217. Grading Justice

Traditional grading systems can encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning, and favor continuing generation students who are more familiar with the hidden curriculum of higher ed. In this episode, Kristen Blinne joins us to discuss grading strategies that promote equity and encourage learning.

Kristen is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communications and Media Department at the State University of New York at Oneonta. Kristen is also the editor of Grading Justice: Teacher Activist Approaches to Assessment. Judie Littlejohn, the Instructional Designer at Genesee Community College and a frequent guest on the podcast, joins us again as a guest host.



John: Traditional grading systems can encourage students to focus on their grades rather than on their learning, and favor continuing generation students who are more familiar with the hidden curriculum of higher ed. In this episode, we discuss grading strategies that promote equity and encourage learning.


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: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


John: Our guest today is Kristen Blinne. Kristen is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Communication and Media Department at the State University of New York at Oneonta. Kristen is also the editor of Grading Justice: Teacher Activist Approaches to Assessment. Judie Littlejohn, the Instructional Designer at Genesee Community College and a frequent guest on the podcast, is joining us again as a guest host. Welcome, Kristen.

Kristen: Good morning. I’m very happy to be here with both of you.

Judie: Good morning.

John: Today’s teas are… Are you drinking tea?

Kristen: I am, it is a jasmine green tea, my favorite of the tea world.

Judie: And mine is a Twinings Lady Grey.

John: And I am drinking Tea Forté black currant tea, which is one of my favorites, with some honey from Saratoga Tea & Honey. I think you both met through Judie’s work on the FACT2 Subcommittee on Social Justice Assessment. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Judie: The subcommittee is part of the larger Innovations in Assessment Committee and Chilton Reynolds is one of the co-chairs of that, and he is at Oneonta where Kristen is. And so he notified our group that she had published this book. And Chris Price in our group reached out to Kristen and asked if she’d be willing to meet with us. And she did, and we had a great conversation. Unfortunately for me, I was driving that day. So I was on the thruway trying to participate as well as I could. And it was great, it was a very engaging conversation, a nd it was great to hear from Kristen and hear her enthusiasm and all her great ideas. So it’s great for me to meet with you again and to finally see you this time. [LAUGHTER] So welcome, I’m glad to see you here.

Kristen: Thank you, I was so excited to receive that message about the FACT2 Social Justice Assessment group. I didn’t even realize that that existed at the time that that email was received. And so I was truly overjoyed that these conversations were happening in a coordinated way in the system, and to be able to just have that moment to jump into the conversation here, kind of what the group is doing and the vision for moving forward. And it’s exciting to see even the website materials that are up that are situating these conversations for a broader audience.

John: We’ll share a link to the website for that group in the show notes. So, we’ve invited you here today to talk about this book. Could you tell us a little bit about how this project came about?

Kristen: Yeah, so the Grading Justice book project really grew out of a few different streams in my experience just teaching, but also my experience as a learner, as a student going through a system. I have to say that it was born out of a lot of frustration that I had as an instructor. [LAUGHTER] And I hate to frame it in that way, because it’s kind of a negative framing. But I think most instructors can agree that we spend a lot of time grading, and the grading comes with a bunch of challenges, especially if you’re doing any kind of activist or social justice work or you’re trying to create equitable learning spaces. Trying to do grading in a fair way that best meets the goals of the course and to have students on board with that process is difficult work. And so in my case, I looked back to my experience as a student when I tried to build my classes coming in as a college instructor. And I realized that as a student, I really didn’t have a very positive relationship with grades. They didn’t matter to me that much, I was always in it for the learning, but I had a lot of difficulty going through the system because of the emphasis on grading. I wanted to be a learner and I wanted to explore my creativity in ways that maybe didn’t fit with the limited grading structures that I encountered as I went through K through 12 and into my college experience. It wasn’t until I finally landed at Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont, an institution that doesn’t do grading, that I’ve really embraced my learning in a new way. So when I came into my own teaching process, I realized it’s like, “Wow, okay, I have to now impose these grades on the learners in my classes. And how can I do that in a way that honors the journey I went on, recognizing that other students may be also experiencing the same struggles that I had?” So I came to this Grading Justice project because I wanted to have these conversations with educators, really across disciplines, but the book is focusing a lot on people who are working within the field of communication and critical pedagogy but also critical communication pedagogy. But my hope is that it has appeal to a wider audience than that. Aside from the frustrations, another thing that I noticed because I do a lot of social justice work is… How do you assess social justice work in an equitable way? So that was one of the questions I came into the project with: How do we assess social justice work? But then… What would a social justice approach to assessment look like in our teaching and learning processes, especially in the realm of critical pedagogy, because it was part of a critical pedagogy book series? I’ve noticed that a lot of people who embrace critical pedagogy, they may still be using traditional learning systems. And so how do you, as an educator, work with that tension that might be coming with reinforcing systems that may be perpetuating inequality while you’re also trying to undo systems of oppression and engage in power sharing with students? And so I was finding this contradiction that inspired me to want to really pursue this in a very serious way.

Judie: A major theme of the book is that grading systems can either perpetuate inequality or work toward equity and justice. How might traditional grading and assessment systems perpetuate inequality?

Kristen: So one of the things that really spoke to me as someone who was trying to navigate how to create a more equitable classroom, because I’m really invested in making my classroom as diverse and inclusive and accessible as possible, is having conversations with students about assessment. Because what I found over time is that students, as I mentioned about myself, many of them have a pretty negative relationship with grades and grading. And a lot of them don’t see them as accurately measuring their learning, at least in the experiences I’ve had in having these conversations across my classes. I had this lightbulb moment when we had a guest speaker come to SUNY Oneonta, Ernest Morrell came as part of one of our teaching institutes. And he said something in a small group session that, really, I think about a lot in regard to this question about grades perpetuating inequality. He said, “We need to stop measuring students’ success against failure.” And in that moment, when those words kind of tumbled out of his mouth, I just was like, [EXPLOSION SOUND]. It occurred to me, I always have wanted to encourage… I don’t want to say encourage failure in the class… but I want to encourage experimentation… classroom as living laboratory where people can try things and have it maybe not work out. An example I could give of that is I taught public speaking for many, many years. It’s a class that students have a lot of anxiety about taking in many cases, and there’s a struggle there. And so one of the things one of my students did once is they decided to sing a poem about Rachael Ray. I wasn’t sure if this was a great idea, but they did it. And if you ask them, they would say it was an utter failure. And it didn’t work out in the way they wanted it to. But why would I grade someone on that failure? And say, “Well, it didn’t work out as you wanted to, the audience wasn’t really that invested in that approach of singing a poem.” There’s a way that that could actually have worked very negatively and inspired a student not to take a chance in this case, but it allowed them the space to try something. So one of the things that I think about with this quote of Ernest Morrell is stop measuring success against failure. What does that mean if we think about grades in regards to equity and inequity? Well, first off, what does grading do? It quantifies our learning. It creates some kind of measure that we’re using as a tool of comparison. It operates, in my opinion, a lot like a credit score. It gives us a numeric value or worth that can grant us access to or limit us from different opportunities. Those opportunities can be admissions into something, whether it be grad school or undergraduate, teaching assistantships, it can offer us opportunities for funding and scholarships. There’s lots of ways that it serves as this gatekeeper process. It’s also something that labels us as learners: the A-student versus the C-student versus the student that we might say is the failing student. And in that way, it can stigmatize pretty extensively. It’s also, in my opinion, a system that both rewards and punishes. And what it’s rewarding and punishing is really dependent on the way that the instructor situates grading in their course, of course. Beyond that, I would argue that, as many other educators working with non-traditional assessment might suggest, that it oversimplifies complex learning processes. It creates a snapshot of a moment that doesn’t give us the full context of what’s happening in that student’s life in that moment. So we don’t have any idea most of the time about all the many struggles that our students are facing, until often maybe it comes about at the last part of the semester, when they’re trying to finally disclose some of the struggles that they’ve had. Aside from that, of course, beyond that comparison, and then like a mechanism of standardization, it also is something that’s applied pretty inconsistently across instructors, which in some ways renders it as a kind of arbitrary measure in the sense that my B isn’t your B. They don’t mean the same thing necessarily. So how are students supposed to make sense of a process where they can’t recognize this standard across this thing that’s supposed to be standardized? Because it invites, I think, when you take all those factors into account together, an opportunity for students to look at this system as a kind of game that they have to navigate. And not a game in a fun way where we’re enhancing our learning, but a game in the sense that, “All I need to do to be successful in this system is to learn what the professor wants. How do I make sure that I meet this deadline or I can amass as many points?” And it becomes this process that for many, I think, is very decoupled from the learning itself. And then we can, of course, see how this snowballs into all kinds of conversations about grade inflation and its relationship to evaluations of instruction and marginalization in regards to the bias that can happen as instructors grade across the different learners in their classes and their abilities and understandings. And all of that is, in the end, we need to start asking that question, I think, more and more: “What do grades mean? What are we actually trying to measure to kind of undo some of the ways in which grades function in an inequitable manner?”

John: And so students spend a lot of their time focusing on learning the rules of the game. But it’s a different game in each and every class that they take, which I think you’re arguing would distract them from actually focusing on learning the material that we’re hoping they get out of the course. Your book is an edited work, where you have a number of contributors. How did you solicit the contributors for this project?

Kristen: I first started by doing an open call in the National Communication Association listserv. At the time, it was called CRITnet, which is Communication Research in Theory Network, it is now called something else. But at the time, I sent out an open call there. I also handed out flyers at the national convention we had in Salt Lake City the year that I was putting together this project. And so I was really excited by the people who responded to that call. I also reached out to a few of the contributors based on work that I knew that they were doing in this area to try to round out the collection. And I can imagine that this could have had multiple volumes, just with the really interesting work people are doing in grading and assessment. So the chapters in the book are diverse in their scope, and even still, they paint a very small picture of a very big conversation. So we had a chapter that focused on grade inflation, just about the rhetoric of grading. Chapters that looked at team teaching and types of collaborative course construction. Assignments that are focused on, I say the “borderlands” or looking even just at activist work in general. And then chapters that explored going into critical Universal Design for Learning, moving into discussions about teacher evaluations, but also just assessment more broadly. And then my own chapters focused on my experiments with non-traditional assessment, the experiments I’ve had in that realm, and the work that I’ve done in addition to setting the stage through the introduction. And I’m so grateful for the collaborators that were part of this project. I mean, I really see it as our book. Of course, my name as the Editor, but we were a team. And we were a team that went about this project in a way that I thought was really beautiful, because I did invite the chapter collaborators to read each other’s chapters and offer feedback as part of the process in addition to my feedback. And we also then worked together at a national convention post the publication of the book to do a short course where we actually taught about our respective chapters. And it was well-attended, and we had some really robust and interesting conversations about how instructors could carry these ideas forward.

Judie: Kristen, in chapter seven you discuss your own experiences with non-traditional assessment. Could you tell us a bit about how your assessment strategies have evolved?

Kristen: I’d love to explore that more. As I said, I feel like my journey with learning to do assessment really started with my work being a student at Goddard College. I was building my own course plans as part of the way that Goddard is set up because it’s working in a tutorial model where, in my case, at the time I was there, you did 15 credits with one faculty member. You built the content for that course and they helped guide you through that process. At the end of that journey, you did a self-evaluation, and they did a narrative evaluation that went into your transcript. So that really, for me, set the foundation for this experience. But then when I went into graduate school, I had the opportunity to work with one of the faculty at the University of South Florida, Mariaelena Bartesaghi, who was, at the time, working with our Interpersonal Communication course. Many TAs oversaw that course. And she had done a grant that she had designed to reimagine that course around process pedagogy and portfolio work, and was really drawing on the work of Peter Elbow and Jan Danielewicz’s work on the unilateral grading contract. And so that was where I really started dipping my toes into finding a way outside of more traditional grading systems when I was a teacher versus a learner. And so I have to say that my own approach started with that approach, the unilateral contract. And for those people that may be unfamiliar with that, it’s a process that really creates the B as a baseline, the B grade. So it’s behavioral in the sense that students are assigned a series of expectations that they must meet in the semester and if they meet those expectations—whether it be number of classes missed, or work turned in, following the instruction, so it’s up to the instructor to determine what those criteria are—then they’re guaranteed that B grade. And anything that goes above a B is up to the discretion of the instructor as far as whether they’re working with a plus/minus, a B+, A-, A. And often in that case, there may be a focus on the quality of the work, there may not be, depending on the instructor and how they implement that plan. One of the things that I found in Elbow and Danielewicz’s system, is that they maintain a strong hold on the course policies. But I was more interested in trying to find a way to go more in the direction of your assured work and thinking about how I could share power with students and have them collaboratively construct course policies. So pretty quickly, and what I kind of call in the text, the guaranteed B approach. One of the ways that I started was always about collaborative course content construction with the students. So consensus process to build ideas about: What does participation mean? How does it function in our class? What role should attendance play in this process? What would an A look like based on the assignments that we’ve done this semester? And so letting them have a voice in that and having a lot of conversations in the context of the class about grading and assessment. So really involving their voice in the process was important to me. I will say that, just kind of broadly, as far as my own approach, I don’t do tests and quizzes, I prioritize other types of assignments. I don’t use percentages or points. Early in my process, I used a lot more markers in my grading. So like a check, check-minus, check-plus, or I would use markers like “meets criteria for a B,” “does not meet criteria for a B,” “exceeds criteria.” Because at the time, I still thought that students really wanted that marker to help keep them on track. And that part has really evolved for me. And I think earlier in my process, I was a lot more attached to attendance and participation models. Even though they might have been student-identified and selected, I put more weight on it than I maybe do at this point. So from the guaranteed B approach, my focus went further into a tiered method that I call kind of a pick-a-plan grading where it was, I think, most similar to what some may use, like a labor-based grading, where you’re actually doing more work for higher grades. And I found that students really responded very positively to that. It still had that kind of guaranteed B if you did this level of work based on the same kind of criteria, but then it allowed more work equals a higher grade. You weren’t guaranteed that more work would equal a higher grade, but it allowed them to make choices upfront saying, “Well this semester, I have a lot going on, so I’m going to choose to do less work,” and that’s okay. And I had quite a lot of students do that. From there, my process evolved to I think what I consider one of my favorite approaches in my experiments over the years was what I called the 100% participation or engagement plan, if you want to use it as a plan, which I think scares a lot of instructors, that idea [LAUGHTER]. Because participation is such a murky realm already for many. What does that even mean? What does that look like in practice? So for me, what that meant in my class is that the students dictated: What does 100% participation look like? And as part of that, I required that students meet with me to discuss their own participation and engagement in the course, we create a consensus around that. And then at the end of the semester, would actually meet to finalize each person’s grade based on what the class determined as their overarching grade categories and the students’ own assessment of their participation. In the text I also talk about the group-focused version of that, which I won’t get into at this space. But the last thing that I talked about as part of my experiment, is that in some semesters, I would just ask the students to pick what kind of assessment they wanted in the class. So I’ve given them some of these ideas: “Do you think you want to do a guaranteed B approach? Do you want to do more of a tiered pick-a-plan approach? Do you want to do an approach where you are doing 100% participation and engagement?” And so it would not be uncommon for me to have some semesters where every class had a different assessment system, based on what the group themselves decided. And key to that is that I always just remained flexible and adaptable to shift it if it wasn’t working, because we had other tools that we could draw from. Another way that the select your own assessment process has worked for me is that you can ask students to decide what they want to be assessed on in the class, this paper versus this—I don’t do tests, but you could do it with tests—as a method. So all of those were really great experiments for me, and “experiment” I almost think it sounds negative in the way I’m saying it because I tried and I had a lot of failures trying these different systems, a lot of struggles, and things that came up. And it occurred to me along the way that maybe some of these practices, while they were kind of masquerading as being more just and equitable, I was maybe falling into some of the exact same traps that I would have been had I been using points and percentages in a more traditional approach. And so that was another huge “aha” moment for me that contributed to the construction of this project. How do I actually embody a system that maybe isn’t falling into some of those traps, even if I think that I’m doing that work? And that’s where I found myself developing my approach to ungrading that I call “awareness pedagogy.”

Judie: That’s interesting how you’re trying to do the right thing, you’re trying to make something better, and then you find out or realize that maybe it’s not better. It’s frustrating. I’ve run through that with offering extra credit, and then I read an article that said that extra credit inherently favors the students who are already doing the best and have the best time and the best preparation. And I thought about that for a long time and realized, “Yeah, I’m doing a disservice to a lot of students by adding to the pressure with more extra credit.” And it wasn’t easy to get to that. I kind of had to see it and then reflect on it for a while, and it was frustrating. So, I don’t do that anymore.

John: Especially when students are asking for extra credit, especially late in the semester. Explaining to them why you don’t do it, though, perhaps could be a useful learning experience for them too.

Kristen: It’s interesting. Because I can’t even remember the last time a student asked me about extra credit in a class. [LAUGHTER] Maybe they just assumed that it just doesn’t exist.

John: Both faculty and students generally find grading to be a very unpleasant experience. And I think many faculty would like to move away from this to some extent. But they may be facing pressures, especially if they’re untenured, and probably especially in the STEM fields, to use traditional grading systems or grading approaches. Are there some strategies that faculty could use that they want to move away from really bad practices to somewhat more equitable practices of assessment?

Kristen: Yeah that’s a great question. And absolutely, I think it’s so important to just acknowledge that not everyone has the same access to actually utilizing a non-traditional assessment in their classroom, whether it be because they’re mandated to assess in a specific way, “Here’s the syllabus, here’s what you’re teaching, go forth and meet your class.” Or if it’s because they maybe are in a marginalized space in the process or they’re in a precarious position. So some of the things that I think that I would invite instructors to consider to lessen the impact of grades and to maybe make the grading process more purposeful is to just, first and foremost, revisit your course policies. And whether you collaboratively construct them with students or not, revisiting our course policies is a really interesting way that we can start to look at the consequences of what we’re setting forward for students to do in our class. So as I said, I used to lean a lot more heavily on the role of late work in my class, like the no late work. And also just having more strict attendance policies because, again, I was thinking about it in terms of this behavioral approach that Elbow and Danielewicz had outlined. And I just stayed with that for a while, and it made sense to me at the time. But after I started seeing that maybe reinforcing these non-academic behaviors was actually not in accord with the learning goals that I have for the class. And I wasn’t really taking into account the whole picture that the student was experiencing, I started to go back and go, “Okay, how can I soften the role that those behavioral policies play in my course?” I think that’s one thing that instructors can do: look at what they’re determining in regard to attendance, late or makeup work, participation in general, and just having conversations with our classes about what it means to participate in the context of this class. What does attendance do or not do in regard to your capacity for success in this course? And also, just more broadly, makeup work and late work is something where we can see a lot of students really suffering in their grades in the end, and it could be that they have any number of things going on that they’re not ready to disclose to us. So that’s one thing. Another thing is aside from course policies in general, and rethinking the non-academic things that we’re actually grading is to consider the possibility of doing minimum grading. As outlined by Thomas Guskey or Douglas Reeves, this idea that eliminating the zero in our gradebook. The zero is a powerful tool that can really keep students from progressing. They may have had something come up that caused them to miss that assignment, maybe were not willing to budge about it, but that zero is going to have a ripple effect that it’s very difficult to recover, depending on the weight or the points of that assignment. So consider minimum grading, a 50 If you’re working with 100 points. What if you give them a 50 versus a zero, that does something that can maybe allow the student some possibility of bouncing back. Because how does it motivate someone if they have a zero and they know they can’t recover? It’s like you’ve lost them. And then what is our learning doing in the class? Are we just going to let them be adrift and not try to find a way that we can move forward? So I would encourage that. I would also say that if we’re thinking about it from a social justice standpoint, that we should stop averaging when possible… again, because if we look at grading as a kind of reward or punishment, averaging can take that moment where we did that zero or we froze them in that time when… Who knows what happened? Maybe they lost a loved one, maybe they just received a very scary diagnosis of their own health, maybe they’ve been working more than 40 hours a week or something that we just don’t know about… they’re experiencing trauma at home or in a relationship. And so averaging, I think, is one of the things that I would encourage instructors to consider reducing their reliance on or even curving. But that, of course, gets us into a whole ‘nother realm of like, “Okay, well, how does that impact now, if you’re going up for rehire, or on the job market, or a tenure and promotion? If you start putting these policies in play, how will your colleagues understand them as they’re assessing you?” Which, in itself, requires a lot of additional labor which I think keeps some instructors from stepping their toes into these different possibilities.

Judie: I read in Jesse Stommel’s blog post, “How to Ungrade,” where they start off their class with maybe the first few weeks the students’ work is not graded, it doesn’t have a point value, it just is for them to learn how to do the assignments and get the feedback. And then they could start from there for some sort of point value, so that they have a chance to grow accustomed to how the course works and what the expectation is before they’re graded.

Kristen: And that’s a beautiful way to think about it too. And that was one of the things that I’m glad you raised it, because I also wanted to mention that, is building in more space for pass/fail opportunities or for ungraded assignments. And even extending that further is maybe building in more space for peer evaluation and self evaluation. Having those conversations with students about what constitutes good peer evaluation or peer feedback and creating guides for that. And even having conversations with your class about what constitutes a good discussion in class, if you’re a discussion-based class, because maybe not a lot of students have actually learned how to engage in productive discussions or dialogues, especially across difficult topics. So creating those opportunities to have space in your calendar to allow those conversations to happen, I think is really, really helpful.

John: You mentioned how students can learn from their mistakes. And as academics, we know that we often learn the most by trying something and failing, and we want to encourage students to do that. But when we use high-stakes exams, that certainly deters students from taking risks and trying new things. What can we do to help relieve some of that pressure to encourage students to be willing to learn from mistakes, because that’s not something they’ve learned from their past educational experiences?

Kristen: Absolutely. And I think that’s why I prioritize revision in my classes, like every course I teach has some element of revision built into the process. So for example, in the courses I’m working with this semester, everything is ungraded up until the final project, which is the primary way in which the course grade is determined. So everything’s a draft until that final project that they turn in. So they have their self-evaluation process as part of that. They have a peer feedback component, and then they get my feedback, they build in that revision. And then we actually do our grade consensus process at the end when they’ve gone through all of that revision and feedback, so that they have that last layer of opportunity to revise it even further towards their grade goal in the semester. And so I think revision is one way that we can do that. And not every class lends itself equally to utilizing a revision project, I realize that, but there are ways that you can do it in a manner that I think students can still gain something from, even if it’s just to show them that not every assignment is one and done, that it’s a process that they can find ways to improve it and to gain new information.

Judie: If we look at the students that are in a classroom, how can faculty leverage the diversity of student backgrounds to create an equitable learning environment?

Kristen: So one of the things that I really wanted to share with you all that I tried this semester for the first time, and I thought the results were pretty great. At the beginning of this semester, I asked my courses to do a syllabi inventory of their classes. And we all know, I know we hear instructors say it all the time, like, “It’s on the syllabus. Return to the syllabus, it’s there.” And it’s this often unread document that creates the roadmap for everything that’s ahead. I know that there’s lots of ways that instructors try and get students to read the syllabus. They create syllabi quizzes, and they do all these little things to get them involved. But I thought, ‘Well, why not ask them to go into their syllabi for all of their courses this semester and to answer some questions?’ So I just used Microsoft forms to build something for them where they went in and they told me about the number of courses they were taking. They did a comparison of the attendance policies across their courses, how participation was defined across their courses. They looked at late work policies, grade grievance policies, policies around accommodation and support, policies that may be focused on communication in the classroom, or specific instructions about how to communicate with your instructor. And not just by email, but how to address them or other things that instructors mention. There were also questions about behavioral focused policies. So what are the things that might cause them to be penalized in a class, whether it be disruptive use of cell phone or technology in the classroom, whatever it is. At the end of that process of looking at the similarities and differences across all their course syllabi, to tell me what their ideal course would be if they were building it based on what they saw in the classes that they’re taking in this semester. And then I use that data in the next class session to say, “Well, how can we build this class to take that information that you’ve gained and to create policies that would be compassionate, but also hold you accountable for your learning choices so that you’re getting the most out of this class that you can?” And it just was such a fun conversation. And I got a lot of feedback from students that was unsolicited in the sense that they said, “Well, I just had never looked at my syllabi in this way before. And I actually feel a lot more prepared for the semester now that I actually compared.” And it gave me a sense of just, like, how much stress students face trying to navigate the different instructor expectations. I was, I don’t want to say shocked, because we’ve been doing this for a long time and you have a sense because you talk to your colleagues about what they’re doing, but just the level of work, expectations that were there, and the huge spectrum from very flexible to very inflexible, and how it would be a full-time job for students to just navigate those expectations. So it makes sense to me even more now that we’re maybe putting our emphasis in areas that we could rethink, as educators, to help students get the most out of their learning, and less about having to make sense of what we want in a class.

Judie: I can relate to that, because I teach history online, and I keep weekly schedules. But if students need more time, they just have more time, they have until a date at the end of the semester when everything is due. And I try to re-emphasize that you take the time you need, it’s fine, there’s no “late,” there’s no penalty, just relax. And when you can do it, you do it. But then I send them reminders that this phase is ending, this next one is starting. So it’s a good idea to try to stay on track. And often I’ll get emails from students saying, “I’m so sorry, this is late. I understand there might be penalties.” And I think, “Why do they understand there’ll be penalties?” And all sorts of apologies. But then I kind of took a step back and thought, “Oh my gosh, if they’re juggling five and six classes and all these different policies, of course they’re confused.” And I just try to write back and reassure them that I understand that people have different situations, and you have to take the time you need without penalty. And please, don’t let my dates add to your stress. But it’s got to be really difficult for students to try to keep track of everybody’s policy on top of all the reading and work that they have to do in all their courses.

Kristen: Absolutely, yeah. It was a real eye-opener for me to just see the data in front of me. And to contextualize that with the broader conversations we had about just their general relationship with grades and grading and their own perceptions of whether grades accurately reflected their learning in their classes. So it invited us into a space that I thought was vulnerable, but also really powerful for imagining a way to do it differently. And of course, we have this backdrop that we’re facing with the pandemic and how campuses are navigating the return from remote learning to in-person instruction and the stresses that come with that as students maybe are now navigating not only different policies, but different platforms. So that was another question that I asked is, “How many classes are you doing remotely versus in person? And how is that impacting knowing what you’re doing and when and where and how in your process?” Again, a lot of stress. As a new Chair, I can say that I have had so many conversations with students this semester, just in tears, trying to make sense of maybe unclear expectations that are being set forward in their courses, or just lack of communication that’s happening. And I just get this sense that so many of them feel adrift. And I know that, at least among my colleagues on campus, our motivation has been challenged because you go out and into your classes and you maybe see that people aren’t as engaged or connected as maybe previously pre-pandemic. And it’s like you feel like you’re tap dancing really vigorously to get everyone to be part of a process, and it’s this delicate dance we’re all doing to make this matter.

John: You started this project before the pandemic but it was completed during the pandemic. How did the pandemic influence the final work on the book? And do you think the experience that faculty had in more directly observing some of the challenges our students faced might make them more open to considering non-traditional grading practices?

Kristen: I definitely think it has made faculty more open. I’m part of a lot of social media pedagogy-focused groups where there’s been pretty strong debates about what we’re doing in this moment as we teach and learn in a pandemic. And some people feel pretty strongly about maintaining this perception of rigor and these strong standards as a way to keep everyone on track and hold on to that perceived norm that we had pre-pandemic. And then there’s others that have, I think, done so much emotional labor, bending over backwards to be as compassionate as possible to recognize just the weight that everyone’s carrying in regard to just the heaviness of this pandemic, and the impact it’s had on us personally, professionally, and just socially. And so, especially at the earlier stages as this book was coming out, I wanted to go back in before it actually went to print to talk about the ways in which institutions had transitioned to different grading models in 2020, to try and attend to the impact the pandemic was having. So we learned that, institutionally, while it seems like you can’t decouple traditional grading systems from academia in general. We did. We went into so many institutions, created pass/fail options, credit/no-credit options, a variety of different system-based changes where students could not have their GPA directly impacted by the pandemic. And then, of course, we saw that happen, and then we went right back to the previous methods and models pretty quickly after that semester, returning to this norm. So I say “norm” kind of in air quotes, but it reminded me that we can do it, we can make some transformative changes in our learning if we want to collectively embrace that. But it’s also something that I think people still have a lot of discomfort about. I think many instructors, at least I hope, want their students to succeed, and they want to be compassionate and to help them succeed. But we don’t always know the best way to do that because we are managing, ourselves, a lot of expectations just in our own responsibilities and roles. And we’re also tired, and many people are stressed, and just definitely surviving, not thriving, in this moment. So I know that people are also getting fatigued… compassion fatigue happening. They’re becoming a little bit less trusting of the many emails that students are sending, asking for exemptions and extensions and extra credit. And so I think we’re in this moment where we’re all invited to say, “Where do we want to go from here? What kind of learning model will best meet the needs of our future generations because so much is impacting it?” We have this huge political opposition that’s permeating our social world and conversations in the public sphere. We have this fear and anxiety about climate change. We have just so many things going on that this is a beautiful moment for us to imagine a new way forward that could best meet everyone’s needs, I hope, to thrive more in our learning environments.

John: Behavioral economists have found a lot of evidence of status quo bias, that people tend to do the same things in the same way, unless there’s some sort of disruption. And I think this pandemic, and all the other things you mentioned, have led to a disruption which makes possible transformative change in ways that would be much less likely to occur at the same rate in other time periods. I’m hoping, at least.

Kristen: Exactly, and I know I think about it a lot in just regards to changing our own communication patterns in our relationships. I mean, one of the ways that we go about doing that is to do what comes unnaturally, to do the opposite… cultivate the opposite, jostle ourselves out of our norm so that we can imagine another possibility. So I’m hopeful. I think that we’re seeing just these conversations just taking hold in a lot of ways. I mean, I lean a lot on the Facebook group, Teachers Throwing Out Grades. It’s a big group of people, about 12,000 people at this point, that are having these conversations just in that one space. I mean, I know they’re happening in all kinds of other spaces. But that one is one that I like to follow very closely. And even, if we’re using Facebook as an example, the Pandemic Pedagogy group is where you see a lot of people having debates about these issues that we’re facing as teachers and learners.

John: Yeah, those groups have been really helpful in the last year and a half or so, as well as the Twitter conversations.

Kristen: Oh, absolutely. Yes, the academic Twitter and other spaces.

John: And we’re recording this at the end of the semester. And you mentioned all of the emails and requests from students. And one thing I’ve tried to convey to my students is, unless there’s really extraordinary circumstances, I’m not going to make special exceptions only for the students that approach me, that I’d rather build it into the course structure itself so that those opportunities are available for everyone. Because, otherwise, the students who are most likely to request extra credit and so forth are the students who generally come from continuing generation families. And there’s a lot of students who don’t realize that they have that opportunity to request things. So in general I try, in my courses, increasingly in the last few years, to build in more opportunities for revision, for submitting things late, and so forth. But those are open to everyone on an equal footing. And I say if they’re having some major crisis, then I’m happy to talk about it. But in general, I think we have to be careful not to only make exemptions for those students who come forward. It’s much better, I think, to build those opportunities for everyone, including those who might be afraid to ask for those special cases.

Kristen: And I agree, and I definitely try to structure my courses in that way. But I’m thinking now from kind of the perspective as a Chair or just as a Faculty Advisor… What do we do with the students that, in those classes where they have those opportunities, they’re still succeeding because those opportunities exist, but they also, maybe in three of their five classes, are dealing with these very rigid policies that maybe instructors are not understanding that they just got a major medical diagnosis, or they’re on the verge of needing to take a medical withdrawal because they’re having a mental health crisis? And then how do we help those students still succeed? And those are questions that I don’t have an answer for. I keep asking myself that because I know that, when I think about grading broadly, often grading is a disruptive tool that impacts the relationship between the teacher and the student. And so maybe students don’t always feel comfortable coming and talking about it until the end where they’re saying, “I didn’t get the grade I was seeking,” perhaps, or, “Is there anything I can do to recover the grade?” But then where can we plug in in other spaces, I think, instead of being in that instructor role, but in advisor roles or in other, like, role-model positions with students where we can help them? Those are questions I keep asking.

John: Certainly there’s a difference in instructor flexibility, which is a major problem that students face. And as we talked about before, they have very different requirements in each of their classes. And just yesterday, I had five requests for extra credit. And each time I referred them to the opportunities that were already built in. And I said, “I’m not going to ask you to do extra work when you haven’t done some of the required work that you still can do. Before you ask to do something more, maybe you should look at the things that are available for you that you’ve been asked to do since the start of the semester and start there.” And that doesn’t always get the most positive response.

Kristen: And that’s where I think self-assessment can be a really great tool that, if instructors actually build in, whether it be on an assignment basis, or just the broader course, a self-assessment. I know that I’ve worked with asking students to kind of keep a log of their process in the class, the work that they’re doing in-person or out of class. If you’re remote, of course, those distinctions aren’t important. But it’s been helpful, I think, for us to have those honest conversations at the end of the semester. It’s like when we’re talking and you’re saying, “Well, I think I deserve an A in this class.” But then I’m saying, “Well, but you weren’t there for more than 50% of the semester. And these are the assignments that were not turned in. Please help me understand your perspective so that I can say, ‘How is that fair for those students that maybe have been there and participating in a way that you weren’t. Help me understand how you’re understanding this.’” [LAUGHTER] And then I would say 9 out of 10 times that student comes back and says, “Wow, that probably isn’t fair to the other people.” So anytime that I think we can pull back the curtain and just have these process conversations, I just continue to be so inspired by what can come out of them. Of course, you’re always going to have the student that’s like, “I deserved an A. I know I didn’t turn anything in and I wasn’t there.” Because I think they’ve learned that in the game, or the rules of the game, that if they just keep self-advocating for the A, that maybe we’ll somehow meet them in this, like, maybe you’re failing them and they get the A, maybe, and you’ll land at the C or something. And they see it as this negotiation practice. But more often than not, I would say I have found that, at least in my classes, that students actually are harder on themselves in their self-assessments than I would have even been.

John: And at the other extreme though, might stereotype threat play a role in some of the self-assessments as well, for students who are in marginalized groups?

Kristen: Absolutely. One, you could say the idea that many people have an inflated sense of their effort, or their knowledge of a topic, right? So we have that. And then they just hold to it. And then we have the ways in which we’ve embodied these negative stereotypes and stories about who we are as people and learners in different identity groups. And of course, that’s going to impact. That’s why the thinking about difference and how difference punctuates every part of our process is so vital, right? It’s a difference, because we all come to the table with different capacities. I think this is why, more than anything, I started asking in my self-assessments, I mean, the most important thing for me to know is, “What was most meaningful to you in this class? How are you going to build that into your life in some capacity and take it forward?” So it doesn’t mean that I’m not chasing concept understanding, it just means it’s more for me about what matters to them, and so it just changes the assessment conversation. If they can’t articulate what’s meaningful to them, that tells a pretty specific story. That’s quite different than the student that says, “I’m not such a good writer, or I had all these struggles that impacted my capacity to turn work in in this way or that way or to participate as much as I would have liked to because I have a lot of anxiety and I don’t feel comfortable speaking in front of the class. But here’s what mattered to me, here’s what I’m going to say. This has changed who I am as a person, because it changed my thinking.” That’s what I want to assess. That’s what I want to know, as a teacher.

John: And that type of metacognitive reflection, we know, helps increase learning, and there’s a lot of research to support that. So, by itself, that’s a really good practice to encourage. So we always end with the question, “What’s next?”

Kristen: So what’s next for me is I’m hoping to continue to have these conversations and continue to experiment in my classes with ways forward that I can refine what it means to do assessment and grading from a social-justice perspective. How we can best harness our communication resources—whether it be our theories, or our methods, our conversations in the classroom—to create a system that’s more just in the realm of teaching and learning. So what I’m really working on now is expanding this thing I’m calling “awareness pedagogy,” which is something I wrote about in the book in chapter eight. This process that’s built out of ungrading. Ungrading is an umbrella term that I think has been pretty widely adopted by many people to talk about a type of grading process that decouples grading from feedback. And it really focuses very heavily on learner self-assessment. In many cases, for people doing ungrading, that means that the learner themselves assigns their grade through a self-assessment process with the instructor’s support and sometimes integrating peer feedback. So, in my case, awareness pedagogy, I’m using five broad categories that I work with to help students build awareness in my classes across the kind of courses that I teach. And I teach classes in Communication, I’m doing classes on listening and interpersonal communication, intercultural communication, classes focused on conflict. And so it’s really well-suited for that discipline, which I know is different than other people that may be listening. So I’m working on that. My next project is to expand what I introduced in chapter eight into a book-length project to really get into the nuts and bolts of awareness pedagogy as its own kind of approach to social justice assessment in the classroom and what that looks like. Especially in the realm of thinking about diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, but also integrating a lot of contemplative pedagogy as part of it because that’s an area that I’m extremely attracted to in my own work.

John: Well, thank you. And it’s been great talking to you, and thank you for all of your work on behalf of students.

Judie: Thank you.

Kristen: Thank you so much. It’s been wonderful to spend this time with you all.


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