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Engaging Alternative Grading with Joshua Eyler

Welcome to Episode 84 of the Think UDL podcast: Engaging Alternative Grading with Joshua Eyler. Joshua Eyler is the Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi and the author of How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching and the forthcoming book Scarlet Letters: How Grades are Harming Children and Young Adults, and What We Can Do About It. Josh recently has been raising the chatter about the usefulness and challenges of traditional grading and also bringing a lot of attention to alternative grading practices. Today’s conversation will focus on how the UDL guidelines dovetail with non-traditional grading, especially focussing on multiple means of engagement. In fact, we will look at the specific ways that alternative grading practices recruit learner interest, help sustain effort and persistence in multiple ways, and also serve to guide students through self-reflection. It is a veritable engagement smorgasbord and I am so excited to have this conversation!


Follow @Joshua_r_Eyler on Twitter to hear more about what he is doing with non-traditional/alternative grading. Pay particular attention to this great set of resources that Josh put together in this Twitter Thread on Alternative Grading from December of 2021 which includes the Alanna Gillis article Josh mentions in this episode Reconceptualizing Participation as Skill Building from Teaching Sociology.

Joshua Eyler’s recent Inside Higher Education guest post “Grades are at the Center of the Student Mental Health Crisis” gives a fantastic overview of how grades de-motivate and stress out our students. If you’d like to delve into this idea more, Josh gives a lot more context on a recent Teaching for Student Success podcast Episode 13: Stress, Grades, and the American Way! Time for a Reboot. With Josh Eyler.

If you’d like to learn more about Ungrading specifically, listen to Think UDL Episode 64: Engaging Ungrading with Susan Blum

We talk a little about what grades do measure, and it seems they can measure the wrong thing when we look at DFW rates and Josh mentions a white paper Powered by Publics Learning Memo: The Big Ten Academic Alliance Cluster Exploring Foundational Course DFW Rates, Equity Gaps, and Progress to Degree (which works best when using Safari to navigate to this link).
Josh mentions an article by Ruth Butler and Mordecai Nisan’s article “Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance” that details how important feedback is and how it compares with graded feedback.


Lillian Nave  00:00

Welcome to think UDL, the universal design for learning podcast where we hear from the people who are designing and implementing strategies with learner variability in mind. I’m your host, Lillian Nave. And I’m interested in not just what you’re teaching, learning, guiding and facilitating, but how you design and implement it and why it even matters. Welcome to Episode 84 of the think UDL podcast engaging alternative grading with Joshua Eyler. Joshua Eyler is the Director of Faculty Development at the University of Mississippi, and the author of how humans learn the science and stories behind effective college teaching. And the forthcoming book Scarlet letters how grades are harming children and young adults and what we can do about it. Josh recently has been raising the chatter and talking about the usefulness and challenges of traditional grading, and also bringing a lot of attention to alternative grading practices. Today’s conversation will focus on how the UDL guidelines dovetail with non traditional grading, especially focusing on multiple means of engagement. In fact, we will look at the specific ways that alternative grading practices recruit learner interest, help sustain effort and persistence in multiple ways, and also serve to guide students through their own self reflection. It is a veritable smorgasbord of engagement today, and I am so excited to have this conversation. Thank you for listening. And a special thank you to the folks at the UD lhe network. That’s Universal Design for learning in higher education for their financial support of the think UDL podcast. Welcome, Josh Eyler, I’m so excited to get to talk to you about such an important topic about how grades are affecting our students. And I particularly have this UDL spin or lens that I want to talk to you about. So thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today. Thank you, Lillian. I’ve long admired this podcast, and so it’s great to be invited. Thank you. i That means a lot very much for me. So the first question I asked all of my guests is what makes you a different kind of learner? Oh,

Joshua Eyler  02:49

I think a couple of things affect my, my perception of the differences in my learning. And one thing I always come back to actually is my history, in athletics, I was an athlete in high school and college. And it really did affect my approach to the classroom, how I learned how I thought about learning, which was a big thing actually overlaps with grades, what I thought the classroom was, which was a big competition. And how I approached learning through that lens that, that learning was a contest to try to be the best if I happen to acquire information along the way. And I certainly had goals for what I wanted to do in my life. I loved books, I loved reading, I wanted to teach English. And so I don’t want to make it seem like it was totally utilitarian. But in terms of what makes me different as a learner, as I think back on that approach, or my you know, my early days of schooling, that was definitely how the lions that I saw learning through and so what I was looking for, I guess, in that sense, then I was very much a strategic learner, but a special type of strategic liner. What, what what am I taking from this materials, it was a textbook, or it was notes, or it was a lecture, whatever it was, what can I take to get to, you know, to achieve what I need to achieve, right, rather than learn what I need to learn. And that has had real consequences for me as I look back, I mean, I think that the I didn’t allow my curiosity to really my natural curiosity to really lead me through my educational experiences and to can govern my learning. One of the things that I really discovered as as, as I was writing how humans learn, was how much I really was fascinated by evolutionary biology. And I think that if I had If I had been more invested in just following what I was interested in, rather than being truly utilitarian in that, in that way that I had developed my framework for learning, I might I might have might have indulged in some of those areas that I was just genuinely fascinated by. Now, on the positive side, though, I think that that strategy of learning really helped me it as I moved more into advanced work in the humanities, being able to just develop strategies for skimming, picking out important, picking out what was important about texts, recognizing patterns pretty quickly, so that I, you know, in the early stages of learning, so I could get where I needed to be. But in my graduate work, and late college work, it was more about oh, okay, now I see the direction that I need to head. And so I was, I was able to identify those, those things pretty quickly. So I think that’s what makes me different as learner.

Lillian Nave  06:08

My goodness, I want to now do an incredibly different whole topic on this, because we are going to talk about grades today, totally. But you have described my high school and college career as well, I was an athlete. And I recently came across my old journals, like from ninth 10th 11th grade like English, we had to write these journals, every single journal day entry talked about practice in the games, and oh, we’ve got this big game tomorrow. And oh, we need to win. And this. And I was obsessed. My older brother has told me that I used to say sports are my life. Like, you know, I’m very self conscious about that now. But as the captain of like every team, and it was all about this strategy, right? And we are going to talk about strategic learners later on in this conversation, and I looked back, and that’s why I asked my students to look at those parts of their lives. Because I see, I was so motivated by this ego, this, I want to be the valedictorian, or I want other people to think I’m smart. I want this, this academic agonistic society really where I’m competing.

Joshua Eyler  07:20

That’s exactly a perfect description of it, and grades completely feed and the people like us who approached learning in that way. Yes. It’s a completely negative. Well, it’s a positive reinforcement of those behaviors that are negative, right? Yes,

Lillian Nave  07:39

yeah, that made me like think I think back like, oh, I can’t remember many of the things that I got A’s on. But if it were a different place where there weren’t grades, you know, in other activities, or things like singing, I would be part of a choir or things like that. And all of the things I learned there, and the feelings and emotions that went with it, are very deep and wonderful. And, and just give me a deep satisfaction, and very different feelings. And it wasn’t until much, much later and very recently that I’ve come to understand this, and have thought, oh, boy, boy, my life was was a lie, or my life was I just didn’t get it, and how important it is to stop that cycle, at least for me. And when I started thinking about the ungraded kind of thing that I’ve been doing the last two years, I thought I would have hated this. And and I have to preface it to my students and say, I know you’re not going to like this because I wouldn’t have liked it. And it’s just a radically different thing. At this point.

Joshua Eyler  08:46

It’s funny that you say that, because I’ve been thinking about how I would respond, would have responded as a student to it. And I think I would have been intrigued. someone interested in education, but also deeply skeptical, given what I experienced in the past and my approach to learning, right?

Lillian Nave  09:06

Yeah, like I was, I was good at the grade getting right. I was like, I had made my strategy. And it got me through the days like point counts and all these things. And it was not helpful, I think for for part of my learning. So that’s why I’m really interested. Think about that.

Joshua Eyler  09:24

Right. Right. And yeah, and so I think, now, what I think is one of the most important steps of just beginning to think about what we might do with grading in the classroom is for individuals to think about why do we grade the way we do to one degree or is that rooted in the way we think about education, the way we think about learning the way we have experienced learning in the past, and to what degree is it rooted in just traditional education or the expectations of our car? Eggs that we’re assuming are happening. And so really a lot of introspection on our part in order to, I think be open to which, which are several grading models will work for us.

Lillian Nave  10:15

Yeah. All right. That’s totally what I want to want to get into. So the first idea I want to talk about is the UDL principle of minimizing threats and distractions. And by the way, I realized that this whole conversation for my UDL buddies out there is the green column on the UDL guidelines sheet, put to grading. So we’re going to look at each one of those points about how UDL and engagement multiple means of engagement workout together. So minimizing threats and distractions is one of those principles. So can grades be threatening and distracting? I know you’ve done a lot of work research about grades grading, and especially the deleterious effects of grading on student learning motivation and mental health. What can you tell me about how grades motivate or don’t motivate students?

Joshua Eyler  11:08

Right? We’re going to need more than an hour. Because, you know, yes, they are both distracting and threatening, at least as many students experience them, not all but so just let’s start with distracting because I think that that is the less that’s the more obvious one, right? Because if we think about distracting in terms of setting up obstacles to our attention, and our motivation, then there’s a long history of research on the effects of grades on on both of those right, and especially motivation. And, you know, I think that one common ground that we probably all share as educators is that we can recognize that grades are a prime example of an extrinsic motivator, I think, we may disagree across the board is how much of a problem that is. And so what the so as an extrinsic motivator, what it does is, it sets up an environment where people are motivated to get the reward, which in this case, is the grade. And now I don’t want to overly simplified, but in in the kind of system where we are pursuing rewards, in this case, grades, we are paying less attention to the process that we go through to reach the reward, which in this case, is the learning that happens along the way. And so at the very least, grades, because they are, they are kind of pulling on our extrinsic motivation are distracting, in some way, sometimes minimally, depending on who you are sometimes more intensively from the learning that that should be happening in the class, especially the sorts of learning that are really rooted in our intrinsic motivation, our love of the subjects are learning for the sake of learning, just because it’s interesting to us or that we’re curious about something. So grades set up a distraction to that for sure. And even because the instructor is the one who, who hands out the reward in the form of grades, it sets up distractors to productive working relationships between instructor and student. And so one thing I love about all of the non traditional models that we’ll talk about, is that to one degree or another, they allow instructors to become more of a mentor or a coach, rather than an evaluator. And that’s a big draw for me and how I see education and why I wanted to be a teacher in the first place. But so they said that, they said distractors to that and no matter. You know, I think personally, a lot of people have done so much great work on how do we set up learning environments that are rooted in care and empathy. And that you can we can do, we can do, we can put so much effort into creating those kinds of learning environments. And then when we give a traditional grade, it really sends a message that undermines that works that we had done, right? So a lot of distractors. Now, the threats and this is the newer way to see grades, newer research has been done on this. And I think it depends on how we’re seeing threats right now If we if we think about threats in the sense of stress and anxiety that comes along with grades, we have a lot of research to show that academic stress is a major contributing factor to mental health issues with preteens, teenagers and young adults that sit in our college classrooms is the traditionally aged college students. So there’s a there’s a kind of psychological biological threat, that grades can trigger, right? Not everyone has the same degree of stress and anxiety about grades. But if you are in a class that has three exams to determine your grade, no matter how confident you are, in that subject, it still is going to cause some stress and anxiety. Right. So you know, whether it crosses over into threat is another story. But if you look collectively, at the research on academic stress of which grades are a dominant part, what you see our students reporting high degrees of that kind of stress, and they read it as a very significant issue in their lives. And that, to me signals that grades are a part of what we might see as a threat. Another way I think we can see grades as a threat is in this sphere of mental health. And so it’s related to, to stress and anxiety, but that it can have repercussions that extend even beyond the stress you might feel in a semester, or even in an exam period, that it can, it can go beyond just short term about some stress and anxiety to actually in actually having an impact on a student’s mental health. And so we see all kinds of new research pointing to the role of grades as a contributing factor in the mental health crisis in high schools and colleges today, and so there, I think it goes, it goes beyond just an individual semester, in this case, and really touches on larger degrees of kind of psychological and existential threat that they see. And, you know, I think, imagine the student who wants to be a doctor and who’s sitting in organic chemistry and who is getting a bad grade in organic chemistry, thinking, everything I’ve wanted to do in my life is falling apart in front of my eyes. And so that is more than just stress, that is something that is something much deeper, much bigger, actually. So it contributes in that sense, as well. And I just think that the final threat that we need to be talking about is the way that grades mirror and magnify inequities in society. And there’s so much to talk about here. So I guess I’ll just say that what we know about about the role of grades in, especially in those early introductory level courses that college students take, is that students who are coming to college from schools with fewer resources that we what we see in the data, and what we know from the research that’s been happening is that the grace that they get are in no way really a reflection of what they know and can do. They are they are reflecting the the opportunity gaps that many of those students experienced because they went to schools with fewer resources. And and so that’s a that’s a threat in a different kind of way. It’s a threat that’s rooted in the inequities that have been kind of baked into our educational systems, but but that we still need to attend to right that this is and there is a kind of mythology about grades, that they are somehow objective. And there are many ways to shatter that mythology. You can think about just made our own individual practices, right. That’s. So my grading is different from my colleagues grading. Yeah, to shatter that. But another way to shatter that mythology is to look at the issue of inequity. And if you look there, there are lots of studies that I like to reference but huge studies with 10s of 1000s of students in Gen Ed courses Big 10, for example, the there is a consortium of folks from the big 10 schools that put out a white paper connected with APLU last year and went through all their Gen Ed courses over the last few years and really looked at the grades and then broke it out by demographic, and what they’re looking as rates of DEF W’s. And what you see is a reflection of the inequities that are true at every level of education that students from historically marginalized groups are getting D’s, F’s and w’s at higher rates than students who come from well resourced schools and who were from majority groups. And so that is it. There’s nothing objective about that. And no reasonable person can say, this is a single student’s faults. This is about achievement. It’s not it’s, it’s about something.

Lillian Nave  20:58

It’s measuring something else. Yeah. Yeah. And so I learned of DFW is pretty recently in my teaching career. So people who get a D or they fail, the W is withdraw. And that tells us a lot about, especially these so called and I’m using air quotes, weed out courses. And they’re usually high stakes and kind of tell students if they’re up for going into a certain profession. And so it’s a really big thing, if students are then told that early on in their academic careers, and we’ve touched on or you’ve touched on several things that I am happy to point my listeners to in our resources, like your Inside Higher Ed piece about mental health, the podcast you did recently that I listened to, I’m gonna link that as well, which went really into the things about mental health, and some of the things that you’ve just talked about. Because I don’t want to repeat all of that I want to talk to you definitely about the UDL lens as we go forward. But you’ve got so much information that I’ll make sure those are in the resources and also this white paper that you mentioned. We’ll get that there. If people say, oh, I want to do a deep dive on that. Oh, make sure we’ve got all of those. So we can get a full primer on Josh Eilers brain on grit on on grading, least until the book comes out, right?

Joshua Eyler  22:18

Sure. Sure. Yes. Sounds good.

Lillian Nave  22:21

So I started this process. Last year when I had a conversation with Susan Blum about engraving. And that really got me interested in our conversation about how Universal Design for Learning or UDL, and engraving intersect. And you’ve looked at quite a few non traditional forms of grading. So it’s not just on grading, I mean, you’ve done a lot of kind of looking at the different categories of, I guess what we call non traditional grading, like specifications, grading competency grading. And I’d like to look at the ways that these non traditional grading, I guess, principles intersect with the UDL guidelines that, that focus on the multiple means of engagement. So one UDL category under engagement calls for providing options to help students sustained effort and persistence. And so we’re going to look at those. And I was hoping you could give us some examples about how non traditional grading might do something like heightened goals and objectives of the course. And I’ve heard you make some connections on this. So I wanted to know what you had to say.

Joshua Eyler  23:31

Right? Good. Well, before I do, I just want to say two things. One is that my own approach to this work is that I am really invested in helping faculty find the model that will work best for them and their students. And so you’re right, that I can cover lots of different potential approaches, because I think it’s going to be what works for you. And then progressive or non traditional model is going to be different depending on what you teach. Your students aren’t where you teach. So the second thing is that I strongly believe that these kinds of models tie in exactly to the multiple means of allowing students to to represent their learning. In fact, some of them specifically target that as the central purpose. So if you think about standards based grading, or specs or competency, they’re all cousins in my mind kind of, because they share so much that is that is the central principle of those approaches that that the way to meet is that there are going to be multiple ways of meeting a specific standard and that that is that is the strength of those particular models. Okay. So goals. I also think that one thing one attribute that many of these, these progressive models share is At an attention to metacognition on the part of the students helping them to be better get better at metacognition. And among, among the many ways that we might do that there is a spotlight shining on how do we help our students become better at setting goals, their own goals for learning, and assessing those goals along the way. So if you think about engraving, for example, the you know, one of the key, the most common practices is having students frequently self assess themselves along the way, right. So whether that be on their participation or on their work, you know, their essays or their other work, or on the learning outcomes, one thing I do with my students in the final reflection, I list all the learning outcomes for the course. And they reflect on their progress on each of them, as at the end of the semester, using evidence from the work that they’ve done over the course of the semester. So I think, I think contract grading works in much the same way. And in there, in that sense, the goals for what you turn in are set from the beginning and you assess what do what do I want from this course? Do I want to do you know, this set number of things and get this grade? And if so, what does that mean for me? And how do I reflect on that process along the way? Or do I prioritize getting a B in this class by doing this set number of things, and reflecting on why I’m prioritizing that. And so that’s, that’s sort of a different kind of goal setting and different kind of reflection, but equally metacognitive, and important for helping students to develop this particular skill. And the other models to specs, standard space, they are as they are setting, if you if you master or if you, if you show mastery of this number of standards, then you get if you you know and this number is a B, et cetera. And so it’s really asking students to think a lot about what education means for them and what their goals are for a particular class. You know,

Lillian Nave  27:31

and I found that when I had to look at which goals would I don’t do this particular kind, but if I had to look at say, these, make an A, and these make a B, then I, as the instructor have to set about what my goals really are, right? Not just write this paper, which isn’t a goal in itself. But what are the things that I need to say are the skills that my students need, as a minimum, that would make a C like they need to be able to do these skills, and what’s the knowledge base, they need to have as a see so and then what’s a, b, and what’s excellent, right? These are the skills and the knowledge base that they need. And that’s one of the big things I learned as I moved into UDL is separating skills, and knowledge and be really, really clear on what those goals are. So it’s helping me as an instructor, and it’s helping the students to know what they can learn what they can get out of it, and then choose what it’s going to be

Joshua Eyler  28:26

right. And in fact, that’s such a great point. And I find that with contract grading, in particular, if you are too, in some ways, I find it easier to convince folks about upgrading than about contract grading. Because if you adopt a contract grading model, you have to truly believe that by completing the assignments that you have set up for students, they will at a satisfactory level that they have met your the learning goal. And so as you’re saying that means very careful analysis of your own goals and using those to design I think, really well crafted assignments that are achieved those goals.

Lillian Nave  29:12

And that’s a big change for somebody like me, and maybe like you who wanted to see 100% and not an 87% or 65%. Right. It’s it’s you are competent. You it’s kind of a yes or no a one point rubric. But it’s a pretty high level. Like you can’t just turn in anything you have to get to that. But you have to be okay with okay, that’s and you’ve done that successfully over these certain things that will that will prove that you have the A or the B or something. It’s just a very different mental place for me from being a student to being an instructor.

Joshua Eyler  29:49

Absolutely, yes. Yeah.

Lillian Nave  29:50

So going along with the same sustaining effort and persistence. There’s another part of universal design for learning that talks about optimizing Challenge by varying demands resources, it gets into this student choice. You already mentioned that. But it seems like there are more options for students than let’s say traditional grading is everybody writes this paper, everybody has these two exams. And we rank you according to how you did those things. So, yeah. Can you talk a little bit about those that optimizing challenge and how that might work into the motivation?

Joshua Eyler  30:27

Part? Right? Sure. Well, I think that first of all, I do think that some of the pushback on these models from those who are who embrace traditional grading is that somehow by changing the way we grade we are sacrificing challenge or, which is the word I far prefer to record because of all the possible connotations of rigor, but that somehow you’re sacrificing standards and challenge. And when I give presentations on grading, there’s always someone from a STEM discipline, usually Health Sciences, who will say, this is all fine and good for the Humanities. But we have content that students need to have learned before, or they’ll do something disastrous down the line. Right. Yeah. And the thing that’s a that’s a complete misconception about about these models, because they do prioritize challenge, what they do is they give students more agency and in finding their way to meeting that challenge, right. So it’s not taking challenge away. In fact, it’s opening up challenge to be much more of a learning activity than a threat or an intimidating kind of activity. We, we’ve been thinking a lot about challenge and difficulty here on campus, as we’re revamping our student evaluations and thinking, the precise language that we need to use and that that, though, some may equate challenge with difficulty, it may not be so that challenge is actually can be a positive thing, that that signals the efforts that students make to achieve a particular goal, right. And so some of these models have a kind of choose your own adventure approach. It really not only heightens the challenge, but makes it makes it fun. So but you know, back to the question of what I would have been like as a student, that would have appealed to me a choose your own adventure, like a specs grading kinda. Okay, all you get to choose which 12 of these you after that would have been really appealing to someone like me. So but others, others, I think, embrace challenge in a different sort of way. So, you know, some of the some of the contract models, some of the ungraded models, especially, especially the ungraded years in, in courses that traditionally give exams, right, um, they still give the exams, but part of the part of the challenge is when you see the feedback on a particular question that indicates that you haven’t yet met a satisfactory understanding of whatever the concept was that the question is asking about, the next step is you have to identify where, where the misconception still is, and turn it back in with a correction, write a new response that incorporates the feedback. And that is a that, to me is an exciting level of challenge. Because it does two things. The first thing it does is to say, it’s not a bad thing to get something wrong. It’s just a step in the process right now. So that’s an exciting thing. But it gets to challenge by saying, all right, you still you’re not there yet. You still have to keep pushing, keep pushing, and then not yet have a lot of these models. In fact, many who do standards base had that as the roof right? Yeah, yet met exceeded, right. So the not yet I think encapsulates so much of the beauty of the challenge of these models, because that challenges students to say, our thinking about these things is, you know, is never quite complete, right, that we have to keep pushing ourselves as learners. And there’s a real challenge in that.

Lillian Nave  34:44

Yeah, you know, there’s so many parallels here with the criticisms that these non traditional grading programs get with UDL. So like other same criticism, universal design for learning gets is but this won’t work like applying UDL. To the STEM class or nursing, I mean, I had a whole episode, which was, but how does it work in nursing because we get that criticism a lot. And it’s, it’s the, the reframing that you just did is it’s not that we are taking away rigor, or challenge, but we are taking away barriers, they were false barriers before. And I have noticed in the last two years, because of this pandemic, there were institutional issues like, we want our students to be in this amount of class time, they have to sit in the class, and they have to meet for this two and a half hour exam, because otherwise, we’re not accredited, or because it won’t meet the number of minutes in seats kind of thing. And then if we go all online, and then our final for my course, is a big reflection, there is no exam. And like all of those strange, I thought were silly barriers or institutional issues that didn’t actually help the learning seem to have fallen by the wayside, like wait a second, now we can look at it from a different direction. But it took a major worldwide pandemic, for us to see some of the fallacies that had been put in place that we can now say, well, that really wasn’t helping, it was hurting, it was requiring this high stakes exam and something that wasn’t, it wasn’t helpful in this in at least in this class. And so it’s been a little freeing a lot freeing for us to be able to look with new eyes and say, that wasn’t working, what is going to work?

Joshua Eyler  36:33

Exactly. And I think that because of that, this is a real moment where change is possible. I know I get idealist all the time about this, but there are changes that were made during the pandemic, as you’re saying, that would never have happened in any other circumstances. And people, people, despite the rhetoric of we’re just gonna go back and pretend that this has never happened. People will not forget that those changes were made both faculty and students, right. This is a moment that we can kind of coalesce and, and make change happen. I’m really glad that you’re talking about barriers. I think that’s a really wonderful way to think about the intersections of what we’re talking about with grades, UDL is removing barriers, because one of the biggest barriers that grades set up is convincing students say that getting something wrong or failing is a bad thing. That was the biggest message, I think that grade sent that mark you as a learner, where you are at this moment, and never acknowledged to you what we know, which is that learning is the constant process. And that getting something wrong should not arrest the development of learning at a point, but shouldn’t be the next the next step or lead to the next step, which is okay, here’s the feedback now for how you can how you can grow from from where you are right now.

Lillian Nave  38:01

Yeah. And that is a huge change to move. As evaluators, right, we’re putting on our referee outfit, and take that off and put on our coach’s outfit. And we are very used to as instructors being the evaluators, because we have all of the knowledge is I guess why we’re supposed to say that doesn’t live up to the knowledge that we know. So we’re evaluating our students, but to switch it into that coaching position, and say, here is what you can improve. And the coach is there for all 12 games of the season. Let’s use our athletic Yeah, let’s go down connection, right. And so are the gymnasts. I’m just thinking kind of gymnastics, even though I’m not a gymnast at six feet tall, that never would have happened, and no upper body strength. But the the idea that the coaches, they’re saying, okay, and the first competition you were third, or fifth or something, here are the things to improve. So you’re not the judges who are handing out the 10s, or the fives, you’re the coach saying, here’s how you’re going to improve because we want our students to improve rather than just be the the gymnastics judge that says 7.53 point deduction, because of that step on the landing.

Joshua Eyler  39:10

And that’s why I always wanted to be teaching. To be honest, I’ve always felt uncomfortable in the evaluator role, because, you know, the first three or four weeks, you know, however, however long you have, before that first major assessment, whatever it was, you do so much to develop rapport and an environment that is mutually trusting. And it has always felt uncomfortable to me to change that dynamic by saying, Okay, now I have to I have to give you a grade as an evaluator and feels much it not only I think, improves the learning of the course adopting these different models, but that makes teaching even more fun. Yeah, it really brings back some of the joy or brings joy to the profession.

Lillian Nave  39:58

Yeah, and I’ve been doing a lot work a little aside here on neurodiversity. And there are a lot of our students, you know, who are in higher ed now that are neurodiverse, which includes ADHD, autism, I like to call ADHD vast, which is variable attention stimulus trait because it reframes it in the positive, because there are a lot of positives with that. Yeah, and, and that there are strengths and talents for our neurodiverse students. And there’s also, you know, students who are very much affected by anxiety, depression, as we already talked about, which is maybe sometimes a, a brief neurodiverse episode, but sometimes much longer. And one of the things I’ve learned about a lot of our neurodiverse students is this rejection sensitivity, which means when they get a bad grade, and it’s just a great not feedback, or they get some sort of, in essence, a rejection about who they are or what they’ve done, that it becomes a very demotivating thing. So the fewer times we can do that, and the more times we can encourage to perform well, I think we’re doing better for all of our students, right, not just our neurodiverse students who will see that and they have like a much greater reaction, just like a neurotypical student is going to have a hard time adjusting from high school to college, a neurodiverse student is going to have an even harder time, right? So let’s structure they have to kind of kick in that executive function more. Same thing with how grades provide. It’s not really feedback, but they it’s just the grade it’s it can be a negative thing without the positive to say, here’s what you can do to move forward. Yes. And it affects students differently, I guess.

Joshua Eyler  41:40

It does. And you know, the research shows that even if you have wonderfully positive feedback to go along with the C plus, they are only registering the C plus, yes, the positive feedback that you forgiven.

Lillian Nave  41:54

Yeah, it totally overwhelms anything else. And I’ve seen students way back when when I taught in upstate New York, and would hand out papers, the one big paper, they had an art history class, and they’d look at it and throw it away. Like they didn’t even look at all the next five pages of my writing, it was just the top and just trash. And I thought that was a waste of time, was

Joshua Eyler  42:18

one of the most foundational papers on grading from the late 80s, by Ruth Butler, did this experiment that is now well known where students were divided into three groups, one only got grades, one only got feedback, and one got both. And it was the group that only got feedback that that benefited the most and was most motivated throughout the term. And so but if we could just, if I could just say one thing about neurodivergent Sure, I think intersects with grades is that I’m also I also know that from, from experts like yourself, and and those who work in disability studies, that there are some neuro divergence, students who benefits from a lot of structure. And that taking away taking away structure like is pretty common with some of these non traditional grading models, it can actually be a bit of a negative for students who depend on some structure in order to maximize their learning. And I’ve thought a lot about that, because I think that that is a very, a very important point to take in. And what I think is that, that this is a moment to, to not be not be overly dogmatic about what we are suggesting, in terms of, you have to follow this particular blueprint for this particular model. There isn’t a one size fit all and what I would, what I would say about this is that as we become more flexible in one piece of our teaching, we have to make sure we still provide structural supports in other areas of our teaching, so that we give students guideposts that, that they can kind of hold on to. So if we, if we take away grades in an ungraded model, we have to look more attentively at other things. And those things can be dependent on you and your class, but that’s a look at attendance or look at deadlines or look at the frequency of feedback. Is it a regular sort of thing every week, for example, or every two weeks? So you have to there has to be some structure that comes into the void when you when you become flexible and other areas.

Lillian Nave  44:50

Absolutely. And I also get this a lot with universal design for learning because our heavy heavy Montra is choices. Students do Choices, choices all the time, and then I’ll Get the criticism, though that seems pretty loosey goosey. How do you have structure and both structure and flexibility are trauma aware ways of teaching and making sure we have those. And one of the kinds of ways I’ve found that helps my students who really crave that structure is to give a preferred path. So let’s say you have choose any one of these things, you can get an A choose three of these four, these, whatever you’re going to be, say, here’s the preferred path. If you do these three, those four, the seven, and you’ll this is how you get it. This would be the preferred professors path. And and I would be that student, that’d be like, what does the teacher want? Right? Because, yeah, or if it’s, I give students here all of your choices that you can have for your final project. If, if that’s too much, here’s the preferred path. This is the usual I’ll take this, this is the standard, I guess. But look, you have all these choices. For the students that are out, you know, that want to have all those choices. So offering that just saying, here, lots and lots of choices. But here’s a template has been helpful as well. So it might be what you started with. And then you said, Okay, I’m gonna add all these options, but you can give them here’s what the template is. But you can always substitute this or something, because I do find students get overwhelmed. If there’s too many choices. I really

Joshua Eyler  46:23

love that idea of preferred path and framing it that way. And it really speaks to the need for more transparency and more direct commentary to students in situations like a contract, where they feel very uncertain to them at first,

Lillian Nave  46:45

yes, overwhelmed like, Wait, this is your job, you’re supposed to tell me what to do. What I’m supposed to do that doesn’t feel right. I don’t feel confident to do that.

Joshua Eyler  46:55

Right. No. And that’s fair. And honestly, I think there’s been there’s a lot of open discussion right now about how to help students understand what it would mean to give themselves a grade, what what do grades mean, how, what do they signify? How are they? How are they registered by students? How are they what? What do they mean to people who are external to the university and looking at the transcript? For example? What does an A in writing 101 mean to someone who’s going to hire you? Right? Yeah. Really thinking about all the whole scope of what a great means as you help them develop the skills that have self assessment.

Lillian Nave  47:40

So you’ve already started talking about this, and how important collaboration and community and setting up a rapport between the instructor and the students. But that is also another one of our UDL principles, which is fostering collaboration and community? How do these non traditional ways of grading foster that collaboration and community even among students? Or maybe how does traditional grading not foster that? You can answer it any number of ways?

Joshua Eyler  48:13

You know, I think, even though there are folks that are doing traditional grading, who are doing some really interesting things with collaborative tests, and things like that, but they do think that, that non these, these other models can open up doorways for more collaboration, because it’s not, I mean, the dominant thread that connects all of them is that it shifts away from a competitive culture of a classroom. I’m not competing against you anymore. Lillian, right. This is about me growing as a learner, right. And so it doesn’t matter if we both get A’s. Because those are being determined in very different ways, depending on who we are, rather than a standard that has been set solely by the instructor, right, you have to match up to this bar. And your grade is how it’s measured by how far away you are from the bar. It’s really about who we are. So it changes the competitive nature, which opens the door to much more collaboration of all kinds, right? If I’m not competing against you, it takes down barriers, again, working together, right? And connected to this. There’s a lot of research to show that learning environments that deprioritize grades have much, much, much lower rates of cheating in them. For all the obvious reasons, right. If there’s no incentive, if, if getting the grade is not the incentive, what incentive do you have to cheat? Right? Yeah. And so if changing that nature to right opens up lots of collaborations like, well, you know, this is this is the kind Anything where we could do original work together? And there’s no incentive to do anything but that original work together, and nor is the instructor have to worry about the work that those students are doing together? Because the focus is on something different. Yeah. So that’s collaboration, the and what was the other point? The collaboration and what I think

Lillian Nave  50:20


Joshua Eyler  50:23

Yeah, I think that this is one of the I forgotten, because I think it’s the most important element of it, that it really does change the nature of the classroom. Yes. That it does, it has the potential to really enhance the community that folks feel in that classroom. So in a lot of different ways, one is that if they’re not feeling that they’re being judged and evaluated in a traditional way, they’re they, they feel they can feel open to engaging more in lots of different kinds of ways of engagement. But the community between the instructor and the students really changes, we’ve already talked about the shift from Judge to coach, but that the feedback becomes the and the conversations that come from that feedback, the tone of those change, it’s not, I am defending what I wrote on your paper, and you are trying to defend what you wrote to me, right? It’s really about, oh, okay, I see that you said this. What did you mean by that? And how can I? How can I do that on the next assignment, it just changes the tone of those conversations as well, which has ripple effects, then when you’re back all together in the classroom and the way you’re working together. So I that’s this is one of the things that actually first drew me to thinking that and the role of failure to really thinking about different ways of grading,

Lillian Nave  52:06

yeah, this idea that we’re all in this together is a very wonderful and warm feeling, rather than I need to, you know, elbow out the person next to me, so that I get something better out of this class, or it fits my, you know, life goals that are, I want my life goals to also be I want to help the other people in my class, or I want us to have this good community, it’s less stressful. And also in my work in cultural competency and understanding different cultures. That is a very different understanding of the classroom that comes from a non western idea, right, that we’re all in this together, our community rises together, rather than I rise, because you fall and I can step on your shoulders. Yes, exactly.

Joshua Eyler  52:55

So very well said, right, we all rise together. I think that that that’s not a message people get in school. In America, it’s not a message that is sent. So like most of the things we’ve been talking about, it takes time for students to actually believe you that this is happening, and to really embrace it, what the most likely response right away that you’ll see is resistance, because it looks so different from what they have been conditioned to believe an educational setting is supposed to be. And so just as a human response, I mean, I don’t fault them in any way. In fact, like we’ve said, I might have the same way. But so it takes a while to get them into that because of the messages that they’ve they’ve been continually sent about. Yeah,

Lillian Nave  53:51

absolutely. And this This is just a masterclass on engagement. Looking at the UDL guidelines with all of your knowledge about non traditional grading, something we already mentioned, maybe more than anything else is feedback. And that is one of our UDL guidelines, which is increasing mastery oriented feedback. And all I can think is Yes, please. Yes,

Joshua Eyler  54:15

exactly. Right. And the first, if you look back to the earliest experiments with grading, this is what this is what they were focusing on to right. And all of these models we’ve been talking about, prioritize feedback over anything else. Because it is absolutely true of human beings that we do not learn from evaluation, we learn from feedback, right? All of us, what did I do? What did I do wrong? How do I how do I fix it? Or what did I do well, and how can I do it even better next time. We learn from feedback and so all of these grading models really prioritize that.

Lillian Nave  54:55

Yeah. And over and over again, it’s, it seems like them Most important thing is like that white paper, I’ll have a link to that as well about how, you know, my students would throw away, they’d see the credit on the top and then not even look for the feedback, how important feedback is over everything else. So the last category on our left hand dream column of the UDL guidelines, and I could talk, we could talk about each one of these, it seems for an hour on each one. But that last category is about options for self regulation. So that metacognition you’ve already brought up, but just thinking about our own thinking, set our own goals. So how have you seen non traditional grading techniques, facilitate students personal coping skills and, and help them to develop their own self assessment and reflection?

Joshua Eyler  55:48

Yeah, I’m gonna give a really specific example for this that I think can stand in for a lot of similar kinds of approaches. So one of the most commonly graded elements of a course, especially discussion based course, is participation. And it’s often used as well as incentive, let’s, I’m just gonna say it that way as incentive to show up to, to engage it certainly I, you know, I’ve used it in my past, teaching life for that reason as well. But if you if you adopt on grading, if you adopt contract grading, things like that, how you think about participation has to change along with it, because you can’t have a grade for that, and you know, not grade other things. That’s, that’s not really the way it works, right. And so when I, a couple of years ago, when I was first, I had been doing portfolio grading for a while, I was just starting to think about contract grading and engraving, I ran across an article in teaching sociology by Alana Gillis, who is now she’s at St. Lawrence, I can’t remember the exact, exact institution she’s at now. But she, in this paper, has, she proposed a new way of assessing participation. And I’ve used it ever since. And I’ve been kind of an evangelist about it, because it does exactly what you’re talking about in terms of self regulation, and self assessment. In this model, what you do is you ask students to set some number I use three, set three goals for their participation over the course of the semester. Then periodically, you ask them to assess, to, you know, self evaluate their progress on those participation goals, and they have to, they have to show evidence. So if one of their goals is, you know, I’m going to I mean, to make meaningful contributions to class discussion, for example, then they have to, they have to talk about that in their reflection. And as a way of not having mandatory attendance, but also recognizing that attendance is important for learning. I asked them for one of their goals to make an attendance related goal, so that they have to be very mindful of their own goal for appearing in class and participating in class. And that this, to me, this process has been really valuable for them to Okay, what does it mean to set a goal? And then what does it mean to continually assess and look at the my progress on those goals using my own performance in the class? And although, you know, we talked a lot about the aspects of engraving that are the fine, you know, what is your what is your proposed grade and how you defend that proposal. And you can do that several times, you can practice that this is much more about setting a goal prior, right, and really thinking through what that means. So now, again, you can extend that to other elements of the course. I love it for its specificity. And I think the ways it really reframes the work of participation and what it means to participate in the class.

Lillian Nave  59:30

Yeah, okay. So many things about just that little article makes me think about Universal Design for Learning and learner variability. Right. So there are those students who if you were like me, maybe like you, when I was in high school, I’m like, oh, like horshack on Oh, what’s up? Yeah, caught a little TV show. Oh, I have something to say. Right. And I, I preference those students in my early teaching career thinking those were the bright students. And it turns out I was wrong. That As students who are thoughtfully thinking about the question, they may be needed a little bit more processing time, came up with incredibly thoughtful answers. And so having alternate ways to participate, this has come through on zooms with people being able to talk in the chat, rather than the verbal part has just changed the way right, I think about that variability and how to participate. So giving those students the opportunity to, to say, I’m going to do a lot more written participation or thoughtful participation that map’s well to my personality, but still be able to participate in some way is so important. Yeah, and then having having more than one child that has been a huge part of my learning, having three children and knowing how differently they interact, even with the same upbringing, that I’ve got you no one who’s Oh, and I’m ready to talk. And I’m ready to do too. And I’m ready to say, Okay, I’ve heard enough, you know, and then knowing that there are others who have a very deep, thoughtful personality, and can bring something so different. And thinking I need ways to allow for that, to, to come in and to the classroom to family, right to those things. And you’re putting the work on the student. My mantra in the last year is, whoever does the work is doing the learning. Oh, yes. And, and if I’m the one, it’s like, oh, was he there at class? Did he participate? Have I looked at the participation? Did they do that, and I’m doing a lot of work. I’m doing all the work to determine if they participate. You’ve just moved that to the other side.

Joshua Eyler  1:01:42

Yes. And the other the point that you just raised, that is, I think, wonderfully expressed in that paper, is that the traditional way of evaluating participation, I’m guilty of this is very open to bias, the bias of our memories and other kinds of biases. Well, this semester, we kind of look back, and we think back and there’s just lots of ways to get it wrong. And and structures centered participation evaluation, and this, this corrects that, you know, as the first step, and then, you know, in addition to that, you have all this potential for, for the work of learning that comes along with it.

Lillian Nave  1:02:26

Yeah, I agree that I know I’ve made mistakes in that before and, and having the students help to correct that I think is really helpful. It also makes me think of instructor mistakes too, by my daughter has a very common name. Her name’s Emma, which was before Rachel named her daughter on friends, Emma, before, and haven’t. Yeah, she’s been in a college class where she told me she was one of three Emma’s, and so they all sat together. And the professor said, Emma’s and just just asked all three of them like, what do you guys think all the Emma’s are there? And they sort of functioned as one person. She thought it was funny. I mean, it worked well, but it’s like, how do you even you know, how do you determine that one, but she became one of the three Emma’s in the front of the class. And that was hilarious. But it puts a definitely puts a pin in that ways of how we can remember how things happen. Right? So okay, my last question, man, this has been exciting because you started off with part of this last question. And it’s a big fan of campaigns work, I assign it to my students what the best college students do. And they have, what makes an expert is there’s also a chapter on failure I assign and how we learn from failure. But what makes an expert in my first year students seminar, and I asked them to think about their own previous relationship with grades, and can they gain marks out three different kinds of learners, the surface learner, strategic learner that we talked about, and a deep learner surface learners only skim the surface, they often immediately forget what they’ve learned. They do the bare minimum to get by strategic learners, I’m looking at one in the mirror, want to know is this going to be on the test? They’re very impacted by their own ego, they want to be the top they it’s part of their identity to be known as smart and have a high GPA. And then the deep learners actually want to learn like you were talking about being very curious. They want to know about the material, they’re less motivated by that External Grade factor, but rather internal desires to understand the material to put the learning to good use in their chosen careers or lives, like how I might want to play the guitar because it makes me happy, right? How can we as instructors implement grading structures that support that deep learning rather than surface or strategic and not that you haven’t already been answering that question the entire time, but what are your final thoughts?

Joshua Eyler  1:04:59

Right No. And in some ways, this is the whole ballgame. So the grades themselves in the traditional model are what encouraged the strategic learning, right? Because the strategic part of that the strategy is what do I have to do to get the grade, that’s gonna get me to the next thing, right. And so if you remove the role of the grade as the reward, or as the thing that I’m doing everything else to get, and you change, and you reorient your course and your students approach, which is something else, then you create you cultivate an environment, I don’t want to I don’t want to. I don’t want to seem like I’m saying that it’s magically going to happen right away, right? It’s not just because, and this is one thing that my psychologist friends are always rightly helping me to understand is that just because you create an environment where it is possible to be more intrinsically motivated, does not mean that students are automatically going to be more intrinsically motivated. Right, right. In other words, we still have to do with course design and assignment design and how we structure our class sessions to help them but if you remove the grade is the reward and you create an environment where it is more possible to move away from strategy and focus on the depth of learning, then all sorts of all sorts of opportunities open up for your students and for you in that environment. But you have to do is you have to open the door to that, by changing the nature of the grades, as long as as long as grades are seeing as the award at the end of the race. There, would it and I don’t blame students at all for this right, then you are you are you are exemplifying an environment that really prioritizes strategy rather than learning, right? And so all these different models do it in different ways. You know, I really, again want to come back to standards based grading and the related strategies like that, I think it’s a great way to still suggest that there are important skills and content that students need to learn, while at the same time saying that’s, that’s what we want you to focus on. Not not too great, right, which is a huge shift. So yeah, cool. Say, you know, these things are important, you have to know these things, you have to know how to do these things. But that is where we that is where we want you to focus, not the grade itself. And so we’re going to tell you when you have met that a particular standard, and we’re going to give you lots of different ways to actually do it, because that’s what’s important to us.

Lillian Nave  1:08:05

Yeah, I think the the idea of all these choices and options is what really drew me into the non traditional grading, of course, as a UDL, specialist, or coordinator, that just seems the only way as a UDL person to to offer that grading because of just our whole conversation, how we engage students. And I know, You’ve touched on this in some of your other talk and works. We still exist in an institution that says you need this GPA to keep your scholarships, you need this GPA, which all it boils down to are those numbers, right? A 3.5 a 4.8, to get into med school, law school or whatever. And so I think one of the things that you’ve mentioned that I really appreciated is that it’s often up to the individuals, it’s up to the instructors, we are the forefront on this.

Joshua Eyler  1:08:58

Absolutely. Yeah. And there’s movement there more movement than I’ve ever seen, at least in my career. I mean, it’s been really building in the last five or so years. And yes, there are two things to say about that. First, that if you think about the institutions that do not give grades, yes, we have an entry in it. I feature Evergreen State College in Washington in my book, talk to a lot of faculty and administrators there. So the idea that these these false, these misconceptions that students will not get into places without GPAs and they will not get to the best. Get to their dream job. It’s just wrong because people are already doing is graduating from colleges that don’t give great so that’s one that I think that’s sort of an arrow in our in our in our quiver to be able to, to be able to kind of fight these battles about about grades. Yeah. Misconceptions. The other thing is that, yes, many of us then our institute, what can you do when the system is structured in such a way to, to run in the opposite direction of our educational goals? And that we have with these true? Yeah. So so it is incumbent on individuals. And what I have found is that there are a lot of people out there who think that they are the only ones who are doing this, right. And so yes, it’s true individuals will need to be individuals to start this process. But it’s also true that there are many of us out here now, and that we need to find each other and build community, because one person taking a couple of steps forward is just noise. But a lot of people all taking steps forward at the same time, is actually how change can happen. And systems can can change along with that. So that’s really important for our for folks who are interested in these, these models to think about.

Lillian Nave  1:11:13

Absolutely, and you are building I think you’ve already built the blueprint. And now there’s scaffolding that’s coming up, like on a new institution as, as we’re all talking about this, we’re giving it legs, you’re making it okay to talk about these things to say let’s try these new grading platforms. And, and let’s hear from others. And we’ve just got to raise the chatter and and see what we can do to improve the learning for our students and, and also the lives of our students, as you’ve pointed out, in many ways. Absolutely. So thank you so much, Josh, for this incredible talk. I really, I’ve been looking forward to it. It has totally exceeded my expectations.

Joshua Eyler  1:11:55

Thank you. Thanks for the invitation. Well, and this is a great conversation. I really enjoyed it.

Lillian Nave  1:11:59

Thank you so much. And I’ll have all those resources that you’ve mentioned, with our on our webpage. So and we’ll have ways to contact and find out more about what you’re talking about with their Scarlet letters upcoming. And thanks so much.

Joshua Eyler  1:12:15

Thank you have a great day.

Lillian Nave  1:12:27

You can follow the Think UDL podcast on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to find out when new episodes will be released, and also see transcripts and additional materials at the think website. The think UDL podcast is made possible by College STAR the star stands for supporting transition, access and retention in post secondary settings, and the website provides free resources and instructional aides based on UDL principles. If you’d like to know more, go to the college website. Additional support for the podcast is made possible by Appalachian State University where if you call it Appalachian, I’ll throw in Appalachia. The music on the podcast was performed by the Oddyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David Pate, Bill Folwell and Jose Cochez our sound engineer is Tanner Jones and I am your host, Lillian Nave. Thank you for joining us on The Think UDL podcast.

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