What’s in a grade?  That which we call a blog by any other grade would sound as sweet.

To begin with a bit of brutal honesty, the thought of learning about academic blogging was not appealing to me.  In my past experience, blogging for class has often felt like a chore.  As a student, I never minded composing the short essay that I would use as a blog post, but the process of commenting on peers’ work often felt forced with a required number of comments and a rigid description of what constituted a substantive comment.  Unfortunately, the simplest criterion for an acceptable comment was a question, to which a response was required.  The result unsurprisingly felt like an uninspired and obligatory conversation on a Canvas page.  As a TA, the process of grading blog comments felt similar.  The comments often met the bare minimum requirement set for a perfect score but rarely brought about meaningful conversation or insight.

However, as a student of higher education, I was excited to read Gardner Campbell’s piece that examines networked learning as experiential learning.  I hoped that reading about networked learning in the context of George Kuh’s high-impact practices would help me see academic blogs in a more positive light.

Kuh’s high-impact practices have been a point of professional interest since I discovered they were the basis of a meaningful program in my undergraduate work.  I graduated “with leadership distinction” from the University of South Carolina by taking part in a program where I created an ePortfolio about an internship I had completed.  The process of reflection and creating that ePortfolio generated a lot of self-knowledge and helped me clarify my professional goals, but it was not until later that I realized that high-impact practices were at the center of the program.  While the nomenclature was made to be easily understood by students, the requirements of the project were to create an ePortfolio (a high-impact practice in itself) about one of four high-impact practices: undergraduate research, global learning, service learning, or an internship.  Having experienced this first-hand, I am always eager study high impact practices or incorporate them into my work as a practitioner of higher education.

Because of my past experiences, I read Campbell’s piece very critically.  To equate my underwhelming blogging experiences with the high-impact practices that proved so meaningful to my learning simply seemed wrong, even if my evidence was anecdotal.  However, upon further consideration, I realized that networked learning (including blogging) shared characteristics with many of Kuh’s high-impact practices I already saw as meaningful.  It can involves writing like a writing-intensive course would, can involve collaboration, can be a learning community of its own (albeit a digital one, which is unlike those Kuh describes), and ultimately may be comprised of the same sort of reflection one would use to create an ePortfolio.  As Campbell points out, this sort of collaboration can provide learners the authority to make their own connections, and that seems characteristic of high-impact practices.

These are all things that networked learning can be; blogging can be a high-impact practice.  Still, I can undoubted say the blogging that I experienced was not that.  In thinking about what created that disconnect between theory and practice, I quickly found what I perceive to the problem: an approach to blogging that centers on grades.  This attitude might be described by the notion of “getting by” from Michael Wesch’s TED Talk, the attitude that manifests itself as questions like “How many points is this worth?” or “How long does this paper need to be?”  When the experience is reduced to its bare minimum for the sake of sliding by with an A, its high-impact ceases to be.  Grading remains a necessity, and thus a complex problem presents itself.

Grades are important.  A GPA can be a major factor in determining whether a student is admitted to their ideal graduate program or gets the job they want.  Hence, there is an importance to providing students guidelines and metrics on how their grades are to be determined.  It maintains a sense of objectivity in grading and provides students more control in reaching their goals.  While it only seems fair to create grades based on objective measures, learning and engagement are not objective measures.  Hence, grades become separate from learning, as demonstrated in my blogging experiences.  The comments that I read as a TA – and even those I wrote as a student – often succeeded in meeting the requirements for full marks but failed to engage students in the full potential of networked learning.

This poses a problem with no easy solution, far broader than academic blog posts.  How can we engage in learning if we are focused on grades instead of learning itself?  As an educator, I can appreciate the approach of this course’s blogging requirements.  Separating learning and grades allows engaging with course content and the ideas of peers to become the priority (and blogs that can be seen by the public eye adds implicitly heightens standards).  While this approach may not be directly related to each of my other endeavors as an educator, it serves as a reminder of the importance to highlight learning over grades, even if there is no simple means to that end.  That said, the reminder is perhaps more pertinent to me as a learner, where I have the autonomy to determine whether I am deeply engaging in learning or just getting by for the sake of a grade. I can always choose learning.  How can I encourage students to do the same?

12 thoughts on “What’s in a grade?  That which we call a blog by any other grade would sound as sweet.

  1. Jake- I thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts and appreciate both the insight you offer, as well as the questions you ask. If we are being completely honest, however, I think that because we are at Virginia Tech our ability to answer those questions become even more difficult- specifically the final question you pose. What I mean by this is that we are surrounded by extremely intelligent and driven undergraduate students whose aspirations are high and bountiful, thus earning that A+ grade oftentimes outweighs engaging in learning. Just like you, I too am a TA, however I work as a Public Speaking TA, which I think makes the emphasis of learning even harder, but more important to convey. Many of my students are BIT students, engineers, CS students, wildlife conservation majors, and so on, all of which carry a heavy and difficult course load. What this means for me, a teacher of an introductory level course, is that I am tasked with emphasizing that in order to be successful in my course they have to learn and engage in learning, otherwise their introductory level course becomes their most difficult course to master. However, this is not something I can just explicitly say to them, this learning takes time and patience, which most students, and people, do not have. With all of this being said, I guess what I am getting at is that I am not sure how we encourage students, whose GPA and aspirations are sky high, to look past the grade and look to the learning because in todays society, why would they?

    • jagarner says:

      I appreciate your note on how working with high achieving students at Tech affects this dynamic. Having completed my undergraduate work in engineering, I can understand the perspective of some of these students. Grades truly do carry weight, and the topics of STEM classes are harder to lend to methods of networked learning effectively. It’s difficult to encourage these students to look beyond grades for learning and there’s no obvious solution, but it’s certainly worthwhile to consider what steps we can take to change that.

  2. devin says:

    I like the ultimate question of addressing one’s motivation of one having a ‘desire’ to learn rather than one being ‘forced’ to learn. One would assume that the millennial generation would be more in-tune/onboard with blogging since they are technology forward, but that’s not the case. It could be for the fact that the exigence of blogging isn’t properly communicated in striking a chord for students. For me, I haven’t enjoyed blogging, but it could be something to get used to, and maybe it’ll stick.

  3. Jake, I agree with your conflicted views about evaluations based on rubric vs holistic (non-rubric) postings. I am a rubric-focused person/instructor- I like to provide students clear expectations and rubrics so they understand how they will be graded- and I can be fair in how I grade. But I have also seen how clear posting requirements doesn’t necessarily facilitate thinking and real discussion.

    The critical differences in these scenarios are that we are (I assume) engaged in the topic and want to synthesize and learn (and know how to do these things). My experiences with undergraduates is that they just want to know how to get the grade they want… If they don’t want to engage with the content, then ditching the rubric will result in a lot of low-effort posts and opinion-based grading that would be hard to justify if students complain.

    Is the lack of engagement our (the institution/instructor/TAs) fault? Are our discussion prompts not right or are our directions for expectations not articulated correctly? Or have we (institutionally) not properly taught students how to engage with the content?
    I think the answer to the above is partially “yes.” I don’t know if we always explain to students why we have certain assignments or what they may get of the course, or how to engage with topics, not just regurgitate the information.

    • slharrell says:

      I am really enjoying this conversation y’all are all having. I wanted to chime in that I understand the frustration with students who are solely focused on the grade and could care less about the real learning. I think that at least for a while, we will still continue to see students like that. At the same time, we have this emerging trend where discourse in education is asking what it shhould be: open, networked, connected, diverse, interdisciplinary, inclusive, critical…? And then the other large part is the follow-through. You can state policy all day, but it is so important to follow through for our students in how we teach/support/mentor/research. When faced with this duality (the grades vs learning types), it can be hard to stay positive, but we have to be encouraging and set a model for what we want education to be about.

      • jagarner says:

        I agree. Staying positive is absolutely key. I don’t think the problem can be isolated to either the teacher or student, and I think there is a broader culture with the way education is currently viewed that prompts issue of grades and learning.

        While thinking about systemic issues is certainly worthwhile, I think it’s also important to consider what elements are in our direct control as educators and fellow learners. I am a strong believer in learning partnerships, so we can’t implement effective learning without student buy-in, but I always ask myself what I can do as an educator to increase the likelihood of that happening. Blaming and overthinking issues outside of our control just takes away from efforts we can be making.

  4. OUMOULE NDIAYE says:

    I like your blog and wanted to mention that you are just honest enough to tell your story but many students to hear them talking about their blogging experience have experienced the same feeling. I stressed a lot the first time I was required to blog each week for a whole semester. Like you I also appreciate the way blogging is required for this Grad 5114 course. Writing our own opinion on different topics cannot make us learn a lot in a given topic. One can do it quite well, puts the energy required there to get good an A but still that is our thought (sometimes very limited) on a subject. This is different compared to what we acquire while reading other people blog posts and making comment that can lead to broader productive discussions. And yes knowing that many people might read theirs blogs can make certain students who were only caring about getting the assignment done put more serious on what they are writing about.

  5. Milad says:

    This is an interesting blog post, and I enjoyed reading it. Especially, I share the same thoughts about blogging and the importance of grading. Regarding your point on how to prioritize the objective of ‘learning’ over ‘getting good grades’, I don’t have a definite answer. But I think in the conventional educational setting that I have been, getting good grades has always been a strong driver for learning. How to encourage students to distinguish between these two? Well, that’s an important point to explore!

  6. Dana says:

    Hi, something I wondered reading the “Networked Learning . . . ” article, not being at all familiar with Kuh, was what really was meant by a “high impact practice.” It sounds like you’re very familiar with the concept. What is this impact supposed to be? The article seems to imply that it is employability?
    Thanks

    • jagarner says:

      Hi, Dana! I’m going to try to do some justice to Kuh’s work when it comes to answering your question, but know that there’s an entire book on it, so any succinct summary is reductive.

      Basically, Kuh found these practices by observing significant positive differences in outcomes measured by the National Survey for Student Engagement. Across demographic variables, students who participated in these practices reported higher levels of positive outcomes. Not surprisingly by the nature of the survey, student engagement and retention were significantly higher as well as reported levels of advanced approaches to learning. The ten practices are listed and describe well here in an excerpt from Kuh’s work:
      https://ueeval.ucr.edu/teaching_practices_inventory/Kuh_2008.pdf

      Speaking from the perspective of a student affairs educator, a lot of what I end up seeing is the more qualitative effects of these 10 practices. When students engage with the practices, the transformative nature of the practices becomes apparent. It’s amazing some of the insights that students bring to the table when these practices are done well and they take the time to engage and reflect. Based on what I have seen and experienced, I’d say that these practices are where classroom learning and beyond the classroom learning intersect and students are able to make the connections of how classwork applies to the “real world.”

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