In previous blogs, I shared my philosophy of teaching and assessing my students. Namely, my assessing approach is not focused on an accumulation of grades but rather on the growth of my students, on the skills they develop and demonstrate throughout the semester, which empowers all my students to fail and recuperate from failure. Basically, I ask myself two main questions:

  • How can I best support my students (ahead and behind) growing and learning?
  • By the end of the semester, what skills have my students demonstrated?
How does that work exactly?

My approach is focused on outcomes rather than on performance on every single assessment. Students are allowed to fail repeatedly until they demonstrate their proficiency in the outcomes they have to meet to be ready for the next class in sequence.

What that requires is to give students plenty of opportunities to demonstrate these skills. If they are allowed to fail, they should be allowed to persist and eventually make up. So, similar skills need to come up in a variety of assessments throughout the semester. It is harder in some courses than in others, but harder does not mean impossible. It is important to keep our students’ growth in mind and allow them to demonstrate it.

Example 1 – Fundamental Course in Computer Science

Since 2015, I have always taught one of our 3 introductory courses in Computer Science (i.e., the incoming CS students course (CS1) or the next in sequence CS2). These courses (CS1, CS2, and CS3) are called the fundamental courses in the Computer Science curriculum. A lot of what is learned is cumulative: what is learned at the start of the semester will be used throughout the semester, even if later on, it may not be the focus of a more traditional way of assessing students. This makes it very easy to observe if a particular skill has been acquired, even if much later than when it was the original focus of the course. As a result, fundamental courses are particularly well suited for an assessment based on skills, not grades.

Particularly, it has happened several times that students in these courses passed with my way of assessing them, while they would have failed the class otherwise. More so, some passed with A’s while even with removing lowest grades assuming they would pass, they would not have obtained better than a B. This poses the question of what letter grades mean too. But this is a topic for another blog piece.

Example 2 – Graduate Course in Computer Science

I recently taught a graduate course on a more theoretical topic. The topics of the course were seemingly not cumulative. However, there was a common thread throughout all semester’s topics, and I made it the overarching theme that the students then got a chance to practice and practice again, in multiple settings, failing at first for the most part, but then making progress and “getting it”. That required a lot of planning, a lot of assessments, and time working with and supporting students outside of class, but the feedback I received was well worth it and along the lines of “Her teaching style is very original and effective. I know for sure that I won’t forget what she taught us this semester”, or “Sometimes it was difficult to keep up with the pace of the class, but Dr. Ceberio was very flexible and understanding that she trust in us to let us catch up later at our pace”.

In summary, it requires planning. However, anything good does. It is just a different type of planning. I am happy to connect with anyone interested in trying this out to guide them in the process.

How about work ethics?

This is a sticky point of my approach. It is true that my approach can be seen as a stark change from what students have been used to. I do not “threaten” them with grades (not that I mean to say others do, but rather that grades kind of threaten students into working – note that I do not say learning). Instead, I offer my help, I offer for us to work together and make students succeed. If students do not buy into this new approach, if they need someone to “lead with a stick”, well, this is not me and they may simply drift for a semester and fail. I am fully aware of the risk and a lot of what my instructional team does throughout the semester (my TAs and I) is to reach out to our students, to establish report so we can help them best. Clearly, my approach is not perfect. It is simply the least imperfect in my view, for the sake of my students’ development. The alternative to my approach comes with the risk that my students will not learn, that they will drop – even – when convinced failure defines them because this is what their grades tell them, and that they will not develop work ethics based on finding the joy of learning (and instead remain stuck on working for grades only, not for long-term learning).

There are multiple ways to implement this philosophy. This piece was to share a few ideas about how I go about it.

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