Supporting Students Outside the Classroom: One Radical Educator’s Thoughts

By Robert Hyers

When I think about my students’ struggles, the ones they share both in my office and in their class writing, it saddens and angers me. I have had students share memories of living in the family van for periods as a child, adult students living out of their cars before attending college, students living in their cars and using our showers while in college, students hiding in fear from abusive relatives, hungry students, students with mental health issues who had limited or no access to the medication they needed, students who were forced to watch undocumented relatives slowly die because they had no legal right to healthcare, students who missed blocks of class from working a tremendous amount of hours to pay household bills because their parents are undocumented and therefore underpaid, student-mothers who could not finish my classes because their childcare changed suddenly mid-semester, students being kicked out of their family homes. I know you all have had similar student experiences shared with you. All of these issues happening outside of our classrooms can take our students away from their academics inside the classroom. What can we as instructors do to help our students in crisis? In order to begin formulating strategies which are not performative and would therefore actually help our students rather than simply help us feel less sadness and anger, we need to explore a few different areas. Because most of these student struggles live within the realm of the family and home, and because the family and home have traditionally been sites of struggle for women, we need to start our exploration with feminism.

Bourgeois Feminism vs Marxist Feminism

The feminism that most of us have grown up with (and consequently then teach) is, in fact, bourgeois feminism. And while bourgeois feminism is only one kind of feminism, it is thought of as the definitive feminism because its dominance or  its understanding as “common sense,”1 serves the purposes of capital. Bourgeois feminism believes in gender equality while also believing in the validity of meritocracy under capitalism. Therefore, while gender relations should be challenged, the political economy those gender relations are formed within does not need to be challenged. Put simply, once gender relations have been equalized, the fight has been won. If women are educated and free to compete for work in the same way men are, then the most talented women will be freed to rise to the top or, at the very least, possess the resources to purchase whatever they want and/or need on the private market. And while this vision has been freeing for small sections of women (mostly white and middle class), because it lacks any critique of the racist, ableist, and heterosexist forces capitalism disciplines for its own survival, it leaves many women out of its vision,2 many of whom are our students: Black women, women of color, women with disabilities, trans folx, just to name a few.

Marxist feminism is interested in gender equality as well, but because it is based in the Marxist critique of capitalism, it comes to different conclusions about where the areas of struggle are and what to do about them. Marx argued that capitalism was a struggle between two factions, the working class (workers) and the bourgeoisie (owners). The bourgeoisie is always looking to make a profit by taking new value added to the system (surplus value) and the only way to do this is to pay workers less than their work (labor power) is worth and pocket the difference. Workers are always trying to maximize the price of their labor power but have little power, especially individually, to do so because they do not own the materials they work with (means of production) and they are coerced through the threat of starvation and houselessness to continue participating in this exploitative system. (In other words, every job will exploit my labor power, but I have to have a job because I need a paycheck to pay for the things I need to live, like food and housing.) This then means that most of the surplus value which the working class has created with their labor power within capitalism is captured (or stolen) by the bourgeoisie. This is how you then get individual millionaires and billionaires, individuals with more money than they could spend in their lifetimes, while large swaths of the working class suffer in poverty. 3

While Marx’s analysis was focused on what happens at work, he did acknowledge that certain processes were necessary outside of work to make sure that the worker could show up to work again the next day. Labor power in some ways is like a battery; it has to be recharged. The worker has to eat; has to have a place to rest, to relax; has to be able to raise children to replace the worker when they are too old to work. This is called “social reproduction,” what Marxist feminists focus on. Although housing, feeding, clothing, and caring for workers (including children who will be workers and the elderly who can no longer work) is not seen as work in the same way a job with a paycheck is, it is still work. It takes time; it takes labor; it costs money. And capital gets to use it for free4 because caretakers within each family structure (who are still predominantly women5) have to find the time outside of their paid jobs to perform this uncompensated work and the family structure itself is left with the cost of any care services that must be purchased on the private market, such as daycare, assisted living, and healthcare to name a few. The stresses of performing this work have been felt more acutely as a whole on the working class since the 1980s because of our current brand of capitalism, neoliberalism. While the economic theory of the early to mid-twentieth century understood that some of the costs of social reproduction needed to be borne by the bourgeoisie through taxation and the family wage, (an understanding which was sexist and racist), neoliberalism rejects that idea. Each family is on its own to provide for itself. And as the spending power of the working class has diminished in the last few decades, it has become harder for each family to provide for itself.6 And we are seeing those extreme struggles play out with our students.

In addition, some who study social reproduction have also turned their attention to two areas previously overlooked: environmentalism and the prison industrial complex.

Within bourgeois thinking, environmentalism has always been framed as individual sacrifices the working class must make in order to bring us to sustainability while the bourgeoisie continues with business as usual. This is reflected in such initiatives as water and power usage restrictions, fuel taxes, and congestion pricing. (The results of this contradiction are being felt by our working-class students whose families are being forced to restrict their water use7 while a private equity firm continues to steal water from Strawberry Creek in order to sell it back to all of us in bottles labeled Arrowhead8, and, in a more extreme example, working-class families in Central Valley whose household well water has dried up because, for the last hundred years, their agribusiness neighbors have been allowed to siphon as much groundwater as they wanted.9) And although some extreme mitigation measures, such as getting off of gas and coal, is necessary to avoid our near-term future destruction, this thinking is always doomed to fail in the long term because it does not actually target the problem which is causing the destruction of the planet. Rather than a fictional over-indulgent working class, the problem results from capitalism itself. As Marx pointed out, the bourgeoisie is always looking to make as much money as possible, in as little time as possible, in a consistent manner (accumulation). This means that the system must always be expanding and expand at a higher rate than the environment can tolerate.10 In addition, the negative effects of this accumulation, namely pollution, are most acutely felt by the most marginalized of the working class because of the way the system allocates housing to those who can afford it. Quite simply, it is cheaper to live in a more polluted area; this, along with classist and racist zoning, is why our students live in diesel death zones.11

The working class’s interactions with the police and prison system are also framed as individual; each working-class member’s experience with the law is unique and dependent on that individual’s behavior. But Marxism sees it differently. As capitalism naturally moves to automate jobs (technological change) in order to increase profits (relative surplus value), it throws more and more people out of work. As the costs of social reproduction are now borne by each individual family unit under neoliberalism, these “excessed” populations must figure out how to survive. This increases crime and violence which then must be managed by police, the courts, and prison.12 The state violence necessary for this management is felt most acutely by our students, who are forced to deal with the Riverside Police Department who ranks sixth in the nation for the most taxpayer money paid for police misconduct (the majority for excessive force), only outdone by locales with much higher population densities like L.A.13

The answer to these problems for Marxist feminists then lies not in teaching girls to use their girlboss power to break any glass ceilings or infiltrate the men’s only clubs, but to (1) help workers survive the current conditions of social reproduction under neoliberalism and (2) work towards a socialist future in which the working class can own the means of production and use surplus value to help one another thrive. While bourgeois feminism does not recognize these kinds of connections, Marxist feminism does. For example, let’s look at the IE. There is a strong connection between the fact that our students, living in the one of the poorest regions in the country, struggle with providing housing, childcare, and healthcare for their families, while Jeff Bezos, the founder of the largest private employer in the IE,14 Amazon, has the money to shoot himself and William Shatner out into space.15 Imagine if that money that our students made for Bezos using their labor power was democratically harnessed to help our students, to pay for educational resources, for universal housing, universal food programs, universal healthcare, universal child and elder care, all initiatives which would decrease our overall need for police and prisons. And imagine if our students only worked to provide for each other rather than for the ever increasing and insatiable demand for profit by the bourgeoisie, which would reduce pollution levels. This is the vision of Marxist feminists.   

Human Capital vs Social Reproduction

Using this Marxist feminist lens, how do we as college instructors help our students within these areas of social reproduction in which they struggle? For the first part, helping our students survive right now, the answer is simple: direct them to the many campus resources RCC has. In addition, we can also connect them to local direct-action groups in which they can not only get help but also feel empowered by helping others. A list of all of these resources is at the end of this post. But what about that second part, helping our students (and ourselves) move towards a future where we have captured the resources necessary to fully take care of one another? This one is much more complex because, before we can strategize on how to do that, we must first understand our role as educators in social reproduction.

Social reproduction is not just about reproducing the worker in a material sense, but also reproducing the ideology of the society the worker is within. This then means that education is an area of social reproduction just as much as housing, food, and healthcare are. But education stands out in this way: our students have a right to education in a way that they do not have for every other area of social reproduction. Take college for example: even if they do not have the financial means at that moment, they can take out loans for their schooling. But if they do not make three times the required rent for an apartment, they are unhoused. Why is this? It is because, on a fundamental level, capital needs education to teach future workers their inferior place in the system and that, even if they don’t like it, it’s the best system they’re going to get. As educators, our job is to force our students to reconcile the contradiction of living as the working class under bourgeois liberalism—of being forced to serve the authoritarian needs of capital which demand total access to their bodies, minds, and souls when it is profitable while also believing they are free individuals participating in a full democracy.16 A salient example of this would be our current economic moment in which the Fed is restricting the money supply to raise interest rates—in effect, making money more expensive—because the common sense of bourgeois economic thought cannot imagine how to tame inflation outside of reliving the horrors of the Volcker shock.17 This exercise disproportionately harms the most marginalized portions of the working class,18 our students, by keeping them out of work for longer and driving down wages when they do find work, thereby driving down their potential lifetime earnings. Despite this economic moment being completely out of our students’ control, the common sense of our profession dictates that I continue this dangerous game of pretend in the classroom which my students have participated in since grade school, in which we both reinforce the belief that their fortunes are wholly controlled by each student’s individual behaviors and attitudes towards schooling, something which is contrary to what our students are actually experiencing right now outside of the classroom.   

Of course, if we take the example I used about the student taking out a loan for their college education, this makes sense because of the “epochal unit” (to borrow a term from Freire) we find ourselves in: the human capital epochal unit. Human capital is a theory fleshed out in the 1960s by the neoliberal economist Gary Becker, who argued that we should all view ourselves like companies. Just as companies make capital investments in order to grow their profits, individuals should invest in their human capital through schooling which will then allow them access to jobs with specialized knowledge and, because of that specialized knowledge, higher wages.19 And while human capital has always had serious criticism as a viable economic theory as well as a functional social policy,20 it quickly rose into common sense to the point where, in the 1990s, I remember being told in high school that I had to go to college if I wanted a decent life. Every semester I ask my students when they were told they had to go to college. Most say middle school; one student recently told me grammar school.

I want to focus on the relationship between the dominance of the human capital theory and our students’ struggles within the areas of social reproduction. Teaching our students that their only route to a better life is through investing in their human capital by attending college may keep us in business but it does nothing to help our students fundamentally transform their struggles within social reproduction. This is for two reasons: (1) It pushes the solutions for any present problems into the future; if our students can survive college, once they are credentialed and their labor power can demand a higher wage, they will be able to reliably purchase the things they are struggling with now, such as housing and food. It offers no possibilities for empowering solutions right now; it offers no room for collective action with their working-class comrades in the forms of groupings such as labor and tenant unions or mutual aid which have the potential to actually transform the forces currently oppressing them. (2) Human capital’s only solution to these struggles is for our exploited students to then exploit others in order to reliably meet their needs in social reproduction; this transformation is what we label as success. For example, I am now a tenured professor and therefore a success using the human capital theory. Before this, I was at times both an adjunct professor and a retail worker. As a tenured professor, I now benefit from the super-exploitation of my adjunct comrades. And as a member of the Professional Managerial Class,21 I benefit from the low pay and erratic schedules of my retail comrades (some of whom are my students) who now are part of my service class. I am supposed to believe that because I have moved from exploited to exploiter, I am a success. But this is a false consciousness. If we are actually looking to help our students transform society, how we define success must change and our classroom is the place to begin that change.

Limit-Situations vs Untested Feasibility

While a lot of this post may sound like gloom and doom—don’t despair! While we as educators are embedded within a system designed to replicate inequality, as educators we have a certain amount of freedom within this system to push back against it.22 While there a more than a few roadmaps to help us with this, the one I return to the most often is Paulo Freire’s classic, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.23

And while the most popular discussion of this text has traditionally been with narration sickness versus problem-posing education, here I want to work through concepts later in the text, namely where Freire focuses on limit-situations versus untested feasibility.

Freire argues that students bring “limit-situations” into our classrooms. These limit-situations could be many different things (and he argues for creating “generative themes” for classroom discussion by asking students about their limit-situations) but for the purposes of this post, let’s assume that our students’ limit-situations are limited to the areas of social reproduction discussed. If we as instructors are truly dedicated to our students’ (and our own) liberation, our interactions with our students must open up new possibilities for the future, rather than close them down. This is why it is so important for us to fully understand our role as educators within the social reproduction process of education, of the ways in which we reproduce the ideologies which then reproduce inequality. Only by using the same techniques Freire argues for in the classroom with each other as educators before we walk into our classrooms, naming the world through dialogue, can we identify the problems within our own profession to then work on how to solve them. These dialogues will then help us when orchestrating problem-posing education in our classrooms and reduce the likelihood that our classroom discussions, while appearing as liberatory, will continue to oppress our students.

Our goal then with problem-posing education is to move our students towards “limit-acts,” which are concrete actions students can take to begin surpassing their limit-situations into “untested feasibility” or reorganizations of social relations which would help our working-class students in concrete ways but threaten the functionality of capitalism, social relations which we as educators are supposed to teach our students are impossible and off-limits in order to ensure capital can live another day.  How might this process specifically work in the classroom? Let’s take housing as an example.

Housing is one of the most pressing issues for our students. The most productive thing we could do as a society at this point would be to make housing a human right and guarantee it to everyone regardless of income. But this would wipe out the coffers of the rentier class (made up of both corporate and “mom and pop” landlords) within the bourgeoisie and threaten the inflated market values of single-family homes still owned by individual members of the PMC, so we are normally taught (and, in turn, teach our students) that this is pie-in-the-sky thinking if the idea is brought up at all. And if we look at the current epochal unit of neoliberalism, we are moving in the wrong direction. The California legislature worked with the neoliberal think-tank American Enterprise Institute and, with Newsom’s signature, made the “Light Touch Density” program law24 (an idea Riverside adopted two years earlier25) which encourages homeowners to create Accessory Dwelling Units, which would be new apartments the homeowner could rent out or sell on their existing property in order to make housing more affordable by increasing the overall local supply. Using AEI’s own “success stories,”26 not only would this program be unable to help the most marginalized of the working class including most of our students whose incomes are so low they qualify for the California College Promise Grant, it is moving us as a society away from liberation. By making homeowners a new miniature rentier class, we are continuing the viciousness of the human capital mythology: telling our students that the only path to success, the only way they can escape exploitation, is to become exploiters themselves.

Like all untested feasibility in the classroom, we need to approach with caution and meet our students where they are at. In general, the private market as a solution to all of society’s ills is part of our identity as Americans, especially since American neoliberalism is so closely aligned with American liberalism.27 Charging into class, firing on all cylinders, and attacking our students’ identity will not end up in the “dialogical relations” necessary to move us towards limit-acts. And we do not know what our students’ home lives are like. While we may have some students who are currently unhoused or have experienced houselessness, we may have other students who are landlords, perhaps students whose homeowner parents are currently building ADUs. And other students who have never had to worry about housing and therefore, have never thought about this before in a meaningful way. As instructors we need to move slowly and purposefully, introducing the limit-situation, allowing our students to write about it, discuss it, and then moving onto possible solutions. Private market solutions will be presented first because they are currently common sense. Let that conversation happen. At some point the limit-situations of that proposal will present themselves and then you can direct those students towards limit-acts and then to untested feasibility. These discussions can be facilitated by various media (listed later) of activist groups working on housing as well as historical instances where universal housing adjacent ideas have been proposed or attempted. Finally, each student can begin drafting an essay that explores whatever limit-situation versus untested feasibility on this continuum that interests them the most, even if those are private market solutions. And no matter what area the student explores, encouraging introspection in the drafting is crucial; this process of limit-situation versus untested feasibility does not stop at any given point; each movement into untested feasibility creates a new limit-situation which needs new limit-acts to overcome into a new area of untested feasibility which then presents a new limit-situation and so on.  

Ultimately, continuing the tradition of gaslighting that our students have endured inside the classroom since middle school, in which they are told to grin and bear their struggles outside the classroom for now to focus on investing in their human capital because it will save them and their families one anonymous day in the future when they will move from exploited to exploiter, will not help them, or any of us in the working class. Instead, using the bourgeois resources we have at our disposal right now to help our students survive, directing our students to local community action and mutual aid groups where they can not only have their needs met but become empowered in the process, and using our classrooms to further empower our students with the knowledge that a socialist future is available and worth struggling towards now, will help them. While the fact of our students living in one of the poorest regions in the country may feel overwhelming, that fact also holds a multitude of possibilities. As the environmental justice activist Andres Garcia observes: “One thing about people in the Inland Empire is that, like, the material conditions here will make an organizer or activist out of just about anybody.”28

Question for Practice

Identify a class assignment in which students explore problems within one or more areas of social reproduction. Are they given the space and direction to imagine solutions which are not tied to the human capital theory? Does the scaffolding structure of the assignment allow for an interplay between limit-situations and untested feasibility? If not, how might the assignment be modified to allow for these?

RCC Campus Resources

Local Community Direct-Action Groups/Resources (Kind of Alphabetized)

While this list can be given to, and utilized by, our students, I have also compiled this list for our adjunct comrades who, because of the super-exploitation of their labor power, may be struggling in the same areas of social reproduction as our students. In addition, I do not have an opinion on any of these groups; they are all working in their own ways to improve life in the IE. For anyone who uses this list, they will need to do their own research on whichever group(s)/resource(s) interest them.

 Media For Classroom Discussion

Resources for Further Inquiry

Notes

  1. “Common Sense: The ‘folklore of philosophy’”
  2. Angela Davis Criticizes “Mainstream” Feminism/Bourgeois Feminism
  3. Capital Vol 1
  4. “Marx and Feminism”
  5. Women Still Handle Main Household Tasks in the US”
  6. “Social Reproduction Part 1”
  7. Water Use Efficiency Standards | SBMWD, CA
  8. Waters turn turbulent; Firm that’s tapping a national forest to fill its bottles is fighting California over rights and proposal to set limits
  9. Limits on water use are shaking up California agriculture : NPR”
  10. Ecosocialism: A Radical Alternative to Capitalist Catastrophe
  11. “Seeking Environmental Justice in California’s ‘Diesel Death Zones’”
  12. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
  13. Riverside County paid $77M in settlements for police misconduct: report”
  14. Amazon Is the Largest Employer in California’s Inland Empire. Workers There Want a Union.” (jacobin.com)
  15. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin successfully launches crew with William Shatner to space and back”
  16. Schooling in Capitalist America
  17. Inflation Politics with Tim Barker · The Dig (thedigradio.com)
  18. Buckle up, America: The Fed plans to sharply boost unemployment – CBS News
  19. Human Capital: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis with Special Reference to Education
  20. “The Problem with Human Capital Theory- A Marxian Critique”
  21. “On the Origins of the Professional Managerial Class-An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich”
  22. This is a small sampling:  
  23. Pedagogy of the Oppressed
  24. “California Rolls Out a Daring New Housing Policy to Combat High Home Prices and Increase Supply”
  25. https://www.riversideca.gov/cedd/planning/development-related/adusjadus
  26. PowerPoint Presentation (aei.org)
  27. The Birth of Biopolitics
  28. Fighting for Air” | Earth Focus | Season 4, Episode 3 | KCET – YouTube

Understanding the Characteristics and Specific Needs of Adult Learners

For decades, scholars have emphasized the vital interconnection between education and democracy. Political Science professor, Richard Guarasci (2018) calls the United States’ college system an “anchor” of democratic values and initiatives, where learning is a critical component for stability and engagement. Cultural critic and professor Henry Giroux (2019) calls on higher education to produce “civic courage, expand the radical imagination, and nurture individual and social agency” (p.1). John Dewey (2011), a foundational contributor to the field of Adult Education, emphasized how education is always at the forefront of producing informed, capable, engaged citizens that constitute thriving communities.

One does not need to read much further to understand how adult learning contexts can positively impact individuals and communities. However, it is not uncommon for those of us who teach in these contexts to do so without having had formal training in adult learning theory. How is the adult learning context unique and different than others? What are the specific needs of this community and strategies that best benefit learners?

CONTEXTUAL DIFFERENCES

For children, school is a socializing institution where identity is being created and formed and they are still developing cognitively and physically. Being a student is a main activity in children’s lives, and their teacher/parent/caretaker guides them throughout this process. The field of pedagogy addresses the needs of this group.  In contrast, adult learners already have an established and developed identity that is closely tied to their larger social roles and community. Being a student is one aspect of who that learner is, on top of being a parent/caretaker, household provider, civic citizen, employee, chauffeur, friend, etc. Therefore, educator-facilitators must consider some of the fundamental assumptions of andragogy when addressing the AL environment.

A BIT ABOUT ANDRAGOGY

Given the differences between child and adult learning contexts, it is vital to address andragogical considerations. Adults have an eagerness and readiness to learn; they have a reservoir of experiences that can inform and/stifle their learning experiences; and they desire to make practical connections to new knowledge and information.

Growing Enrollment: Adult learners have been given the title of “non-traditional” students in our education system. However, this notion is being challenged given the data showing 42% of CCC students are adult learners aged 25 or over (1,006,351 of 2,381,806 students) (Shasta College Attainment and Innovation Lab for Equity and Success Center for California Community Colleges, 2021). It is also projected that the number of high school graduates will begin to decline from 2024 through the early 2030s (State of California Department of Finance, 2021). And add the fact that Baby Boomers will increasingly leave the workforce over the coming years, opening the door for opportunities and the credentials needed to obtain those opportunities, then we can easily see a reality where we will have a growing number of adult learners in our classrooms. With this population projected to hold a significant share of our classroom space, we need to consider andragogy, as well as the institutional policies and practices that impact the academic success of these students.

Completion and Success: Persistence and achievement gaps are present for this population in general, with national data showing completion rates that are 18% lower for those 24 and up compared to younger students. This is an equity issue as over half of adult learners are people of color, and in California, half of the 6.8 million adult learners with a high school diploma but no college degree are people of color (California Competes, 2020). We need to improve outcomes in order to help increase educational attainment, employment opportunities, and earning potential of adult learners, especially people of color 25 and up, in our communities.

INEFFECTIVE PRACTICES

However, despite advances in the field and data that demonstrate the need to readjust practices and policies, there are still practices that stifle the unique characteristics and needs of adult learners, including older foundational learning theories, such as behaviorist, cognitivist, social cognitivist, and humanist approaches. This is not to say these approaches cannot add value to learning, but they all fall short in addressing the sociocultural contexts in which adult learners are living. Additionally, they reflect archaic assumptions about the way adults learn, which sharply contrast with current neuroscience perspectives and contemporary critical learning theories.

SO…WHERE SHOULD WE FOCUS?

We must remind ourselves that learning is not stagnant, but reflective of the time period of the learner. Merriam and Baumgartner (2020) discuss how learning priorities reflect the needs of a culture at a given time, as demonstrated throughout history. For instance, in colonial America, education heavily emphasized religious imperatives and the importance of reading biblical material. In contrast, post-Revolutionary War education emphasized civic responsibility that focused instead on politics, science, and philosophy. Merriam and Baumgartner mention that more contemporary adult needs are shaped by implications of changing demographics, globalization, and technology. Other scholars also address the imperative that adult learning contexts address structures of power and privilege (Brookfield, 2014); neoliberal agendas (Giroux, 2019); and revisionist histories (Hornig & Sambile, 2019); and are sensitive to the needs of adult learners of color and other systems-impacted learners.

WHAT WORKS?

In consideration of the factors listed above, what approach actually works in order to address both the needs of adult learners while being sensitive to the sociocultural contexts in which we find ourselves? A review of the current literature indicates that a constructivist approach is imperative in creating adult learning spaces that address these multiple needs and concerns. A constructivist approach acknowledges multiple perspectives in various contexts and considers the fluidity of knowledge in relation to time, environment, culture, and positionality, among other factors (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). This means that rather than viewing knowledge as fixed, or the brain as a thing to be “used,” or the classroom as a clean slate where all learners have equal access and the freedom to participate, rather, a constructivist view acknowledges that knowledge is dynamic, the brain is to be “changed,” and the classroom is a complex space riddled with structures of power and privilege that can create barriers and stifle learning.

Within the framework of constructivism, the scholarship shows that learning must be inquiry-based. It must involve reflective practice, and it has to implement community building strategies. Ultimately, the goal is to create disorienting dilemmas or situations that create transformative learning opportunities that empower learners by asking them to utilize their experience, critically examine their knowledge frameworks, and build their communicative skills to engage in ways that positively impact them and their communities.

Potential Questions

  1. Considering some of the theoretical approaches mentioned above, which does your practice reflect? Has it changed over time? How?
  2. Does your practice reflect any aspect of constructivism as mentioned in the last paragraph? If so, can you provide an example?

References

Brookfield, S. D. (2013). Powerful techniques for teaching adults. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

California Competes. (2020). Credit for prior learning: Leveraging past learning to close present-day equity gaps. Retrieved from: https://californiacompetes.org/assets/general-files/CACompetes_CPL-Brief_Final_8_11.pdf.

Dewey, J. (2011). Democracy and education. Digireads.com Publishing.

Giroux, H. A. (2019). Authoritarianism and the challenge of higher education in the age of Trump. Action, Criticism & Theory for Music Education, 18(1), 6–25.

Guarasci, R. (2018). Anchoring democracy: The civic imperative for higher education. Liberal Education, 104(1), 26-33.

Hornig, B. L., & Sambile, A. F. (2019). Addressing hxstorical amnesia: Proactively combating hxstorical amnesia as a means of healing in higher education. Vermont Connection, 40(1), 98–104.

Merriam, S. B., &. Baumgartner, L. M. (2020). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide. 4rth ed. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

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

Shasta College Attainment and Innovation Lab for Equity and Success Center for California Community Colleges. (2021). Improving equity and completion: An adult learner toolkit for California community colleges. California Community Colleges. Vision Resource Center. Retrieved from: https://visionresourcecenter.cccco.edu/.

State of California Department of Finance, (2021). California public K-12 graded enrollment and high school graduate projections by county — 2021 series. Retrieved from: https://dof.ca.gov/forecasting/demographics/public-k-12-graded-enrollment/.

First Impressions:  Helping Students to Feel Welcome and Engaged on Day 1

By Kathleen Sell

In her book The Spark of Learning, Sarah Cavanagh writes, “On the first few days of class students will be forming their impressions of you, and this impression may be more important than much of what you do later” (qtd. in Lang).

James Lang, in his article for The Chronicle of Higher Education “How to Teach a Good First Day of Class,” suggests that these “thin slice judgments… condition [students’] attitudes toward the entire course, the effort they are willing to put in, and the relationship they will have with your and their peers throughout the semester.”

Lang outlines some key principles to keep in mind as you plan your first day: curiosity, community, learning, and expectations (see the article linked below for his full discussion).

1) Curiosity

  • Rather than starting with the syllabus (please don’t make this the first thing or the sum total of what your first day is all about!), try starting with something that sparks curiosity about the course content itself and begins to establish the relevance, interest of the course material to students’ world and lives.  So what will students be able to do/ do better—and why does it matter—as a consequence of taking this course? Then a look at the syllabus later can show how the course content can satisfy that curiosity/ help develop those skills. So think big questions addressed by course content.
  • Showing your love for the material and what sparked and continues to spark your curiosity helps here, too! What do you love about your field and teaching this material? How can you communicate some of that to your students?
  • This also works with Darla Cooper’s framework for student success (RP Group “10 Ways Everyone Can Support Student Success”) by laying the groundwork to help students feel engaged as they begin your course—establishing a sense of the overarching questions, the big picture, why the course matters, and why they should be interested!

2) Community & Partnership

  • Right from the start of a class, signaling that we see ourselves in partnership with our students in learning the material and accomplishing the goals of the course is key.  And intentionally working to create community helps to get this partnership off to a good start.
  • This can (hopefully does!) start even before the first day of class with a welcome email or uploaded welcome video to the class, a reach out to students requesting name pronunciation/ pronouns, info about course materials. Tools in Canvas, such as Name Coach can really help. Once class begins, one strategy to avoid mis-pronunciations or using a name other than the name they choose to use is to have students name themselves and you can check them off as they do so. Using name cards for the first week or two, too, can be a help with learning names especially if masks have made it harder for you to do so!
  • Humanize yourself! Greet and talk to as many students as you can individually, give them an opportunity to ask YOU questions since you’ll be asking lots of them. Online, this can happen with the welcome video, too. Tools to facilitate this, such as a short Flipgrid video or video assignment with flexible guidelines, can be a great way to meet both your online students and your masked in-person students and for students to meet each other in a less stressful environment. 
  • Get to know your students—a survey or info card of some sort that allows students to share (as willing) information about themselves, their interests, what brings them to your course, any areas of concerns or needs they may have can help you begin to know your students as the complex adults with complicated lives that they are. Beyond simply saying or signaling that you are happy to answer questions or see students in office hours (which many of us call student hours), what might you more concretely say or do to communicate your commitment to each student’s learning? Offering information—on syllabi, in Canvas, in class the first day—about resources available to students can help here, and get students involved in sharing resources they know about that you may have missed. All this demonstrates your willingness to know and support your students as whole individuals.
  • Get students talking to each other—this could be an icebreaker but could also be something simple related to course content if you’re not comfortable with icebreaker activities (so part of sparking curiosity and getting them learning!). 
  • All this is key to helping students feel nurtured, connected and valued—three of the six factors for student success in Cooper’s student success framework. Offering students an opportunity to share something about themselves—and listening and responding!—taking the time to get to know them, and creating space/ opportunities for them to connect with one another will be crucial to their success all semester long.

3) Learning

  • Get students learning the first day! This is “not the same as content delivery” but rather an effort to get students engaged with reflecting on and processing something about the content you’ll be covering (Lang). Or perhaps you might get them meta-cognitively thinking about strategies for effective learning in a class like yours, experiences (good and bad) they’ve had in a class like yours before (helpful for math and English!) and meeting any concerns that come from this productively from day one.
  • Think about something that will allow students to activate any prior learning, apply the knowledge they walk in the door with to something you’ll be working on in this course. Connecting the knowledge and experiences they already have and bring to your class to what they’ll be learning and highlighting what their knowledge and experiences can contribute to the class’s learning can help create an environment in which students feel valued and seen.
  • Getting students engaged right away in content also can have, crucially, the added benefit of helping to establish your expertise, especially if your embodied self doesn’t “match” what students might stereotypically expect a “real professor” and can begin to disarm any of the assumptions they might make about you as their professor on the basis of your race/ethnicity, age, gender, appearance, differing physical abilities.

4) Expectations

  • And yes, some time this first day to address the essential questions students will have about the course is good! So addressing materials/ texts to buy, tests/ projects/ assignments they’ll have to complete, the basic shape of the course is a good idea. Evan Kutzler (who regularly posts on teaching on Twitter) suggests asking, “’what do you need to know before you can come back to class confident you will do well?’, [which] gets a bigger response on syllabus day than ‘so, any questions?’”.
  •  Leaving some time for follow up questions on day two to address anything that comes up as students take a more thorough look at the syllabus is a good idea, too. And this could be gamified with a Kahoot or done as a group activity to continue to help students build community. Some time to transparently address and demystify course expectations will help lay the groundwork for students to plan ahead and feel that they belong. Our adult students, with all their many responsibilities, need to know clearly from the outset what they’ll be expected to do and within what framework of expectation (e.g. around grace periods for late work, etc.).
  • I send the syllabus out with my welcome note before the start of the term so that during this portion of the first day of class, they may already have some specific questions they’d like me to address or clarify.
  • HOW we do this matters a lot—the tone, the language, the emphasis. Signaling your expectation that the students CAN accomplish the tasks outlined for the course, communicating that learning involves mistakes and re-dos and growth over the course of the whole semester, highlighting the supports built in to and available alongside the course to help students succeed—these are positive approaches to a discussion of expectations. Highlighting only the difficulty, that not everyone can or will succeed, or too much time on rules and regulations send exactly the opposite message. We need to signal from day one our belief that our students are capable and expected to succeed.
  • Something else to try to extend this through the first week or two (even beyond as other kinds of questions emerge about content or specifics of assignments) is to have a system for gathering questions—whether this is a question box that students can drop a note into, a parking lot (giant sticky and smaller ones to post questions) up during class sessions, or index card check ins where students can reflect on something they’ve learned and ask any questions they have. For both online and in person classes, you could also try having an Open Q&A discussion board. This helps students ask questions that others might have, too, and creates a spot to check for answers at any time in addition to emailing you.

What first day strategies have you tried that work well?

Resources

On Turtles and Teaching

Our theme this year was to move from planning to practice. Perhaps that was a false or inaccurate way of saying what we meant, and what it seems many of you are doing. We have been practicing at this – indeed we have. We started having workshops to support shifts in teaching and student support in English 1A specifically in 2017; this was connected to AB705 and first our accelerated pre-requisite course, and then we removed all pre-requisites and continued working on what kinds of support might be most helpful to ensure students would succeed in English 1A in their first attempt. In 2019-2020, we had our first community of practice annual workshop series, and we were very focused on the changes in our discipline and implementing those new placement policies and just rethinking how we support student learning. Finally, over the last two years, we have widened the discussion to learn from and share with partners across disciplines to think about equitable student success across the college.

All this is to say that we have been in practice all along. Our process hasn’t been a linear one in which we planned, then put into practice. We are thinking, exploring, considering, while simultaneously trying out, practicing, doing. This can be, admittedly, exhausting. It also can be disorienting in our community in the sense that a problem we have solved may be an area of problem-awareness a colleague is just arriving at, or we may have an epiphany about something that we should change that a colleague figured out three semesters ago. Even more so, we may not see the same sticking points at all. What appears as a grave concern in one discipline or course may not even be on the radar in another discipline. Despite that lack of linear movement or even synchronous movement among all of us, the shift in emphasis from planning to practice in part comes from the urgency to address the alarming data in front of us that too many students are not succeeding, and the sense that we’ve done a lot of talking, but what are we doing?

The reality is that like other experts in fields that are not static, we will likely continue to plan, practice, and do simultaneously because that is what teaching as an expert profession requires of us. As community college educators, our emphasis is on teaching, not research. We arrived and got the job as discipline experts, and part of our ongoing charge is to remain so in our chosen fields, but we also have an obligation to serve our other area of expertise, by training or by practice: teaching. As medical doctors must be up to date on the latest treatments, we also need to stay thoughtful, open, and interested in what we can learn about how adults learn and in what data and student experience shows us.

If all the thinking, planning, practicing, doing, and re-doing, has you feeling like a turtle flipped onto its back and unable to move anywhere or get anything done, I fully understand that feeling. But turtles live in water (or at least hang out there sometimes), so moving all those legs at the same time actually means moving better and thriving in their environment. They also, to extend the metaphor for my exhausted colleagues, come up to the surface for air. If we understand this is the deal, and perhaps rethink where we spend our energy, and devote and protect space in our working lives for this planning and practicing, then maybe we don’t see it as an optional exercise we don’t have time for or that is on top of other things (and are those other things contributing to your teaching mission?) and maybe it can just be how we do this, and hopefully do it better, and still come up for air.

But to the task at hand. This blog is our wrap-up for the year, and an invitation to join us on May 19 for our Best Practices Review session. Just as there are so many reasons why students disappear from our classes or don’t succeed, some of which are within an individual instructor’s locus of control and some of which aren’t but that we may able to provide or direct resources, and some of which are out of our scope entirely — but few to none of which we actually know for sure or gather data on — so it is with many of the positive efforts we make. As we experiment in our courses, it may be a while before we can gather usable data on specific changes and what impact they had or on what change made the difference. Nonetheless, there are narrower ways we can track success.

  • Did you shift your grading methods? Can you determine whether using your old methods would have resulted in more students not succeeding?
  • Did you shift course policies? Can you determine whether using your old policies would have resulted in more students not succeeding?
  • Have you changed an assignment? What was your rate of success or passing or even just students completing it compared to the old version of that assignment?
  • Are you hearing from students about what is working for them?
  • What change to a course did you make this year? Does it seem like it is working? Why do you think that?

For our final workshop this year, please join us to share and hear about changes you and your colleagues are making that seem to be having a positive effect. For this session, we really want to focus on something you have actually put into practice (not something read about or plan for the future). What is a change you made this academic year that appears to be going well and that you plan to repeat or tinker with and repeat? We want to keep listening to and learning from and sharing with you! 

Please join us Thursday, May 19, 12:50-1:50 via Zoom for a “Planning to Practice: Best Practices Review” discussion. (Link will be in an email invite).

Co-Creating In the Classroom

By Wendy Silva, Dr. Audrey Holod, and Dr. Bryan Keene

Many of us probably did not know we wanted to be college professors when we began our varying college journeys, and we would venture to say that some of us didn’t even know we wanted to teach, in any capacity. Unlike K-12 teachers that often need credentials, student-teaching experience, and a plethora of other requirements in order to teach, our jobs require something else: specific degrees and expertise in the coinciding fields or disciplines. Few of us actually studied how to teach adult learners, or andragogy, in-depth before becoming college professors. So, we use our own experiences as frameworks for how to teach, just as our own students use their own educational experiences to learn whatever it is we ask them to learn in our classrooms. The challenge is that many have adopted methods of teaching in the ways we were taught, ways that have been proven ineffective by many educational scholars (i.e. Freire, hooks, Bovill, Bondi, etc.). For example, a banking model of teach-memorize-repeat does not (necessarily) require the critical thinking skills that a problem-based model does.


It can be difficult and humbling to look inward and be willing to recognize that some of the practices we’ve been utilizing for years might not be the most effective or might, even, be harmful to certain groups of students. But that is part of the beauty and challenge of our jobs; we get the opportunity to continue learning, to make changes, to assess, and to experiment semester to semester, week to week, day to day. Our colleagues in the two previous community of practice events have presented us with a lot to reflect on in terms of how inequities show up in our teaching, in our policies, in what we decide to grade, and how we decide to grade. Many of us have been working diligently to consider and implement what we have learned in order to best serve our students. However, this process is not one we need to do alone; our students can be active participants in helping us create the changes needed to improve the outcomes of the courses, overall student learning, and the quality of our teaching, especially as adult learners.


Adult learning is at the center of what we do. Before discussing the benefits of co-creation in adult learning contexts, we feel it is important to briefly revisit what we already know about adult learners, and why practicing through the lens of an andragogical framework (rather than a pedagogical one) is vital to adult learning success. Adult Education experts Merriam & Bierema (2014) clarify specific ways that adult learners differ from children.


A pedagogical framework assumes that child learners are still developing physically and cognitively, relying on others for their general care, well-being, and guidance in transitioning to adulthood. Being a student is the main activity in their lives. In contrast, adult learners are often in a completely different position in their life cycle. Years of prior life experiences constitute and construct adult learners’ reality, which guides how they navigate their learning context, let alone the world around them. Adult learners already have several roles and responsibilities within their social context, such as worker, caretaker, and parent. The “student” role may be one aspect of their identity.


Therefore, adult learning needs are significantly different from children, as motivation in the classroom is often connected to improving adults’ life situation, whether in relation to work, personal, or social life. This leads to the fundamental assumptions of andragogy, that adults have a desire and readiness to learn, are problem-centered, and desire direct application of knowledge to their lives (Merriam & Bierema, 2014). These needs are all adequately addressed through co-creation strategies and activities.
Co-creation is defined as “occupying the space between student engagement and partnership, to suggest a meaningful collaboration between students and staff, with students becoming more active participants in the learning process, constructing understanding and resources with academic staff” (Bovill 2019). The act of co-creating in the classroom can come to fruition in many different ways and at different stages of the learning processes. For example, students can co-create assignments or assessments, can co-evaluate courses or activities, or even co-create curricula.

But co-creation can only happen when we, as instructors, fully trust our students and see them as equals in the classroom, fully capable of engaging in this teaching and learning process with us. It means we have to loosen our reins on what we think is best and be open and willing to try new approaches to teaching and to really listen to what students are saying, not as a performative gesture, but as a genuine attempt at giving them the opportunity to contribute to their learning in meaningful ways.

One concrete way Stephanie Bondi argues students can co-create is by engaging in “cogenerative dialogue” (cogen). Cogen takes place through “dialoguing with participants about what is happening in the class” and then coming “to consensus about changes to be made for subsequent classes” (Bondi, 2013). She emphasizes how cogen allows students to share their personal needs and through this, students can consider “how to incorporate the needs of the individual as part of the needs of the collective” (Bondi, 2013). Cogen is built upon the idea that “learning is a social process” and “hing[es] on social interactions” (Bondi, 2013). Instead of individualism or competition being the core value in the learning process, true collaboration and co-creation can take place.

Cogen often begins with this question: “What did you notice in class?” This question is intentionally open-ended. It allows for students to comment on what they felt was effective that day, what they felt was not effective, what parts of the lessons were unclear or confusing, who dominated conversations, how our body language or instructions affected them, etc. They can basically share their response to any part of the class. From there, the discussion transitions into how their responses can shape how the future classes unfold. For example, during my last cogen meeting with one group of students (my Puente class is split into Familias, and each week, I do cogen with one familia), they shared that even though they found peer review helpful, they noticed that many of their peers were still focusing too much on grammar and punctuation errors, not larger scale feedback. They express how this was not helpful for their revision process. One student suggested that we do more practice peer reviews. Another student suggested we practice peer review two essays the next time: one that has lots of grammar errors, but was a high quality essay, and one that had no grammar errors and was a low quality essay. He said this would be a way to show students that even though a paper has some grammar errors, the organization, cohesion, and quality of ideas can still be really strong, while a paper that has no grammar errors might still have larger problems that need to be addressed. So, by one student sharing their own needs, another student was able to step in and provide a suggestion that would address the larger, collective need.

Many of us are likely already using the strategies of co-creation and cogen. Opportunities for collaboration among students, such as discussions or group projects, can become co-creation experiences when educators clearly define the value placed on cogen and provide a timescape for how the process will develop collectively (Wallin, 2019). Redesigning a syllabus or module might be one example of a single task completed over varying class sessions, while sustained research requires a different set of scaffolding. As with any methodology, there are some challenges and possible instances of resistance, both from students and from or among educators. Foremost from an equity perspective may be establishing inclusive and accessible approaches. This reality is most apparent in a shared-work setting, in which students and faculty contribute varying degrees of content and time to a research project, for example. Clarifying the roles that students take is key: co-researcher, consultants, co-designers, or representatives are a few possible categories for distinguishing the responsibilities and expectations of students and faculty (Bovill et al., 2015). In these instances, consistent role definitions and providing proper credit is key.

Institutional culture from macro to micro levels can pose other challenges. Lecture-based models of teaching and high-value placed on assessments as a sign of learning or student success can feel at odds with the co-creation methodology (Bovill et al., 2015). Starting with establishing trust within a single class (versus an entire division or institution) through partnerships between students themselves and together with educators can help ease the perceived challenge (Bovill et al., 2015). Staff report in Bovill’s 2019 study that co-creation can feel risky, unpredictable, and challenging in getting the pace right, whereas students feel surprised to be invited to co-create and ultimately felt valued in the process. Class size matters, with smaller convenings or settings being ideal but that should not rule out gamification and cohort models in larger contexts, which in turn can mirror larger institutional structures and offer insights into how macro change is possible (Bovill, 2019). An important reminder cited in several studies about the benefits of cogen is Taylor and Robinson’s 2009 statement that, “student voice itself is a project of ethical responsibility.” The high-level aims of an institution – to be an equitable environment in which all feel included and can access the content and services needed to succeed – can be achieved through co-creation precisely because students know how students learn best (Bovill et al., 2015).

Questions to Consider:
1) In your own educational experience, were you ever given the opportunity to co-create in the classroom? What did that look like?
2) What does it look like for an instructor to fully trust their students? What might an instructor need to unlearn in order to establish that trust?
3) What challenges do you anticipate facing when trying to co-create with students?

References

Bondi, S. (2013). Using Cogenerative Dialogue to Improve Teaching and Learning. About Campus, 2-8, doi: 10.1002/abc.21117.
Bovill, C., Cook-Sather, A., Felten, P., Millard, L., Moore-Cherry, N. (2015). “Addressing Potential Challenges in Co-Creating Learning and Teaching: Overcoming Resistance, Navigating Institutional Norms, and Ensuring Inclusivity in Student-Staff Partnerships.” Science + Business Media, 195-208.
Bovill, C. (2019). Co-Creation in Learning and Teaching: The Case for a Whole-Class Approach in Higher Education.” Higher Education, (79), 1023-1037, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-019-00453-w.
Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 2

Ungrading: What It Is and What It Does

Susan D. Blum, editor of Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), describes ungrading as a movement, part of “an effort to make education more genuine, authentic, effective, engaging, and meaningful” (3). Sounds great, right? But what exactly is it? It’s not lost on me that two years ago on this same site I wrote in earnest about “how to manage the grading caseload” and today I’m writing about “ungrading.” Umm, exsqueeze me? Doesn’t that etymological 180° from grading to ungrading seem like a bit much? How can we just “undo” that? How else can we make sure students know what they need to know? What about the very real and specific requirements of our CORs? Hold up: don’t we still need to do grades?

It’s easy to react to the term all by itself. First, it’s intriguing. It sounds great, too good to be true, and then, kind of scary. So, a definition from Jesse Stommel’s blog: “’Ungrading’ means raising an eyebrow at grades as a systemic practice, distinct from simply ‘not grading’”; ungrading, in other words, doesn’t get rid of the very important work of assessment, but rather “asks us to question our assumptions about what assessment looks like, how we do it, and who it is for” (Stommel 36). 

On this blog, those are questions that we keep returning to. You might recall that in Spring 2020, we had a lot going on. While thinking about how to triage our work to be kind to ourselves and our students in a tumultuous time, we asked the following: “Do I have any assignments lined up that are performance-based, and what can I do to make them more learning-based? What assignments would best serve the goals of the class and my students’ learning, right now? What assignments will give me the best opportunities to communicate with my students about how to move forward?”

Two years later, I find myself thinking about these same questions but through a different lens. It’s less about survival, more about living – thriving! It’s not about triage, but about focusing on what really matters: the students, their learning, their lives.

One of the mantras we adopted as a department over these last couple of years is patience and grace, and that’s one thing I won’t ever let myself pivot away from. Our students are human beings who deserve kindness always (not just when the world is in crisis), whose learning needs to be prioritized over their performance, and who ought to have learning experiences that are responsive to their needs and their whole human selves. 

One of the main underlying arguments for ungrading is to recover the humanness that once was and still should be at the heart of assessment. Stommel writes how one-room schoolhouses demanded “an incredibly subjective, peer-driven, nontransactional approach to assessment” (25). By contrast, our modern, systematized schools with their “numerical and standardized” grading schema not only reinforce historic and continuing inequities in education but also move us “away from human relationships and care” (Stommel 26). Ungrading, then, is a move to refocus our care and attention on the complex humans with complex contexts that we teach.

Ungrading Practices

What follows is a partial list of ways to ungrade, including some grappling with how we might begin to fold this idea into our more traditional current practices. It’s easy to get stuck wondering how to actually “do” ungrading, but if our goal is equity, we have to consider it. Alfie Kohn writes, “When the how’s of assessment preoccupy us, they tend to chase the why’s back into the shadows” (qtd. In Stommel 36). Remember the why’s, and let’s start with what we know, and go from there.

Peer-Assessment

Hey, colleagues, in English especially, we do this already! When we do peer reviews of essay drafts in my classes, I always try to tell my students how their honest engagement in peer review works on multiple levels: they can demonstrate and practice their knowledge of course concepts, they can help their peers, and through the process, they can also self-assess (another practice of ungrading which Stommel writes about extensively) to know what they need to keep working on in their own assignments. In my classes, this has traditionally been for points, but as Stommel reminds us, peer-assessment doesn’t have to be formal (39). One small way of ungrading could be to allow ourselves to stop assigning points for peer reviews or related assignments. I don’t know about you, but I have done graded peer reviews because there’s that part in my brain that says that students won’t do drafts if they’re not for points, or that students won’t comment seriously on peer reviews unless they are made to. Trust the students to prove you wrong! I have students this semester who want to meet to discuss their drafts even after they got all the points; I have students leaving really detailed and insightful comments on peer drafts because they can; I also know students can come away from peer review with something if they don’t have a draft with them that day. There’s learning happening, and I’m going to get out of their way.

Grade-Free Zones

Stommel writes, “Sometimes it’s hard to imagine diving right into the deep end of ungrading, so try having the first third of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments” (36). Removing grades from peer-assessment could be one way of doing that. Joe Feldman in Grading for Equity also details a couple of examples of how this might work in a traditional grades school. One teacher, Cathy, after carefully developing rubrics and norming grades with her fellow humanities teachers, changed her grade book so that any assignments, whether homework or an essay, are scored according to the rubric, but in the end are weighted at 0 percent. Instead, in Cathy’s class, only “standards” matter in the calculation of the final grade; “Cathy enters scores for each standard as students demonstrate their knowledge on assessments, and she updates those scores manually when more current assessments give her more up-to-date information about a student’s level of content mastery” (Feldman 234-6). The use of rubrics and norming feels familiar and do-able, but it’s also an example of standards-based grading that I think allows for “grade-free zones” that allow our students and us to focus on feedback, communication, and learning.

Another teacher from Feldman’s book, Nick, began by weighting summative assessments more, and followed with replacing grades on assessments with simple feedback about standards mastered and standards that have not yet been met (Feldman 229-30). For Nick, “There’s no calculation of points at all….Nick’s only goal in assigning grades is to correctly indicate a student’s level of understanding” (Feldman 230). Nick and Cathy’s approaches both help us rethink assessment, and, as Feldman reminds us, help us towards a more equitable practice because of the ways that they support hope and a growth mindset and value knowledge over behavior.

“Format Freedom”

Nick’s practice opens up another way of rethinking how students meet outcomes: “if a student doesn’t perform well on an assessment he can look for alternate assessment strategies….In fact, this new insight into the purpose of assessment and grades has given him the freedom to evaluate student understanding using any evidence that the student has presented,” including tests and quizzes, but also comments and questions in class and work and thought witnessed during one-on-one sessions (Feldman 231). If we accept and acknowledge that our students are complex humans with complex contexts, then it naturally follows that teaching and assessments shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. That’s rooted in good ol’ universal design for learning. Does understanding have to be shown through a test or a written response? Could it be expressed through a discussion, a comment, a video, or something else?

Unessays

The “unessay” is another kind of “format freedom” assessment that Susan Blum discussed during her talk on “Ungrading for Equity” earlier this year. Jodie Mader describes the unessay as “a form of self-expression and a way to demonstrate learning in a hands-on and visual way [that]… cater[s] to students of different learning styles and expressions.” There are variations on unessays, but usually: the student chooses a topic related to the course theme and/or concepts, chooses the format to best convey their understanding and intervention, and produces and presents it (and writes about it to explain it). Because unessays can take very different forms, instructors will often collaborate with students to generate rubrics for assessing them. And student-made rubrics are another form of assessment that Stommel mentions: “the making of a rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a device (or set of assumptions) created entirely in advance of students arriving to a course” (39).

Last semester, when I was teaching Children’s Literature, I assigned an unessay as the final project, and while I’m still working out the kinks, I’m happy to report that it’s every bit as exciting as Blum, Mader, and others have described it. One student, after reading Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, decided to create a punch needle image of the main character, with deliberate artistic choices informed both by her assessment of the film adaptation and her reading of Freud’s uncanny in the story. In order to create it, she had a very clear thesis about the literature and very specific examples from her primary and secondary texts to support it; she also wrote very lucidly and passionately about it. And most importantly, the assessment allowed space for the whole human – the punch needle taught to her by her grandmother, something she did in her spare time already, a melding of her real life with her intellectual work inside the classroom.

Authentic Assessment

This is a kind of assessment that comes from doing something in the context of a community. Stommel’s example is a student-organized festival to showcase and premiere student films, complete with talk-backs with the audience. Similarly, Paul Handstedt in the book Creating Wicked Students details a project in which students had to prepare and deliver a poster presentation during lunchtime near the campus cafeteria (77). In both of these examples, the assessment comes from having to interact with the community, a live audience. It’s “not a drill, not some meaningless exercise” (Handstedt 77) but an opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning and knowledge and get feedback in real-time. In reading about this, I thought of events like the Honors Research Conference, where students have already met outcomes by producing their research, but through the practice of revising, refining, presenting, and engaging with others over their work participate in an authentic feedback loop that results in learning beyond the content they write about. “[H]ow [else] can we create reasons more meaningful than points for students to do the work of a course?” (Stommel 38).

There are lots of choices when it comes to ungrading, and it can be a lot to think about, but Stommel reminds us that “any assessment strategy demands us to adapt, in the moment, as we encounter each new group of students” (Stommel 39). Conscientious educators always adapt – we make adjustments when assignments or lessons don’t seem to be working; we change a day’s lesson plans to address what students need in the moment. And we accept that as a given of our work. We can do the same with assessments, and we owe it to our students to keep an open mind, focus on their learning, and try.

Some Questions

  • Think about a memorable or impactful assignment you did as a student. What made it memorable?
  • What can the best assessments and assignments do (for students or teachers)?
  • What’s one way of ungrading that you might integrate into your practice?

We look forward to discussing this (and more!) with you during our Zoom workshop on March 25, from 1-2pm.


Works Cited

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

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

Handstedt, Paul. Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World. Stylus Publishing, 2018.

Mader, Jodie. “The Unessay Experiment: Moving Beyond the Traditional Paper.” Faculty Focus, 22 July 2020, https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/the-unessay-experiment-moving-beyond-the-traditional-paper/.

Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. 25-41.

—. “Ungrading: An Introduction.” Jesse Stommel, 11 June 2021, https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-introduction/.

Rethinking How Students Meet Course Outcomes – Part 1

In our January community of practice, our colleagues gave us so much to think about in terms of grading for equity that here we are, still thinking about it. In fact, we take as a starting point an idea that Kathleen highlighted at the end of her post: “All too often our grading practices…‘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). While we have been asked to consider different ways that students can meet course outcomes, we can’t separate that conversation from grading. Alfie Kohn emphasizes, “We need to grapple with assessment” and find “more authentic and informative” ways of evaluating students. “Why bother,” he asks, to rethink and reimagine our grading practices “if we’re still using…defective method[s] of assessing achievement?” (xviii). 

Welcome, friends. The blog path ahead is full of grappling.

“Are we here to teach or are we here to judge?”: A Sociological Perspective

Someone asked that question during a recent online workshop on ungrading. When thinking about how we have historically taught classes and used assignments with traditional grading practices and this idea of teaching vs. judging, a quote comes to mind: 

“There’s no such thing as neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom.” 

Paulo Freire

We need to ask ourselves what purpose do our grades serve? Are they for assessment of actual knowledge or are we marking down students for grammar, punctuation, lateness and other factors that insinuate non-compliance (aka not following the prompt)? In other words, are the grades we give on assignments an indication of conformity to our standards or is the grade a reflection of the learning experience of the student? Also, does the prompt allow for flexibility and freedom of thought and exploration, or is there a right and wrong way to do the assignment?

When asked to look at our assignments and grading practices oftentimes we as educators are reluctant in our willingness to change our policies and practices. I’m sure many of you reading this blog may have been challenged recently to move away from giving zeros to our students. I have to admit, I grappled with this idea myself: “How can I give points for a missing assignment? There is nothing there to grade.” Hence the zero. As I reflected on my reluctance to change my own ideas, it dawned on me that my ideas and beliefs regarding the zero and the types of assignments I dish out to my students are the exact things that are perpetuating the inequalities that Feldman (2019) refers to when he states, “we teach [students] to care about points” or grades (35). A student is going to care if they get a zero; it’s punitive and it sends a message: you need to follow directions and turn your work in on time. Points and grades are a measurement of conformity, as well as a message to students. This is the structural barrier that is baked right into our cultural ideas, norms, language, attitudes, and beliefs centered on the “A student.”

Recognizing structural barriers that are in our control and understanding how our beliefs, ideas and norms are the mechanisms that perpetuate inequalities is an important step in freeing our students from the constraints of points and grades. Oftentimes we place focus on support programs as being the solution to inequities on campus, but then we fail to acknowledge that our classroom policies contribute to the inequalities felt by our students. We as educators need to challenge and interrogate our assignments and assessments and ask ourselves: how can we reimagine our assignments and go about assessing the learning experience of our students differently so that we can free and empower the students?

A place where we might begin to think about assignments and grades, is simply asking what is the function of the assignment and grade. Most would agree that the function of an assignment is to determine what the student knows about subject matter; has the student mastered the materials? Depending on the level of their understanding, we assign a grade, either by point system or letter grade. With this we can determine who is proficient, approaching proficiency, or who is below proficiency. In essence, we rank students by performance. We might ask ourselves, how does this ranking of abilities relate to tracking students by ability? Tracking was/is a process that is often experienced in middle and high schools where students are set on an academic path that ultimately impacts social economic status, career choice (or lack of choice) and their overall quality of life. If we are still ranking our students based on ability indicated by grades, then are we doing what tracking was designed to do in American educational systems: placing students on a track and thus recreating social class, forcing conformity and assimilating students into dominant culture where they will become workers. Are we creating a learning environment that allows for flexibility, creativity, and are we freeing our students in order for them to become leaders?

Ungrading, which we’ll dive into more in another post next week, is an idea and a practice that is a departure from the old ways of doing things. Those who entertain the idea and practice of ungrading are the deviants of our campus. Be careful of the crowd you run with – you don’t want to be labeled as a deviant professor! The horror!! But if we consider deviants of the past then we find that social and cultural change often begins with those who depart from the cultural norms. They share new ideas and have the capacity to imagine that there are other ways of doing things. They challenge the naysayers and the status quo and ultimately create cultural change. Our goal is to create cultural change that eliminates structural barriers that exist in our assignments and grading practices.

As you read “How to Ungrade” by Jesse Stommel, think about these questions:

  • What assignments have you utilized in your class that you consider a staple assignment? And why is that assignment and the way you grade it so comfortable for you?
  • What are some of your fears and/or anxieties when you consider the notion of ungrading and changing the way you conduct your assignments and assessments?
  • What are some of the take aways you would love to see your students get from assignments in your courses?  

Works Cited

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

Kohn, Alfie. Foreword. Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead), edited by Susan D. Blum, West Virginia UP, 2020, pp. xiii-xx.

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