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Engaging Ungrading with Susan Blum

Welcome to Episode 64 of the Think UDL podcast: Engaging Ungrading with Susan Blum! Susan Blum is the editor and author of several chapters of the book Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead). She is also Professor of Anthropology, Fellow, Kellogg Institute for International Studies, Fellow, Liu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies, Fellow, Institute for Educational Initiatives, Fellow, Eck Institute for Global Health all at the The University of Notre Dame. In this episode, Susan and I explore the connections between “Ungrading” and Universal Design for Learning principles, especially focussing on how “Ungrading” engages students, reduces threats and distractions (yes, grades are distractions to learning) and fosters community. Ungrading can also provide multiple options for action and expression, so we will be covering quite a number of the UDL guidelines today.


Susan mentions a wealth of resources in our conversation today. If you would like to learn more about any of them, just click on the links below.

Want to know more about Susan Blum? Go to her website

Susan Blum’s book is Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)

Susan mentions The Marshmallow Test in our conversation. If you are now familiar with it, click on this link to learn more.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards

John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write

Ken Bain’s What the Best College Students Do and What the Best College Teachers Do

The “Unessay” is an alternative assessment one could use instead of a traditional essay.

Susan Blum also mentions Susan Hrach’s Minding Bodies: How Physical Space, Sensation, and Movement Affect Learning


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 64 of the think UDL podcast in gauging and grading with Susan Blum. Susan bloom is the editor and author of several chapters of the book on grading why rating students undermines learning and what to do instead. She is also a professor of anthropology and fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, a fellow at the Lulu Institute for Asia and Asian Studies fellow at the Institute for Educational initiatives, and a fellow at the Institute for global health all at the University of Notre Dame. In this episode, Susan and I explore the connections between on grading and universal design for learning principles. Especially focusing on how I’m grading engages students, reduces threats and distractions. Yes, grades are distractions to student learning, and how on grading fosters community on grading can also provide multiple options for action and expression. So we will be covering quite a number of the UDL guidelines today. At one point in our conversation, you may hear a difference in sound quality on my audio, as we had to revert to our backup audio for the last half of the interview. Near the end of the episode, Susan mentions the book minding bodies, how physical space sensation and movement affect learning by Susan rock. And indeed I had just interviewed Susan rock the day before our recorded conversation. If you’d like to hear that conversation you will find it listed just before this episode. It is think UDL is Episode 63 minding bodies, senses and perception with Susan rock. But for now, thank you for joining me for this very thoughtful conversation with Susan bloom on on grading. Thank you very much to Susan bloom for joining me today on the think UDL podcast.

Susan Blum  02:49

Thanks, Lillian for inviting me. I’m very excited to have this conversation. Oh,

Lillian Nave  02:53

yes, I am, too. And I’ve been reading on grading I’ve been practicing on grading for a year or two semesters. I’ve been involved in a lot of there’s been Twitter, and Twitter conversations on grading. And people can look that up with the hashtag on grading, and lots of zoom presentations and kind of gatherings. It’s been such an incredible reaction. I think people are really interested in this topic. So thank you so much for spending some time to tell me and our audience about it. Sure, yeah.

Susan Blum  03:34

The response has been pretty extraordinary. Actually, I you know, it’s been two and a half years since I had the idea for the project. And I, I didn’t know what would happen. And I’ve been practicing on grading myself for five, six years now, six years, five years. And I’ve often been nervous. But with all of the attention and all of the positive reaction it’s gotten, I’ve gotten a lot less nervous about it. So that’s exciting.

Lillian Nave  04:09

Yeah, that’s great. I must say I also felt nervous, very nervous about instituting it. And I was lucky, I guess enough. Or I guess the timing was right. When I first implemented on grading, we at my university had pass fail as an option for students because it was during the pandemic and I felt a little bit more at ease, where students could decide if their final grade was going to be a letter grade or pass fail. So I felt a little bit luckier than you five or six years ago launching into it. So I appreciate how you’ve laid the groundwork for the rest of us.

Susan Blum  04:48

So I think that the pandemic has really given a context for thinking about a lot of practices that we otherwise took for granted. And grading is one of them. And so the book strangely seems to have met the moment in a way that we could not have predicted and certainly wouldn’t have wanted. But it has really allowed for changes in ways that really are needed, I think. And that’s where your podcast comes in. Because it’s not the case that students had different needs only with a pandemic, right? frequently, students have had all kinds of conditions, all kinds of struggles forever, but the pandemic forced us to actually take it seriously. So I think that people are more willing to hear what we’re saying, now. And they’re desperate for things, how can we solve these problems? How can we make it more humane? How can we make it more effective? How can we make it less traumatic? How can we really meet the needs of students who don’t have Wi Fi? How can we actually try to meet the needs of all these students who, you know, I had a student this semester, who was zooming in from China in the middle of the night.



Susan Blum  06:15

you know, he was tired. You know, I stopped grading participation years ago, anyway, since I don’t grade anything, but I, you know, the fact that he could not speak up as comfortably as students who were wide awake and local, didn’t mean that he was at a deficit, you know, just his condition, just like somebody who’s not a native speaker of English has their conditions. And so grading. And I don’t want to jump too fast to your questions, which you gave me an advance and they’re so fabulous. But on grading actually allows us to see what students need. And to, I don’t want to say personalize it, because that’s actually a kind of corporate version of mucking about, but to really get to know as much as possible in the labor conditions that we operate in as much as possible, what students need, what they’re capable of what their goals are, and then to see how the class can help them move forward. Yeah. You know, if somebody comes in, and they’ve written a novel, and they’re in, you know, creative writing 101, their novels probably going to be better than somebody who’s a science major, not an English speaker never took an English class before. And so,


for me,

Susan Blum  07:43

I don’t know how to grade those two people. Do I compare them? Do I measure progress? Do I measure effort? For me? What I’m grading does is allows me to have that conversation with both of them with one thing. Wow, you really try really hard. And look how far you’ve come? Yeah, I can say that in words. I don’t know if that’s a be.

Lillian Nave  08:09

Right. You know, and if the person

Susan Blum  08:11

who’s published a novel, but like really checked out because they have health problems, and their grandmother died, and they’re moving again, and they didn’t really do the revision that we all it recommended that they did. Is that to be like,


I mean,

Susan Blum  08:33

so I would rather say to them, wow, you have so much skill, and I know you really care. If you know when you get to the right moment, this is the kind of thing you might want to do. And that’s helpful for them.

Lillian Nave  08:47


Susan Blum  08:48

I could maybe grade both of them a B. But that’s so uninformative.

Lillian Nave  08:53

Yeah. Oh, I see where this is going to to go. In our conversation. We’re talking about feedback and evaluation. Oh, yes, there’s a lot that we need to cover. So let me jump in and ask you the question that I’m dying to know the answer to. And that is what makes you a different kind of learner, which is what I asked all my guests,

Susan Blum  09:15

and I don’t even know what your question means. Because what’s different from what?

Lillian Nave  09:20

Right, I’m different in the way you look at how you learn? Is there anything that you see that’s particular to you?

Susan Blum  09:30

I learned really well in conventional school. Okay. And I didn’t know that that was a problem. For a while. Yeah. I can sit still. I can read. I have. I’m good at the I have gritch. I have, I can pass the marshmallow test. I can focus and I can keep track of things. School works for me. Yeah, it works way worse now than it used to, because I’m so critical of it. Yeah. But my learning, at least used to fit really well with the conventional structures of school. And so for me, as an anthropologist, doing ethnography in schools, I have come to learn how few people there are like me, you know, I am not the proper measure of a learning structure. I just

Lillian Nave  10:38

one of many, I’m one of many.

Susan Blum  10:41

That’s a beautiful thing, because the world needs all kinds of learners. The world needs people who are impetuous, and they go and they flag down the emfs. truck, and they we need people who can’t make eye contact, because they’re so busy focusing on the coating. And we need people who can’t sit still, because they have to talk to people all the time. We need those people, we need all the people, one of those kinds of people, it just so happens that the conventional structures of school work for me.

Lillian Nave  11:20

Yeah. Right. And it seemed natural for the longest time, didn’t it?

Susan Blum  11:25

It did. And it seemed like, and, you know, True Confessions, it seemed like if people couldn’t thrive in that system, the fault was theirs.

Lillian Nave  11:37

Yes. Right? That anymore. Right? Right. Right, it takes a long time to figure that out. And to to reflect on that, I also really loved the whole school part, and really loved to sit and get kind of lecture, that was my kind of thing, and felt very uncomfortable. If I had to do any sort of lab work or working with, you know, working with, let’s say, other people early on, or some sort of active learning, I thought that was somehow lesser than, than, let’s say, an abstract conceptual lecture and kind of running around my brain and those things. And so I hadn’t understood that I had created a hierarchy of what was important, or what was the right way of learning or doing things, right. And if other people couldn’t, they were somehow less than as well. Exactly.

Susan Blum  12:34

Yeah. I mean, now thinking back on my education, I loved science, as well as humanities. And I. I liked science, but I liked learning about it in an abstract way. I didn’t like labs. And that’s very interesting. That was in some ways, the only active learning we had in my day there was there were no, I mean, there were discussions and seminars, and there was lots of stuff like that. But and maybe learning languages was always very alive and real for me, but a lot of the other stuff. I like abstraction.

Lillian Nave  13:11

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, it was, it was the primary way. And it was preferenced. And it’s still often preferenced. That way,

Susan Blum  13:20

it’s rewarded by all the measures that we have. And it’s the default, kind of prototype for what learning is, and what school is, and students and their families often don’t think you’re giving them the real thing if you do something else. And so yes, reality that’s challenging for people who are doing something different. Because, you know, as I experienced, my students have five courses they’ve been, my students have all been extremely successful before I’m, and they’ve been successful in conventional schools, they do understand what I’m talking about, because they’ve been pretty much oppressed by the stress and the anxiety of having to be perfect, which is their measure. But still, they are good at the conventional system. So if I’m going to change it, I have a lot of work to do to reassure them that they’ll be okay. And that it first when I did on grading I it was hard for me to explain it to them in a way that that didn’t make them think it was a trick. But I’ve gotten better. And most students are really grateful for it. But every now and somebody and I had a couple this semester, who really prefer the conventional system because it’s much more comfortable.

Lillian Nave  14:52

Right, right. We have a lot of expert students, which is not the same thing as expert learner. Right and it’s quite uncommon. trouble to move from that expert student, which is the way it’s always been, they know the tricks they know how to study to get an A on a test, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve learned it, but they know they can get the grade they need. And then to move into a really different world of self reflection and learning about one’s own self and growth, rather than really getting that evaluation that, oh, you’re an A student, and then you feel really good about that. But really well, what is it that I’ve learned in doing it, it’s a whole different ballgame. It’s a great ballgame.

Susan Blum  15:38

It’s a whole different ballgame. And, you know, they’re the students aren’t wrong. And this is an objection, people will raise. So I’ll raise it for you. You know, they are operating in a real world where there are consequences for grades and fellowships and subsequent admission, and jobs and internships of grades are consequential. They’re usually less consequential than most students think, except in some really, really, really competitive domains. But for most people, if you graduate with a degree, and your goal is a job. Very few people will ever ask about your GPA or anything like that. What they will ask is, do you know how to do this thing? Or they’ll ask, do you know how to figure out how to do this thing? Right? Because we clearly can’t teach everybody everything they’re ever going to need to know. So


what are

Susan Blum  16:38

the kind of useful things that we can help students develop that they can take forward beyond our classroom?

Lillian Nave  16:46

You know, you would think growing up in America with how much students are worried about and have to think about what their grades are, what their GPA is, what their end of grade did they pass or not? Those sorts of things, you would think that in your 20s, and 30s, and 40s. Everyone, if I were a child, looking at what the life would be like, I would need to like go in to introduce myself and say, Hi, I’m Lillian and I have a 3.67 GPA, you know, and like, that has to be the first thing with how much emphasis has been put on that. And then you don’t realize until your post college, nobody cares what that GPA was, and it was such a huge priority for so long. And then afterwards, it does not matter. I have never had to tell somebody what my GPA was. And in fact, I don’t even remember what it is.

Susan Blum  17:40

I don’t I don’t remember mine, even though I was probably pretty focused on it. Yeah, at some point.

Lillian Nave  17:46

I’m sure I was.

Susan Blum  17:48

But yeah, I mean, when I read applications for graduate school, my department has a Ph. D. program now and I don’t look at GMAT scores or GPA, I look at what, what are they saying they want to do? Does it seem like they can do it? What work? are they showing me? And, you know, is this a good fit? But but the the other thing that we should all remember all the time is that most students can get into most institutions of higher education, no matter what their GPA is, it’s just a very limited number of several 100. Universities and colleges that are super competitive. Yeah, but and, and selective most art. So people can go to community college just with a degree, people can go to many regional campuses with a pretty average kind of degree. And it’s not the case that everybody has to really fixate on it. But that is the narrative that we get from a lot of the national media’s because the writers and the scholars, yeah, went to those schools and had that as part of our formation. And so it seems like it’s universal, but it isn’t entirely universal.

Lillian Nave  19:10

Yes. And we have this conversation and what you are doing is at the vanguard of this maybe change maybe revolution, but but looking at how ingrained This is the grade system and what it’s doing both positive and negative to our students. I don’t see anything positive myself. I don’t think grades accomplish anything good. I think they

Susan Blum  19:41

one of the main, you know, in what I write in what I say often I claim that there are three purposes of grades one is motivation, one is communication and one is sorting. And okay grades do In a sense, motivate through fear. And as Alfie Kohn, KOHN for listeners, Alfie Kohn has a book called punished by rewards. He authored us with the foreword to our book, he has a short piece on from D grading to D grading, he has a lot of stuff online, it’s all free online, you can read about it. The motivation produced by grades, which are an extrinsic motivator, is not the kind of motivation we really want people to take with them it short term, it may, I used to believe in it, I used to believe I could get the points, right students would actually do this boring reading. And if they did enough of this boring reading, they would love it. That’s not how it turned out. So I’ve changed the reading first. And I’ve changed the reason they do the reading, they have to use the reading for something that seems to matter to them. The second thing is, as I said before, with my example of the two writers, grades don’t communicate very much at all. You know, if you get an A, in a first year writing class, does that mean you’re a perfect writer, and you never have to think about your writing again? Well, as somebody who’s written a bunch of books, and taught reading and writing for 30, some years, there’s always more to learn about writing. So john Warner, who has this incredible book called why they can’t write shows, even if somebody gets a good grade, you’re communicating the wrong message, the message that you’re communicating is that now you’ve got it, you know, now you’ve mastered it. And in most areas science, for the stem, people who are concerned about this, most of our students are not scientists, even if they can pass a multiple choice test, right? And that should be okay. Because it just takes a really long time to develop. So giving somebody an A on a bio test doesn’t mean they actually know everything. And then if you listen to the students, they often say, I cram for the test, I took the test. And as soon as it was over, I forgot everything I learned. So Exactly. That kind of motivation in that kind of communication are not successful. I would rather say to the students, you did well at this, this could use work, wow, this shows you’re really interested, I can tell you don’t care about this. And that’s communicating. And then it’s okay. And then the third function that people often attribute to grades is ranking or sorting. And this is where I’m grading really connects with UDL is, there is no uniform scale. And so by presenting this kind of industrial model of a ranking system, yes, maybe you can rank eggs, and maybe you can rank beef, although one of the things I teach about is food. And you know that the apples we’ve developed in order to be able to rank them in a uniform system are not very tasty, and they don’t have as many nutrients. And so by hybridizing them for uniform ranking, we have taken away their beautiful diversity and their deliciousness. And I would argue that the sorting and ranking function of education has done the same thing.

Lillian Nave  23:48

Yes, wow. Yes, I see. So many overlaps with Universal Design for Learning. That’s, you know, why I was desperate to, at one point, get you to talk about these things. And you’ve already really hit on a lot of these ideas. So let me follow up with one of my questions that I have about this overlap. And so let me get into the upgrading as in that motivational sense and recruiting interest to learning so specifically, in which ways can upgrading optimize student choice and autonomy and provide an authentic and relevant learning experience?


So on grading, there are different versions of on grading and in my version of it, we just don’t talk about grading. Okay, removed from the conversation. Throughout the whole semester. Yeah, I okay. And for those of you who are listening who aren’t familiar with it, there is an obligation to submit For final grade, at the end of the semester, I do that by talking to my students talking about what they’ve learned talking about their portfolio of work that they can provide as evidence for what they’ve learned and done. We also do a mid semester meeting, to kind of see, make sure they’re on track, make sure they’re doing okay. These are five minute meetings, I got that idea from Star 16. Her book, hacking assessment, gave me the idea that you can have very brief meetings and just make sure that everybody’s doing okay. People who do contract grading, labor based grading, also have a kind of accountability system so that you make sure that student work is completed. But we don’t really talk we don’t talk about grades. I, we talk about learning, and we talk about feedback and reflection. And but my model is authentic learning. And so entick learning means you come with a reason. Why are you there? What are you trying to learn and why. And that’s especially important if it’s a required course, you know, many students are in our classes, not because they’re passionately committed to the subject, but because somebody is making them be there. Right? How can we nonetheless, do something that they care about, do something that they find useful or intriguing, and without the threat of a bad grade? What else motivates them? And I say that out of complete respect for everybody’s autonomy, as a person who is allowed to have their own reasons, and their reasons, they don’t have to tell me their reasons. You know, I don’t insist on knowing their deepest secrets. That’s not appropriate. But is there a way I can give, I can structure experiences that are rich and diverse enough so that anybody can find a way in? And anybody can find a way to be interested? Or make it useful? Yeah. And so that’s the hardest part. Is it last semester or last year? It’s all kind of blurring together? I think it was, it might have been last fall, one of the students on our, like, exit interview debriefing conference said, wow, you know, since you’re not giving us great, I guess you have to work really hard to find a way to make us interested in what we’re doing. Yeah, I appreciated his acknowledgement that that’s actually the hard part. And it’s not that I don’t know what’s interesting for me, I just don’t always know what’s interesting for each particular group of students who are not all the same, either. So it’s not like there’s a one size fits all thing that I figured out. And now I use that, and circumstances change and the size of the class and the modality, you know, for a few months, 15 ish, it’s been remote for me, some people are hybrid, you know, we’ve been synchronous, but some people aren’t. And how do you deal with all that stuff? If you’re not threatening people? What are they getting out of it? And you know, social emotional learning is part of it, too. Not everybody social the same way. So there has to be acceptance, that everybody has a right to learn the way that they can learn. And I don’t mean in learning styles, you know, the right sort of discredited things. So in one of my classes, I was teaching a class on food for sophomores, basically, it was a seminar 16 students.



Susan Blum  29:15

I had this idea that there would be four teams of four or three, five teams of three plus one. And by the end, when we generated project ideas, I had two pairs, one group of five, and then I guess there were other groups of three or four or whatever. So they sorted themselves into groups, by topic by the people they wanted to work with whatever it was, I’ve heard of people teaching online and they put people in small groups based on availability. You know, whatever the reasons, those are the reasons and so You know, there is there. In some of my courses, there’s a little bit more kind of responsibility for the discipline and the content. So I taught a class on fundamentals of linguistic anthropology. And there’s a body of literature and there’s a body of method and term. And we do that, but we do it by doing it. First of all, it’s all project based. And it’s all by doing. And there’s almost always room for people to choose. So for instance, one of the biggest projects we do all year is something called conversation analysis. So it’s a very robustly researched field that started in sociology, you, you record a conversation, you transcribe it in as much detail as you need want to have time for, then you analyze it and say, interesting thing. So nobody in the class had ever done this before. And I gave them the option, you could either do it face to face, or you could do it on zoom, or you could do it on a phone, or however you want it. So I don’t know what everybody’s circumstances are. I had my student in China, I had one in Georgia, you know, somewhere on campus with people they interacted with face to face, other people were in masks the whole time. And I thought that would be interesting, we would learn, you know, by this difference. And then they weren’t all comfortable, but I didn’t give them a rubric. I didn’t tell them how long it should be. I told them, you know, however much time and interest you have, is fine. The goal is to try something new, you’re not going to be good at it right away, you’re not going to be perfect at it. It takes years, if not decades to get really good at it. But I want to expose you to this, I think it’s interesting, you know, go wherever you want in your life, they have to use consent forms and the human subject thing. And there are a lot of things built into this assignment. It’s really hard, really, really hard. And it takes a long time. But it’s most students favorite project by the end of the semester. And they they share it in a small group. This year in a breakout room, they read each other’s they gave feedback on a Google Doc, mostly praise, sometimes questions. Then my TA and I gave audio feedback about them. And then I had to reread it for the mid semester and the semester final conferences. So there’s a lot of reflection, a lot of revising of at least rereading, there’s a lot of feedback. But it isn’t evaluative feedback. Yeah, because the goal is to try something. You’re gonna get penalised for trying something hard, you’re not going to want to do it. But they weren’t penalised, and they’ve felt free to try it and to feel like they were acting like professional anthropologists, at least a baby step.

Lillian Nave  33:27

So it sounds that sounds to me that the way you are designing your courses. And the way that I’m grading fits in that is that you first of all, recognize that you’re going to have a variety of learners, that your learners are diverse. And not only is that not a problem, it’s actually the best thing that can totally happen right to this learning environment. So if you value the diversity of learners, then you have to design these experiences that will bring that diversity of learners into a positive outcome. So we want to hear 25 different stories, I don’t want to hear the same story from the same, you know, same people, right? So pulling that in and valuing that and then leveraging that to make the material interesting, authentic, applicable, that sort of thing. Exactly. Yeah.

Susan Blum  34:24

We start out the semester learning about people’s different assets and different backgrounds with the idea that we are modeling respect for all different kinds of things. So we have students who and I’m going to use this class to talk about this. We have students who grew up,


you know, in

Susan Blum  34:47

essentially monolingual English environments in the Midwest,


and then we’ve had those who

Susan Blum  34:52

grew up in South Asia or East Asia or Latin America, and they’re Quadro lingual And, and everybody’s welcome. Because they all have different experiences. It turns out the Midwest, people tend to learn that they have even more experiences than they thought they did. And yeah, but everybody brings a range of experiences. And we need to mean because I teaching anthropology that’s always an asset and an advantage.

Lillian Nave  35:27

Yeah. So that’s, that is certainly how I see these connections and overlaps with Universal Design for Learning in on grading is the innate flexibility that on grading gives the instructor and gives the students right. And that’s a central tenet of UDL.

Susan Blum  35:49

Yes. And the idea is, it’s not that we And to be clear, we’re not saying the engineers should not learn to build bridges, you know, the bridges should not fall down. Alright, I have been an intern an ethnography on an internship that was engineering based, and they use a lot of the same practices, you know, design thinking, iteration, failing fast, you know, assets, all of that is part of it, because the only measure is, does the bridge stand up? And it never if you cram for your exam and get 53, but a 53 is curved, and so is to see. And you know, you got to see, but you still don’t remember anything, that is not what we want, is it? No, I

Lillian Nave  36:43

don’t want somebody who forgot everything to build my bridge. I don’t.

Susan Blum  36:48

But I want people who are really passionate about the math part of the bridge building to really, really delve into it. And maybe, maybe they don’t care about the landscaping. And so maybe they give short shrift to the landscaping section. But they really, really love the bridge part of it. And we want the bridge builder to really know how to do it. And I also want the bridge builder to know who to turn to to do the landscaping.

Lillian Nave  37:16

Yeah. Yes, it is similar. When I think about surgery. I want the surgeon who can do the surgery, and maybe they have the worst bedside manner I’ve ever been around. But that doesn’t matter. As long as the surgery is is successful, then I can deal with the poor bedside manner. Yeah,

Susan Blum  37:40

I mean, there are a lot of a lot of places in our lives where people are not great at everything. Yeah,


I would.

Susan Blum  37:50

I would suspect that all of your readers are good if all of your listeners are good at some things and not as good at other things. And yes, it’s true that exposing people to new things is good. And that’s why we have requirements. Usually requirements backfire, though, because people are resentful. But. But still, I would say that upgrading allows people to relax, not to relax. My students told me this semester, they worked harder in my class than they have worked in their other classes. They did more work in my classes than they did for their other classes. And not for the grade. But because that’s what we were doing. That was just the currency of the class. So um, grading takes away the fear. My students say every semester with maybe one or two exceptions that I’m grading allow them to focus on the learning. But I could not tell in advance exactly what that looked like for each person.

Lillian Nave  38:54

Yeah. Okay, that makes me think of two slightly related things. One is I asked my students the same question or reflective question at the end about what they learned. And I was expecting more about the topics, you know, what they learned, and one student, it’s all anonymous had written and then I posted this on Twitter. And their takeaway was, grades are not everything, they do not define you. And I could sense that that was a negative thing that grades had been telling someone they were average or below average, or that that was a real threat to the learning environment, or at the very least a distraction away from that learning. And you’re creating these environments. That’s kind of where I’m going is you’re creating these communities, these these collaborative communities, between students, between the student and the instructors that create this joy and learning or perseverance and learning and that seems to be Not an after effect, but like a real central tenant to of what upgrading is, is that right? Oh, yes, absolutely. You know,

Susan Blum  40:08

I talk about us being a community of learners. And the, if you’re honest, sometimes you can admit that you can’t do something or don’t know something, and then somebody can help you. But the goal is to perform as if you’re perfect, so that you can get this grade, then you can’t reveal any shortcoming. So I really, I’ve done a lot of self reflecting of the students reflection, I used to call it self evaluation, then I call it self assessment. And now I call it reflection. To get away from this judgment thing, yes. I used to have a rubric that had a number of categories and a lot of things on it, which was essentially, you know, upstanding, very good, good, poor, whatever. Okay, Alfie Cohen has convinced me and other people have convinced me that that’s just great. It’s just great with other labels. And right. So and my students would always be outstanding, because they had to be outstanding. So I’ve gone to this thing called a single point rubric. Yeah. So for, let’s say, for this conversation analysis project, I say like, there are not yet there for certain dimensions of it, and they’re willing to say they’re not there yet. Because it’s not going to make them flunk it doesn’t. There’s no risk to admitting that they’re not there yet. And we all know, they’re not there yet. Right. And so they’re willing to admit that and so the grading provides safety, for them to be honest, or at least more honest, I mean, there is still the end of the semester grade, which I would be happy to get rid of, but I don’t have that power, at least in my situation. So it, to me, that’s a really valuable life skill is to know, I’ve done this, well, I haven’t done this, well, this article draft is pretty good. Maybe they won’t notice that my method is messed up. Maybe they’ll give me an A anyway and publish the article, even though it’s got flaws. Or maybe I better work on it some more, and maybe I better find somebody who can help me with the methods, and then maybe it’ll get published. So, you know, pulling one over on their teachers to get a good grade may be a good tactic for being a student, but it’s not a very good tactic for being a learner.

Lillian Nave  43:03

Yes. And I think about the, the real world, right, I’m putting those in air quotes, because students are in the real world when they’re in college. But if I think about an opportunity in a job situation, I don’t want to have to continuously tell somebody that’s not good, that needs to be improved. I want them to be able to look at that and say, I need to improve this and then be able to make those improvements, right? That we want to be preparing students to be in the real world where they have that skill of self awareness, and self assessment so that they’re not going around being I am all awesome. Look at my, you know, TPS report. And everybody looks at me like this is terrible, right?


They can do that

Susan Blum  43:50

need affirmation all the time. Is this good? Is this right? What do you want? Is this enough? is, you know, yes.

Lillian Nave  43:58

Yeah, absolutely. To Yeah. And that, as I remember being in my 20s, and after graduate school, after all of the long schooling and with other kind of professionals who had gone past college into other sorts of schools, where you are graded, right? And there is a big letdown when you are in that real world. If you’ve been, let’s say, a high flyer, you know, you’ve gotten accolades, you’ve gone into whatever post college is, and you’re still doing that. You thrive on that which, at the beginning of this conversation, you said, you know, there’s nothing good about grades and I was like, but what about that feeling when you get an A? And then I think about that time in my life when I realized, wow, that was such a false feeling or it was that need to be affirmed in this strange way. I now looking back on it was a strange way that I needed to be Providing that for myself. Honestly, you’re not going to get that in your usual life. And then if you’re like me, and you add raising children, they do not do a good job of saying, that was a really good decision. Mom, I appreciated that you were you disciplined me? Because in the long run, I think I’ll be a better person. That doesn’t happen. You get a lot of bad feedback. I haven’t noticed that that often. Yeah, it does not happen. So that, you know, giving making that internal locus of control, rather than the external locus is actually providing so much of a benefit to our students. And it’s quite counter to our system. Right. Right. So thank you for leading the charge for the rest of us. A number of us out there? Yes. Yeah, you know, I

Susan Blum  45:53

think people are interested in hearing from a lot of different people who on grade in different ways, at different levels of school, different kinds of institutions, different subjects, with different biographies, you know, all of us have come to upgrading in different ways, but, and we do it in different ways. But all of us are committed to the student’s well being and to the students learning. And in that sense, I think we’ve come upon some of the same critiques, and there’s research on it, you know, we work, we’re not just making it up on the fly, although there’s some of that as well.

Lillian Nave  46:35

Right? Well, and I came to it with Ken Baynes, what the best college students do what the best college teachers do. And by the way, you have given us great resources. And I will make sure that we have all of the authors and books and articles you’ve mentioned that I’m mentioning on our resource page. But that idea about allowing for failure and, and rewarding failure fail and learning from failures. And if we don’t design our course to allow for that, then we’re not going to get students who are willing to take risks, who are motivated to learn, because if they’re too afraid to fail, then they’re not going to be taking the risks we need them to take in order to push forward and push through that the barrier that’s keeping them from learning and growing. Right? So if you have All right, well, three tests, and if you fail, one of the tests, your grade is tanked. That’s not helpful than if maybe you have multiple chances to take tests, multiple options where you could fail and retake or you can learn from your mistakes like that has to be designed into the system to to be able to learn from from those rather than all evaluation. Now we’ve got to think about the growth throughout the semester, you just call into question and your book and all of the chapters in it call into question like, what are those grades? anyway? Does a C mean competency? Or doesn’t a mean competency? You know, there’s just so little

Susan Blum  48:20

does a C mean personal circumstances are challenging? Or does a C mean bad attitude? Or does a C mean, you turn stuff in late and it was sloppy? Or does it seem mean you worked your hardest, but you never had the subject before? Like what what is the see me?


I don’t know?

Lillian Nave  48:44

Huh? Yeah, um, and that, I agree, I I deal with first year students who I believe are just starting out, you know, on their college career, and there are a lot of things they have not encountered at all. So being able to try and try again, I think is absolutely essential, but and knowing that students need to have certain skills, right, that that if they pass my course, I need to know, to be able to signal to the rest of the university that they know how to find a peer reviewed article, and they know what it is right. So we’re not saying there’s no competency at all. Right? But that there’s, we really have to discuss what it means, right?

Susan Blum  49:33

But why does a student care about finding a peer reviewed article? Like you’re gonna make them do that? And maybe they’ll get five points, but what’s in it for them? You know, yeah, how can something in the class convinced them that that’s the solution to their problem, like, the problem that they care about so much, that they want to make sure They have a good peer reviewed article. And so that’s the thing. It’s like you could take a test on it. You could give them examples of is this peer reviewed? Is this peer reviewed? Or you could have them talk to each other, try to figure out like, is the vaccine okay for pregnant women? Because my wife is pregnant? You know? Do you figure out the answer to that question? Who do you listen to? And that’s where there are stakes in the answer. And yeah, so I think we can get there in lots of different ways.

Lillian Nave  50:40

Yeah. And that takes that, that community, it takes those conversations. And it also I think, is moving that locus of power and control away from the instructor who is making all the decisions and then offering those decisions to students. Lots more choices. Right?

Susan Blum  50:59

Right. Like, it’s like when you read draft of students work, and you do all the editing on it. teach the students anything that teaches you to be a better editor. So you know, all the writing people from Peter elbow and Barbara Walford, and others talk about how you respond to student writing. And it’s not for the instructor to make all the decisions and do all the work.

Lillian Nave  51:26

Yeah. So when we’re talking about that difference between feedback and evaluation, that, you know, we’re not giving away as an instructor, all of the evaluation, we’re not saying that there’s, there’s nothing that we can evaluate anymore. I know, we’re not saying that. But that feedback is far seems to be far more important, play a far greater role in this and in these conversations with our students in those maybe midterm and end of the semester conversations. So I wanted to ask you a little bit about that the role of evaluation and feedback. And and also like, how do you get to that? What sort of goal setting? And maneuvering? I guess is what my question, because that does relate to another of our UDL principles, which is way over and the action expression column, which has to do with assessment, and that is to help students in guiding their own goal setting and appropriate goal setting that’s part of executive functioning is for students for all of us, really. So how is it that you are having these conversations or thinking about guiding that goal setting? with feedback and evaluation?

Susan Blum  52:52

This is a really big question. First of all, I don’t think that evaluation and assessment are the central function of school. Yeah, I think they have taken over as the central function, because we assume that grades are what school is about. So if you take away



Susan Blum  53:14

assumption, there can be learning by doing that is simply experienced without necessarily being judged. So that didn’t happen. I have some others who practice on grading and other various other sorts of progressive pedagogy often have. I tried to have my students articulate their own goals early on, and then in the middle of the semester, and then at the end of the semester, so then they learn immediately that they are in part, active agents and not just passive responders. There’s that. I know, like my colleague, Mark Kissel, whom I mentioned earlier, teaches biological anthropology. And he gets he lets his students vote as a class about which topics they’re interested in. So I forget exactly. But if you’re talking about the application of the principle of evolution, you could talk about bacteria, antibiotic resistant bacteria or something or you could talk about something else. You know, moths, or you could do it in a bunch of different ways. You get there in a bunch of different ways. And you can ask the students to vote as a class, which topic would you like to approach this from? In my class and others, I use something called the NSA. And I know you kind of alluded to it when you were talking about this, that options for expression In the expression should be part of the learning. So by doing this activity, you learn something. And it might be that you learn how to make a video, or it might be how to do an infographic or you it might be how to decide whether to do a video or an infographic. So often, like, in a class I taught last semester, everything was an NSA. So the students had to choose six times or four times how they wanted to present their work. And then they responded to each other. And the response included reflection, and you might want to call it evaluation, but responses to the work people did. So if the contrast on the infographic wasn’t vivid enough, then maybe it was hard to see. And so people could say, for this genre, these are some of the evaluative measures, you know, one of my students did podcasts, they were often unedited, really long, and yeah, I’m not that focused, they just kind of recorded a conversation, and then turned it in, and it was maybe 40 minutes, which is a very long time, if I have 25 of these things, I don’t really want to listen to a 40 minute podcast, and neither do their classmates. Yeah, so the evaluation is, this is too long, you know, for this purpose, in this context, this is too long. So it doesn’t only have to be the teacher saying, you know, by this absolute scale, this gets points marked off, but by the authentic reaction, you get to the work, it is an evaluation,

Lillian Nave  57:02

I am so impressed by how you have been able to invite others along this journey, and sort of set the course for all of us who are seeing the, I would say the humanity of our students and seeing the problems and the holes in the system by adding or putting on grading at the forefront. And and I have one final question for you. And that is, if you are, if somebody is listening this conversation and wants to start doing on grading, what would be your advice,

Susan Blum  57:41

I would advise two things. One is start small. Okay, three things aren’t small. See if you can find a mentor or somebody who’s a step ahead of you to think about it with you. And the third thing is talk to your students. Ask them like, how is this What’s happening? You know, how is this working for you? Do anonymous, Google polls all the time, ask them, you know, did you blow this off? Because I didn’t count it? Or did it allow you to have more freedom? You know, what was your response? and ask them? They’ll tell you, especially Yeah.

Lillian Nave  58:29

Right. Oh, what a wonderful start. Fantastic. And thank you so much, Susan, I really have appreciated being able to kind of flesh out a lot of this to get together today. And thank you so much for sharing your time and your wisdom with our listeners. Well, thank you, Lillian,

Susan Blum  58:46

so much for having me on your podcast. And I look forward to learning more about your own journey. And to all the people listening. Good luck with your teaching teaching is this fully embodied fully human activity, just as learning is another book I want to recommend? I could go on forever. But Susan, and I don’t.

Lillian Nave  59:10

I’m so sorry, Susan rocks, minding bodies. Yes, I happen to interview her. In fact, just yesterday, so your two episodes will be coming out in a similar timeframe. But

Susan Blum  59:22

her book is fantastic. And our students are not brains on sticks. They are fully embodied humans with all kinds of things that they bring to our encounter, which is a kind of fleeting encounter, but it’s precious. And I think this year, we’ve learned how precious it is, whether it’s virtual or in person, and whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. And, you know, as somebody who really, who studies people, I think it’s the most amazing adventure any of us could embark on. So thank you so much. for giving me this time to think about it.

Lillian Nave  1:00:03

Thank you so much. 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 Odyssey quartet comprised of Rex Shepherd, David pate, Bill falwell and Jose coach has 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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