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Breaking down the wall between teaching and learning: opinion column

FOCUS ON LEARNING: In this column, award-winning teacher Clare Hasenkampf (pictured at far right) offers her thoughts on how to meet learning objectives in a course. (Photo by Ken Jones.)

by Clare Hasenkampf

Between teaching and learning there is sometimes a wall. I have experienced the wall.

Except for my job in a dress shop during high school, all my employment and most of my adult learning has been at universities. My teaching-learning self has evolved from undergraduate biology student to undergraduate biology TA to biology graduate student to graduate student biology TA to post-doctoral research fellow-guest lecturer to research scientist-contract instructor and now for the last 18 years, a professor in biological sciences. I have been a student, student mentor, student program supervisor, parent of a university student and, of late, sometimes an adviser for instructors. I have experience with the wall; so do most of us who are involved with university courses.

Far and away, the Number 1 source of frustration, from both the teaching and learning perspectives, is grades. Grades are often a wall that divides teacher and learner and keeps teaching from facilitating learning. This is surely ironic as we intend grades to reflect, not deflect, learning. With apologies to Pink Floyd, how do we as instructors avoid being “Another Brick in the Wall”?

Faculty are frustrated that often their biggest conversations with students are about grades. Students become disheartened when their grades are low. Idealistic faculty and idealistic students, how do they end up discussing marks and not ideas?

Most instructors like to think they are training the next generation of scholars and practitioners; students want to be that next generation of scholars and practitioners. Why are some of the most heated debates between teacher and learner not about scholarship and professional practice but rather about a mark or a grade distribution? Why is much of the precious time we have for interacting with our students lost to grades wrangling or complaints about the time required for an assignment, project or paper?

We often have a disconnect between learning and grades and this disconnect, this divide, between learning and grades is the problem. To close the divide and remove the wall, instructor and student must engage with each other in good faith to establish a learning pact. The focus of the pact should be a shared interest in, and commitment to, learning.

A faculty member who might feel trivialized and angry if a student asks for more marks would not likely take offence at a student’s request for more learning. A student who understands how an assignment promotes mastery of certain skills is not so likely to complain about the time it takes to complete the assignment. A focus on learning brings student and faculty together around their common goal.

I think there are two components to keeping the focus on learning.

First, learning should not be a competition and assessment of learning should not be either. By this I mean that we should set our criteria for success in the course (grades) based on our own carefully considered, established benchmarks. Then we can award grades based on the extent to which a student achieves the benchmarks, not on the extent of the student’s achievement relative to other students’ attainment of the benchmarks. The quest for good grades should be a quest for a high degree of learning and fellow students should be allies, not the competition. U of T has about 50,000 undergraduate students; the world has more than 7.5 billion people and nearly as many challenges. Our students are only competing against each other if we make it so.

The university’s leadership is right to worry about U of T’s relatively deflated grade distribution, especially if it is a symptom of an overly competitive focus. But as we think about our grade distribution we also need to think about learning. Whether we worry about grade inflation or deflation the focus should not be solely on the grade distribution. Without aligning grades with learning, how can we ever know what the right distribution of As and Bs, etc., is? Without integrating grades with learning, how can our sense of what is the right distribution be anything but subjective? We need to use our strength as expert learners and practitioners to think about what needs to be the essential learning in our courses. Then we can direct our energy to helping students do the learning and developing transparent assessment criteria that determine the extent to which students have met our learning expectations. Their grades will then be based on the degree to which they have met our criteria, independently of how well everyone else in the course met the criteria.

Yes, this takes practice and experience and that is why we individually and collectively want to look at how our class did as a whole (i.e., how the grades are distributed). But we should do this with a reflective approach. Did we make the learning goals clear? Did we align our assessment criteria with the learning goals? Did we make it clear how much work would be needed? Was this realistic? Did we motivate students to learn? Did students make a good faith effort?

How can we assess our students fairly, appropriately, transparently and in a way that keeps us all focused on learning? This question leads to the second major way to keep the focus on learning, and that is to think carefully about and communicate our learning objectives to our students.

When we create our courses we need to work backwards, deciding what it is we want our students to know and what we want them to be able to do with that knowledge. Then we try to think of how we are going to help students achieve these learning goals. What kinds of activities will there be to help them practice and stretch their intellects? These goals should not be a secret, or even just implied. The learning objectives for a course should be right up front and we should try to show students how the course’s activities and assignments are linked to achieving these goals.

The remaining critical piece of this learning triangle is that we must carefully create our assessments and reflect regularly on how well these assessments measure how well students achieve the stated learning goals of the course.

The wonderful thing about focusing on our learning objectives is that it forces us to think about what the students need to do to accomplish the learning and what we need to do to facilitate that learning and assess it. Thus student and instructors are partners with a common goal, not in opposition across a wall.

No system that is operated by humans is perfect and we will still sometimes find ourselves in discussions with students about grades. But I have found that if I keep the focus on the learning and how much learning the student has achieved and what the evidence of their achievement is, then grade discussions are greatly reduced in number and when they occur they inevitably have to centre around course content and course learning objectives. The student has to look at their learning self-reflectively and I have to look at how well I have assessed learning and as we do so, a few of the bricks start to tumble.

Clare Hasenkampf is a professor of biological sciences at the University of Toronto Scarborough. She is a 2008 winner of the President’s Teaching Award and has also won the University of Toronto Scarborough Faculty Teaching Award and the Ontario government's Leadership in Faculty Teaching Award. This column first appeared in the University of Toronto Bulletin.

© University of Toronto Scarborough