Grading or not grading: that is the question!

There have been many critiques on the grade-based evaluations among the resources of this week. Alfie Kohn summarizes some negative side effects, and introduces few alternatives– such as replacing letter and number grades with narrative assessments or qualitative summaries of student progress offered in writing or as part of a conversation. Although these scenarios seems like “utopian fantasy” at first glance, I will be explaining a case study which proved to me it is possible to get the most out of students’ potentials without threatening them by grades!

I had a graduate level course last year, with around sixty other graduate fellows from several departments at Virginia Tech including statistics, civil engineering, industrial engineering, physics and computer science. Apparently, this was extremely challenging for the instructor to evaluate the students with these broad background in a fair manner. What he did, was to define quite easy homework assignments to involve everyone in the class and guarantee a big chunk of total grade. The final project, though, was open-end and huge. In groups of five, we were required to have many meetings to brainstorm, design algorithms, code and analyze our results. The professor created groups of people from different majors, and organized many “lighthouse sessions” to answer our questions at high level. More interestingly, he collaborated with a sponsor company which provided free food (!) during a lighthouse session, and also considered monetary gifts for the top three groups. Last but not least, the professor invited Virginia Tech faculties and the experts form the sponsor company during the lighthouse sessions to answer our questions. After a while, what happened was that students were not just working on the project to get a good grade. We were competing to do our bests, as we observed how well the professor did to provide everything for us during the semester. We were all so excited and determined. I remember that the last week we barely slept, and worked extremely hard. Our group was not among the top three, but we all were happy at the end because we truly did our bests during a productive friendly teamwork.

In a nutshell, I highlight the role of teachers in deleting or diluting the grade-based system and replace it with more effective alternatives.

Mindful vs. Mindless Learning: a Case Study

To start with, let us define the meaning of these two keywords: mindfulness and mindlessness. According to “Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer, “mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engages in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”. On the other hand,  when we are mindless we rely on decisions made in the past. As the result, “we are stuck in a single, rigid perspective and oblivious to alternative ways of knowing”.

When it comes to learning, mindful learning is interpreted as an interactive communication between the students and teachers, which engages the students actively thinking about the topic, answering questions, and most importantly asking questions. In contrast, mindless learning pictures teaching as a way to delivering information; therefore, the emphasis is more on what is taught rather than how it is taught. In other words, “mindful learning=active learning”, whereas “mindless learning=passive learning”.

Honestly, I have been a fan of mindless learning for a long while! In particular, when I volunteered to teach an undergraduate course to the computer science major students in summer 2017, I scheduled the semester very heavily to make sure that all the topics are covered and nothing is missed. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach at the first glance, you can imagine how my priorities were geared towards the delivery of information rather than teaching less but more effectively. Interestingly, students did not reflect any issues regarding this approach in their SPOT surveys! This perhaps  implies that this attitude has become a common teaching philosophy, so that students did not recognize it as a drawback.

This semester, I am privileged to develop a graduate course in math/computer science with my advisor. As opposed to me, he put his emphasis on the engagement of students through several lab sessions, projects and presentations. In the beginning, I frowned upon his proposed syllabus, which was very different than the standard ones– those basically cover the major sections of a textbook. Instead, he selected fewer topics but added more hands-on projects and Q&A sessions. Furthermore, his presentations are often made of a few slides containing methodologies and formulas followed by several slides on the real-world examples. Expectedly, students are more involved during the class and follow the topics enthusiastically.

One may argue that an undergraduate course is significantly different than a graduate course in terms of the of the opportunities that the instructor have to customize the syllabus. This is a vey legitimate argument. But, what I am willing to accentuate is the paradigm shift from the conventional easy way of passive teaching to the new and challenging way of active teaching. In my opinion, once this philosophy is set, the courseware to make it happen will flourish accordingly.


Video Games as Learning Tools

I met her when we were 18 years old, freshman computer science students full of dreams, questions and of course energy. But she was different.; when we were all working hard on our homework assignments and lacking sleep, shes was playing video games. When we were  all studying hard and getting prepared for the final exams, she was playing video games. When we were celebrating the end of semester, guess what, she was still playing video games!  Kamelia has been a close friend of mine for more than a decade. We spent undergraduate and Masters programs together. I remember the first day of college, when she clarified for all the classmates that ”I chose computer science because I want to become a game developer!”, and she was truly good at it. She worked as a game developer in a company for couple of years after graduation in computer science with a minor in psychology. Later, she started her PhD at the University of Luxembourg working on “Computer Games to Treat Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder”.

Following are what I learned from Kamelia completed with the crux of the posted resources on this topic:

  • Video games != waste of time. From educational point of view, you can potentially learn what you struggle to listen during a class or among the impractical homework assignments, in an entertaining game experience.
  • Video games == problem solving. All video games are sets of problems which the player should solve. Does not this sound like another form of learning?
  • Video games contain “Embedded Assessment”. A good game, in general,  is designed so that its players cannot go to the next level unless they qualify. This certainly removes the conventional test-and-grade system and replaces it with more encouraging play-and-win system.
  • Gaming based therapy programs help cognitive scientists to address learning issues  and ultimately improve mental health. This is particularly beneficial when it comes to children who are less willing to spend time in hospitals and clinics. You may find the related following TEDx talk interesting.