Category Archives: Teaching

Decolonizing Assessments

This post is a dynamic work-in-progress and will be updated. Please check back!

Traditional ways of thinking about teaching and learning can be visualized by imagining learning as some subset of what is taught. These overlapping circles of teaching and learning can be dynamic, changing size as learning expands or shrinks.

Traditional assessments then, can be thought of as pulling a thread (or 3 or 5,000) out of the tapestry of what is taught and framing this thread as a problem for students to solve in some sort of timed setting. If the student is lucky, this collection of threads representing what was taught also represents what they learned in these overlapping dynamic circles.

We know that traditional assessments work best for a certain subset of learners, which means they do not work well for many others. (The Racist Beginnings of Standardized Testing is a good place to start if you’re curious about this.)

But here’s an interesting thought. As teachers, most of us have experienced a time when a student learned something in class. And then a while later, maybe the next class, the student comes and says, “That thing I learned was so interesting! I investigated and found out X, Y, Z…” and we think to ourselves, now THAT is real learning. We can now imagine a shift with learning being inspired by teaching, but not encompassed by it.

And that real learning is not ours to own or control. It is fully the product of the student, but should be honoured and celebrated… and assessed as part of the learning arc. Our students bring loads of knowledge with them and learn loads more on the way. This knowledge is more than a passing tangent – it is essential contribution to our understanding of ourselves and our world – But how do we assess this learning that we don’t own?

In my recent courses, I’ve used an approach that loosely encompasses 3 -steps:

1) Tell me What you Learned! This open ended project format works best when there are fewer constraints and more creativity options for the student. This must allow students to share what they bring and what they learned along the way.

2) Justify a Mark. As learners, I truly trust that students are best able to assess their own learning. (I use ungrading – see Ungrading, edited by Susan Blum).

3) Select the Weighting for this Work. Most recently, I have incorporated Jayme Dyer’s Multiple Grading Schemes, with a lot of personal modifications (see below)

This past term, I developed a Tree Project. In a nutshell, students simply picked a tree and watched it throughout the term, tying in what they witnessed and investigated to our course material. This project could be done in teams or solo, and could count for 10% or 25%, if a student chose to do the project. (It was also an option to not do the project and to simply count exams instead.) For projects worth 25%, this project was framed as an alternate way to demonstrate understanding of course material and students were given this guidance:

**The default will be 10% of your course grade. Some learners learn best with project based assessments. If you would rather put substantially more effort into this project, you can choose to count this project for 25% of your grade, with justification. Your exams will count for less in this scenario, but will still be weighted equivalently.

For a project worth 25% of your course grade, you should demonstrate that you understand every major concept, or nearly every major concept. For example, your genetics should cover: ploidy and chromosome number, a demonstration of cell division with crossover, a Mendelian genetics problem (a hypothetical trait is fine), a pedigree

So what does this have to do with decolonization? For several years, I have leaned into a poster (Letendre and Bennetch, 2022) with this small but very impactful table in the upper corner:

At it’s core, decolonzing assessments centres the learner and proceeds with a sense of respect and negotiation.

And then the first project came in and it was beautiful, creative, learner centred, and captured everything I hoped for:

(The first 2 pages of this project, shared with permission)

What immediately stood out to me, along with the artistry, was the substantial incorporation of Indigenous knowledge that ran throughout the project. I did explicitly invite students to do this, so I was excited to see this in action and I immediately went to the student’s self-assessment. The following quotes are exerts from the very thoughtful reflection (shared with permission):

“Working on this project has not only allowed me to relate what we are learning in lecture to real-world practices, but it has also encouraged me to reflect on my place in the science community as an indigenous student.”

and later…

For this comic, I made it a goal of mine to research and include the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ language name and the English assigned name. I used these terms throughout the comic to encourage the memorization and casual use of this name. I then reached out to my grandmother, Chief — of the — Nation, as to gain her thoughts and knowledge on how I can incorporate cultural significance into my project.”

I felt overwhelmed and I phoned a friend, Elisa Baniassad (who leads our Centre for Teaching and Learning Technology). In her perfect Elisa way, she eloquently summarized what I could not articulate in my head:

“You did a thing to remove humiliation and subjugation from your syllabus. And voila — an Indigenous student is able to actually feel seen, and do their work with pride and confidence. You can see that in the product. It is not an apologetic product, where the student is hesitant or fearful. You can feel the sense of fundamental belonging in the entire artefact”

And that was it. By offering unrestricted significant options for students to demonstrate their learning with pride, we  can systematically remove some of the punishment protocols that are embedded in our processes. At the same time, we are able to centre ourselves as learners of the knowledge systems that our students bring to us.

“We have inherited and benefitted from our current systems of harm”

Will Valley, West Coast Teaching Excellence Award recipient, 2024

I am confident that we can do better by acknowledging the harm we continue to do, and working with our learners towards a practice of humility with our assessment work.

Reference:

Letendre, Angela and Bennetch, Rebekah J. (2022). “‘A new-old way of doing assessment: Indigenous ways of knowing and Ungrading in a pandemic” Poster at the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. https://www.stlhe.ca/conferences/2022-stlhe-annual-conference/

 

 

More thoughts on assessment bias

My daughter phoned on her way to work this morning. She’s training in Speech Language Pathology in California. Today she is evaluating an African American 4th grader who has been diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. She tells me that these evaluations require extra care because according to state law, black students cannot be ability-assessed (cognitive) in any quantitative way. This dates back to the old days of IQ tests – this document by T. Wyatt has a good history. These students cannot be tested with scores, and they cannot be compared to any sort of “norm”. Her assessments, then, require care to articulate the holistic ability and needs of this particular student.

Why has no-one stepped back to ask specifically who these sorts of tests are biased towards? And then deduced all the magnitude of people that they are biased against?

We are at an institution that welcomes students from all over the world, bringing with them their unique customs, foods, ways of knowing, and historical ways of assessments. There are very likely students in your classes right now who have never seen the type of question you are asking or the type of assessments you are administering. There are likely some who have never had time as a significant variable in their assessments. There are some coming from cultures where student input is included in assessments (ie/ Indigenous cultures where assessments are co-created and negotiated.)

I have attempted to mitigate some of these effects this year in my large section of first year biology. One thing that has mattered is allowing students to self-schedule their exams within a 3-4 day window. A second thing is tossing out points. Instead, we are binning answers into 4 buckets representing conceptual understanding. Third, and perhaps most critical, is implementation of a student-selected weighting scheme. In their term project, students demonstrate the things we learn in lecture applied to a self-selected organism (ie/ a Western Red Cedar tree). I have framed this project as an opportunity to demonstrate learning outside of an exam. Students can then decide to weight this project as 0%, 10%, or 25% of their course mark. Students who are comfortable with North American UBC style exams can choose to weight this project low or not even do it, and there is an opportunity for students to choose otherwise. Also importantly, students will self-assess these projects with detailed justification tied into their learning outcomes.

The term is ongoing, but many students have reported less exam stress with this combination of interventions. I hope that we can continue to think deeply about our assessment biases and broad scale implementation of big changes with our learners.

I

 

New term, new grading system!

Welcome to a new semester and a new grading system! Each term, I become more disgruntled with the way we are assessing our students. (This post is particular to first year students, and less particular to biology.)

Our first year students enter this university admitted to a faculty (Science) but not a program/major (Biology). Most students are excited to start their UBC studies and come with earnest enthusiasm. They launch into classes where grades are largely exam dependent, with the hopes of entering into specific programs. The first problem is that entry into most programs is grade dependent and competitive. This is a problem because we (collectively) know that exams are biased. (I would strongly argue that this is true for ALL exams. More here: https://www.nea.org/nea-today/all-news-articles/racist-beginnings-standardized-testing) (Side argument: Bias comes in a lot of flavors. Think about an exam question you have created. The simple format of the question you are imagining will hold bias in favour of students who have experience with that type of question, particularly under any sort of timed circumstances).

Thus exams become *very high stakes*. And with that comes an entire culture of education as a police state. This was bad before the advent of Artificial Intelligence, with surveillance, assumptions of cheating, etc – but has since reached peak levels with broad scale mistrust of students.

By term 2, the enthusiasm tanks, and I understand why.

I am overhauling my first year biology section next term. To start, there is a significant term project. With this project, I am implementing a modified version of Jayme Dyer’s Multiple Grading Schemes. As a default, this project will determine 10% of the student’s course mark. The project is self-assessed, which means students will need to justify their assigned mark. (I have implemented this for years in third year – for a quick guide, see here.) However, with the understanding that not all students perform best on timed exams, and prefer to showcase their learning in alternative formats, students will be able to choose to count this term project as 25% of their course mark. (Doing so will require substantially more work, which the student can justify.)

The remainder of the course mark will be two midterms and one final exam. A portion of each will be collaborative, and the remainder will be administered at the Computer Based Testing Facility. This has several advantages, the biggest of which is that each student can sign up for a time to take the exam that works best for them.

Each exam question will be marked on a scale of conceptual understanding as follows (taken from the course syllabus):

Amazing = you fully understand the concept(s) being examined AND can clearly and logically articulate the concept(s) and solution(s). WELL DONE! (Note: minor errors of spelling, math, etc do not count)

Wow = you fully understand the major concept(s) but may have some minor errors in your knowledge, logic, or explanation(s). GREAT JOB!

Great = you have some concepts that need further explanation or have demonstrated some conceptual misunderstanding, but you are on the right track – GOOD WORK!

Good = you understand some of the concept(s) being examined, but have not articulated this well, or we can’t follow your logic, or you have some larger conceptual misunderstandings – KEEP GOING!

(N/A = the question was left blank, is off topic, or does not address what is being asked. This will not receive feedback.)

*Students will not see points or grades, and we will not keep points or grades.* (This is the most important part of the whole assessment system). As usual, they will receive a lot of feedback. (For those interested in how this will magically become a grade, at the end of the term, we will translate each question as “Amazing” as 100%, “Wow” as 87.5%, “Great” as 75%, and “Good” as 62.5% and weight each similarly to other sections of the course.) The point is not to do away with grades (although that would be nice), but to refocus on learning instead of points and marks.

I hope that the new year brings us peace and joy in our teaching and learning efforts.

Piaget and Cooperative Exams

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) argued that when a learner encounters a new thing that their current explanatory schemes cannot explain, the existing schemes will change – and often times it’s changed incorrectly. (Loosely paraphrased) In a nutshell, this is why I champion group learning AND cooperative exams.

I took an EdX course on Deep Learning and Transformative Pedagogy. The big thing I brought away from that course is “fear learning”. When we learn something when stressed or fearful, it’s very effective – but almost completely immalleable. When students are exposed to a new exam question, they will use what they know and do their best to interpret the question. When I see groups attempt the 2nd stage of a 2-stage exam, they come together with preconceived notions of what that question is asking and it’s difficult to overcome that. The stuck is hard to unstick during a high stakes event.

In 2017, I began giving cooperative assessments as part of our large introductory biology course. These were very successful but relied on a large learning theatre that I no longer have access to. I’m forging ahead regardless as I return to first year biology next term – I will need to re-think how to do these exams in a standard lecture theatre, but I’m full of hope!

 

Complete Chaos (aka Student CURE Projects)

My students launch their CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience) projects today!! I teach a 3rd year lab course and I think my CURE projects are special because I strategically on-purpose lead students through the most challenging part of doing science  (which is not project design).

In my experience as a scientist and as a teacher, the hardest and also best part of doing science is coming up with a decent question. We are all operating under various constraints of budget, time, expertise – but really, within those constraints – we an ask anything we like. The world is our oyster! My goal is to pass this joy (and challenge) on to my students.

We spend the first 5 weeks of the course learning some basic tools (field and bench). From there, my students are welcome to do whatever they want for term projects as long as it meets our course criteria (it’s safe and it’s feasible). That’s it. Although *technically* a BIOL course, we aren’t constrained. Most of my students are Combined Majors, so we happily support investigations into other sciences. Fun projects we have launching right now this minute as I type:

1. Is non-GMO rice really non-GMO? (This group is using primers specific for GMO rice to test a bunch of types)

2. How does hydrogen peroxide affect Tetrahymena growth? (This group wanted to look at H2O2 and then an antioxidant protective agent, but needed some baseline info on the oxidant first, so that’s what they’re giving the world.)

3. Which types of natural preservatives are most effective at preventing microbial growth in foods? (Testing lemon, garlic, and salt baked into a standard bread recipe)

4. Do fast-food burgers contain other types of meat? (Using primers for 7 meat species)

Live action shot from this group posted by request

5. What are these unknown mushrooms and how are they related? (using sequencing and phylogeny building)

6. If we synchronize cell division, can we time the stages of the cell cycle? (This group is using Tetrahymena)

It’s full on supervisory chaos these couple of weeks, but the excitement and learning of creating their own unconstrained research is worth it. Wish us luck!!

Fall is also for SUCCESS!

I have given several talks on ungrading and my approach this year. At every one, there is someone who asks about the course average.

I say 2 things.

1. My first semester of fully ungrading this course, the final course average was 1% lower than the previous traditionally graded term. (This is statistically insignificant, and also demonstrates that students are able to accurately assess themselves.)

2. The average in my course is close to 80%, and was so before ungrading.

Point #2 makes some people squirm, and I’m here for it. I ask – Why is that a problem? The common responses are: assuming that a course average needs to be a C, assuming that the course is too easy, assuming that grade inflation is a nebulous enemy we need to wage war against OR ELSE the whole academy is under dire threat of not being taken seriously.

To the first point, I set up my course so that every student has an opportunity to succeed well. If most of them are not succeeding well, that means I have done something wrong in the architecture of my course. To the second point, I have good data suggesting that students perceive that they work harder in this ungraded course than they do in other more prescribed labs. It does not escape my notice that this “hard work” stems a lot from making braver choices, which they are more likely to do since the advent of ungrading. Choosing to do a project with a novel approach or unknown liklihood of success automatically commits students to the extra mental labor of thinking through possible problems. To the final point, I suggest that this is exactly why we don’t need grades. (Many medical colleges do not grade, and neither do many smaller colleges. Nor does our K-9 public school system in BC). Grades are a recent advent that simply reflects the need to process a lot of students with minimal effort. (For a brief history of grades, I recommend Teaching More by Grading Less (or Differently) by Schniske and Tanner).

Ultimately I am OK with most of my students doing extremely well in my course. They have earned their high marks and I am increasingly convinced that they do a better job at articulating what theses marks mean than I do.

 

Fall is for Flailing at Something

Hi! I’m back after a break and ready to talk about teaching! Today I gave the Biology Departmental Seminar at Simon Fraser University, which was super fun and I have all kinds of conversations swirling in my head.

One of the most fun conversations was around trying a new thing in September. In the before times, I taught a variety of courses each year, which kept me humble and on my toes. However… one of the consequences of the pandemic years was that our students missed out on lab courses. As a consequence, I have taught the same lab course each term since 2020. It’s easy to settle in as an expert, which leads to the inevitable – “Didn’t I already teach you this??” – when new students ask the same old questions.

Last year I decided to commit to trying Something New in September. Last year I enrolled in Roller Pole (which is exactly what it sounds like) and this year I have taken up aerial silks. I am twice the age of the other students, and it’s physically scary. This experience reminds me weekly of what it feels like to be new at something – unsure, out of my comfort zone, and hoping for a supportive environment.

 

As we were sitting around the table this evening after the seminar, a wonderful colleague from SFU chimed in that she’s taken up painting for the same reason. She said – “I suck at painting” – which is exactly the point! We all suck at a thing the first time we try it – students included. I highly recommend joining students in trying Something New in the fall – it’s fun and humbling. In the wise words of Rani Ban, I support “Fresh Starts and Do-over All Year Long”.

My case against Clickers

I will admit that I’m generally suspicious of new technology … but am willing to give most things a try. When clickers came on the scene many years ago, I did try them for a term or two – but pretty quickly lost enthusiasm. Over the years, I’ve watched a lot of other teachers use clickers well, and I end up asking myself, “Why do I loathe these so much?” … While walking the dog this morning (which is where I do good pondering), I came up with at least a partial answer.

Celeste and her dog in matching black and white outfits.

(Bonus for our matching outfits)

I like posing complex problems in lectures, and I love the subsequent controlled chaos of student discussion/arguing/learning that ensues. Sometimes I just walk out of the class and get coffee while this is happening. I’m fine leaving, because this learning progress is not about me – and I think that’s where clickers rub me the wrong way. Taking that learning and asking students to display an answer so that … so I can be impressed by it?…  so they can competitively compare their learning to their peers?… None of this bodes well with my cooperative approach to learning. I put work in each term to encourage and teach students to become their own compass for their own learning. A piece of this is to articulate what they want to learn and why. A piece of this should not be “to impress Celeste” or “to out-compete everyone else”.

When problem solving happens in my classroom, we often take a long time dissecting solution(s) and different approaches, so avoiding clickers does not leave students stranded with no learning resolution. Instead, I think it keeps the focus on them as individuals with their own unique learning process.

A 1/2-Baked Plan to Ungrade a Very Large 1st Year Course

I have 2 full years of completely ungrading my 3rd year lab course, so I’ll start by saying I do feel like I can pull this off. However, I also do not underestimate the (fun and amazing) challenge of 1st year, nor do I forget the daunting un-doing of confidence that happens every October when our 1st year students go through their first round of midterms. Those of us in the biz of 1st year dread October because we know what’s coming. It is this, primarily, that I hope to usurp with ungrading in first year.

(If you are not from UBC, here’s some context: In the Faculty of Science, our first year students come in with high school averages well over 90%. Our incoming average is typically 95-97%. So every student sitting in a first year seat in our faculty is an excellent student, has been rewarded for whatever strategies they know work for them, and often define themselves this way. When midterms come back, the average is no longer 90% – not even close. Some first year courses see averages in the 70s, some as low as the 50s, depending on the year and the individual course. You can imagine how this might be traumatizing).

My plan comes in 2 parts, drawing from experience I have gained, and from advice from my amazing alternative grading colleagues. I also always try to uncomplicate things – so I hope it is simple. (There is nothing I hate worse than a spreadsheet with too many columns of trivial stuff.)

Part 1: Formative Fridays. (I need a better name). On 10 (of 13) Fridays, students will answer 1 problem based on the curriculum of that week. (This may happen on Mondays, from the curriculum of the previous week, but you get the idea). These problems will not be graded with points, but will instead by tiered (following Dr. Lindsay Masland’s tiered feedback protocol  ). A student could earn a ✅ emoji, signifying that the student has mastered that concept and can move along. (Mastered does not mean perfect. Minor errors like arithmetic or minor vocabulary are ok). They could also earn a ❤️ emoji, which means that they are on their way, but have not mastered this concept – there are some errors that need addressing. If a student is nowhere near mastering a concept, they will earn a ☕️, emoji. There will be 3 weeks of designated Formative Fridays where students get no new problem, but can instead re-try a previous week (different problem, same concept) to improve their emoji. From here, this portion will be contractual – ie/ “If you earn a total of 8 or more ✅, you will receive an A for this portion of the course”. This portion will be about 75% of their mark.

Part 2: This will combine personalized learning, self-assessment, and a creativity project. At the start of the term, each student will choose 1 individual tree to study all term. Each week they will blog (or post on the discussion board?) relating their tree to the curriculum of the week following a broad prompt. For example, when we study food webs, the prompt could be “How does your tree fit into a food web of the immediate biological community?“. From here, a student can be pointy or broad in their answer. They could focus in on one interaction and trace how much energy is going into a specific population of herbivores, or they could broadly estimate if their tree is a net carbon sink. The term project will be to combine all of their tree posts into a creativity project – some sort of story of their tree. The “final exam” would be a more directed version of the self-assessment that I use in the third year course. (Based on the cummulative project, students will be lead through each week and asked to justify their engagement with and mastery of the particular curricular items.) This will be about 25% of their mark. (Note: If a student does not have easy regular access to a tree, I do have a backup accessibility plan.)

As always – I appreciate any hot tips, suggestions, and feedback! Thank you for reading.