Examining The Points-Based Grading System

Recently, I came across this article on point-based grading systems. The ideas in the article were nothing new, and I’m sure you’ve heard most (if not all) before. This includes things like:

  • students expect and are used to points
  • points are not entirely objective
  • points are an extrinsic form of motivation; the goal is to get more points

My take away from this article is that while points-based grading systems have their place, they emphasize the earning of points and de-emphasize learning. Recently, I shared a post where one of my former students wrote about their experiences with my own point-based system. While the author of the points-based post refers to a previous article on how to get students to think more about learning, and less about grades, the ideas fell flat with me.

The truth is, grades matter and they particularly matter at the undergraduate level where students are often thinking ahead to advanced degrees. Students don’t just expect points anymore. They have grown up in a system where they are sort and ranked and tested to death. They have grown up in a high stakes system that emphasizes grades over learning.

Even at the Masters level, I have found that students’ rationale for why they are there is first and foremost a pay increase (totally understandable). At least, that’s what the majority of them have said on the first day of class when asked to share what motivated them to come back to school. Yes, some people put learning first. Most put salary first, and most don’t mention learning.

How Might We Change This?

I think getting students to be more interested in learning and less interested in grades is difficult – especially in higher education. Doing so requires a cultural shift both in how we do things and how students perceive the course and engage with it and each other. Grades are high stakes. And, even if they are not, students are so used to seeing them as such that it’s a common mindset to hold.

If we want students to put learning first, then we have to accept that learning comes with risks. We learn, in part, through trial and error. We learn by taking chances. We learn by struggling. We learn by failing. And none of that is commonly valued in traditional grading systems. The norm is you have one chance to show what you understand. If you take a risk, and you bomb out, you will pay the price.

That’s not what I want.

The Place for Competency Based Education

This is where I think competency based education (CBE) has a chance to play an important role – at least at the graduate level. However, it requires doing some things differently. I could run a CBE course and tell students that an A is earned by acquiring so many competencies, but I don’t think that’s what we want to do. Instead, what I would envision is this:

  • students enter a program and are given a road map for completion.
  • the road map takes stand alone courses and breaks them down into competencies
  • students need to acquire the knowledge relevant to each competency and then demonstrate a particular level of mastery to get it checked off as being met
  • students leave not with a grade (although we could assign them if need be) but a list of competencies they have obtained and the mastery level they obtained each with

Something like this would work well in an online program where teaching and learning could be more fluid if traditional face-to-face meeting times were scrapped. Instructors create content, share readings, and set up ways for students to interact and share work. This could be done through an LMS, a facebook group, twitter chats, and so on.

Getting Started

Doing this kind of work requires a program to let go of traditional semester systems. It means that we have to let go of traditional views on teaching loads in higher education. It does not mean that we overload instructors with students and work to accomplish this idea.

For the last 12 years, I have taught a 2/2 load. While numbers of students within a class vary, it’s reasonable to assume an average of 25. That’s 50 students a semester or 100 a year give or take. If I worked only in the type of program I am laying out here, then let’s say I could be responsible for up to 100 students at a time.

Initially this would be a lot of work. I would have to get everything set up. However, once I did then the work load would decrease to something reasonable. My focus would shift to making sure content was updated and relevant, interacting with students, and providing assistance (and scoring) competencies.

So, in the end, what I’m saying is I don’t think we even need points-based grading systems. Certainly not for everyone. If we want students to focus on learning then we have to make their experiences about learning. In a couple of weeks I will lay out my thoughts on how we can set up a structure to do just that.

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The Problems with Competencies

I’ve been reading College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher EducationBecause I am in the middle of reading it, this post isn’t meant to be a review of the book (which I am thoroughly enjoying). The point of this post is to bring us back around to discussing issues with competency based education in higher education.

In general, I’m a big fan of seeing what we can do with competency based education (CBE) in higher ed. But, as you can see, I’ve titled this post about the problems with CBE. This isn’t because I truly think CBE is problematic. Instead, I think CBE can cause problems within the existing structures of higher ed (hence the book title – College Disrupted), and I think that while we should recognize these issues we should not let them be reasons to not move forward and see what CBE has to offer.

The Summer Course

I got to this post because I was thinking about a summer course that someone at my new institution will have to teach every year. I have a new job, and while this summer course is not in my contract for me to teach it is a required course that someone has to teach every year. I am a very appropriate person to teach it. FYI: summer pay for teaching a course is not that great, and it’s not exactly on my agenda of things I want to do. Ever.

But, if we assume that it has to be taught, what are the options?

  • someone else can teach it
  • maybe the university would allow an advanced graduate student to teach it
  • i could take the money in exchange for turning it into a CBE course

Back Up a Minute

Initially, I was wondering if we could take the entire masters program – of which this course is a part of – and make it CBE. But I thought that might be a bit much, and it presented a whole host of problems. The biggest one I saw right away was:

  • how do we handle teaching loads in a CBE situation?

One obvious way to handle it is to just keep courses on their normal timeline but make them competency based. I’ve done this before, and it’s not a big deal. But given that the masters program is online, it seems like we could really open this baby up and let her rip. Take down timelines. Or maybe set up some place holders like the degree needs to be completed (and all competencies mastered) within so many years of starting the program. But when you do that you cycle back to the question of teaching loads. The university has created a structure of what teaching looks like. CBE has the potential to really not work well within that structure.

Go Back to that Summer Course

I returned to just the idea of the summer course because it was a manageable thing that I could easily see getting accomplished. I thought….what if I could convince whoever is in charge to let me take the course (which is fully online) and run it as a CBE? The course could still launch in the summer if they needed it to, but we could give students a year to complete the competencies.

As far as my teaching load goes, well, this course would never count as part of my load because it’s supposed to be a summer course that I would be paid extra for. So let’s let it run for one full year. Give me the money you would give me had I taught it in the summer. I’ll stay on top of the students and check off their competencies earned as they complete them. I’ll organize the whole thing, and we can use it as a test run.

I have no idea if I can make this idea fly. But, for me, it solves the problem of who wants to teach the summer course AND it allows me to explore CBE.

Don’t Let the Problems Be Problems

I once had a phone conversation with a group of people who were very interested in developing online education courses. They wanted my input, and they hoped I would be a part of it. Now, I’m not saying I was full of brilliant ideas. But what did happen is I was met with reason after reason for why my ideas were too difficult to implement. Not that they were bad – just hard to do.

When I was thinking of CBE I was brought back to the realization of how universities structure teaching loads. That can make thinking about how to implement CBE challenging unless you confine it to a typical semester box. But, if you don’t want to do that, then don’t. Acknowledge the challenge and then work through it, work around it, but don’t let it be your brick wall.

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Reimagine Education

I want to put something on your radar in case you don’t know about it: The Reimagine Education conference. I’m not sure how I found out about it, but I was excited to learn that this is a group that supports innovation and change in education (particularly with technology). I’ve never been before (I’m hoping to go this year), but the conference serves as a, “global competition designed to identify the most innovative, novel approaches to higher education.” You can see last year’s award winners here, and I would note that while they might emphasize higher education, some of these ideas can be applied with a variety of ages.

I was excited to learn that my good friends at Edorble was recognized with a Silver award from the conference in 2016. Their work is a great example of something that is not just limited to higher education and can be used in a variety of contexts. Make sure you check them out as well as the other winners.

After learning about Reimagine Education, I decided to see if I could convince them to let me be a judge. Somehow, I managed to get them to agree to this. Did you know you can apply to be a judge? The nice thing about being a judge is that you are not required to attend the conference. You judge about 20 projects from the comfort of your own home (or your favorite bar – I’m not judging). They expect that each project will take you about 30 minutes to judge which comes out to about 10 hours of work. They give you a half-price ticket for being a judge.

Now, I’ve never been to the conference before, but I do hope to go (December 4th-5th in Philadelphia). I got a little bit of sticker shock when I first looked at the prices (even with a 50% discount). But, let’s get real. There are several options for how you can attend the conference. The full experience – which looks like it includes every meal under the sun – costs 900.00 (full price). I spend around 2000.00 on a conference give or take a bit for everything. So, when I framed it like that I realized that even the full price ticket with all the bells and whistles (you can get tickets for less than that) was really on par with my normal conference going budget. So a 50% off ticket for being a judge?

More than do-able. I’m so in.

I am also so excited. As a judge, I’ll get to see the innovative work people are doing. At the conference, I’ll get to see some of this in person (I assume) and meet a whole new range of people. I’m expecting to see a range of ideas that can inform and transform how we teach in higher education.

Who’s with me?

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Teacher as Designer

I’ve just finished reading Reality is Broken: Why Games Matter and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. I was inspired to read it to further my thinking on gamification in teaching. It’s not about gamification in education specifically – although there is a bit on it in the book – but rather what games get right that hook people, bring them together as a community, and get them to work on problems that range from the simple to the complex. McGonigal examines how we can harness the characteristics found in games and use them in our lives.

At one point, McGonigal discusses how video games often have stories. While we don’t need stories to enjoy video games, those that have them can help us experience a sense of power. She goes on to explain:

It’s the power to act with meaning: to do something that matters in a bigger picture. The story is the bigger picture; the player’s actions are what matters. As Polack explains, “Story sets the stage for meaning. It frames the player’s actions. We, as designers, are not telling, we’re not showing, we’re informing the doing – the actions the players engage in and the feats they undergo.”

Immediately I found myself thinking that as teachers we are also designers. We set up and design the experiences students can go through. What we choose for our course to look like – through readings, assignments, and in-class activities – provides a frame for the students’ actions. We definitely inform the doing or the potential for doing. I say potential because students can opt out of anything or minimize their actions. Students always have a say in how they will respond within the framework of the design we created.

The quote also reminded me about the role story can play in our courses. I talked awhile ago about creating a story line for my syllabus. Granted my story doesn’t have any exciting plot twists, but it does move my students through big ideas in the course. My courses always had bid ideas in them. Each week there would be a big idea, usually with a question we would focus on within that idea, that would set the tone for the week. But I have found that writing out my ideas in a story format forces me to think about their interconnectedness. I can’t just dash off a list of big ideas, order them, and go from there. Writing out the story forces me to look deeper into what I really want students to experience.

Once the story has been created, I then have to think how I want my students to move through it. What opportunities do I want to offer them that allow them to deepen their understandings or question pre-existing beliefs? To me, this is very different from planning. This is designing, and there is a distinct different.

Planning vs. Designing

Traditionally, planning (either a syllabus or a lesson) is centered around a set of learning objectives. Games certainly have objectives too. There could be one grand objective – which, when you finish it, means the game is over – and many smaller objectives that help you to achieve the grand one. But these objectives are problems that must be solved. Learning objectives presented in classroom instruction are given as what you can expect to learn when you have completed the course or a given aspect of it. They are typically not presented as a set of complex challenges and problems that you must solve.

So when we plan in the traditional sense we back up to what we want students to learn and go out from there. Telling a story, creating complex problems, etc…are not even necessarily part of the picture. As the instructor, all I have to do is think about what I want you to learn and what tasks should help get you there. And while I have technically designed something for you to experience, I don’t see designing the same way I see planning.

Planning, to me, follows a rigid formula with objectives and outcomes. I see designing as setting the stage for students to engage in challenges intended to solve a complex problem – or at least getting them closer to solving it.

What if we stopped asking ourselves, and each other, what our objectives were for a course or given time frame? Instead, what if we started asking what the complex problem was we hoped students would solve or contribute to as a result of the course? How might our instruction, our design of a class, and students’ experiences look? I think it’s worth exploring.

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Reading Without Walls

Before we launch into today’s post, I’m sure you noticed I changed the name of the blog. Why did I do that?

Two reasons:

  1. I’m not bored anymore. I have a new job with lots of new exciting opportunities that have me revved up.
  2. I first got the name Teaching Academia in trying to narrow down what my YouTube channel should do. That channel has been all over the map, but I finally got a grip. I’ll be focusing on specific teaching tips you can use in academia. Think of the blog as extended discussions on teaching and learning which will include greater elaborations on how to teach than the videos.

The nice thing now is that the blog and the YouTube channel are in sync with each other. Each month I’ll be back to posting a review of new material from the channel (last Thursday of each month starting in May)

And now…on with the post!

Reading Without Walls

The other day I heard about this fabulous initiative from Gene Yang called Reading Without Walls. The idea is to get people reading more diverse books, and you can see the guidelines here. Although this is officially happening in the month of April, I thought I would take the idea and infuse it into my online classes for both fall and spring of the next academic year.

What’s really great about the rules of the challenge is that they could be implemented into any class. You could use them as is or tweak them as needed. For example, the rule, “Read a book about a topic you don’t know much about,” could be modified so that students are reading a book in an area they have minimal knowledge about but that fits into whatever subject area your class is on.

I’m teaching a class on adolescent literacy, so I’m asking the students to select young adult literature (any genre and any format) that adhere to Yang’s guidelines. I’m still working on the directions. However, there will be lots of options embedded within it so that students can dive into it deeply or just dip their toe in the water. My goal with this assignment is to use it:

  • use it as an opportunity to work in young adult literature; i previously did not have this as part of the course. i wanted to, but one course can only do so much; i like that i can connect the reading of young adult literature to a wider purpose
  • help expand students’ understandings of and experiences with YA literature. think of the opportunities that exist here in terms of students getting to select their own books and deepen their knowledge of your subject area; that’s too amazing to pass up!

Of course you might be wondering how I will know if people read the books. I simply said that students have to provide evidence that they read them, and they can do that however they wish.

Going Even Further with Booksnaps!

Earlier in the week I had started thinking about incorporating booksnaps into my class. I’m relatively new to the whole #booksnap thing, but as I understand it the basic idea is that you identify meaningful quotes from your text. You take a picture of these and put them into snapchat. That’s the gist of it.  The following video will show you a bit more:

What I chose to do was make this essentially a bonus aspect of the Reading Without Walls assignment. Although, technically, I could expand it out and allow students to do booksnaps with anything. For now, students create the booksnap in snapchat, share it on twitter (#booksnaps) and the compile a list of their booksnaps into Storify which they give to me at the end of the semester. I’m not requiring booksnaps because I know not everyone wants to use snapchat and twitter. It is an interesting way though to pick up extra points as a student.

And that’s it!

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Documenting Customizable Pathways

Last week, I wrote about the concept of customizable pathway design in online learning. I ended the post by asking three questions:

  • How do we document this?
  • How do I know that students did what they said they would do?
  • How do I know what students are learning or need more help with?

Basically, while I was in love with the concept I was trying to get my head around how to enact it. Thankfully, Matt Crosslin over at EduGeek beat me to it and did some of the hard thinking for me! Matt wrote a great post on Creating a Self-Mapped Learning Pathway that offers some very specific ideas for how students can document what they decided to do within your course. Go read it and then come back here as I’m going to riff on it.

My First Thought: This Isn’t Really That Difficult

Matt’s examples about how students can document their learning are easy to implement. He suggests three tools: blog posts, Storify, and Hypothes.is. I would say think about your students here, there experiences, and where they are headed in the future. For example, if I had a student who already had a well developed blog or who really wanted to learn how to blog, then having that student utilize blog posts could work. I would at least want that to be an option. But, as Matt (correctly) notes, blog posts can be cumbersome because you – as the instructor – would have to be reading through multiple posts and trying to dig up the information you need. You could work around this by having the student pin relevant posts to a pinterest board.

My favorite tool from his list is Storify. It’s simple, and the student simply draws together a list of items with relevant documentation (links, photos, etc…). A blog post tends to encourage people to elaborate. Storify doesn’t do that. Students could make their initial map in Storify, publish it, and then return to it and edit it to add in the documentation showing they did what they said they would do.

Again, I don’t want to keep track of one student’s stories in Storify let alone 20+. I would create a private pinterest board for students to pin their published stories too. This lets me find them pretty easily.

My Second Thought: Creating Reflections

Matt talks about using Hypothes.is as a way to reflect on the path students created (either through Storify or a blog post). I think this also works well. If you see his example, you’ll notice that his reflections (you have to click on the yellow text) are short. He keeps them around a paragraph.

I think it’s very easy to take any single choice from the pathway and spend a lot of time creating a reflection on it. Maybe you would find that worthwhile, but for me I think keeping it short like Matt has done is the way to go. The other option I would consider is allowing students to make a video where they have their pathway as a screencast and then talk over what they did. I would limit that to five minutes.

The other thing to consider is how often do you want students reflecting on what they have done and if you want them to reflect on everything. I am not yet sure how many paths I would ask my students to create. But I do know that if they make reflections then I have to read reflections (or watch them if it’s a video). Keeping it short makes it easy for students to do even if they do multiple ones, but I think I would have to balance it out so it’s not overkill over the course of a semester.

This is, in part, what I will be playing with as I move forward in my design. One option I could immediately see is asking students to create a certain amount of  pathways but then choose a certain number to reflect on. For example, they created seven paths asking them to reflect on three or four. They could select, but they would need to reflect on the paths within a reasonable time of completing them (maybe within a week). The purpose of reflecting would obviously be lost if they were in the last week of the course and reflecting back on what they did in Week 2.

I’m really excited to have connected with Matt. Definitely go check out EduGeek Journal as I’ve found it to be inspirational for how I think about my teaching.

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Dual Pathways in Online Learning

I’m slowly plugging away at developing my online class for the fall. In previous posts, I have talked about developing a story for my syllabus to tell (see Part 1 and Part 2). And while I’m still working on identifying readings, I am also exploring ideas about how to structure my course. Enter this fabulous article from Matt Crosslin over at EduGeek Journal. Matt’s article discusses customizable pathway designs, and that’s the idea I want to take a closer look at today.

What is a Customizable Pathway Design?

As I understand it, a customizable pathway design allows students to have some degree of freedom over charting their own way through the course. Notice I said some degree. The choices are constrained. Matt helps us understand how this works by using a garden as an example. He notes:

The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden…There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.

Things just clicked in place for me when I read this. It reminded me that I once tried to do something along these lines, but I was probably mediocre at best. The problem I had was I asked students to decide if they wanted to stay on the path as I had set it up OR if they wanted to chart their own course. Once they made the decision that was that.

What I understood from Matt’s post was that there was no need to be so final about it. Students could make decisions at certain intervals. For example, each week they could decide if they wanted to use the course of study I had planned or if they wanted to create their own. They could move back and forth between doing this as they needed or they could spend the entire course doing it as I had set it up or charting their own path. Any combination you can think of would work here.

What’s the Rationale?

What I took away from Matt’s post is that having options about how you complete a component of the course (choosing to do what the instructor has laid out or choosing from a list of options) allows students the opportunity to adjust the curriculum to better suit their needs. For example, one week a student might know a great deal about a given topic. That student could select options that would delve them into a more advanced or nuanced path and help them extend their learning. However, the next week the student might be a novice at what we’re discussing and might decide it’s better to use the path that I have set.

And of course there’s so much room for variation. Even if a student didn’t feel particularly strong about a topic, let’s say there was one item I had on the path that week that they didn’t need for whatever reason. They could simply remove that one item and replace it with something else. When they chart their own path, they don’t have to do it 100% from scratch. It could be as simple as swapping one item out.

Now, the next logical questions for me were:

  • How do we document this?
  • How do I know that students did what they said they would do?
  • How do I know what students are learning or need more help with?

In Matt’s post, as well as some email exchanges we’ve had, I was able to get some clarity on this. And that’s where we’ll be heading next week. So do come back.

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