Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


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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Shawn Cornally • July 14, 2010

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