Fun fact: I’m a student again. I’m doing an online MS in data analysis hoping to be eligible to teach community college and learn some of the skills that I’m really doing (which I sorely lack).
Anyway, I want to share with you a course review that I just wrote because when I explained what I loved about the class, I was describing (1) my basic philosophy of teaching, (2) a tremendous obstacle that all teachers face faced, and (3) how this particular teacher overcame that obstacle.
I wrote the following:
To teach well, you need to articulate what you want students to learn and then create assignments and experiences to help them do this.
Harder than it sounds!
Many teachers have the dog wag their tail. They find tasks that are easy to grade and then try to derive their own pedagogical values from these easy-to-grade tasks.Soon they lost touch with some of the values they once loved most.
Professor S. resisted this temptation. At the beginning, he made it clear that some of his highest values would be difficult to assess:
- the flexibility to try multiple approaches
- the skepticism to question one’s own results
- the communicative clarity to explain what you found and
- the wisdom of knowing the contexts and limitations of our models.
He then created a course that recognized those values through ungraded discussion questions, case study videos, and a peer-graded project. and peer-graded homework that asked us to apply the models to our personal and professional lives.
The exams, while making up 75% of the grade, made up a far smaller part of the course’s student experience. That’s exactly how it should be.
I will go into a little more detail about that.
In my view, the role of the class is to figure out what students need to learn and then gain experience to help them do this.
These efforts come up against a major obstacle: the systematic pressure to give grades. Too many teachers give up hard-to-grade experiences (writing, teamwork, projects, reflection) in favor of easy-to-grade experiences (multiple choice questions, individual work, textbook problems, exams). Then, as a final step in the tragedy, they realign their goals to match their assessments.
All these hard-to-quantify virtues? Forgotten. An imperfect measure of success becomes the definition of success in a soul-numbing tautology.
How did Professor S. avoid this trap?
Well, in an online course with more than 1000 students, there are two basic ways to assess students: (1) the expected type of bog standard multiple choice exams, or (2) an unexpected type that requires a visionary approach ; relentless execution and hardest-to-get student buy-in.
Why wage this fight? Instead, Professor S. handed in the bog standard exams. He made sure that the course grades were in line with student expectations, conservative and uninspired, whatever those expectations may be. But then he remembered what so many teachers don’t do.
The grade is not the class.
After the grade had been sorted, Professor S. looked for structures that would promote learning: extensive homework, appealing lecture videos, discussion forums for students and an open project. He made sure he was committed to these not just by giving them a little weight in class (25% total), but by telling us at every turn that he valued these things. They have not been marked as “optional” or “additional credit”. They – and not these standard exams – were the essence of the course.
When asked for advice, I would never say, “Give 75% of the grade based on boring multiple-choice exams that don’t really cover the most interesting aspects of the course.”
But most of the time, that’s one reason you shouldn’t ask my advice!
The true measure of a course is what the students have learned. And I believe that Professor S. taught us a lot after every fair assessment.