Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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If Only This Were an Isolated Incident: A Victory (?)

I’ve been detailing my foray back into studenthood as a I take a course at my local public university. I would like to state — before I begin to froth or scathe — that the point of these posts is for me to try and hash out my understanding of education, and to help me retain some empathy for my students as I pass them through my academic meat grinder.

The last post in this series was about the increased frequency of cheating on homework by my classmates. I assure you now the fan is officially brown. People are openly stealing code without understanding it, they are plagiarizing Internet resources unapologetically, and the professor is responding with, “Hey! don’t do that.”

I’ve detailed why the hey-don’t-do-that plea doesn’t work before, but the reasoning goes like this:

Student: I have to graduate in four years, and I have to pay over $1,000/class to be completely ignored and taught as if my parents were a ball of dough and a cookie cutter.

Professor: Your high school teachers didn’t teach you to think! Oh the disparaging state of education, woe is me, The lone educator in America trying to fix all of these kids! The sorrow! the forlorn-ed future!

Student: Shit man, relax. It takes me longer to get things than your arbitrary homework schedule dictates. I need to get a passing grade!

Of course, I may be combining a few professors into one unfairly demonized figure here, but I’ve heard all of these things said to my face, as a high school product and as a high school teacher.

Here’s what happened today: Professor begins with a little fire-side chat. He says that a few students have come to him to discuss our quizzing system (which couldn’t be more traditional, i.e. dings instead of progress-indicators). The students asked for the quizzes to cover what they’ve practiced on homework, instead of reaching as far into the material possible. Think about this. The students had to ask for this. If you’re appalled, welcome aboard the SBG Express. If you’re not, well, please keep reading anything else on this blog.

So, the students forced Professor to think about his assessment practices and then he changed them! This is a victory, right? Sort of…

Professor then goes on to say, “Ok, this week’s quiz will go over material that last week’s quiz covered, because last week’s was ahead of what you’ve studied.” This statement caused me to drop my books on the floor and feign passing a kidney stone to cover my conniption. (I’m really wary of being externally negative; it’s rarely productive — don’t worry, I’m not the talk-under-my-breath-during-lecture guy, teaching is hard no matter where your assessment philosophy lies, I acknowledge that.)

What does this mean? We’re going to add arbitrary points to the magical pool called “Cornally’s Grade.” There’s no rhyme or reason for the volume or rate at which we add points to the pool, we’re just going to add points willy-nilly on a semi-weekly basis, you know, because it’s about time for a quiz.

How hard is it to step back from this and see quizzing/testing as reconnaissance? Evidently pretty damned hard. Does he feel like he has a good idea of my abilities using interfaces, or not? Why the second quiz? Why should they be averaged? Was the first one a good assessment or not? I’m spinning like Sonic the Hedgehog right now.

Let’s Take A Detour:

What I’m really mulling right now is the time-line problem. I got this question while giving my trite little talk on Friday at @mctownsley’s class:

What about when students don’t turn things in on time?

This is a loaded question. Loaded like Bill Gates being carried on the back of a donkey which is being carried by the Terminator.

I responded with:

Why do you have deadlines?

The answers seem obvious:

  1. My class ends at the end of the semester, I can’t be grading things from last semester. – Ok.
  2. Grading is time consuming, and I need things to be chunked. – Fine.
  3. Turning things in on time really presses those noses to the grindstone (Read: teaches responsibility). – Blargh, whatever.

My responses:

  1. This is true, all things must end.
  2. Stop grading so much and provide more feedback, when the students actually need it.
  3. You can’t teach grindstones, you’re just excluding kids that hate the system, and reinforcing the little automatons that have bought into the summative-obsessed garbage.

My university summer course is the epitome of the ridiculousness of the deadline. It’s barely a 7-week course, but yet everything has to be turned in on time. All students are assumed to be moving at exactly the same speed, which is falsity false false.

You’re objecting right now, and I can hear it through the Internet. Professor only has 7 weeks! How is he supposed to manage that? There have to be hard deadlines, you daft hippy!

If you’re going to go out on an educational limb and say that you value learning above bell curves and forced grind-stoning, then you’ll eventually have to admit that soft deadlines are necessary. This is going to make some of you stop reading my blog, or at least feel a bit queasy. I’m actually having a hard time writing it, as it goes so strongly against my entire experience as a student.1

What will happen if I set a deadline, and then let kids turn things in after it? Chaos? They won’t take me seriously? They won’t do anything? Yes, but only if you’re still operating within summative-obsessed paradigm. When you force students to do things that should be the natural consequences of wanting to learn, you create a totally synthetic environment where you control everything and the student — at best — accepts their role as a secondary player. This is bad.

On the other hand, I’ve operated for an entire year with SBG and soft deadlines, and I am happy to report that — while it was terrifying — my students learned far more than when I was forcing homework and deadlines down their throats.

I’m Sensing That You Don’t Believe Me:

This blog is meant to be practical, so here’s how I do it:


This course centers on programming projects. These projects are created by me, but the students are free to modify them as long as the projects still show evidence of the core standards I’m looking for (Holla atch ya, SBG). These projects have due dates, but these deadlines are suggested.

I say something like, “Hey, I’d stay on this schedule, if I were you, to make sure I got every standard demonstrated and done, but you can move faster or slower as your understanding and interests guide you.”

How did this pan out? A lot of great unique projects, and a lot of late projects from students that took a LONG time to develop their abstract understanding of programming.

End result: All students demonstrated their final understanding, and the slower kids got more accurate grades as they made connections towards the end. Maybe you’re thinking these kids played me for a fool, and maybe they did, but I can assure you that Little Johnny who waited until May to show me all of his standards was woefully pressed for time, if he really was faking it.


There are no graded homework assignments. I never ever put homework in my gradebook. Do I provide feedback? Yes, but only when the students ask. That last bit is an artifact of teaching calculus. I would recommend a more structured feedback system for required courses, but NEVER GRADING HOMEWORK, EVER, DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?

Similarly, quizzes become more about finding out where kids are than are they about “You better get ready and do your work!” If a kid has an off week, then they know they can come in and try again, or they can trust me to reassess that skill. Again, SBG.

This creates a happy classroom where students welcome quizzes and say things like, “Wow, I had no idea how little of that I understood. I’m going to come in sometime this week after I’ve reread that chapter.”

Don’t you like that better than, “Shoot, I failed this quiz, I better study hard for the next one (even though I still don’t understand the material from this first one, and probably never will bother to)”?


Again, homework is assigned but never graded. Feedback is given at the student’s request, and oh boy do they request it. Investigations are graded against inquiry standards as well as the content standards that manage to get wrapped up in them.

“Do the kids do anything in class?” you ask. C’mon. You have to have more faith in your students than that. Think about the accusation you just made? When points get taken out of the equation something else fills that void. It’s a magical thing called learning.

What really happens is that my deadlines are replaced with slightly more frequent assessments that I (and students) initiate. Work is turned in when it is a good demonstration of a skill, which is what I want anyway. The kids realize that getting behind is detrimental, not because of my fake deadline system, but because it just sucks to have work pile up. (isn’t that what you’ve wanted this whole time?)

What’s It All Mean, Basil?

Do some kids take advantage of the system and choose not to do anything? Not very many. I had 3 during the entire year  (How many did you have not turning things in?). I can’t really tell you why they’ve responded so well. Whether it’s the respect I’m showing them, or the transparency of their grade, or maybe it’s just some fluke I’m experiencing and you can choose to totally disregard me, I’m not sure. All I really know is that kids still turned things in on time, and the things that come in late were of much higher quality than the late work I used to get (which was copied).

Ask yourself this question: “On Friday, If my principal asked me to turn in a piece of paperwork on Monday, but I forgot, and couldn’t get it to her until Tuesday, what would happen?”

Now ask yourself this one: “If a student forgets something over the weekend, what do I do to them (and their grade) on Monday?”

Oh, a discrepancy? Interesting.

To be clear: because I’m no longer playing points games with them, wanting to know more becomes their motivation, and they realize that their grade will actually reflect that. Most students let out a decade-held sigh of relief and finally show me who they are. Most become learners, and very few cling to the ugly, tortured, points-addicted vermin that we’ve bred into them.

Make the jump; it’s for the kids.

A quick note should be made that I’m the kind of person that the traditional system serves. Do not, I repeat, do not fall into the trap that because it works for you, it must be the way to do it. How many people become mathematicians or math educators? Not many. How many students are we teaching in Algebra II as if they’re going to be one of those two things? Here, have some Kool-Aid, I can see you’re overheating.

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15 thoughts on “If Only This Were an Isolated Incident: A Victory (?)
  • MichaelJW says:

    @Rob: Thanks so much for that link! I hope you do teach that course one day. I hope even more that you put it online ;)

  • Rob McEntarffer says:

    What Michael describes above is called the “overjustification effect” – fascinating and important stuff. Here’s a reference:
    One more reason that someday I want to teach or take a course called “Cognitive Psychology findings teachers NEED to know about!”

  • MichaelJW says:

    Whoa. Your penultimate paragraph turned on a huge lightbulb in my head.

    Are you familiar with the psychologist Edward Deci? He did some experiments back in the 70s, getting students to play a block puzzle game called Soma and paying some of them to do so. He found that when he took the cash reward away from the students who had been paid, they lost their motivation to keep playing, compared to the students who were never paid. (More info here.)

    It sounds like you’re seeing the same thing with your students — removing the extrinsic motivator “I have to get this homework in on time or I’ll lose points!” has let them develop an intrinsic motivation, “I want to do this work so I can learn.”

    This is awesome, thanks for sharing!

  • gasstationwithoutpumps says:

    I was going to rail against your anti-homework stance, but your statement for your programming class closely matches my own practice:
    “This course centers on programming projects. These projects are created by me, but the students are free to modify them as long as the projects still show evidence of the core standards I’m looking for. These projects have due dates, but these deadlines are suggested.”

    The only difference is that I do have hard deadlines.

    I have only 10 weeks to cover a lot of ground and grading programs takes me a long time (not for the works/doesn’t-work decision, but for finding the subtle errors and for the detailed comments on programming style). Working on only one assignment type at a time is more efficient, allowing me to provide better feedback. So I do have hard deadlines (generally assignments due every Friday, so that I can spend the entire weekend grading and get them feedback during the next class).

    I do allow students to redo any assignment (requiring it if the first attempt is not passing quality), but they have to turn in something each week. Since the assignments get harder throughout the quarter, students who don’t keep up at the beginning generally have no hope of catching up later—if there was enough slack time for them to do so, I wouldn’t be teaching a full course.

    I’ve found that even grad students and professors have trouble managing their time without hard deadlines, so I see the deadlines as an aid to their scheduling, not as a barrier to their learning.

  • druinok says:

    You mention that you would recommend a more structured system for a required class – could you elaborate on that? Thanks for such wonderful, thought-provoking posts!

    • Shawn says:

      @duinok: I suppose a more structured system means that things you do in class are designed to give students feedback, such as ungraded quizzes, or in class work for which you give back explicit written feedback, not grades. In calculus I don’t need to do this because the kids are generally motivated. When I’ve worked with slightly younger children I’ve needed to model for them how to use feedback to prepare for an assessment, within SBG of course. SBG doesn’t really ask you to do more than what you’ve already been doing, it just asks you to assess in a more real way. I’ll probably write a post on this later.

  • JimP says:

    I agree that it should be better for you and everyone else. I do think that it is very important for you specifically. I like to think that I am approaching being a teacher like you (although I have a long way to go). In my case seeing professors do learning well has really pushed me to think and change a lot more than I thought it would.

    Here is what I found. In a class like you talk about I would work hard to make my own experience as close to ideal as possible, aside from doing the class work. In a class taught the way you teach you are free to learn. You also see other ways of approaching learning that use the same principles as you but that you might never have thought of. The whole point is to expand who you are, and getting some unique help with this is great.

  • Dan Goldner says:

    I would love to get pointers from experienced SBG-ers about different ways to provide “a more structured feedback system” around homework. What are some efficient ways to spend class time helping students learn from homework problems (esp. when students or not all doing problems at the same time?) And for calculus, what does “feedback by request” look like during the class period? There must be some great models out there…

  • AmberCaldwell says:

    I love to hear the frustration with College level courses and how they do not reflect the vision of education (much less higher education.) I recently enrolled at a major university to earn a second masters, this one in math versus education. I am looking for online courses and I was told that this professor would never teach an online course. He is against it in principle. He said it is too easy for students to cheat and not stay on his pace for the course. Funny, he assigns take home homework and tests (cheatable). What if I want to work ahead? He wants to grade ‘seat time.’ Arghhhhh! I decided not to pursue the program. I’m waiting for a good online program in math…

  • Lisa says:

    Thanks for clarifying why you do Calc the way you do – I teach Calc in addition to Alg 2 and freshmen and your comment about feedback at their request made sense to me.

    Especially liked the note at the end (although I’m still trying to figure out how to get the mechanics of SBG to work in my traditional grading world). Thanks for the kool-aid! :-)

  • rob mcentarffer says:

    Thoughtful, funny post – I’m going to use the heck out of it at my next staff development discussion. A question for you and everyone else: are teacher prep courses more or less “guilty” of this kind of thinking/attitude than courses in other departments?

  • [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Matt Townsley, Chad Sansing. Chad Sansing said: @ThinkThankThunk on higher ed grading; it would help our kids to not be beholden to such systems; bring on ed 3.0 #sbar [...]

  • JimP says:

    Find a new graduate program. This is not the way it works for me, not even close.

    • Shawn says:

      @JimP: That’s a fantastic suggestion, but doesn’t really help the millions of undergraduates students being put through this at almost every college across America. It’s not so much about me and my class, but about the philosophy that so many educators have. By that I mean just a pure lack of thought concerning assessment despite its critical role in creating an atmosphere for the students. Thanks for the helpful hint, though.