Anything we do as teachers that inhibits student learning is a failure!

I believe my primary responsibility as a teacher/faculty member is to facilitate my students learning.  If anything I do inhibits student learning, that’s a failure on me.  Student learning depends in large part on the course learning environment.  Too many faculty put too little time thinking about their course designs. IMHO.  Putting limited thought into course design means the learning environment is unlikely to be optimal for most students.  I have a secondary responsibility for assigning grades to my students, but if they don’t learn what they are capable of, this second responsibility is irrelevant.

I have written about ungrading before.  This post goes beyond ungrading.

This semester I am teaching many first-year students.  I am teaching a First Year Seminar and multiple sections of my intro course.  After the first week of classes, I have been reminded of how pathological teacher and student behavior about grades can be.  By pathological, I mean inhibiting learning.

I believe our students have learned to be fearful of grades.  After all, for most students getting a grade lowers your academic standing.  Most courses consist of readings, assignments and exams, the latter two of which yield a grade.  I believe students see these things as primarily there to generate inputs towards a course grade.  If you are a teacher and you think that that is the purpose of assignments and exams, you are encouraging the pathology.

For me, assignments are literally learning activities for students, since I believe that students learn most by doing, rather than hearing or reading.  In my courses, the purpose of assignments is to invite students to work with the material.  Every student is capable of that.  Every students can learn more by working with the material.  My goal in each of my courses is to help each student learn as much as they can.

Feedback is guidance that students need to learn.  Too often though, feedback is summative; too many teachers use grades as a way to sort students; too often teachers justify grades in terms of how the student (more precisely, the student’s work) falls short.  This is not the way we review our colleague’s work, is it?

Instead, I prefer feedback to be part of a conversation between teacher and student about how to improve student work.  To achieve this goal, I prefer to ask questions, rather than make judgments (which often feel like lashes to students).

As part of an assignment in my intro course last week, I asked students to email me their responses.  Many, many students sent me an email AND submitted the assignment via Canvas, where the assignment description resided.  Why, I asked them?  Because Canvas allowed them to submit their work.  Because they didn’t want to risk a penalty for “not doing it right.”  Where did they learn such bizarre, if rational, behavior?  What kind of a teacher would penalize students for turning in their work the wrong way?  (Yes, I know there are such teachers, but how does that enhance student learning. And don’t tell me about teaching students to follow directions–this is not kindergarten.)

I asked students to complete a scavenger hunt on the course Canvas site, the purpose of which was to help students familiarize themselves with my course.  All of the answers were on the Canvas site and yet many students earned less than 100%.  Why?  Some did not seem to read very carefully.  Some jumped to the (wrong) answers based on previous experience with Canvas.  I responded to each submission, marking the wrong answers and saying things like “Care to try again?”  Very few students resubmitted.  Now I now this option is countercultural.  It seemed clear that they saw this like many/most assignments where you get one chance to get the answer right.  Because it’s a test.  For a grade.

Think about the purpose of this learning activity:  My goal was for students to learn what I asked about in the scavenger hunt.  My goal was not to catch students who submitted the wrong answer.  As @jessifer might say, “this made me sad. ”

One question on the scavenger hunt, asked students the cost of the textbook for our class.  After getting the answer wrong on the first attempt–the fault of the bookstore, one student wrote:

“I know I probably won’t get points back, but I was wondering if the answer to #8 would be $25 since the textbook is through waymaker and there is a part of waymaker that would cost $25??”

Why so obsequious, as if the points are the point, rather than the learning?  It’s almost as if the student’s goal (or is it the teacher’s) is to please the teacher.

There is a place for summative assessment, but it’s not in regular learning activities.  The goal of learning activities should be for all students to master the material.  If they don’t get it the first time, we should work with them until they do.  Is this time consuming?  Well yes, but isn’t this the job of a teacher?  Besides, I’d rather do this than tell myself “I am covering the content,” while letting the students fall where they may.

Post script: There’s another thing pernicious about grades—it makes teachers change the way they view their students, and not for the better.  We may improve our view of certain students and raise our expectations for them, but I suggest that occurs not because of good grades, but rather because of performance or attitude.

Okay, rant over!


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2 Responses to Anything we do as teachers that inhibits student learning is a failure!

  1. Shannon says:

    I left a comment the other day, but it seems like the browser ate it. So here is my attempt to recreate…
    The topic of grades came up in my Common Read group. I’m sure at 18 I felt similarly, but the lens of grading which almost all in-class learning is viewed is so incredibly strong. I don’t blame them though, this is the narrative that most of them have been fed their entire lives.
    I also think it is hard to talk about this with the average 18 year old incoming first year student because for most of them the education system is invisible in a way. It is so ingrained in our culture (not everywhere but odds are if they show up at our doors the
    “you go to to college after high school” is part of narrative they’ve been told about how their lives should look) that I don’t think they recognize that it has been carrying them along. If I can make a crude analogy, most people in the US don’t think about the water coming out of their taps, where their toilet water goes to, or how their phone is getting charged when they plug it in to the outlet. It is background to our lives, but imagine our lives without it, and what we are able to accomplish as a society because most of us don’t have to struggle for clean water. I think education, for students who have never been without it, becomes a part of the background even when they attend school year after year. They don’t know what it would be like to be without it.
    Lastly, it wasn’t until after college when I started working full time that I truly understood what my education was for and what it could help me accomplish. I didn’t have the imagination and experience (and maybe faith?) to see how it would help me. I struggled really hard in college with the “why am I learning this?” and it was paralyzing at times. I think for most students the easy substitution answer, when none is clear to them, is “I am learning this to get a good grade so I can graduate and get a good job”. The job is what comes next right? It always about what comes next. Now I veering off in to the “what is life for?” territory, but of course I think education and a meaningful life are deeply intertwined, but perhaps that is better left for a blog post 🙂

  2. Cartland says:

    This me testing comments on another post! Feel free to deny these comments when you moderate them. -Cartland

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