What do you do when you don't know what to do?
It doesn’t matter how well organized and carefully crafted your assessment system is: Inevitably, something will happen that you didn’t plan for. A student needs an accommodation, and you have no policy to handle it. Well-intentioned requirements are unintentionally blocking a student’s progress. Something just seems off and you need to address it.
Today, I’ll identify some helpful general principles that can guide your reasoning and help you make sensible decisions when you don’t know what to do.
Before I begin, a few important points:
It’s worth the time to state your guiding principles clearly. There are lots of very good reasons to be using alternative grading: What are your reasons? Putting them into words can push you to clarify and reflect. Plus, if one of those reasons is “because somebody convinced me to give it a try” or “alternative assessments are the new hotness™️” then it will be good to keep thinking and find some deeper reasons for using alternative grading.
You need to think about your guiding principles before you need them. When everything is working as intended, that’s great. It’s when you’re faced with unexpected trouble that you most need a solid foundation to fall back on—and that’s also when you have the least time to build that foundation. If you haven’t clearly identified what your guiding principles are, you’ll be left flailing around—or worse, fall back on old reasoning that only made sense in an old assessment system. If you don’t know what your guiding principles are — or if they don’t align with your assessment system — you’re going to be sending a mixed and possibly damaging message.
Here are a few possibilities that cover a range of options. Perhaps one of these will catch your eye — or not, and that’s fine too!
We’ll start with a classic from Jesse Stommel, who is (among other things) one of the leading proponents of ungrading:
“Start by trusting students” is all about the attitude you bring into any interaction, a guidepost for your initial reaction: Begin by assuming good faith. Assume that people are fundamentally trying to do their best.
Put differently, there’s a certain kind of instructor who sees a scam around every corner, an attempt to “pull one over” on them behind every request for an exception, a personal affront from every missed meeting. That’s a recipe for setting up nothing but adversarial relationships. This kind of instructor starts from a place of deep suspicion. Don’t be that person: Start by trusting instead.
A student asks for some sort of special accommodation? Start by trusting that they genuinely need it. Somebody misses a scheduled meeting? Start by trusting that they are trying their best. A student is constantly getting up and leaving your class early? Start by trusting that there is a good reason for it. Some students have surprisingly similar work? Start by trusting that there may truly be an innocent and logical reason.1
This isn’t the same as “Trust students.” In other words, it doesn’t mean to blindly believe everything and ask no questions. It doesn’t mean ignoring red flags or doing nothing about serious problems. But it does mean starting with an assumption of good faith, asking genuine questions to understand a situation, and truly realizing that students are real human beings with their own lives, families, schedules, and problems.
Dr. Debra Borkovitz, an instructor at Boston University adds a follow-up to Stommel’s advice: “… but don’t expect them to start by trusting you. You have to earn that.” So many students come to us with years of traumatic experiences in classes. As I’ve previously written:
All students bring their past experiences with them into class—they are never a blank slate. This often includes trauma, anxiety, and inequity rooted in their past experiences with grading.
Earning students’ trust is a long and difficult process, and sometimes I don’t manage it. But starting by trusting students demonstrates grace and good faith, and students will pick up on that.
OK, so this has been pretty high-level stuff. Here’s a very practical principle that I use all the time: “Let students show what they can do.” This contrasts with rigidly enforcing limits you’ve put in place, without considering why they are there.
Deadlines are a common place to put this in action. If a student needs an extension, or wants to hand something in late, I remind myself: Give them a chance to show what they can do. (In practice, I often phrase this as “I’d rather see what you can do.”) And of course, if a student is chronically handing things in late, I talk with them and try to understand why. Maybe they need to work on time management, but it’s just as likely that they have totally legitimate reasons that my normal deadlines don’t work for them.2
More generally, this principle applies to any sort of artificial scarcity—deadlines, tokens, anything limited. Actively seek out sources of artificial scarcity or gatekeeping and question why they exist. Has a student used all of their tokens but has a great idea for revising an essay? Let them show what they can do! Is a student trying to balance work, family, and an evening exam? Find a way to let them show you what they can do!
This also relates to cheating. Think about this principle as you read Robert’s article about academic dishonesty, where he focused on getting a student to show what they (rather than somebody else) can do.
As always, be careful: Maybe it’s not the greatest idea to allow unlimited reattempts with no deadlines on your first attempt at alternative grading. Get some experience under your belt before going down that road, or else you’ll be buried. But when a student asks you to make an accommodation, err on the side of letting them show what they can do.
Here’s a sort of converse principle from Drew Lewis, a fellow organizer of the Grading Conference:
Rather than being about giving students opportunities to show what they’ve learned, this is about the opposite: being aware of whether your choices do help students learn.
I asked Drew for an example of “X” in this statement. What he wrote is deeply tied in to one of his favorite things about Standards-Based Grading. A student showed up at his office at 8 am the day after an exam, before he had even started grading. The student had realized they’d made a mistake, correctly explained what they’d done wrong and how to fix it. Fantastic, and excellent evidence of learning!
Now on to the principle. Drew’s syllabus required students to attempt a wholly new problem in order to earn credit. This is a fine idea: It ensures that students take time to reflect, learn, and then show what they can do “from scratch.” Would that policy help the student learn in this case? Definitely not—they were already there! Why enforce this rule just for the sake of enforcing it? So, Drew bypassed his own rules and accepted the student’s correction as evidence of learning.
In other words: If you insist that students do something because it will help them learn, but the policy won’t help a student learn in their particular situation… you can (and should!) change the policy.
Is it fair to other students to change policies like this? It’s important to make the same exception for any other student in a similar situation. But don’t confuse rigidity with fairness. Think about the purpose of the rule, and whether it helps students learn or not in this situation.
Another example, from one of my own classes: I used to require students to complete online homework at a certain level. The purpose, of course, was to get students to practice. But some students who otherwise demonstrated strong learning ended up with lower grades because they failed to meet my busywork requirement. What I realized is that, although I wanted to incentivize practice, I was actually just coercing students to comply with a rule.
So, I changed the policy. I moved the requirement to where it mattered: In order to “unlock” the chance to reassess a standard, students needed to first complete the corresponding online homework at a high level. This guaranteed that students who needed practice got that practice, and those who didn’t were no longer coerced to follow an irrelevant rule.
This isn’t a complete list. There are many other excellent principles that you may use to guide you. If you’d like to see even more examples, here’s a big Twitter thread where many of the examples in this post came from:
I do hope that the examples in this post get you thinking: What are your underlying principles? Why are you using alternative grading (or why do you want to use it)? Try putting these into words, writing them down, saying them out loud. Look for ways to align your course design with those principles.
Finally, one last thought:
Specifically the second part: “Don’t be so accommodating that you burn out.” Don’t take this post to mean that you should be endlessly flexible and accommodating. You, too, have to live! There are limits to what you can reasonably do. You can use these principles to decide when to be strict, and when to be flexible.
One of the most common places where it’s critical to have good limits is your reassessment policy. Once you get into the spirit of letting students show you what they can do, it can feel bad to refuse to allow a reassessment. But that’s a recipe for being buried in a grading avalanche, unable to spare the time to give helpful feedback or, for that matter, sleep. So setting reasonable (and flexible) limits on reassessments is critical. If you’d like more, check out my previous post on keeping reassessments reasonable.
Oh, and one (really) final thought: Principles are important beyond your assessment system. What are your underlying principles for course design? Your beliefs about learning? About the purpose of education? How are they reflected in your courses?
This comes from one of my more embarrassing academic dishonesty experiences. It’s a long story, but in short: I suspected three students of copying each other’s work on an individual (but open note) take-home exam. But when I talked to them individually, I discovered that they had actually done an excellent job of studying together and creating study aids before the exam. In the process they developed (and wrote down in their study aids) a common misconception about the topic at hand—which then made it into their individual work. I needed to intervene and help them understand the misconception, not punish them!
Here’s one of my favorite stories about making more accommodating deadlines. When I was a grad student, one undergraduate math major — let’s call him Chris — was known far and wide for constantly coming in to class 5 minutes late. Separately, he always seemed to need one extra day to finish homework. So one instructor came up with the “Chris deadline”: When the instructor assigned homework, he would write the real deadline on the board at the start of class and make sure everybody saw it. Then he would erase it and write a deadline one day earlier on the board. When Chris showed up 5 minutes late, he’d see this “Chris deadline” and the instructor would remind everyone about it a second time (with exaggerated winks and nods). On the day of the Chris deadline, Chris would inevitably ask for an extra day, which the instructor would graciously grant. Chris would then hand in his work at the exact same time as everybody else on the true deadline. Everybody — even Chris — was in on the joke, but it worked!