Four Things I Learned from Working with Students… but not with Grades

I have an odd job if you can call it that – some days, “lifestyle” seems like a better descriptor.  For my assistantship, I am a live-in employee of Housing and Residence Life at Virginia Tech.  In that role, I supervise RA’s, serve as a conduct officer, and handle daily operations of two all-male residence halls, which, as you might expect, brings a new adventure every week.  The work is hard to predict and takes a great deal of time, but I love it.

My path to this line of work felt reflective of Dan Pink’s TED Talk on motivation.  My undergraduate study was in chemical engineering, where I was driven purely by extrinsic motivation, primarily grades, to painfully grind through a curriculum that did not feel meaningful to me.  However, my “side-project” of serving as a resident advisor (RA) provided me the sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose mentioned by Dan Pink.  As such, I ended up putting a lot of time and effort into that work, which didn’t feel like work, and decided to pursue work in student affairs, beginning my studies in higher education.

My work directly with students, both the RAs I supervise and residents of the buildings I oversee, has provided insight regarding the struggles students face academically.  Aside from one semester where I served as a TA for a course all RAs must take, my connections to the academic side of campus are few and far between.  However, I often talk to students about their coursework, and make a point to talk about academics with my RAs.  The subject matter of those conversations is often total foreign to me, but they have been productive.  I certainly can’t tutor these students, but we still learn together as I learn about their struggles and challenge them to think about learning differently.  Here are a few things I learned from my conversations:

Intrinsic motivation produces the best work.

With the student population of Virginia Tech, I work with a lot of engineering students and hear a lot of stories that bring me back to my own undergraduate education.  Fortunately, I see a marked difference between myself as an undergrad and many of those students.  Recently, I was having a conversation with one of my RAs about a project he was tasked to complete earlier in his engineering career in an intro class.  All groups in the class were tasked with building a machine that kept a ping-pong ball suspended in the air.  He discussed his group’s process of buying electrical hardware that could integrate with code they had written with the code controlling how high about the fan the ping pong ball would be suspended.  (To be clear, I am not doing this process justice in summarizing it.)  He then said that other groups in the class seem to do the bare minimum with Legos and a fan, probably something I would have done back in the day.

I imagine that both groups met the criteria for an A on that project, though my RA added that his professor specifically thanked his group for leaning into a creative process and going above and beyond.  There might have been a difference in ability between those two groups, but the primary difference was motivation.  My RA wanted to be creative and engineer something, not simply get a grade that could be achieved with a much lower level of effort.  I see the same thing in my RAs within their role in the hall.  Those that perform the highest do it because they are passionate about serving, not for a positive performance evaluation or from fear of being fired.

Our current method of grading does not expose students to open-ended problems.

I once had a professor who many times repeated, “When you cannot measure what you value, you come to value what you can measure.”  While this statement was made in context in assessment for research in higher education, I found in rules true from our assessment in grading.  Learning is not easily measurable; it’s difficult and time-consuming to make judgments about how much a person has learned or developed.  It’s based on qualitative evidence, which can be interpreted differently from person to person.  However, one can measure how many facts a person has retained or how a project or composition adheres to a pre-defined rubric.  It makes grading a lot easier, but then education becomes a series of boxes to be checked rather than true learning.  Perhaps students can be extrinsically motivated to tackle these tasks, but it doesn’t seem to prepare them for open-ended problems.

I never doubt the intelligence of the students I work with.  Since they’ve made it into Virginia Tech, I’m confident in their ability to learn, but I believe our use of “measurable learning” does not equip them to tackle ill-structured problems.  Fortunately, the RA role is full of these sorts of problems.  I often get questions from staff members like “How do I get more guys involved on my hall?” or “Is it okay to be friends with my residence?”  I’ve found that some of my RAs expect to get a list of steps or a quick yes-or-no answer, and I’m occasionally met with frustration when I launch the conversation by admitting I don’t have a clear-cut answer.  While I feel fortunate to facilitate a conversation that helps them generate their own solutions, I can only hope that other students are finding these ill-structured problems elsewhere, so they are prepared to face them beyond their time in college, where rubric won’t define success.

“Exceeds Expectations” doesn’t mean much.

The one time in my work that I use quantitative measures to “grade” students is when it comes time for RA performance evaluations.  The process by which RAs are evaluated includes a self-evaluation, an evaluation from a supervisor, and a discussion comparing those two evaluations to come up with a consensus.  I’ve quickly learned that a key part of this process is to explain the evaluation scale beforehand.  The scale is descriptive and is made up of the following descriptors: exceeds expectations, strong performance, meets expectations, inconsistently meets expectations, and needs improvement.  I’ve found that it is essential to explain that “meets expectations” will likely be the most common grade on any positive evaluation.  If I don’t RAs are inclined to give themselves “exceeds expectations” or at least “strong performance” in every category unless we’ve discussed performance issues in a particular area.

While this tendency made for a few frustrating evaluations early on in my role, the broader implications seem more problematic.  It seems that with the way we assess, an A denotes adequacy.  If there are no problems with an assignment and it matches the rubric criteria, it is deserving of an A.   This leaves little room to formally note excellence and little reason for students to reach for it.  How can we challenge students and get more out of them if the bar is set low?

Grades are not for the learner but for the outsider, and even they shouldn’t be using them.

In my work with students, I find myself reiterating that learning is about far more than a grade.  In my academic work, I try to work to produce quality, independent of a grade.  However, at times as a professional, I find myself overly reliant on those measures that I know to be problematic and imperfect.  The process of hiring RAs is logistically difficult.  In a typical year, a couple hundred applicants compete for what ends up being about one hundred spots.  While the process includes a written application, individual interviews, and group interviews, it all eventually boils down to one number.  Though I try my best to find RAs based on interactions I’ve had with students, recommendations from those who have worked with applicants, and the qualitative measures that accompany the scales, I still must prioritize a list of a hundred names to fill three positions, so numbers end up playing more of a role than I’d like them to.  It’s just not possible for me to read every application or note written by an interviewer.

I think if we are to ever step away from grades in working with students, we need to think more critically about how we compare and evaluate in daily life.  While quantitative measures seem quick and easy, they are not always effective in dealing with complexity, particularly when people are involved.  We cannot capture a person’s abilities in a single number, and a single number cannot provide someone with clear opportunities for improvement.  It takes more time to engage in the complexity that a single measure attempts to evade, but it must be done if we truly wish to invest in student learning.

Being Mindful about Mindlessness and Mindfulness

When first approaching the term “mindlessness” from a perspective of learning, it seems inherently unproductive.  In her work, Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context,” which sounds entirely superior to acting mindlessly, “like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made it the past.”  However, to accept that at face value would be mindlessly learning about mindfulness.  The context of mindlessness is also important when we live in a world where repetition and single exposure (the elements that Langer notes bring about mindlessness) are inherent.  While it is often important to be mindful, there are also times when it’s more productive to ignore the contextual nature of knowledge for the sake of efficiency.

A routine, which is necessary to some degree for effective functioning, is rooted in mindlessness.  By not considering context and new perspectives in brushing my teeth, driving to the store, or walking to class, I save time and mental energy for more meaningful pursuits.  Similarly, with so much information readily available to us, it would be stressful (if not impossible) to critically consider the context of every post, tweet, article, and video I view.  Additionally, there is some knowledge that seems unchanging enough to assume a level of objectivity, for example multiplication tables or how to read the English alphabet.  Furthermore, as young people approach learning, they may not be at a level of cognitive development where they will be able to approach knowledge as subjective and contextual.  Hence, mindless learning might be a necessity when someone is young or new to a subject.  (For example, you might need to learn that 1+1=2 before you deeply consider the nature of number systems.)  While it sounds like a bad thing, mindlessness can also be viewed as maintaining a sense of objectivity.  Nothing may truly be objective, but by assuming it is, we have a basis for complex thought.

Still, it is important for everyone to develop the capacity for mindful learning.  To listen to “authorities and experts” mindlessly can be dangerous, particularly since information is so easy to spread via technology regardless of its validity.  Additionally, sending students into the world without preparing them to deal with subjectivity, context, and ambiguity is doing them a disservice.  Life poses complex problems, and a single mindless view cannot be used to tackle them.  Regardless if a student is studying education, engineering, or fine arts, they will need the ability to acknowledge the contextual nature of knowledge to solve real problems.

When I considered how we might help students learn mindfully, I quickly recalled the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Bloom’s taxonomy is a series of increasingly complex objectives which is well demonstrated below in the infographic from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

While the low levels of the system can be achieved by mindless learning, the steps of analysis, evaluation, and creation require students to acknowledge ambiguities stemming from the context of knowledge; there is no one answer.  We can tap into these levels of Bloom’s taxonomy just by being intentional in what we ask of students.  If we ask them to memorize, describe, or solve, they may be able to do so mindlessly, but if we ask them to differentiate, argue, or design, they are more likely to mindfully engage with the material.  This holds true regardless of discipline.

The solution of tapping into higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy is simple in theory, but poses problems in practice.  First, we must be intentional in asking students to work at a level that matches their cognitive ability; if they are unable to understand a concept, they certainly can’t evaluate it.  However, even if students are able, it’s more difficult to motivate students to create and evaluate than to remember and understand; it requires more support, and it’s harder to assess.  It’s a scholarly essay versus a scantron. 

The scantron only asks students to remember concepts and promotes an objective worldview since there is literally one right answer.  However, with little effort on the part of the educator, it provides an objective grade that a student can hardly argue.  The essay will take more time on the part of the student, likely require more support from the educator, and necessitate a more difficult grading process, which can be disputed.  It’s undeniably a lot more work, but it certainly engages students in context and ambiguity.  Mindful learning is undoubtedly harder, but true learning is worth the effort.  While there may be ways to make it easier, willingness and time investment to do the work that is mindful learning are an obvious first step.

Engagement and Intellectual Development – Insert Coin to Play

I am a gamer.  I am an educator.  Though I consider myself a learner in all things I do, I never took time to consider the intersection of those two identities.  In fact, I intentionally made the decision to keep the two separate.  As a child, I spent plenty of time in front of the latest Nintendo console, but when I went to college, I opted not to bring a console with me.  I don’t regret that decision.  As a first-year student, I saw a hall mate move off campus, back to his parents’ home since League of Legends became such a distraction that his academic performance suffered.  As a professional in residence life, I still see students struggle with time management, not allocating sufficient time to study due to multiple late night rounds of Fortnite.

Hence, it felt a bit odd to read and reflect on the educational value of gaming.  However, the software that taught math and reading skills (the Jumpstart K-5 series), the software games that provided cognitive challenges (the Pajama Sams and Freddie Fishes), and even the 3-D platform games of the Nintendo 64 (Banjo-Kazooie, Super Mario 64) all challenged me to think and explore as a kid.  Eventually, I delved more into strategy RPG games (Pokémon and Fire Emblem), but even with this change, as I grew up, games started to feel less educational, and I doubted that games could ever be tools of learning, offering a mindless distraction instead of an intellectual challenge.

My first thought about what might have caused this shift away from learning was simple: strategy guides.  At first these were books my parents would purchase that essentially gave a written description of how to beat a game to 100% completion.  More recently, they come from a simple google search.  However, the strategy guide itself was not the problem.  The real reason these games fail to challenge me intellectually is that they are linear; they essentially have one set of steps that is followed to win.

The story from “Teaching in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” in Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown’s A New Culture of Learning Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change challenged me to consider learning from games differently.  The game mentioned provided a truly interactive experience where students collaborated and exchanged ideas to learn more than they otherwise would have from a lecture.  With results like that, it becomes difficult to argue that games have no educational purpose.

After considering, I see video games as a solid means of engagement, a medium that entices its participants to continue playing.  While engagement is a factor in effective learning, it does not guarantee learning.  A game can engage in the way that Thomas and Brown described, but it can also keep a student up all night and away from learning.  I think what determines whether a game supports learning is whether or not the challenge of that game is consistent with (or just slightly above) the player’s level of intellectual development.  Thinking back on my own experience as a gamer, I consider William Perry Jr.’s 1968 theory of intellectual and ethical development, which characterizes the meaning-making process into the developmental categories of dualism, multiplicity, and relativism.

Dualism is rooted in a way of thinking in dichotomies.  There is right answer and a wrong answer.  The games that challenged me as a child posed structured problems that were solved by dualistic thinking.  They were linear with essentially one correct way to win, and the strategy guide could provide the single correct answer.  As a kid in the stage of dualism, these games provided sufficient challenge that I felt I was learning.

Moving forward from dualism, there is multiplicity and relativism, moving from that state of dichotomies to seeing the value in different views and solutions (multiplicity) to distinguishing some solutions are better than others depending on the context (relativism).  From Thomas and Brown’s example, it became clear, that more open-world, collaborative, and competitive games could actually spawn this type of thinking.  Players do not face structured problems with one answer but can continually work to collaborate and generate new solutions depending on what they presently face in the game.

I also think that some observations from how some players approach video games parallel issues that students face in learning.  Even when a game is less structured with no set solution, it can be approached dualistically.  I think of something like Pokémon since it’s familiar to me, but I believe it can apply elsewhere.  There are several online communities – Smogon and Serebii are two examples – centering around the video games series where experts discuss strategies that involve extremely high level thinking.  That conversation is an impressive example of collaborative learning, but many users then copy the strategies of experts without considering the thought process behind them or critically evaluating the strategies.  On one hand, it’s incredible that so much knowledge is available to the average player, but it’s unfortunate that players lose out on the experience of coming up with their own strategy and instead engage in the dualistic practice of subscribing to one expert’s opinion.

This becomes more problematic when it’s not about Pokémon and the Smogon online community, but instead about science and Chegg.  It seems great that we can provide students with ill-structured problems and that they have an online community where they can discuss solutions in a way that encourages collaborative solutions and relativism in their thinking.  However, if this “conversation” simply involves experts contributing solutions, students aren’t actually learning.  

Hence, considering video games a means of learning has provided me a few points to ponder:

Though video games are one medium that can bring about engagement, they are not always the best solution.  What other methods can we use to create truly engaging learning experiences?

A game is only valuable if it challenges players to think at or beyond their current stage of intellectual development.  It’s an important consideration in any educational method.

While the exchange of information and ideas is essential for collaborative learning (about Pokémon or academic subjects), it can result in experts teaching solutions that reinforce a tendency to subscribe to dualistic thinking.  How can we ensure that students begin thinking in stages of multiplicity and relativism?