How to get students to focus on learning, not grades

Here at Johns Hopkins we have a significant number of undergraduates who are pre-med students majoring in a range of mostly STEM disciplines. For many, their undergraduate studies are a milestone to be marked on the way to a degree in medicine. Getting into medical school is the goal, and grades are seen as critical to their success in meeting that objective. Of course, it’s not a problem just for pre-meds, we see it across the board. Instructors understand that grades are important, but do not necessarily equate to future success. It’s the learning that counts. So how do we get students to focus on the learning not the grades?

Students watching demonstration of frog dissection.An editorial from Inside Higher Ed Too Smart to Fail? (August 16, 2016), by Joseph Holtgreive, Assistant Dean and Director of the Office of Personal Development at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, summarizes the challenges that face faculty and students. The “fear of failing to be perfect, ideally an effortless perfection, versus the joy of learning” creates situations where students opt for an easy grade as opposed to challenging themselves to learn. Holtgrieve has found this to be a problem particularly for students who did well academically in high school with little effort. Such students come to college focused on the “wrong outcome”—a high GPA—thinking “they’re keeping their eyes on the ball, they are actually just staring at the scoreboard.” While this affirms their measure of performance as long as their grades exceed their efforts, it can create a problem when their efforts exceed their grades.

Holtgreive points out that “[f]ocusing on the measurement of our performance reinforces what researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mind-set. If students believe that how they perform at one moment in time exposes the limits of their potential rather than serving merely as a snapshot of where they are in the process of growing their abilities, feelings of struggle and uncertainty become threatening rather than an opportunity to grow.” Focusing attention on grades may limit learning. On the other hand, when students can be convinced to “…set their intention to be genuinely curious and authentically excited by the challenge of finding connections between their current knowledge and new opportunities to understand, they experience the true joy of learning and all of the spoils that attend it.”

To find ways to help students “…reposition thinking about grades and learning,” Maryellen Weimer, PhD, offers some practical ideas in Five Ways to Get Students Thinking about Learning, Not Grades, from Faculty Focus, April 12, 2017.

  1. Position assignments as learning opportunities by discussing the “knowledge and skills” required rather than as something they are doing to “please the teacher.” Ask students to consider what they will learn in doing the work.
  2. Help students reflect on learning experiences throughout the course. Ask them to think about their professional ambitions and the skills and knowledge they will need. Have them make a list of those and use the list after every assignment or activity to write a short reflection on how the work they completed furthered their development.
  3. Create evolving assignments rather than one time tasks or activities. “One-time assignments don’t illustrate how learning is an evolving process and they don’t teach students how to do more work on something they have already done.” Instead, have students write a paper one step at a time (research a topic and create a bibliography, submit a thesis statement and an outline, write a first draft, revise, etc.), complete a multi-phase project, write a series of reflections and responses on a subject. Provide feedback but not grades for each phase.
  4. Encourage peer collaboration by structuring group learning and making sure that students are asking the right questions of each other.
  5. Change the conversation by talking about learning with students. Help students see how learning, not grades, will relate to their future professional goals.

Shifting the focus from grades to learning requires faculty to go against the tide of today’s prevailing academic culture. But making a few changes in how you think about teaching can go a long way to improving student perceptions of the importance of learning.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com

Lunch and Learn: Using Videos in Your Course

Logo for Lunch and Learn program showing the words Lunch and Learn in orange with a fork above and a pen below the lettering. Faculty Conversations on Teaching at the bottom.On Friday, April 21, the Center for Educational Resources (CER) hosted the fourth and final Lunch and Learn—Faculty Conversations on Teaching—for the 2016-1017 academic year. Jane Greco, Associate Teaching Professor Chemistry and Alison Papadakis, Associate Teaching Professor Psychological and Brain Sciences, presented on “Using Videos in Your Course.”

Papadakis presented first (see slides). She teaches the introduction to abnormal psychology course, where students learn about symptoms, causes, and treatment of common psychological disorders, and an upper level course that expands on this content. Although she has wrestled with using videos in that they might be seen as entertainment, she likes the fact that they have the advantage of grabbing and focusing student attention. Studies have shown that student attentiveness drops off after about 15 minutes of lecture time, so well-timed videos can provide a way to bring them back to task. Papadakis noted that carefully selected video content can help bring dry or complicated content to life, foster discussion, challenge students to apply concepts to practice, build empathy, and set the mood. In her upper level course, she uses videos showing psychotherapists in practice, pausing the videos at strategic points to ask students what they would do next in the particular situation.

Papadakis offered several examples of her use. The first, a clip from The Office, is used to help students understand the concept of classical conditioning. She explains the concept first, shows the video, then tests the students understanding of the concept using clickers. The class then discusses the complexities of applying the concept.

In a second example, Papadakis showed videos of an OCD patient and her treatment.Graphic images showing an illustration of a film strip, projector and reel. As these videos are from a textbook publisher’s DVD, they can’t be shared here. Such videos bring complex phenomena to life, provide insight and build empathy, help the instructor test understanding of concepts, and foster discussion. Papadakis had another example, showing the hallucinations common to schizophrenia, that she uses in a similar way—to help deepen student understanding and learning of a complex disorder.

A final example showed how she used a video of students rapping about the value of learning statistic analysis relevant to analyzing data in her discipline to set the mood, make learning fun, and decrease students anxiety.

Papadakis discussed issues to consider when deciding to use videos in the classroom. Start with your pedagogical goals. Make sure the video connects to these in a meaningful way. Provide context before viewing. If the video is long, interrupt and debrief at strategic points. Use short videos or clips, extracting the minimum that you need to get the point across. Pair video viewing with other teaching techniques to increase student reflection on the content (clickers, think-pair-share exercises, minute papers, discussion). Fair use may also be a consideration and a useful resource is the Columbia University Copyright Advisory Office’s Fair Use Checklist. She also suggested sources for videos such as YouTube, textbook publishers, the library’s video database subscriptions, news websites, PBS documentaries, professional organizations websites and Facebook feeds, and even Google video searches.

If you use presentation slides in your teaching, embedding the video clips is advised. If you share your slides with students, the file size will be very large with the videos embedded, so consider removing them and providing access to the clips by linking or other means. Be aware of accessibility issues and make sure the videos are closed captioned.

While Jane Greco (see slides) also uses videos in her teaching she has a different approach. She uses videos created by others to demonstrate chemical reactions caused by materials considered too dangerous for use in undergraduate labs, and to bring experts in the field, who wouldn’t normally be available to speak to her students, into the classroom via readily available taped interviews or talks. But she also has her students produce videos, both through grant-funded projects to provide course-related content, and as student assignments.

In speaking of producing video to convey content, Greco said that instructors should balance the advantages of making your own—they are specific to your equipment and your method of teaching a topic, versus using available videos, which often have better production quality and offer a less time-intensive way to approach the topic. Questions to ask are 1) How much time to you want to put into production quality? 2) Where/How will you share your video content? (YouTube channel, Course Management System, video streaming service) 3) Who can help you with the videos and is there funding available? Greco made use of the Technology Fellowship Grants offered by the Center for Educational Resources, and CER expertise and equipment.

The first CER-funded project produced animations to help students understand complex chemical concepts, such as this one explaining Column Chromatography.  YESYOUCHEM was another project funded by a Technology Fellow Grant. The videos produced by student fellows can be found on both the YESYOUCHEM website and a Johns Hopkins YouTube channel. They include main concept videos, supplemental problems, and extended interviews with Hopkins faculty in relevant fields. One lesson she learned from having students produce videos for course work was to be sure that they have the requisite experience, and that a platform for sharing and guidelines for production (branding, credits) be specified by the instructor. For YESYOUCHEM she chose students whose work she had seen in a student project.

Film still from a student-produced lab safety video showing the singing protagonist as he discusses proper lab clothing. He is wearing a white lab goad and safety googles.Greco assigns a creative group project to students in her lab. Although the project has a relatively small point value, it allows students to delve into a single topic and show their understanding outside of a testing environment, and it gives students an opportunity to use their other amazing creative talents. Videos are just one of many options the students can choose for the project, in the past there have been craft projects, dance performances, and other imaginative and inspired demonstrations of chemistry topics. She provides a list of suggested topics, but students can go off list with approval. Greco makes it clear that she expects chemistry content not just chemistry words. She also explains the limitations of group work. Different group members will contribute differently to the project, but there is just one grade assigned even if the group work was uneven. It is difficult to create an all-encompassing rubric for grading when the projects range widely in the platform chosen. She lets students know that grading might not be as quite as objective as for a test or exam. However, the assignment has been successful, students enjoy it and produce amazing projects. Here are links to two of the video projects produced by student groups in the course:

Students may choose to have their videos made public or kept private. Greco posts public videos for future classes to view.

In the discussion that followed, it was clear that faculty are eager to try the approaches that Papadakis and Greco presented—use of existing course-related content given context within a lecture or discussion, development of course-specific video content, and assigning students a project to produce videos.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: Pixabay.com, video still from I Just Had Lab https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=enFFIK2Mhzw