When I hear the word presence, I’m reminded of a teacher taking attendance at the beginning of class. I picture the teacher calling out each student’s name, the students responding either “here!” or “present!” in turn. In this scenario, though, while the students each affirm their presence, the teacher’s presence is a given. The teacher doesn’t mark herself present in the attendance record. The teacher doesn’t need to prove they taught class or prove they exist to students. As one might suspect, this is an area where online asynchronous courses differ from traditional classrooms: one’s presence is not a given. Presence becomes even more important in online settings. Perhaps that’s why we hear so much about it. Online presence. Social presence. Instructor presence. But, what do these words really mean in virtual classrooms?
There are many ways to define presence. The first entry in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary defines presence as “the fact or condition of being present.” This entry directs readers to present (adjective, entry 3 of 4), which defines present as “now existing or in progress.” There is an immediacy to these words, a temporal aspect, and a physicality: Presence. How do we reconcile the temporal and physical connotations of this term with online, asynchronous interactions?
In this digital age, I think most folks would agree that it’s possible to experience presence online, to feel that someone is real, even if they’re not standing in front of you. But, how do we define it within this context? How do we describe presence to someone who’s attempting to achieve it virtually? For myself and other instructional designers tasked with guiding faculty to design and prepare to facilitate an online course, where they’re told their ability to establish presence will directly impact student success, what advice do we offer? Simply put, how is presence communicated in an online, asynchronous course?
To begin answering these questions, I’ll provide an overview of Garrison et al.’s (2000) Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework, which defines three presences for computer-mediated communication (i.e., the communication that occurs in online courses and other digital environments). Then, we’ll briefly consider how you might think about presence in your own online courses.
Overview of Community of Inquiry (COI)
We’ll start with a brief overview of Garrison et al.’s (2000) model of Community of Inquiry (CoI). CoI is a conceptual model that identifies three presences that are essential for online classrooms. It’s worth noting, too, that this model was created to provide a framework for presence mediated through the use of digital technologies. The three presences are 1) cognitive presence, 2) social presence, and 3) teaching presence.
Cognitive presence refers to the opportunities learners have “to construct meaning through sustained communication” (Garrison et al., 2000, p. 89). This is considered a foundational element of the model and might include, for example, an instructor providing feedback to students or students engaging in peer review.
Social presence includes opportunities the instructor and students have to share personal details within the classroom environment. Social presence supports cognitive presence and plays an important role in meeting course goals that are explicitly affective (Garrison et al., 2000).
Teaching presence is divided into two functions: structure and process. The structure can be thought of as the design of the educational environment and the process is often thought of as the facilitation of the environment (Garrison et al., 2000). Although different people may be involved in each function (e.g., an instructional designer and teacher might design a course, but a different instructor and a TA might be responsible for facilitating the course), both functions play a role in teaching presence.
Ultimately, you might find it hard to keep these presences straight, and that’s okay! Richardson and Lowenthal (2017) point out that academic publications don’t even use the same terms to describe various online presences. Acknowledging that there are different interpretations of presence in online contexts and different approaches for achieving presence online is the point of this post. In the future, you can always refer back here or save the resources listed below for reference later. In Ecampus, we try to emphasize instructor-student, student-student, and student-content interaction, an approach you might find easier to remember.
What I hope you take away from this post is that it’s not as important to remember the differences between each of these presences as much as it is important to include a variety of strategies in your course to communicate and establish presence. I’d also encourage you to occasionally try new approaches and to strive to communicate presence in multiple ways, without getting locked into a narrow view of presence and what it means in online classrooms.
Garrison, Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (1999). Critical inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2(2), 87–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00016-6
In Dr. Freeman Hrabowski’s TED Talk “4 Pillars of College Success in Science”, he told the story of Nobel laureate Isidor Isaac Rabi’s mother’s famous question: Did you ask a good question today? Let’s pause for a minute and reflect: What is a good question? What questions do you ask most frequently? What questions do your students or children ask most?
Types of Questions
Teachers usually encourage students to ask questions. Dr. Peter Liljedahl, author of “Building Thinking Classrooms in Mathematics” and professor of Mathematics Education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, however, points out that not all questions need and should be answered directly. According to Liljedahl, there are three types of questions and only one type of questions requires direct answers. Liljedahl categorizes questions in K-12 mathematics classrooms into the following three types:
Stop Thinking Questions
Keep Thinking Questions (Liljedahl, 2020)
Proximity questions refer to questions students ask when the teacher is close by, as the name suggests. Liljedahl’s research showed that the information gained from such proximity questions was not being used at all. Stop-Thinking Questions are questions students ask just to get the teacher to do the thinking for them, with the hope that the teacher will answer it and they can stop thinking, such as “Is this right?”, “Do we have to learn this?”, or “Is this going to be on the test?” Unlike the first two types of questions, keep-thinking questions are often clarification questions or about extensions the students want to pursue. According to to Liljedahl, if you have an authentic and level-appropriate task for students to work on, 90% of the questions being asked are proximity questions or stop-thinking questions and only 10% of questions students ask are keep-thinking questions. Liljedahl pointed out that answering proximity questions and stop-thinking questions are harmful to learning because it stops students from thinking.
Next, how could teachers differentiate the types of questions being asked? Liljedahl offers a simple solution to separate keep-thinking questions from the other two types of questions: Are they asking for more activity or less, more work or less, more thinking or less?
After differentiating the types of questions, what should teachers do with these proximity questions and stop-thinking question? Ignore them? No, not at all! Liljedahl emphasizes that there is a big difference between having students’ questions heard and not answered, and having their questions not heard. How should teachers answers these proximity questions and stop-thinking questions then?
Ten Things to Say to Proximity And Stop-Thinking Questions
Liljedahl provides the following list of ten responses to a proximity or stop-thinking question so that you are not giving away the answer and taking the thinking opportunity away from students. Basically, you turn the questions back to your students!
Isn’t that interesting?
Can you find something else?
Can you show me how you did that?
Is that always true?
Why do you think that is?
Are you sure?
Does that make sense?
Why don’t you try something else?
Why don’t you try another one?
Are you asking me or telling me? (Liljedahl, 2021, p. 90)
Cross-Discipline Nature of Good Questions
“Building Thinking Classrooms“ is recommended to me by some college biology teachers in the US. Biology teachers recommending math teaching book, isn’t that interesting? The reasoning behind this recommendation is that the techniques being taught in this book could be easily applied to any other teaching context to get your students engaged in thinking, whether it is K12 education or college education, math teaching or teaching of another subject.
Asking Good Questions for Management and Education Administration
If you are not directly involved in teaching and learning, but in administrative or management role in an organization, Dr. Amy Edmondson has some practical suggestions for asking good questions to keep organization growing healthily. Dr. Amy Edmondson, author of “The Fearless Organization”, Novartis professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, states that good questions focus on what matters, invite careful thought, and give people room to respond. Edmondson also suggests three strategies for framing good questions:
To broaden the discussion. For example: What do others think?
What are we missing? For example: What other options could we consider?
How would XXX (such as our role model, our mentor, or our competitor) approach this? For example: Who has a different perspective?
With the above tips for asking questions, are you ready to ask a good question today?
Edmondson, A. (2018). The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Are you searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching? Would you thrill at the idea of more creative online discussions? This post describes a well-tested approach that supports strong inter-student interaction and avoids the typically mundane discussion activity. Best of all, this approach works effectively in multiple STEM disciplines, including mathematics, engineering, coding, and other problem-solving orientated subjects.
Since I always look for ways to make online discussions more engaging and meaningful for students, I like to share instructors’ creative and fun approaches. Several years ago, I wrote a blog post explaining how a math instructor engaged students, asking them to find examples of parabolas they were studying that week in their local environment and post pictures on the discussion board. It was a huge success and had students enthusiastically sharing their discoveries.
I’m currently working with an engineering instructor to develop a series of graduate-level online courses. The challenge is how to approach a series of homework activities. The assigned problems are difficult, so solving in small groups is beneficial. However, the instructor also wants to make sure that all students independently develop a firm grasp of the principles and processes, but without worry about right answers.
Enter the two-step problem solving approach. Here’s how it works:
First, students review a complex scenario-based problem, which they attempt to resolve individually. Students are assessed on accurate application of the proper processes, formulas, or steps to solve the problem, not on whether they come up with the correct answer.
In the following week, students work in 3- or 4-person teams, uploading and sharing their individual responses on the group’s private discussion board. This leads to the second step, where students review the logic and processes taken by team members. To reach agreement on the correct answer, they collaborate and discuss all the proposed approaches, actively engaging with and educating each other, citing resources that support why their approach is correct. Ultimately, each small group must interact and debate until they reach a consensus, which is submitted and graded for a correct (or not) answer.
The engineering instructor has implemented this approach for several terms and finds it successful in several ways.
The individual first attempt minimizes the potential of a student shirking their duties or not giving their full effort to the group activity.
Being assessed on approach and application of appropriate principles eases the anxiety of getting the right answer, which minimizes the temptation to use shortcuts or unethical options.
The group discussion supports active learning and requires students to present their solution. When the student believes their answer is correct, they confidently cite evidence and reference applicable resources to explain their rationale.
Given today’s global business environment, the ability to succeed as part of a team is an essential skill to master, requiring effective communication, persuasion, and negotiation to arrive at a consensus.
Working as a team alleviates pressure and allows everyone to contribute, more or less evenly. Students must interact with peers and learn to respect and appreciate individual differences, skills, and perspectives.
Although most problems have a “right” answer, solutions often include a more nuanced response that highlights the need for some degree of subjective judgment.
Using this two-step approach has been valuable for students. It reinforces their efforts to grasp the formulas and processes related to the problem, while simultaneously providing the space to learn from their peers. And as noted earlier, this method is easily adaptable to many disciplines and subjects. If you are searching for a way to increase student-to-student interaction in your teaching, you may want to give this two-step approach a try.
We’d love to hear your feedback and comments, so please post if you want to share your experience with this or other creative approaches. Good luck!
Susan Fein, Ecampus Instructional Designer, email@example.com
This is a guest post by Ecampus Instructional Design Intern Chandler Gianattasio.
At DePaul School for Dyslexia, I teach 5th-8th graders conceptual mathematics, ranging from basic number sense to advanced topics in Algebra 1. Through this experience, I have discovered something I had never heard of before, a learning disability commonly seen coinciding with dyslexia, called dyscalculia. Many people describe dyscalculia as “dyslexia for math.” Dyscalculia affects one’s ability to take in mathematical information, connect with and build upon prior concepts learned, discern cues for application, and accurately retrieve information. DePaul provides an alternative education for students with learning disabilities, emphasizing explicit instruction to best support their students. In this post, I will discuss the common deficits that make up dyscalculia, where it falls in the realm of disabilities, and some ways we can accommodate students with dyscalculia in higher education.
Having dyscalculia can be debilitating, making it seem nearly impossible to keep up with neuro-typical classmates, especially when your class is on a fast-paced schedule, and when you are subliminally being told that asking for extra help will make you appear like you are lazy, unintelligent, unable to help yourself, and will just be one more problem that the instructor has to resolve. In Figure 1 (seen below), I have divided deficits of dyscalculia into five categories: executive functioning deficits1, auditory processing deficits2, nonverbal learning deficits3, language processing deficits4, and visual-spatial deficits5. Each category has a set of commonly experienced difficulties below them. However, these lists of difficulties are not exhaustive.
Figure 1. “Common Challenges Faced by Learners with Dyscalculia” By Chandler Gianattasio – CC BY-NC.
Looking at some of the common symptoms of dyscalculia, you may be thinking that many of these symptoms are also found in other disabilities, such as dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and more, and you would be correct. There is a large amount of overlap amongst developmental disabilities, and each disabled individual presents with their own unique combination of symptoms and, often, coexisting disabilities. To understand where dyscalculia falls within the world of developmental disabilities, I referred to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by the Department of Education. Through IDEA, 13 distinctions of disabilities were made:
Other Health Impairment (conditions that limit a child’s strength, energy or alertness)
ADHD, EFD, NVLD
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Bipolar Personality Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, etc.
Speech or Language Impairment
Visual Impairment (including blindness)
Traumatic Brain Injury
From this list, you may notice that there are only three diagnoses recognized as LDs: dyslexia, a reading disability, dysgraphia, a writing disability, and dyscalculia, a mathematical disability. All three of these LDs, as well as the majority of the other disabilities, have very similar biological limitations, each with the potential for a visual-spatial deficit, language-processing deficit, nonverbal learning deficit, auditory processing deficit, and executive functioning deficit. Due to individuals within each diagnosis having their own unique combination of symptoms, some may not have deficits in each of these areas. Figure 2 represents the potential combination of deficits an individual with each of these LDs may have. For instance, if you were to draw a straight line from dyslexia to the outer edge of the figure, the various deficits intersected would be representative of the profile of one individual. This figure shows the fluidity between different diagnoses and how easily co-existing conditions occur, due to a very similar underlying makeup.
Figure 2. “Potential Combinations of Deficits Behind Each Learning Disability” By Chandler Gianattasio, CC BY-NC-SA.
Figure 3 is shown below to reiterate the significant overlap found between disabilities. Looking specifically at weaker listening skills in this study, a characteristic originally classified as an APD trait, is also a very prevalent trait in individuals with LPD, dyslexia, ADHD and other LDs.
Auditory Processing Disorder (APD), Specific Language Impairment (SLI), Learning Disorders (LD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). [Colors shown in the charts do not correlate with Figures 1 & 2].
Students struggling with executive functioning become overwhelmed often due to either external or internal stimuli. They often struggle with rejection sensitivity dysphoria, emotional dysregulation and “time blindness”. The most significant way you can support these students is by creating a safe, non-judgemental space for them to communicate with you, and encourage them to always self-advocate, no matter what. You can further support students navigating executive functioning difficulties by doing the following:
Providing easily accessible reminders of important events and assignment due dates. Time management can be a major difficulty, especially with projects over an extended period of time.
Giving lots of positive reinforcement, checking in frequently, and having regularly scheduled meetings.
Pointing out any prior knowledge that is being built upon, and have them answer any questions based on prior knowledge that they’ve mastered in class to boost their confidence and increase their motivation.
Reducing extraneous stimuli and eliminating background noise as much as possible – whether that be in their environment, on a worksheet, in a presentation, in reference material, etc.
Supporting Visual-Spatial Deficits
Students with visual-spatial deficits often struggle with creating their own visual representations of concepts being discussed, especially abstract or microscopic concepts. When navigating directions, these students also struggle with orientation – both cardinal and left versus right. This often presents when they are performing calculations with negative numbers. Most students with dyscalculia learn adding and subtracting via number lines that they manually traverse to understand the connection between operations properly. To help your students who have visual-spatial difficulties, you could offer the following:
Providing tangible manipulatives that they can touch and physically move in order to see how parts function together
This could be provided when introducing a new concept as an addition to 2D drawings or descriptions
It’s always beneficial to have manipulatives available for your students whether that’s physical objects for in-person sessions or interactive virtual manipulatives for online sessions.
Providing graph paper, templates, and/or graphic organizers can be highly beneficial to your students to organize their thoughts and break up information.
Integrating as much UDL in as possible! Presenting information in multiple formats and allowing the students to demonstrate their learning in multiple ways will allow these students to participate in class and showcase their knowledge confidently.
Supporting Auditory Processing Deficits
Students with an auditory processing deficit struggle to comprehend directions and content from listening. The most significant way you can help your students who struggle with auditory processing is by doing the following:
Trying your best not to explain things too quickly.
Being very consistent with the terminology you use (try not to use multiple names for one entity or idea).
Checking in with students often to see if they understand what is being taught or asked of them.
Always encouraging students to ask questions as they work.
Supporting Nonverbal Learning Deficits
Students with nonverbal learning deficits are very literal and struggle to see the overall picture, especially when it comes to abstract concepts. You can support students with an NVLD by doing the following:
Creating a lot of associations and parallels between content and what they already know (common, everyday nuances) could help these individuals a lot.
Teaching concepts alongside any procedural knowledge you want them to retain will help them significantly, as they understand the “why” behind the steps.
Making sure to provide a lot of concrete examples, especially when introducing a new topic.
Structuring classes, making them as consistent and repetitive as possible. If they know what to expect and they are confident that they know how to handle it, these students will thrive.
Supporting Language Processing Deficits
Language processing deficits very commonly occur alongside auditory processing deficits. Students with this difficulty struggle with comprehending directions and content both from listening and reading. To help support these students, try the following:
Keeping language used simple and consistent.
Ensuring adequate (and modifiable if possible) background to text contrast/color.
Using 1.5+ line spacing and increased spacing between letters or symbols.
Chunking content and utilizing bullet points when possible.
Using consistent color associations with certain topics can go a long way (i.e. red for negative and blue for positive).
Starting lessons off with a graphic organizer or outline, showing how ideas fit together.
Including simple diagrams to illustrate concepts or procedures.
Highlighting keywords, numbers in word problems, or other important information you want to make sure they see.
Providing access to pre-written notes, “cheat sheets” displaying steps and formulas needed and worked-out sample problems so students can see what they are to do.
Remember that improving the learning experiences of our learners with special needs almost never comes at a cost to the “typical” learner – improving access, accessibility, and support for one improves these areas for all.
This post is the second installment in the series that describe the main characteristics, major benefits, design considerations, and practices and challenges of implementing an ungrading approach. This second blog presents the types of ungrading practices, challenges to implementation, and main takeaways derived from the book chapters and discussion with my colleagues in the Ungrading book club.
Types of Ungrading Practices
To begin, it is important to recap that the underlying concept supporting ungrading is deep, extensive, and formative feedback. This means that instructors are expected to design low-stakes formative assessments and devote substantial time and effort to craft feedback that students can use to revise their work. This section summarizes several contributions the book chapters authors made in regards to pedagogical practices, strategies, tips, and resources to adopt ungrading. Instructors can combine the ungrading practices or use them as stand-alone activities.
Approaches to Assignments
Portfolios: Students can build their portfolios with different digital tools that allow them to create personal or professional materials that are useful beyond the class (e.g., website, content curation). The critical element in a portfolio assignment is that there needs to be space for critical thinking and metacognitive work that can be shared with others. An additional element can include portfolio conferences. For these conferences, students meet with their instructors to review their course work and make annotations about their learning journey (they can also discuss their final grade).
Project-based Learning, Problem-based Learning, Inquiry-based Learning: Students work on activities that relate to their own experiences, real-life applications, and ill-structured scenarios. These activities encourage students to work with others, find solutions, investigate deeper, and apply concepts studied in the course to realistic situations.
Staged Assignments: Students work on reviewing/redoing assignments to allow them to learn from the feedback they received from their peers and/or instructor.
Minimal Grading: Use of a holistic or simplified grading schema (e.g., pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak).
Process Letters: An activity where students describe their learning process and how they evolve in their work in the class. This can be multimodal (e.g., presentations, reflections that combine audio, video, and text) and/or accompany major assignments.
Student-made Rubrics: Students can develop their own rubrics, which can become a learning activity in itself.
Participatory Voices: Students can contribute to course content by creating content, adding items to the syllabus, selecting the type/format of feedback they want to receive, evaluating peers, and developing an intellectual voice. Through self-evaluation and peer evaluation, students can reflect on their learning, understand the process of evaluating others, and focus on excellence and building confidence. Students are given a set of guiding questions to engage in self-and peer evaluation. At the end of the project or term, they recommend a grade for themselves and their peers.
Declaration Quiz: A quiz that asks students to select a checklist of the assignment requirements that they have completed. This can be a low-stakes assignment that helps students reflect on how they accomplished the task. Instructors can create declaration quizzes for each assignment and associate the number of points to the letter-based system.
Peer Assessment: When students work in groups, they can evaluate each other. Students can write about their contributions to the group projects as well as their experiences with the team. This can give instructors a view of the team dynamics and activities that are not usually visible.
Grade-Free Zones: This involves reviewing major assignments and/or providing a sandbox space for students to experiment before they engage in completing formal assignments. Students can submit early assignments or portions of them for peer comments or the instructor’s early feedback.
Mastery Learning Artifacts: Students collect learning artifacts that they have developed to demonstrate their mastery of the learning concepts based on the exemplary work and expectations provided by the instructor. Students submit these artifacts at the end of the term. In addition, students describe the areas of growth based on the instructor’s feedback (e.g., revisions).
Single-point Rubrics: This type of rubric includes criteria and fixed binary points (done = 1; not done =0). Comments can be added to either point to note the improvements to be made (in case it is not done) and to highlight the aspects that go beyond expectations. A benefit of this type of rubric is that it encourages mastery of content and keeps students’ focus away from the grade itself.
Feedback Logs: Students collect feedback and identify the areas in which they received more feedback, work out strategies to improve those areas, and reflect on the ways they are learning.
Feedback and Revisions: Students work on a series of drafts, and the instructor provides comments that students are expected to incorporate in the next revised draft. A grade can be added to the final draft.
Self-Assessment: Consider metacognitive activities that engage students in their own evaluation of learning and in dialogue with the instructor. Encourage students to develop their own standards and self-scrutiny practices.
Student Individual Plan: Students articulate goals and values for themselves about a class or a project. The instructor can help students by providing reflection guidelines and templates for developing their own goals.
Challenges to Implementation
While ungrading encourages a shift from a focus on grades to a focus on feedback and metacognitive activities for student learning and success, its implementation is not without challenges. The challenges range from local critiques to structural and how-tos.
A second challenge is the structural system of grades that prioritizes performance over learning. If the focus continues to be on how students perform in a class rather than on their learning, Kohn and Stommel argue that using an ungrading system that gets rid of grades will not be sufficient to push toward a system that creates learning spaces for critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition.
A third challenge involves the redefinition of the curriculum, innovative pedagogy, and how to assess learning. If the idea of content coverage and memorization of facts prevails, learning is treated more as information transfer –from the instructor or textbook to the students. In this transfer, students may not necessarily own their learning. Along with this is the way assessments are designed to emphasize judgment of students’ performance. If the teaching method does not allow room for real learning, ungrading will not make a difference. Thus, the convergence of changes to the curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment methods is of utmost importance.
A fourth challenge is more systemic and structural. Kohn argues that control, in many educational cases, prevents students’ choice and voice in their learning journeys. If ungrading is to have a way in educational contexts, instructors, and even administrators, will be invited to relinquish some of the control they exert over students’ performance to welcome students’ decisions related to their learning needs and interests.
A fifth challenge is a deep and widespread belief that grades reflect learning and action. There is a great concern that if grades are to be eliminated, students will not complete their assignments, need to do more work, or even skip classes. Also, instructors will have to “grade” more and be overburdened.
A final challenge is the over-reliance on rubrics that, according to Khon (foreword, p.xvii), is a system for “judging students…They offer umpteen different axes along which to make students think about their performance— often at the cost of becoming less immersed in what they’re doing.” It is not that ungrading does not provide guidance but it is important to avoid overcontrol evaluation practices. Instructors will need to analyze when and how rubrics help students focus on the learning process (and not solely on the points they get).
The book offered clear rationales, experiences, and strategies that instructors could consider if they feel they want to move away from the grade-focused system. In addition, as a designer, I have a better understanding and collection of resources to use during my consultations with faculty who might be looking into authentic and alternative means for assessment and grading.
Ungrading requires a reconceptualization of the curriculum, pedagogical, and assessment practices. If an alternative means of assessing student learning is to be implemented, the content, activities, and assignments need to open opportunities for students to engage in their own process of learning, reflection, and feedback. If we don’t level the playing field for students, no grading (or ungrading) system would be worth trying.
Grades are considered to be problematic because they contribute to widening the educational equity gaps. Ungrading, as a student-centered approach, can help mitigate some of the inequalities that students experience for access to successful learning. Since not all students come with the same knowledge and skills, ungrading, as a system that personalizes learning and assessments, will orient each student to focus on the feedback that they need.
Ungrading does not mean that instructors do not grade or that students have a free pass. Ungrading requires a deeper understanding of what learning means and how to design learning activities and contexts in which it can be evidenced. There is no universal magic approach to do it. If you are seriously considering moving to ungrading practices, start small, one step at a time.
Have you ventured into ungrading? If so, how did it go? What works and what does not? If not, what are your thoughts about ungrading? I’d like to invite you to share comments or experiences.
Getting students to read the syllabus is often a challenge in online courses. It is not uncommon for students to ask faculty questions that have answers easily found in the document. Even if students do read the syllabus, they may only skim through it. Ways to encourage a thorough reading include strategies like “easter egg” hunts where students find particular items to pass a syllabus quiz. This article will explore another method that uses a software application called Perusall, which is designed to encourage close reading.
Perusall is used at the Oregon State University Ecampus as a learning technology integration with Canvas, the learning management system. Using Perusall, students can highlight, make comments, and ask questions on a document. There is a grading interface with Canvas and a variety of settings, including reminders for students to complete the assignment. It offers a useful way for students to engage with the syllabus together, which can lead to closer reading than if they had done so individually.
To test this idea, a professor used this approach with a 400/500 class that involved multiple assignments in Perusall throughout the term. If the syllabus assignment proved useful in Perusall, then it would also serve as an introduction to the platform for students. Here are some examples of student engagement that resulted from this activity:
Requests for additional background material to check for prerequisite knowledge.
Interest in the website of the professor (linked to in the syllabus).
Shoutouts to the course teaching assistant.
Concerns about the prerequisites for the class, which were addressed by the professor specifically.
Questions about technology used in the course based on students’ previous experiences in other courses.
Gratitude for ending the course week on Mondays instead of Sundays.
Confirmation by a student that the textbook is available as an electronic copy at the library.
Inquiries into the length and other logistics of Zoom office hours.
Excitement expressed by a student about a focus paper requirement.
Queries about how grade numbers are rounded and types of quiz questions.
Exchanges between a TA and a student looking forward to further discussions in Perusall.
Clarifications about the different work expected for undergraduates and graduates.
Ideas about how to communicate as a class.
Questions about the details of major assignments.
Appreciation of opportunities to participate in frequent knowledge checks.
Thanks for the late assignment policy and statements about flexibility.
Advice about how to check assignment due dates.
Students’ comments and conversations helped to initiate a feeling of community in the course. Many logistical issues were clarified for students by providing and encouraging a forum for discussion. There were highlights and comments by students on seven of ten pages of the syllabus. The three pages that were not discussed were university required policies. There were no negative comments about using Perusall as a syllabus activity. So this seems like a good method to engage students at the beginning of a course to prepare them for success. It may be especially helpful for classes using Perusall in other assignments because it provides a way to practice using the application.
One of the principles upheld by the open pedagogy movement is that the role of the learner must be active and the tasks that they engage in must be meaningful. These are not new ideas by any stretch, but as we move toward a more open pedagogical environment, it becomes necessary to examine the types of assignments that we create and assign. How do these tasks contribute to efforts to democratize education and increase learner autonomy, engagement, and freedom? What makes an assignment open? To answer these questions, this post will explore the relationship between open pedagogy and open assignments.
While interest in the topic of open pedagogy has steadily gained steam in the roughly 50 years since its inception, definitions of and familiarity with the concept of today’s open pedagogy vary among educational practitioners. Some discussions focus on the expansion of the use of these resources. You might be hard-pressed to find an instructor who hasn’t at least reused open content (See 5R framework of Open Content) or encountered such materials as a student. Other conversations emphasize the remix and revise aspect of open content and pedagogical practices, and the number of faculty-created Open Educational Resources (OERs) intended to replace the traditional textbook is ever increasing. Still others have turned their attention to implementation of open pedagogical practices that put students in the role of content creators rather than passive beneficiaries of innovations in open content. In our efforts to create tasks that accomplish this shift in the role of the learner, we must first ask what the value of the task is for the student, peers, and the larger community, and what life will such a task have after its completion. To answer these questions, we can look to the non-disposable assignment (NDA).
Non-Disposable Assignments (NDAs)
To define the characteristics of this type of assignment, it is helpful to first define what we mean by “disposable” assignment. It is safe to say that we are all familiar with these types of assignments: typically they include one-off or busy work tasks designed to be filed away and forgotten as soon as completed and graded. In his article What is Open Pedagogy (2013), David Wiley described the disposable assignment in this way:
These are assignments that students complain about doing and faculty complain about grading. They’re assignments that add no value to the world – after a student spends three hours creating it, a teacher spends 30 minutes grading it, and then the student throws it away. Not only do these assignments add no value to the world, they actually suck value out of the world.
Online learning within the confines of a learning management system (LMS) is particularly ripe for these types of assignments. In fact, one could argue they are designed for this type of task. In an online course, instructors create and post the assignment, students complete it, instructors grade it, the course ends, student work is deleted, the course is rolled over, and the next crop of students begins the cycle again. The work is designed to be contained within the LMS for the duration of a course, not to be shared with a broader audience of students or colleagues.
As an alternative to the disposable assignment in favor of more meaningful tasks, Wiley coined the term Non-Disposable Assignment. The NDA (also referred to as a renewable assignment), in contrast to its binworthy counterpart, is an assignment that “adds value to the world.” Later definitions, no doubt influenced by the growing open pedagogy movement and the promotion of the use of OER materials, go further and hold that an NDA ought to produce a resource that is openly published so that “others can find, use, and if desired, repurpose or update the work,” (Jhangiani, 2015; Wiley, 2013; Wiley et al., 2017; Wiley & Hilton, 2018). Such assignments put the learner in the role of creator and impact or benefit an audience beyond the instructor and student. Because the premise of the NDA is that it can not only be shared widely, but also revised and reused without permission by both instructors and students, the content should be openly licensed. Considering the role of learners as authors of the content, they should have a say in determining the type of open license appropriate for their work.
In the article A Conceptual Framework for Non-Disposable Assignments: Inspiring Implementation, Innovation, and Research, Seraphine et al (2019)provide a set of principles NDAs must adhere to. The Five Principles are summarized as follows:
NDAs fundamentally involve information collaboration and exchange.
As forms of responsive and responsible pedagogy, NDAs involve communication throughout and opportunities for revision, creativity, modifying key terms and objectives, etc.
While NDAs might not necessarily involve communal assembly, the resulting product or practice must always be shared outside the teacher-student dyad, creating opportunities for communal access of the NDA as an information resource
NDAs produce learning through cooperative critique.
Because they are not exams or isolated writing assignments, NDAs involve innovation as a fundamental concept.
Benefits and Value of NDAs
Apart from their ability to reach a broad audience, NDAs increase student motivation, engagement and autonomy resulting in improved achievement of learning outcomes. (Ariely, Kamenica, & Prelec, 2008; Chalofsky & Krishna, 2009; Pink, 2011). While this claim may be at least in part anecdotal, it follows that when students know that their work may be used by peers, faculty, and colleagues across their field in the future, investment in the quality of their work increases. Non-disposable assignments and authentic assessments have the potential to add value in other areas by:
promoting community engagement.
interrogating and dismantling systems of oppression by centering experiences of historically marginalized groups.
providing opportunities for culturally rich content (inject identity, student influence over content).
cultivating information literacy skills.
increasing accessibility to educational resources.
helping students communicate in writing to a general audience.
offering opportunities to collaborate with peers around the world.
increasing self-regulated learning and autonomy.
Despite their numerous benefits, NDAs are not without challenges and risks. For example, some students may be resistant to the exposure and the vulnerability inherent in creating open content for broad use. In such cases, instructors must provide alternative assignments or options not to share. Because student-generated content requires substantial metacognitive skills, instructors must ensure that NDAs involve significant scaffolding at multiples stages in the learning process (Zimmerman, 1990; Zimmerman, 2002). Furthermore, the open nature of student-generated content presents a quality control challenge that instructors must anticipate and address by providing multiple opportunities for revision and peer review.
NDA Design and Students as Producers
Implementing assignments that have the potential for broad impact beyond the typical instructor-student dyad can seem daunting. After all, conceptualizing and creating tasks that effectively revise the role of student from a passive one to actual content creators is no small feat. However, it is important to remember that the scope can vary widely. Indeed a well-crafted discussion between two students might form the basis for a renewable assignment. Other examples may include experiential connections such as student-generated podcasts; the production of flyers, guidelines, or materials for local community organizations; or even collaboratively created and maintained global resources such as wikis like the Chemistry Library. Whatever the scope, NDAs can—and arguably should—be iterative allowing for innovation and adaptation to various contexts.
With the role of the student as producer in mind and an understanding of the potential pitfalls that an open assignment might present, faculty can then turn to the conventional principles of backward design to develop meaningful student learning experiences that add value for learners and their peers while also promoting community engagement.
Bringing Critical Language Awareness to Instructional Texts and to How You Evaluate Student Writing
Instructional designers spend a lot of time working with words – they’re the raw materials that instructors share with us in the development of their online courses – but it’s often unclear what liberties we should take with instructors’ writing, and, on a related note, how we should coach instructors to assess their students’ writing. If inclusivity and equity are central values in course design, how might that be reflected in the seemingly mundane act of copyediting instructional texts or in setting up an instructor’s rubric to include “standard” grammar as a criterion? When the instructional designer copy edits the instructor’s words, or the instructor assesses a student’s writing proficiency, what raciolinguistic dynamics does that enact? Critical Language Awareness gives us the insight that our “language conventions and language practices are invested with power relations and ideological processes” (Wendt and Apugo), so the work we do with instructors’ and students’ words should be understood in the context of those power relations. What follows is a letter addressed to instructors that I hope will spark conversation on these issues, in the hopes that all the participants in the course – those who design, facilitate, and inhabit the spaces created by these texts – can reach their goals while using their own voices.
How would you like me to approach copy edits and other confusions?
Let’s start first with the practical and (seemingly) neutral question of how I handle your instructional texts, as I will read all the course materials you share with me. A common agreement I reach with instructors is to let me correct any obvious typos, misspellings, and punctuation issues, but to require I check with you in all other cases. Sometimes, as a colleague of mine has shared, instructors will ask the instructional designer to leave typos untouched, because they want to model authenticity, vulnerability, and a focus on meaning over surface perfection. This can serve as an invitation to students to let go of the fear and shame associated with making mistakes – so I’d be glad to help you towards this goal, as well, provided your intended meaning is still clear. Keep in mind that Ecampus students have expressed concerns when they notice a pattern of spelling or grammatical errors in a course, citing the typos as evidence of lower-quality, less credible course materials or a lack of instructor presence (McAlvage and Racek). But if you consider the imperfections in your writing to be a feature rather than a bug, you should make that explicit to students; let them know in what ways it’s intended to serve as a model for their own writing or for their overall approach to your course. Typos aside, I will also ask about instructions that you find obvious (and that may be pretty clear to me, too), because I am trying to anticipate all the ways your instructions could be misunderstood by others. So if it seems that I am being a bit obtuse about what something you wrote means, that’s the reason! A related question is on tone – are you open to receiving my feedback in this area? Our instructional design team encourages you to use a welcoming tone; students turn away from instructors when a “punitive” or commanding tone is used in a syllabus by, for example, seeking their support less often (Ishiyama et al. qtd. in Roberts 47). If you agree, I can help you spot those areas that feel less welcoming. For my part, I will strive in my communications with you to adopt a collegial tone, but should you find that is not the case, please let me know.
Now that we’ve thought through some of the practical questions on how I’ll work with your words, I’d like to ask you to reflect more broadly on your relationship to your writing and language use. How did you learn to write in your field, and what experience would you like your students to have with your use of language in your course? What do you expect of your students’ writing, and is it something that your outcomes assess? As you think over your responses to these questions, let me share a bit about my relationship to language and writing and how it affects my work.
Who are you to correct me?
My father used to tell a joke about a guy touring a college campus who stops to ask a student, “Where’s the library at?” and is told in response, “You should never end a sentence with a preposition.” He then rephrases his question, “Where’s the library at, [ jerk ] ?” My father taught writing, after earning his PhD in English literature, and later wrote books, so I grew up believing a command of “good” written English was my genetic inheritance. But now I can see that my mastery of a particular language standard has mostly to do with my immersion in a socioeconomic group whose language practices are privileged through white supremacy. So while the joke shows that correcting other’s language can open you up to counterattack – Who are you to correct me? What makes you right and me wrong? – many will not be empowered to answer back. Nor does this language privilege typically operate on the level of overt interpersonal confrontation, as in the joke – it’s usually invisible – “a product or effect of assessment systems and structures, our [standard operating procedures] in classrooms and other places where language is judged, despite anyone’s intentions, that produce political, cultural, linguistic, and economic dominance for White people” (Inoue 7). Enforcing language standards is an oppressive practice, a way to gatekeep who can succeed and who cannot, and in the case of the joke, who is subject to judgment for the simple act of asking directions to the library.
The joke also gives us the insight that language standards are a self-replicating system of oppression, as each student who is coached to evaluate language in this way internalizes the standards and is then given license to impose them on others. As a result of my own immersion in and sense of “ownership” over standard English (Whiteness as Property), I brought into my instructional design practice a certain unexamined confidence about my ability to critique and correct others’ writing. I wanted to help instructors present instructional texts that were clearer, more succinct, error-free – more like the way I wanted the writing to sound than the way the instructor had written it. I had to stop and ask myself whether that was doing instructors a service or not. For example, in the case that a course shell was designated for a single instructor (and should rightfully showcase their voice), a colleague felt the edited text misrepresented the instructor to their students – there would be a disconnect between the “corrected” writing in the static course shell versus the writing that would appear once the term got underway. My corrections were also potentially an erasure of the instructor’s identity and the imposition of a certain language standard that wasn’t desired.
Where do you see yourself, if at all, in my approaches to correcting others’ writing? And what role would you play in the linguistic power struggle set up by my father’s joke? Are you the guy who asks for directions, the college student who corrects him, a bystander, or perhaps a mediator of some sort? I hope these anecdotes have helped you to reflect on your own positionality and how that shapes your approach to your students’ writing, and, specifically, to its evaluation.
How will you evaluate and respond to your students’ writing?
Before you answer, tell me, does your course devote time to teaching students to write according to a particular standard? Are there specific lectures, learning materials, or learning activities that scaffold how to write in this way? No? Putting aside the issue of how you’ll assess students’ writing given the raciolinguistic considerations, we generally don’t assess students’ skills in areas that aren’t part of the course itself, and we are compelled to align our assessments to show mastery of the stated outcomes of the course (What is alignment within a Quality Matters framework?). If written expression doesn’t appear in your outcomes, should you penalize students when surface features of their writing don’t match your understanding of what is standard?
Another consideration when you assess students’ writing is your own mastery of academic and dominant language standards. Respectfully, I have observed quite a few assignments in which the very instructions exhorting students to polish their writing and produce grammatical, error-free texts themselves contain spelling and grammar errors. I have even seen a grading rubric that spelled grammar as “grammer”! So, I would invite you to think about your own writing and whether you feel comfortable determining your students’ mastery of these language standards. If you do find your approach reflects a perfect or nearly perfect achievement of standard writing, how did you come about that position, and is it legitimate to wield your knowledge of dominant language practices in the way you are planning?
Who is served by your attention to students’ writing, and who is disadvantaged?
You might very well respond that college students and professionals need to write using the dominant standard as a practical necessity, since they will be judged if they do not, and their life prospects will be impacted (in much the way you and your course may be judged if students find a pattern of typos or grammatical idiosyncrasies). This may be true, but we must acknowledge how it puts “the onus on language-minoritized students to mimic the white speaking subject.” Where would you like to focus your attention? On compelling your students to meet a standard, when achievement of that standard will not wholly shield them from discrimination, or on compelling yourself to “imagine and enact alternative, more inclusive realities” (Flores and Rosa 155, 168)?
Rather than positioning yourself as the students’ judge, you might instead be their supporter, connecting them to resources like a writing center that will help them produce more polished writing. You can promote these services in your syllabus, announcements, or, for example, directly alongside an assignment’s grading criteria:
Your final draft should show evidence of having been edited and revised for clarity and organization. Reach out to the Writing Center for an appointment if you would like their feedback on global aspects of your writing or would like coaching on specific areas of grammar and punctuation. If you are a multilingual writer, the center offers Multilingual Support.
Keep in mind that, depending on the approach of the writing center, your students may end up being coached to conform their writing to the dominant standard. If you’ve decided to forgo judging students’ writing on the basis of its surface conformity to these standards, you might make it clear through a rubric which outcome-related knowledge and skills you will instead evaluate for evidence of learning. I acknowledge this is hard work to do, hard work to let go of language standards you may have invested a great deal of time in mastering, and which feel important to your discipline. But it is possible, as I’ve seen in the approach taken by OSU’s gateway English Composition course, WR 121, in which students achieve outcomes related very specifically to writing, while the focus of evaluation is primarily on the time and labor invested in their writing process, rather than on the perfection of their final product.
Turning back towards the work I do with your course, I am challenged by the same raciolinguistic considerations, so, to conclude, I would like to remind both you and me that writing and proofing services are something I can provide – but it’s not required that you make use of them in your course development. In the same way that you probably shouldn’t assess students’ writing if it’s not a part of the stated course learning outcomes, I also shouldn’t attempt to shape the writing and language in your course without your express permission, because this is not a part of my unit’s guiding standards for course design, the Ecampus Essentials and Exemplaries. And, because more broadly, when we focus on the ideal of a standard English, we perpetuate racial hierarchies. You are entitled to your own voice, form of expression, and approaches toward writing (and you might consider how your students have this right, as well).
Thanks for reading this! I hope this has given you an opportunity to reflect critically on some of the language practices that so many of us in higher ed engage in. I look forward to hearing your reactions and coming up with an approach that meets your pedagogical goals while also being concordant with your values.
I have raised considerations in this post about how, and if at all, you should assess your students’ writing, without doing much to ideate alternatives, so I’d like to share a few resources. To learn more about how you can create an equitable environment for culturally and linguistically diverse students, read my colleague Nadia Jaramillo’s post, Dimensions for Culturally Responsive Learning Design. For a compelling take on alternatives to grading writing based on a white supremacist standard, which informs the approach of WR 121, read Asao Inoue’s book Labor-Based Grading Contracts. For a quicker read, I also recommend you review the three main approaches to grading the writing of multilingual writers – each with unique benefits and drawbacks – which might help you to clarify your current practice and to be more intentional in the future. Finally, if you, like me, are working to undo many of the lessons you’ve learned and absorbed about dominant writing practices, you might also be interested to read about a related concept – how perfectionism, seemingly a race-neutral value that drives the pursuit of excellence, is instead a feature of white supremacy.
Ashlee M. C. Foster, MSEd | Instructional Design Specialist | Oregon State University Ecampus
Whether a pedagogical approach is affirmed by research and/or practical evidence intentional design and effective deployment of pedagogical strategies are essential. We will begin with an exploration of evidence-based design components, which build upon the characteristics of Project-based Learning (PjBL), as discussed in Project-based Learning (Part 1) – Architecture for Authenticity.
Begin with the end in mind. Take a moment to establish the outcomes, goals, and real-world connections that will underpin the project. Consider using the following elements as your guide.
Identify the Course Learning Outcomes (CLO) students should be able to demonstrate upon successful completion of the course
Identify the intended project outcomes and the alignment to the course learning outcomes
Identify skills students will practice and master while engaging with the project
Articulate the purpose of the project within the contexts of the course, academic program, field of study, and profession
Articulate authentic connections between the project, across academic disciplines, and professional practice
Connect the project to an authentic purpose that extends beyond the confines of the course
Course Design Elements
Next, reflect on how you can design your project to incorporate most of the following PjBL core design elements.
Initially, consider creating an opportunity for students to self-select a challenge. This can be anything from finding a solution to existing problems, a remedy for historical barriers, answers for disciplinary relevant questions, or asking new questions. Whatever the challenge may be, a best practice is to contextualize it within a real-world context. Affirm student voice and choice by explicitly sharing how the project connects to the academic discipline, professional field of practice, and real issues by providing feedback. Lastly, help students to see how they can connect the challenge to themselves.
Development of an artifact that is relevant, timely, impactful, and piques personal interest help to bridge the concepts to the real world. To effectively create an artifact that produces a public good, students should engage in an iterative process that includes: planning, prototyping, seeking and applying feedback from diverse stakeholders (i.e., public, target audience, instructor, peers, Subject Matter Expert), personal reflection, and revisions. To determine whether your project is authentic, consider whether the product(s) create a lasting and meaningful impact beyond the classroom. Examples of authentic products could include a business plan to innovate an existing accessibility tool, a podcast to share about (DEI) Diversity Equity and Inclusion practices or to generate oral histories (i.e., audio interviews) of underrepresented populations.
Incorporation of formal and informal opportunities for students to question, research, gather information, conduct analysis, apply new knowledge, generate additional inquiries, and highlight evidence is key to the design. These opportunities should be integrated into the architecture of the project, but the actions should be student-driven. This strategy will help promote knowledge construction.
Create varied opportunities for students to make their own choices, both collectively and individually. Student-driven choice can extend to such elements as question development, selection of public a product, identification of target audiences, establishment of collaboration protocols, application of knowledge and feedback, and prototype revision methods. Doing so situates students as the diver of their own learning process and creates space for students to hone their metacognitive skills (i.e., self-regulation, monitoring, and self-directed learning).
Due to its roots in constructivism, reflection is commonly used in PjBL. Reflection is used as a strategy to foster deep learning, personal ownership of learning, assimilation of new knowledge, integration of lived experiences, effective inquiry, assessment of quality, and the navigation of challenges. While serving as a guide on the side, consider integrating activities to foster ongoing reflection of critical questions. Such questions may include:
What is known?
What needs to be known?
What evidence exists?
Will the product have an impact on the world outside of the course? How?
Do I/we bring any personal biases to the project which impacts the design of the product?
Does the design of the product represent the diversity of the target audiences?
What works or does not work? Why?
How can the product be improved? What is the rationale behind the recommended changes?
How can the quality and efficacy of the product be tested?
Does the project extend on what the academic domain and professional field have established? If not, how can the project be modified to contribute additional knowledge or insights?
How does the project connect to my life, my lived experiences, and that of others?
How will the project help me to develop my professional skills?
An example of a PjBL reflective activity is a design journal. Design journals can include text, visualization, and media elements. Each entry can be structured to cover the following: knowledge gained, ideas, sustained inquiry (i.e., questions, additional research needed), the rationale for product changes, and next steps.
Critique & Revision
Integrating activities, such as a design journal, provides students the opportunity to actively critique, revise, and obtain feedback throughout the duration of the project. There is a multitude of scenarios that may call for critique. Students may find their initial idea to be too broad or specific. The original line of inquiry may have been faulty. One may find the product does not generate the intended public good or service. Therefore, revising the goal and creating a new product may be necessary. Alternatively, situations can arise where students learn of a product’s unintended harm, so a new prototype may need to be created. The goal is to create a course climate that is psychologically safe enough to encourage iteration.
Please note that these best practices and design elements offer a framework. Your course is unique. There is an unending list of potential factors that can impact the design of your course and project (e.g., accreditation, professional competencies, academic rigor, program outcomes, administrative expectations, etc.).
Keep in mind that you do not have to incorporate everything and the kitchen sink. Take what you can from existing literature, practitioner testimonials, industry needs, professional practices, real-world examples, and lessons learned from your own lived experiences.
Begin with small additions to your course, assess the impact of those changes, and revise as you deem appropriate.
Remember that nothing will be perfect, and there are always opportunities to improve. Design with the best fit in mind!
You are cordially invited to revisit the Ecampus Course Development and Training Blog for Project-based Learning (Part 3) – Practical Preparation. In the final installment of this series, we will explore additional project-based learning activities, identify opportunities to integrate technology and examine actual project samples.
Over the last couple of terms, I joined a series of reading sessions with instructional design colleagues to read Alfie Khon and Susan Blum’s book Ungrading. Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) and discuss the practices and implications of this approach to reconceptualize assessment design and the place of grading. This two-part blog aims to capture the takeaways from those discussions including the main concepts, approaches, types of activities, implications, and challenges of adopting ungrading practices. This first part of the blog covers a brief overview of the concept of ungrading, its major benefits, and design considerations; and the second blog will include a summary of the types of ungrading practices and challenges to implementation ––all derived from the authors’ extensive arguments and examples. For a detailed review and summary of the book chapters, you can also check the blog Assessment Design: Ideas from Ungrading Book.
Overview of Ungrading
The concept of ungrading is sparking widespread interest only recently even though educators have been studying and using ungrading approaches for quite some time. The foundational premise of ungrading is to move away from a focus on grades that judge, rank, sort, and quantify student learning to adopting an approach that focuses on using alternative and authentic means to assess learning such as self-evaluation, reflection, student-generated questions, peer feedback, to name a few. Along with that premise is the questionable ranking that comes with grading which makes students compete with one another in an artificial way. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) sees ungrading as a conversational method that facilitates the communication between instructors and students about how students perform in the class. If, as underscored by the authors, grading and the fact of assigning point values to students’ performance makes more harm than good, then, why use grading? Considering that grading is rooted in our educational systems, many of these authors conclude that it becomes inevitable to grade student learning as it is currently done today.
Several scholars and instructors consider grading to be problematic. First, grades are not good indicators of learning. Blum (chapter 3) argues that grading assumes all students are the same, does not provide accurate information about student learning gains, is consequential, adds fear and avoidance of negative consequences, and is arbitrary and instructor-led. Second, the overemphasis on grades can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation, students’ excessive anxiety, and the complexity of quantifying how learning happens (Stommel, chapter 1). Third, it can also decrease interest in learning, students may feel inclined for easier tasks, and critical thinking is lacking (Alfie Khon, foreword). Fourth, grading makes students be fixated more on their grades than on the process of learning, leading them to believe that grades are all that matters in school (Khon & Blum; Talbert, 2020). And finally, too much focus on grades can be detrimental to students’ mental health (Eyler, 2022). However, ungrading does not mean dismissing grades altogether. Instead, Stommel proposes creating a learning space that fosters critical thinking, reflection, and metacognition– all skills that are valuable for 21st-century education. Likewise, Alfie Khon contends that grading can be participatory since it does not require a unilateral decision, and thus, students can also propose their own grades (with the instructor’s reservation to accept them).
“Ultimately ungrading— eliminating the control-based function of grades, with all its attendant harms— means that, as long as the noxious institutional requirement to submit a final grade remains in place, whatever grade each student decides on is the grade we turn in, period.”
(Khon, 2020, p. xv)
While ungrading may be an innovative approach to assessments, it should be thought of carefully and adopted with a clear objective. Ungrading, as pointed out by Katopodis and Davison (chapter 7), needs a structure to be effective, allowing students to envision themselves as authoritative, creative, confident, and active, thus achieving a high impactful goal. As ungrading requires instructors to evolve in their approach to assessment, it does too for students who are expected to engage in a process of self-evaluation, self-assessment, and reflection. This requires engagement in metacognitive practices that many students might not be ready to embark on or don’t know how to do it. In addition, while ungrading is believed to be student-centered, it can deepen equity gaps if guideposts are entirely removed. Sorensen-Unruh (chapter 9) believes that ungrading is a matter of social justice –going beyond the expected student agency and aiming at having students exercise their voice and participate in assessment decisions.
As a whole, Blum (introduction chapter) provokes us all to rethink the nature of grading considering that students’ learning conditions vary, with many enduring inequities at many levels. Blum wants us to keep focused on how “varying assessment and feedback methods contribute to the real learning of real individual learners, rather than imposing an arbitrary method of sorting.” (p. xxii); all for the sake of healthy learning.
These are a few key points about the arguments for ungrading. While this assessment practice is taking force in higher education, there are also many critics and skeptics. The purpose of this blog is not to enter into the discussion and controversy of ungrading, but to share a few perspectives and takeaways after an intense and well-structured book club discussion. In the following section of this part-one blog, I will share considerations for designing for ungrading.
Assessment Design Considerations
The educational system requires all instructors to submit grades at the end of every term. There is dissatisfaction with the current grading practices among many instructors and students as explained at large in the book. Here is where the ungrading movement takes force to provide alternative ways to account for evidence of student learning. Riesbeck (chapter 8) argued that by implementing ungrading practices, students can focus more on the content and feedback than on the grades. The use of critique-driven learning allows for more easily quantifiable efforts, progress, and accomplishment. Each ungrading consideration is dependent on a myriad of factors that may or not apply to each instructor’s context. The bottom line in ungrading is re-envisioning the teaching and learning process, engaging students in active learning, and active self-assessment through feedback. The following are design considerations:
Decenter grading and communicate (un)grading practices
Instructors can encourage students to focus on the process of learning, instead of talking about grades, Blums says, we should talk about the purpose and goals of the activities with students. These conversations can help develop relationships with students to encourage them to own their learning and have a voice in that process. Decentering grades also involves having an ongoing conversation with students, colleagues, and administrators about assessment decisions. Although each instructor exercises their academic freedom, it is also essential to share assessment practices that work and possible changes to implement. In these conversations, it is also important to carefully use language that conveys a clear understanding of the concept and practice of ungrading to avoid confusion, anxiety, misunderstandings, and reactions that prevent its implementation. Having these kinds of conversations can help shift the mind from a grade-focused to a learning-focused approach. A key element in these conversations is to ensure that the pedagogical reason behind the adoption of ungrading practices is not only clear but well understood (and this may take time).
Set a structure for ungrading
As with other elements of exemplary course design considerations, the structure of assessment practices is necessary. Adding a structure for ungrading assignments gives students a clear objective, steps, and flow that allow them to be consistent and accountable to their own learning goals and strategies.
Reflect on pedagogical and assessment practices
Instructors are invited to examine more in-depth their grading policies, why they grade in the way they do, what they are grading, and how they grade. In many cases, the path to ungrading is a response to dissatisfaction with grading policies. Aaron Blackwelder (chapter 2) says that, over time, he turned into a gatekeeper; he lost focus and was more interested in meeting institutional and “rigor” requirements than building relationships with students. His students had turned into competitive grade seekers. He questioned what a grade really suggests and posits that grades fail to communicate learning. The fact that grading allocates a specific number or letter that can bring some negative feelings to students, can also negatively affect the potential for learning. Sackstein (chapter 4) calls for a change in mindset to identify the way in which learning can be communicated and understood beyond the traditional use of numbers and letters. While Blum also argues for assessing the entire learning experience (with portfolios, for example), Sacksatein suggests considering changes in the language of grading which can provide students with an opportunity to shift the way they feel and think about their own learning.
Teach students to view mistakes as a necessary step in the learning process
Instructors are invited to reflect on how traditional grading practices are punitive, dehumanizing, and demotivating. Gibbs (chapter 6) points out that a system that punishes students for making mistakes reinforces the notion that all learning is flawless and therefore mistakes need to be avoided. Ungrading, on the other hand, aims to implement and cement the idea that learning is a process that needs constant feedback for that learning to be consolidated. Therefore, students need to be given opportunities not only to learn from their mistakes but to act on them in an interactive way. This requires instructors to plan for assessments that include steps for review (e.g., self, peer) to help the student build their skills, and knowledge over time.
Care for students and their learning
Instructors are also invited to demonstrate more explicitly that they care and validate students’ work. Further, Gibbs (Chapter 6) argues that her teaching philosophy is better summarized by the word “freedom”, the freedom that learners have to learn and grow at their rhythm and the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. The role of the instructor is then to be supportive in that process through feedback and empathy. Ungrading, as it is overall discussed throughout the book, does not mean that there are no assessments or grading at all. On the contrary, the assessments should focus on helping students build their knowledge and understanding in less stressful ways, allowing students to build learning habits, develop creativity, become better communicators, and connect to their lived experiences and contexts. Caring for students also involves valuing their identity as learners and what they bring into the learning environment.
Be aware that ungrading can increase student anxiety and uncertainty
It is critical that instructors who are considering ungrading be cognizant that it involves a high level of anxiety and uncertainty on the part of students. Let’s recognize that students are so used and “conditioned” to grades that they will find it confusing not to have a grade associated with each assignment in the course. Many students consider being successful if they score a perfect grade which can be overwhelming and obscure the value of learning. Instructors who adopt ungrading should explain why and how ungrading will be done in certain classes. This will add transparency to the expectations and assumptions that instructors have about students.
Implement student voice and choice supported with personalized feedback
Instructors can help students take ownership of their learning through hands-on, real-life activities that allow students to use the content they are learning in projects of their interest, conduct research, and solve problems. Students can choose their topics and projects and the instructors can guide them to narrow topics and ensure the projects are feasible within the course timeframe. Consider feedback as a formative assessment approach that enables students to make choices about their learning strategies and needs to improve their learning tasks. Sackstein (chapter 4 ) suggests teaching students to collect feedback and identify the strategies that work for different kinds of assignment revisions. This way, students can develop better strategies that move them from lower-thinking to higher-thinking processes.
Since ungrading promotes the use of student-self assessment and reflection practices, it implies that instructors will need to personalize and tailor feedback to meet students where they are. In addition, instructors can consider setting a culture of feedback (Gibbs, chapter 6) where instructors teach students to use feedback to improve their work, provide peer feedback effectively, and see the value of learning from their mistakes.
Promote peer support
Authors of several chapters in this book have posited that students are more likely to give each other better feedback in the absence of grades. This kind of feedback can allow students to help each other, learn from one another, expand their awareness of their own understanding, and develop skills for life. Peer support will also help students build their confidence and autonomy to learn from each other.
One critical aspect of assessment is trust –trust that students do the work they are expected to do by themselves. Instructors have legitimate reasons to express their concerns and create course policies about academic integrity that lead them to adopt plagiarism systems and surveillance tools to monitor and proctor students’ work. In adopting ungrading, trust is fundamental to change the way learning and performances are assessed. It involves helping students think differently about what it means to learn. Instructors can help students evolve in their approach to learning to move away from grades to focus on their learning by including in assessments strategies for building capacity for metacognition, confidence in their skills, life-long learning goals, and owning their learning.
Ungrading does not mean instructors don’t grade and students don’t receive grades on their work. Ungrading, as posited by the authors in the Ungrading book, is a mindset to approach student learning differently. In the second part of this blog, I will share the types of ungrading practices, implications, and challenges as presented in the book.