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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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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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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Online Courses: Lessons Learned (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how I have been taking two online courses and lessons I was learning as part of being a student in that context. Previously, I wrote about what I learned from taking the Twitter Masterminds course. Today, I want to share with you a lesson I have learned from being a part of the Edorble Academy.

What is Edorble?

I’ve written about Edorble when it was in its very early, Beta, stages (it’s since moved out of Beta mode). You can read more about it and get access to it here. In short, Edorble is a 3D world intended for educational purposes. The world you create is private to your group. They have a number of tools you can use that allow students to do things like engage in group chats and give presentations. Check it out to see what it’s all about.

What is the Edorble Academy?

The Edorble Academy offers courses about such topics as educational technology, online teaching, and gamification. It’s a relatively new addition to Edorble and content is still being developed. I signed up for a free course that recently launched called, “3D +VR (virtual reality) Technology in the Classroom.” As with Twitter Masterminds, I signed up because it met some professional goals of mine. However, I also used it as an opportunity to take the student perspective and see what I could learn that I could apply to my own online teaching.

Lesson Learned: Thoughts on Structured Release of Content

The Edorble class differed from Twitter Masterminds (TM) in its approach to releasing content. Where TM had all the content available to me immediately, Edorble’s class was intended to be four weeks long with content being released every Saturday morning. Like TM, Edorble has modules (they are just called sections), and each section has its own set of chapters. I can go back and forth between the sections. Once content is released it’s mine. The Edorble course had a more academic/school type feel to me. Probably because it was set up to be a four week course and so had a more semester like feel to me.

It was an interesting experience to contrast the TM approach of all content at once vs. Edorble’s release once a week for four weeks. TM probably has about the same amount of content as Edorble. Here are my thoughts:

  • Edorble’s approach was initially less overwhelming. I didn’t run around sifting through all the content at light speed, but I did sift through all the content I received and then went back to dive into particular aspects more deeply. As with TM, after I had settled into the course I basically did the content in the order it was presented unless I could articulate why I shouldn’t. I continue to assume the instructor orders things in a particular manner (probably a reasonable assumption; I know it’s what I do)
  • Being less overwhelming doesn’t make it better. It just makes it different. It’s simply something to notice. In both cases, I was overwhelmed to varying degrees but again, that’s not bad. It’s a good reminder that students likely experience this, it’s a normal emotion to experience, and it goes away as one becomes familiar with the content and structure.
  • In a typical college course, the expectation is to release the majority of the content all at once. Think about it…I give my students a syllabus that has all readings and assignments on it with due dates and what not. It’s not everything, but it’s a substantial portion of what they will be doing. It’s helpful because it allows students to plan how they want to approach their work and structure their time. But my experiences in these two courses have raised questions for me about the degree I should be giving more or less content away right off the bat in an online course. I have zero answers, but I am thinking about it.

Where I’m At With All This

As I write this, I am still working on identifying readings and just getting the basics done for my course. But I have plenty of time (sort of. I am moving across the country soon!). I plan to keep thinking about how content will be released in my course. I’m also still thinking about the idea that syllabi are written in a linear manner (understandable) and so as students we read and interact with them that way. This means that content, once it’s been “covered,” is often not returned to.

I’m thinking about this in two ways. First, I’m considering if there is a way to structure my syllabus so that it doesn’t promote linear engagement. Second, I’m considering if the standard structure is OK and that perhaps it’s more about how we ask and expect students to engage with it that promotes a linear engagement with it. For example, in my last post I discussed how my professional goals allowed me to pick and choose content. Those goals would take me back to content I had viewed in a previous module. Therefore, while the TM course was set up in a linear way, how I approached it allowed me to engage with it in a non-linear manner. How can I encourage this amongst my own students? I’ll get back to you.

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Taking An Online Course: Lessons Learned

While I am in the early stages of planning my online course, I am also in the middle of taking two of them! It made me wonder how many people who teach online courses have gotten the opportunity to take one? We’ve all taken plenty of face to face classes for years on end. Doing so has given us lots of opportunities to consider what we like or don’t like about that type of instruction. But I’m guessing most of us have had very limited opportunities to see what online classes look like and to experience different structures.

I didn’t seek out online classes because I wanted the experience of taking them. I happened to come across two that fit my professional needs and so I signed up for them. While I am learning content relevant to my needs in both courses, I am also taking the time to pay attention to how the instructors organize the courses and what kinds of experiences I get as a student. In today’s post I want to discuss some of the big ideas I have learned from one of them.

Background: The Twitter Masterminds

Twitter Masterminds is an online course developed by Mark Barnes (@markbarnes19 on twitter). The goal of the course is to help you become an expert at using twitter. This includes identifying relevant people to follow (and hopefully be followed by) and how to use twitter in more thoughtful and mindful ways.

I had found myself in a bit of a twitter rut. I enjoy using the tool. I’ve written a lot about how to use it in teaching. However, I was getting stuck in terms of finding good people to follow, building my followers, and I knew I wasn’t getting the most out of the tool. I took this course because I wanted to address these issues. FYI: It’s an amazing course, and I’ve gotten everything I wanted out of it and more. I’ll be reviewing it in a few weeks, but go here if you would like to take a closer look at it.

For the rest of this post, I want to talk to you about one of the big ideas I learned about how the course was structured and how I am thinking about it in terms of an academic/higher education context.

Self Paced: All The Content At Once

In Twitter Masterminds (TM), you get access to all the content at once. Having all the content at once is a bit like being turned loose in a candy store and saying you can eat anything you want however use please. While some things don’t look useful, most do. Most everything is exciting. You want it all, and you want it all at once.

Once I got over the fact that I had all this awesome, useful content available to me I calmed down and allowed myself to skim through it. I didn’t concentrate on anything too deeply at first. I allowed myself to flit in and out with no commitment. I didn’t focus on learning or using anything.

By giving myself time to play, I was able to understand what content was available to me and where I wanted to start my journey. Because all the content was available to me, and the course is self-paced, I was able to structure my experience however I wished. Although TM is structured around modules, and each module has multiple lessons, I could do the modules in any order I wanted and navigate back and forth as I saw fit.

For the most part, I made myself go through the modules in the order in which they were created. I assumed they were placed in that order for a specific reason. If I hit content I already knew or didn’t want to apply just yet then I skipped over it to return to later if needed.

What I Learned About Myself as a Student

Once I got settled into the TM course, I immediately identified a couple of skills I wanted to focus on developing in terms of getting better at twitter. At some point, I became aware that while I was actively applying what I had learned (and getting great benefit out of it!), I had stopped engaging with new content in the course. This is neither good nor bad. However, once I recognized this I started diving back into the modules (slowly) and working on learning more. I continued to apply what I was learning.

This structure of having all the content available is great if it is narrowly focused (which the course is; recall it’s focused on helping you become better at using twitter) and meets a specific need for the user (which of course it did for me or I would not have purchased it). Because I have learning goals, I could go into this space and utilize the teachings. I was also exposed to new ideas that I would never have thought of on my own.

My Take Aways for an Academic Course

In the TM course there is no deadline on learning. The course is mine to access forever. It’s just like if I went out and bought a book to help me learn something. In thinking about what I learned and how I might apply it to an academic course, I realized the following:

  • There is probably no need to release all the content at once. Doing so (to the tune of about 15 weeks worth of content) could be way overwhelming for any student. Releasing all the content at once around a very specific chunk of the course makes the most sense. TM has a good amount of content that is appropriate for the cost. An academic course would have significantly more content. A full release wouldn’t make sense (which got me thinking about how we release content in academic courses in general, but that is for another time).
  • Students need learning goals, and they need to set these for themselves. I came into the TM course with my own set of goals. The course helped me meet those goals as well as extend them. However, because I had my own goals I always felt empowered by how I approached the content and applied it. I usually ask my students what they want to learn in a course, but I never really do much with that information. I use it to get to know them better. If we are going to be studying something that links to one of their goals, I point it out. However, I don’t think it’s my job to do something with everyone’s goals. I do think I could do more to help students think about goal setting in ways that make sense for the course and empower them to realize them.
  • Having freedom to navigate the course and use the information to help me meet my goals was extremely helpful. So while I don’t think releasing all the content at once is the way to go for a 15 week academic course, I do think there’s something to consider here in terms of when and how people get access to content and helping them think about how they use it. I think people tend to use a syllabus in a linear manner, and I’d like to think about how to break that.

Next week I’ll be writing about lessons I have learned from a second online course I am taking. This course is structured much differently and my experiences with it are giving me a broader perspective on what it means to teach online.

One Year Ago

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