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.

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.

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

Addressing Hot Moments in the Classroom through Democratic Participation Strategies

THE IMPORTANCE OF DISCUSSION IN HIGHER EDUCATION

Critical thinking and discussion are important parts of the higher education classroom, let alone important skills for a thriving democracy. Adult education theorist John Dewey (2011) describes the necessity for challenging discussion as a democratic imperative. Discussion is a fundamental strategy for developing a critical consciousness and promoting an educated citizenry that is capable of making effective decisions in a democratic society.

Steven Brookfield (2013) details the way discussion should reflect democratic values in the higher education classroom. He defines a democratic classroom in three specific ways: (1) It is a space where multiple voices and perspectives are always included, and participation occurs in ways that do not always privilege euro-centric ideals, such as speech. (2) Learners are directly involved in the decision-making processes, which allows them a certain level of power and control over their own learning process. (3) Unfamiliar perspectives that often challenge dominant perspectives are constantly incorporated into the discussion.

Enacting democratic principles is a rigorous learning process that is always a “partially functioning ideal,” and discussion is a vital way that this process thrives (Brookfield, 2014, p. 123).

COMMON ROADBLOCKS OF EFFECTIVE DISCUSSION

However, for many reasons, discussions can lead to more problems than to enlightenment. For instance, most people may lack skills that allow them to communicate effectively, to resolve conflict, or to view the subtle nuances of social situations in order to address those situations in ways that acknowledge the needs of others who are different from them.

Additionally, given the highly polarized political environment in the country in the last 4-5 years, students, particularly those with privileged identities, are more resistant to discussions that include diverse perspectives (Cabrera et al.). Specifically, this is referring to white students, as the scholarship documents many white students’ assumptions that America is a post-racial society, and success is a result of hard work and merit (Delano-Orarian & Parks, 2015). These assumptions can make an instructor want to avoid challenging topics altogether to avoid uncomfortable situations.

Also, there is the ongoing conundrum of reconciling notions of “freedom” and “democracy.” In other words, as Brookfield describes, living in a society with other citizens requires that we “acknowledge their presence and adjust our lives accordingly” (2014, p. 125). For many, it is a challenge to promote individual rights and “freedom” (however this is freely defined), all within a context that should seek the welfare and benefit of the larger group.

OTHER ISSUES

Finally, as instructors, Brookfield details how we often make the following assumptions…

  • “Discussions are Free & Open Conversations”
    • We often assume that classroom conversation is “open” and “free,” a “safe space” to express one’s feelings and experiences. In contrast, the classroom is the very place where structures of power and privilege manifest. As Tatum et al. (2013) state, the classroom is merely the microcosm of the larger society, and therefore, it is riddled with social hierarchies that allow some voices to dominate, while others are silenced. This silencing is not always explicit, but expressed through subtle methods, for instance, through microaggressions. Additionally, because discussion is often directly connected to one’s participation grade in the class, it can become a highly competitive atmosphere that can focus less on genuine inquiry, and more on a battle for the students to demonstrate how smart they are, or what Brookfield refers to as “intellectual besting.”
  • “Discussion Is a Democratic Process in Which Diverse Voices Are Included”
    • The field of Adult Education is ever changing, yet higher education still shares a foundation with ideologies rooted in imperialism, colonization, and white supremacy (Cabrera et al., 2016; Museus et al., 2015). With this in mind, it is misinformed to think that hierarchies of privilege and power contextualized within notions of identity, particularly race, do not continue to manifest in the classroom, affecting the ways, for instance, that students of color feel comfortable or encouraged to participate (or do not). For instance, studies have shown that African-American students tend to enter college with the idea that they do not belong in the academic atmosphere and feel like outsiders among other students who are more likely to assimilate (Dancy, 2014; Ford & Moore, 2013).
  • “All Students Are Equipped to Participate”
    • Not all students are equipped to (or want to) participate in the competitive “one-upmanship” that discussions can represent. Also, not all learners possess the cultural capital to participate in ways that allow them to feel confident or compete with other dominating voices that do. Brookfield defines cultural capital as having abilities, such as a varied vocabulary, confidence and ease in public speaking situations, and an assumption that one’s commentary belongs in that context, is valued, and will be listened to. This cultural capital, or lack thereof, is emphasized as significant for determining the academic success of certain groups of students, such as black males (Brooms, 2018; Brooms et al., 2015).
  • “The Instructor is Part of the Respectful, Democratic Process”
    • In assuming that an instructor has the best intentions to tease out important concepts and perspectives in a discussion, Brookfield reminds us that the situation is still a panoptical illusion, referring to Foucault’s (1977) point that the “judges of normality are everywhere,” or more specifically, as they are established by the instructor. As the facilitator of the discussion, we set the tone and establish norms within that speaking context, and students are often looking for verbal or non-verbal cues that their participation is in alignment with those expectations. Seeking to “please” the instructor in this way can encourage a more competitive atmosphere of who has the most cultural capital to compete, and it can also distract from genuine and critical inquiry.
    • One last point with this assumption is that often as a facilitator, instructors ask questions to ignite good discussion without giving student sufficient time to think about a response. Students who are able may respond quickly so as not to appear stupid, which can prevent deeper thinking and critical reflection. As Brookfield emphasizes, “good questions needs time for a response” (2013, p. 67).

IMPLEMENTING A DEMOCRATIC FRAMEWORK AS A FOUNDATION

So, how can we facilitate discussions that accomplish the following tenets of democracy and appropriately handle classrooms that might normally generate “hot moments” or conflict? Brookfield outlines important aspects of democratic conversations along with specific criteria that might produce more fruitful conversations:

Students must have opportunities:

  • For structured silence to reflect and think deeply, aside from typical Eurocentric patterns of communication, such as speech.
  • To have power and control over their own learning process, including content and materials
  • To be heard – by participating in multiple ways
  • To hear the varied voices of others in order to develop empathy for others’ experiences that are different from their own and recognize that they live within systems of power and privilege to which they both contribute and relate.
  • To learn about and challenge dominant ideologies that they contribute to and/or are affected by, such as white supremacy, patriarchy, ableism, classism, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, eurocentrism, etc.
  • To contribute, consider, and value the voices and experiences of others and take these voices and experiences into account during important decision-making processes.

QUESTIONS

  1. What kind of misguided assumptions might you make about discussions in the classroom?
  2. Considering the list of criteria above these questions, how might you incorporate 1-2 of them in your in-class discussions?

Sources

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

Brooms, D. R. (2018). Exploring Black male initiative programs: Potential and possibilities for supporting Black male success in college. Journal of Negro Education87(1), 59–72.

Brooms, D. R., Goodman, J., & Clark, J. (2015). “We need more of this”: Engaging Black men on college campuses. College Student Affairs Journal33(1), 106–123.

Cabrera, N. L., Franklin, J. D., & Watson, J. S. (2016). Whiteness in higher education: The invisible missing link in diversity and racial analyses. ASHE Higher Education Report42(6), 7–125.

Dancy, T. E. (2014). (Un)Doing hegemony in education: Disrupting school-to-prison pipelines for Black males. Equity & Excellence in Education, 47(4), 476-493.

Delano-Oriaran, O. O., & Parks, M. W. (2015). One black, one white. Multicultural Education, 22(3/4), 15-19. 

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

Ford, D. Y., & Moore, J. L. (2013). Understanding and reversing underachievement, low achievement, and achievement gaps among high-ability African American males in urban school contexts. The Urban Review, 45(4), 399-415

Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison. (A. Sheridan, Trans.) New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1975).

Museus, S. D., Ledesma, M. C., & Parker, T. L. (2015). Introduction. ASHE Higher Education Report, 42(1), 1–112.

Active Learning: Let’s DO This

Students from Prof. Rosales’s English 50 class engaging in a “text-mapping” activity

[Lecturing] is tradition. It was part of my training, and seems like what I should be doing. I feel somehow guilty when I am not lecturing

– One professor’s response when asked why he lectures (qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 7).

I’ll be the first to admit that when I first started teaching, this quotation above could have been from me. I spent years in classes and seminars with professors in their sharp-looking corduroy coats with patches on the elbows, who spent hours talking at us as we furiously scribbled down every third word. So, naturally, when I started teaching, I assumed I should do the same. Sure, I peppered in some group work and discussions, but mainly it was a “Here’s what I know, now listen and learn” type of class. 

FORTUNATELY, a few years into teaching, one of my colleagues staged a “lecture intervention” on me and introduced me to a variety of active learning techniques: some from reading apprenticeship workshops, and some from acceleration workshops, all of which were very exciting, but also a bit overwhelming at the time. These new strategies and techniques forced me to reassess how I thought about learning and what it should look like. Over time, and after much trial and error, these once unfamiliar and overwhelming techniques became the norm in my classes, and I found myself automatically planning for what students would DO in the classroom rather than just what they would learn.

The test of a good teacher…is, ‘Do you regard “learning” as a noun or a verb?’

qtd. in Bonwell and Eison 10

I think we can all agree that learning cannot be defined as a passive activity. Therefore, we cannot teach our classes using what Paulo Freire describes as the “banking” method of education: students are receptacles waiting for us to open up their brains and deposit knowledge. To illustrate this idea of passive learning to my students, I’ll often compare it to a scene in The Matrix. The classroom exchange usually goes something like this:

So, my friends, we are not passive learners. We cannot learn how to write in the same way Neo learns how to do kung fu in The Matrix. 

After noticing a large number of blank stares, I’ll realize that many of them were born after the release of this film, and I’ll further elaborate on this example (all while trying to hide my utter shock and disappointment). 

Well, what happens is a wire gets shoved into the back of Neo’s brain, information is uploaded and, voila! Neo awakens and confidently claims: “I know kung fu.” Nice. 

Unfortunately, our brains do not work that way. We cannot learn through osmosis and Apple has yet to release “iBrain” technology that uploads knowledge directly into our brains; I mean, we’re at least 5 years away from that…

So in the meantime, in order to help our students learn what we want them to learn in our classrooms, we must engage them in an active process that not only provides them with knowledge and skills, but allows them to practice this in relevant ways. Freire argues that it is not enough to just gain knowledge. We must also be able to collaborate with others to think critically about our world and how we can act upon it — essentially, how we can DO something with what we have learned. 

Thus, an active learning environment encourages this collaboration while also inviting a diversity of ideas through activities like small and full class discussions, presentations, and Socratic seminars. Cathy Davidson mentions that “structuring a way where everyone in the room has a voice and has an opportunity to register an idea, is by far the most effective way to avoid ‘group think.’” 

There are a variety of ways to create an active learning environment that I think will fit any number of learning and teaching styles, room limitations, class sizes, or other variables. I hope that throughout this month in this blog and later at our meeting on September 27, we will be able to share some of the strategies we are using to engage our students in the learning process. I also hope we can address any questions or concerns you may have about using active learning techniques in your classes. As you brainstorm some ideas and evaluate what you already do to create an active learning environment, keep in mind some general characteristics of an active learning classroom outlined by Bonwell and Eison:

  • Students are involved in more than listening
  • Less emphasis is placed on transmitting information and more on developing students’ skills.
  • Students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation)
  • Students are engaged in activities (e.g. reading, discussing, writing)
  • Greater emphasis is placed on students’ exploration of their own attitudes and values
  • Anything that involves students in doing things and thinking about the things they are doing. (2)

If you haven’t read Cathy Davidson’s “Active Learning” blog post, check that out as soon as you can. It’s a quick read and will give you a general overview of what active learning is and how it can look in the classroom. If you’d like some additional resources, I also recommend the following texts:

Let’s start the discussion here! If you could, take a few moments to leave a comment (after the jump!) responding to any of the questions below. Feel free to add information and links to any resources, activities, and assignments you are currently using. 

  1. Can you share a story of a student’s success (or multiple student successes) after using active learning strategies? What was the strategy? Why do you think it worked so well?
  2. What is one of your own “go-to” active learning strategies you use in your classes? Why is this your “go-to”?
  3. What questions or concerns do you have about using active learning strategies in the classroom? 

Thanks so much to everyone who was able to come to our meeting last Friday! Below are the wonderful posters you all created. I’ve also linked the “Active Learning Strategies” handout I distributed that day and the Google slides for anyone who wasn’t able to make it.