To grade or not to grade?

This week I think we have another issue without a clear-cut answer. Should we grade students? And if we do, what should we assign? And if we don’t, how do we hold students accountable? Or should we, as instructors, be responsible for that in the first place.

There is no easy answer.

I am early in my career as an instructor. However, I have had the privilege of teaching my own class and I thought quite a lot about what I would do with regards to assessment for that class the first time around. Now, considering round 2, I have even more thoughts and uncertainties to sort out.

I knew one thing before I started teaching. I don’t believe in tests. I think that while they do work in assessing some students, they don’t work for all students. What I do believe in is a multi-faceted approach with a diverse set of assessment tools. The first time I taught my class, I had students present, discuss, write guided reflections, read and write for homework and participate in group activities. What worked: small group discussions, short presentations. What needs tinkering with: written reflections on reading assignments (or just ways to encourage students to read in general).

I thought the successes went well because I was flexible with what I considered ‘good’ work from the students. I left room in my grading for creativity and engagement, even if that meant going down a different path than some of their classmates.

I thought the written responses were a failure because despite me trying to avoid reading quizzes (quizzes being just a smaller format of testing), students just were not reading the assigned texts.

I’m hoping next time to make some changes. I’m not sure yet what those changes will be, but I know that having a fixed and stagnant syllabus isn’t good for anyone. As educators, we should always be trying to improve and do a better job every time we teach of reaching our students. I might have to give podcasting a try after reading about Ray Thomas’ experience with podcasts in his class!

Can we multitask?

The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, but accompanied by some actual reasons.

I used to think that it was possible to multitask. That may not have been the case for everyone, but, sure, some people can multitask. They have the ability to listen to music or watch TV while working on homework or surfing the web. I never thought I had that skill myself, but I had been told by so many of my friends and family that they COULD DEFINITELY multitask. And who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Well, in 2012 I decided they were and I haven’t believed a single multitasker since.

Like many former believers in multitasking, I had the impossibility of multitasking demonstrated to me in class. In a room full of people who were convinced they could multitask, a professor of mine had us complete 2 tasks at the same time and show us that we either could not complete both tasks at the same time, that we were significantly less efficient at both tasks, or that we thought we were doing both tasks at the same time, when really we were just switching back and forth in rapid succession between the two.

I don’t doubt that there are people who can read a book while playing music with lyrics. What I do doubt, is that they are listening to the words of those lyrics while they read the words of the book they are reading. I don’t doubt that people can put a TV show on while they do homework, but what I do doubt is that they are actually watching and absorbing what they have have on while they work on that homework.

Now, I’ll say it probably doesn’t ultimately matter whether people think they’re getting away with multitasking or not. But, my two cents on this are that one or both tasks are being done poorly. Why is it so essential that you listen to music with lyrics or watch that 30 minute TV show or catch the most recent football game while you’re working on something that your brain actually needs to focus on? Is it enriching your life that much? Does it give you a ton of added benefit that you otherwise wouldn’t be getting? I think too many people kid themselves into thinking they’re getting two birds with one stone instead of just prioritizing one activity at a time and completing it well.

From struggling undergraduate to PhD student

I was suspended for a semester as an undergraduate. I came to Virginia Tech in 2011 as a freshman. I was thrown into an incoming freshman class of around 5,000 students. My high school graduating class had 23 people in it. We were a small, close-knit group and I had had the same teachers since 10th grade. I came in as a University Studies student with the dream of getting into engineering. In high school I had always been better than average at math and science and I thought that engineering seemed like an obvious fit. After a semester of terrible performance, I was put on probation. After another semester of more of the same, I was suspended. At the time, it was devastating. But looking back on the experience now, I am able to appreciate the positive changes it helped me to realize in my academic career.

There were several reasons for this turn of events – some in my control, and some under the control of the University environment:

  1. I didn’t go to class as much as I should have.
  2. I was not prepared for the anonymity that massive class sizes provided.
  3. I was convinced of my own multitasking skills (i.e. using laptops in class to ‘take notes’).
  4. I was taught entirely in lecture format classes.
  5. I had a lot of growing up to do.

The themes of this week revolve around teaching styles and obstacles to student learning. I’d like to take this time to address lecture-style classes and use of technology in class.

Regarding lectures, as the readings have shown, there are some positives and negatives. For the student, it is useful to be lectured to in a well-balanced education. However, it cannot be the only method that instructors use. In many of the classes that freshmen are expected to take, lecture is the primary teaching tool. It seems as if that norm may be changing in recent years, but students could really benefit from less lecture and more active forms of learning. In the classes that I teach now, I try to mix it up as much as I can. I like assigning in-class group exercises, discussions, and presentations. Yes, lecture is still necessary. And yes, there are still some students who do not engage in class and despite my best efforts, resist my efforts to pull them in. But, overall, when students are given the opportunity to share their thought processes and grapple with tough issues, rather than just listening to someone else talk about them, it seems (in general) that the material sinks in a little more.

Now on to the issue of laptops – a much debated issue. Honestly, after reading about whether they should be allowed in class and engaging in countless discussions with peers and professors, I still don’t know where I stand on this. I truly don’t think that people can multitask. But I also don’t know whether it’s the instructor’s responsibility to ‘force’ students to pay attention, or if that’s even possible. Although smartphones and laptops are recent technological advances, daydreaming has been around for a long time. If you take away one distraction, it’s very possible that students could find another. I will say, that in my own experience, I missed a lot of opportunities to learn as an undergrad due to my laptop use. It wasn’t until I took a class in my first semester back from suspension, when a professor had the whole class complete an exercise designed to show our futile attempts at multitasking that I put away the laptop in class for good. Sure, I got it out now and again when needed. But from that point, I knew that if I had it out, I probably wouldn’t be paying attention to what was going on around me. The point of that story is to say that maybe it’s not the instructor’s job to force students to put away the laptops and pay attention. But, maybe it’s a teachable moment. Instructors can demonstrate the harm that laptops are having on their student’s focus and attention and maybe convince a few of them of the benefits of giving the class that they’re in a little more of their attention.

I started out this post with the story of my failures during undergrad. I learned a lot of lessons as I plummeted downwards and I also learned a lot as I struggled to improve. I came out the other side as a pretty decent graduate student. So, while I might have been an undergraduate with some of the worst habits and zero interest in my classes, I learned for myself what it took to succeed and (probably more importantly) learn.

Learning to have levity

Blogging puts a magnifying glass up to one of my greatest weaknesses: online levity. By that, I mean my ability to show an informal side with a sense of humour through any online platform, or even more broadly, any text-based content. Somewhere during my education and professional experience, I have learned to be formal, ‘professional’, and informative. But I have also lost the ability to speak my mind and connect with an audience through my words. Blogging clearly has a lot of potential to hold the writer accountable, increase visibility, and provide control over one’s internet presence. It also is not only a useful, but necessary tool for those pursuing careers in academia.

My current graduate assistantship requires me to promote study abroad opportunities for students through several online platforms. Just this past week in the office, we were faced with an interesting dilemma. There is a scholarship program run through the U.S. government called the Boren Scholarship. It’s deadline was coming up and a co-worker of mine edited our website to say “Boren Ultimatum” as part of the headline for our update. We all are huge fans of wordplay and absolutely loved the joke. But, we were conflicted by whether it was ‘appropriate’ to publish on our website. One of my co-workers finally made the point that it’s our website, and we can do with it what we want (within reason). It was then that I realized I have never thought of online content that way. It has never been ‘mine’. It has never been something that I was free to have fun with. I realized that the well-trained academic and bureaucrat in me subconsciously rejected the idea of having fun with content. I’m not sure if this is something that I will be able to overcome over time. But having a structured way to work on lightening up my online communication and sharing my thoughts with a community will be a much-needed first step.

Another example of this internal struggle of mine shows its head in my use of Twitter to engage with the academic and policy community in my field. People working in national security, foreign policy, and international relations frequently take their debates to Twitter. They debate contemporary issues and critique each others’ publications, not to mention building networks of colleagues and friends. It is a dynamic and very real community that holds its public forums online. I have been on Twitter for a couple of years now and I am still a lurker. I always find excuses not to tweet or comment. It comes down to fear of saying something wrong or contested, or simply just putting myself out there. But, as Tim Hitchcock explains, that is precisely what the value of Twitter and blogging is. It is a forum for academic engagement that is, at least somewhat, removed from self-selected filters we place over our work. It is open and available to other users of the interwebs and forces us to people and perspectives that will make us better in the long run.

This is the start of my journey to have a little more fun, knowing that I will still be able to get my point across while maybe entertaining a few of you along the way.