Concrete ways faculty can work with other colleagues to improve their teaching (essay)

The need to “educate for judgment” is as urgent for those of us who teach at universities and professional schools today as it was for Aristotle. Twenty-five years ago, three expert professors at Harvard Business School reminded and guided their colleagues in the professions to do exactly that. C. Roland Christensen, David Garvin and Ann Sweet, the editors of Education for Judgment, rightly noticed that the way we professors teach our students often discourages them from learning how to exercise independent judgment in their scholarship, in their professions, in their lives. The first step in turning this around is for teachers themselves to learn how to reflect on their own practices so that they can encourage their students to exercise judgment, too.

Obvious? Perhaps. But Richard Elmore’s observation in the foreword to the book is not that far off the mark today, noting that “teaching is seldom taken as a subject for serious intellectual discourse in universities.” In fact, most of our students, if they knew, would find this amazing, even troubling: we college teachers have never been taught how to teach, and we generally work in isolation on improving our practice.

If we were lucky, we were teaching assistants in graduate school, placed in charge of smaller discussion sections for the lecture classes given by the famous professors. If we were really lucky, the senior professor gave us some guidance on our pedagogy.

Yet most of us started as college teachers woefully inexperienced and unprepared. Some colleges and universities have recognized that lack of preparation in recent years and have created centers for teaching excellence, offering lectures, workshops and maybe the chance to have your class videotaped. But Education for Judgment signaled a still-missing ingredient needed for learning how to practice our craft wisely: structured ways that those of us who are experts as well as novices can reflect on our ongoing teaching practices.

Outside of academe, this approach is not rocket science. Firefighters routinely do post-incident reviews in the same ways that athletes review videos of the game they just played. Novice public school teachers practice teaching with trained teachers. That’s also how interns and residents learn doctoring. Continuing mentoring and coaching are essential for even expert musicians, singers and athletes.

But when professors start teaching, they are largely isolated in their own classrooms. Worse, with the criteria for tenure traditionally being “publish or perish,” collegial reflection about improving our teaching expertise is not encouraged. Indeed, young faculty members who show a serious concern about their teaching are often warned about “misplaced priorities.”

Many professors would like to improve their expertise in leading discussion classes and lectures so as to foster understanding, deep engagement with the material, curiosity and wonderment, and a passion for lifelong learning. They want especially to foster students’ capacities to exercise the judgment they need to apply their learning to their lives and work. But college and university teachers -- any teachers -- can only develop the judgment that expertise requires the way any expert develops such judgment: by working with mentors, coaches and colleagues to continually reflect on their own practice of teaching.

There is already some coaching of faculty going on. Some colleges and universities (including Swarthmore) assign senior faculty members to mentor young faculty, bring in outside teaching coaches on a paid basis or hold workshops that instruct teachers how to be sensitive to diversity or to teach more effectively. Yet we and some of our colleagues at Swarthmore wanted to go further: to teach faculty to be peer coaches for each other, to combine one-on-one coaching with group reflection, to privilege ongoing observation and coaching over onetime or short-term encounters, and to create a continuous process that could renew and improve the wider culture of pedagogy at the college.

The Faculty Teaching Seminar

Thus, several of us recently set out to identify ways to do just that. We asked ourselves, could we design a structure to foster such learning through reflective practice? Could we figure out a way to learn how to mentor and coach each other -- and then do it at a low cost and in ways that would create a culture of learning about pedagogy across the college?

We decided to make ourselves mutual apprentices -- peer coaches -- observing each other’s classes, reflecting together and practicing again. Instead of the presumption that “teachers teach and students learn,” we flipped the paradigm to “teachers as learners.” What could we learn about the kind of reflective learning we wanted to encourage in students by putting ourselves in the position of learners?

We convinced the college to offer some free food and a token honorarium, and 12 of us (out of 20 applicants) signed up for the ride. The Faculty Teaching Seminar, supported in part by a development grant from the John F. Templeton Foundation and an operating grant from the Aydelotte Foundation, combined peer coaching and observation with tri-weekly faculty seminars.

We faculty members were divided into six pairs, each of which observed classes of our peer coach for the whole academic year -- a minimum of 10 coaching encounters, although many people did more. Every three weeks, the 12 of us would meet for three hours to discuss what we were observing and learning. Among the things we focused on were:

Creating a safe, supportive environment. Almost every faculty member who joined the seminar expressed fears about having another faculty member in their class on a regular basis. Many heads nodded when a senior faculty member laughingly admitted: “As someone afflicted by the impostor syndrome, I had some reservations that I might be found out -- that I wasn’t living up to Swarthmore standards.”

This fear was a central obstacle that had to be overcome. The only way you learn good judgment is from experience, Will Rogers famously said, and most of that experience is the exercise of bad judgment. If trial and error is a necessary condition for such learning, then that meant taking on a demon that plagues collegial relations at most colleges and universities: the continued high-stakes evaluation for promotion and tenure.

We intentionally aimed to create a supportive community of practice. In recruiting the participants, we avoided (with one exception) having people from the same department. We also avoided pairing junior and senior faculty members. We explicitly talked about how to break the culture of evaluation. We worked to keep our discussions confidential.

In two humorous but poignant sessions that senior faculty members first led, we used storytelling to share our worst learning experience as students and our worst teaching experience. “Once those disasters had been publicly aired,” said one faculty member, “we had little to fear from exposure -- and we could all see that moments of failure are an inevitable part of the pedagogical landscape.”

Learning how to coach each other. Being a good teacher does not make someone a good coach of other teachers any more than being a good athlete or musician makes someone a good athletic or musical coach. With the exception of one faculty participant -- the women’s softball coach who provided us with valuable guidance -- few others had much practice coaching, and none had practice coaching other teachers. We recognized that “the coaches themselves must be coached” (with a grateful nod to Marx’s Third Thesis on Feuerbach).

We developed a preliminary script to scaffold the pre- and post-conversations each coach had with their peer. We performed a live coaching session with each other in the first seminar to model it and get reactions. Before: What are you aiming at in this course, in this class? What obstacles and challenges will you face? Is there anything you want me to pay attention to? After: What did you think worked well and not so well? I noticed you did such and such -- what made you decide to do that?

Then we tried our hands at observing and coaching. We reported back at subsequent seminars on what worked and what fizzled. Actually learning how to see and listen to what was happening in the classroom was a crucial skill that the participants gained and found important. “Once I learned how to listen actively, I was able to observe the flow of the lecture and identify key moments. The skill of coaching started to focus on, ‘What does he find important, and how can I help him reflect on those issues?’”

Combining reflective practice with skills building. We didn’t need a faculty seminar to know the importance of skills like good listening. Indeed, many of us thought of ourselves as good listeners -- that is, until we did a listening-skills training exercise. We broke into groups of three. Each of us took a turn at being a speaker, a listener, an observer. The listener had to summarize the speaker’s core ideas and feelings. The speaker let the listener know whether he or she had been understood, and if not, they had to try again. The observer then commented on what was happening. We all had to try again: listening was harder than we thought. We all needed more practice and reflection.

We did readings about the traits, skills and techniques of good teachers and coaches. But the central pedagogy was moving in a circle from theory to practice to coaching and mentoring each other -- then re-evaluating the theory or technique and then practicing again. We improved our skills by practicing, observing and questioning each other: When did you ask and when did you tell? What were you thinking when you interrupted that energized conversation? How did you choose whom to call upon today, and why did you allow so and so to talk for so long? That was an interesting learning puzzle you set up in class -- what were you aiming at, and how did you think it up? Let’s discuss some of the tough choices you made when you were grading the last set of papers. What were you balancing?

The synergy between the peer coaching and group seminar discussions became clearer throughout the year. The coaching was vital for improving our teaching. What we observed gave us the grist for an educated dialogue in the seminar on how we learn and teach. And the seminar discussions and exercises fed back into improving our peer coaching and teaching.

Fostering an academic culture that encourages learning about learning should certainly include approaches less labor intensive than our seminar-peer coaching model. Lectures or workshops about teaching methods as well as insider tips can be helpful. But creating a culture that encourages us to continually reflect on and improve our pedagogy -- turning a college into a learning organization -- requires that faculty as well as students find ways to learn from the trial and error of experience. That demands creating a safe, supportive environment where we can observe our teaching practices and learn the skills of reflection, analysis, coaching and mentoring.

We in American higher education can’t just hire brilliant Ph.D.s and expect them to be brilliant teachers. The Faculty Teaching Seminar at Swarthmore is only one approach to help teachers learn the judgment they need to educate their students for judgment. Colleges and universities committed to quality teaching need to explore other ways to institutionalize such reflective practice if the teaching at the heart of a liberal arts education is to be nourished.

Kenneth Sharpe is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College and co-author with Barry Schwartz of Practical Wisdom (Riverhead Books, 2010). Elizabeth Bolton is a professor of English Literature at Swarthmore and author of Women, Nationalism, and the Romantic Stage: Theatre and Politics in Britain, 1780-1800 (Cambridge University Press, 2001).

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A professor compares his students' struggles with writing with his learning to dance (essay)

I turn and pause, and I know I have only one step to take.

She sees before I even understand it that I’m blocked. My face is frozen, my eyes blank. Vera, on her toes, raises a forefinger. We’ll catch the next go-round.

My dance instructor is ever encouraging and perfectly tactful, but I burn with shame.

The other couples are moving. They occasionally stumble, but they continue. I’m blocked the way a wind-up toy is blocked by a wall, its feet nevertheless churning. Even when there is no literal wall, there is sometimes a figurative wall in front of me, and it feels as if my feet have only the one-two rhythm, side to side. I cannot go forward or backward, although one of my feet must. But which one? And then what?

The motion has to flow, and I cannot. It is the ever-intensifying faintheartedness of leaping into a cold lake or off a diving board, or while driving onto a freeway trying to merge with a stream of cars.

I would go, but I can’t.

“We’ll try again,” says Vera. She offers her hands, and I can do that, I can take them.

I’ve never been able to dance unself-consciously except while clowning it up for my own kids and nieces. I signed up for Vera’s dance lessons because I wanted to please my wife. Suzanne deserves a husband who can dance in public, I tell myself -- the thought of which increases rather than diminishes the pressure.

Get loose, Bob! Relax!

After all, as an English professor at a community college, I continually encourage my hesitant students to let go, to write freely -- not to answer or please me but to show themselves what they’re thinking. I tell them they can write their panic right down on the paper.

“But I’m stuck.”

“Write that.”


“Write, ‘I’m stuck …’ and then ask the question you know I’d ask: ‘Why?’ And then continue with ‘because …’ And go on like that. You always have the room to write what’s going on in your head right now.”

And Vera has said pretty much the same to me: I always have the room to move my feet and create the space I want, that remembering the steps or forgetting them needn’t stop me from moving. My feet still work, and the music keeps playing, and she or my wife is waiting for me …. So while trying to decide where to move, don’t stop -- just move!

“It’s life, it’s rhythm, and you can do it with or without the music, with or without the steps,” says Vera. “You’re confused because you’re blocking your body with your own thoughts.”

But “I’m not thinking,” I want to tell her. I’m shutting down. I’m trying to listen to her, to the music, to my memory.

In the classroom, I sympathize with my students when I see them stuck, but I know now it’s nothing compared to the truckloads of pity I feel for myself on the dance floor.

I try to trick the students into experiencing (not “learning” but doing!) various ways of dealing with anxieties about writing. But Donald -- 19 years old, a native speaker of English, not unintelligent, obeying the law I wish I would obey on the dance floor -- stumps me. He plunges in, never looks back, no hesitations, no regrets!

In class, I watch him, and I’m impressed. His pen is moving all the time, ink covering line after line. But when I get home to my rhythmically consoling rocking chair where I do most of my marking, I read on and on, confused by Donald’s plainspoken nothingness and carelessness. One phrase thoughtlessly follows one another: “Nick was idean in a boat on water and don’t know the idean lady and the husband takes his ax out and makes the baby born and the doctor named George saw this and liked smoking with ideans.”

He even carelessly miscopies the title of “Indian Camp,” calls the author not Hemingway but “earnest” and hops and skips along, summarizing the story into long curls of nonsense that would bring him up short if he only registered what he was saying, but he tumbles on, lest he notice what he’s written. He is scrupulous about not looking at what he’s written because, he tells me one day, it would freeze him.

“Did you read what you just wrote?” I ask as he rises up, half crouched, writing the last phrase of what was supposed to be a response to, not a summary of, the story.

“To be honest, no,” he responds, walking up and handing me the paper.

“You have to.”

“Really, Professor … it’s forward or nowhere. I can’t.”

The other students are listening.

“You can.”

He avoids my eyes but makes tiny shakes of his head. I don’t like putting him on the spot. “Hold on to this,” I say, pointing to the paper, “and take a break. And come back and try to read it just the way you read somebody else’s work.”

He takes it and goes back to his desk. He sits a moment, then gets up and puts it in his folder and slides the folder into his backpack. He nods at me, and then he walks past with his pack and says, “I’ll be back in a few.”

Is Donald really to be the person I model myself upon on the dance floor? He doesn’t come back for a week!

I ask him the following Tuesday, “Do you still have your response to ‘Indian Camp’?”

“The what?” He looks for a minute in his bag. “This?” He pinches it like a dirty diaper and reluctantly offers it to me.

But wait, there’s also Marya, who dashingly composes first in Ukrainian and then into a peculiar English -- an English she has never heard or read before. Back home, she has told me, she wrote hundreds of essays, and though I try to discourage her and other ESL students from composing in their native languages, she tells me that the Ukrainian is a constant stream that can’t be shut off.

Her writing for class is a kind of argument with English, as if she imagines she’s showing the English grammar how to reform itself: “According to me, Nicholas is child who both neither death nor being born knowledge they have given him to understand. Father, by me, is made pathos by act of many sufferings seen by son.” She’s in touch with her own private “Ukrainlish” and -- this is true (she’s argued the point with me) -- I usually understand her perfectly, so why fuss?

I try to explain: “Because the writing makes me …” I cringe (which is a visual aid I hope she gleans) and try to think of another word that conveys cringe. “It reads with a thick accent,” I say, “and while I love accents in speech, I can’t help thinking we don’t want to show it in writing if we can help it.” I don’t mention how she unrepentantly crowbars English grammar into places it’s never been.

I decide I could try Donald’s method as a dancer and go blank and ignore my own incoherent moves, or I could try Marya’s method. I could wrench my partner (my wife, lucky girl!) around the floor, listening to an inner rhythm that bends the music and my partner to it. Or I could keep doing what I have been doing, stumbling and halting, my face borscht red, my wife and Vera hopefully and anxiously awaiting my improvement.

Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York.

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Turnitin, expanding beyond plagiarism detection, launches Revision Assistant

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Turnitin, seeking to expand beyond plagiarism detection, launches a tool to help students improve their writing as they write. Many writing instructors continue to be skeptical of the company's products.

A liberal arts education should be a public good for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds (essay)

Following the fourth round of the Republican presidential debates, a flurry of media attention focused on Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s assertion that “we need more welders, less philosophers.” In addition to noting the grammatical error in his statement, defenders of the liberal arts leaped to prove Rubio wrong by producing data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating that the median salary of philosophers in fact exceeds that of welders.

Many commentators also highlighted the value of a discipline that fosters the critical-thinking, writing and arguing skills necessary in a rapidly changing, globally interdependent world where the jobs of the future have not yet been invented. Moreover, they contended that philosophical training, which encourages the kind of adaptability and flexibility required in an uncertain job market, is a plus.

A case in point is the highly publicized, and ironic, story of Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft, who earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Chicago and used online tutorials to become a welder and motorcycle mechanic. Rather than reaffirm that a liberal arts education leads to a life of underemployment, Crawford’s story illustrates the capacity of someone who is liberally educated to be an innovator in his own life.

As a college president, I pay careful attention to contemporary discourse surrounding the value added of higher education. Yet I admit to being personally interested in the response, both within and outside of the academy, to Rubio’s assertion. I was trained as a philosopher, earning my Ph.D. from Brown University in metaphysics and ethics. My father, by contrast, dropped out of school at the age of 16 to join the war effort following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and later traveled 70 miles round-trip daily on a bus to work third shift as -- you guessed it -- a welder at Pratt and Whitney. Known by his buddies in the Marines as Satch, my father had street smarts and could fix anything. I spent hours by his side as he dismantled engines, repaired faulty starters and dabbled in electronics using discarded tubes and cylinders that we salvaged on weekends from the town dump.

Both of my parents valued effort and disciplined work, and they encouraged me to go to college to escape the factory jobs that circumscribed their lives. Nevertheless, when I invited my father to my graduation from Brown, he declined, admonishing, “I hope you don’t think this makes you better than us.” I assured him that my academic success did not constitute a rejection of my working-class roots, or of him.

I was reminded of this long-ago conversation with my father when Senator Rubio condemned those of us in higher education for stigmatizing vocational education in the context of whether to raise the minimum wage. My fear is that in the quest to prove Marco Rubio wrong regarding the value of the humanities, we fail to take seriously the message at the core of his controversial statement. Those of us seeking to respond to Rubio’s assertion regarding the value of welders over philosophers must ask why his message resonates with such a broad segment of our society.

For many people in America, a liberal arts education seems reserved for those within the ivory tower, reflecting a willful disconnect from the practical matters of everyday life. And according to Senator Rubio, higher education is too expensive, too difficult to access and doesn’t teach people 21st-century skills. Those accusations fuel the image of a liberal education as a self-indulgent luxury, underlying calls for the elimination of humanities programs in favor of vocational and preprofessional programs that are regarded as singularly responding to demands for economic opportunity.

Of course, it is little wonder that the liberal arts are considered a luxury and irrelevant to success in a world that equates long-term happiness with wealth. But while those of us in the humanities may condemn the skeptics for being misguided, it is time to recognize the extent to which we ourselves have perpetuated this misconception.

Senator Rubio’s statements should remind us of the risk of slipping into Casaubonism and of the failure to connect liberal learning to the lives of people outside of the academy. Consider this: there is growing economic segregation in American higher education, with more than 50 percent of students attending community colleges and one in every two students dropping out. Yet a liberal arts education will remain secure in wealthy communities and at elite, private institutions, which were built upon the foundation of liberal learning and its inextricable link to democratic engagement and civic responsibility. In contrast, liberal education will be under increasing scrutiny at public institutions -- community colleges, where I began my education, and other state colleges and universities.

In challenging Rubio’s rhetoric, we can learn lessons from the past. Remember Sarah Palin’s talk of death panels? She opposed President Obama’s proposed inclusion in a health care reform plan of a provision that would reimburse physicians for talking to their patients about advance directives for end-of-life decisions or hospice care. The phrase's invocations of Nazi programs targeting the elderly, ill and disabled subsequently led politicians to excise the proposal early on from the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tri-Committee bill. The furor started with a post on Palin’s Facebook page asserting that if the government passed health care legislation, boards would be set up to determine whether the elderly and disabled were worthy of care. In the weeks that followed, politicians issued statements warning against a policy that would push us toward government-encouraged euthanasia; they trumpeted instead the need to protect seniors from being put to death by their government.

In fact, the positing of death panels was Politifact’s 2009 “Lie of the Year.” However, by disavowing the truth of the claims of death panels by calling them laughable, President Obama failed to address the real fear underlying the concerns of those who readily believed the rhetoric, namely, the denial of necessary medical care at a time of urgent need. Thus, an opportunity was lost for meaningful debate over critical end-of-life issues that were pushed aside during the process of political jockeying.

My goal here is not to dredge up partisan debates, but instead to draw attention to the nature of the fear that people across the country have expressed, then and now. Just as people during Palin’s run were genuinely concerned that the government would be allowed to determine what constitutes necessary care and who should be allowed to receive it, those pushing vocational education over liberal education today do so grounded in fear that their children will not be able to have a better life than they had. That fear creates a false dichotomy between vocational and liberal education, between welding and philosophy. Everyone, including welders, can benefit from liberal learning precisely because the illumination of human consciousness through literature, philosophy, music and the arts enriches the experience of individuals alone and as members of a community, allowing us to flourish fully as human beings.

Inasmuch as scholarly traditions in the liberal arts serve as benchmarks and frameworks for grappling with abiding human questions and concerns, reserving these opportunities only for those who can afford an elite education or live in well-heeled communities has profound consequences in terms of egalitarian principles of justice and fairness. Most important, it thwarts our nation’s historic mission of educating for democracy. We must restore America’s trust in higher education, viewing it not as a private commodity but as a public good -- one that all our citizens, whatever their socioeconomic background can access. While there has been a good deal of rhetoric regarding the principle of universal access to higher education as an essential symbol of our nation’s commitment to equality of opportunity, the reality is that many of our citizens still have “closed futures” and consequently are, in a very real sense, unfree. Denying access to higher education not only drastically undermines the promise of equal opportunity for individuals, it limits prospects for economic growth at the national level.

In an effort to redress social inequality, colleges and universities must establish partnerships with businesses and industry, primary and secondary schools, public officials and community members. This approach to creating access to higher education necessitates bringing leadership beyond the academy by making our scholarly expertise available as a public resource. The result would be a transformation of colleges and universities into a visible force in the lives of even the most disenfranchised members of society. Until we do so, we will have failed to address the real concerns of those whose cheers filled the auditorium when Senator Rubio urged us toward a return to vocationalism on the back of philosophy jokes.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of Mount Holyoke College and president-elect of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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Warrior-Scholar Project Continues Expansion

The Warrior-Scholar Program hosts academic boot camps for veterans of the U.S. military to help them make the transition to college. Teams of student veterans run the two-week sessions, which are taught by university professors and graduate students.

The program started at Yale University four years ago. It now has expanded to 12 universities, having added the University of Arizona for this year's summer sessions. More than 200 veterans are slated to participate this year. The host institutions are: the Universities of Arizona, Chicago, Michigan, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Oklahoma and Southern California; and Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Syracuse and Yale Universities; and Vassar College.

"Post-9/11 veterans have an immense degree of untapped potential to succeed in higher education institutions and to progress on to successful careers. Yet college can be a significant challenge, even when the GI Bill and other sources of funding are helping pay tuition," said Sidney Ellington, the program's executive director, in a written statement. "To tap that potential and reduce obstacles to success, our boot camps address veterans’ misperceptions about college and build their confidence through an intense academic reorientation."

Survey of colleges finds that distribution requirements remain popular but with new features

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The much-maligned general education model remains alive and well, but with new features, survey finds.

New ways to grade more effectively (essay)

Pause a moment to consider the way we’ve been grading our students’ work since time immemorial. The way we allocate points on the basis of apparent quality. The way we struggle to be fair in giving the same number of points to works of comparable quality, even though they differ a great deal -- and the time it takes us to make these hairsplitting decisions. The way students stress over the points their work does or doesn’t get. The way they challenge our grading decisions in the hope of squeezing more points out of us -- despite the agonizing care and attention to detail we give to their work. For students, it’s all about maximizing partial credit.

Consider, too, the value that external stakeholders attach to our grading. Most employers of our graduates give grades little heed in hiring. They want experience. At the program and university level, accreditors eschew grades and demand independent evidence of student achievement of learning outcomes.

Our grading system is broken, yet we educators keep using it. You may think you have no alternative. But you do. And you can comfortably make the change in your own classes and not confront your administration.

Imagine another grading system, one where you grade all assignments and tests satisfactory/unsatisfactory, pass/fail. Students earn all of the points associated with the work, or none of them, depending on whether their work meets the particular specifications you laid out for it. This is why I call this grading system specifications, or specs, grading. Think of the specs as a one-level, uni-dimensional rubric. But don’t think of them as defining D or even C minus work. Rather, imagine that they define truly “satisfactory” as at least B work -- maybe even A minus work. This assures rigor.

The specs may be as simple as “completeness”: for instance, all the questions are answered, all the problems attempted in good faith or all the directions followed (that is, the work satisfies the assignment), plus the work meets a required length. Or the specs may be more complex: for instance, the work fulfills the criteria you set out for a good literature review, research proposal or substantial reflection.

You must write the specs for a complex assignment very carefully, clearly and thoroughly. They must describe exactly what features in the work you want and will look for. This may mean specifying the organization as well as contents of each section of the work, perhaps even paragraph by paragraph.

Too formulaic? Let’s be real: most of our assignments follow a formula. All you have to do is lay out that formula or whatever part of the formula is important for your students to learn and follow. If you’re bothered by late work, you can include on-time submission among the specs, too.

If your objective for an assignment is creativity, simply provide loose specs of the various ways that students can demonstrate their ability to explain and apply the material -- such as a 20-minute informational video or dramatic performance, a four-minute original musical performance, a 15-page short story or an eight-minute persuasive speech. You can specify basic parameters for creative assignments and not worry about “grading” them.

In sum, complete, satisfactory work receives full credit (full value), and incomplete, unsatisfactory receives no credit/value. For students, it’s all or nothing. No skipping the directions and no sliding by on partial credit for sloppy, last-minute work.

In fact, research reveals that this kind of assignment grading increases student motivation and produces higher-quality work than traditional grading systems do. And the 2015 National Survey of Student Engagement has found that only 54 percent of freshmen and 61 percent of seniors believe that they have been “highly challenged to do their best work” in college. Clearly, our students have room to meet higher and more rigorous academic standards. Maybe we’ve gone too far with lowering the stakes of our assignments and tests. Now, nothing students do matters much to them.

But what about second chances, redemption and flexibility? Consider this second element of specs grading: a virtual-token economy, which buffers the riskiness of no partial credit and allows the opportunity for redemption.

At the beginning of the term, you give your students one, two or three virtual tokens that give them the chance to revise an unsatisfactory assignment, hand in an assignment 24 hours late without penalty or to take a makeup exam. (It’s easier to keep track of three tokens than points docked.) Of course, students who consistently submit satisfactory work on time will keep their tokens. If you choose, you can even let students earn tokens by submitting satisfactory work early, successfully completing additional assignments or doing whatever you’d like to reward. Then, at the end of the course, you can give the student(s) with the most tokens something desirable -- perhaps the chance to skip the final exam or a gift certificate for a pizza.

Actually, you can import this token economy into any grading system. Many students regard it as a game and want to hoard their tokens.

Bundles of Assignments

Specs grading has one more exotic feature: course grades are based on the bundles of assignments and tests that students complete at a pass/satisfactory level. Bundles that require more work, more challenging work or both earn students higher grades. No more points to painstakingly allocate and haggle over with students. By choosing the bundle they want to complete, students select the final grade they want to earn, taking into account their motivation, time available, grade point needs and commitment. If a student chooses a C because that’s all he or she needs in your course, you can respect that. Under such conditions, students are often more motivated to learn because they have a sense of choice, volition, self-determination and responsibility for their grade, as well as less grade anxiety.

Another benefit is the option to associate each bundle with one or more student learning outcomes, so completing a given bundle indicates that the student has achieved certain of those outcomes. Why shouldn’t our grades reflect the outcomes students have and have not achieved? Then our grades may actually mean something.

Let’s admit that, right now, our grades have little connection to outcomes. Students earning an A may have achieved all the outcomes of a course, but what about those getting a B, a C or a D? Did they achieve some outcomes and not others? If so, which ones? Or did they achieve few or none at an acceptable level? Even so, they passed the course.

The idea of bundles can be hard to grasp without examples. Let’s say you set up 10 assignments and tests. These may be papers, essays, objective items, problem sets, programs, designs or some combination of these. Each assignment and test has a companion assignment that enhances its learning value, such as a self-regulated learning exercise, a self-assessment, a paraphrase of your feedback or a plan for doing better next time. Together, they form a bundle.

Then, number each bundle according to the challenge level so that the lower numbers designate relatively easy and lower-level thinking assignments and tests and the higher numbers indicate increasingly demanding and higher-level thinking assignments and tests. Therefore, your course offers 10 bundles.

  • For a D, students have to complete bundles 1 through 5, which require achieving only knowledge/recall outcomes, plus the ability to write brief reflections.
  • For a C, they have to complete bundles 1 through 6, where bundle 6 also requires comprehension, plus the ability to correct their errors.
  • For a B, they have to complete bundles 1 through 8, where bundles 7 and 8 also require application, plus the ability to plan improvement strategies.
  • For an A, they have to complete all 10 bundles, where bundles 9 and 10 also require evaluation and creation, plus the ability to assess their work.

Here is an even simpler system with only four bundles of assignments and tests, ranging from relatively easy/basic to very challenging/advanced. The more challenging bundles will require students to achieve more learning outcomes, including higher levels of thinking about broader and more complex knowledge.

  • For a D, students have to complete only the easiest and most basic bundle.
  • For a C, they have to complete that basic bundle and a somewhat more challenging one.
  • For a B, they have to complete these two bundles and a third one that is even more challenging.
  • For an A, they have to complete all four bundles, the fourth of which is the most challenging.

Again, to complete a bundle, a student must finish all the assignments and tests within it at a satisfactory level -- which means at least a B level. That is, each piece of work within a bundle must meet all your specs for satisfactory completion.

Specs grading is flexible. You can adopt one or two of the three elements, or apply an element in some cases and not others. For instance, you can integrate pass/fail grading and tokens into a course but retain your current point system. Or you may choose to grade only some assignments and tests pass/fail. Or you may institute bundles only for grades C and D, or only for grades A and B.

Some faculty members already use specs grading in their courses, in whole or in part, and they get better results than they did grading the traditional way. Most of them claim that their students produce higher-quality work, pay more attention to feedback, feel more responsible for their grades and are less grade anxious and less likely to protest their grades.

In addition, these instructors find the grading process simpler and less stressful and time-consuming. More of their time goes more toward figuring out what they want their students to show they can do and at what level.

So take heart. If you don’t like the impact that our grading system has on you and your students, you don’t have to tolerate it anymore.

Linda B. Nilson is director of the office of teaching effectiveness and innovation at Clemson University.

A Rhodes Scholar compares rowing to his humanities education (essay)

Most mornings, upon waking, I pull on my sneakers -- they call them “trainers” here -- and head to the river. This time of year at the University of Oxford, where I study as a Rhodes Scholar, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge and flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog, I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college?

The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross-country in the North Carolina heat for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.)

The environment that I now inhabit -- ancient, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm -- is distant in many ways from the Charlottesville, Va., that I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at the University of Virginia and the time at Oxford that I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between those two endeavors: rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, points to one quality that makes public colleges and universities like UVA -- institutions that offer a world-class humanities education to students from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds -- distinctively valuable.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the foot plates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide. As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention -- not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate course work in literature sought to hone.

When people say that rowing is a beautiful sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes -- tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity -- are not accidental. In fact, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power -- with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts -- will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one.

In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic achievement are intertwined. Rowing, like much of my humanities course work in college -- specifically in literature and art history -- takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study.

And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors -- learning to row and earning a literature degree -- require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call form. In rowing, form refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else that literature and art critics might speak of. But in both cases, form connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities. There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the United States and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island -- islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds -- but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false -- and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. The resistance of American colleges and universities to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place. I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university, where my professors encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. They pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitment to the liberal arts.

In fact, of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth student majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

Public universities (as well as independent colleges and universities with generous financial aid programs) that continue to emphasize humanistic education deserve praise. UVA still has work to do in recruiting and supporting students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. Nonetheless, Virginians are lucky to have a flagship institution that prizes liberal arts education as a necessary investment in the state’s human capital. I attended UVA financed largely by need-based grants. Without the university’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater, as well as other colleges and universities, retains this commitment to the humanities so as to awaken other students, from any socioeconomic background, to the possibilities that a humanities education engenders -- possibilities that include, in my fortunate case, solitary walks down moonlit trails. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see those future students training on the river -- rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated from the University of Virginia in 2014 and last year earned an M.St. in English literature from the University of Oxford, where he is currently working toward an M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology. He is a former intern at Inside HIgher Ed. This article is adapted from a piece that first appeared in UVA Today.

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Federal Reserve economists say recent college grads are doing better than many believe

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Federal Reserve economists say while recent college graduates struggled during the economic downturn, they did better than most believe.

Hobsons to Buy Analytics Project

Hobsons, a student-success-oriented company, will buy the Predictive Analytics Reporting (PAR) Framework, a nonprofit learning-analytics project that last year was spun off from the Western Interstate Commission of Higher Education. The commission began the project in 2011 as a collaboration between six online institutions, which shared data about student learning. Since then it broadened to include on-ground and competency-based institutions. The PAR currently has more than two dozen member institutions, according to Hobsons. The company also recently bought Starfish Retention Services, which uses software to try to boost student retention.


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