How to talk with administrators about alternative grading
Your students aren't the only people with whom you need to build trust.
What do you do if, having started alternative grading in your classes, you get pushback — but not from students? For example: Your department chair is unsupportive and pressuring you to go back to traditional methods. Or your dean is getting visits from students about it. Or your president if wondering why she’s getting all these emails from parents about “ungrading”.
David has written here before about building trust with students around alternative grading, but they aren’t the only ones with whom we might need to build it. There’s also a network of colleagues who have a stake in your work and your students: Your department chair, the chairs of other departments where your students live, deans, the president, and so on. We’ll call that network administration.
Since 2018, I’ve either been the administration (as an assistant chair and then chair of my department) or I’ve worked closely with administrators through my appointment in the university president’s office. I’ve learned a lot about how people in these positions work and think. As an alternative grader, you will need to build trust with this level of your organization. And doing so requires a different mindset than you might use with students.
The most important element of earning trust with administration, though, is not different from working with students: Take initiative, early and often, to communicate what you are trying to do, and keep them informed.
Most administrators in my experience have no intention of, and no interest in, dictating what you do with your own courses as long as you are generally meeting the expectations of your department and college1. They have other things to think about. But alternative grading pushes boundaries, and it appears on their radar screens more readily than other pedagogical choices. So if we know there’s a potential for pointed inquiries from your supervisors, it only makes sense to give them a heads-up before it happens.
Especially, keep your department chair, who is likely your most immediate supervisor and the person in charge of your annual personnel evaluation, in the loop about what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and what to expect before you implement anything in a live classroom. It’s especially helpful to prepare them to get, and address, potential student complaints. A helpful way to do this is with a brief memo that spells out your plans along with the benefits and potential issues. By brief, I mean brief — not a multi-page literature review or a curated collection of Grading for Growth posts they have to go read, but something that can be quickly scanned and understood. These are called “one-pagers” in admin-speak. This paper by Bethany Blackstone and Elizabeth Oldmixion contains a nice example of such a memo in the appendix.
Conversely, it is risky, even for tenured full professors, to launch into an alternative grading system in your classes without checking in first. This is not a situation where you want to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. However, if it’s too late to heed this advice — you’ve started an alternative grading practice, there are issues, and the chair is asking questions — then take the initiative to communicate right away. Invite those who take issue with your practices to talk with you (actually talk, not trade emails), on their turf and on their terms, and listen to what they say.
Speak the other person’s language
When talking to administrators, remember that they have values and immediate interests that are different from yours or from students, and the language you use should connect with those values and interests. Otherwise you will be talking past each other.
Administrators (with some exceptions) care deeply about students. So do faculty (with some exceptions). But the ways in which these groups care are often different. Faculty are concerned with academic performance and growth; issues like enrollment, retention, and budgeting are important but not typically top-of-mind. For administrators, that order is often exactly flipped, and those bottom-line issues are the specific “love languages” they use to express their interest in students, and the details of instruction are left up to the faculty.
So when speaking about alternative grading to a chair, dean or provost, it’s fine to discuss how it helps students grow intellectually, and so on. But eventually you need to connect it all back to concrete issues like enrollment, retention, DFW rates, and so on.
Especially: Learn your institution’s strategic plan and take every opportunity to connect your alternative grading plans with it. Administrators typically are the authors of these plans and are on the hook for demonstrating they have made progress on them. The best advice I received as a department chair was that if I wanted to see something actually happen, I should connect it explicitly to the university strategic plan. And I found this to be absolutely true; the glacier-like mechanisms of higher education became shockingly active and efficient once I was able to explain how my plans will help realize the institution’s plans.
Equity, in particular, is usually part of the strategic plan and is an important lever for discussing alternative grading with administrators. Emphasize the very real issues with inequity in traditional grading practices (as discussed here and here, for example), and how your alternative approach will be more equitable and help students who have traditionally been marginalized. Explain that the connection between equity and grading practices is real, and that you know how to leverage a change in grading practices to improve equity, which is important to everyone.
Don’t throw research at people
I’ve seen this issue of administrator and colleague pushback on social media recently. The typical post goes: I am getting pushback from my colleagues/department chair about my use of ungrading. What should I do? And by far, the most common response is: Show them the research and lots of it.
But I think that’s a mistake. Let me explain.
Certainly, research on alternative grading is important, and we need more of it. But it’s a tactical error to think that people who are skeptical of, or in opposition to, alternative grading are fully rational actors who will change their minds once they see enough data, or high-enough quality data. That may be the way scholars operate. But alt-grading skeptics in my experience are not acting like scholars, even if they have Ph.D’s.
If it were true that skeptics of pedagogical innovations changed their minds once confronted with enough high-quality research, then the entire system of American higher education would have immediately switched to active learning as our default pedagogy following the publication of the Freeman paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014. But so far, this hasn’t happened.
Skeptics of any sort of pedagogical innovation — including alternative grading, flipped learning, and active learning in general — are not skeptical because they lack data. Often, they have seen the data. Instead, they are acting out of a combination of emotion and inertia. That’s just human nature, and it doesn’t make the skeptics bad people. But hitting a skeptic with a truckload of research, without helping them see themselves in it, is more likely to further entrench them than it is to win them over.
What skeptics are interested in — what we are, all of us, interested in — is solutions to problems. Can you frame your efforts in alternative grading as a solution to one of their problems? For example, if you’re talking to your chair, can you describe how a system based on feedback loops might help lower DFW rates in your course? Or produce a greater sense of belonging? In other words, what problems is the chair facing, and how can you frame your efforts as helping to solve them?
Skeptics, as again are all the rest of us, are also interested in themselves. Is it possible that you are getting pushback from an administrator because they see your alternative grading efforts as a threat, perhaps to the “academic rigor” of the subject or department, which many take very personally? Or that if your idea spreads, it will result in a big uptick in workload for faculty? How might you frame your efforts in terms of how it helps the other person gain something? Or at least, how your efforts will have minimal impact on them?
Let me say it again: Don’t throw research at people. Break it down for them, and make it about your class and how you are helping solve their problems.
Show enthusiasm and have a learning mindset
When talking administrators, or anyone else, about alternative grading, be excited! There is good reason for excitement: You are taking a huge step toward improving the intellectual and personal development of your students, and doing concrete work towards dismantling an inequitable system. Let that enthusiasm shine through. At the same time, avoid giving a sales pitch. Be ready to explain what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and what you hope to accomplish, but also ask for feedback from the people you talk to, and be honest about what might need to change and how you’re planning to change it.
This advice is particularly useful for documentation you use for annual performance evaluations, contract renewal, or promotion or tenure decisions. Most institutions require evidence of teaching effectiveness. Explaining your alternative grading implementations, presenting evidence (from your classes, not from a research paper) for their effectiveness, and discussing ways you are seeking out growth and improvement presents a powerful picture of you as an expert teacher committed to learning and professional growth. My experience is that institutions want to employ people who are taking intelligent risks to better themselves and their students, even if those actions don’t always work out perfectly.
Be ready to compromise
If at the end of the day, you have taken steps to communicate with people, and you’ve done it in a way that is reasonable and encouraging, but you’re still running into opposition: You might need to consider compromise, or putting things on hold.
While we believe here at this blog that alternative grading is objectively better for students in basically every way, it’s no good creating significant ill will with your administration by pushing ahead with your plans if you know you don’t see eye-to-eye. Students will be helped; but your capital for helping them further down the road will be severely diminished.
So even if the other people are being jerks about it, look for common ground and steps that will result in win-win situations. For example, if your chair simply refuses to approve of your use of specifications grading, maybe you could agree to use mastery-based testing instead, or to use ungrading with upper-level students first before rolling it out to your freshman gen-ed students. Lowering the scale of your implementation mitigates the risk for the department chair, while not depriving you of a chance to try these ideas out.
Take initiative to do this! It communicates: “Here’s what I want to do and why, and here’s how it helps you. I understand your misgivings. Is there any way I can realize my plans in a way that works for you?”
In one of my early meetings with our president when I was appointed as a Presidential Fellow, she mentioned to me that she was getting emails from parents concerned about faculty using something called “ungrading”; did I know anything about that? My eyes got a little wide. I took a deep breath and tried to give her, an extraordinarily busy person with more plates spinning than you can imagine, a largely research-free two-minute summary of what ungrading was and how it can benefit students when properly implemented. She responded in the best possible way: With curiosity.
That opened the door for more conversations about alternative grading that have deepened over time, spread to similar conversations with a wider range of people2, and evolved into trust. Ultimately trust is the engine of all education, so let’s be sure to take steps to build it wherever it’s needed.
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Important note here: While this is true for all faculty, some faculty operate under more constraints than others, and sometimes the “expectations” (= constraints) of the position can look a lot like administration telling the faculty member how to run their courses. So understand that some administrators absolutely love telling people how to run their lives; but still, in my experience that’s the exception.
For example, I’ve had some very interesting conversations with our senior leadership team about how alternative grading and holistic admissions policies have concepts in common, and how one might support the other. More on that in a future article.