Fun fact: I’m a student again. I’m doing an online M.S. in Data Analytics, hoping to become eligible to teach community college, and to learn a bit of actually-doing-stuff skills (which I sorely lack).

Anyway, I want to share with you a course review I just wrote, because in explaining what I appreciated about the class, I found myself describing (1) my basic philosophy of teaching, (2) a formidable obstacle all teachers face, and (3) how this particular teacher overcame that obstacle.

Here’s what I wrote:

Teaching well requires articulating what you want students to learn, and then creating tasks and experiences to help them do that.

Harder than it sounds!

Many teachers let the tail wag the dog. They figure out tasks that would be easy to grade, then try to impute their own pedagogical values from these easy-to-grade tasks. Before long, they’ve lost contact with some of the values they once held most dearly.

Professor S. resisted this temptation. He made clear at the beginning that some of his highest values would be hard to assess:

  • the flexibility to try multiple approaches
  • the skepticism to question one’s own results
  • the communicative clarity to explain what you’ve found, and
  • the wisdom to know the contexts and limitations of our models.

He then created a course that honored these values through ungraded discussion questions, videos exploring case studies, a peer-graded project, and peer-graded homework assignments that asked us to apply the models to our personal and professional lives.

The exams, although they constituted 75% of the grade, constituted a far smaller fraction of the student experience of the course. That’s exactly as it should be.

I’ll elaborate a bit.

In my view, the work of teaching is to figure out what students need to learn, and then creating experiences to help them do so.

This effort runs smack into a big obstacle: the systematic pressure to assign grades. Too many teachers abandon hard-to-grade experiences (writing, teamwork, projects, reflections) in favor of easy-to-grade ones (multiple choice questions, individual work, textbook problems, exams). Then, in a final step of ass-backward tragedy, they realign their goals to match their assessments.

All those hard-to-quantify virtues? Forgotten. An imperfect measure of success becomes, in a soul-numbing tautology, the definition of success.

How did Professor S. evade this trap?

Well, in an online course of 1000+ students, there are two basic ways to assess students: (1) the expected way of bog-standard multiple-choice exams, or (2) some unexpected way, which will require a visionary concept, tireless execution, and most elusive of all, student buy-in.

Why fight that fight? Instead, Professor S. gave the bog-standard exams. He made sure that course grades matched student expectations, conservative and uninspired as those expectations may be. But then, he remembered what so many teachers do not.

The grade is not the class.

With the grade sorted, Professor S. sought structures that would nourish learning: rich homework tasks, engaging lecture videos, student discussion forums, and an open-ended project. He ensured engagement on these not just by giving them a bit of weight in the grade (25% in all), but by telling us, at every turn, that he valued these things highly. They were not labeled “optional” or “extra credit.” They – and not those bog-standard exams – were the essence of the course.

If asked for teaching advice, I would never say, “Assign 75% of the grade based on boring multiple-choice exams that don’t really follow through on the most interesting aspects of the course.”

But this is mostly a reason that you shouldn’t ask me for teaching advice!

The true measure of a course is what the students learned. And I believe that, by any fair assessment, Professor S. taught us a lot.

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