Wednesday, February 2, 2022

"What is truth"

I propose the following question as a final exam for any graduate of the liberal arts, and probably anyone with a college degree:

Name as many disciplines as you can that have an established literature that addresses the question "What is truth?"

    • The more disciplines you name, the more points you get
    • More points if you can describe the content of the literature
    • The more detail you can provide, the more points you get
    • If you don't know the literature, you can hypothesize what the literature would be about
      • More points if your hypothesized literature matches what experts in the discipline report
      • More points if members of the discipline had not thought of your ideas but agree that they are worth pursuing
Maximum score answer: detailed description of the literature addressing this question from every discipline ever invented.

Truth is not just a topic of interest to philosophers, but to every discipline (prove me wrong!), and the truly interdisciplinarity (or trans- or pan- or uni-disciplinarity) of the nature of truth is a vital insight. But where in our curricula would students learn this idea? Perhaps in an upper-level philosophy course, or if they happen to piece it together from all the courses they take. How would graduates from your institution do on this final exam?

If you agree with me that the universality of this question is important for students (people) to understand on a deep level, where should this topic exist in our curricula? For me the only answer is General Education. The hard part is figuring out where to put it -- in an existing course? In a new, stand-alone course? In every course? 

Friday, September 17, 2021

A first step towards ungrading


I’ve spoken with many educators curious about ungrading but unsure of how to begin. What follows is my best suggestion for how to begin, not based on how I started my own journey to Full Monty Ungrading, but based on what I think is a reasonable way to start given my experiences.

One of the most meaningful aspects of ungrading is the reflection students engage in. Before I ungraded my courses (i.e., for most of my career) I did not ask students to reflect on their learning, benefits, or process at all. That was a huge omission on my part. Plenty of SoTL research demonstrates the benefits of this type of metacognition. Those benefits accrue both to students and instructors. Students gain appreciation for how they’ve changed because of their engagement in a course and they can alter their process if they recognize its limitations. Instructors gain insights into students’ process and challenges. Reflection is a win for all.

In my courses students reflect on their progress and process when they propose their midterm and final grades. I suggest that students do more than just propose the letter grade that my university requires I submit. I suggest that they reflect on their progress towards the SLOs in the course, the strengths and limitations of their learning process, and discuss what outside (of the course) factors played a role in their engagement in our course. Sometimes I have them write this up as a small paper, other times I have students complete a form with a series of prompts. Whatever the format, these student submissions are always the most insightful and rewarding student work I read all year. Just a joy to read.

My proposal is that instructors could simply add the grade proposal as an additional activity for their course, keeping everything else the same as it was before. All the same activities, assignments, grades, points, scores, etc., just add the midterm and final grade reflection and grade proposal. Instructors could even inform students what grade they would receive based entirely on the traditional calculation of the points/scores, but giving students the option to propose a different grade based on their reflections. The instructor could retain the power to submit the proposed grade or the calculated grade.

This first step on the path to ungrading has the clear benefit of not requiring any changes to existing course design, activities, or grade calculation. This can also work in any type of class: STEM, lab, composition, skill-based, lecture, seminar, independent study, you name it. Yes, reading the grade proposals adds work for students and instructors. But reflecting helps students, helps instructors, and deepens the connections between students and instructors. Just do it.

Sunday, April 11, 2021

Ungrading and academic integrity

Don’t call a threat an opportunity

Don’t call it integrity when you really mean compliance

My university has an academic integrity policy, and who could argue against integrity? If only the policy was really about integrity. Instead, the policy is really about rules, and the consequences of violations of those rules. It indicates that faculty are obligated to initiate a process when they detect student conduct that runs afoul of those rules. The process starts with faculty confronting students with evidence of their violation(s) and can culminate with a hearing and potentially the student’s dismissal. Faculty were recently informed that should the student retain counsel for that hearing that the university would provide counsel for the faculty.

I don’t see much emphasis on integrity in this policy. To be clear, I think our academic integrity policy is fair and clear. But it really is a compliance policy, or perhaps a punishment policy, not an integrity policy. The few times when I’ve engaged with the process I have found it distasteful and without benefit to student or faculty. There was no examination of the context of the behavior in question. The only thing the students learned was that I (and the university) was their adversary.

Considerable scholarship exists about academic cheating, and the topic has gained attention during the pivot to online instruction as a result of the pandemic. Software that locks down browsers, facial recognition, eye tracking; we’ve sacrificed privacy on the alter of rigor, and trusting students has never been an option.

In my opinion students cheat for one of three reasons (or some combination): students don’t see the value in doing the work, or they don’t believe they can achieve that value if they do the work required of them, or they don’t know how to complete the work. Students cheat because they see the work as busy work, work that has no value. My students aren’t lazy. They have jobs in addition to school, they have family obligations, they have financial concerns that sometimes include housing and food insecurity. They also binge watch entertainment and play video games for hours on end. They have the ability to pay attention when their circumstances and their interests allow it.

The solution to cheating is to address the motivation to cheat, not the consequences of cheating. Why would students cheat if they believed in the value (benefit) of the work, believed the work would produce the benefit, and believed they could complete the work? Our job as faculty is convince students of the first two ideas and help them with the third. And then we trust students to act in their own self-interest.

Friday, March 19, 2021

The problem with general education courses

I continue to believe that the most significant barriers to improving (most) general education courses is the requirement to cover certain content and the mindset that students must “master” that content. Both ideas are harmful illusions. I know that in Intro to Psychology it is impossible for me to in any way adequately cover the full range of possible topics, and it is impossible for students to master any one of those topics. These two ideas restrict the pedagogy I use. I am forced to try to cover every major idea in psychology, no matter how relevant to my students’ lives, and I must move at such a fast pace that depth in any area is impossible. It’s like learning about geology by looking out the window of a car traveling 90 mph.

If content coverage and mastery are not realistic goals, then what are the achievable goals for general education courses? I would propose these two:

  • Students’ lives are improved after class is over
  • Students want to learn more about topic/discipline after class is over

The first goal reflects the goal that we all have for general education courses. The philosophy of a liberal education is that it improves students’ lives to know something about art and anthropology, and cultures and chemistry, and math and music. The main job of general education instructors is to figure out how their course can improve students’ lives, and then convince students of this fact.

The second goal reflects the impossibility of content coverage and mastery, and puts the emphasis on continual or life-long learning. Since they will not be trying to master the content they are free to explore the ideas they find the most fascinating. Students will ideally want to explore these ideas long after the course is over. Information is now free to access and abundant. What citizens need are better information search skills and filters. If we give students those skills they will be able to pay attention to reliable and valid sources to pursue their professional and personal goals.

What students need is to discover the disciplines represented in general education and how those disciplines can improve their lives.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

The Engagement Plan

Do you believe that your courses benefits students? How strongly do you believe that? Could you convince your students of those benefits? If you could, do you think they would do anything to get those benefits?

If you can’t convince students that the benefits are valuable, and obtainable, then why should they put any effort into your course? If you can’t convince them of the benefits (or simply don’t even try to) then they will see your course as transactional: they will do the minimum in order to get the grade they desire. The point of your class will be the grade, and that’s it. In this case you will have to demand, require, threaten, and punish them into doing any work in your class. This is how education normally works (for the past 100 years or so). I used to teach this way and I was quite clever and successful at manipulating my students to jump through my hoops. I even believe some of my students learned lasting lessons from my courses. But I have come to believe that those successes came in spite of and not because of my demands. There is a better way.

If you convince them that there is some benefit from doing so beyond just the grade they will engage with the material in a meaningful way, without requiring attendance, without policing their readings or honesty, without the threat of the loss of points, without the threat of a bad grade. My experience is that students convinced of the benefits will do MORE work, even work you could not have anticipated, and the work they do will mean something to them. Teachers sometimes tell wonderful stories about a student grasping a tough concept or improving their grade throughout the semester. Great stories for sure, and I’ve told my share of them. But those stories don’t compare to when a student tells you your class improved them and their life. That’s another level.

Great teaching requires trust. You have to trust in the value of your course. You have to trust in your pedagogy. And most of all, you have to trust students’ choices about how they engage with your class. When students really understand (and believe) that real benefits are in the offing, then every engagement with your course will spring from their interest, not their obedience. But this requires that you truly give your students the power to control their engagement in your course. Not the illusion of power; real power. And that means that you must give up grading, evaluating, ranking, and comparing student work. And you must give up control of the final grades in your course. Grades are a form or coercion that students and instructors sense intuitively. Grades create a power dynamic that kills trust, exploration, freedom, and the willingness to take real risks.

Most student will never have had this trust and responsibility given to them, and many find it either suspicious or disconcerting. Grades have been their focus for so long that they might not know how to engage in your course when there are no grades. This is where the Engagement Plan (EP) comes in. Engagement Plans start with a list of all the course activities. I like to list the types of activities, their frequency, and – importantly – the potential benefits of each type.

Students would fill in the rightmost column of the table, proposing that they will engage in a certain number or percentage of each type of activity. I ask students to try out each type of activity before making their EP so they know how long the activities will take and whether they deliver the promised benefits. This should help students stay on track and schedule their time. The EP also

Students should reflect on their adherence to their EP as part of their proposals of the midterm and final grades. You can assess no penalty for not sticking to the EP because students determine their own grades; students can assess a penalty on themselves if they wish. Students should be allowed to modify their EP at any point.

Care should be taken to acknowledge the impact of extra-course obligations and unforeseen impediments to following the plan. You should urge students to consider their work schedules, their other courses, their social and family obligations, the unpredictability of the world when creating their EP. Life happens. The plan is not an obligation or promise, it is a plan. Plans change, and adapting plans to unavoidable events is a skill students will draw on in their lives after our classes are over.

I would point out that the EP can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum, in that in most courses the EP would merely be a list of requirements that students assume they must complete, meaning they have no choice. Asking students to plan their own engagement in the course in light of everything else going on in their lives gives them the responsibility to get as much benefit from your course as they want (and can get), and also communicates your trust in them. You should not chastise them for an EP that does not include every activity – that’s them being honest with themselves and you. Remember, you cannot force students to obtain the benefits you believe your course delivers. You couldn’t when grades and obedience, and you can’t with trusting them with choosing themselves. The best you can do is create learning opportunities that really work, convince them of the value of the benefits and effectiveness of the activities, and set them loose.