Teaching, Grading & Baylor Graduate Instructors

Last month, I was interviewed online by Gardner as part of a workshop he was leading to a group of graduate students at Baylor, each of whom is teaching a course in their own field. Aside from some technical glitches (We were using Skype for voice and a webcam on each end.), the interview seemed to go pretty well. The topic of the interview was this post I wrote, which addressed some of my thoughts about the interplay between teaching and assessment.

At the close of the interview after I had hung up but before they had, there was a follow-up question which I heard. The question was clear to me since I have heard it before in many different incarnations: Will the approach to teaching and assessment I described work for “creating scholars in a discipline”?

The question was summarized by a note taker at Baylor as:

Can we train scholars in this model of the integrative domain, or does the model cater to students who are going to have trouble?
Or, if we’re only looking holistically at the progress someone is making, will we be pushing them toward excellence? How do we balance these concerns?
There have to be consequences, and there has to be something at stake; you have to know some things. But, this teaching venture is difficult because you’re perpetually trying to navigate a course between the need to engage students and have them actually learn.

(Wow, lot’s of unstated assumptions here. Can you teach students without engaging them? Can students be engaged and not learn? Where to begin?)

The questions are understandable. After all, these are graduate students who have been socialized into the culture of research universities, but have only limited teaching experience. This is not to demean the questioner, but to point out the context from which he is posing the questions.

That said, the questions reveal a lack of understanding and imagination of what real learning is and, I suspect, what learning in a discipline is. I can’t claim expertise about learning in any discipline but my own (economics), though I believe my ideas are generalizable. Let me be clear: the approach to teaching that I describe is absolutely suited to teaching the body of skills and content that a discipline needs its students to learn. How have I reached this conclusion?

We all want to promote excellence. But what incentive does a student have to do more if their work has already been graded an A? What incentive does a student have to do more if they are passing and that’s all they need from the course? The approach I espouse treats each student as an individual learner. It pushes each student from where they are, to (ideally) the best they can be. It doesn’t treat a class as a collective.

Grading, the way it is usually done, corrupts the learning process for most students. The grade becomes the objective rather than the learning. This is not a novel idea. Indeed, today’s Inside Higher Education has an article that addresses this point. We all know this, but we usually assume that there’s a high degree of correspondence between grades and learning. Is there, though? Grades have a high noise to signal ratio, as the engineers would say, that is, only a rough correspondence. There are bright students who achieve good grades without much learning. And there are at least some students who learn much without achieving good grades. The default assumption of the educational establishment is that the problem is with the students. I assert that the problem may be in the grading scheme.

We know that some people don’t test well, or that some people test better with written examinations than multiple choice. Can you conclude beyond a doubt from a multiple choice exam that the student who earns less than an A isn’t really learning the material? I would say no. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t test our students, but rather that we need to be aware that traditional tests are imperfect measures of learning.

We tend to assume that at least the strong students will buy into the system, that they will learn for learning’s sake. After all, didn’t we? And the others? Well it’s not our problem that they’re not academically gifted, and besides there’s nothing we can do about it unless we are willing to dumb down our teaching, and dilute our grading standards. Either they’re willing to do the work that the bright students do, or they are not. Perhaps they’re fundamentally not really able to excel.

But what is excellence? Is it a grade, or a measure of learning. Do excellent students obtain good grades because they are bright to begin with? Or are they excellent students because they seriously engage with the material and learn a great deal?

A good instructor needs to think carefully about what students should learn from a course. Novice instructors may think they should be teaching everything they know on the subject, or everything which is in the text. But ‘covering the content’ should not be the point since course coverage is not the same as student learning, and since it’s not possible for students to master all the content in a single serious course. A thoughtful instructor will identify both for themselves and for their students a limited number of goals that students can learn well in a course.

I believe that all students can learn my discipline. Do you believe the same? For me, an introductory course is not merely a course that teaches facts about a discipline, but a course that introduces students to the reasoning of disciplinary practitioners, something which is difficult for students to grasp. What that implies is not that I teach easier material, but that I have appropriate expectations of what learning is achievable at different course levels. I tend to cover less content, but teach in greater depth.

I’ve used this approach at all levels, from the first year seminar to intro courses in my field to senior seminars. I don’t apply the approach the same way in all courses, but it certainly colors my teaching and assessment. During the interview I was specifically thinking about two courses I teach; the FSEM, but also our intermediate macroeconomics course, which is one of the gatekeeping courses in the discipline. People rarely fail this course; instead, they drop the course and the major when they decide that they are not willing or able to do the type of work required. Few students earn A’s in the course since that requires extraordinary effort and mastery of material–understanding and being able to apply what a macroeconomist does. In short, students don’t get an A by being bright and by going through the motions. They get an A by learning how to do economic analysis and by consistently demonstrating their mastery of it.

One final point: Engagement is not entertainment. Engagement is a necessary precondition to substantive learning. Sure you can memorize definitions without engagement to but follow an argument and construct your own, to learn the tools of a discipline, one has to care. Caring starts with engagement.

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