Great places to find answers to this question are the Lilly Conferences on Evidence-Based Teaching and Learning held annually at six sites from coast to coast. These conferences invite participants to engage in lively dialogue about the scholarship of teaching and learning, share best practices and hone teaching skills. Lilly Conferences are not specific to any course modality; they cover classroom, hybrid and online teaching. I found the three topics from August’s Lilly – Asheville Conference of particular interest: alternative approaches to traditional grading, faculty and student empathy, and strategies to enhance the effectiveness of lectures.
Alternative Grading Systems
Michael Palmer, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Teaching Excellence, challenged conference attendees to address the question “How does grading influence learning?” He then encouraged examination of alternative approaches to traditional grading practices, and explained specifications (“specs”) grading, which he personally uses. Briefly, specifications grading involves:
- Grading assignments and assessments on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, where mastery (passing) is set at a “B” level or better.
- Bundling assignments and assessments together and allowing students to select these “bundles” based on the final course grade they are seeking. Bundles are aligned with specific course learning outcomes. Higher final grades require students to do more work and/or more challenging work.
- Building in flexibility by giving students a few tokens at the outset that they can trade in for an extension on an assignment or an opportunity to revise/redo an unsatisfactory assignment.
Advocates of specs grading tout its effectiveness in motivating and engaging students while restoring rigor, providing actionable feedback (Palmer gives audio feedback) and supporting deep learning. To learn more, see Linda Nilson’s book Specifications Grading. Regarding ways to provide feedback that enhances learning in online courses, see Wanted: Effective Instructor Feedback.
Empathy and Student Success
Katherine Rowell of Ohio’s Sinclair Community College spoke eloquently about “The Importance of Teacher and Student Empathy in Student Success.”
- She noted that positive faculty-student relationships are a principal factor predicting student success. In fact, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue survey found that college graduates were far more likely to be engaged in their work and thriving in key areas of well-being if they had one or more positive relationships with faculty.
- Rowell encouraged the audience to learn more about the role that empathy plays in student success, and to look at how empathy—by both instructors and students—is manifest in the college classroom, including the online classroom.
- She recommended Christopher Uhl and Dana Stuchul’s book Teaching as If Life Matters which encourages teachers to nurture students in ways that make learning beneficial for a more meaningful life. In this regard, OSU Business instructor Nikki Brown’s recent post in this blog on meeting students where they are is a excellent place to start.
Todd Zakrajsek of UNC-Chapel Hill presented evidence-based strategies to enhance lecture effectiveness. His message can be applied to asynchronous online learning as well as to on-campus courses:
- Lectures and active learning are not mutually exclusive. Using lectures, including short online lectures, plus active learning can reach more learners better than using either technique in the absence of the other. Think of strategies to get learners to interact with the lecture content!
- “We have to stop thinking there’s only one kind of lecture.” Just as there are many varieties of active learning, there are multiple kinds of lecturing! The classic college lecture model is continuous expository lecturing, which can effectively stifle student engagement when delivered non-stop in one-hour doses! It’s useful to consider how other approaches such as case-study, discussion-framing, and problem-solving lectures can be used in online and hybrid courses.
- We all benefit from examining the research on how learners learn, and applying this knowledge to inform course development and teaching, including lecture design. For more on this, see The New Science of Learning, co-authored by Zakrajsek and Terry Doyle. Also consider meeting students where they are.
What are your experiences with these topics: Have you explored alternative grading systems? How do you use empathy in your teaching? What are some strategies you use to improve lecture effectiveness and incorporate active learning? Please share your ideas here.