Monday, January 10, 2011

Notice to Spring Students

Courses begin next Wednesday (1/19/11).  Note: there are no required texts for either Philosophy of Teaching/Learning or Nature of Human Nature. Prospective students, especially those new to my courses, ought first to read my MCLA "Handout A: Class Policies and Expectations." 

All courses are now full (at least one, apparently, beyond full).

18 comments:

  1. A powerful document; I hope all your students read and heed it. Two questions: 1) the prohibition on joking seems a little harsh -- surely you intend something more specific and less humorless? Learning is serious business, but need not always be pinched and dour. 2) I wonder whether basing student grades on "output" is quite the metaphor you want, since it seems to conjure an image of industrial production. Perhaps "learning" is what you intend, conceding that it is not easy to measure (but we should admit this freely, or submit to the standardized testing insanity). "Performance" is another, more artistic metaphor that might serve, though it might problematize your exclusion of verbal performance (participation) as a component of grades.

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  2. Matt: Excellent suggestions; Since I don't intend to be any more pinched/dour than usual, I'll rethink the phrase. I like "performance" more so than "output" as well. Thanks for reading.

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  3. Thoughts about the attendance dilemma:

    I'm entirely with you on the folly of rewarding minimal adult behavior with respect to attendance. However, is this the same as punishing a failure to meet that minimal standard? That is, would it be legitimate to lower a grade because of poor attendance, since attendance is a desideratum of academic work?

    With your position on participation, I'm less comfortable. I think we can make a rough qualitative and quantitative assessment of a student's performance and development in this area, with regard to such elements as creative and rigorous engagement with the subject matter, cooperativeness and encouragement of other students, etc. You seem to suggest that only written work constitutes academic performance worthy of cultivation and improvement, as gauged by formal evaluation. I agree that written work should weigh more heavily, but there seems to me to be a legitimate place for verbal/social performance as well.

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  4. Re attendance: no, the 2 are not the same, but one predictable effect of punishing non-attendance is rewarding (mere) attendance. However, I'm a pedagogical pluralist: I think your proposal is a legitimate alternative to mine. But, in the end, I'm inclined to see attending as not a minimal standard but necessary condition -- like breathing -- of academic performance, and so not worthy of credit.

    Re participation: I agree, obviously, that participation is a worthy (indeed, central) aspect of performance (and, pluralistically again, potentially assessable). I think it more consistent with the encouragement of internal motivation, though, simply to remind students in various ways of its centrality to their learning.

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  5. When did you become Jules and I Russell?! Perhaps von G. was right.

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  6. Hah! We do seem to be adopting the roles of our characters! I wish Alison would weigh in and set us straight.

    I like the idea of attendance, and breathing, as (transcendental!) conditions of the possibility of academic performance, rather than components of the performance as such. I never mark down students for inconsistency in breathing, though this may simply be because those who are even slightly too inconsistent about it never seem to complete my courses...

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  7. I think I may have spotted a couple of those propped up in the back row of my classes (not at MCLA, of course).

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  8. Operating with the humility of one who has never had the pleasure of teaching a full seminar, I have found that assigning a grade to mere participation may increase frequency but often to the detriment of quality. If a student knows that their grade requires participation, the case often arises in which student will participate even if they have no substantial contribution to make.

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  9. That is one of my fears (but, to be honest, it seems to occur even in the absence of a participation grade, probably in part because some students have been endlessly encouraged, not to think and reflect, but to express themselves and "speak their minds").

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  10. Nothing wrong with encouraging students to speak their minds and express themselves, as a starting place, since one cannot learn to do so thoughtfully or respectfully without practice. A student who speaks up, even out of mere extrinsic motivation, at least puts her/himself in a position to interact with other students and the instructor, so as to learn to contribute more fruitfully in the future.

    Moreover, I suspect the reason participation is so important even (or especially) for those who aren't good at it yet is that speaking up puts one in a psychologically risky position (which explains the widespread resistance). Handled sensitively by the teacher and the other students, this vulnerability creates teachable moments, which are largely unavailable to students who do not take the risk.

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  11. I constantly encourage my students to speak up and labor to reduce the perceived risks of doing so -- all without an attendance grade. I suppose if I were to impose one, that might reduce the need for constant encouragement; but I would then be sending the wrong messages to adults about internal motivation and autonomy.

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  12. I think, perhaps, that an important variable is the academic level. In the lower levels, where education is compulsory a participation grade may very well be in order, but for non-compulsory education the obligation switches, though not entirely, from the teacher to the student. It is the student's responsibility to be involved and the extrinsic motivation of a participation grade may, as suggested, send the wrong message concerning motivation.

    Also, there is a danger in incentivizing participation; it could be easily perceived at patronizing to the students already involved.

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  13. Yes; and that's one of the early variables we've had to struggle with in our new book -- Grounded Autonomy -- since the latter term, like all good things, comes in degrees.

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  14. Fair enough, though that same principle applies, mutatis mutandis, to all formal academic requirements and the grading of them. You have, in fact, produced a compelling argument against all grades in higher education, one with which I have much sympathy. However, if you demur at the elimination of grades, you might find that whatever justification they have applies equivalently to the evaluation of participation.

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  15. Speaking for myself (I assume, Matt, your latest is in response to Jacob's last post): I'm no fan of grades, either, but the College requires it, and so grading is a kind of institutionally mandated evil. Fortunately (for my current view) grading participation and/or attendance is merely optional.

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  16. I think we all agree that the criteria discussed so far are important educational virtues. The disagreement comes from the difficulties in representing the student's fulfillment of these virtues in a single quantitative figure and how to best use it to motivate and deter certain behavior.

    I want an explanation of how the figure actually represents my work, my performance, my interest, my motivation, my ability, and everything else that the admission officials at the next school I apply to will infer from my GPA and course grades. When I look at my report cards, I am often clueless as to what led to the grades. Sometimes my predictions of the grades were +/-1.5 marks off. If I can not determine what my own grades represent, how can anyone else?

    One of my professors at MCLA requested that the students provide their own grades at the end of the semester. I'm sure the professor's discretion made the ultimate decision (I believe I opted for no letter grade but received one nonetheless). I thought this was a clever attempt to mitigate disagreement between the professor and students on which academic virtues are important and the degree to which the student achieved them. Unfortunately, I believe the attempt was futile given the fundamental problems of letter grades.

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  17. Well, I look forward to The Philosophy of Teaching and Learning, where, I hope, we may probe such questions further.

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  18. Kyle: grading, like all empirical judgment, is inherently a fallible and subjective affair. One solution is to base grades, where institutionally mandated, on those aspects of performance which are most easily quantified. It's not a perfect solution (those who go through all the right motions, without the requisite care and commitment, may see their grades inflated), but it will make the process more transparent to all students.

    Jacob: If this discussion is a reflection of those to come, I'm optimistic.

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