When less is more

I have a relatively light teaching load this semester. I’m teaching a senior seminar, our introductory research methodology course, and an online principles of microeconomics course (technically, two smaller than average size sections taught as a single course). And at least so far, my scholarly projects have been on hold.

The light load has allowed me to put a lot of effort into the online course, making it highly interactive. The course is pilot testing (for a second semester) the Lumen Waymaker platform. Waymaker is designed for mastery learning: Students work until they achieve mastery, that is, when they fail to reach the mastery level on an assessment, they keep working through the material until they do.

I’ve found that students find the mastery approach very countercultural. When students fail to achieve mastery, they seem to feel like failures, as if they took their shot and missed. But in my experience that doesn’t characterize much of the real world. Instead, one is rarely given a pass if you don’t succeed on the first try. Rather, you are required to fix whatever went wrong, that is, you keep trying until you get it right.

An integral part of the Waymaker philosophy is for instructors to reach out to students experiencing difficulties. Waymaker informs instructors when a student fails to achieve mastery on any end-of-module quiz (e.g. chapter test). When I have reached out to students this term, I’ve found the students to be very apologetic or even guilty. The students’ natural tendency seems to be to think I am scolding them. But this is the opposite of what I’m actually trying to do.  Rather, I’m trying to build a coach/mentor/tutorial-like relationship to help each student negotiate the learning process and to encourage students to see that learning is achievable, that there is no failure unless you quit. Again, this seems to be a very different approach than most of my students are used to.

The Waymaker platform has facilitated this approach in my principles course, but it’s really the availability of time that allows me to do this, in part the time Waymaker frees up, and in part my lighter than normal teaching load this term.

The load has also enabled me to use the same approach in my other courses. I’ve been able to keep up with the near weekly research assignments in the methodology class. I’ve been able to respond with more thoughtful feedback than I have typically been able to do. While I don’t know for sure yet, I feel this is enabling earlier intervention into prospective problems than in the past—and students always encounter problems in the research course since problems are inherent in doing research.

This all feels good, but I also feel some guilt that I must not be working hard enough, that I’m not supposed to be on top of things like this. I know this feeling is wrong, but it shows how deeply engrained the traditional grading & overworking system of academia is and, in my opinion, how pathological the system is. All of this has made me think about how we grade, and how difficult it is for both students and instructors to disentangle summative assessment from the learning process.

Something to ponder.

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