Where has the fun of learning gone? Where is the enthusiasm, the hunger for learning? The curiosity? All of these should be part of the process of learning. They are gone for the most part it seems. At least for now. I keep asking myself why? Why would someone who wants to study a given field not be excited about learning about it? Growing into the professional they want to become? What’s holding them back?
I have taught Computer Science for many years now and when interacting with students, their main conversation topic is grades. How am I doing in your course? How can I still pass your course even though I did very badly on this exam / quiz / lab / homework assignment? Rarely is the conversation motivated by their need for help on a side project, by their interest in discussing different ways to solve a given problem, ways beyond what we learn that would be more efficient, etc. It feels like most of my students’ focus is on grades, not on what they learn. The product of taking a class is a grade, not learning. My point here is not to blame my students for that trend. Rather, I want to share what I think may be an enthusiasm deterrent and propose a way to change things so we can refocus our attention onto teaching and learning.
Ever since students started to receive grades, but even more so since high school when students are graded left and right multiple times a week, each grade compounds (in different proportions depending on the subject) to make a final grade, which goes into the GPA calculation, itself playing into school ranking. Except for the fact that, in high school, students undergo many evaluations (and we could argue that each grade ends up not weighing enormously), each grade still plays into the holy grails that are the student’s GPA and class ranking. How, then, not to be afraid of a misstep, one that potentially compromises your GPA and makes you lose ranking. I do not teach in high school, so I can only speculate. However, I teach at the university level, where grades are not as frequent, and therefore a lot higher stakes. Each grade has the potential to make a difference between 2 letter grades (a big 1-point difference in terms of GPA). How to have fun in class when you feel under the pressure to always perform, on every single assessment? How to learn when the assessment of your learning and how it compounds into your final grade do not leave you space to fail?
In addition, let me bring into focus the mission of the institution where I teach: historically Access and Excellence, and now Access to Excellent higher education. Many of our students, because of our open-access policy, come to us under-prepared. They may not have had access to quality secondary education. Most importantly, they may not have had access to the kind of opportunities that provide purpose and drive to other students. Often, they have not had access to role models, and they may be the first ones in their family to pursue a higher education. Because or sometimes in addition to these, most of our students do need to work outside of school, to support their family (their children, but also, often, their parents and/or siblings). Nevertheless, at my institution, we believe that talent is everywhere and that despite their possible lack of preparation, their different backgrounds are assets, not weaknesses, and we have a passion for nurturing our students’ growth into whatever they have set their minds to, regardless of their prior academic path or experience. This mission is what has kept me at my current institution for almost 19 years now. I believe access and support are the right thing to do as they contribute to making society a better and more visibly diverse place.
Now, you can imagine that our students rarely have smooth semesters: between work hours that are changed or need to be increased (not to lose their job or simply because they need to earn more), their dependents who need their support, their difficulties to purchase course supplies and textbooks, it is impossible to expect our students not to miss an assessment or assignment, or more. Additionally, picture an incoming computer science student, one that has not been blessed with opportunities, one that has not had people around him or her instilling rigorous work habits and strong analytical skills. They start the semester and most likely will not perform great (of course some do). They may even take until mid-semester to really grasp both the concepts of being a university student and the content of the class well enough to be able to perform well on any assignments or assessments. However long it takes, I have always found it unfair to keep their grades on record and compound them into their final grade when we know, because of our mission, that some of our students will have a hard time. So, do we admit them (with a big smile) and penalize them at the first misstep (with a stick), pretending we did not know they may be needing more time to assimilate what higher ed entails and all that we are covering? I cannot do that. This is so hypocritical in my opinion.
The situation I described above, although more salient in incoming students, can happen at any time during the curriculum (admittedly more so in lower division than in upper division, but I would argue that it does not cost us instructors much to simply assume our students need support and to be kind).
So, what can we do? I asked myself the question a long time. To answer it, I reflected on what teaching means to me.
What’s the point of teaching a class? What do we want our students to demonstrate? What should students who pass our class look like? Should they be the students who passed each of our assessments to satisfaction from start to finish, or at least managed to maintain a decent (passing) average among all these assessments? This is the most common approach I hear about. Yes, there are some subtle variations: for instance, some instructors drop a predefined number of lowest grades. This is a step in the right direction, and it can alleviate some stress on the part of our students. However, I would argue that it is a blind post-mortem approach that does not allow for individually tailored support throughout the semester, the type of attention that can make a world of difference in our students who have until then not had role models and mentors around them. Regardless, what about our students who will need half of the semester to catch up on skills that needed to be brushed from secondary education or to understand what it means to be a college student and build the work ethics that is needed to succeed? Imagine that they take this long to catch up: by that time, even dropping a few grades here and there at the end of the semester will not be sufficient to “rescue” them. Should they have to repeat the class even if they demonstrate full understanding and command of the material by the end of the semester? I argue that they should not. Should we assess a student’s pace of learning or instead celebrate their actual learning and growth? I argue that we should celebrate their growth.
Here is what I advocate for: truly helping and supporting my students’ growth. Focusing on their growth, their skills, rather than on how fast they get there. My classes are a failure-safe environment (sadly only until the end of the semester when we have to part ways and provide a final assessment). Students are told that they can fail however many times they need, that assessments are simply the following: a way for them to check what I strive for them to develop into, an opportunity for them to demonstrate what they know, and if they don’t know it yet, a way for both of us to decide what’s next, how to help them best grow as a person into the professional they’d like to become. Given this, I expect my students to trust that I am their best advocate. I want them to realize that their grades do not define them (even in the event that they cannot pass the class, they can push through and make it the following semester). I want to remove their fear of failure associated to their fear of grades, so that they can focus on learning and improving. The skills they learn while doing this are invaluable (and not assessed): they learn to learn, they learn to persist, they learn to fail and try again until they succeed, they learn that this process is normal and that nobody can pretend otherwise. When they do, they can be curious again, without the fear of being judged for asking a question; they can be creative, without the fear of failing; and hopefully it makes them happy to be learning and growing.
Is it simple? Absolutely not. Gaining someone’s trust is not easy. I am asking my students to trust that I will indeed focus on their growth, not their ability to dance my little assessment dance at the rhythm I arbitrarily set for all to follow. I am asking my students to trust that their missteps in assessments are not going to be consequential, that they do not define them, that I will work with them to get better. It takes time. Some still come asking about their grades (I understand but try to explain what, instead, I am focusing on, while giving them some snapshot assessment – “If we were to conclude the semester today, where would you stand?” kind of talk). Changes take time, but I believe you are never wrong when you are kind and consider people and their needs rather than mere numbers.
Rewarding pace of learning is unfair, orthogonal to our institution’s mission (and I would argue, to any place of education), and ultimately, we need not lose sight of the fact that this is simply not something that will be required in the workplace. Curiosity, though, as well as perseverance, grit, creativity, and simply happiness are important characteristics of a valued (co-)worker. So why do we insist on focusing and somehow valuing everything but these in our teaching and assessment of so-called learning?
Got a 2.4 GPA my first semester in college. Thought maybe I wasn’t cut out for engineering. Today I’ve landing two spacecraft on Mars, and designing one for the moon.
STEM is hard for everyone. Grades ultimately aren’t what matters. Curiosity and persistence matter.
— Ben Cichy (@bencichy) November 22, 2019
Here are some readings that inspired me or comforted me in my teaching philosophy changes:
- Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, by Carol Dweck, Ballantine Books
- A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger, Bloomsbury
- Daring Greatly, How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown, Avery Publisher
- Grading on a Curve, Why the Playing Field is not even when it comes to Grades, blog by Mary McNaughton-Cassill, in Psychology Today