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Revisiting Contract Grading

This past semester I tried contract grading for the first time. The class was a collaborative project, and I wanted grades to be less important than getting the collaboration done. I followed the lead of Ryan Cordell and designed parameters for grade contracts that the students could revisit halfway through the semester if they wanted to change their contracted grade.

I made a few changes from the other contract grading systems I’ve seen. Most prominently, I asked the students to add things to their contracts at the midpoint. I did this because the first part of the class was the “history” part and the second half was the collaborative podcast project. So I wanted them to write into their contracts the things they were going to do for the podcast.

I would not call this experiment in contract grading an unqualified success. I had a hard time keeping track of things (which is 75% on me because I’m not that great at keeping up with small things in classes), but more importantly I didn’t give the students options for meaningful penalties for breaking their contract terms. In the first half of the semester, I asked them to attend a certain number of classes in order to meet the terms of a grade. (I have changed my mind about this particular tenet of the grade contract anyway and it won’t be appearing in future iterations.) They each wrote in a penalty for missing classes, but it was impossible for me to know whether they assessed themselves the penalties or not. I know some didn’t. I need some way to know that students who don’t fulfill the things they’re supposed to actually do assess their own penalties, and that those penalties help them learn rather than just arbitrarily punish or humiliate.

But the main issue with contract grading in this class is that the entire class dynamic radically changed after the pivot to online. I stripped out the attendance policy. The students had a very hard time getting motivated, and I couldn’t bring myself to use a grade as a cudgel to get them to do what they were “supposed” to do. Instead, I resorted to pestering them and taking on a lot of work myself in order to get our project finished. Again, as I’ve said in a hundred places, I’m so proud of the work we did accomplish. But it could have been so much better.

That said, I’m not sad that grades were completely on the back burner for the semester. I firmly believe that the students produced better work than they would have if they had been motivated by point-based grades instead of a simple desire to do well.

HIST390

Where contract grading absolutely succeeded turned out to be in my large class, HIST390, which had 46 students. I didn’t start out doing contract grading in that class, because it’s really big for that kind of thing. Contract grading feels very individualized, and I just couldn’t see how it would work in a bigger class.

But during the two weeks we were planning for the move to online, I realized that contract grading was going to give the class the flexibility it so desperately needed. One of the things I’ve always hated about 390 was the grading. It always felt awful to take points off of assignments and then just move on. But I couldn’t think of a better way.

While we were out for our extended spring break, I decided that maximum flexibility and maximum compassion were my new mantras. What that looked like in my syllabus is multiple chances for each assignment, and the ability to drop assignments as a student needed to. Enter contract grading. I set up a system whereby students contracted to do several small projects and the final project for an A, one small project and the final project for a B, and just the final project for a C (with a few other minor stipulations).

I also scrapped the points system and instituted a completion system. A student got credit for having done an assignment once I (or my TAs) was happy with it; if it didn’t meet the standard, I sent the student feedback and they resubmitted. Because no students had to do ALL the projects in order to get an A, students were given the opportunity to skip projects that they might struggle with, which I think cut down on the number of redos we asked for.

We even did this on the final project. Maybe 10 out of 46 students had to do one resubmission; none had to do more than one. Only one student didn’t turn in a final project.

The general quality of the projects was much better this year than in semesters past. I attribute this to two things: I gave clearer instructions and tutorials this semester than in semesters past (thanks, online learning), and the reduced grade pressure gave students freedom to be more adventurous and more creative. Some students really, really shined.

In the students’ reflections about the semester, the grade contract system came up frequently. Students wrote that this system felt compassionate and flexible, and many students wrote that they really enjoyed doing the projects because of the low point stakes.

From my point of view, I felt much less pressure to be constantly hounding students or worrying about when they were going to turn stuff in. I gave them deadlines but made it clear that those deadlines were soft because, without points, the system wouldn’t break if the grades didn’t get “recorded” in a timely fashion. Grading was also a LOT more fun when I just had to give feedback without figuring out how many points a mistake or misunderstanding was going to cost a student.

So, will I do grade contracts again in HIST390? Absolutely yes. My system will be slightly more rigorous in the fall when we are online from the beginning, but the basic tenets of flexibility and compassion will be the same. The students learned better, I felt better, what’s not to like? I’ll be incorporating more discussion and analysis-based requirements, but I’ll again give students the option to make the grade that works for them.

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Student Communication: Pedagogy Musing #2

My self-maintained list of failings as a teacher is quite long. But I’d like to think that communicating with students outside of class is not on that list. I do everything in my power to make sure my students have ready access to me at all times. And yet it often feels like I’m not connecting with students who really need some help.

I use a lot of different means to make myself available to my students. Each of them has its own merits and demerits.

Office hours

The traditional method of student communication is office hours. They’re required by the university, but I’d hold them anyway. In the past, both here at GMU and in the past, I viewed office hours as a time for me to get stuff done, and I spent most of the time hoping that no one would show up. This semester, I made a conscious choice to not endure office hours but rather encourage them. One-on-one conversations aren’t my preferred mode of communication, but office hours aren’t about me.

So this semester I’ve tried to be more deliberate about how I do office hours. I’ve always had the policy that I prefer students to sign up for an appointment, and I kept that policy this semester, but I tried to shift my thinking about appointments from “If there aren’t any appointments today then I get the day off” to “These appointments help keep the meetings on track so both the student and I have a sense of what we’re trying to accomplish.”

I’ve also tried to explicitly communicate throughout the semester that office hours are for talking about anything that is even tangentially related to the course, whether that’s grades, personal situations that are affecting coursework, or steps to take after the class is over, or anything else. This new strategy has paid off several times, where I’ve had meaningful conversations with students who needed to just talk through things. I’ve also tried to ask broader questions when they come than just “what problem can we solve right now?” and spend some time on how they’re doing overall this semester or in this class.

Everyone says things like “if you’re getting a bad grade in this class, come see me.” I say that too. But this semester I tried something new in my undergraduate class: after the midterm, where some students did not do as well as they hoped, I offered them a chance to make up a few points on the midterm. The catch was that I wouldn’t tell them how to get those points back unless they came to see me in my office. The allure of a few points back was enough to attract some students who hadn’t been engaged up to that point, and several of those students have since come back to ask questions about other things. So getting them to come just one time helped them to see that it wasn’t quite so scary. (This class has 42 students; it’s not the kind of class where I’d make an office visit mandatory.)

Nevertheless, only a small percentage of my undergraduate students have come to office hours. My graduate students are less reticent, but they have more experience navigating the academic system and they have more complicated problems. So I don’t think I’m reaching all my students where they are just by having office hours.

Email

Email is another somewhat traditional method of communicating with students outside of class. I rarely use email when communicating with students, though. First of all, it appears to be the case that many students don’t check their email with regularity (a mind-boggling concept to me!), so an email isn’t any more likely to reach a student than just making an announcement in class.

I also don’t really like email. It’s at that awkward place where formality and protocol are a barrier to both effective and respectful dialogue. I definitely don’t like getting emails like “Hey Abby!” from students (I’ve never received one of those from a GMU student), but I also don’t want a student to be so concerned with whether they should address me as “Dr. Mullen” or “Professor Mullen” that they never reach out. (And this paralysis HAS occurred with a GMU student.) I struggle enough with forms of address myself that I totally get why students do.

Email is also a very awkward way to have a conversation. Emails like “I wasn’t in class; what did I miss?” can rarely be adequately addressed without multiple emails from both parties. Emails like “I don’t understand this problem” almost never can. But email threads are so painful.

So email doesn’t feel like the best way to have real out-of-class interactions with students either.

Slack

I use Slack every day to talk to the Tropy team. I like it for its hybridity between email and text messaging, and I also like it that (set up right) it can be somewhat asynchronous. So, following the example of some colleagues, I set up Slack teams for each of my classes.

This is far and away MY preferred method of communication. I like it because I can be available to students at times when they’re more likely to actually be doing their work. I also like it because I can share links/show things fairly easily (screenshots are my best friend).

However, Slack has its disadvantages. It does tether me to my students in ways that could get problematic. I don’t think it has done so yet, but I have to be cautious about when I answer Slack messages. I tell students at the beginning of the semester that I will answer Slack questions as soon as is reasonable for me to do so, but in the evenings and weekends, I reserve the right to not be instantly available. I have gotten Slack messages time-stamped 2:00am; I did not answer those instantly. But I did answer them the next time I saw them, the next morning.

Slack is also new and intimidating for some students. In my mind, Slack is a much better text alternative to the more common group-communication tool many students are used to, the group text. But some students have a hard time following how the channels and tagging work.

It’s also true that if you’re not paying attention to the conversations, important information can pass you by as the conversation moves on to something else. And since not all students work on their projects at the same time, sometimes I end up answering the same question multiple times.

It’s hard to get full engagement from the whole class with Slack. I would prefer to make all class announcements, etc., on Slack, but I know that not all students will see those announcements. In my graduate class, I do it anyway, because I think they should be able to handle it, but if it’s something really important, I’ll send an email too. I tried to get everyone to use the Slack interface at least once during the semester—the very first day, actually, where they had to post a meme that they made to Slack. I hoped that this action would demystify the platform for the students, encouraging more interaction, but it really hasn’t.

My ideal Slack community allows students to help each other with questions and pose new and interesting questions to each other, developing a real connection to each other in this online space. I’d love for my role to not be central in our Slack teams. But the reality is that most questions and clarifications are directed at me and I answer them.

Nevertheless, I still like Slack. I like that I can answer questions in public, thus minimizing the number of times I have to answer the same question. I like being able to post new and interesting resources that I find relevant to our class discussions (esp. for my graduate students). I also like being able to have a conversation that allows me to ask lots of questions in order to get to the bottom of problems, without dozens of emails. Since tech support is a large part of my outside-class interactions with students, it’s nice to have a dynamic place to help them work through things.

What else?

Sometimes I think that I’m too available to my students. Am I giving them too many ways to get in contact with me, thus reducing the necessity for them to do creative problem-solving on their own? But then again, very often I’m asking them to do things that are completely unfamiliar to them.

My three main goals for outside-class communication with my students are (a) that they won’t be scared of me; (b) that they’ll get the help they need; and (c) that they’ll make real connections with both the material and the humans they’re interacting with in the course. For many of my students, I don’t think I accomplish any of these three.

What am I missing? How do you handle out-of-class communication?

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Using Tropy for the Classroom

It’s no secret that I’m a Tropy enthusiast. I often say that I would use and recommend Tropy even if I weren’t the principal investigator on the project. But this semester my work is divided between Tropy and teaching, on both the undergraduate and graduate level. And it turns out that pairing these things has enhanced both sides.

In both of my classes, my students use Tropy to collect primary sources for their projects, but I’m using Tropy in a slightly different way.

Keeping Track of Course Visuals

I’ve created a Tropy project for each of my courses this semester. In these projects, I keep track of all the images I use in my courses. For my undergrads, that’s predominantly visual aids that I use in my PowerPoints. Putting the images into Tropy has two salutary effects on my course organization: (1) It encourages me to put my images into a logical folder when I download them from the Internet (rather than leaving them in my Downloads, which I’m wont to do). And (2) it encourages me to record relevant metadata about them so that I can be very accurate about what my images are and where they came from.

A screenshot of the Tropy project for my undergraduate class, showing the lists I use for organization.

I can keep all of my images in a unified folder in my file system, since I can use Tropy to categorize them into topics and even specific lectures. Using the “Show photo in folder” function, it’s easy for me to get back to the original file so I can put it into my PowerPoint.

Furthermore, I can record in the notes for each item how I used the images in class, or what I should do differently next time.

I’ve found this use for Tropy incredibly helpful as I’ve created new PowerPoints this semester but wanted to use visual materials I’d collected when I taught this class last semester. A little extra organization goes a long way for those last-minute PowerPoint needs.

Creating Primary Source Readers

For my graduate class, I use fewer visuals in PowerPoint, so my Tropy project isn’t full of that kind of material. Instead, it includes primary sources that we work with in class. When I teach with or about primary sources (which is often!), I place an emphasis on recording metadata as an ethical practice. So when we look at primary sources in class, I like to include the metadata for the items we’re looking at.

Ironically, in a digital history class, I sometimes find it more helpful to use pen and paper to think about digital history topics. But that doesn’t eliminate the need for metadata. Enter Tropy’s Print function.

Using the Print function, I can generate pages that include both the image of the source we’re talking about, and the metadata that tells the students what it is and where it came from. We can then look at a printed copy of the digital item and mark it up with colored pens and Post-it Notes. But all the time, the students know exactly what their source is and where it came from, because the information is right there on the page (and it’s nicely formatted).

An item from my Tropy project, printed with all its metadata.

I can also use the CSV export function to pull metadata out of a large Tropy project, which we can then use to think about the primary sources in aggregate. (We haven’t done this yet in class, but we’re going to in a few weeks.)

What’s Next

One of the common critiques of digital tool creation and use is that people start with the tool rather than the problem they need to solve. Being tool-focused leads to tunnel vision, lack of intellectual creativity, the list goes on. But in this case, the problems I needed to solve existed well before Tropy. It just happened that Tropy was able to provide the solution to my problems because some parts of it have outstripped the original charter for its creation. The product is the better for it, and it’s also more flexible in its uses.

Tropy has always been great for organizing photos from archival research trips—that’s what it is for, after all. But many of the features that are continually being added to Tropy make it even more valuable for other uses as well. I’m delighted that one of those uses is making this teacher’s life a little bit easier. New features that are coming down the pike will make it even better.