I am a fan of Frank Zappa’s assertion, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.” If you have followed this blog for long, you know that I am a huge proponent of teaching experimentation. Consequently, I push the Three E’s of Teaching: Experiment, Evaluate, and Evolve. Follow these three steps on a regular basis and wonderful things can happen. Always be on the lookout for a potential new innovation that you can try out just to see if it works. Keep your eyes open and consider changes that are possible. Awareness is a good quality to have when looking to improve as a teacher.
We are quickly moving toward the end of another semester. What has been your most interesting teaching experiment of these past few months? I have long believed that every school should award prizes for the most successful teaching experiment each year. That would both reward and encourage classroom innovation. Maybe we could post all the winners on a website just to circulate unique ideas.
With two weeks left in the current semester, I decided to try something I had never done previously in my 48+ years as a college teacher. I created this experiment as a mash-up of two ideas that I have long pondered with admiration.
(1) – Teaching is extremely personal as you create a relationship of some kind with each of your students. Therefore, I have always been troubled that giving grades at the end of a semester is a completely impersonal process. Students take final exams and then leave campus for weeks or months. After they depart, the teacher posts a symbolic letter grade (A, B, C, etc.) that the students will access, often hundreds if not thousands of miles away. There is a disconnect (both in time and space) that I do not like. No words are shared between teacher and student. No encouragement or suggestions are conveyed. There is not even eye contact.
My younger son attended Sarah Lawrence College (outside of NYC) nearly 20 years ago. At least at that time, students did not receive letter grades from their teachers. Grades were posted with the Registrar but never conveyed to students unless they explicitly asked to see them. Instead, teachers authored a letter to each student describing the work the student had done over the course of the semester—the good, the bad, and the ugly. The teacher was supposed to work on this letter throughout the semester as a basis for an ongoing assessment of the student’s entire body of work. I liked that approach because it did not boil an entire semester down to a single letter grade. The student was given both constructive criticism and positive reinforcement. The teacher reflected on the student’s work, its potential and its quality.
I started my own experiment last week by trying to make the grading process in my classes more personal.
(2) – One of the most popular blog postings that I ever wrote was titled, “What the Catcher Tells the Pitcher.” It describes a conversation between Brad Ausmus, a long-time major league baseball catcher, and Terry Gross on her NPR radio program, Fresh Air.
At one point, Gross asked her guess what a baseball catcher tells a pitcher when he goes out to the mound. Ausmus’s response has stayed with me since the day I first heard the interview in 2011. “I always had only one goal in mind when I went out to talk with the pitcher. When I left him, I wanted the pitcher to absolutely believe that he was capable of getting out of the situation that he was facing. If he didn’t believe he was capable of taking care of the problem, we didn’t have much chance.”
We are getting to the end of the semester. If one of my students doesn’t believe he or she is capable of improving, we don’t have much of a chance. A positive but realistic attitude is essential for success in almost any endeavor and that can slip away here at the end. No improvement will ever happen if the student gives up.
I wanted to do something dealing with a student’s grade that seemed more personal but also encouraged the student to do better. I wanted to combine Sarah Lawrence with Brad Ausmus.
The Experiment: With about two weeks left in the semester, I wrote individual emails to each of the 39 students in my introductory courses this semester. They are all first-year students or sophomores. They have worked hard this semester and their test averages at the moment range from 63.0 to 99.0 with an average of roughly 81.
The 39 emails probably took me a total of about 4 or 5 hours. (At 4 hours, that means that I am writing each email at an average pace of under seven minutes.) I did not make the emails long, about 5 to 8 lines each. But, in that time, I told each person some of my thoughts that had stood out about their work this semester—their attitude, their preparation, their interest in the subject matter, their willingness to engage in class, etc. I tried to touch on the important stuff. With two weeks left in the semester, I did not see much benefit in describing what they had done during the semester that left me frustrated or exasperated.
I computed each overall test average at that point in the semester and then discussed what it would take to pull that average up on the final examination. For example: “You have a 76.1 average on our three tests so far this semester. If you want more than a solid C, you are going to have to show me what you have learned. Your work at times this semester has been outstanding but your preparation has been wildly inconsistent. With a solid B on the final exam, you should make either a B- or a B for the course. From what I have seen, you are more than capable of a solid B. But you are the one who has to make that happen. You won’t get there by accident. Get to work and let’s get it done. Be consistently good not just occasionally good. Let me know if I can be of help.”
I do think such notes can have a potential positive effect on the remainder of the semester:
(1) – The student knows that I know who they are. They are not some invisible spirit that blends into the woodwork. I want them to realize that I know them as a real person and not just as a student ID number.
(2) – They are reminded of the precise grade they have earned to date. It is not, “You have a high C” or “You have about a B.” I want them to know their exact grade. I want that to be absolutely real rather than something vague.
(3) – I want them to realize that an improved grade is still very much possible but it won’t happen by luck. They will have to earn it. A lot of teachers promise to be tough but really aren’t. I am not Santa Claus.
(4) – I ended every note with, “Let me know if I can be of help.” I wanted the students to understand that we are in this course together. It is not a “me versus them” situation. I am on their side and want them to do well. I want them to know that I am available for help and willing to help. They are not in this battle alone.
Okay, so I invested 4 hours of my life writing 39 emails to my current students. Was it a good use of my time? As far as improved results, that remains to be seen, but I was so glad that I used my four hours that way. The messages felt personal to me and reminded me that I was dealing with real people who have real lives and real futures. Maybe the benefit was always intended for me and my attitude.
I tried to make the achievement of a particular grade more personal to the students and I hope that they were able to see that their grade, no matter how poor it is at the moment, could still be improved by a rather modest increase in the level of work on the final. I want them to fight until the end. It is just a guess (or maybe a hope) but I will be surprised if some of the students don’t kick their work up into a higher gear and successfully improve their average here at the end of the semester. That was the goal.
That is an experiment I tried at the end of the fall semester in 2019. I wanted to do something different. I like trying something different. What experiment are you going to try at the end of the semester just to see what might happen? Remember what Frank Zappa said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”