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.


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 K-pop, Part 3: Content, or Look Ma! No Books!

Image by MichaelGaida from Pixabay

In Part 2, I talked about how to help students develop knowledge and skills (assignments) and how to evaluate what they know and are able to do (assessments). Finally, in Part 3, we get to what many of us consider to be the fun part: deciding what material to cover and activities to do in our course.

I made two decisions about the content for my course.  The first was that I would not require students to purchase a book on Korean popular culture. I want students to have a critical framework for examining Korean popular culture, but I also did not want them to get hung up on academic jargon. This is an elective course with multiple majors, not a required major course culminating in a major research project.   Moreover, I was more interested in students being able to apply scholarly concepts and see the impact of historical context than their ability to recite this or that theory. So I opted to have students read journal articles, which are more accessible. I will supplement this information with mini interactive lectures that also show them how to apply scholarly ideas.  I have also allowed flexibility in my choice of other course material. Other than choosing our course K-drama, I have decided to use current events in Korean popular culture and relate them to the historical context and scholarly ideas we will encounter in the readings. This will keep class fresh and relevant for students.

The second was that I would emphasize discussions about what we were learning. Fully a quarter of my course is devoted to some kind of discussion. My course is online and asynchronous. I know many of my colleagues worry about how to maintain student engagement, since it is so different from their face-to-face experience. I’m taking a page out of the K-pop handbook, and allowing my students to have smaller but more frequent interactions about the material by having them respond to specific topics I pose. By guiding the discussion, I also model how students can also post engaging discussion questions.  I’m using Slack (my first time) to have students talk and work with each other and engage the material. Slack is also an app that students can access on their phones, as opposed to our clunky LMS (yes, Blackboard, I’m talking about you). Slack also allows you to post multimedia, so I encourage students to share things that are related to their interests, much like you would among your friends.  I also know such conversations are fruitful to me as a scholar.

These decisions also support student learning in a pandemic.   I really like this piece, “Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All”  by Daniel Stanford on low-bandwidth teaching. He reminds us that “courses that require frequent use of high-bandwidth technologies can limit their ability to fully participate in course activities. This can jeopardize their success in the course, create a sense of shame and anxiety and leave them feeling like second-class citizens.”

Image Credit: Daniel Stanford

By using Slack for collaboration and discussion, I hope to keep the course accessible for all students to increase the chances that not only will students continue to participate in the course, but will have more effective learning as they do so. I know my students are familiar with chat and messaging so if they can use these in our course, they will be more likely to be engaged in the class and its content.


Daniel Stanford. “Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Sill Save Us All.” iddblog. 16 Mar 2020. https://www.iddblog.org/videoconferencing-alternatives-how-low-bandwidth-teaching-will-save-us-all/ . (Accessed 27 Aug 2020).

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Teaching K-pop, Part 3: Content, or Look Ma! No Books! by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Teaching K-pop, Part 2: Assignments and Assessments (ew!)

Image by Peter H from Pixabay

In Part 1, I considered student learning outcomes, the foundation of good course design, and how they relate to my learning goals in teaching Korean popular culture. In Part 2, I cover how I determine to how to evaluate what students know or can do by the end of the course (assessments) as well as the kind of activities that would help them develop the knowledge and skills they would need  (assignments).

I cannot stress enough that if you are teaching your course online, in a hybrid scenario or face to face, you are still teaching in a pandemic. This means flexibility will be key to managing unforeseen circumstances can impact you and your student’s engagement in your course. Such circumstances can include your students being quarantined or getting sick, or someone they live with experiencing the same. We can design our courses to be rigorous and address such disruptions.  I try to keep this in mind when thinking about assessment and assignments in my course. Don’t be so hard on yourself to design the perfect course either. Remember, we’re in a pandemic, y’all. Your class is going to be good because you have a wealth of information and your sparkling personality.

Let’s start with assessments.  My highest-order thinking goal is for students to analyze Korean popular culture.  I’m going to measure how well students can do this by having them write a long-form web article (1500-2000 words) where they use scholarly concepts to interpret multimedia sources.  This is the major assessment of the course.  The rubric (later post!) that I will develop will ascertain how well students do such things as articulate a thesis, use sources as evidence and create a well-supported argument.

But before students can do any of these, I’ll have to teach them and give them practice. This is where assignments come in. We also call them learning support tasks.  They are basically anything that helps students acquire fundamental knowledge and skills necessary for later higher-order thinking. They are low-stakes assignments, worth a few points in a student’s overall grade, and cover a small portion of a larger assignment.

I start using these assignments in week 1. Students choose their own topics on the first day of class, so they will be motivated because they are able to focus on things that interest them. K-pop cover dance your jam? Have at it. Down with K-drama? Cool. Every other week they will post and talk about sources they find related to that topic so they are regularly engaged with their topic and sources.

In addition, students will write short-form articles (200-250 words) every other week.  They are worth 2% each and are always on the student’s topic. The short-form articles are also cumulative. For example, for the first one, I students focus on just crafting a main, controlling idea. The next one, in addition to crafting a main, controlling idea, they also focus on using sources to support the argument. You get the idea. Because they are low-stakes, they give students the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills without worrying about mistakes costing them in terms of their grade. They are also motivated because they are following their interests. Not only are these low-stakes assignments connected to each other, they also form the foundation for the long-form web article. The long-form article represents an extension of the writing they do for the short-form assignments, so that towards the latter part of the class, they are largely focused on revision.

Normally, students would have probably 6 of these short form writing assignments. For this course, I reduced the number to 4 and focused each one on just the most important things I wanted students to be able to do. For example, normally I focus on having students do research with scholarly sources. However, this is not a research class, and I’m more interested in having students apply certain scholarly concepts to examples they encounter in Korean popular culture. So I spend more time making sure they can apply the concepts to music and music video, K-drama and film than finding scholarly sources.  That type of scholarly research is not part of my student learning outcomes. Coco Chanel once said: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.”  Similarly, I looked at my syllabus and ended up taking out several assignments. I realized that some assignments were redundant. I found I could combine others because they were doing similar work towards my student learning outcomes.  Less is more. I feel my course still covers a good range of material and challenges students.

Finally, I considered how I can make this setup work in a pandemic.  To anticipate disruptions in students’ lives, I will drop the lowest grade for short-form writing assignment. I will also provide copious opportunities for extra credit. This can ease students’ anxiety over getting  sick or having to be out for at least two weeks. This way, students do not have to worry and can do their best when they can do their best. This may feel strange for some people because they have an idea in their heads about  how their course should go. But when your course is well-aligned, it can reduce anxiety because everything is centered around what students will learn. At the same time, you can still have some spontaneity in your course. Discussions can be unpredictable. Student choices about topics will run the gamut. And if something isn’t working, feel free to change it on the fly.

Designing your course with assignment and assessments that are linked to your student learning outcomes and anticipating disruption will help you tremendously in the coming semester.

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Teaching K-pop, Part 2: Assignments, Assessments (ew!) and Modalities by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Teaching K-pop, Part 1: The Most Important Thing

Image by Simone Lugli from Pixabay

Before deciding on all the cool content to include in my course, KORE 320: Korean Popular Culture, there is one thing that I had to do, something that forms the foundation of the course. Figuring out this one thing made designing the course easier and will make for more effective learning for students. It was not readings, content, assignments or assessments.  The one thing I needed to decide was: What do I want students to know or be able to do by the end of the course?

In other words, it was the dreaded student learning outcomes. Look, I get it. Most faculty first encounter student learning outcomes as part of program assessment or curricular development, and it’s not fun. Within these contexts, it seems very formulaic and disconnected from student learning. But the fact of the matter is, knowing what you want students to know and do by the end of the course helps you to align everything else: readings, assignments and assessments. This means that everything has a purpose in the course. Students appreciate this because nothing is busywork.

In my KORE 320 course, I’m focusing on using Korean popular culture to teaching students about digital literacy, digital curation and digital writing because most of us outside of Korea engage with Korean popular culture through digital means. Students will learn how to locate and evaluate online media, describe the development and global spread of Korean popular culture, use scholarly concepts to interpret Korean popular culture and develop skills through the use of digital, web-based tools.

While they look concise, coming up with my learning outcomes wasn’t easy.  I spent weeks honing them. Why? Because I had to make sure that before students did advanced things (known in HE circles as higher-order thinking)  they had opportunities to work up to them (by doing lower-order thinking). Cue Blooms Taxonomy!

Image: Fractus Learning

For example, I want students to be able to analyze Korean popular culture (higher-order thinking). But before they can do that, I have to give them the opportunity to be able to define concepts that can be used to analyze Korean popular culture (lower-order thinking) and provide opportunities for them to practice applying those concepts to Korean popular culture (midway between lower-order and higher-order). I have some nifty ideas about getting my students to do this (future post), and as fun as it is to start with the readings or the historical and cultural context or the videos or the dramas, I needed to work this out first. As instructors, student learning outcomes help us to map out how learning happens in our courses and create well-designed courses. Other factors can also inform your decisions. Where does the course fall in the curriculum? Is it required or an elective? Are there program outcomes it needs to meet? Is it a general education course? These can shape how you craft your outcomes.

One thing you’ll notice quickly is that you may not be able to cover as much breadth as you’d like. I know, I know, you want to do all the things. I could teach this whole course on 2nd generation K-pop idols. But, there is a good amount of research that suggests that depth is beneficial for student learning.  How many times have you taught a course and had to cut material? How sure were you that students did all that reading? Depth gives students the tools they need to encounter ideas they may encounter beyond your material.

When a course is well-designed, then it is easier to know how it might be able to change to address shifting circumstances, like changing modalities (future post) because of a pandemic. Notice this post does not start out with the modality of teaching (i.e. face-to-face, hybrid, online), because that’s not the most important thing. If you know your outcomes and how you will measure them (future post), then it is easier to change modalities because the foundation of your course is set.

Spending some time crafting your outcomes will lay a solid foundation for your course.

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Teaching K-pop, Part 1: The Most Important Thing by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

What K-pop Can Teach Us About Engagement for Online Courses

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

One of the most common concerns about moving courses online is that engagement is lost. However, it could be useful to draw on the kind of engagement that is central to contemporary Korean popular music (K-pop) culture.

Most articles you may read about the need to teach online courses (as opposed to the emergency remote teaching that most instructors engaged in in the spring) contains the often unchallenged assertion that online courses cannot replicate the engagement of the face-to-face course, seen by many as indispensable to learning.  John Kroger recently wrote in Inside Higher Education: “In the process, we have gained a much clearer understanding of what online education cannot do — or, in other words, the ways in which traditional in-person cannot be replaced. The most obvious area in which online delivery simply cannot replicate the value of in-person learning is in science and technology education. ” For many, this extends to other disciplines as well. Many people believe that being face-to-face is essential to learning. Period. Related to this critique is the characterization of online courses. Drawing on their experience this past spring or bad online course experiences, some argue that online courses are merely videos and quizzes.

We know that learning is a social activity. Instead of trying to replicate the face-to-face experience, we might look to modes of engagement that already work online. K-pop artists and fans have used the digital space to form connections and have engaging and memorable interaction for years. K-pop artists use social media such as Twitter, Instagram, VLive and YouTube to communicate with fans and share content. Fans reciprocate, as evidenced by the large numbers of followers artists have on these outlets. From old-school sharing platforms like MediaFire to closed discussion forums to collaborative Twitter accounts, K-pop fans have been deploying social media to communicate with each other for years.  This was particularly the case in the early years of the global spread of K-pop. If you were a fan of K-pop, it was unlikely that you knew anyone in your real life who was also a fan. As a result, fans turned to the internet. And while many people negative characterize K-pop fan activity,  fans more often deploy online modes to collaborate on philanthropic projects, organize promotion support and just engage with each other over a common passion.  K-pop fans often talk about the bonds they form with other fans without ever having met them.

Instructors could use these platforms in their courses to support the kind of engagement that is crucial for learning.  How can we create opportunities for students to create community in our courses? Do we have a space where students can post things they find related to the course and learn to look at such artifacts critically? Do we provide a way for students to talk to each other? Do we encourage students to form chat groups with other members of class for that important back-channel back-and-forth? Do we limit our interaction with students to just sharing information and content from the course, or can we envision a space in our online course where we just chit-chat with students?

When I mentioned this to a colleague, he responded that people spend untold hours watching YouTube or on Twitter because it is something they like. Could this be the real crux of the challenge facing instructors in the move to online, namely, to make our courses interesting enough for students to spend the kind of time on them as they spend in other activities on the Internet?


John Kroger. “The Limits of Online Education.” Inside Higher Education. 6 May 2020. https://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/leadership-higher-education/limits-online-education (14 May 2020).

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What K-pop Can Teach Us About Engagement for Online Courses by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Engaging Engagement in Online Courses

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In discussions about remote learning and future online teaching that many educators may face in the fall, concerns about engagement dominate. They often include the unchallenged claim that online instruction cannot replicate the engagement found in face-to-face teaching. But is that true?

Many erroneously equate the emergency online teaching that most institutions relied on this spring with the kind of online teaching many institutions may be considering for the fall. As a result, they often claim that online teaching generally fails to engage the student as face-to-face classes and result in actual learning. Students have expressed attitudes that the remote education they received during the pandemic has failed them. Commentators on education, like Jonathan Zimmerman, equate most modes of online education to the early days of educational TV, declaring that “Real conversation happens when people are in the same room, not when they’re on the same channel” and “Social distancing is necessary to preserve good health, but it’s not good for education.” Both students and educators point to engagement as a crucial part of the teaching and learning experience and assume it is lacking in online education.

However, we shouldn’t assume that engagement occurs just because student and instructors are in the same room or that one cannot achieve such engagement in an online course. Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill point to the substantial scholarship on the effectiveness of online learning compared to classroom-based learning: “What these studies show, time and again, is no significant difference. In fact, this has been labeled the ‘no significant difference phenomenon’ with a website and book by Thomas Russell (2001) dedicated to documenting the studies and the trend.”

What can make a difference in effective teaching in both settings? Actively engaging students in the course material, with the instructor and with each other. IU – Teaching Online notes that:

The concept of active learning encompasses a wide variety of learning activities in which students engage with the course content. The focus of active learning is to foster that engagement. When students sit and passively watch or listen to lectures – whether in person or on video – they are not actively engaging with the content.

We also know that students learn more effectively when they are involved in their own learning. A cursory look at activity on the Internet and social media reveals that we can have a high level of engagement in an online environment. Individuals spend hours engaging with each other, learning how to do a variety of things. Moreover, I know from personal experience that it is possible to involve students in collaborative research on the Internet. We should view the current situation as an opportunity to develop our best teaching to achieve a similar level of engagement for fall courses that may be online.


Jonathan Zimmerman. “Video Kills the Teaching Star.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 24 Apr 2020. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Video-Kills-the-Teaching-Star/248631?cid=wcontentgrid_41_5 (Accessed 5 May 2020).

“Learning Activities and Active Learning Online.” IU – Teaching Online, UC-Davis, n.d., https://canvas.ucdavis.edu/courses/34528/pages/learning-activities-and-active-learning-online?module_item_id=4973 (5 May 2020).

Stephanie Moore and Phil Hill. “Planning for Resilience, Not Resistance.” Phil On EdTech. 28 Apr 2020.  https://philonedtech.com/planning-for-resilience-not-resistance/  (Accessed 5 May 2020).

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Engaging Engagement in Online Courses by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.