Friendly Amendment to “OER: Some Questions and Answers”

A couple weeks ago, David Wiley responded to a clever Pearson op-ed, which attempted to damn [OER] with faint praise. Among other things, the op-ed states:

“OER often shine in their variety and ability to deepen resources for niche topics.“ (emphasis added)

I have a couple of thoughts on the op-ed and David’s response.

The op-ed asserts that while OER could be high quality, few “instructional design-minded instructor[s]” would be willing to put in the required effort without “fair compensation”. The author’s implication is that OER is extremely unlikely to replace commercial textbooks.

To this point, David responds that the public good nature of digital OER refutes this:

“The nonrivalrous nature of digital resources (the technical ability to share copies of resources at almost no cost) combined with open licenses (the legal permission to share copies of resources at no cost) means that only a handful of people need to be actively involved in producing or making substantive improvements to OER in order for the public to have free and open access to resources whose effectiveness is on par with those created by commercial publishers.”

David goes on to state that the classic theory of public goods,

“lacks an account of why people volunteer for or donate their time, money, and effort to a range of charitable and other causes, including the creation, improvement, and maintenance of open source software and open educational resources.“

I respectfully suggest that the theory suggests otherwise.

A positive externality occurs when the benefits of some action accrue to people other than the consumer who pays the cost. A good example is flu shots. The rational individual will get a flu shot if the benefit he or she receives exceeds the cost they pay. But note that if you get a flu shot, I benefit also since I won’t catch the flu from you. In other words, there is an external benefit to your getting a flu shot (or to put it into economic jargon: the marginal social benefit exceeds the marginal benefit to you). But you don’t take the benefit to me into your calculations. For some people, the cost will exceed their perceived benefits. Those people won’t get the flu shot even when the social benefit (to them and others) is greater than the cost. This is the argument that private markets will under-produce goods with positive externalities.

A public good is a little different. With a good like a flu shot, the main benefits go to the consumer, while the external benefits are secondary. Or to put it more generally, the private benefits make up a substantial part of the total social benefits.   With public goods it is the opposite.

Public goods are defined as those with a high upfront cost, but a zero (or low) marginal cost for others to benefit once the public good is provided. With a pure public good, no one finds the benefit to them worth the substantial upfront cost. Thus, no public goods are provided, even though collectively the social benefits exceed the social costs.   Provision of public goods requires a mechanism for the collective decision to consume and pay for them.

“Non-rival” means that your consumption doesn’t detract in any way from my consumption. An apple is a rival good. If I eat it, you can’t. A printed text is largely rival, since if you are reading it, I can’t read it too, at least not easily at the same time. If more people want copies, they have to pay for them. This is why students generally obtain their own copy of a text, rather than sharing with someone else.

A digital text is non-rival. The cost of creating the text is substantial, but an infinite number of people can download and use a digital text at no additional charge (except for maintaining the server). Thus, a digital text is a public good, while a printed text is a private (rival) good. What about commercial digital texts? Commercial digital texts are technologically-speaking, public goods, but economically-speaking they are not. Property rights to the producer make them artificially private goods. Note that it is (near) impossible to prevent one student from benefiting from another student’s flu shot, but it is entirely possible through DRM to prevent one student from benefiting from a commercial digital text unless they pay the price. This is true even though the actual cost of an additional download is zero.

The classical public good argument is not an argument for why public goods won’t be produced by people who don’t see any personal financial benefit. A flu shot doesn’t convey any (direct) financial benefit to the recipient. There are benefits, but they are not financial. What the argument says is that the personal benefits do not exceed the personal costs. This raises a couple of questions. If this condition characterizes a major work of OER, like a complete textbook, one that could replace a commercial text, then such OER is, indeed, a public good, and by the theory requires public support (e.g. a subsidy) for the OER to be provided. Thus, the grant funding behind a lot of OER makes sense in the context of public good theory.

But there’s another dimension to OER, and this is where I think David is mistaken. When David claims that the theory of public goods can’t explain why people devote time, money and effort to creating OER, I disagree. The theory suggests that people will do this when the benefit to them exceeds the cost. I think that the benefits perceived by these individuals are the benefits their actions provide to other people. Altruism provides a benefit even though the benefit is not financial. I think that explains that why people are often willing to contribute to improvements to OER, once the OER exists. And this makes no sense to anyone who limits their understanding to the realm of commerce. To phrase it differently, new major OER is a public good, but improvements to the same are positive externality goods.

[ By the way, I’m not wowed by the Wikipedia quote on public goods that was cited in the post. Free riding does not cause private costs to exceed private benefits. Rather, it strengthens the case for collaborative action because private action is less likely to occur.]

Beyond this point, my reading of the op-ed suggests that Pearson is setting up a strawman to represent OER. The author implicitly compares comprehensive commercial text books to the single piece of OER created by a random faculty member to teach Topic X, or even an open source text written by a faculty member on his/her own with no editorial or publisher support and no extra quality control. This is not the type of major OER that David and other OER publishers like OpenStax are about. Of course, it’s in Pearson’s interest to promote this myth.

It also seems to me that the commercial publishers are trying to design products for instructors who want to minimize the amount of work they must do to integrate the text into their course–time-constrained adjuncts and lazy tenured or tenure-track faculty come to mind. An obvious example is the powerpoint slides provided by publishers to mirror the book’s content. The op-ed alludes to this when it brings up the costs to faculty of adopting OER, and the implication that these costs are less for commercial texts.

I have to admit that earlier in my career, I adopted textbooks that I had never read. I suspect that’s pretty common across academia. I simply assumed that if they were commercially published, they must be good, right?  David’s post exposes the iie in that assumption.

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2016 OpenEd Presentation

[ to be posted here ]

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Online Shouldn’t Mean a Robo-Course!

This is the time in the semester when the workload starts to increase and the ability to think metacognitively decreases in proportion.  Many folks, both students and faculty, are just trying to keep their heads above the water.  Which means this is a bad time to enter into the most analytically complex material in principles of microeconomics: namely, the theory of the firm.

I sense that my students are struggling.  It’s not just intuition–Waymaker is sending me students’ scores on module quizzes and the scores have dropped significantly compared to earlier in the term.  Students who are ahead of the pack, who had been earning 80+ percent on their first quiz attempts are getting 60% plus or minus.  Ideally, these students will review the material carefully and deeply before going on to their final quiz attempts. These are good students, but I worry about the rest, not just the bottom cohort who tends to have trouble finding time to do the work, but the middle group who can generally be successful with enough effort.

This morning I was reminded of an experiment I tried in the mid-1980s:  I attempted to teach without formal textbooks, instead using books for popular audiences (e.g. Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist, and the like.)  My hope was that students would find those books more appealing and thus get more out of them.  I learned a great deal from that experiment, including that while students can learn most of the content of principles of economics from popular books, they can’t learn theories & models as well.  They need to have a textbook-like treatment that they can review multiple times if necessary.  As a result, I switched to more basic, less encyclopedic textbooks, which seemed to work fine in my face-to-face courses.  I was able to clear up any problems or misconceptions my students got from the text.

Now that I’m teaching online, I don’t have the same opportunity to either read students’ body language to see when they are having problems, or to explain difficult material.  How can I provide the same support in an online course?

One option is to change nothing.  The Waymaker content is pretty good, though to be fair this is the first time I’ve taught with it, so there may be shortcomings in places.  That’s why they call this a pilot!  It may be that the Waymaker approach will work.  Students will struggle on the quizzes, they will return to the content, study carefully and pass on the second quiz attempt.  Perhaps, but since this approach didn’t work with textbooks, I wonder if there’s something I can’t do to insure better outcomes.

One thing comes to mind, and yes, I know this is a “duh” moment. But like Nobel Prizes, it’s only a duh moment after you’ve had it.  The first time I taught online my students struggled to grasp supply & demand analysis.  So what I did was create a small group assignment that required groups to do several supply & demand problems.  Working thru multiple problems and working in groups seemed to do the trick.  Since I’ve already got study groups in my online course, I’m going to give them some “theory of the firm” problems to work thru and we’ll see if that helps.

Image “Dog Paddling” courtesy of Lorenia (via flickr)

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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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Journey into OER: My Quandary

VivienRolfe: I fear we will build the education system that we can measure – not the one that we need. #opened15 #analytics

This is the second in the series.  The first was here. I need to admit upfront that this project is causing some serious cognitive dissonance for me, because it is forcing me to reconcile two conflicting views I have about higher education.  You can see these views in my posts over the years. These views are not unique to me: They were on display at and around the OpenEd 2015 conference, where there was significant pushback by thoughtful commentators who argued that open education is more than open text books. Well, yes, but one has to start somewhere. (I think of open text books as the “gateway drug” to open ed more generally.)

I believe that college has an experiential dimension that goes beyond the content, and to a certain extent, skills learned. The seminars that I teach are oriented around this perspective, so that the most important thing is the degree to which students have participated in, or more precisely engaged with, the process. It’s not that there isn’t content to interact with and skills to learn, but I give students a great deal of discretion about what content to explore, and about which skills they hone. My introductory courses, by contrast, are very much content and skills-oriented. If students haven’t learned the content and skills, they haven’t been successful in the course. My intermediate courses are somewhere in between.  It seems clear to me (though I don’t recall anyone actually saying this) that the importance of what I’m calling content/skills vs. experience varies by discipline.

I believe that learning is fostered when student actively engage with the material. The traditional lecture course, where the instructor lectures on the content, students (ideally) read the text, and then (hastily) study for the exams, is not a good example of an active learning approach. Students need to engage with the material, which suggests the need for regular, low stakes assignments with feedback so students will be able to monitor their learning. Again, the form of this engagement & assessment probably varies by discipline. Whether these assignments are essays, problems, or quizzes, an active learning approach of this type adds to the workload of instructors. Instructors have only 24 hours in the day, like everyone else, so we have had to make choices about how many assignments to give and of what type. There are simply not enough hours in the day or days in the week for me to give and grade as many assignments as would be ideal. Enter computer-based learning and data analytics. A computer is ideal for giving unlimited assignments with almost instantaneous grading. Of course, some assignments work better than others, and computers can only grade what they can measure. As a social scientist, I am trained to construct and use data to draw conclusions. If data analytics can help students monitor their learning, and help me help students be more successful with their learning, then I am all for it.

Which leads to my quandary: If I were to incorporate computer-based learning with data analytics, it could only assess things that can be measured. This would leave out anything that can’t (easily) be measured, like the experiential aspects of my seminars.   I believe both these things, so what to do?

Digression:  The shortcoming of courses that emphasize experience over content/skills is that grades are more subjective. But the reality is that all grades are subjective, and the less subjective they are, the more they emphasize only those aspects of learning that can be measured.  I am willing to accept this in my intro courses, but not in my seminars where I want to give students the freedom to learn what’s important to them.  Perhaps ironically, that meets the learning objectives of the course.

Another reality is that students typically don’t do that well on my introductory exams, and this is pretty common in the discipline. One response is to claim that economics is just difficult, that some/most people are just not suited to learning it. I have not yet given into that cynical view, but I don’t have a lot of evidence to support my hopes.  I want to believe that all students at the introductory level can learn the material, and that if they don’t, it’s the fault of the instructor or the system.  Don’t get me started on the pathology of final exam week

The solution I’ve found for my quandary comes from being a pragmatist and an empiricist. This academic year, I am pilot testing the Lumen Waymaker courseware I mentioned in my previous post (Principles of Macroeconomic last semester; Principles of Microeconomics this semester) to see how well it works.  I wouldn’t use courseware like this for a senior seminar, but it may make sense for an intro course.

(To be continued.)

Image Credit: John Fowler (via flickr) Balanced Rock

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Journey into OER

 This is the first in a series of posts about my journey into OER.  If you are not familiar with Open Educational Resources (OER), you should be.  OER is course materials: syllabi, assignments, lecture notes, and even texts, which are available for adaptation and use for free.  There is almost certainly some OER in your field. If you are like the majority of faculty that I know, you care about your students’ learning and you want them to be successful. One of the major impediments to college graduation is the cost, which has grown faster over the last few decades than nearly any other component of inflation.  Textbook costs are a major part of the cost of higher education.

The strength and the weakness of OER is that it is free. One of the first principles of economics is that there is no such thing as a free lunch—everything has an opportunity cost. If the user doesn’t pay it, someone else has to or else the good or service will not get provided. Much of existing OER is craft work, interesting and useful things created as more or less one-off projects. This is not a bad thing—indeed, it describes pretty much everything I’ve done in my professional life. Until recently.

Two years ago, I helped create a free, open source principles of economics text for OpenStaxCollege. OpenStax has introductory text books in a variety of fields. You should check to see if yours is represented. The books are free in a variety of formats, but OpenStax has been challenged with the question of how to keep their textbooks current and available. Someone has to pay the bills to run the servers. Someone has to pay for updates and revisions. Or these things won’t happen. OpenStax’s strategy has been three pronged: One approach is to ask for donations. I don’t know how successful that has been, but I suspect donations alone will not be enough to pay the bills. Another approach is to work with commercial firms to provide after-market products that are not free, though they may be effective at enhancing learning and they are not very expensive compared to traditional commercial textbooks and their accoutrements. In return, the commercial firms provide a modest revenue stream to OpenStax, enough perhaps to maintain the existing collection of books. The third approach is to solicit grant funding for major projects, either creating new books or making major revisions of existing ones. Granting agencies support innovative new ideas, but they tend to be less supportive of maintenance operations, including revisions. The Gates Foundation has been this way.

One of the goals of the Gates Foundation’s Next Generation Courseware Challenge has been to develop a business model that allows for operation at scale, but that doesn’t require continued grant funding. Enter Lumen Learning. Full disclosure: I am working for Lumen on the project I’m about to describe.   This means I am not an objective observer, which means I am going to tell you what I really think: Go figure!

Lumen is a for-profit company. How can a for-profit company provide OER? I had a hard time wrapping my head around this, but I may have figured it out now.  Lumen is giving away its content for free.  After all, that’s the way OER is supposed to be.  Here is the principles of macroeconomics text.  Here the the principles of micro text.  Then Lumen used this OER to create digital courseware that will replace the textbooks students use in (at present) four of their courses. Lumen will sell this product to colleges and universities at a significantly lower price than students would pay for a text book (approximately 10%), something comparable to what OER after market companies are charging for their products. It will be up to schools to determine how they are going to pay for the Lumen product, perhaps by charging a course fee, but once the school opts in, the students will have immediate access to the text from day 1. Research has shown that when students have access to the textbook on the first day of class, they are far more likely to finish and succeed in the course. In short, the product is not free, but neither is it very expensive. The purpose is to allow the product to be used by a large number of schools and students, but in a way that is economically sustainable and won’t require constant searches for money to support.

(To be continued.)


Image Credit: oer_logo_EN_1 by Breno Trautwein via twitter.





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Kudos to @YouBreakIFix

This week is final exam week at UMW.  I’ve been grading essays and now exams for what seems like forever, certainly more than a week now.  On Tuesday evening, I sat down at my kitchen table to start grading intermediate theory exams.  I set up my MacBookAir and then poured myself a large (16pz) glass of water, which I set down on the coaster next to my laptop.  As I got up to get something else, I knocked the water glass over, spilling the contents on the keyboard of my laptop.  Judging from all the water I mopped up from the table and the floor, it didn’t *all* go into the computer, but still…  The laptop immediately went dark.

A lot of things went through my mind, only some of them repeatable.  I thought about how expensive it would be to replace my MacBook.  I wondered how/if I could recover my data. But most of all I wondered how I was going to reconstruct my grades for the entire semester for all my courses.  Before grades are due, early next week.

I immediately DM’d my go-to computer guy, Obi Wan Andy Rush, aka @rushaw.  He sent me to a very helpful {and hopeful) webpage.  As I did a little more research, I learned a few things:

  • Several people wrote that if I went to the Apple Store, the Apple folks would immediately want to replace the logic board, for $1200.
  • If I went to Best Buy, they would charge me $50 to tell me they couldn’t fix the laptop. That didn’t sound palatable to me.
  • I found several positive references to  I called them and they confirmed that if they could resurrect my MacBook, the charge would be $200 + possibly more for parts, if necessary (e.g. a new battery).  But it they couldn’t fix the laptop, there would be no charge.  And they would do it within four days.

I took the laptop over yesterday and today they called me with the good news.  My MacBook was fixed and the charge was $204, including the sales tax.  YouBreakIFix was extremely professional and I highly recommend them for any computer repairs you need. They also fix cell phones.

The first thing I did was to email myself a copy of my grades spreadsheet.  The second thing was to order the external hard drive Andy recommended I get nearly a year ago.  I can’t believe how well this has worked out.

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Response to “Colonizers and Edupunks”

This post began as a comment on Robert Barrow’s “Colonizers and Edupunks(&C.): Two Cultures in OER” Thanks, Rob for prompting my thinking on this.

The question of open texts vs. radical OER is an interesting one. My training as an economist colors my view on this. One lesson of economics is don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. An innovation doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to be better.

While I haven’t thought this through yet, it feels to me like those in the radical OER camp are changing underlying assumptions without perhaps being explicit about that. Or they could be speaking from a different context. More on this below.

I accept Rob’s observation that customizing a open text invalidates (or may invalidate) the efficacy conclusions. That doesn’t prove the efficacy suffers in a particular context. Of course, it depends on the type and degree of customization. One reason for customizing is to make a text work better in a specific context. I know the context in which I teach.  I’m willing to take the chance of improvement (or the risk of worsening) from customization that makes sense to me. In short, statistical inference isn’t everything.

Replacing a commercial text with OER may not leave the teaching approach unchanged. Look at the Lumen Waymaker platform. Full disclosure: I helped create the Lumen platform.  We don’t know yet, nor will we for some time, but the mastery/personalization/analytics approach it embodies may enhance student learning, especially in lower level courses that emphasize content and conceptual knowledge.

2814710002_711e3b2d82_mSuppose one is teaching a introductory course to 100 or more first year students. This may not be the ideal situation for learning, but it is very common in higher ed, at least in the U.S. Moving from a lecture-based course to the type of course described by advocates of open ed, where students create their own knowledge base, is simply not feasible with class sizes that large, just as teaching a composition course that large (for example) wouldn’t work either.

Could one do this in a small seminar ? Certainly.  I’ve done that myself in upper level seminars.  But that’s not the question here. Do students learn better using a mastery approach with no arbitrary time limits on how long a student should take to learn a specific lesson? The research indicates yes. Do students learn better using a one-on-one tutorial approach? Same answer. For someone teaching 100 or more students, the question is what can I do to enhance the learning of the students in the context I am facing? An open textbook, especially the more immersive types like Lumen’s Waymaker platform may have the potential to do just that.

Images courtesy of:

  • Teddy-Rised via flickr That Huge Lecture Theatre!
  • Michael Summers via flickr That’s One Lucky Fella Continue reading
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Mastery Learning as Intrinsic Motivation?


At the 2015 Educause Annual Meeting, the opening keynote speaker was Daniel Pink, who drew from several of his recent books, including Drive, which I blogged about here. Pink’s thesis is that success comes from three factors: mastery, autonomy & purpose. Pink summarized the research on how pay affects performance, observing that for tasks that have any cognitive dimension, once you reach a certain level of salary, pay for performance after that is counter productive. It actually lowers people’s productivity.

As I listened to Pink talk, I wondered if that could be applied to grades and learning.

There is a belief that grades motivate students in their courses: that the reward of a higher grade (or the fear of a lower grade) will bring forth more student effort. As an economist, the logic makes sense. But I wonder if there is any evidence about that, especially in light of the evidence that Pink cites. If we draw a parallel between Pink’s argument and education, perhaps that belief doesn’t hold up however much people believe it.


Consider mastery learning. Mastery learning is an approach where students study a topic until they learn enough to achieve mastery. Students work at their own pace, but they don’t move on to the next topic until they have learned the current one at a fairly high level of expertise. Additionally, the expectation is that students won’t necessarily achieve mastery on the first try. So failure is expected, but it’s not the end result, rather, it’s one step towards mastery. Kind of like real life, in my experience.

In a sense, mastery learning is a pass-fail system, but the passing level is higher than a typical C grade. Actually, mastery is a different, more subtle notion of learning than that assumed by a standard grading system. In my mind, mastery conveys an ability more than knowledge of some content. It’s the ability to use the content in an appropriate way. It’s the difference between hearing about something and actually practicing it—being able to do it. This is really what’s implicit in the seminar classes I teach, though sometimes it’s more successful than others.

What I tell my seminar students is: “This isn’t going to be a typical class. If you take this course seriously, if put in the effort to genuinely engage with the material and genuinely engage with the class, you will earn an acceptable grade.” But what’s an acceptable grade? The answer varies by student, but in my mind acceptable translates into a B or an A. For this to work, students have to trust that if they do their part, I will follow through. Some students find it very difficult to not know to the percent what their grade is at any point in time. I understand that, but that’s not what my seminars are about.

My thinking here is that a student’s preoccupation with grades actually gets in the way of the learning for all of reasons Pink’s discusses. Jesse Stommel made this point in a tweeted response to my previous post. In Pink’s language, mastery corresponds to that certain, acceptable level of compensation. Once that is (almost) guaranteed, once we have grades off the table, students can focus their attention on learning.

* Images courtesy of Denise Krebs & Celestine Turner via twitter

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Do Grades Indicate Student Learning? Should They?

89447510_238bf11554_mIn my view, grades as summative assessments should indicate student learning. Of course, it’s not that simple in practice. This may be anathema to say publicly, but grading is as much art as science. Think about it. Teachers can’t observe learning directly so they try to interpret signs of content knowledge, skills and habits of the mind (e.g. approaching a problem the way an economist would). In other words, grading is an attempt to read the minds of one’s students, based on observations and evidence they provide. Does a piece of student writing show understanding of the required concepts? Does it correctly analyze the situation posed or answer the prompt? Does the student’s language ability distort what the student knows?

“Objective” assessments have their own pitfalls. Does the student correctly interpret what is being asked? Is the terminology used in multiple choice questions the same as in the text, or the same as that used by the lecturer? Will the student’s mathematical ability compromise his ability to show what she knows about economics or geology or whatever subject is being assessed? Did the student blacken the oval on the answer sheet that matches the answer they selected on the test document?

Grades can be affected by numerous things that are not student learning. Was a student ill the day of the exam? Was the student upset by something going on in their lives that adversely impacted their performance on a given assignment/assessment. Had they gotten enough sleep? I had a first year student, who despite my advice, studied for the 14 hours immediately prior to an 8am final exam. About 15 minutes into the exam, he blanked and was unable to complete it. Of course, the outcome was the student’s fault, but my point is simply that his performance didn’t correctly reflect his learning in the course.

I had a colleague once who had a policy that late papers received a 50% deduction. He spelled this out explicitly on the course syllabus, so from the administrative perspective the policy was aboveboard and acceptable. The purpose of the late penalty was to induce students to submit assignments on time. One student wrote an excellent paper (the colleague told me so), but turned the paper in late (by 15 minutes). The reason for the lateness isn’t important here. The colleague awarded the student 100 points on the paper less the 50 percent deduction for a net grade of 50, an F. The grade was awarded based on the stated policy so the grade was correct in a procedural sense. But did the grade accurately affect student learning?

I had another colleague who declined to grade a student paper because the student had deposited the paper in his campus mailbox, rather than submitting it in class. The student violated the instructor’s rules; therefore, she paid the penalty.

Most of us can agree that these are extreme examples, but most of us can also probably think of less egregious examples of where failure to follow directions (stated or unstated) or other deviations from expectations resulted in grade deductions. My question is not are these deductions fair, but do they bias the grade away from measuring student learning. I think the answer is yes.

Grades are never completely objective. As teachers, we need to own that. I think the best we can do is provide our best professional judgment of how much they reflect student learning. But at the same time we should be humble about our ability to always get it right.

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