• Ungrading: What's the hype?

    by Amy Byron

    blog image alt text

    As instructors we’ve got a lot on our plate. We need to lecture, prepare digital materials and organize our online courses, provide individual feedback and check-ins, submit forms to our institution throughout the semester, and answer constant emails. On the flipside, our students also have full their plates with family obligations, work and employment to balance, and of course the global pandemic. Getting students to class and having work completed is half the battle, and the other half is justifying grades. Because of the increased educator workload and the mounting pressures on students, what can we do?

    What is ungrading?

    Many instructors are now exploring the “ungrading” model as a potential solution. Because we still need grades at the end of each semester, there’s still a need to view and evaluate student work. It’s how we evaluate the work that will be different in this model.

    In the different models of ungrading, instructors don’t grade every piece of work and award points. They decide whether the piece of work meets their standard or not. If not, the work is sent back to the student for revisions.

    This requires some rethinking of the traditional grading workflow. For example, in a chemistry class a student completes a problem set. If it’s missing work, I would give that feedback and return it to the student for revision. Are all of the answers incorrect? Same thing. I refuse to accept the problem set until the work is done to satisfactory standards.

    How can you implement ungrading in your classroom? There are a few different models to choose from as a starting point.

    Spec grading/portfolios

    One type of ungrading is called Spec (for specifications) Grading. Instructors create curricular “bundles” which, when completed, get translated into a grade. These bundles include media, notes, homework assignments and simulations, and ultimately some sort of summative assessment. Each piece of work in the bundle is graded pass/fail only and must minimally meet the teacher’s standards.

    Students need a clear understanding of what constitutes passing work prior to engaging in this model. Having exemplars or rubrics which clearly outline the required components of successful work is critical at the beginning of the semester. These don’t need to be super specific. For example, in math this could include

    1. Show all work done to arrive at your answer
    2. Simplify all answers
    3. If asked to “explain your answer,” use full sentences
    4. Include units, where needed

    At the beginning of the semester you will be spending a lot of time giving feedback to student work that isn’t meeting requirements. Flexibility around work that is deemed “failing” is important, as is the ability for students to revise their work and resubmit. Once your students have a clearer understanding of the expectations, the time devoted to giving feedback will lessen.

    Contract grading

    In contract grading, the instructor has clearly defined and outlined requirements for each letter grade (A, B, C, etc.). More or deeper work will be required for an A, standard work for a B, and less for each subsequent letter grade down. Students each write a contract which includes which assignments they will do, their due dates, penalties for late work, and a statement of the letter grade they want at the end of the term.

    The instructor will keep a log of completed work that is, again, done to the level of work defined by the instructor. If the student fails to meet the requirements of the contract, the instructor has the ability to adjust their grade based on the submitted work.

    The unique part of contract grading versus traditional grading is that the focus is on the work, not the “kind of student” in your class. All work is considered to be of equal weight, and meetings with students generally focus on improvement to work quality or opportunities for a deeper dive into the curriculum.

    Consultative grading

    Allowing the student to determine their grade can be a serious leap of faith, but that’s what consultative grading is. This does not mean that all students receive an “A”. Student have regular check-in meetings with the instructor throughout the semester. At the end of the semester, the student writes a comprehensive reflection and puts together a compilation of their best work.

    The student must have data that demonstrates that they deserve the grade they propose. An example of an end-of-the-semester reflection can be found here, as written by Dr. Susan Blum from the University of Notre Dame (Supiano, Becky).

    Thought needs to be given to how handle extenuating circumstances on the part of the student. I tend to not make concrete rules on this, as I find that each student’s circumstances are unique.

    Conclusion

    While I have been thinking about making the switch to ungrading for the last few years, I haven’t made the leap just yet. Besides choosing which model to go with, I still need to identify the following:

    • What are you willing to negotiate on with students?
    • How will you handle absences?
    • How will you be transparent with students throughout the semester, so they know they are on or off target?

    I’m looking forward to encouraging my students to improve their work, making grading more transparent, and creating a classroom that is focused on the learning process and not on numerical grades.

     
    Resources

    Butler, Ruth. “Task-Involving and Ego-Involving Properties of Evaluation: Effects of Different Feedback Conditions on Motivational Perceptions, Interest, and Performance.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 1987, psycnet.apa.org/record/1988-21628-001.

    Cordell, Ryan. “How I Contract Grade.” Ryan Cordell, 7 Dec. 2019, ryancordell.org/teaching/contract-grading/.

    Flaherty, Colleen. Professors’ Reflections on Their Experiences with ‘Ungrading’ Spark Renewed Interest in the Student-Centered Assessment Practice, Inside Higher Ed, 2 Apr. 2019, www.insidehighered.com/news/2019/04/02/professors-reflections-their-experiences-ungrading-spark-renewed-interest-student.

    Hall, Macie. “What Is Specifications Grading and Why Should You Consider Using It?” The Innovative Instructor Blog, 11 Apr. 2018, ii.library.jhu.edu/2018/04/11/what-is-specifications-grading-and-why-should-you-consider-using-it/.

    Rosenblatt, Adam. “Committing to Ungrading, in an Emergency and After.” The Chronicle, Duke University, 27 Mar. 2020, www.dukechronicle.com/article/2020/03/duke-university-gradin-coronavirus-covid-19-public-health-crisis-emergency-thinking-ungrading-pass-fail.

    Sorensen-Unruh, Clarissa. “Ungrading: What Is It and Why Should We Use It?” Chemical Education Xchange, Chemical Education Xchange, 14 Jan. 2020, www.chemedx.org/blog/ungrading-what-it-and-why-should-we-use-it.

    Stommel, Jesse. “How to Ungrade.” Jesse Stommel, 11 Mar. 2018, www.jessestommel.com/how-to-ungrade/.

    Supiano, Beckie. “Grades Can Hinder Learning. What Should Professors Use Instead?” Chronicle of Higher Ed, Chronicle of Higher Ed, 23 July 2020, www.chronicle.com/article/grades-can-hinder-learning-what-should-professors-use-instead/?bc_nonce=f3tifpo2zoqg492u3b2dg&cid=reg_wall_signup.

     

    read more
  • Social justice in the physical science classroom

    by Amy Byron

    blog image alt text

    “Ugh, when am I ever going to use this?” As an educator, how many times have you heard that question? We are living in a time of change. Changes in education, policy, standards and culture are just a few that we’re all struggling through. I enjoy incorporating current news in my lectures and weaving in my students’ everyday life experiences with what I teach. How can we, as educators, help students make new schema and fit it together with their current world view?

    It seems now, more than in the past, these news items carry more weight. If you haven’t taken a close look at your curricular choices lately, it’s worth a revisit.

    Personally, I don’t care if my students become chemistry majors. What I do care about is creating students who have a wider world view and can approach problems with a critical mind to make the world a better place. Before tackling social justice topics in the classroom, however, I need to ensure the proper foundation is in place.

    The foundation

    I haven’t seen any state or university standards with social justice topics embedded in them, especially for the physical sciences. This means I’m going to have to pick and choose which topics are relevant to my curriculum, and which are appropriate for discussion in my classroom. Before you get started looking at topics, ask yourself these questions:

    1. Which topics do I feel comfortable serving as an impartial moderator?
    2. Do I personally have enough background information on this topic to serve as an arbiter of truth?
    3. Discussion of some topics inevitably leads to frank discussions of topics like privilege, poverty, and inequity. Am I comfortable discussing this with students?

    In addition to choosing the right topics for my students, I also need to create a safe learning environment, so my students feel free to discuss a topic from multiple angles without the fear of retribution or judgement. They need to know that their thoughts are valued. Consider the following:

    • When discussing famous scientists (or authors, or explorers, or…) is there only one narrative being presented? In science, the books seem to be dominated by old white men. I enjoy discussing why that is, and who the underrepresented are.
    • Ask students questions with no correct answer and let them discuss various viewpoints. For example, why do we learn about the history of the atom? How much radiation exposure is acceptable to the average human?

    If you think of a question organically while lecturing, pose it to the class. Let them work out the different sides of the issue and take a stand on which they feel is best. As an instructor, I see my role as asking follow-up and probing questions to challenge my students and move dialogue forward.

    Finding a topic

    We can’t cover everything, so we need to find topics which lend themselves well to subjects already covered in our curriculum. Here are a few examples I’ve used in the past with my chemistry classes:

    Flint Water Crisis

    • Solubility
    • Oxidation/reduction
    • Heavy metal toxicity
    • Remediation

    Testing for Banned Substances in Sports

    • Chemical reactions
    • False positive rates and their impact on the lives of athletes
    • Natural vs. unnatural levels of normally occurring chemicals in the body and who sets the benchmark for what is deemed “illegal”

    5G Safety

    • Electromagnetic spectrum
    • Wave characteristics
    • Energy
    • How cell phones work

    Nuclear Byproducts at Bikini Atoll, Fukushima, and Chernobyl

    • Nuclear fission
    • Decay products
    • Half-life
    • Dosage
    • Environmental concerns

    Microplastics in the Ocean

    • Decomposition
    • Remediation
    • Separation of matter

    Clean Water and Sanitation Issues

    • Separation of matter
    • Decomposition
    • Chemical testing
    • Engineering and materials design

    Your vision

    How do you envision leading your students through the analysis of a multifaceted topic? There are many ways to do this as there are topics. Here are a few I personally enjoy:

    Group Discussion or Socratic Seminar

    Having students prepare ahead of time is critical for an engaging discussion. I generally have my students write out their ideas and thoughts as a homework assignment prior to the discussion so that they have a position developed which is supported in fact.

    Mock Trial

    Have student take different roles based on their opinions and desires. Have the different sides to the argument present, and ultimately the jurors (other classmates) will make a decision on who made the most compelling case.

    Snowball Discussion

    Students will form groups in pairs and discuss the issue. After a set amount of time, the pairs will form groups of four and discuss again. After some time, the groups of four will combine into groups of eight and so on until the entire class is one big group.

    Writing Prompt

    Most Learning Management Systems have a feature that allows for a question to be asked, without students viewing other student responses until they submit. I like this type of framing because limiting student exposure to other ideas will ensure that what they write is truly their position, without the sway of other ideas.

    Laboratory Exercise

    For some of the topics I mentioned earlier, students can move their ideas into the laboratory to develop cost-efficient ways to solve real-world problems. For example, students can design a field test for water quality, creation of drainage covers that allow for efficient cleaning and reduction of pollution from run-off, or design methods to turn human waste into fertilizer.

    Wrap things up in a bow

    Once you are done exploring an issue, there should be some sort of resolution. That does not mean that a side needs to be taken, or that something needs to be called “right” or “wrong.” Students inherently always want to know the answer to a question.

    “How many covalent bonds are there in one water molecule?”

    But some questions don’t have a concrete or finite answer.

    “What does the atom look like?”

    It’s those questions that are much more difficult. We have a good approximation, but no definite answer. The same can be said of social justice issues. Encourage your students to look at issues from all sides and do their best to understand the perspectives of others. When there are no correct answers, my best hope for my students is to base their conclusions on concrete data and to take the lead in making the world a better place for all.

    read more
  • Creating engaging distance learning experiences for students

    by Amy Byron

    blog image alt text

    As educators, we know what student engagement looks like in the classroom. Students are focused on their work in front of them, they are collaborating with their peers, they are asking good questions, creativity is flowing… But now that things have moved online, what does engagement look like? Let’s start by asking ourselves what makes something engaging, and then explore some tools we can use in a digital classroom.

    What makes something engaging?

    A lot of research has been done around student engagement. Primarily, engagement revolves around student ownership of the material being presented. I know what you’re thinking. “I have a curriculum with standards I have to follow! There’s no room for student choice!” While you may be partially right, there are places in every course that allow for more student choice and input.

    In an informal survey of my students, the feedback regarding what makes a class engaging is varied; however, there are a lot of commonalities. Students want to be able to pursue their own interests, feel heard and included, and know that they are supported when taking risks. They want teachers who are not too strict but are fair in their handling of the classroom. Even when the material doesn’t resonate with a student’s interest, teacher enthusiasm can change a mundane course into a potential major.

    Daniel Pink, the author of the book Drive1, states that three conditions need to be met to trigger engagement.

    1. Autonomy: Give students choice to work on a project that relates to the curriculum but is also interesting on a personal level for the student.
    2. Mastery: The task itself can’t be too challenging or too easy. One creates frustration and the other boredom. The task should be somewhere in what is commonly referred to as the “Goldilocks Zone,” where the difficulty is just right for the learner.
    3. Purpose: The student has to be able to link what they are doing to the wider world. Why should they know what you are teaching? Make the material relevant and you will get more student buy-in.

    Instructional methods to increase engagement

    Now that we know what student engagement looks like, let’s look at a few instructional methods that can improve our curriculum and retention. While creating your course, don’t worry about including all these options. Just choose a few to start and then ask for student feedback regarding what they liked and what they want to see changed next time.

    Real-world examples

    In each lab report I assign, I ask that students relate the concept or technique to a real-world example. The identification of an unknown salt would be helpful in cases with contaminated water and is a critical skill to master. Here is an example of a student response from a lab where they determined the density of an element by graphical interpolation.

    Example
    “Although this particular lab did not yield extremely accurate results, there are still definite real-world applications for using interpolation, such as to find the density or other measurable qualities of elements. It would be especially useful for finding properties (such as density) of the man-made elements which have too short of a half-life to be effectively examined or measured for mass and volume.”

    Project-based learning

    Project-based learning (PBL) is where students complete a long-term assignment to solve a problem or answer a question. For more information about PBL, click here.

    In my lab class, I try to make this an authentic question that students will need to make a recommendation on. As shown in the example to the left, here is the introduction to a basic percent composition of a mixture lab.

    Example
    We are Minuteman Wallboard Co. and we have a severe problem. As you know, the inside layer of wallboard is made from magnesium sulfate heptahydrate. Our feeder company inadvertently gave us an unknown amount of calcium sulfate dihydrate in one of its shipments and this was mixed in with the magnesium sulfate heptahydrate before processing it.

    Our advisory board has said that there is no reaction between the two compounds, however if the wallboard has 15% by mass or greater of calcium sulfate dihydrate in the initial mix before processing, the strength and durability of the wallboard will be compromised.

    We have already made over $450,000 worth of wallboard stock from this suspected material. We do not want to give this to any of our retailers until we know if the mix had less than 15.0% by mass of calcium sulfate dihydrate. We are supplying you with a sample of the original mix before processing and would appreciate it if your company will help us solve our problem.

    Teamwork

    Chemistry has a large problem-solving component. My students enjoy working in teams on more complex problem sets, and then presenting their strategy to the class. In a number of cases, when two groups are given the same problem, they are able to articulate how their method was different than another groups, and how both are correct. In the picture below, groups worked on particle model diagrams showing correct stoichiometric ratios, phase, and molecular orientation.

    Example of Teamwork project

    Example of a Teamwork project

    Creative projects

    I teach Chemistry, which doesn’t seem like there is much opportunity for student creativity. I gave my students a project to create an ABC book using a set of clues. Here is an example of one page, showing both creativity and complex content mastery.

    Example of Creative Project

    Example of a Creative project

    HyperDocs or learning menus

    Here are some examples of HyperDocs. These would be a great component to add to an online class. Students have choice over how they meet different assignment requirements. If the teacher has one or two mandatory skills to master, they can easily accomplish this while still allowing for choice in the rest of the activity.

    Instructional tools available from Pearson

    Creating a sense of community and collaboration is key to online teaching success. If you already have Pearson’s Mastering product with the eText, then you already have access to many great resources to increase student engagement.

    Learning Catalytics

    Learning Catalytics is what we jokingly call “clickers on steroids.” This tool was developed by a Harvard professor who wanted to engage his students. It is an interactive student response tool that encourages team-based learning by using students’ smartphones, tablets, or laptops to engage them in interactive tasks and thinking.

    As an instructor using Learning Catalytics, you can pose a variety of open-ended questions that help your students develop critical thinking skills, while simultaneously monitoring responses with real-time analytics to find out where they’re struggling. With this information, you can adjust your instructional strategy accordingly and try additional ways of engaging your students during class. Learning Catalytics also lets you manage student interactions by automatically grouping students for discussion, team-based learning, and peer-to-peer learning.

    On the instructor side, there are over eighteen different question types to choose from so that you can find the best way to probe for student understanding. In Chemistry, I like to use the numeric expression, image upload so students can show their work, and the direction type when assessing dipole moments. Learning Catalytics can also be linked to your Mastering course so that grades can sync over.

    Another platform similar to Learning Catalytics is Live Response, also by Pearson. Visit the website for more information.

    Student tools

    When it comes to studying, students often say they’re not sure where to start, what to focus on, and when they’re exam-ready. Pearson has many tools designed to keep students engaged with your course material and encourages them to take charge of their own learning.

    Pearson Prep

    Designed by learning scientists, the Pearson Prep app automatically creates online flashcards from students’ notes and other materials. It also gives students access to expert decks that align with their Pearson texts and narrow in on key concepts.

    We know from learning science, and from our work with more than 850 students, that spaced practice is key to effective studying. Pearson Prep relies on spaced practice to create personalized study routes. When students get a card wrong, that card appears again sooner. If they get it right every time, it moves to the bottom of the deck.

    Students can quickly see how much progress they’ve made and how ready they are for their exam. This feedback engages students in metacognition, which we know is essential for success.

    With Pearson Prep, students can make the best use of their study sessions and feel more confident going into exams.

    eText mobile app

    With the Pearson eText app, students can download their Pearson eText to their smartphones or tablets to keep on learning no matter where the day takes them. The app organizes all of their Pearson eTexts, including their MyLab and Mastering eTexts, in one place. Even without an Internet connection, they have access to reading and study tools that help them learn wherever and whenever they choose.

    Keep refining

    Part of developing a good course is also developing a good relationship with your students. Make sure that they understand why they are doing certain tasks, and why it will help them in the long run.

    The most integral part to student engagement is communication. Being available for your students, giving them a space where it is OK to make mistakes, and reaching out when they are struggling are definitely not a part of your curriculum, but it is human nature. Communication is a two-way street, however, and soliciting student feedback about what works for them is also critical.

    Ensure that your students can give you timely feedback on whether certain educational approaches are working for them. In my teaching, I have often found that students don’t know how to give effective feedback. Before asking, give them some basic guidelines to frame their thoughts.

    Here are some key points to share about giving good feedback2:

    • Goal-referenced
    • Tangible & transparent
    • Actionable
    • User-friendly
    • Timely
    • Ongoing
    • Consistent

    Keeping students engaged in your course will lead to better retention, better relationships, and stronger grades. It takes time, dedication, and honestly, a bit of risk-taking to put everything together, but the outcomes are clearly worth it.

    Sources
    1Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Penguin, 2011.
    2Wiggins, Grant. “Seven keys to effective feedback.” Feedback 70.1 (2012): 10-16.

    read more
  • Understanding cognitive load to better engage your students

    by Amy Byron

    blog image alt text

    Picture this:

    You’re driving around in Boston at rush hour on one of the notorious old carriage roads that seemingly twist without reason. You’re searching for a particular street downtown. The kids in the back seat are singing, as loud as they can, along with The Wiggles, which is blasting through the car speakers.

    I can’t handle it. What would make this better? Silence. My brain can’t process all of this at once. I’ve maxed out my cognitive load.

    Cognitive load is defined as the mental resources used in working memory to perform a task. Most people can store between 5-9 items at any given time, and 2-4 of those can be processed simultaneously. If you don’t use new information within 15 seconds, it gets taken out with the trash.

    How can we increase our working memory? Practice makes perfect. This is why teachers go over practice problems and, at the higher levels, assign homework that allows for practice of the new skills learned in lecture. To have students learn effectively, their working memory (ability to store information) must be greater than the total cognitive load of the task. I’m usually at my peak when driving in Boston.

    Types of cognitive load

    A task can contain many different types of cognitive load. There are three in particular that we as educators should be aware of:

    Intrinsic cognitive load

    Sometimes a task is just hard. Consider calculus vs. arithmetic. Perhaps you’re great with math and this wouldn’t be a heavy lift for you. For others, this task would require a great deal of mental concentration.

    Germane cognitive load

    This refers to the actual processing of information. How will we organize it in our brains? Does this information connect with anything we’ve previously learned? Making connections is part of learning, and strengthens knowledge moving forward.

    Extraneous cognitive load

    This is the part that teachers have the most control over. It is generated by the way the information is presented and has nothing to do with the task. Are you learning calculus in a rock concert or a library? Have you used a PowerPoint slide theme that is distracting or clean?

    Strategies to reduce cognitive load

    Many teachers already use strategies to reduce the total cognitive load of a task. Some of that is out of our hands (intrinsic cognitive load) and others we can revise for the better (extraneous cognitive load).

    Here are some general suggestions:

    • Make connections. The more connections to previously learned material that you make, the less germane cognitive load there is for your students.
    • Use routine. Start and end class in the same way each day, perhaps with a warm-up and a time for questions. This will allow students to forecast that there will be time for questions to be answered.
    • Provide time. Allow students time in class to think about how this new material connects with what was previously taught.
    • Be clear and concise.
    • Pay attention to purpose. What is the goal of this assignment? If a particular question isn’t getting you there, delete it.
    • Don’t forget emotions. Anxiety limits learning, and excess cognitive load creates stress. Allow your students space to focus on the material, not their emotions.

    Classroom materials can also have an effect on cognitive load.

    How many teachers are guilty of using the same handout semester after semester until it looks like this? The media is crooked, there are streaks across the pages, and it is difficult to read.

    Consider moving your media digitally to a platform of your choice so you can clean things up a bit. Cleaning them up is relatively easily done by opening up a PDF in Google Docs. As a caveat, while this works well for the humanities, Google does struggle here in my discipline (chemistry).

    Ensure that your media isn’t distracting. Don’t add pictures frivolously. Be sure that the media that you do add contributes toward getting you to your overall lesson goal.

    Here are some good rules of thumb to keep in mind for classroom presentations and assignments:

    Identify

    What is your primary goal in this assignment or presentation?

    Evaluate

    Consider suggestions for reducing extraneous cognitive load.

    Consider

    • Organization and layout
    • Clarity of goal
    • Breaking down of steps
    • Clarity of expectations for student work
    • Wordiness and vocabulary

    In short, whether you are a teacher or not, you can use the theory of cognitive load to better engage your audience. While you’re creating your next presentation, think about these considerations. Also, if you’re driving in Boston any time soon, be sure to turn down the music.

    Sources
    Cognitive Load Theory and Classroom Strategies.” Landmark School Outreach Program, The Landmark School
    Johnson, Rebecca. “Cognitive Load, Memory, and Instruction.” Innovative Learning Institute, Rochester Institute of Technology.
    Lewis, Petra J. “Brain Friendly Teaching—Reducing Learner’s Cognitive Load.” Brain Friendly Teaching , Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, 12 Jan. 2016,
    Randall Crosby, Jennifer. “Reducing Cognitive Load: Keep It Simple.” Undergrad Main Site, Stanford University , 5 Feb. 2015.
    Shibli, Dominic. “Cognitive Load Theory and Its Application in the Classroom.” chartered.college, 18 June 2018.
    Connie Malamed, “What is Cognitive Load” The eLearning Coach, http://theelearningcoach.com/learning/what-is-cognitive-load/

    read more