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2019

GLADLY WELCOMING FEEDBACK:

I just sent off my chapter to the editor, new and improved thanks to reader feedback; the revised version is below. And I'm still very glad for comments, questions, or suggestions, you can comment here at the Community, or you can reach me at Twitter @OnlineCrsLady, or email laurakgibbs@gmail.com ... or, for anonymous comments, feel free to use my class Suggestion Box: Suggestions.MythFolklore.net.

 

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GETTING RID OF GRADES

by Laura Gibbs

University of Oklahoma

 

Since you're reading this book, I'm going to assume you might have some kind of dissatisfaction with your current grading practices, something that has you looking for alternatives. I'm excited to share my ungrading practice here; it works great for me, but will it work for you? One way to answer that question might be to think about the dissatisfaction that brought you to this book.

 

Starting with Dissatisfaction

 

My own ungrading practice evolved from a long history of dissatisfaction with grading, both as a student and as a teacher — and so I'd like to suggest you do a quick study of your own dissatisfaction. Try jotting down ten memories that come to mind when you think about "grading," any memories at all. A few memories will come quickly, experiences that have crystallized and probably already guide your grading practices. If you delve more deeply, though, you might find some memories that are more raw, less routinized, and thus offering new insights into your grading dissatisfaction. So, take a minute to do that before you continue reading; I've shared my list in an appendix at the end of this chapter.

 

All-Feedback-No-Grades

 

Just as there are many different ways to assign grades, there are also many different ways to un-grade. I call my approach "all-feedback-no-grades," which is to say that I put no grades on student work ever; instead, I give my students feedback, lots of feedback. In describing my approach below, I will try to generalize so that the approach could apply to all kinds of classes, but every teaching context has its own possibilities and its own constraints. For the record, here's my teaching context (deep breath to say it all in one go): I'm a full-time adjunct instructor of fully online upper-division General Education writing-intensive Western and Non-Western Humanities courses at a large public university. I teach in the open, so for more information, you can visit my website, MythFolklore.net.

 

Now, in very general terms, this is how I implement an all-feedback-no-grades approach in my classes:

 

  1. Individual Feedback. I put no grades on student work. Instead, I provide individual feedback to help students improve their work from week to week. And their work does improve, sometimes dramatically. That is, for me, the most important measure of success. You can check out my students' projects at this website: Storybooks.MythFolklore.net.

 

  1. Culture of Feedback. I explicitly teach students about giving and receiving feedback so that they can give each other helpful feedback and also make good use of the feedback they receive. As part of that process, I teach students about growth mindset and the positive value of learning from mistakes. You can check out our class feedback resources at this website: Mindset.MythFolklore.net.

 

  1. Gradebook Declarations. When they complete an assignment, students record their work in the LMS using a "Declaration" quiz, which is just a quiz with a true-false question containing a checklist of the requirements for that assignment. When students click "true" as the answer, the assignment points go into the Gradebook. Each assignment is worth just a few points; there are no high-stakes assignments or tests. (I've used this system in three different LMSes over many years: first Blackboard, then D2L, and now Canvas.)

 

  1. A-B-C Letter Grades. I am required to turn in an A-B-C letter grade for each student at the end of the semester, and that grade is based on the total points in the Gradebook. All points in the Gradebook come from students' Declaration quizzes; it has nothing to do with any action on my part. Students can use the Gradebook to chart their progress from week to week to make sure they are track for the grade that they want.

 

  1. Pass / Not-Pass. While the students pay attention to their letter grades, I do not. My only goal is that every student pass the class. Each week I sort the total points in the Gradebook from low to high, looking only at the very lowest totals. If there is anyone at risk of not passing the class based on their progress so far, I send them an encouraging reminder.

 

As you can see, it's not a complicated system, and I think that's important. Anything having to do with grades is emotionally charged for students, and I don't want to overwhelm them with something complex or confusing. Students choose what work they do, they record the work as they complete it, and they move on to the next assignment. It's a simple system, and I am pleased to say that students embrace the system enthusiastically.

 

What Students Say

 

My university collects end-of-semester course evaluations from students, and that process went digital in Fall 2010, so we now receive those student comments in a searchable PDF document. That makes it easy to keep track of comments that mention grades or grading. I've collected all student comments related to grading since Fall 2010 here: Evals.MythFolklore.net. I would encourage you to take a look to see what the students say. If I were to receive negative feedback from students about the grading system, I would change my approach, but the only feedback I get is positive. In fact, it is extremely positive. Here are some typical comments:

 

There was an emphasis on learning the course material rather than worrying about grades.

 

The grading system encourages students to write for the sake of writing and not for the sake of a grade.

 

This is one of the best classes I have taken at the University of Oklahoma. I learned so much and never had to stress about my grade. I always knew where I stood in the course, the organization made me feel comfortable by the first week.

 

It was very fun and I learned a lot! I really liked that I had the freedom to write just to write rather than for a grade.

 

The self-grading was definitely a nice feature. This class afforded me freedoms that I was not granted in any other class. I felt like I was being treated like an adult for once.

 

I really liked it. It was fun and was all about learning not just a grade.

 

I really liked how there were a lot of assignments and grades were given based on participation. I felt that I learned much more this way because the emphasis was on learning and creativity rather than a test.

 

You put a lot of time into the course but you get out what you put in. I also liked that you basically decided what grade you got based on how much work you wanted to do. You knew that as long as you did the work, you would get a 100. This doesn't mean it was easy though!!

 

This unique format gave me the ability to learn and express my understanding in a way that didn't come along with anxiety about grades. This is the first time I have ever taken a course and was not stressed about grades so I purely learned the material. It was amazing and I think I learned more in this course than I have in any other in a long time.

 

I loved being able to write what I wanted and not be graded subjectively. It made it easy for me to be creative!

 

I could go on, but suffice to say that all the comments about grading — ALL the comments — are positive, with one exception: "The self grading bit was really strange." I'm not sure that is even a negative comment exactly, but it's the closest thing to a negative comment about grading in the hundreds of course evaluations I've received in the past ten years.

 

So, now that I've described some practical features of my approach along with student reactions, I want to move on to some philosophical aspects of ungrading and the benefits of ungrading for both teachers and students.

 

Ungrading and My Philosophy of Teaching

 

Before I describe my own philosophical assumptions about teaching, I'd like to suggest a little experiment like the one I suggested above: pause and take a minute to jot down a few of your most important assumptions about teaching and learning. Then, you'll be able to see just how much our assumptions overlap. If there is some overlap, that might be a good sign that some of my approaches could work for you too.

 

My own philosophy of teaching comes down to just one word really: freedom. Freedom is the idea that guides all my course design choices, and there are two key aspects of learning freedom that are especially relevant to ungrading: the freedom to grow, and the freedom to make mistakes.

 

Learners need freedom to grow and learn in their own ways, and they need feedback to support them in that learning.

 

While grades pretend to be a form of feedback (but not very good feedback; more on that later), the main function of grading is coercion, and that's the opposite of freedom. Schooling uses grades to make students do the things that we want them to do. We may have good intentions with our students' best interests at heart, but that does not change the fact that we are using grades as a form of control. Schools coerce students in other ways too, like the fact that most students enroll in my classes because those classes are required for graduation. I cannot change the fact that students are forced to take specific classes in order to graduate, but I can choose not to compound that coercion with the further coercion of grading.

 

When you stop grading, that gives students the space they need to explore and discover what is meaningful and valuable to them. Instead of defining learning objectives in advance, with the same objectives and the same measuring stick for all students, I can give each student the freedom to choose their own learning goals, and it then becomes my job to help them get there. As I shift the balance from grading to supportive feedback, I am showing the students that I really care about their learning and that I want to help them learn about things that are important to them.

 

When teachers give feedback together with a grade, students see that feedback as justification for the grade, but if there is feedback without a grade, then students can see the feedback for its own sake, and act on it. So, if you've ever asked why students don't read or use your feedback, try not giving grades and see what happens. Grading tells students that grades are what matter. When you get rid of grades, you can show students that it is their work that matters, and by giving them feedback to improve their work, you are showing them that their work matters to you too.

 

Students also feel more free to give each other honest feedback in the absence of grades. Grades are about judging, but feedback is instead about helping people to learn and grow, and in my experience, students are very eager to help one another. They see the value of helping others in an altruistic sense, and they also find the process valuable for their own learning. When they examine each other's work, they get ideas that can expand their own awareness and understanding, and by coaching others in this way, they develop skills that are useful beyond the classroom.

 

Yes, it takes time and effort on the teacher's part to help students learn how to give each other useful feedback, but I find that to be time well spent. If you can help your students to develop their own feedback skills, that allows you to then focus on the kinds of feedback that only you can provide. Just how that division of labor works in any class depends on the subject matter and the students' backgrounds, but in any classroom, you can enlist your students' help in maximizing both the quantity and quality of feedback, and everyone wins when students are helping each other to grow and learn.

 

Learners need freedom to make mistakes so they can learn from those mistakes, and they should not be punished for making mistakes.

 

When I tell people that I am against grading, what I really mean is that I am against "punitive grading," any process that punishes students for making mistakes. Punitive grading systems teach students to avoid mistakes at all costs, rather than encouraging them to use mistakes as feedback for further learning.

 

Sure, we might tell students that they need to learn from their mistakes, and we might even give them feedback that is intended to help them learn from their mistakes, but grades tell a different story: grades punish students for any mistake they make, large or small. As such, those grades are always an occasion for regret and remorse, looking backward instead of forward. With letter grades, an A grade is often the only grade that comes with no remorse — or, worse, maybe only an A+ will do. Percentages are even more unforgiving: anything less than 100 means you failed somehow. You made mistakes. You left things out. Somehow or other, you did something wrong. And no matter how well you do next time, the less-than-perfect grade is going to remind you that you did something wrong. This spectre of perfectionism, I would argue, is the most dangerous side effect of punitive grading, something that causes harm to every learner, both those at risk of failing and those at risk of getting a 100.

 

Learning, after all, is not about being perfect and never making mistakes; instead, learning is about being able to understand your mistakes and act on them. Are your mistakes the result of a lack of skills? You need to practice those skills. Are your mistakes the result of a lack of sleep? Then you need to get more sleep. The variety of mistakes and their causes is enormous, which is why so much effort is required from both students and their teachers. Grades on a report card or a transcript do not allow anyone — not students, not teachers, and not parents or potential employers —  to tell the difference between a student who is short on skills and a student who is short on sleep.

 

Feedback is what helps students learn from their mistakes in a process of revision; that's where the real learning happens. Revision is crucial, but traditional grading undermines the value of revision work. At best, students see revision as a way to raise their grade. At worst, revision becomes a form of punishment inflicted on students for a poor grade: you did a bad job, so you have to revise. Students thus learn to avoid revision, seeing it as a negative feedback signal. Revision means your grade was not good, or not good enough.

 

But when you get rid of grades, revision is no longer part of a rewards-and-punishments process; it's simply what you do so you can improve and learn more. There is always more to learn, so there is always more revising to do. In my classes, all students revise their writing, repeatedly. That includes students who are already highly skilled writers, along with students who are novices. Everybody needs to revise their work (teachers too!) because there are always new experiments we can try and new skills we can practice.

 

Benefits of Ungrading

 

I have seen nothing but benefits to ungrading, both for myself and for the students. If I had some doubts about this or or if I had observed any drawbacks, I would include those observations here, but there have been no downsides, at least not in my experience. In addition to the benefits I've already mentioned above, such as combating perfectionism, here are some more benefits I've seen:

 

Ungrading reduces stress. Are your students stressed about grades? Ask them, and they will tell you. My students feel a lot of stress about grades, and I am glad about any effort I can make to reduce that level of stress. In the course evaluations, students often mention the benefit of learning without the stress of grades. Stress about grades is harmful for learning, and it is harmful for students' well-being overall. That goes for teachers too: if you feel stressed out because you have to grade student work, then you might also experience less stress if you just stop grading.

 

Ungrading helps form new learning habits. Students learn a lot of bad habits as a result of grading, and those habits are hard to change. Probably the most universal habit taught by grading is "do what it takes to gets an A." Don't ask questions, don't look for meaning; just do what you are told to do and focus on the grade. An even more harmful form of that habit is "do the minimum that it takes to get an A." The biggest challenge I face as a teacher is helping students to free themselves from that habit of doing the minimum. And here is the worst-case scenario: the habit of "doing whatever it takes to get an A," which is how students can justify cheating on an assignment. Yes, students all know it's wrong to cheat, but if a student believes that getting a bad grade is the worst possible thing that can happen, then it makes sense to cheat; it's the lesser of the two evils. When you get rid of grades, though, that rationale no longer applies.

 

Ungrading makes room for creative work. Students do creative writing for my classes, which is often something completely new for them and, like anything new, it can be frightening. Not putting grades on student work encourages the students to take a risk and try something new. If you want your students to do creative, open-ended assignments, or any kind of project-based learning, try doing that without grades and see what happens.

 

Ungrading promotes better communication. Insofar as grades are a form of communication, they are very Tarzanesque: the vocabulary of ABC does not say much. With the addition of pluses and minuses, you end up with a vocabulary of eleven words. Clearly, we need better ways to communicate. When you shift from giving grades to giving feedback, you can communicate more fully and more honestly with your students, and that then encourages them to do the same with you.

 

Ungrading opens up new course design possibilities. Do you have graded assignments in your classes simply to generate grades? When you eliminate grading, that gives you a chance to consider the real purpose of the assignment, and you might find that you are able to create more meaningful assignments as a result. I prefer assignments that have a long-lasting purpose, assignments that the students themselves can use later in the semester, and assignments that might have an even more lasting value. For example, the archive of past student projects is the most valuable content in my classes, and the students know it. So, instead of inspiring students to get an A, I would like to inspire them to create a project that they will be proud to, a project to put in the archive when the semester is over. That way their work can inspire students in future semesters just as they were inspired by the work of past students. (And hey, you can take a look too if you want; the archive is at Storybooks.MythFolklore.net.)

 

Conclusion: An Ungrading Wish List

 

By offering a wish list here as my conclusion, I don't want to create the impression that I am unhappy with my current practice: it works great, allowing me to do my job with joy and enthusiasm. At the same time, you never know when you might meet a kindly magical fairy who offers to grant you three wishes. So, if the ungrading fairy were to grant me three wishes, I'm ready with my list. What would you ask for? These would be my three wishes:

 

No more letter grades. If there were only a Pass/Not-Pass record at the end of the course, I think I could do an even better job of helping my students in their learning. So, I would like to get rid of the meaningless ABC for an even simpler P/NP system, where the only courses that appeared on each student's transcript would be courses that they passed.

 

No more GPA. If the fairy says that my first wish is going to take a long time to implement, then I would ask that in the meantime we stop averaging those meaningless letter grades into the even more meaningless GPA. That way, the consequences of students choosing to take a less-than-perfect grade in a given class would not persist in the GPA and its faux decimal-point precision.

 

Support for ungrading. Even by magical standards, those first two wishes are big ones, but my third wish is easy: administrators should give teachers the support they need in their ungrading experiments. When I first began ungrading, I had to fly under the radar, especially as an adjunct instructor with no tenure protection. That climate of fear benefits no one; every teacher, tenured or not, needs to have the freedom to experiment, with grades and with everything else, so they can find what works best for them and for their students. Experiment, and then share what you learn!

 

That's the real magic.

 

Acknowledgments

 

There are many people who have inspired me in my teaching adventures over the years, and I am not going to try to name them all, but instead I will just say: thank you. Most of all I am grateful to my students; they inspire me every day.

 

There is, however, one person in particular whom I would like to single out because there is a singular story that I would like to tell about him, and that is Professor John Hurst of the Education School at UC Berkeley. John joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1961, and he went on to establish the Peace and Conflict Studies program (PACS) there and also Democratic Education at Cal (DECal). The DECal program, based on the work of Dewey and Freire, was a way for Berkeley students to organize independent study groups for credit, creating courses that were otherwise not available. I was a student course facilitator for DECal during the 1980s, and it completely changed my understanding of what education can and should be. The only type of grading for DECal courses was P/NP, and this is a story that DECal course facilitators used to tell about John Hurst and P/NP grades:

John was teaching in the Ed School back in the day, but he loathed grades and grading, so his solution was just to give every student a grade of A. No matter what. This system was working just fine until one term when one of his students passed away in a tragic accident shortly after the term had started. When John filled out the final grade report at the end of the term, he gave that student an A. The department chair noticed this anomaly and asked John about it. John explained that he gave every student a grade of A, no matter what. The chair said he wasn't sure whether that was an acceptable grading policy, so he would have to check with the dean. The dean said he wasn't sure either, so he would have to check with the Faculty Senate. The Faculty Senate said that was not okay at all, and they stripped John of the right to give traditional letter grades. Henceforth, he would only be allowed to give P/NP grades, no matter what kind of class he was teaching. Thus John Hurst became the only faculty member at Berkeley forbidden to use letter grades. And nothing could have suited him better.

 

This story was told to me in different ways by different people, and I have often repeated the story too, but I don't know if it's true or not. It was such a good story that I didn't want to ask John to confirm or deny it. As the reporter says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." John Hurst died in 2016 at the age of 86; he was a professor both of peace and of courage, and I know he would have enjoyed reading this book; I hope he would approve of the anecdote.

 

Bibliography

 

Here are a few of the books that have been helpful to me in thinking about grades and ungrading; perhaps you will find them helpful too:

 

Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Center City, Minnesota: Hazelden Publishing, 2010.

 

Dweck, Carol. Mindset, The New Psychology of Success: How We Can Learn to Fulfill Our Potential. New York: Random House, 2006.

 

Eodice, Michele, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner. The Meaningful Writing Project: Learning, Teaching and Writing in Higher Education. Norman: Utah State University Press, 2017.

 

Faber, Adele and Elaine Mazlish. How To Talk So Kids Can Learn. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1996.

 

Kohn, Alfie. Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes (25th Anniversary Edition). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.

 

Lang, James. Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

 

Pink, Daniel. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. New York City: Riverhead Books, 2009.

 

Sackstein, Starr. Hacking Assessment: Ten Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School. Cleveland: Times 10 Publications, 2015.

 

Schulz, Kathryn. Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. London: Granta Books, 2011.

 

Socol, Ira, Pam Moran, and Chad Ratliff. Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2018.

 

Warner, John. Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.

 

 

 

Appendix. My ten grading memories in chronological order:

 

  1. My earliest grading memory is my mother comparing report cards with another mother in first grade. The other mother's child had Es for excellent, but I had just Ss for satisfactory and some Us too. Unsatisfactory. I can still hear the embarrassment in my mother's voice.

 

  1. I went to an experimental school in fourth grade where we picked what we did every day and didn't get grades. I loved it. When we had to do state assessment tests at year's end, I colored in the multiple-choice bubbles to make pictures. My mother was worried about my poor scores, but my teacher laughed when I told him what I had done.

 

  1. In seventh grade, my science teacher gave me an F on a quiz because supposedly I had let my friend copy my answers. He told me I had to hunch down more and wrap my arms around the answer sheet... "or else." I decided he was the problem, not me or my friend.

 

  1. My eighth grade science teacher had us study memory. We memorized a list of scientific animal names until we got 100% on the quiz. Then one month later, we took the quiz again. In general people didn't remember much at all. So much for getting 100% on a quiz.

 

  1. My high school history teacher used Scantrons for quizzes and ran the Scantron machine right there in class, saying each person's name as he ran the sheet. The machine beeped for every mistake, which was embarrassing, and it was also embarrassing when it didn't beep because it meant you were making other people look bad.

 

  1. I got an A+ in one of my classes during my first semester of college. It made me obsess about getting at least one A+ every semester after that.

 

  1. In all my college classes, I would put at least one howling error in each paper I turned in to see if someone was actually paying attention to what I wrote.

 

  1. I worked as a grader one semester when I was an undergraduate, and I could not decipher a lot of the handwriting in the hastily scribbled Blue Books. The professor just told me to do my best and not worry about it.

 

  1. When I was teaching a course in graduate school, a student came to me and asked me to give her a B. Her parents were paying her $500 to get a B in her first semester of college so she would not get stuck in the trap of maintaining a 4.0 GPA. She wanted to do the work to get an A, but she needed me to please record it as a B at the end of the semester.

 

  1. In my first semester of college teaching, I had fifty students in a mythology class. I did not think I could put detailed comments on that many papers, so I asked the students who would like detailed comments to revise their paper. The revision would not change the grade; it would just be a chance to get help on improving their work. I expected maybe half them would want comments, but only one student did. (That was the semester I decided to quit grading and find a better approach.)

Excerpts from my post got quoted in Inside Higher Ed! You can read that article here: Online Students Multitask More. Also, I have to note that the discussion here at the Community is more encouraging because people here actually read the blog post. As often, the commentators at IHE seem to be reacting to the headline without actually reading the article. :-)


On Friday someone asked me for my thoughts on a new education study about online education. It's the kind of study I would be unlikely to read myself, just based on the headline, but hey, I thought that would be a fun weekend experiment, reading something I would normally not read just to see if I was pleasantly surprised. I was not pleasantly surprised, ha ha; in fact, I was not surprised at all: my first impressions from the headline turned out to be true. This is another salvo in the laptop wars, but even worse: instead of just wanting to police the classroom, this professor thinks we need to police people in online courses too. But it's good to get outside the bubble, right? So what I've done below is to paste in the article and then offer some commentary. The study itself is available online for free, so braver souls than me can find out more if you are curious. 

 

Kent State study finds multitasking increases in online courses compared to face-to-face | EurekAlert! Science News 

 

(I'm skipping the opening anecdote wherein Professor Lepp meets a student entering data on her laptop while listening to her online course via headphones, while a Netflix movie was streaming on another screen.)

 

This phenomenon of multitasking across three or four internet-connected devices simultaneously is increasingly common.

I wonder why they are looking at multiple devices versus a more basic idea of "multiple focuses of attention," and why Internet-connected, as opposed to any mix of digital, analog or real. I would say it's multitasking when I have multiple browser tabs or windows open; it's also multitasking when I am folding laundry and watching a video; it's also multitasking when I'm walking and listening to an audiobook. And, brace yourselves, taking notes during a lecture is also multitasking. A pen and notebook might not seem like the dangerous distractors... but that's just because we're used to them. (Did nobody else used to smuggle magazines into class, reading them while pretending to prop a spiral notebook on your desk...?) Anyway, it seems to me that this approach ends up unduly focused on technology (and ultimately demonizing technology), when we should be asking more basic questions about learning behavior that should inform our course design online or in the classroom. And hey, full disclosure, I have music playing while I write this. (Prem Joshua! loud!) (Yes, there was a link there. Click. I dare you to multitask with me! Read and listen to music: it's okay; your brain won't explode.)

 

Dr. Lepp and his colleagues Jacob Barkley, Ph.D., and Aryn Karpinski, Ph.D., of Kent State's College of Education, Health and Human Services were curious to know how often this happens during online education, a method of delivering college and even high school courses entirely via an internet-connected computer as opposed to a traditional face-to-face course with a teacher physically present. Nationwide, millions of students take online courses each year, and the trend is increasing rapidly. Dr. Lepp and his colleagues wondered if students multitask more frequently in online courses compared to face-to-face courses.

So we have to define what online education is? Ouch. But seriously, I am not a fan of "online" and "face to face" as research categories. Online and face-to-face are delivery modes; they are not course designs. To say that online courses are alike because they are online is like saying that Rocky Road ice cream and Tater Tots are the same because you find them in the freezer section. Yes, being frozen is an important part of Rocky Road ice cream and of Tater Tots... but that does not mean they are the same thing. (I like them both, by the way.) What we need to do is to study different kinds of learning activities and how those learning activities fit into the overall course design. Studying online courses versus face-to-face courses is meaningless unless you know more about the courses in question, and about the students, than just the delivery mode.

 

"This question is important to ask because an abundance of research demonstrates that multitasking during educational activities significantly reduces learning," Dr. Lepp said.

This kind of sweeping generalization helps no one. I don't worry about my students multitasking (I multitask a lot; who doesn't?). But I do worry about my students being bored. Boredom during educational activities significantly reduces learning too. I think it's a lot more likely that I can try to design my classes in a way that the students will find the assignments really meaningful and/or stimulating. I think I can be more successful at that goal than in trying to control their multitasking (especially if it means policing their device use). And my guess is that, indirectly, I will end up reducing (bad) multitasking if I focus on the peril of boredom. So, that's what I do. I encourage others to give it a try. And if your students are multitasking, boredom may be a factor. I wonder if the researchers thought about studying boring courses versus non-boring courses...?

 

Dr. Lepp, Dr. Barkley and Dr. Karpinski, along with the help of Kent State graduate student Shweta Singh, surveyed 296 college students. Each student surveyed had recently completed an online, for-credit college course and a traditional face-to-face college course. The survey asked students how often they participated in common multitasking behaviors during their previously taken online courses as well as their previous face-to-face courses. These behaviors included texting, using social networking apps, emailing, off-task internet surfing, talking, doodling and other distracting behaviors. The survey also measured students' preference for multitasking and their belief in their ability to self-regulate their behavior.

Alas, the researchers probably did not ask why the students were multitasking. So, I repeat: was it because they were bored? Was it because they had an important test they were cramming for in another class? Was it because the professor said something they didn't understand (in the classroom or in a video) and they wanted to look it up? I look things up constantly. I hope my students do the same. All occasions of multitasking are not the same.

 

Results of the study revealed that students' multitasking behavior is significantly greater in online courses compared to face-to-face courses.

No surprise: students have the freedom in the online courses to do what they want/need to do, as opposed to being policed in the classroom. I can't listen to Prem Joshua in a classroom; I can at home. Louder when my husband is not home. :-)

 

Additionally, in online courses, the students who prefer to multitask do indeed multitask more than students with less of a preference for multitasking; however, in face-to-face courses, the students who prefer to multitask do not multitask more frequently than students with less of a preference for multitasking. "This is likely because in face-to-face courses, a physically present teacher and the presence of conscientious students help to enforce classroom policies and behavioral norms against multitasking," Dr. Lepp said.

Aha, there we go. It is about policing: students are not doing what they want/need/prefer in the classroom. I'm not sure we needed a research study to demonstrate that difference. But here's the real question: is policing, in-person or remotely, the best way to help students develop better self-awareness and self-regulation? I don't think so. One of the things I like about teaching online is that it means I can give the students so much more freedom, and also so much more responsibility, so that they can, perhaps, learn new things about the best strategies for their own learning.

 

Finally, students who were confident in their ability to self-regulate their behavior multitasked less in face-to-face courses when compared to students who were not so confident in their ability to self-regulate behavior. However, in online courses, even those students who believe they are good at self-regulation could not resist multitasking. Indeed, they multitasked at a similar frequency to other students.

They could not resist multitasking? How about saying this: they chose to multitask. And then ask them why. Some reasons are good; some reasons are not. We need to ask students about their reasons, and students need to learn to interrogate their own reasons. That's how you develop self-regulation. Sweeping generalizations, especially technophobic generalizations, are not going to help. 

 

"This suggests that how we teach students to self-regulate for learning applies well to traditional face-to-face courses, but perhaps it does not apply well to online learning," Dr. Barkley said.

I repeat: policing students in a classroom is not teaching them to self-regulate. That is being other-regulated, which is the opposite of being self-regulated.

 

"Because multitasking during educational activities has a negative impact on learning, it is important to develop methods for reducing this academically disadvantageous behavior, particularly in the increasingly common online learning environment."

I repeat: not all multitasking is academically disadvantageous, and the online environment is exactly where we can give students an opportunity to learn what multitasking helps their learning and what does not. Learning itself IS multitasking: you are taking in new information, comparing it with information you find in other sources, highlighting what you might use later, asking questions and finding answers to clarify your understanding, thinking about what you are going to do next, etc. Or, in less abstract terms: taking notes during a lecture is multitasking. Are we going to tell students they should not take notes anymore? Isn't a notebook and a pen (unregulated, unmonitored devices! oh no!) going to just lead them astray...? After all, doodling was on the list of dangerous activities. Here's what I say: let's buy everybody a copy of Sylvia Duckworth's books on sketchnoting! That is an educational intervention I would endorse enthusiastically. Doodle on, people! 

 

sketchnote bookcover

duckworth cover

 

The researchers say that students can learn to be more singularly focused and to minimize multitasking. "For example, during online learning and any other educational activity, put all distractions away, including smartphones and tablets," Dr. Lepp said. "This should become habit. This can even be practiced during leisure. For example, when watching a favorite TV show or sporting event, focus on the show and don't get distracted by texting friends and posting to social media."

Whoa, this is sounding seriously Puritanical. This is not just about policing the face-to-face classroom AND virtual learning spaces; it's policing people's leisure time too. Ouch.

 

For students struggling with multitasking in required online courses, Dr. Karpinski suggested that students try taking the course on a computer in a quiet part of the library where there are already norms in place which discourage many distracting behaviors.

Again, that is asking students to abandon self-regulation and let the school environment dictate to them what they do or don't do. I far prefer to help students work on self-awareness: setting goals and seeing how effective their work is (and they need feedback for that, of course) so that they can then assess what work strategies will be most useful. Also, I repeat: have they asked the multitasking students yet if they are bored...? Or just overwhelmed with too much to do and not enough time to do it in? Or yet other reasons? You will not know unless/until you ask.

 

"Additionally, as universities increase their online course offerings, even for students already living on or near campus, these same universities might consider computer labs dedicated to online learning that are proctored in an effort to keep students on task," Dr. Karpinski said.

 

The revolution will NOT be proctored.

 

But seriously, on the perils of proctoring, please read: Online Courses Shouldn’t Use Remote Proctoring Tools. Here’s Why, by Jill Leafstedt.

 

screenshot of Leafstedt article

 

 

Okay, that was enough for today. I have done my duty as an online soldier in the laptop wars. Now I am going to go watch Season 4 of Outlander, looking stuff up in Wikipedia the whole time, because Outlander always makes me want to look stuff in Wikipedia. 

 

Happy Weekend, people!

 

Postscriptum. Before turning on the TV to watch Outlander, I checked the blog stream for my classes, and at the top of the stream was this post from a student with spontaneous observations from him on watching the video Sita Sings the Blues for class last week. This is what I meant about asking students to share their experiences and listening to what they say; this is just an excerpt from the post. What you can see here is that it's not just a simple question of multitasking or not. In this case, it's about time, and what choices students make when they run out of time. I would guess that a lot of the multitasking reported in the study above was from students with too much to do and not enough time to do it all. Or to do it all well. I always get new insights from reading their blog posts. :-)

 

blog snippet

My last blog post was about emphasizing work, not grades:  The WORK, not the Grade. In that post, I tried to show that grades are harmful to student work because the emphasis on grades teaches students to care about their grades instead of caring about their work. You might think that caring about grades means that students will care about their work but, sadly, that is not the case. The endless conversations here at the Community about cheating, about plagiarism, etc. show what happens when students care about their grades but not about their work. It's an inevitable consequence of the emphasis on grading, and our failure to appreciate student work for its own sake, on its own terms.

 

In this post, I want to write about feedback versus grades. Specifically, I want to write about how feedback is essential to support student learning, and how grades are a very poor form of feedback.

 

Feedback and Learning

 

I think we all know on some level that feedback is essential for learning. Grades are not. You will notice the conspicuous absence of grades from this learning process diagram for example:


 

Unfortunately, though, the emphasis on grades (grades-as-assessment) means we have not as much energy and time to devote to the feedback that will really help students improve and learn (grades are not good feedback; more on that below). One of my main motivations for not giving grades is that I want to spend all my time and energy on giving students good feedback. The feedback I give is very much "feedforward" because it is all about information they can use in the next iteration of their writing. So, let me say something about feedback as feedforward and the revision process in my classes.

 

Feedforward: Learning as Iteration

 

The main way I participate in my students' learning is through their semester-long project, which begins in Week 1 of the semester. Every week, they work on their project, and I give them feedback -- detailed feedback -- about their work which feeds into the next week's work. You can see how that works here: Semester-Long Projects: Portfolios and Storybooks.

 

Here's a quick overview:


Week 1. Browse. Students look at the projects of past students in order to learn what this is all about; you can do the same! Here's that assignment: Storybook Favorites.

 

Week 2. Brainstorm. Students start brainstorming topics, and write about that in their blogs. I send back comments on every topic they propose with suggestions for future reading and research.

 

Week 3. Research. Students pick one of those topics and do more in-depth research, coming up with a possible Storybook plan. I provide detailed feedback on those plans,with more suggestions for future reading and research.

 

Week 4. Choose. At this juncture, students decide if they want to pursue the Storybook option, or do a Portfolio instead (details). Both options are good, and every semester, I get about a 50-50 split in terms of how many students choose each option, which I take as a good sign (if it started to skew strongly one way or the other, I would rethink the overall design). After making their choice, students turn in the next stage of their project: for a Storybook, that is a website plus a more specific plan; for the Portfolio, that is a website which includes the first Portfolio story. You can see all those websites here: Myth-Folklore and Indian Epics. (And if you're wondering, no, most of my students have never made a website before or had a blog; they are learning all that too, along with the writing: I am so proud of all of them!)

 

Weeks 5-15: Writing AND Revising. For the rest of the semester, students spend alternating weeks adding stories to the projects and revising. Revising is not a punishment; instead, revising is the fun part: that's the time when students get to experiment and explore new possibilities they had not seen in their stories the first time around. It's all about feed-forward: what are you going to do NEXT? The feedback students get from me and from other students about their projects all feed into next week's work so that, by the end of the semester, everybody ends up with a project they can be proud of.

 

Grades: Remorse and Regret

 

Grades, on the other hand, close things off, looking back, and often creating remorse and regret. Especially when we grade with letters, an A grade is the only grade that doesn't cause remorse (or, worse, maybe only an A+ will do). Likewise when we grade with percentages: anything less than 100 means you failed somehow. You made mistakes. You left things out. Somehow or other, you did something wrong. And no matter how well you do next time, the less-than-perfect grade is going to sit there and remind you about what you failed to do last time.

 

Grades are about what you did, or did not do. What you succeeded, or failed at, last time. They are not about next time, because grades are all about assessing the past, not paving the way to the future. Grades might be a necessary evil when it comes to assessment, but as feedback, they are a disaster. Letters and numbers will never really help students understand what they can do to improve their learning; they need, and deserve, better feedback than a number or a letter.

 

Grades versus Feedback

 

So, let's say you do find time to give your students good feedback about their work, along with the grade. Sad to say, because of the emphasis on grades, students might not care about your feedback, much in the same way that they might not care about their own work. Why? Because the grade is the only thing that matters, the only thing of value (see previous post).

 

There is no technological solution to this problem, even though people keep asking Canvas for that (here, here, here, here, and here and on and on). If students are not reading and/or using the feedback, it's not a technology problem; it's a teaching-and-learning problem. Students need a reason to use the feedback. They need a reason to value the feedback. If the feedback has no use or value to them, of course they are not going to read it. The way to change that is to think about what is useful and valuable to your students... and that might require some fundamental rethinking of how your course is designed, especially if students have learned that grades are the only thing that "really" matter.

 

There is lots more to say about feedback, but that's a start anyway. I'll be back tomorrow with more. Blogging is all about iteration too. :-)

 

 

Cat at computer: Write. Think. Then write some more.

Wow, between the hectic start-of-semester and then being out of town for a week in Austin, I haven't blogged here since back in January. But now I'm back home for a few weeks, and working hard on the un-grading book chapter that I have due at the end of the month. I've been using these un-grading blog posts for thinking about loud about that chapter, and today I want to write about a focus on work as opposed to a focus on grades.

 

GRADE OBSESSIONS. Let's start with the focus on grades. The only lasting record of what a student does in school is the grades on their transcript, and their performance in school is often assessed in an even more reductive form: the grade point average. Students, understandably, obsess about grades; if the only thing that matters after a class is over is the grade they get, of course they are going to obsess about grades.

 

What I wanted to note here was something I saw at Twitter this week about how the LMS-approach has ratcheted up that grade obsession so that it is now even more harmful than in the past. Here's a tweet from Robin de Rosa that prompted over a hundred replies about this serious problem:

 

screenshot of tweet

 

In my classes, the students are doing all the grading. I don't enter anything in the Gradebook; they do that. So, there is no waiting for me to do something, no anxiety about what I will or won't do. I put the students in charge, and if there is Gradebook activity, there are no surprises involved. Details here: Microassignments and Completion-Based Grading.

 

Turning the Gradebook over to the students works great for me, but I know it does not work that way in their other classes, and when I ask them about how they use the Canvas App on their phones, checking their grades is the #1 thing that they mention. And, sad to say, one of the Alexa Skills that Canvas has developed is: "Alexa, list grades" (sigh...).

 

STUDENT-CREATED CONTENT

 

So, yes, shifting from a focus on grades to work is hard because I cannot do anything about the way the grade, and only the grade, is what shows up on my students' permanent records after the class is over. That's the administrative culture of the school, and I cannot change it. But I can change the culture of my class so that it is all about the work, and since the students' project websites are going up this weekend, now seems like a good time to write about making student work the center of the class.

 

If you take a look at one of my Canvas classes (they're open, so go right ahead and click!), you will see that the content there in Canvas is content created by the students, coming in through their blogs and their websites:
Myth.MythFolklore.net
India.MythFolklore.net

 

The Blogs link on the left gives you the live blog stream, with all the latest posts; to see a post in a student's blog, just click on the title and you'll go right there. I use the RSS aggregator Inoreader to create these blog streams and once they are set up, the students' new posts show up automatically.

 

screenshot of blog stream

 

The Projects link on the left gives you a slideshow of the students' projects. These are websites, not blogs, so I can't easily create a "stream" of content like for the blogs. Instead, I create a Google Slideshow which I can easily embed here and elsewhere, and I update the slideshow as each new project comes online. Then, to keep the slideshow fresh and changing after all the slides are up, I randomize the slideshow every day using an add-on ("Slides Randomizer"). I just takes a minute and, thanks to the power of random, different projects appear at the start of the slideshow from day to day.

 

screenshot of slideshow

 

Announcements. In addition to the student work that students can find in the Blogs and Projects pages here at Canvas, I also include student content in the class announcements, which you can see on the Canvas Home page. Every day in the announcements, I feature something from a student blog post and I also feature a student project. Plus, in the right-hand sidebar you will see a small version of the projects slideshow, along with a widget that shows a new student project at random each time the page reloads. Through this daily presentation of student work, I hope to show the students that their work really is a crucial part of the class, something that I pay attention to and something that is of value to their fellow students also.

 

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE

 

In addition to being aware of the work being done by their fellow students, my students also know that their work will continue to be valuable even after the class is over, becoming part of the archive of student work at my eStorybook Central website. The students visit that website as one of their very first class assignments, learning about the work they will be doing in the class by browsing through the work of past students. There are other ways their work rolls forward too, like in the Advice Padlet that I use to get each semester started, sharing advice from last semester's students. There's also a Feedback Gallery that past students created to help new students get into a good feedback groove.

 

For more about this general approach, take a look at the results of this Google search: Non-Disposable Assignments. It's a useful catchphrase that captures many of the ideas that I've discussed in this post.

 

Nothing in the LMS supports this forward-looking approach: after a class is over, any content that the students have created inside the LMS goes dark. All that remains is the grade, recorded in the student information system, which is Banner at my school; by default, my school shuts off student access to courses in the LMS shortly after the recorded grades become available in Banner. Why? Because the grades are the only thing that matter after the class is over.

 

THE WORK, NOT THE GRADES

 

Despite the requirement that I turn in grades for my students, I still want to keep the class focus on the work, not the grade. That means focusing on the work from day to day, and also thinking about the value that the work can have into the future. There is very little that you can do in the LMS to make that happen, but you can use other tools, beyond the LMS, so that students can create and share their work online, and then you can find ways to bring that work back into Canvas, using embedding and other kinds of dynamic integration.

 

So, while I'm frustrated that so much of the Canvas resources go into the Gradebook and grade-related activities, I am glad that I can turn the Gradebook over to the students while using Canvas features like the redirect tool and other integration options to make their work part of the Canvas space.

 

HOW DO YOU SHIFT THE FOCUS TO WORK...?

 

I'm sure other people have found creative ways to bring your students' work into the Canvas space: what are your favorite tricks and strategies? I'm sure there are some great examples out there with other tools (Padlet, Flipgrid, Hypothesis, etc. come to mind!) ... so if you have examples you can share here, please do!

 

 

Shifting the focus from the grades to the work:

it's a matter of perspective!

 

cat in overturned basket: Step back and change your perspective!

Step back and change your perspective!