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Many of the students we work with don’t know where they will find their next meal.
The most marginalized students at our institutions are finding themselves and their work increasingly policed — by faculty members, by administrative policies, by ed-tech “solutions,” and by the actual police. Meanwhile, the majority of faculty members in higher education are precariously employed.
In the introduction to Critical Digital Pedagogy: A Collection, Sean Michael Morris, Chris Friend, and I write,
We have to design for the least privileged, most marginalized students, the ones more likely to have felt isolated even before the pandemic: disabled students, chronically-ill students, BIPOC students, queer students, and those facing basic needs insecurity.
We need to design assessments, write syllabi, develop policies, and imagine new ways forward for these students. We have to start by finding out who our students are, what they need to be successful, and how our institutional mission does (and sometimes doesn’t) align with our practices.
My hope with this activity book is that it will help readers understand the intersections of inclusive design, critical pedagogy, and the practice of teaching today’s students.
Writing Prompt 1: Who Are Our Students?
We’ll start with what author Natalie Goldberg calls a “finger exercise.”
The gist: keep your hand (or keyboard cursor) moving, let your words wander, don’t self-edit, and keep writing without stopping for 2 to 3 minutes.
Use the following prompts to guide your finger exercise:
- Who do you teach?
- What do you know about your students?
- Who are they?
- How are they changing?
- What do they want from their education?
- What barriers do they face?
Writing Prompt 2: Dear Class
Begin a letter to your class, something you could imagine putting on the front page of your syllabus.
If you’re an administrator, write a letter to your faculty. If you’re an instructional designer, write a letter to the faculty with whom you work.
Use the following prompts as a framework for your letter:
- What work do you value from your students?
- What will you contribute (as the teacher)?
- What does success look like in your class?
- How (as the teacher) will you know when you’ve seen it?
- What is the students’ collective role in constructing the course?
- How will you show care for your students? How will you show care for yourself?
Discussion: Why Do We Assess Student Work?
Take a look at this advice given to Berkeley graduate student instructors.
Is this advice you would give to a new teacher? Why or why not? Choose a sentence you find inspiring. Choose another you find problematic.
Using the discussion questions below (either by yourself or with a group of colleagues), seek to unseat your learned behaviors about assessment and grading.
- Why do we grade? How does it feel to be graded? What do we want grading to do (or not do) in our classes (whether as students or teachers)?
- What do letter grades mean? Do they have any intrinsic meaning, or is the value purely extrinsic? Does assessment mean differently when it is formative rather than summative?
- How do written comments function as (or in relation to) grades? To what extent should teachers be readers of student work (as opposed to evaluators)?
- What is the role of self-assessment and peer- assessment?
- What would happen if we didn’t grade? What would be the benefits? What issues would this raise for students and/or teachers? Would we be forced to rethink our systems for evaluation?
Alternative Approaches to Grading & Assessment
Let’s look at some alternatives to assessment and consider practical ways we might apply these to our work with students.
Grade Free Zones
Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine diving right into the deep
end of ungrading, so try having the first third of the term be ungraded, a sandbox for students to experiment inside before moving on to the more formal activities of a course. Or decide to grade only a few major assignments.
If you’re only grading a few assignments, you may not feel like you have enough information to determine a final grade at the end of the course. So, I often have students write process letters, describing their learning and how their work evolves over the term. This can include having them take pictures
of their creative work as it evolves, including (or linking to) representative examples of their work that they don’t otherwise turn in, etc.
Peter Elbow’s Minimal grading
In “Grading Student Writing: Making it Simpler, Fairer, Clearer,” Peter Elbow describes what he calls “minimal grading,” using a scale with only one, two, or three levels, instead of giving students grades like 96.5%, 6/10, or A-/B+.
Elbow argues these grades are difficult for teachers to determine and even more difficult for students to interpret. Instead, he advocates for scales with fewer gradations: turned in, pass/fail, strong/satisfactory/weak.
Elbow also describes a “zero scale,” in which some work is assigned but not collected at all. This frees the teacher from feeling they have to respond to, evaluate, or even read every bit of work students do.
This can be formal (having students evaluate each other’s work) or informal (just having students actively engage with one another’s work). This can be particularly useful when having students work in large groups.
I frequently have students work on projects that have an entire class (of 25 or more) collaborating. When I do this, I have every student write a process letter that addresses their own contributions as well as the functionality of the team they’re working with. With large group projects, it’s hard to see what and how each student contributes, but these process letters help me get a view of a dynamic I might not otherwise be able to see. If it’s a project they work on across the entire term, doing multiple process letters allows me to get the information I need to step in and help where I’m needed.
I’m really not a fan of rubrics. Alfie Kohn, in “The Trouble with Rubrics,” describes them as an “attempt to deny the subjectivity of human judgment.”
Rubrics are often recommended as a way to make standards for evaluation transparent, but for me, a 5×5 grid filled with text is just bewildering and inscrutable. Rubrics have never helped me make sense of grading or being graded.
Peter Elbow encourages making rubrics that are plainer and more direct, a 3×3 or smaller grid. The rubrics I find most exciting are ones crafted by students—so that the making
of the rubric becomes an act of learning itself rather than a mechanism (or set of assumptions) created in advance of the students arriving in the course.
Activity: Reassessing Assessment
Think about specific challenges you face with assessment in your disciplines and/or the courses you teach.
Choose an assignment or activity you’d like to brainstorm a new assessment approach for (perhaps something that resists conventional approaches to grading).
How would you approach assessment for these activities?
- An Instagram photo, a tweet, a Facebook conversation, or a community-based assignment?
- A symposium organized by students—who would you give the grade to?
Feel free to consider something you might not at first think “assess-able” at all—and determine how you might assess that thing.
Think specifically about the intrinsic value and use value of your assessment mechanism. What kind of learning is inherent in the act of assessment itself? How might the assessment (score, mark, grade, feedback) be used? What could it be used for? (Accreditation, illustration of mastery, as a marker of status or achievement.)
Checklist: Good Habits for Creating a Culture of Care
✅ Start with hello, how are you? In designing a course, make sure the first thing students encounter is a human and not a tool or bureaucratic document.
✅ Remind students a rug won’t get pulled out from under them. Use words like “Can” instead of “must.” “Ask” instead of “require.” Flexible instructions that are expansive and offer wiggle room.
✅ Create multiple points of entry. Synchronous, asynchronous, video, text, etc. Design deliberately for each modality where students might access a course.
✅ More conversations. Fewer policies. Teaching should be about encouraging student learning, not policing behavior. Set boundaries, but focus on natural consequences, not arbitrary ones.
✅ Anticipate rather than merely accommodate. The students struggling the most are the ones least likely to ask for help, the ones least likely to know what accommodations are available or how to secure them.
✅ Ask students to reflect on their own learning. Ask when and how they learn. Ask what barriers they face. Listen. Believe the answers. Take notes, draw pictures, make a rubric. Be prepared to discuss with the room.
Download the Ebook
- Alternative approaches to grading and assessment.
- Good habits for creating a culture of care.
- Additional resources to explore alternative grading strategies further.