95. Specifications Grading

Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to explore how specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.

Linda is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time as well as many other superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson – Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2015). Specifications grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Nilson, L. “80. Self-Regulated Learning.” Tea for Teaching podcast. May 8, 2019.

Transcript

John: Faculty often find that grading student work is a stressful and time-consuming activity. Students sometimes see grades as a subject of negotiation rather than as an assessment of their learning. In this episode, we explore how the use of specifications grading can save faculty time while motivating students to achieve the course learning outcomes.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

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John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson. She is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning.

Rebecca: Welcome, Linda.

John: Welcome.

Linda: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.

Rebecca: I think it’s more of a welcome back, right?

John: Yes. Welcome back.

Linda: Welcome back. Yes, yes, yes. Good to be here again.

Rebecca: Are you drinking any tea today?

Linda: As a matter of fact, I am. Yes, yes, yes. Of course I had coffee this morning as well. But I am drinking tea. I am drinking a berry tea, but it also has black tea in it. So it’s still a bit of a stimulant anyway, but it tastes really good.

Rebecca: Sounds good.

John: I have ginger peach green tea.

Rebecca: And I have English breakfast.

John: In an earlier podcast we talked with you about your work with self-regulated learning and one of the topics that came up with that was specifications grading.

Linda: Yes.

John: So we’d like you to tell us a little bit about your book, Specifications Grading: Restoring rigor, motivating students, and saving faculty time… especially that last part. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, saving faculty time. Yeah, I figured that would help sell the book. But it’s true. It does save faculty time. And one of the things that inspired this book was just my hearing so many complaints from so many faculty over the years, about grading and the aftermath of grading and returning grading material to students. And the constant steady stream of students trying to get another half a point, just arguing… just conflict… constant conflict… students being stressed… faculty being stressed… faculty getting larger and larger classes with less and less help… fewer and fewer TAs, if there ever any TAs. And I got tired of it. But there was a part of this that I did not invent. I heard it from a faculty member in the School of Management. And she was doing that pass-fail grading. It was saving her tons of time. She had huge classes, online classes. And she just invented this and she was also sick and tired… getting complaints from students and students not paying attention to her feedback, which of course, took her hours and hours and hours to write and return. So I took some ideas from her. But I also wanted to tie grades somehow to outcomes. And this is where another aspect of specs grading comes in. And that is with respect to bundling assignments, or turning them into modules or whatever. But I prefer the term bundles because it’s much more universal. So anyway, this was a solution to a problem. And that’s what a lot of my work has had to do with, making the faculty members job easier and more rewarding.

Rebecca: I think that you’ve been spying on me for the last many years. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes I have. Yes I have. [LAUGHTER] I’ll admit it.

Rebecca: I knew it. I knew it. So I think John and I are both really interested in the idea of saving time, as are many faculty. But you also talked about, in your book, the history of grading… how its evolved… the 4.0 system. How is this different? And how does this relate to the history of grading?

Linda: Well, let’s look at the history of grading first. Grade started, well everywhere, in 1783. It was Yale’s idea. And what they started doing in that year was an achievement-based student classification system. They were not using As and Bs, what they were using were Latin designations of like optimi outstanding and pejores for failing, like as in pejorative, right? Anyway, then in 1800, Yale dropped the Latin designations and started using numbers 0 to 4. Sound familiar? But that was Yale doing that now. In 1850, the University of Michigan initiated grades, but for them, it was strictly pass/fail, and it only took 50% to pass. So we talk about grade inflation now… look backwards. [LAUGHTER] Mount Holyoke, though, just a few years later set passing at 75%. Harvard, also a little bit later, invented the A to F system, but passing was only 26%. So if you were wealthy enough, you had to know less, right? Okay. But anyway, that’s where ultimately grades came from before 1783. This was in Europe. And this started hundreds of years before our notion of grades. There was something… it was like a Jeopardy game, where graduates… or graduates to be… the hopeful graduates… were answering questions in a tournament style, but the stakes were really high. And so yes, if you are winning throughout, you were really showered with honors. But if you were at the bottom, you lived years in shame. It was terrible. We talk about high stakes. Oh my. So anyway, grades were invented after universities. Socrates didn’t talk about grades, right? It’s a relatively new invention for sorting students.

Rebecca: How does the specification grading relate to this letter system or this 4.0 system?

Linda: Well, it kind of takes a break away. Because first of all, all this grades that I was talking about was with respect to courses, there have been pass/fail courses. Sometimes they worked well, sometimes they didn’t work so well. They work pretty well in medical school ‘cause we’re dealing with a highly motivated students who really understand the need to know. But other than that, most students would do the absolute minimum to get their C-… whatever, it didn’t work very well in terms of like motivating students to learn, they learned the absolute minimum. With specs grading, the pass/fail is within the course, the assignments and tests in the course. But, you don’t pass with a C or C-. You set the passing level at what you would regard as a B level. And this is what restores the rigor. I think we have been sold a poor bill of goods, when we don’t set our students to high standards. We say, “Well, maybe they can’t do it, and then they’ll get…” They can do it. Come on. They’re just not doing it because of our partial credit system and our point system ‘cause they can always get another half a point, right? …just by wearing you down. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Really, they do and they know it works, it worked in high school, so it works now. Now it may have worked the previous semester, these students aren’t stupid. And they can do what we ask them to do for “B” work… certainly at the undergraduate level, or actually at the graduate level as well. They could do it. But they choose not to, because they can survive otherwise. They could do well enough to pass or get their “B” or even get their “A.” So why should they sweat it, they can always get the partial credit. And students get partial credit. It’s almost like going back to the University of Michigan 50% passing for assignments and tests. I mean, we pretty much lowered the bar, because we want so many people to get over it. Well, people are getting over it without preparing… without doing a decent job. And they’ll spend 10 minutes… 20 minutes… the night before on an assignment knowing that no matter what they do, they will get partial credit and they will pass. So again, they’re not stupid, it’s just that, for them, college is a game that doesn’t have much to do with learning. That’s not where the focus is, and at least with specs grading, there is a lot more focus on learning, because you are tying the assignments and tests to student learning outcomes. And that’s a really nice part of the system in that those grades, the ABC, mean something in terms of outcomes achievement, and these, in turn, might be tied to program outcomes as well. So all of a sudden, you’ve gotten rid of an entire step at the departmental level of having to measure program outcomes. And why do you have to do this? Because accrediting agencies know that our grades don’t mean much of anything, as far as learning is concerned, as far as what they’re interested in, which is outcomes achievement. And outcomes achievement, it’s an up-or-out sort of thing. You can either do something or you can’t, and as long as there are standards set for that, and certainly the accrediting agencies want standards set for that. So let’s say “Okay, so your goal is a student can write a good quality, maybe not great quality, but a good quality business proposal.” Okay, fine. So if that is your outcome, what really does that entail? What exactly are you looking for in terms of a very good business plan? And that should be incorporated in your directions to students. But we don’t articulate that, do we? We really don’t. We speak very vaguely, “Well a business plan should have this and here’s your rubric.” Well, first of all, students often don’t understand the language, but is simply not detailed enough such that all students can understand the directions and actually follow them. We need to put more detail. Usually what we assigned undergraduates is some sort of a template or a formula to do this. And we’re not talking about that. We’re not sharing this template or formula with our students. And that’s what we need to do… not to say that you can’t allow for creative work. Matter of fact, with this system, you can and you don’t have to worry about tearing your hair out in different ways. “Well, I don’t know how to grade a movie.” Well, no, but you can talk about certain qualities of that movie, as in just simple things like the length, or perhaps the number of scenes that you want to see. And certainly they’ll be a learning goal and a communication goal connected to it. And that’s pretty much all you have to do. For most of our assignments, they are formulaic, but students don’t know the formula. And we need to tell them, and those are what you would call our specs for an assignment. So that’s really what we need to do. So all our work is up front and laying out what those specs are. It’s like a one-level rubric. But we don’t have to worry about different levels of the rubric, where there are four-level rubrics and five-level rubrics. We don’t have to worry about that. All we need is one. So we can afford the time to actually specify what we’re looking for… what that template involves.

John: And then the focus is helping students reach the standard, rather than negotiating with them over the grades for what they’ve received.

Linda: Exactly, exactly. Yeah, forget negotiation. There’s some things that ought to be non-negotiable. I mean, we’re not sloppy when we grade, I know, we get sick and tired of it. But we are so diligent in our grading. And then we have a line of students outside our office saying, “I deserve another two points on this because Susie said the same thing. She got 12 points, I only got 10.” …like write an essay about it… justifying it.

John: One thing I really like about it, though, is that right now we have these two levels of assessing students’ learning, we have these complex assessment plans for each department. And then we have a grading system, which often bears little resemblance to the assessment. And this is making the assessment transparent and obvious to students. And it’s forcing both faculty and students to focus on the learning objectives for the course.

Linda: Yes, as we should be, you think about it, what does it mean, when a student gets an A? Does that mean that that student has achieved all the objectives? all the outcomes at the level we want to see? Well, maybe for some of the students who get an A. What does a “B” mean? Now we’re starting to get into really ambiguous territory. Does that mean that the students sort of achieved or barely achieved all the outcomes or maybe achieved some really well and then didn’t achieve others? And a “C,” forget it. You can’t tell what’s going on there, especially given the way we give out “Cs” these days. So maybe the “C” student achieved one outcome well, but which one? Yeah, I mean, no wonder accrediting agencies pay no attention to our grades. They don’t even want to know them. And I can understand why, if they’re focused on learning outcomes. And so yeah, we’ve got this whole extra level of work that we have to do and the department chairs have to do and the Provosts have to do. I mean, who needs it?

Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between specs grading and contract grading, because it seems like they have some things in common?

Linda: Yes, they do have something in common. With contract grading, students individually work it out with a faculty member as to exactly what they’re going to do. And if they do all those things that they will get there “A” because I’ve never heard of a student contracting or a ”B,” it just doesn’t happen. Now, contract rating goes back to the 60s, and the first half of the 70s. And what was happening was since there was this individual relationship, first of all, faculty didn’t specify enough about what they wanted… what constituted “A” work… same problem we have had up to now… and faculty weren’t all that much different then, in fact, they probably gave less guidance. But in any case, there were the specifications. And then faculty and students would develop this relationship, this individual relationship. And it became particularly difficult for the faculty member to give anything but an “A” to the student. And the student would have thought, “Well, why didn’t you tell me to do this to get my ‘A,’ because that’s what I contracted for.” So contract rating was: 1. sloppy, but 2. highly individualized. With our class sizes, we can’t even talk about contract grading. And because it was something that was mutually established, between the faculty and the students, and specs grading is nothing like that. This is all in the faculty members’ hands. Well, at least, setting out what is required to get the “As” and “Bs” and “Cs” and “Ds” . But students choose what grade they’re going to go for. And according to what grade they believe that they need, but also according to what kind of a workload they want to shoulder for this particular course. And you know, maybe all they need is a “C.” And you know what, that’s okay. And we don’t look down on that student if the student says: “Well, all I need is a ‘C.’ We do otherwise. We say “Wow, this is a lazy student.” That’s what we’re thinking in the back of our heads. We have negative thoughts about students who settle for low grades. But with specs grading, you don’t have to feel that way. This student chose a seat for whatever reason, I don’t care. My course is not in that student’s major. So I’m not going to take it personally. So, that’s nice. But the fact that that’s making that choice, gets rid of all kinds of grading complaints, or that thing at the end of the semester: “What can I do to bring up my grade?” Well, it’s very clear what you could have been doing. If you went for a “C” now you could have done these additional assignments, or taking this additional test to get a “B.” But you didn’t do that. Now, you’ve got a week left, maybe you want to try to do that. But don’t ask me, I laid out the contract, I laid out the terms, I laid out the specs at the beginning of the semester, and you make your choices. This whole thing makes students feel a lot more responsible for their grades. They made the choice. And we respect that.

Rebecca: So I think a question that would come up for many faculty is you’ve laid out that certain assignments need to be accomplished to get even a “C…”

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: …and what the specifications are. What happens when a student struggles to meet those specs?

Linda: Oh gee. Well, now when you say struggle, you can struggle before the assignment, or you can be disappointed and angry after the assignment. So if you’re talking about struggling before and say, “Professor, I don’t understand these two specs. I don’t even know if I can do it. Could you give me some more guidance?” No problem, and then because the stakes are higher, you get credit or no credit whatsoever… doesn’t count towards your bundle… doesn’t count towards whatever grade you’re doing. So you’d better figure this out. Now, afterwards, don’t meet the specs. Okay. And obviously, you didn’t come to see me in advance, did you or otherwise, we would have hashed this out. Anyway… so you didn’t pass? So you missed these two specs. All right, well gee, that’s most unfortunate. But there’s this system called tokens… or I call them tokens, but you can call them… I don’t know, you can call them pigs in a blanket for all I care, it doesn’t matter. They’re like get out of jail free cards. I’ve seen them called hail Mary cards. In a geography course, they were called globes, but anyway, they are opportunities to either redo an assignment that didn’t meet the specs, or to get a 24-hour extension. And there might be some other things that you make up along the way if absence counts against you in your course, you can get out of absence. But let’s say it’s for redoing this assignment, which is really important early in the semester, because students are not going to believe that you’re going to grade them pass/fail, because this is all new for them. And they go, “Well, how can this be…” and “There must be some sort of partial credit or something…” They won’t believe you. So there will be a number of students who will need this token or get out of jail free card to redo the assignment. It’s up to you, as a faculty member, as to how many get out of jail free cards or tokens that they might have. Three is a nice number. I like it, but some people give five. Some people give two. But I think it behooves you to have some reasonable number of tokens with specs grading, because that takes the pressure off of students; it allows them to screw up at least a few times. So this is something that students can get second chances out of this because the stakes are higher than typical. But the thing is, when you’re grading these assignments, all you’ve got to do is check the specs that weren’t met, and say, “This is why your assignment failed.” Now, if you want to give additional feedback, by all means, I’m not going to stop you. But I want you to have a life. That’s the only thing. And you can give positive feedback as well. And then you know what, you’ve passed something, then you get positive feedback from your instructor that you figure, “Wow, the instructor gave me this positive feedback out of the kindness of her heart, because she really cares about me and my success… told me how I could maybe do better in the future.” First of all, I’m going to read this, because this is meaningful feedback. This is not justification for having taken off points, because that’s what most of our feedback is about: why you didn’t get full credit. And now this is actual substantive learning feedback. So, it decouples feedback from evaluation in a way, but students get the chance to do it over and now that you have their attention, that let’s say they didn’t pass a certain assignment, that they can come to you and say, “Okay, how should I do this better?” Oh, okay. Isn’t this lovely? So the worst that will happen is you’ll have a conversation with a student about how to improve his or her work, that’s the worst that will happen. Isn’t that wonderful? [LAUGHTER] And sometimes students know, they just got lazy.

Rebecca: How would you suggest structuring specification grading for a class that’s more project based or even collaborative work?

Linda: Oh, sure. Whether it’s projects, or papers or whatever, again, it’s a matter of specs. Oftentimes, with our projects, that we might allow our projects different media, what we have to do is lay out specs for each media. Or say, if you can think of a different media, you can do a film, you can do a play, you can write pamphlets, you can write a paper if you want to, or you can do any of, let’s say, a half a dozen things. And let’s say if you want to do something else that’s not on the list, come talk to me, and we’ll work it out, we’ll work out some specs for it, too. So what you have to do is you have to lay out specs, but oftentimes the specs that you have to lay out, and students love creative assignments, is you have to lay out, let’s say, length, and so you might say, “Okay, if you’re going to go with a film or video, I want 20-mintues of that. Going to go with pamphlets? I want at least four pamphlets, I want each pamphlet to have at least 250-words in it. If you’re going to go with writing a play and performing a play for your peers, I mean, wow. But I do want it to be a half an hour long. And I want it to involve everybody in the group, everybody’s acting. And if you’re going to write a paper, I want it to be at least, let’s say, 2000-words long… or maybe that’s too long, whatever… and you lay it out, and I want it to follow this kind of an outline.” You can lay out specs for different kinds of media, and let students run with the project. Now a design project, what you might allow students to choose is exactly, let’s say, in architecture, what kind of a building they’re going to design. Let’s say, “Okay, you can design a residence, single family, a separate dwelling, but I want it to be at least four bedrooms, I want to be two stories, this and that. And you could do an office building too. But I want this to be at least two stories, and I want it to be so many thousands of square feet.” And then you let them run with it. And you know what, we know from our history, and from a lot of publications, that students run with this sort of thing. So I’ll give a little guidance and off they go, it’s a beautiful thing. Now in terms of projects having to do with group work, I don’t know that that specs grading will make group work smoother. [LAUGHTER] And I’ve talking about out-of-class group work. If you want to play marriage counselor, you just go right on ahead. But you don’t have to. I mean, there are some people who say, “Hey, you guys work it out on your own, I don’t want to hear about it and you can fire freeloaders. And if you are doing all the work, you can resign from your group and any other group will be happy to pick you up. But all this has to be done by the end of the fifth week,” whatever. So I don’t know that we’re going to get rid of those problems. [LAUGHTER]

REBBECCA: I think my question was more about the high-stakes nature or the long-term nature of projects.

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: So would you recommend doing scaffolded specs or something like that to help make sure they’re on track?

Linda: Well, yes, what you need to do, as with any major project, you need to divide it up into smaller tasks that students can be at accountable for along the way, and maybe even get feedback for. Now, you can give feedback… your peers… people in other groups… can give feedback. Because after all, we’re doing criteria referenced grading, we’re not grading on the curve. So there are different ways for students to get feedback. But in any case, this divides a massive task into little pieces. So maybe starting out with, “Okay, by the end of the third week, we want your group to have a literature review put together.” And we put specs for the literature review. “And we want so many references. And we want so many of them in the last five-years,” And what have you. So we can even put the specs, I even specify specs for the format that we want: APA format, or ASA format, or Chicago, whatever it is that we want. That’s something that we can put in the specs if we want to, and that way students will actually proofread. Now I think we ought to be somewhat tolerant with respect to format anyway, we ought to allow three little errors in format. Because you know what, when we submit a paper to a journal, they’re tolerant of us, right? [LAUGHTER] I mean, you can’t be sloppy, but if we put a period instead of a comma, hey, we are forgiven. And we’ll catch it later on the proofs. So we need to allow some errors on something like that. But anyway, yeah, we divide up a big task into pieces. And then students get feedback on the pieces. And that’s also a good way to find out early about who are your freeloaders, who’s not doing the work early, so they can get rid of the freeloaders if they need to. Here’s another thing that you can do with specs grading, when you do bundles, you know, the project, the big project, you can make that big project required for an A, period. And then you will only have groups with students who are going for As. So it depends on the size of your class, of course. You might wind up with only, let’s say, three groups who are going for As. Or you know, the number of students that will fall into three groups. Well, guess what, you’re going to get some really fine projects, you’re not going to have to worry about it, and they might not be freeloaders. But anyway, in the examples in my book that a lot of faculty members and I recommended as well, that group projects be reserved for getting an A, for the A bundle. And other assignments be in the B bundle and C and the D bundle for that matter, which might be very minimal. But hey, if you want to a D, far be it for me to stop you. So, anyway, that’s another way to solve the problem, you just put those projects in just for the students are going for an A.

John: You’ve mentioned bundling a few times in terms of grades, could you talk a little bit about that and how you can go from the specs grading to the course grades that are assigned in the course.

Linda: Okay, there are two ways and the first way I’m going to just mention and not recommend. But you can keep your point system, and you might have some haggling over grades. But in any case, you can keep the point system and say, “Okay, my course is 100 points and if you get 91 points or more, you’ll get an A.” And okay, fine, but the bundling system allows students to choose their grade. So what you do is, you set up clusters of assignments and tests that students have to pass at that B level to get credit for their bundle. So you set those up. And the easiest way to do this, so you got a D bundle, is pretty minimal. And you can tell students, “Look for your D, here are the only outcomes that you will be able to achieve if you go for the D.” Some students say, “Hey, I don’t care, not in my major.” Fine. So it’s minimal work, maybe it involved just passing tests at let’s say, a 70% level, and maybe doing a couple of little written assignments along the way. But, they all have to meet whatever the specs might be. Whatever specs you set out for those assignments… And C bundle, “Okay, you got to do everything that you do in that D bundle, plus there are extra assignments as well.” And so maybe what you are having students do, and I’m just making this up as an example, is the students have to turn in 15 out of the 18 reading assignments that you have, they have to turn in a typed up outline on a particular reading. This way, at least your C students are going to do the readings, right? Because at least most of the readings, almost all the readings, and you’d give your teeth for almost all your students to do almost all the readings, right? But that’s all they’ve got to do. Maybe for a B you have to do all the requirements for a C, maybe even more of those reading notes, or something different. Perhaps keep learning journal, keep a journal on how you are learning, what you’re having trouble learning, the different strategies you are trying to learn the material, and it’s going to be collected. But you really have to specify what questions you want students to answer. So that will be collected maybe four times during the semester, and you might collect some every week or so and look at a few of them. But again, you’re just looking for the answers to the questions. That’s what you have to do for a B. You’re going to get a good handle on those readings and you’re going to find out how to best learn this material. For the A, you got to do everything for the B, but you have to do some sort of a group project where you’re going to learn, let’s say application, analysis, evaluation, what have you, whatever higher thinking levels that you have in there. At the C level, that’s pretty low. But good lord, at least they’re understanding the readings, at least they’re reading the readings and presumably understanding it. And you know, you can spot check some of them to see that they are understanding and if they’re not, you can help them with that. And as soon as they’re learning how to learn for that B, but students are learning how to analyze the material, even higher-level learning outcomes for that A. Now if your student learning outcomes are dictated by a professional accrediting agency, then you’ve got to put all of those outcomes in what’s required for a C, or maybe your institution considers D passing, some institutions don’t. Whatever you consider passing, that’s where all of those outcomes have to go. B students and the A students, they will achieve even more outcomes. If you’ve got an outside accrediting agency telling you what your students have to be able to do, then guess what? All the students that pass the course have to be able to do these things. And you’ve got to set out the specs accordingly. There are some accrediting agencies that layout good outcomes with active verbs. And other accrediting agencies, they give you crummy outcomes where you’ve got to essentially rewrite them so you can assess them. But I’m not going to get into that. [LAUGHTER] Did I answer your question, I hope?

Rebecca: Yeah, I think a lot of your examples focus on a more traditional class and not necessarily a lab or a studio kind of class where there’s a lot of class work that happens inside of class. What might a bundle look like in a situation like that? Where a lot of the learning activities are happening in person rather than for homework. So, for example, I teach studio classes that meet for six hours a week, and they presumably do about three hours outside of class. Versus the reverse, which many people have and labs are similar.

Linda: What area are you in?

Rebecca: I teach graphic design.

Linda: Okay.

Rebecca: But it would be similar to something that would happen in the sciences too and having to do lab.

Linda: Yeah, to an extent, it depends on whether it’s a decent lab or not. [LAUGHTER] Some labs are a waste of everybody’s time. But anyway, what you have to do there is, you’ve got projects, right? …throughout the semester, different things that students are doing. but how many projects do you have in a semester?

Rebecca: Usually, it’s like four big projects, or three.

Linda: Okay, well, now this sounds very, very radical. But what if for a D, you only had to do one project? …and I mean, at that B-level that you set to pass. What if for a C, as a student, I only have to do two. Now, for the first two, because I presume this is somewhat cumulative. For a B, I only have to do three projects. But an A, of course, I have to do all four, if there are four projects. Now, what does this mean? Oh, by the way, do you have tests?

Rebecca: No.

Linda: Just curious. Okay, it means that assuming your D student does passable work, that first project, you can say bye bye after that first project is done. If the person wants to sit in… you can’t, you know… it’s a free country, right? Well, not really. But they can sit in if you want them to, that’s fine. For a C student again, you can say bye bye after the second project, assuming they do it at that passable level. And by the end of the semester, you have only you the most motivated and committed students that you have to be concerned with. And you can give them some very challenging work. Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. But that’s the way you could do that. Now, you could also bundle it differently. You can expand the number of projects that you have as well and simply make them shorter if that’s what you would be required. But I don’t know how you react to that.

Rebecca:I think my accrediting agency would react to that in that they have to put a certain number of hours in. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Okay, okay, so your accrediting agency is time focused.

Rebecca: It’s part of it. Because presumably with more practice, you get better.

Linda: Well, presumably. [LAIUGHTER] …practice with feedback, you get better. But yeah, if we are committed to this hours business, that makes things very unruly, everybody’s got to put in the same amount of time…

Rebecca: In class anyway.

Linda: Oh, in class, okay. That’s very unruly, with respects to specs grading because specs grading isn’t about time. I mean, you can recommend that such and such assignment should take you at least three hours for it to be passable. But other than that, that’s your recommendation for a certain given assignment. But yeah, that makes it very unruly when your accrediting agency says, “Okay, they’ve got to spend so many hours in class and not just looking at their phone.”

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, we do critiques and things like that. We provide a lot of feedback. But yeah.

Linda: Yeah. Okay. You do critiques?

Rebecca: Yeah lots of critiques.

Linda: Yeah, like art classes and things like that?

Rebecca: Yeah.

Linda: Okay. Well, that’s nice. But now, you could hold your B and C students to doing critiques on all the assignments, just so they can put in their hours. But they don’t necessarily have to do the assignments, at least they can see models. But again, I don’t know if your accrediting agency would be happy with that either.

John: This may not exactly be specs grading, but could you give, say, different levels of activity in each of the assignments? If you have four-projects, you could have one bundle in that project that would give a C, another that would give a B, and another that would give an A, changing the scope of the projects and it would be specs grading within that scope.

Linda: Yes, that has been done and I’m not sure about what kind of projects you’re doing. But yes, you could do that. And you could set different specs for each level. So D students, lets say, have to do a D-level project, which is not nearly as time consuming and not nearly as high a level cognitively, it doesn’t demand that much, doesn’t demand much time, it doesn’t demand that much thinking. And so you could do that and that way students would put in their time, and as long as you can set out the specs for those levels. Yes, absolutely you could do it that way.

Rebecca: Yeah.

Linda: But yeah, accrediting agencies can really get in the way of flexibility. Rebecca, would your accrediting agency go along with that?

Rebecca: With scope, probably. Yeah.

Linda: Yeah. Okay, good. I want to tell you about a course that does this, it’s in computer science, they have students writing programs, and there are six projects that students have to do, they do these individually. If you are going for a C, you get some pretty easy projects to do, pretty easy problems to solve. If you’re going for a B, well you get sort of intermediate-level problem, you don’t do the C one. Because if can do the B ones, you can do the C ones. Now for an A you get some much more sophisticated ones. But still, for every level, you only get six. So there is that, that as long as you can designate level of difficulty, or for that matter, breadth of knowledge, if you can designate that… of course, usually people can do that… that you can make levels out that you can make different bundles out of that. This is another little interesting take, in this particular course, if you are late handing in your projects, that you’ve got to do two more projects at that level. So in other words, you are penalized for lateness by having to do more work. Now that really hits students where it hurts. And if you’re like super late, you got to do yet two more. So any way that keeps students on their toes. [LAUGHTER] Anyway, so in this particular course students are rarely late. So yes, there are ways that you can do that just in terms of level of complexity or level of cognitive operations demanded.

John: How do you explain this to students, if you’re going to introduce a specs grading system?

Linda: First of all, you’ve got to sell specs grading, because they’ll look at you like, “Huh?,” which is fine. And you should explain this, but you can tell them, “You know, I’m going to hold you to higher expectations.” And we know that holding students to higher expectations feeds into student success, student learning, but also student success in general. You could explain to them the concept of andragogy. In other words, that pedagogy really has to do with little kids. Andragogy has to do with adults. Saying, “I’m going to treat you like an adult.” And students like that kind of thing, you might be choosing the kind of project you’re doing. It’s easy to build choices into this. “This will be a safe but a challenging environment because you know exactly what you’re supposed to do. I’m going to give you the descriptions of what you have to do for the assignment to pass in advance and in detail. So you almost can’t screw this up unless you don’t read the directions or pay attention to the directions.” So you want to emphasize the choice and control over their grade that they’re going to have. You want to tell them about tokens, we’ve got some wiggle room, if you will. Now these tokens, by the way, are not physical, you make them physical students will develop a black market, [LAUGHTER] believe me, but virtual and you keep track, or you can ask for an extension, but you don’t ask me for an extension. You’re late, I just take a token away. That’s all. We don’t have to talk about it. I don’t care why you’re late, this is just the way it’s going to be. Just like your boss won’t care why you are late or why you are absent, it counts as like a holiday. Now we’re going to tie what your grades is to what you are learning. If they look at the syllabus at all, everybody’s going to know what you have learned in this course. So that’s how you sell it to students. Now students will need to be reminded about how the system works, because this will strike them. “This is so weird.” Even if they initially like the idea, they still need to be reminded a few times because it is really strange. According to my research, students way prefer this system to traditional grading. And one of the reasons why they do is because we give better direction, we tell them what we want, we give them the formula, we give them the template. or we give them tons and tons of freedom to meet the specs. Especially with students when we talk about length or whatever, length means depth to the students. It doesn’t mean that necessarily to us. Students really like this because they feel way more secure in it. And they do like the element of choices that are built in, that’s motivating for them. And they do learn more. And if they are more motivated, they’re likely to do more of the work at a higher level, they are more likely to excel. And the A students are going to do A work anyway, because they don’t know any better. All they know is A work. And there’s a sense in which they want us to love them. I mean, really, so they’ve got this strong sense of loyalty towards us and they really want us to respect them. And they’re used to feeding off of that they’ve been doing it all their lives. Don’t worry about them getting sloppy, they’ll never get sloppy on you. [LAUGHTER]

John: If someone wanted to transition to specs grading, how should they get started?

Linda: What you might want to do if you’re switching, transitioning to specs grading, you want to look at your assignments, and for that matter, look at your tests, like what you have in your tests. You want to look to see what can be transferred into pass/fail. You also want to look at your tests, if your tests are very objective, and you’re relying on a test bank, remember, it’s so much easier for you to grade with the specs that you can start assigning more written work or design work on tests, what have you. But definitely higher-order thinking types of questions and you will have the time to grade them, because you’re going to lay out the specs and without giving away the farm, you will tell your students the specs of your essay questions in advance, and they will study accordingly. But anyway, you want to look at your outcomes and then you want to identify the cognitive level of your assignments and your test questions which again, you might want to change. You want to be able to group your assignments and tests by that cognitive level so you can develop bundles. It’s kind of a radical way to do it, but it makes your life so much easier once you have those bundles. Because all you’ve got to do is say, “Okay, let’s see. So I had four assignments in this bundle, this student passed them all, hey B. It’s so much easier, you just have to be sure that you set out the deadlines for the different assignments in the bundles. You don’t want everything being submitted to you in the last week or two. So you still have to have your deadlines along the way. Just warning you about that. I want to refer people to my book for examples of courses, and not just my courses either, that have been specs graded. And they cover a range of over a dozen different disciplines. So they can see all kinds of examples.

John: That’s a great resource for those who are considering moving to specs grading.

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: And it also sounded to me like a couple of cautionary tales that you have about transitioning are about time and making sure that you spread things out…

Linda: Yes.

Rebecca: …but also being very clear in what the specs are, and then following through with whatever you said.

Linda: Yep, yep. And if you didn’t lay out enough detail, well, there’s always next semester. [LAUGHTER] But you can’t change those specs in midstream. “Oh, I wish I thought of this and then start grading students.” No, no, no, no, no. But again, we live and learn, right? We’ll get better the second time.

John: We always end with the question. What are you doing next?

Linda: Oh, what am I doing next? Well, what I’ve been doing is I’ve been doing a lot of traveling, doing keynotes and workshops… oftentimes on self-regulated learning, sometimes on specs grading, and sometimes on any number of different topics having to do with either teaching or academic writing, or something like that. So I’m going to be taking a little bit of a break from that until the end of, or late, July anyway and then things start up again. But that’s kind of nice. I don’t mind that because this keeps me semi-retired and that’s the way I want to be. A semi-retirement is Nirvana, just letting y’all know. [LAUGHTER] So, that’s what’s next for me, that and to finish my tea.

Rebecca: Sounds like the key to semi-retirement is the semi not retired part. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, it is, it is. Your brain is still working and you still got your thumb in the pie so to speak. And it feels good because you’re not under that same 60 hour a week pressure that you otherwise have with a regular job and then doing these other extra things on the side and it doesn’t work real well.

Rebecca: Thank you so much for joining us.

Linda: Well, thank you for this opportunity. I normally say… autograph books and things like that… happy teaching, but I want to wish everybody happy grading. [LAUGHTER] An odd phrase right? Happy grading. [LAUGHTER] What an odd phrase, right? Happy grading!

John: Thank you.

Rebecca: Thanks, Linda.

Linda: Bye bye.

[MUSIC]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

80. Self-Regulated Learning

Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, Dr. Linda Nilson joins us to examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

Dr. Nilson is the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. She is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. In this episode we focus on discussing one of her books: Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills.

Show Notes

  • Linda Nilson—Director Emeritus of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University
  • Nilson, L. (2013). Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-awareness and Learning Skills. Stylus Publishing, LLC..
  • Nilson, L. (2014). Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Professional and Organizational Development (POD)—Network in Higher Education Conference
  • Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77(6), 1121.

Transcript

This transcript has been edited to improve readability.

Rebecca: Most students arrive at college with serious misconceptions about effective learning strategies. In this episode, we examine what we as faculty can do to help students develop their metacognitive skills and become self-regulated learners.

[MUSIC]

John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer.

Rebecca: Together we run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego.

[MUSIC]

John: Today our guest is Dr. Linda Nilson, the founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University. Dr. Nilson is the author of many superb books, book chapters, and articles on teaching and learning. Welcome.

Linda: I’m very honored to be here. Thank you.

Rebecca: Today’s teas are…

John: Are you drinking any tea?

Linda: Yes, I am drinking tea. I am drinking Lemon Lift.

Rebecca: Oh that sounds like a great way to start the day.

Linda: It is. It’s a very good way. Well, I also started it with coffee, but… [LAUGHTER]

John: And I’m drinking Ginger Peach Black tea.

Rebecca: And I have my Golden Monkey tea today.

John: We’ve invited you here today to talk about your book, Creating Self-regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Students’ Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. Could you define what it means to be a self-regulated learner?

Linda: Yes. Self-regulated learning is the conscious planning, monitoring, and evaluation of one’s learning for the purpose of maximizing it. That’s a very fancy way of putting it. It’s that voice in your head that asks you questions about your learning as you’re involved in some sort of learning task, questions like, “Okay, I’m going to do a reading now, what strategy works best for me?” Now you just might brush over that because you’ve done readings of this type a dozen times, a hundred times, whatever, but you’ve asked yourself that question along the way. “What’s my best strategy? What kind of a task is this? And monitoring: are my strategies working for me? Am I getting it? Can I paraphrase the last couple of paragraphs that I just read?” It’s a reading thing, but it works also in lecture. And then at the end, you evaluate yourself. “Well, let’s see. I had a goal, being able to recite five main points from this chapter, let’s see if I can do it,” without looking at the chapter of course. [LAUGHTER] So you evaluate your abilities, you evaluate your strategies. That’s really what it’s all about and it involves a great deal of talking to yourself.

Rebecca: So how did you get interested in talking to yourself? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Well, I heard voices. [LAUGHTER] Well, how did I get interested in this topic? Actually, it was an accounting professor at Clemson that got me interested in it. This is 2007, right, this is a long time ago. And so she said to me, “What about giving a workshop on self-regulated learning?” In my head I said, “Huh? What’s that?” I’d never heard of it. And so I decided to go find out about it and it took me a few years to really get a workshop together on it and I decided, “Gosh, this is wonderful. This is learning how to learn. This is familiar to me,” because I’ve been talking to myself for years. [LAUGHTER] So I thought, “Okay, I’m not crazy. This is a learning strategy, a major learning strategy, one that you can use throughout your life.” And so I gave the workshop, I started giving workshops, like at the POD Network Conference—which is made up by people like me who go to this conference every year—and then I decided—well, I didn’t decide—a book publisher came up to me and said, “Please write a book on this, I will publish it.” Since I was in love with the topic anyway, I decided to do it. And so I did and delved into it deeply.

John: As you’ve described it, it sounds like part of this deals with improving student metacognition, but you note that it goes a bit further. Could you talk about the additional aspects of it?

Linda: Metacognition is the cognitive part of self-regulated learning, which is a major part of it. However, there are a couple of other elements to it that I don’t know that you could say are really focused on cognition. There is the emotional element to it, which involves getting yourself to be motivated and interested in the topic. Remembering, reviewing what your professor told you about the relevance of this topic, and thinking about it yourself. We can motivate ourselves, we can reframe a task for ourselves, and we can certainly reframe what is going on in terms of a learning experience. That’s a major, major part of it. The emotional part of the end is: “If you didn’t reach your goal, what do you do about it?” Do you give up, walk away, and say, “Well, I wasn’t born to do engineering,” or whatever the topic is. No, what you should say is, “Let’s try another strategy. Let’s look into possible strategies.” As instructors, we need to familiarize students with various strategies because they come to us—I like the phrase—“as feral children” in terms of the life of the mind and what they know about learning. We don’t have cognitive psychologists—unfortunately—teaching first grade or fifth grade, and so we need to equip them with how their mind works. There is one other element, a physical element, and that involves planning, monitoring, and evaluating your physical setting, where do you study best. If doing a reading or writing assignment, is it in a coffee shop, or do you have to essentially be in a soundproof booth where you don’t have any stimulation? How much coffee should you have? Or tea? [LAUGHTER] What kind of an environment should you set up for yourself—perhaps putting your digital distractions in another room. How should you schedule your breaks? Other things that you might want to consider is the amount of sleep that you have had because that can be a very important element of learning and writing. Some people study better to mild background noises as long as they are familiar music they’ve never heard before. You’ve got to try out these different things and find out your best setting.

John: In your book you describe how you became a self-regulated learner. Could you relay that story?

Linda: Yes, it was based on fear and terror. [LAUGHTER] As a child, I went to a private Catholic girls school—great education, but not in the sweetest of ways. From about fifth grade on, we had what was called recitation every single day in English and history classes. The nuns would ask a question and would randomly call out students’ names—we were in small classes so it wasn’t an absurd thing—and we had to get up and we’d better have the answer to the question. Now, not all the kids did, but I needed to be Little Miss Perfect because I wanted to get into college. Somehow I thought that the answers that I gave in fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth grade would or would not get me into college. So I learned to quiz myself while I was reading chapters or essays. Constantly quizzing myself. And another thing we had to do, usually later in the day, was called “exercise period.” We had 35 minutes to write an answer to an essay question that was generally related to the readings. And we couldn’t look at our books. It was out of desperation that I was trying different strategies so I could perform very well every day, and I was really quite successful. So when I was reading about self-regulated learning, I said, “My God, I was doing this as a child.” That’s why it sounded so familiar to me.

John: But that’s not the experience I think that the students we have entering our colleges have.

Linda: You are so right. You are so right. And we don’t do this to children anymore, okay? There is a good side to it—there really is—because you do buckle under and get very serious about your homework, very serious about your studies, or you look like an idiot the next day. Anyway, the sport I’m trying to think of is that sport where you get the ice or any kind of ice particles out of the way.…

Rebecca: Curling?

Linda: Curling! Curling, yes, we are curling teachers and curling parents. We try to clear the way for our students. We don’t want to put them in stressful situations. We don’t want to ask Johnny to read if Johnny might not be able to read—and I mean, get up and read well—and the problem with this is that students are denied the opportunity for achievement. And there is no achievement without the possibility of failure, there just isn’t. So students have no idea what fear and terror in school might be. There’s bullying and all that, but I mean from the learning experience. So no, they don’t have any kind of the experiences that I had.

Rebecca: How do we start coaching students then to become self-regulated learners if they’re coming out of this really different environment that’s much more supportive and doesn’t allow for failure seemingly?

Linda: They start failing in college. We’re still sort of, you know, curling them a little bit, but they are really facing a much greater challenge. They get insecure really quickly because they’ve been told how special they are and how smart they are, and then they begin to question that, because they’re not doing as well as they were in high school, where you could get an A relatively easily. Now, “Oh my, it can be really hard,” and then they start getting C’s, and then you have their attention. That’s a way that you can tell them that, “There are ways that you can get A’s, you did not learn how to study, here is a way to learn.” Does it involves a sort of effort? Sure, but it’s really just talking to yourself and deciding what strategies would be best for you, testing out strategies, seeing how they work, and you will be more successful. And there have been studies of students—like in developmental courses—that show that the students who are struggling the most tend to know the least about self-regulated learning strategies and start to do better if they use these strategies.Of course we’ve got to get them to use the strategies, we’ve got to explain these strategies. It can be life changing for them in the most positive way.

John: I think part of the issue is that faculty generally haven’t been taught these strategies themselves. They somehow found ways to be successful, so they become self-regulated learners, but faculty are the exceptions. They’re not the typical student, and they’ve never really been trained to teach students how to become more effective learners, in part because they never learned that directly themselves quite often. What can faculty do to be more effective in this way?

Linda: Well first of all, faculty have to realize that they’re the weird ones, and everybody else is normal. [LAUGHTER] So we have to stop projecting our learning abilities, our strategies, our interests in the life of the mind onto everybody else. We have to not only sell our material, but we have to equip students to learn our material. We don’t want to do that. We say, “They should know by now.” Well, guess what? They don’t. So what are you going to do about it? You’ve got to start from where they are. Teaching students learning strategies takes a couple of sentences every class. Now, if you really want to get into self-regulated learning activities and assignments with them, that might take a few minutes per class period, but you don’t have to do it every class period, and a lot of self-regulated learning activities can be homework, in which case they take no class time at all. This is so easy to do. This is why I think faculty have really been attracted to my book and why I’m asked to speak on it so often, because there are so many little things you can do that don’t take away from the content at all—rather, they reinforce the content—that make this huge difference in the performance of most students. You can’t always bring everybody along with you. There are some people—some students—who’d just as soon shoot themselves in their foot, but most do not. They find these activities so easy to do. They don’t take a lot of time and they get to know themselves and start doing better, so students don’t complain about this.

Rebecca: Can you describe what a couple of those activities might be?

Linda: Sure, absolutely. Well, let’s consider the different parts of the course and I’ll just give you just a few, some of my personal favorites. For starting a course for instance—starting and you can also end it with these sorts of activities—but one of them is a goal setting activity. You can assign this as homework, you can have students do it in class with students write on “How I earned an A in this course.” Now, you would be surprised and students will be surprised—C students and B students will be surprised—that they know what it takes to earn an A in a course, and they will come up with, “Well, I’ve got to come to class every day, don’t I? And in class I can’t fiddle around with my mobile device, and I have to start a paper sort of early and I have to keep up with the readings.” For many people, writing this down is goal setting for them. They think, “Well, you know, maybe I could do this, maybe this isn’t so absurd.” If you make a discussion out of it afterwards, the A students will say, “Yeah, I do these things, it’s not unrealistic.” And then the C and B and F students will say, “Well, let’s give it a whirl.” Then at the end of the course, you give them another little essay assignment, “How I earned an A in this course—or not.” [LAUGHTER] True confessions time, right? And so students assess how well they met their goals. Goal setting is definitely a part of self-regulated learning, the planning and then self-evaluation at the end. Another thing that you can do is you can give your students essay questions. If you give an essay final—or have any essays on it at all—you can give them the essays on the final to take the first day. This will not take much class time at all, because students will know very little, or they’ll try to BS an answer. So they will try but they can be really quite wrong. Now at the end, for the final, they correct their answers, and then rewrite these answers given the knowledge that they have gained throughout the course. This can be really interesting for faculty—for not just faculty… well, it can be interesting for them, too—because they can see exactly what they learned. So it is a measure of learning. Faculty will never get that comment on the student evaluations saying, “Well, I didn’t learn anything in this course.” Never again, that’s gone. So anyway, those are a couple of things that you can do. Little assignments you can make on the readings. Little reflection exercises like, “What did you think was the most important point in this reading? What surprised you the most? What connections can you make between what you read and your prior knowledge, what you already know? Or to your life? Or your emotional reactions to it, if the material is amenable to that?” So those are little reflections you can give on the readings. Another exercise, a self-testing exercise, is called “read, recall, review.” This is the best way to do reading. Forget about rereading, that’s what students really do… It’s really a waste of time. What students should do is to read a portion of the chapter or the whole chapter, put their notes away, close the book, and then recall as much as they can and write it down. Then they should go back and look in the chapter for what they forgot and what they might have gummed up. And they know that, “I didn’t really get that point.” And so they go back and look at it, and then they recall again. Read, recall, review. Studies that have been done on this showing it is so much more effective than rereading. It really doesn’t take that long, and then you actually have the material in your head, even in your long-term memory. You get retrieval practice, you get deliberate practice, so there’s nothing as good as testing yourself except—well, the nicest thing we can do for students is to test them. In lectures—I should say mini-lectures—it’s a good idea to have students do this. You stop, let’s say, every 15 minutes or so and have students do the same thing. Write down everything that they can recall, and then work with their neighbor to fill in the blanks—their own blanks—and ask any questions they have. First they ask their neighbor their questions, and then they ask you. This doesn’t take very long at all, maybe five minutes, but then you know that the students got it and can remember it. Again, most effective… studies done on this, too. So this makes students aware of their learning or their lack of learning. You can give students what are called active learning checks. You give your mini-lecture, and then you stop—and by the way, you can warn students you’re going to do this so they’re listening—and ask them, “Okay, what are the three major points in my last mini-lecture that I talked about in the last 15 minutes?” Then they write those things down—and it could be two things or four things depending—and turn them in. They don’t really have to turn them in, but you know, you might want to see them yourself. Then you reveal the three most important points, and they monitor and evaluate their learning skills. Now, students are motivated to want to learn how to listen to you, so they want to improve. According to a study that was done, they improve really quickly. The first time, 45 percent of students got all three points correct. By the third time, 75 percent of the students got these correct. Remarkable progress, really remarkable. Then there are meta-assignments. In a problem solving field like chemistry or math, we are denying students learning opportunities when all we do is mark the wrong answers as wrong or incomplete and then drop the subject. Students should be able to correct their mistakes to get half the points back, let’s say. In other words, they’re going to learn how to solve that problem if it’s the last thing they do. [LAUGHTER] Again, you give them some sort of an incentive, then they learn. There have been studies on this technique as well. It’s extremely effective. And students can learn not just from you, but in peer groups. Peers can help each other very effectively. There is a wrapper—they’re called “wrappers”—for an exam, a reflection that students do after they get their exams back where they answer questions like, “How did your expected grade compare with your actual grade? How do you feel about that?” So they have to look at the exam and your feedback. “How many hours did you study? Was that enough? What did you do while studying? Might you want to change your strategies? Why did you lose points? Were there any patterns that you see here? How are you going to study more effectively for the next exam?” This has been life changing for students because they’ve never thought about this before. They’ve never really looked at their exams, their mistakes. They drop them too, right? They don’t want to see what they did wrong. Yet these are the best learning opportunities possible, and they will remember them. We remember our mistakes, we learn from our mistakes, and it’s sad that we don’t stop and use those errors. These are just a small sample of self-regulated learning activities. I can give you many more. [LAUGHTER]

John: And there are many in the book, which we strongly recommend to people.

Linda: Yes, yes, yeah…

Rebecca: A lot of what you’re talking about seems tied to growth mindset as well.

Linda: Exactly, and this creates, this generates the growth mindset because students learn that they can learn, they can do better. Otherwise they feel like their learning is like the weather. “Maybe it’ll rain on me, and maybe not. [LAUGHTER] There’s really nothing I can do about it. Because it’s all about you, professor, you are responsible for my learning, just like the fates are responsible for the weather. [LAUGHTER] And if I’m not learning, you’re not a good instructor, or you’re pitching the material over my head, or your teaching strategies are wrong.” And so everybody else gets blamed, and then they start to realize, “Oh, I can do this.” Now, this isn’t the best news for them in the world because then they have to start taking responsibility for their learning. And that can be, for some students, a hard pill to swallow. For other students it will be very empowering, and what we want to encourage in students is that sense of empowerment.

John: And that’s especially important, I think, in freshman-level classes, because students generally don’t come in with that type of mindset. They’ve often been able to blame it on the teacher and do things over and over again until they get the grade they want or get the extensions and so forth with a focus on self-esteem in many classrooms.

Linda: Oh, yeah, self-esteem without achievement.

John: But it’s an adjustment. So if they come in with a fixed mindset, and they’re confronted with failure, it’s pretty easy to give up. So we need to encourage students, I think, to see failure as a learning opportunity as you’ve mentioned. As instructors, I think we have to somehow convince them of that, because they don’t come in naturally picking it up, but the techniques you’ve mentioned are very good for that.

Linda: You know, our whole society makes them feel they’re not responsible for their learning. Look at what happens in K-12. Students have to take standardized tests and if they don’t do well, who gets blamed and who suffers? The teacher and the school, and that’s nuts. In the final analysis, we teach ourselves. We are responsible for our own learning. Good teaching can make a big difference because we can be motivated or unmotivated by teaching. We can acquire learning strategies through teaching. So it’s not that students are just left adrift on their own, we do have to help them. We do have to put them in learning experiences where learning becomes attractive for them, or you can’t help but learn, right? But they’ve got to pick up that learning and run with it themselves.

Rebecca: So you mentioned the idea of encouraging students to see learning and the self-regulation as empowering. What about those students who are a little resistant to that because it’s surprising to them that they’re not getting it and they’re failing and that it’s going to be more work? What are some things that we can do to encourage those students to see things a little differently?

Linda: Yes, first of all, if they’re failing and they subconsciously want to—it happens, it really does —[LAUGHTER] there is not a whole lot you can do about it. They might need some counseling and they might need to get some help from professionals like psychologists. But again, it can be difficult for students to realize that the ball is in their court because it’s a whole different gestalt for them. The only cure for that is success—a little bit of success—where they start doing a little better, let’s say, on the quiz on the readings or they start being able to solve more problems. That’s really the only cure. And we are assuming that they want to be successful. Again, if they prefer failure, then they are responsible for their own failure.

Rebecca: Right, they’re the ones that are normal and we are not, right? [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Exactly.

Rebecca: Maybe that should be the refrain of this interview, right?

Linda: Yes. They are the normal ones and we are strange. And we always have been strange. We were the strange kids in school, too. [LAUGHTER]

John: In your book you mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect as being a barrier to some students, that the students who don’t understand things as well often overestimate their understanding. How can we overcome that?

Linda: Self-regulated learning helps when we give them activities and assignments where they do self-evaluation, because the only way to learn self-evaluation is through practice, practice with feedback. And that feedback doesn’t even have to come from you; it can come from peers or a computer program. We don’t give students a lot of practice in self-evaluation, and they certainly haven’t had much of it in K-12l. But the nice thing is that when we have students look back to see if they met their goals, or to evaluate their study strategies, or to assess their mistakes and the reasons for their mistakes, it makes all the difference in the world. After low-stakes practice, you can introduce higher stakes self-evaluation assignments and see more savvy self-evaluations.

John: What recommendations do you have for faculty who’d like to start building more self-regulation? Are there small steps that faculty could take to get started on this path?

Linda: Absolutely. There’s a sense in which most of the assignments, most of the activities, are little things. Here’s a little thing you can start off the course with, I was talking about essay questions, but you can just have students do a little reflection the first day and then again on the last day about the subject matter, as in, “What do you think chemistry is? Why is it a science?” You can find out a lot about students’ misconceptions just by looking at these reflections. And then of course, they’ve hopefully corrected a lot of misconceptions by the end. This could take like all of five minutes the first day. There’s so many little things. Here are some ideas for experiential learning. It’s so easy for students not to make a connection between a simulation, an interesting role play, a service-learning experience, or field work to the course. So it’s important that whenever you do an experiential assignment or activity, students reflect on what they are learning—for a simulation, to look back and explain what their goals were, to evaluate how well they met their goals, to assess their strategies, to explain how their strategies changed and their responses to other players. It’s very important that students become conscious of what’s going on in their heads. Only by becoming conscious can they remember the strategies? [LAUGHTER] And then they can write them down and articulate them. You can have students do short papers associated with papers and projects where they record, while they are doing it, the process they are following. If you’ve given them a process to follow, they even have a skeletal outline of what they should be doing. This is a place also for self-evaluation. If you have students do a revision, oftentimes you give them feedback on what they should revise, and they may or may not read your advice. So you can have them paraphrase your feedback back to them and write out their goals for the revision. What are they going to do? What are their strategies for revision? These are just little things. Students start to realize the value of this. And again, this is an assignment where you can’t screw up. It’s not a test, it’s just a reflection of what’s going on in your head. Students like to learn about themselves. And this is like the reading reflections. This is no stress. How do you mess this up? It takes less stress to just write an honest answer than it is to make one up that sounds credible. [LAUGHTER] I want to make faculty aware that the activities don’t have to be graded at all. The assignments don’t really have to be graded. You “grade” them pass-fail. Students pass just by completing the assignment. Let’s say, you had them answering three questions, three reflections. Did they answer three reflections? Is it vaguely on the chapter? Okay it’s not about football, it’s something about what’s in the chapter. [LAUGHTER] And did they meet the length requirement? It’s always a good idea to give length requirements on these reflections because for students, length means depth. So if you ask them to write a minimum of 150 words, you know, they’ll tend to do that. Those who don’t fail.You don’t count every word that students write. You eyeball the reflection. Essentially you are “grading” pass-fail at a glance. It doesn’t take much time. Plus, it gets students to do the readings in the easiest way and most productive way for them. It’s all about them, and it’s not about us. We just have to hold them accountable in some very quick way. Even the longer assignments that you might associate with a paper or project can be graded pass-fail. You have to make them worth some points if you’re still on a point system. But there are alternatives, that’s what specifications grading is all about. You don’t have to use points. In any case, you do have to at least eyeball the reflections and give some value in your course however you are grading. That communicates to students that this is important to you, that you put value on this meta-assignment or assignment wrapper, as you might call it. The same thing with the post-exam wrapper, these reflections on this exam. You make students do it because it’s worth 10 points if they simply complete it and hand it in—even though it’s for them—and they will realize right away that there is some value to this. Again, for some students, it will be life changing in the most positive way. And they will start to realize the way that they’ve been preparing for or taking exams may not be the best. They will realize what they tend to do when they’re taking an exam, such as to misread the question, or to be careless, or to not budget their time, or to not really thoroughly study all the material. Cramming is not very effective. You don’t have to spend time grading these exercises or giving any feedback at all. They can give themselves their own feedback. If they did it and they get the 10 points, okay, that’s plenty of feedback for them. They did it. You regard it as their meeting the requirements of the assignment.

John: And this is a topic you cover in another book on specifications grading, which is also another book we’d like to recommend. We’ll include a link to both of those on the show notes.

Linda: The title of the book is Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students—it’s been found to be motivating—and Saving Faculty Time, saving you time. If there’s one thing we don’t have, it’s time. Time is really more precious to us than money. Otherwise, we’d be working in some venture capital firm or something. [LAUGHTER] But time is really quite a precious thing for us. So, in terms of these sort of assignments, for self-regulated learning assignments, they’re all what we’d call “specs graded.” You set out the specs, they’re very simple, and you just grade them pass-fail.

Rebecca: I think pointing out how it doesn’t have to be complicated for faculty is important because I think we all want students to learn. We all want them to be self-regulated learners.

John: We all want to give students feedback, but we don’t want to make it impossible for us to keep up with our work.

Rebecca: Yeah. Or feedback that’s going to get ignored anyways.

John: Right.

Linda: You’re worried about students reading the feedback, and our feedback is valuable. We’ve given it, we’ve taken the time, and so you make them paraphrase it back to you. And this could be a learning experience for us because we might be “misread.” Students might not understand something that we’ve said. Awkward—that’s my favorite one—a sentence structure is awkward. What does that mean? That student didn’t set out to write an awkward sentence. That in itself will not help them because they don’t know what you’re talking about, and this is most unfortunate. But again, it’s a learning experience for us and we can learn to express ourselves somewhat differently. Too often, students get back a paper from us and look at the grade, read the paragraph at the end of the paper, and put it in their “circular file.” They dump it. They don’t read that feedback, so how are they going to get better? So paraphrasing our feedback back to us can be a very valuable exercise for them. And you can let them gain back some points for it. I just think that faculty should look at themselves as responsible for helping our students learn. They don’t come to us with those skills. We can be the finest instructor in the world, have the most interesting classes, hold their attention, and motivate them, but if they don’t know how to process that material in their own minds, it’s all for naught. Now, maybe, hopefully, seniors have learned to learn their material along the line. And by the way, there can be different learning strategies for different subject matter. There are different self-regulated learning activities and assignments for problem solving mathematically-based fields, and different ones for the social sciences and humanities. There can different kinds of assignments, different kinds of readings, actually different kinds of lectures. So we have to respect that. But we have to become conscious of study strategies, learning strategies, our strategies, and other strategies that are out there. But self-regulated learning strategies, to my mind, they’re the shortest distance between two points. Shortest distance between ignorance and learning because it’s all going on in your head, and it’s so powerful. The value of it to students becomes evident rather quickly.

Rebecca: And it’s a skill that can help through a whole lifetime, not just while they’re in college and I think helping students realize that is also really valuable.

Linda: Like no other generation before, these younger generations are going to have to learn to learn on their own. They’re going to have to keep up with their field, whatever their field is, and they might have to—will very likely have to—pivot into another field because their first field might run its course. They’re going to have to learn on their own. They aren’t going to have employers holding their hand. Not at all. They’re probably going to have to learn online, where you really are responsible for your own processing, more so than you might feel let’s say in a face-to-face class, and for your own motivating as well. There needs to be more motivation than simple fear that you will go hungry and won’t be able to get a job. [LAUGHTER] Yes, students are going to really have to learn how to learn. If they consider that a bitter pill, that’s too bad. This is reality, this is life, and most of them have not learned that life is hard. Many of them are wondering where their next meal is coming from, but a lot of students have not. Students need to learn along the line that life is not easy, that nobody does curling on their path. And they will face challenges, but if they have the strategies for facing these challenges, no problem. They needn’t be paralyzed. They needn’t freeze.

John: You foster some really good advice and I think our listeners will appreciate this and it’s really powerful.

Rebecca: Yeah, I agree. We’re all wondering, what’s next for you?

Linda: I’m actually Director Emeritus. I’m actually retired from Clemson University. But you know how academics are, [LAUGHTER] they don’t disappear, they just sort of like fade away. So I’m trying to ease into retirement because it’s not an easy thing to do? Not when you love what you’ve been doing. But I have sworn off writing books. That’s progress! [LAUGHTER] I’ve written some articles and chapters in other people’s books, so that’s fine. And I’m still traveling to give keynotes and faculty workshops. That’s hard to give up because it’s interesting to go somewhere else, somewhere new.” And I still give webinars and podcasts. But eventually I won’t be doing that anymore. Ultimately I want to work with animals. I do love animals but I’m still busy doing this and still loving doing this, but also loving just as much not having to do bureaucratic tasks for the university [LAUGHTER] and not having to stay up until two in the morning doing my email. When I’m traveling, not have to worry about, what’s going on back at the office. So I’m not complaining about retirement. I really like where I’m at right now, but I know that I will eventually fade into the sunset. That’s okay because then I’ll reinvent myself.

Rebecca: Sounds like some self-regulation was going on there, I’m pretty sure. [LAUGHTER]

Linda: Yes, I’m trying, I’m trying to retire but not too quickly.

John: Well, we’re glad you haven’t, fully yet.

Rebecca: This was really great. Thank you so much for spending some time with us today.

Linda: Well thank you for this opportunity. I hope that I have helped some faculty members out there to help them help their students to achieve more, because again, we all do want our students to learn. We’re all in love with our material, it’s worth learning, and we just have to help our students do that. So thank you ever so much, and thank all of you listeners for listening.

Rebecca: Thank you so much.

[Music]

John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.

John: Editing assistance provided by Kim Fisher, Chris Wallace, Kelly Knight, Joseph Bandru, Jacob Alverson, Brittany Jones, and Gabriella Perez.