Grade Anarchy & Student Learning (guest post by Marcus Schultz-Bergin)


“My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course.”

Marcus Schultz-Bergin, a philosopher in the Department of Philosophy and Comparative Religion at Cleveland State University, has put a lot of research and a fair amount of courage into trying something rather different in his Philosophy of Law course this term. He tells us how it has been going in the following guest post*, a version of which originally appeared at his blog.


[Norman Bluhm, “Inside the Muzzle”]

Grade Anarchy & Student Learning
by Marcus Schultz-Bergin

How will a lack of instructor grading and assignment due dates influence student learning? That is the question I sought out to answer when designing my Philosophy of Law course this semester. The course involved 3 main changes from a standard course:

  1. Students would be provided with a ‘buffet’ of learning opportunities which they could complete at their discretion.
  2. The only required assignments were 3 reflection essays: An early semester Achievement Essay, a Mid-Term Learning Reflection, and a Final Learning Reflection. The aim of these essays was to have students identify what they wanted to achieve and then discuss how they achieved their goals and where they still needed to work.
  3. Students meet with me for two Learning Conferences—one at the mid-term and the other at the end of the semester. In each of these we discuss the learning reflection, the student’s portfolio of work, and end with having the student tell me their grade for the course.

As we recently completed the mid-term grade conferences, I thought it was a good time to provide an update on how the course is going.

The Rationale

Both in class and in the course syllabus I discussed with the students my rationale for this experiment. My core hypothesis was that student learning would actually be improved by eliminating instructor grading from the course. To justify that hypothesis I presented the following argument to my students:

  1. Grades do not track learning (or anything else of importance). Grades—whether in the forms of letters or numbers or percentages, etc.—do not satisfactorily correlate with student learning or really any other thing we would care about. (See, e.g., Schinske & Tanner 2014: “Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently)”)
  2. Grading actually reduces student learning. Grades do at least 3 terrible things to student psychology: they increase anxiety, place the focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation, and encourage strategic performance (“how little can I do to still get the grade I want?”). Each of these takes away from learning by discouraging a focus on what you are doing and discouraging taking risks that may lead to failure. But we learn most from our failures, and so you should be encouraged to fail. (See, e.g., Olson 2006, “The wounds of schooling”; De Zouche 1945, “The wound is mortal”; Butler 1988, “Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation”)
  3. Only receiving feedback increases student learning. The same study has been repeated over and over again: students who only receive feedback on an assignment (rather than only a grade or both a grade and feedback) make the greatest improvement in their learning. Grades end learning opportunities by essentially saying “this is done”. Feedback continues the conversation. (See, e.g., Marshall 1968, Teaching without Grades; Pulfrey, et al 2011, “Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals”)
  4. Self-evaluation and self-reflection improve student learning. Self-evaluation and reflection promote ownership of one’s own learning and therefore assist in an individual’s development into a self-regulated learner who will be capable of learning and honestly evaluating themselves for their entire life. Reflection also encourages recognizing how the educational experience is changing you as a person. Self-evaluation and reflection can be done in a graded classroom, but is more significant in a gradeless classroom. (See, e.g., Grolnick & Ryan 1987, “Autonomy in children’s learning”; Kaplan, et al (eds) 2013, Using Reflection and Metacognition to Improve Student Learning)

Obviously given that rationale, my main concern is whether students learned in the course. There are a variety of ways to assess student learning, and so below I break down my observations based on various possible lines of evidence for student learning.

Attendance & Participation

Active engagement is essential to student learning. And in a small discussion course like Philosophy of Law, it is even more important. In similar classes, many professors may make attendance and participation mandatory, enforcing such things through the grading system. I, of course, did not do that, and so one concern that may be raised is that attendance could be quite poor and/or there may be a lack of participation (perhaps due to a lack of preparation since there was no grade penalty for not being prepared).

While I do not have direct comparative data with regard to attendance, overall I would suggest that there has been little to no impact—positive or negative. Comparing my course to another 300-level philosophy course, I have weeks where attendance is significantly better and other weeks where attendance is poorer (the week after Spring Break was particularly poor on this front, but was certainly an aberration).

Students have indicated that without the grade pressure to attend, they are a little more likely to miss a class if other things come up. I don’t necessarily see this as a problem—it is not the case that students are just skipping because they do not feel like showing up. Instead, they are making a judgment about other commitments or deciding to take care of their health rather than risk infecting others.

As for participation, things are quite good. Although students are not punished if they are not prepared, most students come having read the material (and often preparing a summary and/or questions, as I mention below) and attempt to engage in the discussion. Certainly there have been cases where students showed up unprepared, but the benefit here is that the students still feel comfortable showing up since there was no penalty for being ill prepared.

Finally, it is worth noting a particular experience we had in the class. We read a class court case—Riggs v. Palmer—and the plan for the day was simply to debate the case. We wanted to understand the arguments the judges presented for their rulings, discuss others, and then identify what the case could teach us about the nature of law (the case is referenced by Ronald Dworkin in his criticisms of H.L.A. Hart’s legal positivism). On this day, I had students who had prepared pages of notes—working to consider possible objections to their position and how to respond—and the debate was vociferous but civil and incredibly detailed. All of this without any grade attached to any part of the day.

Assignments

Attendance is easy, some may say, the real test is whether the students would actually complete any assignments for the course, and if so, whether those assignments would indicate any real degree of learning. If students could get away without completing a single assignment, would they? Similarly, if students knew whatever they turned in would not be graded, would they turn in junk work, figuring they could just get by with saying “well I turned stuff in!”

On this front, there were both victories and defeats. I did have some students who did not submit any meaningful assignment before the mid-term. I also had some students who perhaps knew they had to submit something but didn’t put much effort in (its also possible they did put effort in but just did not do well).

But, I also had some students complete a significant number of assignments—more than I probably would have assigned in a standard course—and I had students use the lack of a grade as a ‘training ground’ to improve specific skills. For instance, many students indicated they wanted to get better at extracting arguments from complex philosophical texts. Some of these students submitted a fair number (perhaps around 5 in half a semester) of summaries where they attempted just that. Early on things did not go well, but by the end both they and I saw significant growth. And we still have half a semester left.

Additionally, I have had students sign up to be discussion leaders for most of the classes. Here they put together a 1-page handout and work to really embody the author’s position and defend it, while also promoting discussion on key issues. This often requires a significant amount of extra work, and while not every student has signed up to do it, some have signed up to do it on multiple occasions.

Moreover, I have students planning interesting final paper projects. This includes, for instance, two students working together to engage in a written debate on a topic, so each will be producing at least 2 papers and genuinely engaging objections, etc.

Nevertheless, I think this is a place where I could have done better. I have since noticed that most gradeless classrooms (of course these are often K-12, but that shouldn’t matter much) do not eliminate specific assignments. Rather, there is still an assignment schedule and students are still expected to follow it. But the instructor just provides feedback on those assignments and then students compile the assignments into a portfolio for the learning conferences.

In the future, I think I will do something similar. The idea of producing a portfolio is really great for the student, and fits well with a lot of what we know about enhancing student learning (since it requires reflection and meta-cognition) and that is really what I had in mind in the first place. But, of course, it just didn’t work with everyone. Especially those few students who are simply quite bad at organizing their own time and so need the deadlines to keep them on track.

Learning Conferences & Student Grades

The final thing to discuss is the reflection essays, learning conferences, and whether every student is just going to give her or himself an ‘A’.

Now the first thing to note here is that if the claim I made above, in my rationale, is correct—grades do not actually track learning—then we really shouldn’t be upset if “everyone gets an A”, even if they didn’t submit “A-level work”. However, I understand that many reading this will still feel as if grades matter and feel as if something terrible has happened if a student who should fail the course (or get a low grade) walks out with something higher.

The good news is, so far the evidence shows that is unlikely. But before indicating how students graded themselves, I want to say a few things about the reflection and conference process. I genuinely believe that this has been an absolutely incredible process for the students, and one that has and will continue to result in an incredible amount of intellectual growth. Sure, it isn’t necessarily “content knowledge”, but it is the sort of stuff that will make them better students and better people in the long run.

In writing their Achievement Essays, my students really considered their intellectual strengths and weaknesses and identified where they want to improve. This was especially nice to see given that I see many of the learning outcomes of a philosophy course to be general philosophical skills, like critically reading complex texts, analyzing and evaluating arguments, constructing arguments, etc. These are often the sorts of learning outcomes that it is difficult for students to identify with since they are not as concrete as “could state a definition” and the like. And so although I regularly include these sorts of outcomes in my syllabus, and craft opportunities to develop and display the skills, some students come away feeling like the activities and assignments are worthless. But, in writing these essays, these students really identified with those sorts of skills and considered how they would work on them and display them.

Moreover, some of the students really took my advice to challenge themselves in these Achievement Essays. I told them I wanted them to really shoot for the moon—they should walk out of the course feeling like they achieved a lot, but not necessarily everything they set out for themselves. That was one of the major benefits of not grading the assignments—they could really push themselves and not get anxious about failing or otherwise performing poorly.

For the Mid-Term Reflection Essays, students discussed those goals they set for themselves, as well as the course learning outcomes, and reflected on their growth thus far. Those who completed multiple iterations of the same type of assignment—say, an assignment extracting the central argument from a text—would point to how they put into action the feedback I provided early and how that led to them getting better. Others, particularly those who did not submit much, admitted their failures and set out a plan for themselves for the second half of the course. Either way, students were quite honest with themselves and really treated their successes and their failures as as on them in a way that I don’t always see in a standard class.

Finally, what did the grades look like? Well, most students suggested they had thus far earned a “C+/B-“, with some even suggesting a “D” and only one claiming to have earned an “A”. And, by and large, the grades they assigned themselves were about where I would have put them as well. In a few cases, I think they were lower than where I believed they were. Mid-Term grades, of course, don’t actually matter, and so that may have allowed them to be more honest without consequence. So the final grades may see inflation. But, my hope is that the reflection they engaged in, and the discussions we had, will lead to a significant commitment in the second half of the course to really achieve what they set out for themselves so that when they tell me they earned an “A” they can really mean it.

Conclusion

In sum, the experiment has had its ups and downs. There are definitely some things I will change going forward, but I do think the gradeless approach can work well in a course like this.

In the Fall of 2019 I will be teaching an Introduction to Political Philosophy course and I am contemplating, depending on size and some other factors, running that course as a gradeless classroom as well. If I do, I will certainly still maintain an assignment schedule but will only provide feedback on those assignments. In light of that, I will also provide more specific guidelines for the conferences to ensure students are motivated to produce a portfolio of work that they can refer to in reflecting on their learning and growth.


UPDATE: Inside Higher Ed reports on this post and “ungrading” more generally.

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Michaela McSweeney
Michaela McSweeney
2 years ago

This is my post tenure dream! Thank you for telling us about it. It’s really helpful to hear a detailed account of how someone else did this.Report

Eric Hagedorn
Eric Hagedorn
2 years ago

Is there any research regarding the grades students self-assign, and how they do or don’t correlate with grades they’ve been assigned by faculty in the past? I’m curious if students have simply internalized, “I’m a student who does B-” work (or what have you), and so their self-assigned grades have less to do with the work they do in the course itself and more with their sense of their own personal value or worth. I’d love to know if anyone has looked deeply into this.Report

Marcus Schultz-Bergin
Reply to  Eric Hagedorn
2 years ago

This is a good question. I am not aware of any specific research on this, but it is something I have been thinking about as I meet with the students. For instance, a few things some students said in the mid-term conferences (“Hopefully I can get this up to a B by the end”) made me think they were somewhat internalizing the idea that they are “at best a B student” or something. I cannot know for sure, but it is worth investigating.

So, something I can do at the end of the semester is take a look at the students’ transcripts and compare it to the grade they assigned themselves. That would perhaps give some indication (of course my sample size is small so I’d be interested in a larger scale study too).Report

Barry
Barry
Reply to  Marcus Schultz-Bergin
2 years ago

You’re allowed to just look at your students’ transcripts??

I suppose you mean: with the express permission of the students. Unless you’re looking at them in the capacity of undergrad advisor, to my knowledge you must receive permission from a student to review a transcript.

But then the request itself might engender additional problems of its own. (“Give yourself a grade. But then give me your transcript so that I can check the grade you gave yourself against grades you’ve been assigned by others in the past.”)Report

Some postgrad
Some postgrad
Reply to  Barry
2 years ago

I think it’s pretty easy to do.
Example: One of my undergraduate colleagues had a meeting with his professor in which the professor (unwarranted) pulled up colleague’s trascript in front of him and then told colleague that he is not going to med school. The same guy used this method to tell me I couldn’t be considered for our department internship.Report

Mark
Mark
Reply to  Eric Hagedorn
2 years ago

This is a fascinating post – thank you so much Marcus!

In my (admittedly limited) experience of using similar self-assessment techniques, students seem to welcome the opportunity to evaluate their own work, but don’t like being asked to grade it. I think that part of the reason for this is that they feel (quite understandably) that it’s hard for them to assign a grade to their own work without worrying about giving the impression of thinking too highly of themselves or trying to get a grade they don’t deserve. In response to those social pressures, they end up deliberately giving themselves lower grades than they actually deserve. They’re aware that this is what is happening, but don’t know what to do about it, and consequently find the experience very frustrating.

I wonder whether a solution to this problem might be to allow students to set expectations for themselves and evaluate how well they’ve met those expectations, but leave the ultimate responsibility of assigning a grade to the instructor (perhaps on the understanding that this grade still depends on how well a student has met their own expectations). That way, students get to take responsibility for their own learning, but aren’t placed in the uncomfortable position of suggesting their own grades.Report

Marcus Schultz-Bergin
Reply to  Mark
2 years ago

I think this is an important concern to be worried about. The approach you suggest may be one way to deal with it – I certainly had students who, when we got to the end of the conference and I said ‘okay, so what is your grade’ they clammed up a bit but they had no problem discussing things before that.

I think there are 3 other ways to deal with it, one which is mostly infeasible and the other two which could work
1. The infeasible one is to do away with course grades entirely. Obviously the University – or some segment of it – would have to be cool with this. Some Universities are already like this, but from the perspective of a given professor it is clearly infeasible. But, if this were the case, then you don’t have to worry about the issue you are suggesting.

2. The feasible one, which is similar to what you suggest, is certainly to set specific expectations (which the student could do, the professor could do, or could be done collaboratively which is how I did it) and then, in the learning conferences, have students speak directly to how well they met those expectations. In some gradeless classrooms they even basically give them a standards-based ‘rubric’ (i.e., “Met expectations”, “Exceeding expectations” or some such – I don’t like that language but the general idea could be fine) which they complete themselves, using their portfolio to evidence their responses. And then, based on that, they have a quasi-objective way of determining an overall grade. This would reduce student anxiety about it.

3. The other way to handle this is just to discuss it with the student in the conference or in the class as a whole. Tell them you are aware this is something that may happen; or speak to them about how you want them to think about their grade – I tell them to be sure to consider their effort and their *growth* and not just the products themselves. This can often lead to those who may otherwise lower their grade being less apt to do so.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Marcus Schultz-Bergin
2 years ago

My college is one of those few places without grades. We use narrative evaluations instead. It takes some adjustment both for students (first year or transfers) and for an incoming instructor and it’s time-consuming. But, I have to say it’s been quite rewarding so far. For one thing, you don’t have to worry about GPA-obsessed students any more. You’re also able to convey more meaningful feedback and build a more personalized relationship with the student than numerical assessments and letter grades typically allow for. And although there’s clearly a sense of which students do better than others, you don’t need a ranking or a curve, and that’s also refreshing. Plus, there’s (almost) always something positive to convey, which, say, assigning a ‘C’ does not, as well as notes on room for improvement, which a straight A typically does not convey. So the feedback is actually more precise and actionable than a grade. Obviously, it’s harder to experiment with self-assigned grades since we have no grades, and students are not really good at narratively evaluating themselves. In fact, that’s what they expect you to do! But, at least anecdotally, my sense is that the absence of grades fosters intrinsic motivation, allows students to experiment and fail without killing their GPA, and ultimately creates a fuller picture of a student’s record than a list of grades. Oh, and none of that has prevented our students from going to the best grad schools.Report

Cam Dary
Cam Dary
Reply to  Eric Hagedorn
2 years ago

John Hattie found self reported grades to have the highest effect size of all the instructional methods he studied. He has since said that student expectations would be a better description of it because students learn best when they reflect on where they are and how they think they will do in the future. I think this type of gradeless class hits that perfectly. You can’t ask for much better researched based evidence for a practice than being at the top of Hattie’s list, and I really look forward to giving this a try in my own classroomReport

sam
sam
2 years ago

I wonder whether the empirical evidence for (1) is as strong as the author assumes. Indeed, it would have to be *incredibly* strong to support such a radical hypothesis. It’s one thing to acquiesce that the difference between an ‘A’ and a ‘B+’ might not reliably track a significant difference in learning. And it’s one thing to admit that one prof’s ‘A’ is another’s ‘C’. (To that problem, normalizing grades is arguably the answer, not abolishing them.) But the notion that, *for each prof*, students who receive a ‘D’ learn just as much—or express equal proficiency in writing, reading comprehension, etc.—as their ‘A’ counterparts is simply incredible. That’s not to say it’s impossible—psychologists have shed light on some pretty unbelievable phenomena (e.g., priming effects, confabulation)—but it’s going to require a heck of a lot of confirmation.Report

Tom
Tom
Reply to  sam
2 years ago

I would not be surprised to find out that students who earn a D in my courses often (though certainly not always) learn *more* than the students who earn an A. It’s just that the students who earn an A often come to the class in a much better position than the students who earn a D.

So if we’re trying to use grades as a tool to impact learning, the way we’re doing it now probably sucks. If, on the other hand, we’re trying to use grades to sort people into self-perpetuating castes, it’s probably doing a good job. Report

sam
sam
Reply to  Tom
2 years ago

I suppose it will depend on the policies of the instructor. In my classes, it’s extremely difficult to receive a ‘D’ unless you fail to turn in one or more major assignments (e.g., exams, term papers) or if you miss 5+ classes. I don’t think this feature is idiosyncratic. Of course, you could argue that students who don’t complete their assignments and are chronically absent often learn more than students who do everything they’re asked to do. But if the usual indicators for which grades are an (imperfect) proxy—whether students complete their assignments, whether students do the assigned readings, whether students show up to class, etc.—in fact fail to track learning, that’s not a problem with grades per se. That’s a problem with the very idea of a university education. Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Tom
2 years ago

What does “the students who earn an A come to class in a much better position” even mean here? Does it mean they know more things? This is something necessary to distinguish when you are talking about something as important as grades and representation of knowledge.Report

Marcus Schultz-Bergin
Reply to  sam
2 years ago

Sam, good question – it should be noted that the argument I presented above was what I presented to students and so I will admit I intentionally *over-stated* things in a way that, were I wearing my critical philosopher hat, would question to some extent. But the issues are complex and so I also don’t think anything I said is obviously false.

Tom’s response is an important part of the story – the question is *not* (only) whether A-work is actually better than D-work in the same class with the same professor. That may very well be true. The question is whether a student receiving an ‘A’ has *learned* significantly more as a result of the class than the student receiving a ‘D’. And that question is somewhat individualized – a student starting from a lower bar may very well learn a lot more but nonetheless not be at the level of the ‘A’ student by the end.

So, I should say that most of the research on the worthlessness of grades has to do with *final* grades in a course, not necessarily grades on particular assignments. I think as far as grades on particular assignments go, the better objection is the evidence of how students respond to graded assignments vs. assignments with feedback only.Report

sam
sam
Reply to  Marcus Schultz-Bergin
2 years ago

Thanks for the response, Marcus! At this point, it’s not entirely clear to me whether we’re debating (a) the usefulness of final grades *period* or (b) the usefulness of final grades *as a proxy for course-related competence alone* (where competence is construed narrowly to exclude attendance and raw effort). It may be that attendance and effort track learning better than, say, the quality of a final paper, in which case (b) would indeed be questionable. But questioning (b) wouldn’t commit us to questioning (a). In other words, critically examining the relationship between grades and learning outcomes needn’t lead to “grade anarchy.” Indeed, if anarchy were the answer, that would imply that *we have no idea how to objectively measure learning outcomes* (bracketing the question of whether assigning final grades creates perverse incentives). While professors might overstate their ability to grade fairly and accurately—and by “might,” I mean “certainly”—wholesale skepticism about assessment would threaten one of the central functions of the university. That’s not to say this function *shouldn’t* be threatened. It is to say that the threshold for evidence-based intervention (in non-experimental contexts) is going to be very high.Report

Gray
Gray
2 years ago

Great post. I’ve long been opposed to grades as well, but sometimes it’s difficult to know just how to go about setting up a gradeless (or near-gradeless) course, so it’s good to see an example of how one might do so.

A few questions about this approach.

1. What have been the reactions so far from other philosophers you’ve talked to about this approach? I ask because I suspect that many of those who’d be drawn to an approach like this would also be afraid that the sheer unconventionality of it would put others off. Of course, the worry is especially acute if one is on the job market or otherwise in a vulnerable position.

2. Some professors who let students choose their own grades also add a proviso like the following: “If there’s persistent dispute between a student and I on what his/her final course grade should be, the final decision will be mine. I will not give any student a final course grade that I do not feel I can give in good conscience.” (E.g., in his work on gradeless classrooms, Carl Rogers talks about this.) How do you feel about this? I can see how this would give the instructor some assurance that there wouldn’t arise cases in which a student who’s barely done anything still ends up with an A for the course. But I also worry that adding a proviso like the above might undermine part of the motivation for structuring a course this way.Report

Marcus Schultz-Bergin
Reply to  Gray
2 years ago

Good questions:

1. Within my own department, the other philosophers really like the idea (I benefit from a department that is very supportive of my weird ideas) but are a bit unsure about implementing it themselves. We’ll see if I can change their minds! Outside of my department I haven’t received a ton of feedback (the replies here plus some stuff when I first wrote the piece) but it has been a mixed bag. I would say mostly critical so far, but I think that is a fair response because it is unconventional (and people are naturally conservative and all that).

2. I do have the proviso, although not as strongly stated as you indicate. But I also add basically that “I really do not want to exercise my discretion, except perhaps to raise the grade beyond what you suggest”. I don’t think the proviso has to undermine the motivation, though, since a lot of it has to do with the higher level learning and skill development that can come along with the structure – portfolio construction, reflection on one’s own work, etc. That stuff can still happen even in a graded classroom (if designed properly) but is more essential in a gradeless one due to the learning conferences.

The question about the proviso does remind me of an important consideration I didn’t mention – there is a decent amount of evidence that women students are more likely to give themselves lower grades than men, and so others who have run a gradeless classroom include the proviso and have only really used it to *raise* the grades of the excessively modest students (who are usually women). So I do think it is important to reserve that right and be willing to exercise it at least in that direction.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

letting students assign their own grades and effectively do whatever they want is the sort of thing that will cause philosophy departments to lose funding because the classes are seen as “useless” and unrigorous. Report

Steve
Steve
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

I think this is supposed to be an argument against this intriguing experiment? If so, it seems oddly self-defeating insofar as one of the best arguments for having philosophy departments is that they teach students to think independently and critically, regardless of whether doing so fits with received opinion. Not much good imparting those skills unless you’re willing to use them yourselfReport

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Steve
2 years ago

I am saying that regardless of how useful of an experiment this is, it’s exactly the sort of thing that will be fodder for a university administration and/or board of directors that wants to defund its philosophy department under the belief that it does not teach anything substantial; the opinion of the mainstream — that is, of normie parents who pay for college, and perhaps even rich normie parents who donate — is that as long as what you’re sayng doesn’t meet the increasingly bonkers standards of inoffense at colleges, you can say whatever you want in a philosophy class because they perceive these classes as having no rigor. This is the sort of thing that would make that sort of person think “yes, I am precisely right” and suggest defunding the department and/or their child’s education.Report

Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

in different terms: you can do whatever you want, and I am not necessarily opposed to your efforts, but realize this does not help the image of the field whatsoever and if a particular department is already in a rough spot financially and you decide to do this in that department you may be contributing to its financial problems.Report

Steve
Steve
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Roughly: philosophers should stop using (what they believe to be) the best methods for teaching philosophy because that is the best way in which to ensure the institutional survival of philosophy departments. What’s bugging me is that the argument seems to have an implicit premise that the survival of philosophy departments is good; that premise looks strange if the survival of the department requires that it doesn’t teach philosophy optimally and/or requires staff to act in ways which go against their well-reasoned convictions. Of course, I can see all sorts of good reasons to maintain philosophy departments which teach badly: say, the livelihoods of those employed in them. But I’m still confused as to why, ultimately, anyone should care that philosophy can be taught if the price for doing so is that it has to be taught badly. Note: that’s not an idealistic argument at all. It’s just taking the kind of implicit unquantified market-based logic of your arguments to their natural conclusion.Report

sahpa
sahpa
Reply to  Steve
2 years ago

I don’t get the problem at all. Here’s an analogous case. Large land-grant universities do not provide optimal education–the classes are too big. And yet it’s strange to say that the survival of large land-grant unis *for the sake of their students* is good? Huh? Suboptimal outcomes can still be good, yo.Report

Marcus
Reply to  Alfred MacDonald
2 years ago

If we want to take this sort of cynical perspective, I think I can tell a more compelling story:

A gradeless classroom where students can ‘easily get an A without doing any work’ is certainly a class that students would sign up for (whereas now many avoid philosophy courses because they are perceived as too difficult) and also one where they are likely to give positive responses to student satisfaction surveys (which is all course evaluations really are).

Put those 2 things together and what do you get? More butts in seats in philosophy courses and thus more money for departments. If you fear departments losing money, go gradeless!

*Please note: This is, in no way, my motivation. But I don’t want an objection such as the one mentioned here stifling activities that have the real potential to enhance student learning*Report

harry b
2 years ago

I’ve never talked with him about this, but I am told that Sam Bowles once taught a course in which students assigned their own grades. It was a course in Marxist economics and, I am told, that a nun, who was taking it, assigned herself an F because, as she said, she didn’t need anything better. I’ll verify (or disconfirm!) this next time I see him.
Anyway, really interesting stuff, and I look forward to the update after the semester is over.Report

Grad Student4
Grad Student4
2 years ago

I’ve am worried by instructors conducting an “experiment” (as it is described by Shultz-Bergin) on their students without their explicit consent and without IRB approval.

In undergrad years, I was subject to a couple “experimental courses” which were not explicitly experimental when I registered for them. And since there is basically no oversight over what professors in the classroom, it seems like an environment where IRB is particularly important. I’ve had some unpleasant practices (one course even where there was an experimental financial incentive, another where grading was ‘gamified’ and different things could earn me ‘points’).Report

Ian
Ian
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

I don’t even try out new assignments without IRB approval.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Ian
2 years ago

I have all my teaching materials go through IRB approval.Report

RJB
RJB
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

Maybe it’s just my institution, but our IRB is very explicit that you don’t need any approval to try out different teaching methods in your own class. Report

Jessica
Jessica
Reply to  RJB
2 years ago

This invocation of the IRB is very odd. Human subjects research has a pretty explicit definition based on federal regulations. Research is a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge. It is a different thing from quality assessment or quality improvement which is what is under discussion here. I would hate to see the above comments have a chilling effect on philosophy professors’ attempts to evaluate and improve their own classes.Report

Nicolas Delon
Nicolas Delon
Reply to  Jessica
2 years ago

Just to clarify, my comment and, I assume, Ian’s were sarcastic. We agree with you.Report

Marcus
Reply to  Grad Student4
2 years ago

I took the responses from Ian and Nicolas to be flippant ways of indicating the fact that *all teaching* is experimentation and so it would be quite odd to demand IRB approval for what I am doing without thereby demanding IRB approval for everyone’s classes all of the time.

Obviously it does suck to be a student who winds up in an ‘experimental’ class that goes awry. But, to be honest, I think many of our students wind up in ‘traditional’ classes that have all the negative results of “going awry” but are like that by design, which is worse. But, of course, if the class is organized in a traditional manner no one really complains when it sucks.Report

RJB
RJB
2 years ago

Thanks to Marcus (and Justin) for sharing this thoughtful approach. I’ve adopted an approach that shares many of the same assumptions, but is less radically anarchic.

Similar to Marcus, I present students with an “all-you-can-eat buffet in bite-sized pieces”, which includes resources (readings, videos, podcasts) and deliverables (short essays, peer reviews of other’s essays, blog posts and comments, objective questions). I give students a LOT of power to choose what materials they engage with, when they do so, and how they demonstrate their learning. For example, I have only one essay prompt: “put the course material to work to show how it helps you analyze a situation you care about.” They can choose any material at any time, but never the same material twice. I offer up to a dozen opportunities to write short essays and blog posts, with opportunities to review or comment on other students’ work. As deadlines pass, the opportunities disappear, which keeps them working steadily rather than keeping everything to the end. But everything is ‘bite-sized’, which makes the work less intimidating, and reduces incentives to cheat (because no individual deliverable is worth it)

Also like Marcus, I am skeptical about the value of most grades–but not all. In particular, it is very useful to grade and thus reward effort made in good faith–even if they make mistakes or fall short in quality. So I use a very simple grading system. For essays, blog posts, peer reviews and comments, they get full credit for a good effort made in good faith. Otherwise they get nothing. Quality doesn’t suffer because students know other students are looking at their work, and they care quite a bit about how their classmates think of them. Almost all assignments earn full credit, though occasionally I will return the assignment and ask for more work. Problems are also all-or-nothing, but are bite-sized. Many are as simple as testing understanding of definitions,matching terms with the people who popularized them, etc. Not deep, but students find them helpful as a study guide, great prep for the qualitative work, and actually kind of addictive, because each problem earns them points.

Here’s the big difference between my approach and Marcus’s. Rather than having students grade themselves, the grade is determined by the sum of all the points they get: for every deliverable from the all-you-can-eat buffet, you either get points or you don’t. The points add up, and if you get enough points, you are guaranteed at least an A (or for fewer points, an A-, B+, B, etc.).

It’s not a perfect system, but it’s way better than the way I used to teach. I even have the data, because I used a more traditional system with the buffet of deliverables, but without the ‘full credit for good effort in good faith’ and the guaranteed grades. Students are doing almost DOUBLE the work they used to, rate the course far more highly, and are much more prepared and engaged in class.

The link on my handle above will take you to the text I work. No it’s not philosophy, but the front end talks a bit about my teaching approach.

Report

Devin
Devin
2 years ago

My undergraduate institution, Hampshire College, has never had any grades whatsoever. You get a narrative evaluation for the course. Having attended community college beforehand, I can say that in my own experience the evaluations were *much* more useful than grades. Not only that, but the thought of getting a glowing evaluation was way more motivating than the thought of getting an A. There were minor negative comments in some of my evaluations that have continued to stick with me and motivated me to improve even now, whereas if I get an A- instead of an A I shrug it off.
It also freed me up to decide which assignments to invest the most energy and time in based on how helpful they would be for me, rather than how much they would contribute to my grade. It turns out this skill – the ability to manage one’s own education based on one’s own needs – is pretty useful in grad school.Report

Miguel
Miguel
2 years ago

This is really great.
I study philosophy because I LOVE IT, not because I want to become a philosophy teacher. So what happens is I do really hard and research intensive essays for my personal learning, but since I take a lot of chances sometimes I do not get the grade I wish if I had, for exampled, just argued that the identity theory is more plausible than Cartesian dualism, but instead I would try to respond to Kripke’s objection in depth.

Furthermore, I am a family man and can’t always make it to class, this affects my grades significantly. This is the system of the future Professor.Report

Justin Fisher
Justin Fisher
2 years ago

My prediction is that the first time I tried this, it would go great, but then our athletics departments would hear about this class where everybody gets to set their own grades regardless of how little work they do, which would be perfect for athletes struggling to maintain their eligibility, so in future semesters the make-up and the overall success of the course would drastically change.Report