Getting better all the time

One of the challenges for me over the past few years has been trying to minimize the importance of grades in my classes.  All of the research shows that extrinsic rewards (or punishments) are actually disincentives.  Economists have known for years that offering higher rewards for anything beyond simple mechanical tasks leads to poorer performance.  Rewards just don't work the moment you ask people to do even rudimentary cognitive tasks.   I've blogged on this before (When A's Don't Matter). 

I don't have the power to eliminate grades.  They are still (and probably always will be) the coin of the realm in higher education.  Even so, there are some things I've been able to do to de-emphasize them and put the emphasis on what really does motivate people: autonomy, challenge and mastery.   People--bless their little hearts--don't really like to think all that much, but they will do it if they are confronted with an intriguing challenge and have the freedom and autonomy to go about the work the way they want.  They also love to see themselves getting better at something.

So for the past three years I've been using my Humanities 101/102 sections to see how much I can infuse these ideas into the existing grade-dominated paradigm of higher education. The first week  I have the students select personal learning goals.  I ask them what they want to get better at by the end of the semester.   I put their goals in my grade book and come back to them when I respond to papers.  I want to recognize any progress and stress that my role is to support them, to challenge them and to offer strategies for success.  Just as importantly, I want to celebrate achievement.  Indeed, I eliminated the final exam (such a nasty sounding phrase) and instead turned it into a recognition of achievement

I haven't perfected my new approach by any means, but the students have responded well.  They get it.  What's really surprising, however, is the way this has changed me.  I don't hate grading as much as I once did.  It's actually kind of fun.  Here's what I mean.  I just finished reading a student's response paper on Oedipus.  Instead of grading it and pointing out its flaws, I was able to write about its potential:
This is moving in the right direction. I liked the way you went for an inter-textual reference. Good insight. Now let’s cite that little bugger. Cite all referenced texts . Of course, now that you’ve started to move my way, you know I’m only going to ask for more. :)
For example, you mentioned that Oedipus ran away in an attempt to outwit his fate. Okay, good. So who else tried to outwit fate in the texts we’ve read? Did Kronos try to avoid being overthrown in Theogony? Did Achilles try to have it both ways? And what about using Socrates for a contrast? Did he run away or face his fate? Come to think of it, Hector also accepted his fate in the end. And how might any of this relate to Hellenism’s concern for what it means to lead the best kind of human life?
This response could go a hundred interesting—and fascinating—inter-textual directions.  Look for larger patterns.  Part of achieving your goal (improved critical reading) is placing what you're reading into the larger context of the course's themes and ideas.   What do you think?   Is this ripe for revision?

I also think you can beef up textual support. Look where I’ve placed this mark: (#). I’ll tell you when it’s too much. Right now, we’re not quite there yet.  There are some other minor issues we can work on. Here’s a challenge for you. I want you to Google “using commas with introductory elements” and try to figure out what this is.  Check out a few grammar web sites and see if you can eliminate this error. Set this as a minor learning goal. And take action on your own. Believe me, you’re going to feel really, really good about yourself when you slay this beast.  People just like getting better at stuff.  It's what those pesky old Greeks called aret√©, or achieving our potential for excellence.
I have a long way to go, but I feel like I'm onto something.  If nothing else, it keeps me from getting stale.   I've been doing this job for 20 years and still feel like I'm only now figuring things out.  One of these days I might even get good at it.


Frida said…
and they love real feedback! letting someone know that you care, that you read it, and that you are taking time out for them means so much.

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