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The SAFE approach to earning buy-in
Four principles that will help build trust
Getting “buy-in” with an alternative grading system, or any other innovation in teaching, isn’t easy. Although alternative grading serves the best interests of students, it can still be hard work to get students on board with it. David and I have experienced student resistance ourselves; and “How do I get students to buy in?” is one of the most common questions we get about alternative systems.
Why a teaching innovation that benefits students should regularly encounter resistance from the students it’s designed to help, becomes a little clearer if you replace the word “buy-in” with “trust”. I wrote about this substitution of words at my personal blog a couple of years ago and while the two terms are not 100% synonymous, replacing one with the other reveals some useful lessons about “getting buy-in”.
Earlier this summer, I was part of a roundtable discussion at The Grading Conference titled “Grading P.R.”, somewhat tongue-in-cheek. It was all about earning buy-in with alternative grading systems. Preparing for that session, I reflected on four principles that can guide the process of building trust with students, which conveniently1 spell out the word SAFE: Simplify, Actually communicate, Follow through, and Examine everything. Here’s what each of those means and how each can be used to build lasting trust.
The injunction to simplify everything is nothing new to regular readers of this blog. In fact you might be tired of us saying it2. Regarding trust and buy-in, simplicity has an almost magical quality.
In a 2009 Harvard Business Review article, Ron Ashkenas relays a story about a CEO of an insurance company who brought his managers together for a conference. The CEO gave the managers five minutes to fill out an application for the simplest life insurance policy the company offered. Of course, none of them could do it. Having convinced managers that their policies were hopelessly complex, the group launched a comprehensive program of simplifying their policies, procedures, and explanations. As a result, new sales increased 7% in the following year, and policy renewals increased 24%. People literally bought in at significantly higher rates, all because things were made simpler3.
Besides making it easier to do business, simplicity also changed the underlying relationship between the company and its customers. When you ask redundant questions, one of the subtle messages to customers is that we don’t trust your answers — we need to ask you the same thing several times in different ways so that we can make sure you’re being truthful. Similarly, when you create complicated explanations of products, services, and contracts, customers often feel that you aren’t being truthful about what’s being offered — otherwise the material would be straightforward and easy to understand. In other words, complexity does more than just waste your customers’ time — it potentially undermines the relationship.
The same is true in academia: Students distrust complexity because complexity communicates distrust in students.
The antidote is to simplify everything:
Use plain language, never jargon or research-speak. We hate it when administrators and others use corny jargon with us (“Let’s circle back on this later to look for synergy!”). So let’s not do that with students. Write to them as if you were speaking to a normal person5.
Cut down on the topics and learning objectives in your course. Maybe the most effective way to simplify a grading system is to downsize what you are grading in the first place. Your ability to cut and consolidate the content of your course may be limited, but what can you do? Do you need 63 learning objectives, like my first specs grading course? (Answer: No.) Do you need 20? How about 12 instead, or 10?
Downsize the assessment structure. Similarly, do you need to have quizzes and a final exam and a project and pre-class work and…? Can you get just as much information about student learning with 3 kinds of assessments rather than 5?
Simplify the way grades are assigned. How many moving parts are there to the way that course grades are assigned in your system? Can you remove one, or several?
Your entire course, including and especially the grading structure, should be such that an average student can get the gist of it by reading the syllabus once or twice without additional explanation. They may find it weird and unusual, and they may be wary of it, but they can begin to grasp how it works and how it benefits them versus traditional systems. If your system doesn’t reach this level, keep simplifying.
I have lost track of the number of times the following situation has come up: A faculty member approaches me for help in understanding why something in their course didn’t work. Maybe it’s about alternative grading or flipped learning; a lot of times it has to do with low attendance and the so-called engagement crisis. My response is always:
Did you talk with students about it? What did they have to say?
Most of the time, the well-intentioned faculty member has never actually communicated with the students about the thing that is causing so much concern. Sometimes, the idea of actually communicating with students never even occurred to them. I’ve seen some faculty become physically startled at the mention of it.
You cannot build, or expect, either trust or buy-in without regular, open, two-way communication with students. And by “communication”, I mean person-to-person conversations. Not email blasts, LMS announcements, or suggestion boxes soliciting feedback. These have some value, and they are often necessary — but they are not sufficient, and there is more value in actually talking with students about what they are experiencing. If it’s not open, honest, and more than one-way it’s not actually communicating.
A helpful way to start and maintain good communication is to send out a biweekly Google Form simply asking students to complete a start/stop/continue exercise, or even just asking them “What’s working for you so far in the class in terms of your learning? And what could we change to make it better?” Or you can try my Five-Question Summary. Whatever the approach, make it early and often. Don’t wait for the end of semester “student evaluations of teaching”! Even waiting until mid-semester risks small misunderstandings blowing up into significant problems.
Then, listen to all good-faith suggestions and implement ones that will make the class legitimately better for students. Explain what you are doing and why; this also goes for the suggestions that might come from multiple students but which aren’t practical or useful. (A common example: “I think you should lecture more often because I learn through lectures.” This does however make a good starter for a conversation, which you should have if multiple students are bringing it up.)
We preach here at this blog that all significant learning happens by engagement with a feedback loop. By actually communicating with students, we are simply holding ourselves to the same expectations we have for students as they learn.
Nothing undermines trust faster than promising something and then failing to deliver. In fact we usually gauge a person’s “trustworthiness” precisely in terms of their tendency to succeed or fail in following through on their commitments. Trust, and buy-in, is the result of an accumulation of successes in following through on incrementally bigger promises. This takes significant time and effort. And it can all be undone, forever, by one failure.
So if you want buy-in from students, colleagues, parents, administrators, and anybody else with your grading system, be prepared to make the work of following through a regular part of your teaching:
Don’t overpromise or start something you cannot finish. A course syllabus is not necessarily a legally binding contract, but it is definitely a collection of promises, especially the assessment and grading system. If you promise more than you are willing to, or capable of delivering, you are setting yourself up to fail. This goes back to the first point above about the importance of Simplifying, because overstuffing a course is overpromising. It also speaks to the crucial importance of saying no — in this case, saying no to yourself (and perhaps your department) when making choices about what to include in your systems.
Be organized and keep track of the commitments and promises you make. You’re not off the hook if you promise something to a student and then don’t follow through because you forgot about it, or you were “too busy”, etc. This will just deepen the mistrust that ensues, because now students not only can’t trust you to do what you say, they cannot trust your organizational skills either. So for example, write down what you tell students you are going to do; put date-sensitive tasks in a calendar that you review daily; and organize your course tasks, especially grading, using a coherent system that you follow without fail. I have a whole separate blog about these kind of systems if you’re interested; here’s a post about how to grade.
Finish what you start, when and how you said you would. The first two points all serve this final one. When you promise something to students, deliver on it, or you will face the consequences at some point. Even something as seemingly innocuous as taking a week to return graded work when you said it would be done in three days, will lead to a permanent loss of trust. “I was too busy” will not work as an excuse.
Related to the concept of Actually Communicating is the idea that as instructors, we need to lead the learning process by adopting a mindset of continuous improvement through engagement with feedback loops in our teaching. Put differently, we can’t expect students to learn through feedback loops if we’re not doing it ourselves.
This feedback can come from many sources:
Primarily students, through the regular solicitation of feedback on their experience in the class as described above.
Colleagues and others, through classroom visits (which could be informally set up, like trading off classroom visits just for learning purposes) or just through reading books and blogs that prompt us to ask good questions about our own practices.
Ourselves, as we listen to students and critically examine each day how things are going and what we might do to improve.
We talk a lot about “scholarly teaching” in academia. For me, this means teaching with feedback that I objectively consider. We try something in class; then collect data and feedback on how it went; then think critically about what it means and how it can be acted upon; then we incorporate it all into the next attempt. And “next” doesn’t mean “next semester” — it means tomorrow. It also involves realizing that nothing is sacred here, and my supposedly brilliant ideas for teaching could have gaping flaws or could be an extremely poor fit for the students in front of me; so I have to be ready to “kill my darlings” as Stephen King said.
Earning buy-in isn’t easy, but there’s no secret to it. It all simply comes down to the hard, everyday work of human relationships. It takes time, effort, and intentionality — and like all good relationships, it’s worth it.
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OK, I chose the terms specifically to spell out a word you can remember, it was not a coincidence. As I told the audience at the conference, aiming for a memorable acronym is good evidence that I’ve spent too much time around upper administration recently.
Related: “When you are tired of saying it, people are starting to hear it.” — LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner.
It’s possible that the higher rates were also due to enhanced customer relations, which are made easier to accomplish when the underlying policies are simpler. Complexity gets in the way of relationships.
Keep in mind that there is not a perfect correspondence between students and customers. But there is enough similarity that this is useful, in my view.