “something is wrong with our educational system.” And, it is simple enough to say, “well, what we need are more individualized teaching experiences and a more mindful approach to education in general.” What is not easy is convincing a stagnant, research grant-motivated (a.k.a. financial) based bottom line academic system to support educators so that they can provide individualistically aimed lesson plans and dynamic teaching environments.

Academia today is a business, plain and simple. Publications and grants are the currency of that business, and the celebrated movers and shakers in academia are those that get multi-million dollar grants and publish in the most prestigious journals. For many institutions, the motivation for providing educational courses has become less about providing diverse and unique educational experiences and more about attracting as many tuition-paying students as possible.

These are all well-known and common concerns, but when one discusses these issues the recurring theme of how to improve education is extremely teacher based. Yes, teachers need to learn to teach in a more dynamic, organic and mindful (e.g. not strictly black and white, fact-based) manner, and there is no doubt that if teachers improve how they teach then students will benefit. But institutions, and our academic culture as a whole, need to buy into the idea that colleges and universities need to be focused first and foremost on education so that educators can feel and be supported in their goals.

To do this there are a couple of things that need to change. First, professors and teachers need to be given fewer ancillary responsibilities, so that they may focus on staying up-to-date in their fields and have the time to continually adapt their teaching materials to new ideas and discoveries. As an example, my master’s advisor was the chair of two university committees, sat on three more and was a member of 16 graduate student committees, multiple of which were not even in his department. On top of this, he was expected to keep up an active research program (publishing every year), mentor three graduate students and act as the graduate student coordinator for his department. When was he supposed to find time to adapt his four graduate-level courses to reflect the most up-to-date material and teaching methods? It is unrealistic and sadistic of an administration to expect its professors to give up what little personal and family time they have to work on teaching when it is hardly weighed as importantly in their annual reviews as research. I, for one, want my teachers to be happy and healthy.

And the teaching hurts for it. I took multiple courses in Entomology where the professors, who were very animated and excited individuals, clearly interested in their subject material, were teaching inaccurate and outdated facts, like Homoptera (cicadas, aphids, etc.) and Heteroptera (stinkbugs, assassin bugs, etc.) as distinct orders, when they were combined in 1995(!) into one order, Hemiptera.

Secondly, there needs to be a shift in the academic culture towards a greater appreciation of teaching, and those that decide to teach. When I bring these issues up to the professors in my department, they say “well, just teach at a small, liberal arts university where they value education more than research.” And, fingers crossed, I probably will. But there exists a powerful, and often not so subtle, underlying belief that by teaching at a liberal arts institution you are accepting a lower-quality position, and that you are admitting that you just cannot handle the rigors of a “publish or perish” tier one research institution. Choosing to focus on education is seen as a lesser pursuit than that of research, as though they are, or should be, at odds.  As an aside, I feel that rather than “admitting defeat,” I respect myself, and my family, too much to sacrifice what little personal time I have for the “incredible opportunity” to live to work.

I really love the concept of teaching in a more mindful manner, and presenting students with facts with the caveat that all things can change, and that we must keep an open mind whenever we are presented with hard fast “truths.”  I look forward to implementing mindful teaching, and gameification, into my curricula, but I should be able to do so without sacrificing time with my family, and without being looked down upon by my academic peers.

Making Lectures Fun

When one thinks of attending a “lecture,” what often comes to mind is an old white man standing in front of a chalkboard droning on in a monotone voice about some obscure corner of existence with little real-world relevance to the lives of the audience. This does not sound fun. And, I expect, that that old white man would be pleased to know that it was not fun, for his corner of existence is serious, very serious indeed.

Exceedingly serious.

While this may be the image that still is conjured up in my mind from time to time when I think of lectures, in reality, I have had the great fortune to sit through some amazing lectures, given by engaging, enthusiastic professors, some of whom were old, white men! The enthusiasm of some of these lecturers was what encouraged a passion for entomology within me, and many of my classmates. And, as an aspiring educator-to-be, I am inspired by their example.

Unfortunately, the lecturers that have been truly engaging and exciting in my life are few and far between, their impact like shining stars engulfed by the unmemorable void of droning “educators.” I cannot speak to what would lead someone to pursue a life of education if they cannot themselves find a reason to crack a smile once in a lecture or raise their voice above a hoarse whisper.

I get it, lecturing can be hard. Sometimes it feels like you have given this lecture 1000 times and you just cannot muster the energy to be excited for this 1001st time. But believe me, if you are feeling bored, your audience will pick up on that and return it to you 100-fold. Something that has worked for me in my, admittedly brief, experience as a lecturer, is to use a common method for reengaging the audience that can also help re-engage you. Every 20 or so minutes stop the lecture. Take a break from talking and ask the students some questions, or show an interesting, short, video clip, or have an activity that can make what you are saying to the students more real and tangible.

As I said in my last post, experiential (active) learning is not a new concept for our species, and it works wonders for conveying what facts actually mean. As an example, I have been developing a class project for an intro to entomology course that revolves around the creation of a trading card game (think Magic the Gathering for insects). This game would reflect, as well as possible, how the natural world of insects works. In a basic sense, there would be predators, herbivores, and parasites and they would have to interact with each other in a sustainable way with regards to the limited resources available in whichever habitat the players have chosen for that session (jungle, desert, field, etc.). Players would gain points for such things as having their predator consume another player’s herbivore, or for the number of offspring their parasitoid fly can produce. The game would begin with a few simple interactions, and throughout the semester, students would work in teams to create cards and game mechanics that would reflect the concepts we discussed in class. The game would get continually more complex, with cards based on real-world insects and situations (such as global climate change and invasive species), serving not to frustrate the player, but to impress upon them the interconnectedness of our natural world. A couple times each lecture we would stop and discuss, by consulting the students, how this concept could be applied to our game, and what unforeseen consequences of any new interactions could arise. And, every so often, a day of class would be devoted to test-driving our game and discussing what does and does not work and why.

I have yet to implement this game-design aspect into a real-world class, but I have a pretty good feeling that it could work, in tandem, with conventional, but exciting, lectures. Games engage the human mind in a way that straight problem solving simply cannot by providing a fun, and interesting, method to reach a specific goal. Playing games can unite people from a diverse range of backgrounds that otherwise would not ever interact, and, if designed well enough, can continue to be fun for years to come. Added to that, games can be iterative, and, if the game is successful enough, I envision an online-playable version that alumni, as well as current students, could continue to add to and engage with as research in entomology develops, and new, incredible, stories of insect behavior are discovered.


Experiential Learning in Entomology

Though the term may be new, the concept of experiential learning (learning by doing) has been around since the dawn of complex life. It is true that many animals rely on instinct for basic functions, but for intricate behaviors like hunting, building dams, and even social grooming, animals learn by watching others and following along, a.k.a. by doing. The ability to pass on information and learned behaviors over generations quickly rocketed humans into apex animal position, so it is no wonder that moving away from experiential learning, e.g. towards just “dumping” information from one brain into another through dull lectures, has had less success. Here’s the rub though, hands-on learning is hard. It demands a much higher level of attention per student from the instructor that forces class sizes to be small. Experiential learning can also be expensive, as students must be allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to make mistakes, which uses up resources. But the outcome of hands-on learning is an undeniably better-prepared cohort of students which knows how to succeed and what to do when they fail. Several years back I taught a course on Bees and Beekeeping as the instructor of record at Virginia Tech. This course was split into two sections, which could be taken separately or together, one, a lecture three times a week with 70ish students, and the other a lab with only 16 students. The two sections were complementary; the lecture taught students about the complex biology of honey bees (which are like, the whackiest and coolest insects if you ask me), the business of beekeeping and managerial strategies, while the lab actually taught students how to keep bees out in one of Tech’s experimental aviaries. The lecture covered the basics of beekeeping, but not a single one of those students who only took the lecture walked out of that class at all prepared to keep bees. Nothing can prepare someone to be surrounded by tens of thousands of stinging insects, repeatedly knocking into your hood screen and trying to crawl up your pants leg. Being calm around bees is something most people must practice.
From a swarm demo we did in 2015. Do you think this sort of comfort around bees is instinctual?
Unfortunately, we could not afford to have every student in the lecture also take the lab, it just would not be feasible with the number of instructors (myself and a TA), the number of hives and materials, and the space of the apiary itself. That being said, we are pushing to increase the number of students that we can take out to the apiary, and the lab portion of the course may soon become its own class entirely, with greater support for space and materials. Finally, I must plug how great Entomology, as a discipline, is for experiential learning. As with bees, there is nothing quite like holding a hissing cockroach or allowing a walking stick to crawl across your face. Insects are amazing, bizarre creatures that must be experienced to be believed, and many of the Entomology courses around the country contain some level of hands-on experience, whether it be collecting in the field or checking local residences for bed bugs (these are often the bravest Entomologists). So, if you are ever looking for examples of experiential learning, Entomology departments are a great place to start!
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