Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Ungrading in the time of COVID-19

Here's the communication I sent out to my Introduction to Psychology students after my school announced that classes were going to pivot (transition) to online delivery. Some context: we just discussed ungrading in the (now we know) final in-person class just before spring break. So students knew something about ungrading and what I was thinking about at the time.

Hello my friends—
First, I want to remind you that our class should NOT be your priority now. Focus on taking care of yourself and those around you. Stay home as much as possible, wash your hands, drink lots of water. And don’t forget the lessons from our class: get enough sleep and pay attention to your mental health. Maybe now is a chance to check out the meditation apps I talked about (HeadSpace, Waking up, 10% Happier). There’s also a great podcast called The Happiness Lab that I find very helpful.
Second, I hope you heard that there will no more in-person, on campus classes for the rest of the semester. I actually anticipated that decision, so what is described below will work for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester.
Third, I want to tell you the results of the survey about ungrading: 40 of you responded to the survey, and 75% of you want to switch to ungrading and 25% want to stay with our class as it was. So we will do the ungrading thing.
Of course the changes caused by COVID-19 complicates our plan. Our switch to ungrading will actually make dealing with this mess a little easier. Here’s why: traditional courses have requirements, but ungraded classes have opportunities. So the overall plan is to lay out all the opportunities for you to learn about psychology, and then you choose which ones you want to do. At the end of the semester you will tell me what grade you deserve and explain why you think you deserve that grade. The explanation can include many types of information from many sources. *More on that below.
I think there are two important things that we were accomplishing in our course up to this point: 1) we were discovering the topics, ideas, and findings of psychology, and 2) we were getting to know each other – you, me, each other. I value both. Accomplishing the first goal will be pretty easy in our new format, but the second goal is harder. Fortunately, this is something I have spent a ton of time trying to figure out in my online courses. The answer is something called Perusall, and it’s a way to both explore psychology and interact with your classmates (and me and the TAs) at the same time.
The text. Perusall is a (free) social annotation service that allows you to ask questions
about and comment on electronic texts. Using Perusall is a mix between a discussion board and social media. While looking at the text, you can ask and answer questions and make comments (annotations) – and other people can see your annotations. Essentially you can have a conversation with other people while looking at a text. You can even target your comments at particular people by using @ like in many social media sites. I have used Perusall in both online and in-person courses, and students have mostly enjoyed and benefitted from Perusall. Students find the interface very familiar and intuitive. I have arranged for us to be able to access our textbook on the Perusall platform, all within Blackboard, for no additional cost (this was not easy to arrange). So I can create links on Blackboard for each group of sections in the text that I have listed in the schedule at the end of the syllabus, and when you click on the link you will be taken to our text in the Perusall platform and then be able to have a conversation with the other members of class while reading those sections. A neat thing is that Perusall keeps track of your interactions with the text and thus you would be able to use that information (if you wish) in your explanation for your final grade.
So essentially the interactions you have on Perusall take the place of the jigsaws we did during class. Perusall accomplishes both of the goals I mentioned above:
  • discover psychology
  • interact with each other
I made a demo/walkthru video about Perusall. It’s on Blackboard.
The jigsaws. I don’t know of a way to do the jigsaws online, and I’ve really tried to figure out a way to do them online. It just doesn’t work nearly as well as in-person. But what I can do is give you all the jigsaw questions that we would have worked on, and you can answer them if you wish, on your own. You can find a document with all the jigsaw questions on Blackboard. I also created a ‘journal’ on Blackboard where you could paste all of your responses to the jigsaw questions.

The quizzes. I also believe in the benefit of taking the quizzes. As I’ve said many times in class, the quizzes are not about finding out how well you know the material, they are really about helping you learn the material. So I will keep the quizzes on Blackboard, with a few modifications. I will open them ALL up and take the passwords off them, that way you can take them as you wish, in any order, and you can still repeat them as many times as you want. No late penalties. The two short answer questions will be changed to apply to the content of the quizzes, not the content of our class sessions.

So here are the opportunities to learn about psychology I have set up for you:
  1.  Engage with the text and your classmates on Perusall
  2. Solidify your knowledge by answering the jigsaw questions
  3. Solidify your knowledge with the quizzes
I strongly believe that knowing more about psychology will improve your life, and the more you know the more improvement you will achieve. There’s a lot of great stuff ahead of us, including chapters on intelligence, personality, human development, and best of all, social psychology! Reading the text and interacting with your classmates on Perusall, answering the jigsaw questions, and taking the quizzes will help you learn more about psychology and thus improve your life.
*Final grade. You have to submit to me at the end of the semester a grade declaration and explanation for that grade. Your explanation could contain any combination of the following information:
  • attendance and quiz scores from before spring break, available on Blackboard
  • your engagement with the text on Perusall, either time spent on Perusall, number of annotations you make, and/or score Perusall gives you based on your annotations
  • quiz scores from now on
  • any work you do on the jigsaw questions
  • factors outside our course that affected your engagement in our class, like your mental and physical health, jobs, family obligations, stress from COVID-19, etc.
And most importantly – and I really mean this is the most important thing –
  • How this class has improved your life. All the other things are less important to me than this last thing.
You can determine your final grade in any way you think is appropriate. If you want to use just the points, go ahead. If you want to focus mostly on the way this class has improved your life, that’s great too. Any combination that you think is appropriate is acceptable. From this moment on, I want this to be your primary, all-consuming focus in our class: how can I improve my life by engaging in this class.
How many and which things you do is up to you, especially during this pandemic crisis. I regret that COVID-19 will almost certainly mean you will get less benefit out of this class because of all the stress and disruption the virus is causing. But that’s not your fault and I don’t want to punish you for it by requiring you to do a bunch of work, no matter how beneficial I think that work is. I am trying to lay out the rest of the topics in our class before you, buffet style. You can pick and choose which ideas/topics you want to explore, and pause or stop when you’ve had enough. I leave that decision entirely up to you.
  • You don’t have to read all the sections of the text on Perusall
  • You don’t have to answer all the jigsaw
  • You don’t have to take all the quizzes
What you do is up to you.

I’m going to miss seeing you all on Mondays and Wednesdays! But I’m very grateful that we had the face-to-face time that we did, and especially that we had that conversation on the Wednesday before spring break. Of course I am still available on email. I can even arrange to talk to you via phone or video call if you wish – I would love that! Let me know.
Stay safe, take this pandemic seriously, and take care of each other. We’ll get through this and get back to normal before too long. Hang in there.
Dr. Winslow
TA Team: Shelby Baker, Cara Copeland, Merhan Elramahi, Gabriel Gomez, Maya Gulliford, Katelyn Hamblin, Haley Ingram
P.S. We’re still working out the details on the Outside Activity Credits. Stay tuned.
P.P.S. You don’t need to do anything until March 23, but you can if you want to.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Old School New School

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Another ungrading leap into the unknown

I teach a capstone course for senior psychology majors about empathy, and have done so for more than 10 years. I moved from open class discussions about primary source readings (terrible) to using jigsaws to include all students in discussions about the reading. Worked pretty well. But it was still a class that operated via obedience, and did not give students much or any freedom or choice. 

So today I went to class with the notes I have pasted below. There were a few raised eyebrows, a few nervous questions, but I could also see the wheels turning in many brains.

We'll see how it goes...

Capstone: Empathy blown up
 3 things I know are true
  1. Empathy can improve every part of our lives
  2. People do their best work when they care about what they are doing
  3. I don’t know what you care about
My offer to you is that you can work on something you care about as long as empathy is involved, and I will help you. This project can replace everything on the syllabus going forward.
My hope is that you produce something that means something to you and that you are proud of.
Still ungraded. If you create something meaningful and that you are proud of then that’s an A in my book. If you just want to pass the class, we can figure out something that is worth a C. No judgment. You are in charge of your workload and final grade.
You creating something meaningful to you is more important to me than you doing any specific reading or assignment. So you can throw away the syllabus, say goodbye to Perusall, forget about all those articles, read the Alda book if you want to. It’s really good.
You can work on your own or in groups
I have no guidelines for what the end result of this project is because I cannot foresee what you will want to do. I will brainstorm with you if you want me to.

What do you care about?
  • What will you do after graduation?
How can empathy help you succeed in that endeavor?
  • What worries you about the future?
How can empathy help you address those challenges?
  • What are your passions, hobbies?
How can empathy increase your pleasure?
 Some of MY ideas for projects:
  • Devise a plan to improve your own empathy over the next 10 weeks, carry it out, and see if it worked. Get ideas for how to improve your empathy from research (some are on syllabus)
  • Perform an ‘empathy audit’ for the job you intend to have, describing how empathy is required in that job and how you could be better at that job if you improved your empathy. I bet there are studies about empathy an any job you want to have
  • How is empathy related to climate change? Can empathy be used to get people to take climate change seriously and change their behavior? What do you find if you search for studies about empathy and climate change?
  • How are our devices impacting empathy? What can we do about it? Is there research about devices and/or social media and empathy?
  • How is empathy related to the upcoming Presidential election? Are there candidates that are low or high in empathy? Are there candidates that are using empathy in their messages? There’s a cool body of research called political psychology
  • Are you creative? Make something creative related to empathy.
  • Write a research proposal.
  • What was the paper/project/activity that you most enjoyed and/or got the most out of as a college student? What about it was so great? Can you do that again about empathy?
  • There are some interesting readings in the syllabus that we haven’t gotten to yet about religion, virtual reality, literature, trauma, therapy, prejudice, and politics. Read those for ideas?
But these are things that I care about. What do you care about?
I hope what you’ve learned as a psyc major is that the best ideas are backed up with evidence, and that intuition is a very poor substitute for that evidence.

What will help you produce something meaningful that you are proud of?
  • Accountability 
    • Activity journal
    • Periodic individual meetings with me
  • Revision
  • Input from multiple sources
  • Other?
If you don’t want to take on this project you can complete this course as laid out in the syllabus. We’ll figure out how to do that.

Let’s finish the project we are working on right now, Who needs to know. This can be the seed of an idea for your project. So bring that paper to class Thursday.
Next Tuesday I want to know what you want to do for the rest of the semester.

Monday, October 28, 2019

My first attempt at ungrading

I've been inspired by Jesse Stommel's discussion of ungrading, including the paradigm-shattering work of Alfie Kohn. The idea that grades can sometimes be a deterrent for hard work, and that grades are the external justification that overwhelms any intrinsic motivation our students could bring to our classes persuaded me to try ungrading in one of my online courses.
I also think that students sometimes feel like I determine their final grade in some mysterious conjuring, no matter how explicit and transparent I try to make that process (including providing them a spreadsheet that they can fill in to compute their final grade). I want my students to own their grade, and more than that, I want them to own their learning. I see ungrading as a way for them to not only own their learning, but actually think prospectively about what they intend to get out of my courses. I try to tell them early on what is on offer in my courses, and they get to decide how much of that they want to obtain. Rather than say "do these things and you'll get these outcomes" as I have said many times, ungrading puts the responsibility entirely on the students. They should think "here's what I could get from this course, now how much of that do I want to get?"

The way I've ungraded is to tell my students that they will tell me their final grade, and I will absolutely accept that grade (with just a few exceptions, see below). The 'catch' is that they have to provide me with a justification for that grade, based on what they have done in the course. Here are my instructions I gave them:

I want you to propose your final grade following this procedure: gather the evidence available to you, analyze/summarize it, and write your proposal. Here’s the evidence you can use:
  • Average quiz score
  • Average Group Discussion Board scores
  • Average score on the Perusall readings
  • Evolution of your learning process based on entries in your Learning Journal
  • Professionalism. Have you completed all assignments/activities, and on time?
  • Indications that this class has affected you and your life
  • Other information that you believe is relevant to your performance
    Format: the format you use is up to you. In general you can think about this proposal in this way: “I deserve a(n) ___ for the final grade in this course because…”
    It is now nearly 8 weeks after the beginning of our class together. As a reminder, here are the goals I had for our class:

    • You will understand the world more accurately
    • You will understand psychology from a different perspective
    • You will get to know your classmates
    • You will see the world in a new way
      Keep those goals in mind as you consider all the evidence at your disposal and decide what grade you deserve in our class. I would love to hear how this class has accomplished these four goals.
      There are only two reasons I would chose your final grade instead of you choosing: 1) if you lie to me I will give you an F (lying is a violation of the EKU's Academic Integrity Policy), and 2) if you don't submit a grade and a justification I will give you an F. Except for those two situations I will absolutely submit whatever grade you propose to me. I promise.
      Two things are worth mentioning in the instructions. 1) The last two sources of evidence, the indications that the class has affected their life, and other relevant information are in some ways the most critical. Affecting my students is the most important thing to me, so I really want students to focus on that. If they describe how my course has affected them in meaningful ways, then I really don't care about the other metrics. And students in my online courses often have many other demands on their time and attention, and I refuse to ignore those demands because they certainly cannot. 2) I take my promises to students very seriously, including (especially) the promise to accept their proposed grade. The two exceptions are also critical, for different reasons. Academic integrity is always important, and I think this exception rule makes academic integrity real for the students. The second exception communicates how seriously I take these grade proposals and justifications, and forces students to reflect on their engagement in my course. 

      You might be now wondering about students proposing grades that don't accurately reflect their performance in the course. I would have shared your skepticism in the past. But I'm trying to trust students more, and that means I trust them to be fair and as objective as they can be when thinking about their performance in my courses, and their grade. However, when talking about ungrading with colleagues I almost always get a question about this issue. So here are some data to consider:

      Grade based on points






      Proposed grade

      These numbers are from one of my online courses that provided students with plenty of feedback in points, like quiz scores, reading engagement scores (from Perusall), and group discussion board posts. So they and I could easily see how they were doing based on the points in the course, but as the instructions above indicate, they could consider other factors as well when proposing and justifying their final grade. 

      Numbers in the dark green boxes represent the number of students who proposed the same grade they would had gotten if objective grading was used, based on points earned in the course. Numbers in the lighter green boxes represent students who proposed a grade higher than the objective grade. 47 of 74 (64%) proposed an “accurate” grade, 27 of 74 (36%) “inflated” their grade. 

      I am quite happy with these data. There are likely some free-riders in there. Doesn’t bother me. They have really only cheated themselves out of the benefits of increased engagement in my course.