Laura Gibbs

Let's Talk about Grading (5): Grading and Mis/Trust

Blog Post created by Laura Gibbs on Jan 16, 2019

I need to do some follow-up on the language of feedback after my previous post (Visible Learning / Invisible Grading), but some conversations here at the Community and also at Twitter have inspired me to take a short detour for today's post in order to write about TRUST.


As I see it, trust is an essential element of any teaching-learning environment: the students need to be able to trust me, I need to be able to trust them, and we all need to trust in ourselves also. That's a lot of trust, and building/maintaining that trust can be a challenge.

  • Sometimes students approach a class with mistrust because they've been treated unfairly (or think they've been treated unfairly) in the past.
  • Likewise, teachers can fall into the same trap, unwilling to trust the students of today because of something some other student did in some other class in the past.


Speaking for myself, I really hope that students will be able to trust me without judging me based on mishaps in the past with other teachers who let them down. Likewise, I need to do the same: I need to trust my students, and not (pre)judge them based on mistakes made by other students in other classes in the past. Plus, here's what's great about teaching in a relationship of mutual trust: EVERYTHING becomes so much easier. Trust leads to more trust: the more I trust the students, the more they trust me.


And, unfortunately, the inverse is also true: the more a teacher mistrusts their students, the more the students mistrust the teacher.


So, how does you communicate trust (or mistrust) to your students through your course design...? And, in particular, through your grading practices?


COMMUNICATING TRUST. In my classes, I really like how my un-grading approach allows me to communicate my trust in the students from the very start of class with the very first assignment: students read about how the course works, fill out a Google Form to let me know what kind of weekly schedule they prefer, and then they do a Gradebook "Declaration" in Canvas where they say "true" to a quick checklist covering the assignment and -- presto! -- they have points in their Gradebook. You can see how that works here: Designing the Course: It's Your Choice


That's how all the grading works in the class; they complete the work, they do the Declaration, and in the end they have the grade they earned by all their accumulated work over the course of the semester. I wrote about these Gradebook Declarations in an earlier post where I emphasized the practical adventages of this approach (details here), but what I wanted to emphasize here is that this process of students running the Gradebook for themselves is that it communicates to them that I trust them to do that responsibly.


And you know what? IT WORKS. Sure, sometimes a student might do an assignment hastily so that it's not really finished; they're in a hurry, they don't check the items on the checklist carefully, it happens. (I've left the house with my shirt on inside-out; things happen when you are in a hurry.) But that's easy to fix; I contact the student to let them know they actually need to finish the assignment... and because it was just an honest mistake, they are glad for the chance to fix their mistake and complete the work. It's not a big deal.


Some Background. I've been using these Declarations for about 15 years now. In my first year of teaching online, I recorded all the work in the Gradebook myself (we had Blackboard then), and it was so tedious and time-consuming. The students had to send me email, then I had to go through the email and record the points, and sometimes I would make mistakes (we all make mistakes!), plus the students had to wait for the points to show up. It was not a good system.


Then, one day when I was driving to campus, I was almost in a car accident; a car swerved in front of me, and I had to slam on the brakes, and in that sudden total rush of adrenaline, I got the idea: I could have the students record their own work in the Gradebook! So when I got to campus, I immediately found one of my students and asked him what he thought: would it work? Of course it will work, he said. And I've been using Declarations ever since: in Blackboard, in D2L, and now in Canvas.


After I had been using the Declaration system for about a year, I made a presentation about it to some faculty on my campus who were interested in teaching online. And I will never forget the looks on their faces when I described my use of Declarations. They were appalled. "But won't your students all just cheat?" "You mean you really don't check their work?" Etc. Etc. Etc. It was a huge gap in perspective based on two very different starting assumptions: trusting your students versus not trusting them.


And the assumption of trust, or mistrust, has very big consequences that ripple throughout any course.


A CARING ALLIANCE. I mentioned Alfie Kohn's book Punished by Rewards in an earlier post, and theis theme of trust is one that he explores there; here's a quote that really resonates with me:

There is a significant difference between developing a caring alliance of openness and trust with children and offering rewards to elicit certain behaviors.


Speaking for myself, I far prefer to focus my efforts on "developing a caring alliance of openness and trust" and designing courses to promote that goal. At best, grades divert our energy and attention from that effort; at worst, grades undermine that effort by communicating mistrust with our students. So, in all these years, I have never gone wrong trusting my students, which is why I do not hesitate to offer that advice to others: trust your students.


And just to show that it's not just me, I'll close with these two articles that I found in the Twitter stream last semester; maybe they will resonate with you also:

Do You Trust Your Students? by Amy Hasinoff (at Hybrid Pedagogy)

Turn Your Classroom Irritation Into Compassion by James M. Lang (at Chronicle of Higher Ed)


James Lang's piece is not exactly about trust, but the compassion he describes is, in a sense, the answer to everything... as he says at the end of the article: "The answer is compassion. Now what’s your question?" And on that note, here's something to ponder from Molly Hahn at Buddha DoodlesAs you start to walk on the way, the way appears.


Now... you just need to bravely take that step. Trust your students. And trust yourself. You can do this! :-)


graphic of Rumi quote