Saturday, August 8, 2009

Relinquishing tight control

The link to "Death to the Syllabus" is going around the twitterverse. I must admit that the first third of the essay did not fully engage me; though I'm not sure why I persevered to read the whole thing, I'm glad I did because the last third was excellent enough to comment on.

Mano Singham makes a case that the traditional college syllabus, full of specific rules and consequences for tiny infractions, is a Very Bad Idea. "The implicit message of the modern course syllabus is that the student will not do anything unless bribed by grades or forced by threats." He goes on to mention,
There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts.
He laments that there is a negative cycle between students and teachers, where teachers do not feel comfortable making judgements about students' performance and behavior, where they instead create new rules to handle each situation. He mentions that making individual judgement calls is time-consuming and that in our legalistic society, teachers may feel defensive about making individualized decisions.

In the final section, he describes an experiment he's been performing in his courses for the past several years, where he gives a very open-ended syllabus, develops a classroom culture, then asks the students to create their own policies. He finds that students entrust his judgement and for the most part decline to make many specific rules.

It should not be surprising that I feel validated and encouraged by this essay. Without grades at my school, we rely largely on rubric scoring. (I recently discovered that the word "rubric" can have many meanings, what I'm thinking of is pictured here.) My rubrics tend to be vague, when I even make them at all. I do give students the list of criteria I'm looking at - algorithmic complexity, creativity, good documentation, whatever. But I hate rubrics that are overly specific, mostly because I hate grading that way. An example:

On our website rubric, one of the things we look for is good writing. Some of that is web-appropriate writing, like shortish paragraphs and clear sentences. Some of it is just plain-old good writing: correct spelling, good grammar, that kind of thing. Example rubrics are "specific." 0-1 misspellings will get you an A. 2-3 misspellings will get you a B. 4-5 a C, and so forth. Can I tell you how interested I am in spending quality time hunting down every misspelled word in a website and counting them? For every student? And then there's a whole list of other criteria to look for. I have better things to do with my time than count misspelled words. Especially since I'll then have to cross-reference with the list of kids who have accommodations for learning differences and can't be expected to spell correctly. And the kids who write more - which usually means a better project - will be penalized because they have more opportunities for misspellings. (Oh look, I got started on this. Aren't you lucky?)

Instead of putting specific thresholds of how many misspelled words, I tell the kids that spelling and grammar count, and if the spelling and grammar are bad enough to interfere with the quality of the project, they get dinged. But the rubric looks like, "Excellent grammar and spelling", "Good grammar and spelling", "Poor grammar and spelling", not specific numbers.

On the one hand, I understand that the common thinking is that students want specific guidelines. And yet, so much of life is in vague judgements. The kids know what excellent grammar looks like. They know what poor grammar looks like. They know how to get from poor to good (find an editor, use software tools...) and I don't think that any of our lives are enhanced by suggesting that in a whole website the difference between an A project and a B project is one misspelled word.

I think that by being vague in this way, and then being willing to engage in discussions with the students if they disagree with our assessments, we help students develop their own judgements. They should have a sense of what good grammar looks like, one they can apply without a teacher telling them if they're right. (Oh right, I'm a computer science teacher, not an English teacher. They should have a sense of what a well-documented, neatly coded program looks like, how about that?) Being open to the discussion is an important corollary - students should be able to question, teachers should have reasons, and teachers should be open to being convinced, though not too open.

The place where I'm less secure, but unlikely to change, is that I - like Mano Singham, I think - have a holistic view of assessment. I know teachers who take the scores on the parts of the rubric and essentially average them into a score for the whole project. I don't do that. You can do very well on a bunch of parts of a project and still not have it gel into a cohesive excellent project. You can have a bunch of mediocre parts and still make something amazing, much greater than the parts. In life, we're graded on overall impression, not by whether we had two misspellings or three.


  1. I hadn't read "Death to the Syllabus" until now, and am glad I did - it's very interesting, although I have many reservations about the author's proposed solutions.

    Your rubrics sound very similar to mine; the idea of counting errors fills me with horror. It sound to me, though, that Singham goes much further in his rejection of the syllabus. Do you negotiate class rules, evaluation, etc. with the students? I don't, although I am open to discussion if students think rules are unreasonable.

    I feel Singham's ideas require a level of trust and confidence in students' maturity that I don't have. Perhaps this is a problem I need to address in myself.

  2. I generally don't negotiate class rules and evaluation with students, but not because I'm opposed to it. I'm steeped enough in educational theory to think it's a pretty good idea.

    I have wanted to negotiate evaluation with students, but haven't been able to guide a discussion that resulted in concrete standards for evaluation. This may be due to the ages of the students, but more likely it is due to my inexperience - I gave up the practice after a few tries, early in my teaching career. It's worth thinking about trying again.

    I am thinking hard about negotiating class rules this year. The problem is that nearly every teacher starts the year that way and by the time the students get to me, they're weary of the exercise. So I usually try to have some engaging content-related activity the first day rather than the tedious syllabus-and-rules-review lesson.

    There's enough here for another post, so I'm going to move the rest.

  3. Fascinating post, thanks! Are you on Twitter? Would love to follow you ;-).

  4. Death to the Syllabus is an amazing article and has 'done the rounds' and caused a lot of comment (just what's needed!).

    In my experience, students can be 'controlled' and treated like cattle in a very successful way (if by success we mean pass exams), but they resent the process and look at the system in an 'us and them' world view.

    When I have focussed more on what the students are asking & have sought their viewpoint, I have not had less control, in fact I have found even troublesome students trying to engage more as they see me giving them respect.

    Linked to this is this YouTube clip:
    If we focus on grades & passing exams, we miss the point...

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