Why Reverting to Pre-Pandemic Course Policies Won’t Work

Incandescent light bulb with a crack that emits smoke

Burned out by the pandemic and faced with unprecedented levels of student disengagement, some instructors want to ditch pandemic-induced changes to teaching and go back to their old policies. Doing so will not improve student performance. Instead of going back to these strategies, instructors can adapt what they have learned during the pandemic.

Continue reading “Why Reverting to Pre-Pandemic Course Policies Won’t Work”

Does Ungrading Work for Everyone?

Best practices are only best when they work for nearly everyone. While ungrading advocates encourage others to ditch traditional grading, we need to consider the impact of ungrading on groups who already encounter resistance from students around grades.

What is ungrading? Robert Talbert defines it as “a way of assessing and reporting on student learning in which students complete assignments but aren’t graded at all on any of them.” On the other hand traditional grading is characterized as assigning a grade. With ungrading, Jesse Stommel “offer[s] feedback with words and sentences and paragraphs, or by just talking to students, rather than using a crude system for quantitative evaluation.” Similarly, Rachel Toor notes that “for the growing number of advocates of ungrading, the whole point is to focus on learning rather on ‘sorting or judging’ students.” Ungrading is seen as offering feedback that fosters student learning, while traditional grading is reduced to a blunt instrument that judges student work.

Ungrading’s advocates have reported success in their classes, but grading that results in a grade can be useful also. While some disciplines, like STEM, rely on exams and problem sets to evaluate student learning, many other disciplines grade by providing the very kind of feedback featured in ungrading. Moreover, you can combine the formative feedback of ungrading with the evaluation of traditional grading. For example, I encourage faculty to combine rubrics with assignment wrappers. Rubrics make expectations transparent for instructors and students and help with the impact of grading on instructor workloads, while assignment wrappers provide an opportunity to talk with students about how to improve their performance.

Moreover, many advocates do not address the implications of ungrading for individuals for whom grading remains an issue. Grading frequently is a site of contention for women, people of color and international faculty, who often talk about the frequency of grade challenges. Because it relies solely on formative feedback, ungrading opens up these individuals to even more challenges. Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin note:

Think of classroom authority and expertise as a force field that surrounds an instructor and creates a protected space within which the teacher’s expertise and skill is assumed. . . . Instructors with privileged (white, male) statuses mostly don’t even know the force field is there. Women and instructors of color, meanwhile, definitely know the force field is there, that it tends to malfunction, and that they aren’t always guaranteed safety and space in which to teach. They often get distracted dealing with students who test the limits of the force field.

Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors

Pittman and Tobin bring up something that is often overlooked in discussions of ungrading: who does it. We already know that diverse faculty have different experiences in the classroom, but ungrading is presented as a neutral teaching strategy that will yield similar results for most. When Pittman, a tenured woman of color, adopted ungrading in her class, “student resistance was widespread and confrontational.”

Does this mean that ungrading is bad or wrong? No, but promoting it as a best practice in opposition to “quantitative evaluation” overlooks how formative feedback alone can produce grade challenges for those who are prone to them the most. I advocate using teaching strategies, well, strategically. For example, student learning for some assignments may be served by a simple quantitative score, while others should feature the very kinds of detailed, formative feedback promoted by ungrading. These choices depend on what you want students to learn and how you will know if they’ve learned something. They also depend on the degree to which you wish them to attain competency at any given point in the course. We might scaffold assignments in our courses and provide detailed, formative feedback early, while the last assignment in the course may not require the same level of feedback and result in a grade. Rather than seeing ungrading as a replacement for traditional grading, I think it represents a starting point to think about how instructors can deploy a variety of strategies to get a comprehensive view of student learning in a course.

Sources

Chavella Pittman and Thomas J. Tobin. “Academe Has a Lot to Learn About How Inclusive Teaching Affects Instructors.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 7 Feb 2022.

Jesse Stommel. “Ungrading: An FAQ.” Jesse Stommel. 06 Feb 2020. https://www.jessestommel.com/ungrading-an-faq/

Rachel Toor. “The Controversial but Useful Practice of ‘Ungrading’ in Teaching Writing.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 26 Apr 2021.

Robert Talbert. “What I’ve Learned From Ungrading.” Inside Higher Education. 27 Apr 2022.

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Does Ungrading Work for Everyone? by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 2, or, What Will Students Learn?

Creating student learning outcomes is one of the most difficult part of course design, but spending some time on this up front helps to guide the course and reduce the tendency to second-guess ourselves during the course.

A word about course design. I think that we ascribe a romantic quality to teaching, focusing on the feeling we have when we impact students’ lives. We breeze into class and dazzle them with our copious knowledge. Little light bulbs go on over their heads and they declare us the best. Voila! Learning! However, students really learn best when we structure their learning. Does this mean that there are no spontaneous moments worth of a Hollywood feel-good film? No. Can course design solve all your problems? No. But knowing why you are doing things in your course and envisioning how you want students to learn can improve their learning, reduce your frustration while teaching the course and genuinely improve your enjoyment of teaching.

The Aspirational Outcome

I like to start with an aspirational outcome: what do I wish students would learn or be able to do. My desire to teach this course is rooted in observations of the way black culture is considered in real life. Instead of the reductive way I see black culture engaged (often on social media, which has a wide reach), I want students to recognize the way that black culture has always engaged other cultures as it circulates the globe. I want them to be able to pose meaningful questions that increase our understanding of black culture. I want students to understand that black culture is hybrid, drawing on other cultures even as it is also distinct. This kind of cultural blending is distinctly black, not black always in a racial sense, but in a distinctly cultural one. Because of its inherent hybridity, it invites others to engage and participate. Black culture is also global, carried throughout the globe by the migration of black people. But, it also travels through other mediums and in doing so, it influences the other cultures it encounters. I want students to interact with that kind of black culture. I could do that over several courses with students, but not in a 14-week semester.

The Practical Outcomes

Moving on from the aspirational outcome, I turn my attention to what this looks like on the ground as a student learning outcome, which is how I will measure students’ knowledge or skill by the end of the course. As a faculty developer, I am often met with resistance from some faculty who view student learning outcomes as stifling and unnecessary. I liken student learning outcomes to a destination for a trip. Knowing where you intend to end up does not diminish your enjoyment on the way. But if you are trying to get to a destination, you need to know what the destination is. Nobody wants to ride around with you aimlessly. Similarly, we need to be able to tell students what they get out of taking our course and why they should spend their time on it.

Because they are so central to course design, student learning outcomes can take a while to develop. Remember, more work on the front end means less work on the back end. The more time I spend on them, the less time I have to spend on deciding mid-stream where the class is going. For this course, which is a new prep, it probably took me 2-3 weeks to develop these outcomes.

I also think it is important to note that student learning is not limited by student learning outcomes. They don’t represent the only things students learn in your class; they represent what you will evaluate students on in your course. I want my students to learn lots of other things (which I’ll cover with a subsequent post), but I am assessing students on certain things, on what ends up being a limited about of knowledge in an in-depth way.

These are my outcomes for my Black Internationalism course! By the end of my course, students should be able to:

  • Describe various approaches to black internationalism and apply them to black cultural production
  • Explain the global impact of and dynamics between black cultural production and the contexts that inform it
  • Develop inquiry-based questions that seek to engage the complexity of black culture
  • Visualize an inquiry-based approach to black cultural production

A few notes on these outcomes. Notice there are only four. These are outcomes that I think students can reach during the course of my class. Our classes are finite; they run for a few weeks and they are done. So, I am trying to set goals that I think students can reach during the time that I have them. Also we are still in a pandemic, so it is important to be aware of not overloading students when they are, like us, trying to survive.

I’m also more interested in developing strong foundational skills, so I’m less concerned with getting students to the highest level of higher-order thinking skills. I know faculty developers talk about getting students to the top of Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, but I like using a wheel, which reminds us that students cannot achieve higher-order thinking skills if they don’t master lower-order thinking skills. To me, this makes lower-order thinking skills equally important, as they are the foundation for later learning. For this class, I choose to spend more time getting students to the application level, which to me makes the knowledge and comprehension phases more relevant for my course.

Next post: Aligning student learning outcomes with assignments and assessments (gasp!)

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Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 2, or, What Will Students Learn? by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 1: Preliminary Considerations

That’s right! The Teaching series is back. I’ve been asked to teach a course, any course I want, for African and African American Studies. So like my Teaching K-pop series, I’m going to take you all along for the course design ride!

I had to make two decisions right away: what to teach and how.

What to Teach

I opted to teach a course on Black Internationalism, with a focus on popular music and visual culture. In the course, students will explore black culture through a transnational lens, examining how black culture cites and is cited by global cultures. I chose this topic for a couple of reasons. First, while a lot of my work in Afro-Asian cultural studies falls within the field of Black Internationalism, I’ve never taught a course on it.

Second, I ran across a Twitter thread that suggested that students may benefit from seeing black culture in a global context. In this thread, a user suggested that black people really do not have anything to do with other cultures. This echoes another tendency I see on social media that flattens black culture, talks about it as a monolith and ignores the hybridity embedded in its various manifestations. It was clear that many do not know about this complex tapestry of influence, so starting in the early 20th century with the emergence of writing on what we will come to call Black Internationalism will provide some needed context. Given that this kind of transnational thinking informs visual culture as well as popular music going forward, introducing students to black internationalism as an interpretative lens will help shed light on black engagement with the world.

How to Teach

Before the pandemic, we probably would not have considered that we would be offering courses in any format other than the traditional in-person modality. However, times have changed, and I choose to offer this 300-level elective course in a hybrid format. At my institution, that means the course will meet between 2% and 49% of the time face-to-face. This shouldn’t be confused with hyflex, which is a kind of hybrid teaching that simultaneously involves some students in the classroom and other students attending class via web conferencing during live class sessions. (No, just no.)

Rather than believing that face-to-face teaching is “better” than online, I think that both have their advantages and that hybrid teaching will allow me to take advantage of them all. One of the benefits that hybrid teaching affords is that it gives me the opportunity to help students structure their out-of-class, or asynchronous, instruction time, when I believe a lot of learning happens. I mean, we only have students for three hours a week, so it is important to help them use out-of-class time to develop independent learning skills and use valuable synchronous or face-to-face time for more important tasks. We can use technology web-based platforms to help students become more independent learners. Students are already using those platforms to learn, and to be honest, so are we. If you’ve ever looked something up on YouTube to learn how to do it, you have experienced some of the affordances of online learning. I’m just planning to leverage those same strategies in my class to better prepare students to engage with the material and with each other during our time together. Many of our students are involved in vibrant online communities, so my challenge is to harness some of that for hybrid instruction.

Whether we like it or not, the pandemic remains an unpredictable reality and hybrid teaching gives the flexibility to move the course online if circumstances require. The pandemic has shown us that greater flexibility is something we didn’t know we wanted and some do not want to give it up (me, I’m the one). I’ve always wanted to teach a hybrid class, and given my use of technology in my courses, I’ve been working towards that. At the same time, my online teaching experience last fall showed me that many undergraduates really need some face-to-face time to provide an anchor for their learning experience. The hybrid modality allows me to structure some of that time in one-on-one and small group meetings virtually and in-person if circumstances permit. This means they will occur more frequently, and have a greater chance of benefitting students.

Next post will be on the most important thing when designing a course: student learning outcomes!

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Teaching Black Internationalism, Part 1: Preliminary Considerations by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop

Soul in Seoul: African American Popular Music and K-pop is the first scholarly book to examine how contemporary Korean popular music (K-pop) references and incorporate musical and performative elements of various genres of African American popular music. Specifically, it argues that K-pop simultaneously cites instrumentation and vocals from various genres of black popular music and employs distinct Korean musical strategies, thereby enhancing the R&B music tradition. Such citational strategies are deemed authentic by global fan critics who function as part of K-pop’s music press. Defining K-pop as an umbrella rather than a genre, the book explores music by Korean pop (commonly referred to as “idols”), R&B and hip-hop solo artists and groups to reveal how K-pop functions as a global branch in a  global tradition of R&B music.

Listen to the Soul in Seoul Spofity Playlist!

Project Update: Red Velvet: Queendom

The new exhibit on KPOPCULTURE, “Red Velvet: Queendom,” details the group’s musical production featuring their dual concept since debut in 2014. The exhibit provides basic information about the group and its music as well as a curated playlist derived from fan data.

This exhibit is a part of the KPOPCULTURE digital humanities project, which curates global Korean popular music (K-pop), creative personnel and performance.

PROJECT UPDATE: TWICE – Girls Like Us

The new exhibit on KPOPCULTURE, “Twice: Girls Like Us” shares the group’s impressive run of promotional tracks since debut in 2015. These tracks resonate with fans more so than deep cuts from releases. The exhibit provides basic information about the group and its music as well as a curated playist derived from fan data.

This exhibit is a part of the KPOPCULTURE digital humanities project, which curates global Korean popular music (K-pop), creative personnel and performance.