Reconstructing Our Approach to Grades and Grading: Four Places to Begin

by Kathleen Sell

Introduction

Let’s start by acknowledging, right up front, that digging in to our grading practices is hard.  Not just hard work but hard because as Sarah Cavanagh explores in her book, “…the classroom is a highly emotional climate, where students and teachers confront anxiety, hope, confusion, and satisfaction and where there are often high stakes” (191-192).   A huge part of this “emotional climate” has to do with grades; passing or failing, earning this grade or that, matters tremendously given the system within which we operate.  And as Feldman points out,  “a teacher’s grading policies and practices reveal how she defines and envisions her relationship to students, what she predicts best prepares them for success, her beliefs about students, and her self-concept as a teacher” (Feldman 6).  So examining our grading practices is high stakes, hard work. 

But Joe Feldman, in his book Grading for Equity, challenges us to consider this:  “Are we, by using, supporting, and not interrogating traditional grading practices, accessories to the inequities in our schools” and classrooms (7)?  To what extent do “our common grading practices make us active accomplices in perpetuating” equity gaps (Feldman xxii)? 

Here is a premise:  in an effort to be “fair” (and what do we mean by fair?) or “rigorous” many of us have grading policies and schemes that penalize our most vulnerable students and continue to perpetuate an extrinsic reward system that in fact undermines actual learning.  Believe me, I have used virtually every grading practice Feldman takes apart.   I have raised virtually every “but what about” he addresses.  And some of those practices have taken me longer to recognize and rethink than others (I’m looking at you 100-point scale and zeroes)!  But the ongoing effort to make sure that my grades truly reflect what my students have learned—and do so in a way that is as much as possible not infected by my own implicit biases—has been one of the most impactful changes I’ve made to my teaching, and I’m nowhere close to done with the overhaul.       

As we dive in, here are some guiding questions for us:  are my grades accurately reflecting what students have learned and what they can do by the end of my course?  To what degree are my grades reflecting environment (which I may know little to nothing about) and/ or my (subjective) perceptions of student behavior?  To what degree are my grades reflecting students’ ability to perform on a high stakes assessment at a given day/ time rather than their actual learning over time, including learning from mistakes?

I’ll focus on identifying Feldman’s three principles, and then using those principles —in addition to ditching those 100-point scale zeroes as Kirsten’s post makes clear we should do— to target some high impact changes that can make our grading more bias resistant, accurate, motivational, and equitable: 

1) not grading for participation

2) offering retakes and re-dos

3 ) rethinking late work penalties

4) eliminating extra credit

And finally, I’ll include a brief nod towards one that will need a post/ session all its own— cheating and factoring penalties for cheating into our grades.

Principles first

Feldman grounds his approach in three principles:

  1. Kirsten’s post clearly explains Feldman’s first principle: our grading practices should yield accurate grades.  I’ll touch just a bit on the need for grades to accurately reflect student learning (content knowledge and skills rather than behavior and environment) in some of the practices discussed below.
  2. Our grading practices should be bias resistant, and thus should focus on assessing student learning, not a student’s behavior or environment.
  3. Our grading practices should be motivational, promoting learning—including the value of learning from mistakes.

Why Participation Should Not Factor into Grades

An engaged classroom—students active, discussing, sharing ideas, participating in the discourse of the discipline and performing the behaviors we truly believe will help them succeed and be better students.  We teachers LOVE this.  But which behaviors do we typically reward and count as participation and what model student are we imagining as we do so?  There are several problems to unpack here.  The first is simply that it “focuses more on a student’s conduct than what she has learned”, and so is an accuracy and an equity problem (Feldman 121).  Grading participation “is a subjective and therefore bias-infected judgment of a student’s behavior” (121).  Can we really fairly, accurately, and objectively “assign a number to represent the capacity that students [have] developed to participate in an intellectual exchange” in our classes (Bain 156)?  While our intention may be to encourage the kinds of behaviors we hope will help students succeed, doing so “forces students to fit within a set of behaviors anchored to the teacher’s subjective, implicitly biased idea of what a successful student is” (Feldman 122).  And typically these are “behaviors that their teacher has and values, embedded within that teacher’s specific culture, upbringing, and learning styles.”  In so doing, “…we often ignore the diversity of learning styles, contexts, cultures, and needs among our students” (Feldman 122).

This doesn’t mean we don’t value and want to encourage engaged participation in class.  However, it need not be part of the grade.  We can learn to recognize, and foster (as Audrey and Miguel’s session and post showed us so well), varied kinds of participation that more truly include and recognize all of our students and their needs and focus on learning rather than on performing in order to earn points.

Retakes and Redos: Yes, We Should Offer Them

This is a big one.  Most of us know from our own experience that learning requires risk taking and a willingness to make mistakes.  But do our grading practices reflect this? High stakes, single-try assessments (a paper, an exam, a speech, etc.) measure a student’s performance in that moment of time but may not accurately reflect their learning.  We don’t know all that is happening in a student’s environment.  Was he up all night with a sick child?  Did she get called in to do a double shift? Is he hungry?  Do they simply learn at a different rate?  Moreover, the message we send when our courses have no opportunity for retakes, re-dos, rewrites is that mistakes are not welcome.  They are penalized, sometimes catastrophically.  When grades based on high stakes assessments “are a pervasive part of a classroom culture, students with less confidence in their academic knowledge often dare not even try for fear that they will not receive the extrinsic rewards of a passing or high grade and that their inferior performance will be revealed” (Feldman 155).  This emphasis on grades in general, but especially on high stakes one and done assessment to determine grades—“limit[s] learning and [has] huge deleterious effects on lower performing students” (Feldman 158). 

So how do we minimize the impact of this?  We can do so “only when there’s a mechanism to review [mistakes] and an opportunity to correct them.  Students must fix their errors and give it another try until they succeed, which means we have to offer them that next try” (Feldman 165).  Offering retakes and re-dos—opportunities to learn the material they missed on an exam, a skill they didn’t fully master in a  paper—is crucial to making our classrooms, our grading more equitable. 

There are lots of practical questions here—when to offer a retake/ redo? On every assignment or just some? On the whole of an exam, say, or just the part the student missed? How many times? How to encourage/ support learning in the time between the original and the retake/ redo?  How do we determine the final grade on a given assessment?  What if the retake is a lower score?  On these latter two, Feldman suggests that we should use the score that best reflects the student’s learning.  No complicated percentages or math necessary.  Feldman addresses each of these practical concerns in Chapter 13 in depth.  One last question he addresses that I’ll address here, too: should the retakes be optional or mandatory? He argues categorically that “retakes are equitable only when they are mandatory” because students with more confidence are already more likely to attempt retakes/ re-dos than those who most need the support of more time and reassurance that mistakes aren’t catastrophic and can be learned from (172).  So make them mandatory.  Build them in.   By all means, let’s talk about the how to’s in terms of best practices for implementing retakes/ re-dos in our various disciplines.  But bottom line, let’s find out what our students have LEARNED in our classes over the course of a unit, a semester, not just what they can show us they know at a given hour on a given day.

Late Policies Redux

We’ve talked a lot—even before but especially since the pandemic—about offering more grace and flexibility for our students.  And a big part of this has been looking at policies for late work, so I’ll be brief here and simply put it in the context of which kinds of grading practices do—and which don’t—promote equity.  If we look at Feldman’s principles, one issue with late work penalties is that they make grades inaccurate because it offers “an inaccurate description of [a student’s] level of performance” (115).  Instead, late penalties “[capture] the degree to which students have internalized a sense of timeliness…often suggesting that the ability to be timely counts as much as—or sometimes even more than—the capacity to do the discipline” (Bain 152-153). 

Moreover, students, as we’ve learned for ourselves over the last year and a half,  “turn in assignments late for all sorts of reasons” and “may not have been able to entirely control all the circumstances that caused the assignment to be late [but] our implicit biases influence the assumptions we make” about why something is late and how we feel about that and about the student (115).  Not issuing late penalties, in other words grading the performance without deducting for lateness, does not mean having no deadlines whatsoever.  We can be creative, offer grace, and still set boundaries around how long deadlines extend.  In terms of the grade, though, Feldman argues that late work should be graded on its performance alone without factoring in deductions for the lateness itself. We should grade performance, not environment or behavior.

Extra Credit & Why It Needs to Go Away

So what on earth is wrong with extra credit, right?  Feldman offers four problems with it.  To begin with, extra credit treats grades “and the points that comprise them, as a commodity” and so teaches that “points are fungible” (Feldman 13).  No matter that you didn’t learn concept x or y, you can make up the points associated with an assessment on that concept by doing this extra credit assignment.  Moreover, this has the effect of undermining “a teacher’s own curriculum and instruction” if it can be used to “backfill” or “supplant” earlier instruction (Feldman 114).  This reinforces extrinsic motivation rather than supporting learning.  Beyond that, extra credit is often used as a way of encouraging certain behaviors—e.g. coming to office hours, attending a campus event and the like.  But does it? Is the behavior that we see as valuable to being a good student actually learned or is what is learned more about the marketplace of points and the number of those points needed to get a certain grade? And how does this impact the accuracy of a grade meant to reflect students’ learning of course content, not behavior?

Extra credit is also problematic from an equity perspective.  It can all too easily “reflect a student’s environment over which she has not control” (e.g. purchasing tickets to see an event related to course content requires disposable income; giving extra credit for voting makes all kinds of assumptions about students’ citizenship status).  Finally, extra credit often appeals most to those students who have the time and energy to do the extra credit (they may not have the same work and care-giving responsibilities) and who perhaps least “need” it.  They go for it because they’ve been trained to go for the points to earn the best grade possible.

So bottom line… “If the work is important, require it; if it’s not, don’t include it in the grade” and be mindful that whatever you require doesn’t inadvertently penalize students whose environments may make it difficult to meet those requirements (Feldman 114). 

Cheating and Plagiarism–Retribution vs. Rehabilitation

This one is tough.  And it certainly warrants an entire session all to itself—so I’ll be brief and encourage you to look at Feldman’s discussion of this in Chapter 9.  What penalty do most of issue for cheating?  A zero (see Kirsten’s post on the flaws of the zero!).  Sometimes if we deem it inadvertent, we treat, say, failing to accurately cite sources in a paper as a teaching moment and distinguish this from cheating.  But when in fact it is cheating, what do we do?  Zero on assignment? Fail the course? Report? All of the above?  So here is a thought:  perhaps better than a retributive form of justice for cheating would be one that is “rehabilitative” (Feldman 119).  What does this mean and why might we find this especially challenging?  Feldman articulates how many of us feel when cheating happens. We often see it, he argues, “…not simply as a lapse in a student’s judgment, but as a personal affront to the teacher’s dedication” and we often “feel hurt and undermined and want to teach these students a harsh lesson” (117).  These feelings absolutely should be acknowledged.  But here’s the thing.  A zero for cheating is an inaccurate reflection of what the student knows, of their performance, because we don’t have data to actually assess what they know.  AND the “real irony of assigning a zero for cheating is that it lets the student off too easy; she never is held accountable for the content in the assignment or assessment” (118).  So maybe rehabilitative, actually get the student to do the work, demonstrate knowledge, rather than retribution.  Some food for thought.

Conclusion

Stephen Brookfield’s insistence that good teaching must be grounded in sustained critical reflection is so important to this consideration of our grading practices in particular because “implicit assumptions soak into consciousness from the professional and cultural air around” us, and grades/ grading practices are a prime example of this (Brookfield 3). All too often our grading practices, replicated from our own experiences and perpetuated uncritically from semester to semester, year to year,  “inadvertently [pull] students (and their teachers) farther away from a focus on learning.  Rather than teach students to be curious about the academic content, to care about their progress as a learner to invest in the health of the classroom community, and to co-construct productive relationships with their peers or teacher, we teach [students]to care about points” or grades, and we perpetuate inequities (Feldman 35). 

We need to acknowledge that when it comes to grades, no matter how friendly and welcoming our syllabus and our other classroom practices, the simple truth is this: “Because the teacher essentially ‘owns’ all the points and determines how many points students receive or are withheld from them, she holds all the power in the classroom” (Feldman 36).  Thus, the work to really examine our grading practices—to make them equity minded—is not optional but a central issue if we’re serious about making our classrooms more student-centered, more inclusive, more nurturing, more compassionate, more equitable.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly for the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and which ways do they not?
  2. What do your final grades ultimately reflect? Student performance, the skills/ knowledge outlined in the course outcomes? Effort? Behavior? Environment? A mixture? 
  3. How do our implicit biases operate when we incorporate students’ nonacademic behaviors and performance into their grades?
  4. What are some specific ways you could make your grades more bias-resistant?

Works Cited

Bain, Ken.  What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard UP, 2004.

Brookfield, Stephen.  Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2017.

Cavanagh, Sara Rose. The Spark of Learning: Energizing the College Classroom with the Science of Emotion. West Virginia UP, 2016.

Feldman, Joe.  Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Corwin, 2019.

For Further Study

Blum, Susan D..  Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). West Virginia UP, 2020.

Inoue, Asao B..  Anti-Racist Assessment Ecologies:  Teaching and Assessing Writing for a Socially Just Future. The WAC Clearinghouse, 2015.

Nilson, Linda B..  Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus, 2015.

Zeroing Out Inequity

by Kirsten Gerdes

During my second year at RCC, I ran into a student on campus I’d had my first year. He asked whether I was offering the class again he’d had with me the previous year since he’d failed the course. After confirming that I was offering the class again the next semester, he commented, “I really enjoyed your class and was surprised when I realized I wasn’t gonna pass simply because I’d missed some of the weekly assignments.” This was a student who’d done well on the midterm and had been an active participant in class discussion, but lost motivation post-midterm when he saw the impact of his missing assignments that had left him with a non-passing grade. In the year after I had him in class, I changed my grading schema to minimum grading—and had I employed this system when he was my student, he would’ve passed my class initially.

Among things considered sacred cows to teachers, grading practices seems to rank high on the list. In Chapter 1 of Grading for Equity, Joe Feldman links teachers’ grading practices with their sense of identity:

Because each teacher’s grading system is virtually unregulated and unconstrained, a teacher’s grading policies and practices reveal how she defines and envisions her relationship to students, what she predicts best prepares them for success, her beliefs about students, and her self-concept as a teacher. That’s why challenges to our grading practices don’t just offend our professional judgment; they can invoke an emotional and psychological threat.

(Feldman 6)

It isn’t surprising that in a system like the American academy, which has played education like a zero-sum game of funding and prestige, faculty believe their grading practices reflect both the difficulty of the subject matter and their own rigor. This is compounded by the ways the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy has shaped this system that has helped shape us as educators. However, Feldman’s challenge to teachers to reflect on the purpose and effectiveness of grades actually leads to greater rigor and accuracy. Central to this discussion is the pushback against giving zeros for non-completion of work.

Minimum grading is not ‘credit for nothing’

I was first introduced to the concept of minimum grading by my partner, who was working as a high school math educator at the time in a school district that used minimum grading, a system in which the lowest grade entered in the gradebook must be 50%. I distinctly remember that before he’d even finished explaining how he wasn’t allowed to enter anything lower than 50%, I cut him off to exclaim, “But that’s not fair! It’s giving credit to people for doing nothing!” This is perhaps the most common response from those who, like me, had only ever known, used, and been assessed by a conventional grading system.

In the intervening years since I was first introduced to this concept, I read more and had lengthy discussions with my partner (who now works on math curriculum in a district K-12 office) about how to structure my grading schema to both accurately reflect students’ acquisition of learning outcomes and to efficiently streamline my process for grading. Initially, I transitioned to minimum grading, but in the last year have moved away from using the 100-point scale almost entirely.

So why is giving a zero for non-completion so inequitable?

I think the answer is twofold. Let’s start with the math of it: while GPAs are calculated on a 4-point scale corresponding to letter grades, most course grades are calculated as a percentage on a 100-point scale corresponding to letter grades. This necessitates a conversion of percentage to grade point, but the ratio represented between each letter grade in the grade point system is not equal to the ratio between each letter grade in the percentage-based system. As a result, the conversion process disproportionately weights the F for non-completion (i.e., the zero) compared to every other letter grade.

Consequently, a student who misses an assignment and receives a zero in the conventional percentage-based system has not earned a zero on the grade point scale; mathematically, it is more like they landed on -6.0 in the 4-point GPA scale.[1] [The 1.0 difference between 4.0 and 3.0 translates to 10 percentage points between A and B in the conventional system; if the difference between A and F in the conventional system is 100 percentage points, then on the GPA scale, the F would translate to 10.0 points away from 4.0, or -6.0.] Minimum grading, on the other hand, issues 50% as the failing grade, which puts it at the same relative distance to a D as a D is to a C, a C is to a B, and so on.

Take a look at this graph that shows how disproportionately weighted the F is compared to the other letter grades in a conventional system. The GPA scale is written across the top of the graph with the corresponding percentage point range across the bottom (where each 5×5 square is 10 percentage points). The F area of the graph is the largest, and earning a zero (on the far left of the graph) puts you at a greater distance to the next grade up than at any other grade in the graph:

To demonstrate how (unintuitively) detrimental a zero is to the student’s grade, let me give a very simple example. Rosie is a student in your class in which there are 11 assignments total, and for which you grade using the 100-point conventional grading scale on each assignment. She receives a 95 and a 95 on the first two assignments but misses the third assignment. Her average is now 190/300 = 63% (D). If she receives 100 on the next eight assignments, she’s brought her average up to an A, but if she scores below a 100 on any assignment, she remains below an A despite earning a high A on 10 out of 11 assignments.

This scenario raises a couple initial questions here. First, how many near-perfect As does it take to bounce back from a zero in the conventional system? In Rosie’s case, it took eight perfect 100s to earn an A after just one zero. Second, if someone doesn’t score the number of near-perfect As needed to earn an A average after just one zero, does the lower grade accurately reflect her level of proficiency on student learning outcomes? In contrast, minimum grading accurately translates the ratio of the 4-point grading scale into the percentage-based grading scale by eliminating the disproportionate weight on zeros compared to every other grade earned. In Rosie’s example, her average after three assignments would’ve been 80% (95+95+50/300), and it would’ve taken half the number of As to raise her average to an A.

Once we consider the mathematical reason the zero is inequitable, the second reason becomes obvious. The students most affected by this disproportionate grading scale are those who are already disadvantaged: students whose work schedules shift, or whose caretaking responsibilities suddenly change, or who don’t have easy access to the technology needed to complete assignments, or whose neurodiversity is unmanaged due to poor access to affordable mental healthcare, or whose housing situation is unstable. Seeing the distance one must cover to make up for one zero does not foster motivation in that student. Feldman writes, “There’s no research that finds that failing grades motivate students, and plenty of research that has found the opposite—that a student who receives 0s and Fs becomes less motivated, not more motivated” (76).  So not only does the zero not make mathematical sense, but it does not have the effect on our most vulnerable students that we want grades to have.

Alternatives to minimum grading

Once I implemented minimum grading, I saw a significant change in student success among those who’d have failed under the conventional grading system I’d used in the past. In the past year, I’ve been experimenting with translating the 4.0 GPA scale to an equitable distribution across a 100-percentage-point scale, attempting to assess each assignment on a 4-3-2-1-0 scale. Thus, I do give out zeros, but there are an equal number of percentage points between each letter grade from 0 to 100. (E.g., this makes 50% in my system a C.)

There are other options that emerge once we seriously reflect on what we see as the purpose of grades. If they’re meant as markers of a student’s proficiency or mastery of student learning outcomes, Feldman suggests that averaging a student’s performances may not accurately reflect the level of proficiency gained over the course through the student’s work. Weaker performance at the beginning of a course reflects the student’s relative privilege in preparedness for the course; averaging their performance over time codifies that privilege into a grade. A more equitable method would be to weight the most recent assignment(s) in the final grade to more accurately reflect the student’s knowledge and mastery of learning outcomes.[2]

One final alternative to minimum grading that I’ll briefly pose is specifications (“specs”) grading, in which the professor creates “bundles” of assignments that outline the minimum work needed to earn the letter grade the student wants. Each assignment must meet all requirements set out by the professor in order to receive credit, so each assignment is graded as P/NP. While this requires both significant and timely feedback to students, and careful and thoughtful preparation in creating each grade’s bundle, it likewise empowers students to work toward the grade they want and motivates them to meet the standards of each assignment in order to receive credit.[3]

The journey to equity in grading must include thoughtful and honest reflection on what grades are supposed to communicate, why we have chosen our particular grading methods, and whether we find these methods effective at fulfilling the purpose of grades in the first place. It is from this place of active self-reflection that we can hopefully begin to envision new tools to use in our efforts to eradicate inequity in our teaching.

Works Cited

Feldman, Joe. Grading for Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, 2019.

Nilson, Linda B. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, 2015.

Reeves, Douglas. “The Case Against the Zero.” Phi Delta Kappan,vol. 86, no. 4, 2004, pp. 324-325.


[1] For more discussion on the math of the zero, see Douglas Reeves, “The Case Against the Zero.”

[2] For a more detailed discussion of this, see Feldman p. 97-99.

[3] For more on specs grading, see Linda B. Nilson’s Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time.


Conferencing and Conversation: Talking to Students

I. Office Hours: “Can we talk?”

Trepidation—a likely descriptor for our students’ emotional response to the prospect of making an office hours visit. What leads me to this assumption is, in part, my own undergrad experience. I was an above-average student with a subdued affect and a solid record of attendance. I was also, in several significant ways, a traditional college student. So why would I still feel anxious about a one-on-one interaction with a professor? I suppose it was ultimately about knowledge and power (I felt I had little of both). The few times I did attend office hours, it was to collect a book left behind in class or to ask for a signature on an add/drop petition. Without exception, my professors were affable and courteous, even self-effacing. They did their level best, I think, to consciously disrupt the power dynamic and allay what must have been my obvious unease. Still, I did not seek counsel when it would have benefitted me to do so. Rather, I just tried to figure things out on my own.

Considering my undergrad history of limited interpersonal exchanges with faculty, one would think that I should have a clear view as to why I am typically alone during my own office hours, but I don’t. I feel that I have gone above and beyond to be engaging, accessible, and—often to my students’ chagrin—“entertaining.” But does all of this seeming self-awareness equate to a line of students outside my door? Sadly, no. I consistently offer up invitations during class; I write positively-framed solicitations on homework and essays; I email specific students and encourage them to drop by for a chat. However, unless I make it mandatory, I will have but few visitors. Meanwhile, my colleague in an adjoining office consistently has a que of students snaking down the hall. So how can I (and those in a like situation) get more participation? How do we convince those reticent students that a one-on-one meeting with a professor will be something other than a Kafkaesque experience?

A recent piece by Elissa Nadworny, Higher Education Correspondent for NPR, suggests that students, despite our explanations and exhortations, don’t really understand what office hours are for:

They’re part of what some students say is a hidden curriculum—the set of rules on a college campus that no one ever tells you about. And then what students do know is that you have to meet one-on-one with your professor, which in some cases means talking to the smartest, most powerful person you know (remember, professors are the ones giving our the grades!).

Clearly, this obstacle exists on any college or university campus. Indeed, it is endemic and systemic. There are, however, some simple ways to begin disrupting our perceived authoritarian role in hopes of getting more participation. Recent literature on the topic of office hours tends to identify common strategies for getting more buy-in from students. Some of these are becoming common practice at our own college, for example, serving one’s hours at a more neutral site—the library, student engagement centers, a table in an outdoor common area. And, of course, online office hours have become second nature thanks to the pandemic. Taking the “office” out of the equation could pay real dividends when it comes to easing students’ anxieties about engaging faculty.

I think most of us would agree with Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard professor and author of The Privileged Poor, that “[t]he students who are least likely to go to office hours are the students who would benefit from them the most.” Is this not the crux of the matter? Our students with developed social and academic skill sets will frequent office hours to discourse on a variety of topics while those who are in most need of intervention (i.e. our care and support) will go to great lengths to avoid what they can only anticipate as being a moment of negative judgement in which an inherent lack in their intellect or character will be exposed and dissected. As Jack rightly asserts, those most apt to avoid contact are those we are striving to reach. Our non-traditional, underrepresented, historically-marginalized populations have a fraught relationship with formal education. We must acknowledge that our students’ previous experiences with/at schools may well have involved stereotyping, discrimination—veiled or overt, and/or a culture of low expectations and reduced opportunities. Inequality with respect to access, retention, and success results from overlapping systemic barriers that disadvantage these groups. How can we convince all of our students, and especially the aforementioned at-risk populations, that the faculty office is a space in which their agency and cultural capital can be enhanced and advanced? One way is to require they come. And, to make certain they do, we can tie it to their grade in some way. This brings us to the second issue of focus.

II. The Grading Conference: “If you grade it, they will come.”

So if encouraging participation in office hours doesn’t produce the contact we are seeking with students, how about the one-on-one grading conference? We have all certainly heard of this strategy (and its varying forms), and a few of us have been practicing it for some time. For those who have not yet given it a try and may be curious about the practical methodology and pedagogical benefits of the in-person grading conference, we can offer a few ideas.

First, it is important to note that when the rationale and manner of the conference are explained to students up front, there is no resistance. Students understand that this is the way their formal writing will be evaluated in the class, and they get it. Obviously, the trepidation mentioned at the top of this post can sometimes follow them into the first grading session, and I consciously work to ameliorate any anxiety they may be experiencing. However, because they have a clear understanding of the agenda and what will occur in the conference, there is very little of the disconcerting ambiguity that hangs about the office hours visit. Moreover, after that first conference, student buy-in is typically at or near 100%. Some anecdotal evidence to support my assertion seems appropriate here. Late in the term, when we get to the fourth essay, I offer the option of a face-to-face grading conference or a traditional response in which I mark the paper with corrections, comments, and an end note. Unfailingly, all of the students (with a rare exception) choose the conference. This has been my experience, class after class, semester after semester.  

Now, why should students so overwhelmingly prefer the grading conference over traditional marking? There are a couple key reasons. One, the interpersonal exchange eliminates the anonymity and distance (both psychic and physical) that students and professors can experience in the classroom. In brief, the conference humanizes each to the other. The power dynamic shifts—though, granted, it is still present—and association replaces alienation. According to Alexandra Gold, who teaches in Harvard’s College Writing Program, “the conference is, in fact, a space for collaboration, not an inquisition. Perhaps the defining aspect of the student conference is the sheer humanity of the interaction, including intangibles like the configuration of physical space, tone, and body language.” We become real for our students when we can demonstrate our investment in a shared cause: their ability to think critically and express themselves clearly in written academic discourse.

Another reason the grading conference may trump traditional evaluation is the way it compels students to process our critique. When returning graded papers in class, I used to ponder the percentage of students who would look through my feedback, let along give it genuine consideration. The in-person grading session ensures that my comments are understood, that follow-up questions can be asked and answered, that we are having a meaningful dialog about the student’s experience with the material and how they developed the ideas in their essay.

 Michael Millner, associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts, shares his takeaway on the grading conference: “What was most important—and most rewarding—for me and for my students, I think, was that I stopped pointing at things and they stopped expecting me to point. Instead, they were able to see their papers as part of an interesting and continuing collaboration with me and ultimately with themselves.” The conference encourages students to see their work in a different light, one that enables metacognition and meaningful reflection. I also honestly believe it improves the quality of the writing I receive. Simply, students take more pride in their work because they know they will be sitting next to me, going over it together.

A final benefit of the conference is that it proves fertile ground for fostering relationships of understanding and empathy. Students who will politely ignore an invitation to office hours but show up for a mandatory grading session may find themselves returning, under their own volition, to discuss academic options, personal dilemmas, or recent successes. The conference becomes an avenue for making those critical connections with our at-risk, underserved, underrepresented students. It can be one more implement in our arsenal as we prosecute the war against inequity.

–Christine Sandoval and Jason Spangler

Is It Worth It?

Last spring, one of my high performing students protested the “extreme workload” in my English 1B class. We were already several terms into pandemic teaching, and I had assiduously scaled down, lowered stakes, and increased flexibility. Taken aback, I tried explaining the purpose of the assignments, their sequencing, and their relative weight, but he was more concerned about numbers than about pedagogy. “Bottom line, is it worth it for me to do these assignments?” he asked pointedly.

As teaching professionals, our answer to this type of question is likely to be an automatic “Of course it is!” Every activity has a purpose. Every assignment and every assessment is part of a larger plan.

I understand this student’s concern, though, and he is not the only one expressing it. Dr. Betsy Barre, Executive Director of the Center for Advancement of Teaching at Wake Forest University, addresses students’ perceptions of workload in a recent podcast: “…This is a pandemic; our students are struggling; let’s lower the stakes on things; let’s be understanding. And so one way to do that is by having smaller low-stakes assignments, so instead of a big midterm, you have multiple weekly check-ins. But of course, our students can interpret that as, ‘more work,’ because if you’re just counting work by counting the number of assignments, then it is, by definition, more work.” According to Barre, a “too much busywork” perception has surfaced in survey results across her institution, from the law school to the divinity college to the general education classes.

At Riverside City College, we have all likely witnessed similar student perceptions of excessive workload expressed anecdotally, in student surveys, and during IOIs, especially recently. I know I have.

And it is easy to see why. Watching today’s college students navigate through their classes reminds me of the way I used to approach short-answer exams. If there were a lot of questions and a strict time-limit, I would answer the ones worth the most points first and save the ones worth the fewest points for last. That way, if the clock ran out, only the questions with the lowest stakes would remain unanswered. With so much competing for our students’ time and attention, we should acknowledge that no matter how beneficial low-stakes assignments and assessments might be, many of our students will prioritize the activities they perceive as having the highest stakes.

Am I suggesting, then, that students are too busy to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, so we should move away from this approach? Of course not. Decades of research have shown positive correlations between low-stakes activities and faculty-student interaction, student attention and motivation, student self-efficacy, and deep learning. Frequent low-stakes activities might even make our classes more inclusive. In chapter 7 of his book Small Teaching, James M. Lang, Director of the D ’Amour Center for Teaching Excellence at Assumption College, argues that such activities—especially when they are highly structured—offer affirmation to those students who already feel adequately prepared and reassurance to those students who do not: “[T]hat extra work ensures that fewer students are left behind in the classroom, and more students feel like they belong” (183). The merit of frequent low-stakes activities is clear—at least to us.  

What I am suggesting is that we assist our students in shifting their emphasis from stakes to value. As Lang points out, “If we really want to inspire students to learn in our courses, we need to focus more of our attention on building up intrinsic motivators, leading them to learning with the same wellsprings of desire and interest that drove us into our disciplines and teaching careers” (196).

Of course, proselyting the merits of low-stakes activities is probably not going to change student perception of their relative worth, as I learned last spring. Small pedagogical changes, however, could make a difference, and if they are strategic, students might stop counting the number of assignments they are being asked to complete and look instead at what those assignments accomplish.

Lang’s book houses these small changes within a larger framework of cognitive activities that foster student knowledge, understanding, and inspiration. He asserts that students place more value on activities that repeatedly tap into prior and recently acquired knowledge because they feel that the work of gaining that knowledge has been acknowledged and appreciated. He suggests making small adjustments to our predicting, retrieving, and interleaving (reinforcement) activities accordingly. “Such activities, leveraged into the first and final minutes of a class session, can provide a powerful boost to student mastery of knowledge; so, too, can simple tweaks to the organization of your course and the order in which you introduce new material and review older material” (18).

Lang also claims that in order for students to value their understanding of subject matter, they have to form “meaningful and effective” connections to it themselves: “Your task [as an instructor] is to create an environment that facilitates the formation of those connections rather than simply lecturing them about connections” (98). He proposes that making small changes to—and allowing more time for—connecting, practicing, and explaining activities will make the class concepts more relevant, practical, and applicable for students, thereby making them more worthwhile.              

Finally, Lang points out that students tend to place a higher value on activities that inspire them: “Classrooms are thoroughly social settings, and our connection to the people around us—or lack of connection—can have a significant impact on the quality of our learning” (159), and making small adjustments to activities that foster belonging, are motivating, and help students understand their own learning process will lead to inspiration. If we are bonded with our students, they might react more positively to the enthusiasm we have for our subject matter and trust our teaching expertise, which in turn could make those frequent low-stakes assignments more acceptable.

Lang’s book lists dozens of specific teaching strategies that I am not sharing here for two reasons, the most obvious one being the current length of this blog. The other reason is applicability: not every strategy works in every situation, for example, classroom vs. online or English 1A vs. English 1B. Furthermore, a strategy that works for one class might not work for another, for example an 8 AM class vs. a 6 PM class or a multi-day lecture vs. a once-a-week flipped format.

What I want to share instead is a suggestion and some thought-starters: If we would like our students to benefit from frequent low-stakes activities, we should look closely at our own classes and ensure these activities are truly worthwhile.

For instance, Barre brings up how much more labor intensive discussion board postings are than the in-class conversations they are intended to mimic because students will worry more about wording and grammar both in their initial post and in their replies to peers. So is it really necessary to have multiple discussions each week? (This is a question I am asking myself right now.) Or, as Barre suggests, could students record their spoken answers instead of writing them down?

What about the way we approach assessment? For example, is there a way to make reading quizzes more about retrieving learned information and less about demonstrating that they have read the assigned literature? Could students take turns writing and administering their own quizzes instead and then have those quizzes lead the discussion of that day’s stories?

And on the subject of grading, are we indeed differentiating between low-stakes and high-stakes activities in our syllabi and gradebooks? Evaluating our assignments’ relative worth might help us better explain that worth to our students the next time they express concern about workload.

—Brit Osgood-Treston, Ed.D., Associate Professor of English, Riverside City College Department of English and Media Studies     

A Message from Dean Woods

Greetings Everyone,

It is an honor to have been asked to write the first post of the 2020/2021 post for your Community of Practice Blog.  Nevertheless, at this particular time, this request has weighed heavily on me as I am not inclined to say something uplifting, motivational and cheery.  Coupled with writing for an audience of composition faculty—I must pay attention to clarity, and to carefully consider the all-important modes of persuasion:  ethos, logos and pathos.  So, I ask myself—from what perspective do I want to write to you and what message do I most want to convey in these pandemic-enveloped times?

I will begin with two quotes that came immediately to mind as I sat to write this blog post.  The first is a statement that the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said to his friend and fellow abolitionist Samuel May: “I have a need to be all on fire for I have mountains of ice about me to melt.”  The second quote is a simple statement taken from the speech that Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King gave to a packed church in Memphis on the stormy night before his assassination: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead . . . .”   As an historian, I have been consistently asked by students whether or not our democracy could ever fall victim to tyranny and full-blown authoritarianism.  As these two quotes attest, there are those in this country who have felt that weight of oppression throughout our history.  So, when asked this question by my students, I have always responded unhesitatingly with, “Yes, indeed it can.”  In my lived experience and in my understanding of the history, there is still nothing, though, that compares to seeing that democracy being eroded so swiftly, blatantly, capriciously and effectively than what we are witnessing today.  But I am not writing to take us down a rabbit hole of despair.  I do actually write this post for you today in order to lift you up!

I encourage you to bring every ounce of passion, dedication and commitment to your chosen profession with you each and every day as you engage in the work of liberation and transformation through education in these difficult days. Our students are fire-breathers!  Please support them and provide them with all of the valuable tools they need to direct their energy toward melting the ice of tyranny, oppression, violence, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, classism, misogyny and the soft bigotry of low expectations.  I urge you to prepare for classes as if your future is in the hands of the students in your classes—because it is.  What will you do to be a partner in their transformation from student to thought leader?  I am excited to see the possibilities as we envision ourselves as not only faculty but lighthouses, tunnels, bridges, escape hatches, guides, sages, nurturers and friendly, welcoming accomplices to our students.  We need to be who and what they need for us to be as they learn to navigate these difficult times.  We have to model effective fire-breathing and ice-melting techniques.  We must realize that our students will be the ones envisioning, designing and creating a future for all of us.  We have a hand in that.  It is an awesome responsibility. Please provide your students with the best possible opportunities to cultivate their own insights; to take the leaps of imagination which will result in their abilities to strengthen their communities.  Allow them to revel in their belongingess.  Engage their intellects and value them.  Most importantly, let them know that we trust them to ultimately lead, by allowing them to see that we are so confident in who they will become that we will be willing to follow.

Peace,

Kristi

How Do I Do This All at Once?

A Starting Point

We have learned so much together over the course of our community of practice sessions this year.  Thank you to all of you!  I’ve gotten a wealth of ideas, food for thought, and books to read from this work—and then, of course, oh yeah, Covid and learning to teach online—literally all at once!  That you’ve maintained the momentum, the commitment to continuing to learn and to improve our practices is a testament to the passion and genuine care for our students in this department.   I am still experimenting—even now—with some of your ideas, with small scale ways to improve the final part of the semester for my students even as I’m already thinking about ways to do it better from the ground up next time. 

The simple answer to how can we take everything we have learned (and are learning on the fly) and implement it all at once is—you can’t.  And you can’t beat yourself up about that—as the last community of practice session emphasized, the “okay is good enough for now” mantra is essential to keep us functioning and grounded enough to give what we can to our students in this incredibly stressful situation.  BUT we can do something(s)—bite sized bits that can have a real impact for our students, and our anchor text for this community of practice, James Lang’s Small Teaching, offers a wealth of terrific, small scale things to try to help our students better learn and retain information, and better apply, connect and understand what they’ve learned.  But the bits we take from Lang (and from all the other great material we’ve studied together) need to be chosen strategically and intentionally and they need to be chosen with this question in mind: how will this transform my students’ experience of and in my class? Please notice the focus here on students’ experience—of course we want more of our students to succeed and we want to do everything we can to support them and give them a strong foundation as they move forward.  But even if they don’t pass the first time around or even if they withdraw—things happen—what was their experience in your class and how do they come out of that feeling about whether or not they belong in college, whether they have what it takes, their capacity to continue to learn and grow?  So the student experience, for me, is my key focus. 

Lasana Hotep at a podium

“What we believe determines what we’re willing to do, to try.” Lasana Hotep —equity training RCC April 24

I’ve come to think that what is most crucial to being able to create classroom experiences  and course designs (virtually as well as F2F)  that transform our students’ experience is critical self-reflection or what I try in design and practice and implementing any one of the wonderful suggestions we’ve been given may not truly transform my students’ experience.  Let me explain.  As Lasana Hotep pointed out in our most recent equity training at RCC, there is no simple, technical response—no silver bullet strategy or activity or technique—that by itself will improve equitable outcomes for our students and our students’ sense that they belong in college—even if there are bumps along the way.  First and foremost we have to challenge the assumptions and narratives behind how we’ve designed and conducted our classes.  We can’t simply lay strategies—no matter how wonderful—over the same old assumptions about our students—who they are, what they should know, why they do or don’t succeed, what they should be able to do coming in the door, who they should be as students.  Without interrogating the assumptions (and the narratives behind those assumptions) that I make (often unconsciously) about my students, any strategy I use will be limited in its efficacy.  So with this framing, let me dive in, if we can’t do everything at once, what can we do, what can we try to support our students’ learning in and experience of our classes?

Small Teaching

Cover of Small Teaching by James Lang

Lang’s book divides the small teaching strategies (and by small teaching he means bite-sized doable things to try in our course design, in our day to day classroom practice) into three categories:  Knowledge, Understanding, and Inspiration.

For knowledge, he has chapters on retrieval practice, predicting as a tool for learning, and interleaving—“spacing and mixing learning activities”—so a kind of cumulative learning that keeps returning to earlier material and skills even as new material/ skills are added rather than discrete units which is a hallmark, really of our process oriented composition classes (Lang 68). 

Chart of Lang's Small Teaching Tips: Retrieving, Predicting, Connecting, Practicing, Growing

His chapters in the section on understanding include connecting, practicing/ applying (this was the primary focus of Carolyn’s Active Learning community of practice—developing learning spaces where students not only get “knowledge and skills” but “get to practice this in relevant ways”).  The final chapter in this section is on self-explaining—the work of having students work on explaining what they are doing and how they are doing it to themselves and others to help deepen learning, correct misunderstandings—the kind of practice we encourage when students write self-reflections on essays they turn in or when they do peer review.

The final section of Lang’s book turns to broader based themes of motivation (how do we help students develop and maintain motivation), growth (fostering growth mindset in our students, but in ourselves as well), and expansion (thinking beyond traditional pedagogies to include service learning/ activity or project based learning) but still offers bite-sized strategies. 

He concludes with a framework for thinking about and using what he’s presented in the book embodied in these questions:

1) What can I do in my next class session? (and the next, and the next…).  This is important for us now as we try to navigate ourselves and our students through the end of this chaotic term.  And this question reminds us, that we don’t have to wait for next semester or the next time I teach this class to make changes—I can make small changes—right now!  (and tomorrow, next week…)  The temptation to sort of write off a semester, gut it out and think, “it will be better next time when I can fix this” is strong!  But we still have time and opportunity now, this semester, with these students (and we might learn something that will make our plan for next semester stronger).

2) What can I do as I design/ tweak my classes for next semester (syllabus, assignments, assessment, pacing)?  This is crucial for us as we face the reality of a summer term—and a fall term—with entirely online classes. What have I learned? What can I do differently given what I learned this semester? And what have I learned that I’ll keep no matter what?  There have been opportunities as well as challenges in this experience!

3) What do I want to work on long term—what is a long term goal for how I’d like to transform my classes?

Small Tweaks, Adjustments, Experiments with Equity in Mind

Image for Webinar Series: Racial Equity in Online Environments

What I would add to Lang’s framework are six principles from CUE (Center for Urban Excellence) for thinking about these changes with an explicit equity minded lens because we know, as I was reminded in the CUE seminar with Jennifer Ortiz (Chair, English, LA Trade Tech), implicit bias tends to intensify during high intensity, high stress times such as we’re experiencing now.  Our stress levels, the rapidity with which we’ve had to make changes without time for a great deal of (or any) planning will be impacting how we respond to students, and without explicit equity focused intentionality, will impact decisions we make about how to structure our online classes, our WRC, etc.  Equity outcomes suffer in challenging environments without intentionality.   Here are the six principles Jennifer Ortiz presented:

1)Deconstructing—decentering whiteness in our classrooms; engaging in and fostering critical awareness and examination of assumptions, beliefs, dominant social norms in how we develop the content and approach in our class. 

  • One small way I have been trying do this, beyond some basics (inclusivity in course materials, giving students more agency, and other great suggestions covered in earlier posts) is by being willing to be vulnerable, share my own education story, and in particular in this moment, my own very real struggles to learn on the fly and adapt—and admitting when I make a mistake or find a better way.  Part of deconstructing is deconstructing my students’ assumptions about me—the assumptions they make about all of us by virtue of our position, how we look, how we sound, etc. 
  • And incorporating reflective practices into class can help aid in this effort to decenter.  Audrey’s dissertation research has underscored the power of reflective practice in the classroom.  It Creates transformational learning as learners question problematic perceptions that they have/have had, and restructure perceptions to be more open-minded and empathetic (Caine & Caine, 2006; Canlas et al., 2015; Merriam & Bierema, 2014) .  It Motivates learners’ consciousness by giving learners a sense of closure and clarity, allowing them to be aware of the new connections that they have made in learning new concepts and successfully engaging learning (Wolfe, 2006). It Invokes empathy & prompts radical listening (Rosen et al., 2014) It Create collective consciousness, coalition building, compassion (Canlas et al., 2015)  Prompts reflection about students’ positionality and privilege and how identity shapes experiences in contrast to others (Bettez & Hytten, 2013 ; Smele et al., 2017 )

2) Welcoming—communicating clearly to our students at every step of the way and every facet of our classes that they are welcome in and belong in our class, that they belong in college

  • As I know so many of you are doing, I’ve been reaching out even more than normal to my students.  I email.  I post announcements. Discussion boards include check-in type questions.  I start every Zoom session or office hour with a check in before we even start to think about course material or assignments.  I include encouraging notes and questions about how they are on every paper I return—I’m eager to hear what else you all are trying!  I’m communicating more intrusively and I’m trying to mindful of tone—not where have you been? But are you ok? How are you doing? What do you need? As Alex’s post on Emotions in Learning made clear, acknowledging the very real—and difficult emotions—we’re faced with right now and being transparent about our own struggles, too, can help students feel like they still belong—that they are somehow not suited to college because they aren’t feeling as motivated right now and the like.
  • Ortiz’s department has also been working on doing more discipline/ department based welcomes that include a lot of basics (details about accessing academic support, getting into Canvas basics, for us it could be details about the WRC and what support services are available) that students as a whole—say all students in English 1A—could really benefit from and they’ve been doing this with video.  She still does an individual welcome video of her own for her classes, but the department/discipline level one helps and may be more efficient for some kinds of information.  The key, in any event, is humanizing ourselves as instructors as a team ready to work to support students.   
Chalkboard reads: "No significant LEARNING occurs without a significant RELATIONSHIP."

3) Validating—consistently communicating our belief that our students are capable of and expected to succeed

  • Since the 2nd week of our time online (so end of week 6), I’ve been posting (and sending) a wrapping up the week and getting ready for next week message for my students.  In the wrap-up I praise—specifically—what went well in the discussion boards or a great zoom conversation and often I praise not even the content of what might have been in a post or reply, but the fact that I can tell they did the reading with care and thoughtfulness or the way in which they responded to a peer—supporting, drawing out, and being specific in what they appreciated in a particular post.  I praise their efforts in making this transition, getting the work in despite the fact that I know (because they’ve told me) they are working more hours, or caring for family members, or just plain feeling seriously unmotivated and struggling to manage time without the normal structure of going to school F2F.  And I remind them that yes, this is challenging—we are all doing the best we can and I remind them what tools they have to still succeed (I expanded the number of my late slips, for instance, which give students an extra week to get something turned in).  And I ask specific questions at the end—the how are you doing, what do you need, kinds of check in questions—and because I email this out as well as just posting it, they are replying—we’re keeping up a dialogue.

4) Representing—yes, being inclusive in our course materials so that students can see themselves and explicitly, people who look like them who have important ideas and perspectives to engage.

  • Star’s post and the thread on culturally responsive teaching made it clear how crucial this is and gave us several ideas for how to do this better.  But her post and all the trainings on equity I’ve been able to be a part of this year have made it clear that simply including (the old model of cultural diversity) is simply not enough by itself.  It is crucial but it can’t be the only strategy.

5) Demystifying—providing clearly and accessibly (simple language as well as ease of access!) information students need to succeed

  • This is some of the work we did on syllabi and prompts in January.  In the midst of the current situation, on a week by week basis I’ve been “translating” the sometimes difficult to understand policies and resources being put in place for students in the midst of this crisis and sharing that with them—announcements, email, and the like.  And there is work we will need to do individually and, I think, as a discipline/ department to make sure our students –especially students who will be new to RCC this summer and fall–understand all the basics—how to access Canvas, how to come to office hours, how to get into and “do” the lab.

6) Partnership—communicating in all aspects of our class and our communications with students that we are committed to working with them

  • And I think this also means communicating our own curiosity and willingness to learn from them—and being transparent that we are human, too, and as Jan pointed out in her post, they will need to be patient with us because we need to be flexible, too, as we navigate the current situation

These principles offer a framework for the kinds of strategies—the small tweaks and adjustments (let alone any of the big ones we may be envisioning)—we strategically and intentionally choose to use and how we use them.  (These are similar—but not identical—to Darla Cooper’s 6 factors for student success—I’ll include a link to those at the end of the blog—this is another terrific framework and there is a lot of overlap). 

And So…Self-Reflection

Simply including culturally diverse texts or picking techniques from the rich menu of strategies our series and work together has offered will not fundamentally, deeply transform the experience of my students—especially minoritized students—if I am not also willing to interrogate my own assumptions, to fearlessly look at my data—again and again—to cultivate curiosity and growth mindset for myself and a willingness to truly know my students, believe in them, meet them where they are (which sometimes means going more than half way to meet them)

Reflective teaching is “the sustained and intentional process of identifying and checking the validity of our teaching assumptions and the habit of constantly trying to identify, and check, the assumptions that form our actions as teachers…[in order] to help us take more informed actions so that when we do something that’s intended to help students learn it actually has that effect” (Brookfield, qtd. In Neuhaus 92-93).

Cover of Geeky Pedagogy by Jessamyn Neuhaus

Our work together and the equity work I’ve been able to be part of this year have challenged me to keep asking:  What profile do I have in mind of my students when I build my syllabus, design my class, construct my policies, offer an “analogy” in class to help explain an idea (what are the analogies I reach for saying about the assumptions I make?)?  Is this who my students really are? What am I assuming? What don’t I know?  As Tina pointed out in her post “Whether we know about each individual student’s story or not, we need to be aware of how past learning experiences and financial and familial burdens affect the success of our students.”  I recommend Jessamyn Neuhaus’s chapter on Reflection in Geeky Pedagogy (chapter 3) and Stephen Brookfield’s Book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher for a good discussion of the value, the necessity of self-reflection for our teaching practice.

In the April installment of RCC’s equity training series with Lasana Hotep, he offered this take on being self-reflective as educators:  being reflective means that I accept that there are some things I am doing that aren’t working (or that aren’t working for some of my students—your data will help you see this).  These things are often grounded in assumptions and narratives I have absorbed/ inherited (narratives about wealth and poverty, about education, about race, among others).  I have to reconstruct—starting with my own attitudes.  And this takes us back to Star’s emphasis in her post that we need to stop, observe, detach, and awaken—SODA—often, and courageously interrogate our efforts.  Star, like Tina, reminds us that “We need to see our students as people who need our guidance, understanding, and sometimes, dare I say, mercy…they are people who deserve to be seen, heard, and acknowledged” people with whom we are in a messy, dynamic partnership of teaching and learning.

So What Next?

As we move forward and tweak, adjust based on what we’ve learned this semester, can we approach our choices with a willingness to think through assumptions we may be making about our students that bear no relationship to the reality our students are actually living?  My point is that we need to be strategic and intentional in the practices we choose to adopt.  And to be strategic and intentional, we have to engage in self-reflection and examination.  We don’t have to change everything all at once—we can’t.  But we can continue the journey, continue the progress, continue to find small ways day to day—even right now, and semester to semester to transform the experience of students in our classes.

We have a lot of amazing strategies, tips, techniques to try out and experiment with; we’ve all learned a lot this year and a lot this semester that will inform how we construct our online classes for summer and fall—and we’ll be sharing some of this at the upcoming institute on May 14th! 

But I would reiterate, that perhaps the most important change—and it isn’t so small—is a willingness to work on myself, to question my assumptions, to focus on intentional principles to inform and prioritize our choices, to err on the side of giving students the benefit of the doubt, and to keep being gentle with ourselves—small changes are okay.  They accumulate if we keep at it!  And right now, okay is good enough.

Let’s Talk!

  1. What is the most important thing you’ve learned this semester about who your students are that you hadn’t realized/ been aware of before? 
  2. What is one small change you made this semester once we went online (not the big one of going online—but a tweak you’ve made since then)?  Why did you make it—what were you hoping to address? How did it go? What did you learn?
  3. What is one change you know you want to make next semester? Why—what do you hope it will accomplish?
  4. What ways do you think self-reflection (of you, the instructor) can be used to examine your own positionality in the classroom in order make positive changes?  
  5. How do you avoid the trap of turning critical self-reflection into everything that is going wrong/ beating yourself up over challenges in your teaching and in your students’ learning/ success?
  6. What kinds of self-reflection activities do you use to get students to consider the narratives of others in the classroom?
  7. What do you think is the biggest barrier to making changes in our teaching practice?  What gets in the way?

Community of Practice Session

  • Pedagogy in Practice Spring Institute: May 14 11-1 Zoom
Flyer for Spring Practice -- What's Working

  • How Do I Do This All at Once Community of Practice Session May 29 1-2 pm Zoom

Resources/ Works Cited

“The Consciousness Gap in Education—An Equity Imperative” March 10, 2014.  Lasana Hotep shared a key portion of this talk in one of the equity trainings this spring—it is a powerful call to action to examine our own assumptions and narratives.  It is worth watching the whole talk.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche 2009  Oct 16.  Many of you know this well and even use it in your classes—but if you don’t know it, take a listen!  It comes at this idea of the narratives that drive how we interpret the world in a really powerful way.

Here are some resources from Audrey on the power of self-reflective practice in the classroom and for the self-care we and our students can really benefit from:

Bettez, S., & Hytten, K. (2013). Community building in social justice work: A critical approach. Educational Studies49(1), 45–66. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/00131946.2012.749478.

Caine, G., & Caine, R. N. (2006). Meaningful learning and the executive functions of the brain. New Directions for Adult & Continuing Education, 2006(110), 53–61. 

Canlas, M., Argenal, A., & Bajaj, M. (2015). Teaching human rights from below: Towards solidarity, resistance and social justice. Radical Teacher, (103), 38–46. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.5195/rt.2015.226 

Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education22(3/4), 15-19.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Rosen, D., McCall, J., & Goodkind, S. (2017). Teaching critical self-reflection through the lens of cultural humility: An assignment in a social work diversity course. Social Work Education36(3), 289–298. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/02615479.2017.1287260

Ross, S. N. (2014). Diversity and intergroup contact in higher education: Exploring possibilities for democratization through social justice education. Teaching in Higher Education19(8), 870–881. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/13562517.2014.934354

Ross-Yisrael. (2019). Using self-awareness as a bridge to teaching diversity at a regional college campus. AURCO Journal25, 177–186. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com.library.capella.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=136976895&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Sheckley, B. G., & Bell, S. (2006). Experience, consciousness, and learning: Implications for instruction. New Directions For Adult & Continuing Education, 2006(110), 43–52. 

Smele, S., Siew-Sarju, R., Chou, E., Breton, P., & Bernhardt, N. (2017). Doing feminist difference differently: Intersectional pedagogical practices in the context of the neoliberal diversity regime. Teaching in Higher Education22(6), 690–704. https://doi-org.library.capella.edu/10.1080/13562517.2016.1273214

Wolfe, P. (2006). The role of meaning and emotion in learning. New Directions For Adult & Continuing Education, 2006(110), 35–41. 

Help With Canvas: A Thread

Questions about using Canvas? Post in the comments below! And if you’re reading can answer someone else’s question, please don’t hesitate to respond!

Handouts for Students

Articles About Teaching Online

Some Tools for Online Teaching

  • Screencast-o-matic – create short (15min or less) videos to help deliver content to your students. You can record yourself or your computer screen. Creating an account and storing videos is free.
  • Here’s is also a helpful tutorial video on the basics of Screencast-o-matic.
  • ConferZoom – conferencing tool that allows you to meet with students online or hold synchronous sessions online if needed. You can share your screen to host live sessions or do 1-1 meetings. Creating an account is free (with your district email address). Students can join via computers with video and audio or audio only with their phones.

Accessibility

If you’re doing tutorial videos and screen-casting they’ll need to be captioned! If you’re scanning PDF files, then the files will need to be optimized for screen-readers as well. Resources on both below.

Scanned PDF documents are not accessible until you convert them for optical character recognition.  This conversion can be done using Adobe Acrobat Pro, which all faculty have access to. Using Adobe Acrobat Pro for accessible documents