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When I began teaching, I focused on content and rigor. I made the rookie mistake of designing my first course in ways that would have worked perfectly for me as a student. The problem was that prep school had made me into a different kind of college student than the ones in front of me who mostly came from underfunded public schools, returned after years away, worked full time, and supported families.

When my initial approach didn’t go so well, I was annoyed that students were not respecting my authority. I was exasperated by students who plagiarized, came to class unprepared, or showed up late. I was constantly frustrated by the few students in the back row every semester who talked over me or over other students who were contributing to a discussion or nervously giving a formal presentation. I was especially bothered by being mistaken for a student or addressed as “Miss.”

I responded with more rules, harsher penalties, weekly reading quizzes, and detailed rubrics. This basically worked because I was using grades as leverage to get the results I wanted. The students learned a lot, but I was frustrated with the feeling that my job was becoming more about explaining and enforcing rules than about teaching and learning.

When I started teaching online, I took a similar approach. I needed a way to ensure they’d do the work even though there was no lecture or class to attend, so each week students were required to take quizzes, answer an ever-growing list of study questions, and post notes about the readings. Each of these things needed to be graded individually.

What that meant is that I spent most of my time on student feedback for that course explaining to students where they’d lost points on each assignment. But I noticed that students who misunderstood a concept in the study questions often hadn’t improved when it came up again on the final exam. Turns out, when we give students feedback and a grade, they often pay more attention to the grade, and may not even read our carefully written comments.

All of these things that frustrated me about teaching led me to look for alternatives, and what I found was critical pedagogy and learner-centered teaching. I was fascinated by studies showing that grades are often ineffective, arbitrary, and demotivating to students. I was convinced by Stuart Tannock’s arguments that grading might undermine one of public education’s key goals of fostering “critical, reflexive, independent and democratically minded thinkers.” And I was persuaded by Alfie Kohn’s and Jesse Stommel’s arguments against grading and Vicky Reitenauer’s work on the benefits of self-grading.

So I started experimenting.

With my first attempt, I asked students to reflect on their work and calculate their own points each week, including figuring out late penalties for themselves. I gave them very detailed and complex guidelines for these weekly self-assessments that ran four pages long. When they made mistakes applying the policies to themselves, I corrected them.

Around halfway through the semester, I realized that I hadn’t fundamentally shifted my mindset about grades or power. I’d just outsourced the process of applying my strict rules to the students themselves. While most of them really enjoyed having even this small amount of power, I was still spending a lot of time explaining and enforcing policies for the students who hadn’t understood my system. Why had I set it up this way?

I remembered a statement I heard Jesse Stommel make at Digital Pedagogy Lab in Vancouver last summer. As one of my track leaders, he began by introducing himself and describing his approach to teaching:

That was my problem: I didn’t feel like I could trust my students. Instead of having empathy for them, I realized I’d been holding a bit of a grudge against students. I’d been entering classrooms anticipating all the problems and incivilities I’ve seen before. I found it even harder to trust students in my online courses, where I usually can’t read tone or body language, and there’s little opportunity for the casual interactions before or after class that help build a relationship over time.

I also felt like I couldn’t trust students when it seemed like they didn’t trust me and my authority in the classroom. For example, in my first semester teaching online, I created weekly short quizzes which added up to a total of less than 5% of their final grade. Because the purpose was to help students check whether they’d understood the course materials, I chose the “unlimited attempts” setting for the quizzes. A number of weeks into the semester, I looked at the data and saw that a couple students were making 10 or even 20 attempts on the quizzes in rapid succession until they got to 100%. While I didn’t have a policy against this, I had explained the purpose of the quizzes so I felt like these students were gaming the system and disrespecting the learning environment I tried to create. At the time, instead of approaching those few students individually, I figured that none of them could be trusted, and I changed my policy to limit each quiz to 2 attempts.

The more I learn about critical pedagogy, the more I realize that starting with trust is vital. Stommel describes the importance and value of trust in education in a 2014 interview:

Learning is always a risk. It means, quite literally, opening ourselves to new ideas, new ways of thinking. It means challenging ourselves to engage the world differently. It means taking a leap, which is always done better from a sturdy foundation. This foundation depends on trust — trust that the ground will not give way beneath us, trust for teachers, and trust for our fellow learners in a learning community.

I think bureaucracy is the enemy of learning. In college syllabi, for example, we too often drown students and teachers in policies. Some of these policies are ethical at their core, but every single one becomes an obstacle, if we (teachers, administrators, accreditors, lawmakers) don’t trust students to help shape their learning environments.

When I first started teaching, I would have scoffed at these ideas. Rules and harsh policies seemed like a bulwark against the vulnerability I felt as a young female professor. Bureaucracy felt like a safety net. Rubrics and grades seemed to provide fairness, clarity, and control. This is why my first experiment with self-assessment still included a lot of rules.

Next semester, I’m going to change the way students do weekly self-assessments in my online course. Instead of calculating their points each week or grading themselves, students are going to set their own goals at the start of the semester and then reflect each week on whether and how they’ve met those goals. I’ll respond to them with comments and suggestions. Then, only halfway through the semester and at the end, students will propose a letter grade for themselves and provide evidence to justify it.

But what if I disagree with a student? Will I just trust them to determine their own grade?

In Hacking Assessment, Starr Sackstein suggests that students conference with instructors to resolve disagreements about their self-assessed grades, and argues that it’s important to let students have the final say. For small discrepancies, I think it’ll be easy for me to allow the student to decide — if it seems to me like they’ve earned a B and the student is certain it’s a B+, honestly, what’s the difference? Tons of research shows that grades can be pretty arbitrary anyways.

On the other hand, what if I think they’ve earned a C and they think they deserve an A? I’ve heard from a number of other instructors who use self-assessment that they have simply never come across this issue. But if it happens, and if I’m really going to “start by trusting students,” that means I won’t just unilaterally decide to record a C on their transcript. Instead, I’ll have a conversation with the student and figure out where they’re coming from and why our perceptions of the work differ so much. As long as we’re both acting in good faith, we should be able to hash it out and agree on a final letter grade.

And that good faith depends on a relationship of trust with the student built over the course of the semester. Without trust and an understanding of the rationale, self-assessment is more likely to feel uncomfortable, awkward, and like it’s useless busy work. One student wrote last semester: “I think it is somewhat pointless to self-assess if ultimately the teacher is giving the grades.” This was indeed a good point, because in my first version of self-assessment, I sometimes overruled students who had misunderstood my complicated self-grading guidelines.

But they’re also right in a larger sense — no matter what structures we set up to try to give students freedom, they may still experience the classroom as a site of control and domination. After all, the instructor still determines the student’s final grade on their transcript.

When I first read Teaching to Transgress my initial reaction echoed my student’s skepticism: Given the fundamental power relationship between students and instructors within the university, what’s the point of any of this? One student wrote last semester, when I was using points and strict rules for self-assessments: “[It’s] easier to learn when the instructor grades my work because they are experts on the course material … I didn’t learn anything about setting goals and assessing myself.” This student saw self-assessment as yet another meaningless bureaucratic task they needed to complete to graduate.

Self-assessment isn’t perfect, but it does seem to help some students feel more ownership and investment in their education. Instead of slacking off and inflating their own grades, students in my courses have consistently reported that self-assessing makes them work harder. A student who completed the points-based self-assessments last semester wrote: “I feel more responsible to do well, and I have to meet my personal expectations now rather than a professor’s, so in some ways, it’s a little harder.”

In this way, self-assessment may be far less radical than it appears at first glance — it can encourage students to internalize the values and expectations of educational institutions rather than challenging them. But even if the freedom and power that self-assessment provides to students is an illusion, my classroom can at least be a space where students are  practicing self-determination rather than training to be authoritarian subjects.

In any case, moving away from grades seems to create more space for learning. A student wrote this response to my first version of self-assessment: “It makes me realize, for the first time in my academic career, that grades should be a secondary concern to actually learning something and growing from a course.”

It hasn’t always been easy for me to start by trusting students, but I’ve realized that it’s something I need to work towards if I want to help them focus more on “actually learning” than on grades.