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/.

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.


How Do I Do This All at Once?

A Starting Point

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

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

Lasana Hotep at a podium

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

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

Small Teaching

Cover of Small Teaching by James Lang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Tweaks, Adjustments, Experiments with Equity in Mind

Image for Webinar Series: Racial Equity in Online Environments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And So…Self-Reflection

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

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

Cover of Geeky Pedagogy by Jessamyn Neuhaus

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

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

So What Next?

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

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

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

Let’s Talk!

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

Community of Practice Session

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

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

Resources/ Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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