Building meaningful student-instructor relationships
How effective communication and alternative grading can support a pedagogy of care
Today’s guest post is written by Katie Mattaini, a Lecturer in Biology at Roger Williams University. Since uttering the fateful question “What kind of monster doesn’t give partial credit?!” in January 2020, she has enthusiastically adopted standards-based grading or ungrading in all of her courses, and is one of our co-organizers at The Grading Conference. She also hosts the Biology Grading for Growth group and collects pedagogy books. You can contact her on Twitter at @katiemattaini.
“I really appreciate how much you care about us students. I find that I haven’t really had any professors that seemed to care that much about me and my work as you, and if they do, they don’t really talk about it.”
Oof. While all instructors like to be appreciated, this comment from a student’s final learning reflection a few weeks ago left me aching. I know my colleagues value their students. I would wager that for many of us, forming meaningful relationships with students is the most rewarding aspect of being an instructor.
On day one of classes, before getting into learning goals and course policies, I share my core beliefs about teaching and learning, since all my decisions flow from these guiding principles.
Learning happens in the context of relationships; it is not transactional.1
Equity considerations have to be built into every course from the ground up to ensure that all students have the chance to succeed; they can’t be an afterthought.
Everyone can learn biology [or insert your field here] if they put in the work, use effective study techniques, and get help when that’s not enough. (Carol Dweck’s growth mindset theory – the real one.)
Students are humans with complicated lives.
Learning takes practice, practice, practice.
In this post, I’m going to focus on number one, learning and relationships, and specifically student-instructor relationships. Obviously, not every student is going to be my BFF, but my fundamental aspiration is for every student to feel seen and valued. To gauge my success, this topic is the first question on my end-of-semester surveys.
The documented benefits of quality teacher-student relationships are myriad. Distressingly, the 2018 Gallup Alumni Survey findings align with the experience of the student quoted above, who just completed their junior year. The survey found that “only 27% of college graduates strongly agree that they had a professor who cared about them as a person.” A professor. Not most of their professors, not even a few professors – a single professor. This statistic should appall everyone in higher ed.
So how do we fix this? Because I know many professors who value their students, I have to believe that some of the problem is poor communication. Given the burnout that instructors have experienced over more than two years of pandemic teaching, we have been talking a lot about wanting to feel valued by our institutions. Is it so surprising that students want us to show that we value their work and wellbeing, too?
Being more explicit about the fact that we prize our relationships with students is a simple, easy, and extremely powerful way to improve student engagement and make everyone’s experience in higher ed more rewarding.
How can we do that? While it might feel uncomfortable initially, I am a proponent of telling students we care, frequently and out loud, in a manner that is authentic to each instructor’s personality. I try to start this on my getting-to-know-you survey before I even meet my students in person.
Then we have to back up that message with concrete actions. The most important action I’ve taken to demonstrate that I value students’ learning and wellbeing is adopting alternative grading practices.2 While thinking about all the ways alternative grading has helped me build more meaningful relationships with students, I found that most fell under a few categories, outlined below.
We don’t injure those we value.
Recently in the higher ed community, there has been an increasing focus on the harm that grades do to students. Therefore, I won’t belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that grades promote competition, increase pressure to “perform,” and often result in mental health issues. Furthermore, grades frequently measure systemic inequity far more than learning, as discussed in detail in Joe Feldman’s Grading For Equity. Many alternative grading systems, perhaps most notably ungrading, recognize this harm and seek to reduce it by re-defining, minimizing, or even eliminating grades.
We cede control to those we value.
Traditional classrooms put all the power in the hands of the instructor and give none to students. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to have authentic interpersonal relationships when the control is all on one side. Most alternative grading systems shift that balance, although to varying extents.
As one of my intro bio students pointed out when asked about the pros and cons of our SBG system, “Students were aware of their progress and grade and knew what to do. Grade was very much in their hands and about how much effort they put in.” Ungrading goes one step further in the shifting of power, as illustrated when one practitioner succinctly defined ungrading as “evaluation-as-conversation.”
More meaningful conversations
We view those we value as more than just a number.
How many times have you heard an instructor complain about a student arguing over half a point? While I still do have some conversations with students about why something “doesn’t count” as meeting an objective, I have far more conversations about content, study habits, paper-reading techniques, and data analysis and interpretation. Even more rewarding is when I get to have conversations with students about their progress: that they finally conquered Hardy-Weinberg problems after a few retests, or how much more easily they can interpret a complicated data figure in a publication.
These conversations can certainly happen even in the context of traditional grading, but since such systems penalize students for not “getting it” early enough, praise for progress can seem disingenuous at best. Alternative grading focuses on progress and successes from the start. Students recognize that when you’re focusing on their progress, you know them and their strengths a lot better than just looking up an old exam score. Celebrating student achievements frequently and out loud is a natural extension of alternative grading.
We help those we value achieve their goals.
When I adopted alternative grading practices, my primary motivation was to help make the grades more equitable, but what I found was that it actually produced more learning, as well. It was really exciting when one of my intro bio students was able to articulate this:
“The pros were that sometimes when a student get something wrong in the exam, they never go back and try to learn it, but with this system, the professor gives an opportunity and almost forces the student to review and learn that content which I think is very good because it assures that [the] student will learn.”
It would be easy to look at my grade distributions since switching to alternative grading and assume it’s just grade inflation. But that would ignore the concrete evidence of learning that students produce to earn those high grades. One of my colleagues suggested that if so many of my students were earning As and Bs, I could always raise the bar. But the bar in my classes is already plenty high and requires a lot of work to meet; I don’t want to make things even more difficult to artificially create a certain grade distribution. This has helped me define another guiding principle for myself as an educator: I’m here to help students learn, not to rank them.
Restoring joy in learning
We foster the passions of those we value.
Another cancer bio student wrote in their final learning reflection,
“I am a huge fan of the un grading [sic]. It was able to bring back my joy for learning. I have been molded as a student to only focus on passing the stupid exams. I lost a lot of passion for science due to this teaching style. However, the un grading helped me and took so much pressure off me. I felt like I could breathe and if I made a mistake, I was able to correct and fix it. This is how it should always be.”
Even the subjects we most love are not enjoyable if we are under constant pressure. Many professors have spent years studying topics they are passionate about, and presumably one of our goals is to pass some of this passion on to our students. I have found that traditional grading is antithetical to this joy in learning, and alternative grading can be used to make space to let those intellectual interests bloom.
Finally, I want to circle back to my original emphasis on communication. I have found that many students will start to see the benefits of alternative grading for themselves over the course of a semester. However, if we want to get the greatest benefits to relationships, we should let students know up front that our decisions to adopt alternative grading schemes are (at least partly) motivated by care for them. This last step is easy to neglect, but critical, since many students aren’t used to thinking about why their professors chose to do things a certain way. And starting out with a “why” that says, “I value you” is the perfect place to begin a relationship.
Have you found that alternative grading has helped you build more meaningful relationships with students? What reasons did I miss?
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In intro bio, I use standards-based grading, and in my upper-level cancer bio course I ungrade, but these observations apply to many alternative grading systems.