Ungrading With Standards-Based Grading | A Chat With Staci Johnson
TAPP Radio Episode 106
Episode | Quick Take
Dr. Staci Johnson joins host Kevin Patton for a chat about how she uses ungrading with standards-based grading in her anatomy and physiology course. What is ungrading? Can one ease into it? Does it work? Plus, a related Book Club recommendation!
- 00:00 | Introduction
- 00:48 | Ungrading
- 03:05 | Sponsored by AAA
- 03:41 | Dr. Staci Johnson
- 24:06 | Sponsored by HAPI
- 24:55 | More Ungrading
- 45:12 | Sponsored by HAPS
- 45:52 | Long Winter’s Nap
- 48:32 | Book Club: Ungrading
- 51:43 | Staying Connected
Episode | Listen Now
Episode | Show Notes
The more their attention is directed to how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be with what they’re doing. (Susan D. Blum)
Recent episodes of this podcast have called into question the common practices in grading, which leads us to a discussion of the movement called ungrading in this episode. In later segments, we chat with Dr. Staci Johnson of Southern Wesleyan University, who is experimenting with ungrading in her courses.
- Staci Johnson’s website stacinjohnson.com
- Grading for Proficiency | Book Club: The One World School House | TAPP 103
- twitter.com/theAPprofessor Please follow @theAPprofessor to join the conversation!
- Ungrading: an FAQ (from Jesse Stommel, a veteran of ungrading) AandP.info/ungrading-faq-1fcf92
- Grades are dehumanising, but ‘ungrading’ is no simple solution (also from Jesse Stommel) AandP.info/grades-dehumanising-e6a0dc
Sponsored by AAA
A searchable transcript for this episode, as well as the captioned audiogram of this episode, are sponsored by the American Association for Anatomy (AAA) at anatomy.org.
Don’t forget—HAPS members get a deep discount on AAA membership!
Dr. Staci Johnson
The first of a two-part conversation, Staci Johnson explains what she means by ungrading with standards-based grading. Then she begins her description of ways she’s been implementing these strategies in her courses.
- Ungrading (episode 350 of Teaching in Higher Ed podcast with guest Susan D. Blum, editor of Ungrading book; mentioned in this episode) AandP.info/susan-blum-dcf0a1
- Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead) (book by Susan D. Blum mentioned in this episode) https://geni.us/GY9Ds6
- Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (book by Linda B. Nilson mentioned in this episode) geni.us/QBoWd9W
- HAPS Learning Outcomes (from home page, navigate to Resources > Learning Outcomes) theAPprofessor.org/haps
Sponsored by HAPI Online Graduate Program
The Master of Science in Human Anatomy & Physiology Instruction—the MS-HAPI—is a graduate program for A&P teachers, especially for those who already have a graduate/professional degree. A combination of science courses (enough to qualify you to teach at the college level) and courses in contemporary instructional practice, this program helps you be your best in both on-campus and remote teaching. Kevin Patton is a faculty member in this program at Northeast College of Health Sciences. Check it out!
Second of our two-part conversation with Staci Johnson about ungrading with standards-based grading in the anatomy and physiology course. In this segment we learn more about how things are working in Staci’s courses.
Sponsored by HAPS
The Human Anatomy & Physiology Society (HAPS) is a sponsor of this podcast. You can help appreciate their support by clicking the link below and checking out the many resources and benefits found there. Watch for virtual town hall meetings and upcoming regional meetings!
Long Winter’s Nap
This is the last episode of 2021. The next episode is planned for release in the third week of January 2022. That episode will be a look back at the last year, including checking out how Kevin’s predictions from last year’s January episode worked out. There will be new predictions for the coming year, plus some goals for new habits and new things to try. Why not call in your predictions or plans for the upcoming year? The hotline is open!
86 | What a Year! | Pandemic Teaching & More | A Reflection (last year’s January episode)
Our new recommendation for The A&P Professor Book Club for Anatomy and Physiology Faculty is:
- Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning (and What to Do Instead)
- Edited by Susan D. Blum
- Book club entry: TAPP Book Club #42
- Get your digital credential for reading this book: TAPP Credential B042
Need help accessing resources locked behind a paywall?
Check out this advice from Episode 32 to get what you need!
Episode | Transcript
The A&P Professor podcast (TAPP radio) episodes are made for listening, not reading. This transcript is provided for your convenience, but hey, it’s just not possible to capture the emphasis and dramatic delivery of the audio version. Or the cool theme music. Or laughs and snorts. And because it’s generated by a combo of machine and human transcription, it may not be exactly right. So I strongly recommend listening by clicking the audio player provided.
This searchable transcript is supported by the
American Association for Anatomy.
I'm a member—maybe you should be one, too!
Kevin Patton (00:00):
The author and educator Susan T. Blum once said this regarding students, “The more their attention is directed to how well they’re doing, the less engage gauge they tend to be with what they’re doing.”
Welcome to the A&P Professor, a few minutes to focus on teaching Human Anatomy & Physiology with a veteran educator and teaching mentor, your host, Kevin Patton.
Kevin Patton (00:31):
In this episode, we chat with Dr. Staci Johnson about ungrading with standards-based grading and a new book club selection.
Kevin Patton (00:48):
Recently, I’ve been talking about some of my offbeat methods of testing and grading in my courses. For example, my students can retake their online tests to achieve a good score. Now that’s not a new strategy. It’s just not a common strategy. And I’ve learned that strategy crosses over into a movement that recently has been called ungrading. So I began exploring what folks in the ungrading movement are doing. And most of the strategies they’re using aren’t really new, but they are uncommon. What’s new about the movement is that, well, it’s a movement, that is it’s a trend.
Kevin Patton (01:35):
And that’s something that we ought to be aware of…
because even if we don’t jump into that movement, at least not right away, there must be something that we can learn from it that can improve our courses. So anyway, when I tweeted about a recent episode, that is Episode 103, about grading for proficiency, an A&P professor at Southern Wesleyan University, Dr. Staci Johnson replied that she was finding success using ungrading techniques in her A&P course. So no surprise, I asked her to join me for a chat on this podcast, so that we can all learn from her experience. And we’re going to get to that chat after our first sponsor break.
Kevin Patton (02:21):
But before we do that, I just want to mention that if you’re on Twitter, you may want to follow us @theAPprofessor. So that’s the Twitter handle @theAPprofessor if you want to keep up with the conversations around the topics that come up in our various episodes including this one. In fact, after Staci and I recorded this chat, she mentioned on Twitter that she’ll be sharing some additional things that she’s planning on doing for the next term. You don’t want to miss that. So do follow this podcast on Twitter @theAPprofessor and join in on those conversations.
Sponsored by AAA
Kevin Patton (03:05):
A searchable transcript and a caption audiogram of this episode are funded by AAA, the American Association for Anatomy. As I’ve said before, one of my favorite resources from AAA is their journal for teaching and learning anatomy and physiology. It’s called anatomical sciences education and every issue has something that I can use in my course or gets me thinking about what I can do in my course. Check it out at anatomy.org.
Dr. Staci Johnson
Kevin Patton (03:42):
In the intro, I mentioned that we’re going to talk about ungrading with standards-based grading. And I’m really curious about this. So I invited Dr. Staci Johnson who has been playing around with this for a couple of semesters and looking into this, what her experience has been and to explain what she’s doing. And that’s going to give all of us a better idea of what’s going on with this whole idea of ungrading in that. So Staci, I really appreciate you coming on our podcast and in sharing your experience with us.
Staci Johnson (04:21):
Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Kevin Patton (04:24):
All right. Well, my first question is the one that’s at least it’s obvious to me and that is, with the jargon in teaching and learning, a lot of times we’re unfamiliar with what exactly it means. And like the term flipping a classroom, I could ask 10 people what they mean by flipping a classroom and I get 10 different answers. They’ll probably all have something in common but what do you mean by this phrase that you use, ungrading with standards-based grading?
Staci Johnson (04:58):
So I use that term because it is the best way to describe what I do have not found it actually written down exactly this way. So I was first introduced to ungrading when the book Ungrading by Susan Blum was released recently and some of the different educational researchers that I follow on Twitter had mentioned the book and so I picked it up to read. So as I read that book, I was really intrigued by the idea, a lot of the why of ungrading really resonated with me and I wanted to try it, but was also concerned because anatomy and physiology in particular that I teach, I didn’t feel like I could fully implement it, because a lot of the examples of ungrading which is you give students a menu of tasks that they can complete or you leave it very open ended for them to decide how best they can demonstrate learning of the objectives of the course and then they assign themselves a grade at the end of the semester.
Staci Johnson (06:09):
And that’s pretty much how ungrading in most of the examples in the book are described. And I just didn’t feel comfortable with that. So many of my students are planning to go on to professional or graduate schools and they need this material. And they need more of a, hate to say an objective, everything has some subjectivity to it, but they needed more guidance and structure I felt than just for them to be able to assign their own grade. So I started looking around and then was introduced to the idea of standards-based grading and read Linda Nilson’s book on that topic.
Staci Johnson (06:48):
And so standards-based grading is different in the sense that the instructor is assigning a grade, but in a lot of cases, students are given a menu almost of assessments that they can do or tasks that they can complete, also to show mastery of learning objectives. And their final grade is based on either the number of those that they’ve completed or the number of learning objectives they’ve showed mastery of in some way. So I call it a combination because I’ve retained from ungrading a lot of the reflective pieces where students are setting their own goals, talking about what grade they want to achieve in the class and they’re having to reflect on that at a couple of points during the semester.
Staci Johnson (07:37):
I’ve also retained ungrading idea, this idea that as long as you show mastery of that learning objective, by the end of the course, you can satisfy it. So even if I give you an identification on the skeleton, on October 31st. If you can show me mastery of identifying the bones and the bone parts by November 30th, you can still receive full credit, if you will, that you’ve satisfied that learning objective of the course. So the standards based is that we have a menu, if you will, of, “Here are learning objectives. Here are the ways that you can show mastery of those learning objectives.” And the ungrading portion is the reflection as well as multiple attempts to satisfy each learning objective.
Kevin Patton (08:33):
So there’s a lot in there.
Staci Johnson (08:35):
A lot. Yeah, so, you know.
Kevin Patton (08:40):
I’m always thinking about, “Okay, so how would I apply something like that to my course?” So that stimulates a few questions for me. One is I think I understand the idea that, and I think all of us, no matter what strategies we use in our course, I think what we’re looking at is for students to meet those certain levels of competency in the learning objectives or learning outcomes by the time they finished the course. That’s what we want. That’s what our students want. Even if they don’t know that’s what they want. That ultimately is what they want and that’s what’s going to serve them as they go on to those other programs that you’re talking about.
Kevin Patton (09:22):
And so, if we start on that level playing field, so one of the things you’re doing is offering them some choices. So if I’m your student and I come into A&P class, and I don’t want to picking an example because it’s probably different for different examples, but you mentioned identifying bones. So if I would need to do skeleton identification, then do I have several options to demonstrate that or are there some things that really there’s only one option to do it?
Staci Johnson (10:01):
So in my course, identification falls under the first two learning objectives which are really content and identification based. So at this point and as I’ve said this is a first semester, I’ve done this grading scheme in anatomy and physiology, so it is all subject to change based on how it works for students.
Kevin Patton (10:24):
Staci Johnson (10:26):
Right now, the only way that you can show me mastery of identification of the skeleton and the bone markings is to take a test. I am playing around with the idea of, “Okay, if we get to the third or the fourth attempt and we just have a roadblock, I’m trying to think of maybe I asked the student, “Okay, how well do you feel like you do know the bones?” We just finished that identification test and so we’ve done histology and we’ve done identification on the integumentary system which has a lot fewer parts than the skeletal system. So I’ve had a couple of students in the testing portion that I give them that have said, “Oh, I feel like I know this better than it showed on this test.”
Staci Johnson (11:17):
And in one case, recently what happened was, they messed up on their Scantron sheet and so I needed to actually grade on their question sheet, but I am already considering how I could do that, but let’s talk about one that I do have options. So I have other learning objectives that … So my overall course learning objectives mirror that of the main five HAPS, learning objectives for A&P courses. And so I’m just actually going to read learning objective three and then I’ll talk to you, or actually, let’s talk about four. We’ll do learning objective four. So learning objective four for my class is apply knowledge of anatomy and physiology to real world situations.
Staci Johnson (12:09):
So for that learning objective, the students do have a choice. They need to produce from a product or they take a current event and then they basically write the textbook section about … So they basically take a USA Today article and up it to the level that they might read about it in a textbook. But they don’t have to do that as a paper. I’ve told them that they could make a video. They could make a slide presentation. They could make an infographic. Any of those ways that they could show me that they took the information in the news article and they basically demonstrated the level of knowledge that would be required in the book.
Staci Johnson (12:52):
So as an example, a student found an article about sun damage to the skin and so she went through giving an introduction to the different structures of the skin, the different layers of the skin. And then she related what the article was talking about in summary of the different possible treatments, but then she was connecting them specifically to layers within the integumentary system.
Kevin Patton (13:20):
Staci Johnson (13:21):
The other nice thing was we had this great feedback mechanism where she turned it in the first time and there were a few areas that were weak and I was able to say to her, “I really need more information about this.” And she was able to go back and revise it and her final product is really excellent. And she even admitted at the end when she submitted it the last time, she said, “Your feedback was really helpful. I learned so much more about the integumentary system having to do it this way.” So that gives you the ungrading part of that. There’s multiple attempts, but what I found, even with the testing components with the retest options is that it’s opening conversations that I’ve never had with students before. Normally they do an assessment, they look at their grade and they just move on.
Staci Johnson (14:13):
Now they’re coming to my office. They’re looking through the test items. We’re having really deep conversations about, “Talk to me about this question. I don’t understand why this is the right answer.” We’re identifying misconceptions that wouldn’t otherwise be evident in their written or otherwise the work like I just talked about this student did do a writing assignment, where having this feedback of, “Okay, maybe you have a misconception. Maybe this is incorrect. Maybe you haven’t gone deep enough,” and I’m pushing them to the depth and the types of knowledge that they need to have to show me that they can actually apply A&P concepts into real world situations. So does that help? Does that give you an example for instance?
Kevin Patton (15:01):
Yeah, it gives me a much better idea of in a practical sense how this is being implemented and so on. And it just warms my heart to hear you talked about those conversations with students because I’ve tried a few different things that have had a similar result in getting more students to ask more questions about what they’re doing and I just love that. That’s the part of teaching that is really central to what I love about teaching because you can really see the light bulbs go on sometimes. And even if they don’t go on right away, at least you can see students trying to get that light bulb on and maybe it’s going to take more work on their part and later again on our part, but that’s really the beautiful thing about teaching and learning, I think that relationship.
Kevin Patton (15:55):
And there’s so much data out there as well as anecdotal experience by teachers over generations that tell us that that’s developing a relationship and those relationships really do enhance learning, that it’s not all just black and white statistics. And as you mentioned, you’re stepping beyond that.
Staci Johnson (16:15):
Right. I will say the other thing that has really struck me is so I teach at a small institution. I have 31 students in my A&P course. I’ll have basically the same 31 students next semester and some of these students I taught in their freshman seminar course last year. We’re going to have a long history by the time they graduate because they will probably have taken two or three courses with me. And so I do think that is huge that the relationship part really plays a real role in how students respond, but the researcher in me thinks … What’s really interesting and actually I’m catching up on some old podcast episodes, and one of the ones that I recently listened to, we talked about how student engagement was so important.
Staci Johnson (17:09):
And what struck me about that is, in my research where I actually followed 11 students who were in an A&P sequence, two different ANP sequences, but I interviewed them three different times and I got weekly responses from them throughout the entire two-semester sequence, so I had a lot of data. And two of the main themes that came out of that in what they did to learn A&P was they would either absorb information or engage with the information and then a lot of times you would see them absorbing it, so then they could engage with it. And in the podcast, the whole idea was student engagement was so important. And what I see in this way of doing things is that it’s forcing students to engage with the material in a way that they wouldn’t in a more traditional grading system.
Staci Johnson (18:04):
Now, that doesn’t mean that a traditional grading system can’t lead to student engagement, but there are more opportunities for me to coach and guide students in how to engage with the material through feedback and through those conversations. And so I do feel like the students that, I just call them top students, but the students who have the highest GPAs, the students who came into A&P or not worried about how they were going to perform, they’re doing fine. I think there are some students that just about whatever happens to them in the classroom, they’re going to perform fine, but we know that there are some students who need a lot more guidance and coaching to be able to perform well in more challenging courses.
Staci Johnson (18:53):
And what I’m seeing now is those students when I’ve had traditional grading at this point in the semester, I hate to say they’ve almost checked out because they’ve taken enough tests that they feel like, “My grade is set. I can’t make an A at this point. I cannot have the grade I want. I maybe can’t even pass the class at this point.” And so why would they be motivated? Part of motivation is what’s their goal here. I’m not seeing that with any of my students right now. We’re really deep into the semester and many of them have a lot of learning objectives still to satisfy and have assessments to complete to earn the grade that they have said in their first reflection essay that that’s what they would like to earn, but none of them have checked out there.
Staci Johnson (19:46):
They’re still showing up to class. They’re still showing up in my office asking questions and I think it’s because they see that there’s a path for them to still meet their goal and it hasn’t become a discouragement yet. It is overwhelming because it’s A&P. There’s a lot of material, but they haven’t quit on the class for lack of a better term.
Kevin Patton (20:14):
That’s awesome. Now, the practical side of me, a couple of questions pop up. I keep saying that, the “practical side,”
Staci Johnson (20:23):
Kevin Patton (20:23):
But it’s like, “Okay, now, that sounds great. Now, what opportunities do I have to apply that to my course?” and one of the first things that I think of is, “How do I set that up? How is that going to look for the students and for me?” and so you mentioned a couple times in there, this is one of my questions is, you mentioned a couple times, that they might have a test on some topic. So they will get a score on that test, is that correct?
Staci Johnson (20:52):
So in my course, they must score an 85% on the test for it to be considered complete. So yes and it’s 85%, because in my mind, if you can show B+ mastery of every single learning objective and the main topics of the course, you have mastered the material of the course. And so I want an A in my class to correlate with, “You have satisfied all the learning objectives and you have mastered the material of this course.” So it does away with the whole, “I made 110 on all these things and then I failed this test, but my average is still really high.” We have mastery of all the material, but at the same time, I thought, as I was setting that 85%, I was like, “I don’t think that they need to have 95s on everything for me to feel like that they have mastered the material,” so that’s why I settled on the B+ range number.
Staci Johnson (21:54):
So I actually have a table that has the different assignments in the course and how many of each they need to earn a particular grade. An A-, they need to show mastery or have completes on a fewer assignments a B+ and it edges down. In some of my classes, I make some assignments required. I’m like, “These are the most important objectives to pass the class, you must do these particular objectives. But for this course … I’m going to have to refer to because I haven’t looked at the table in a little bit, but for this course, for instance, “Just to pass the course, you don’t have to have an outside meeting with me to talk about your reflective essays. You have to write the reflective essays, but you don’t have to come have a meeting with me. You would need to complete fewer of the different objectives to pass the class than to have a B+ or to have an A.”
Staci Johnson (22:58):
So that’s how I translate those things into a letter grade because my institution does require me to give a letter grade. And if you’ve read Susan Blum’s book, there are some of the chapters where there’s some discussion of why are we even doing letter grades at all. Well, as pretty much even the book talks about well, we’re in a box that is put on aspire institution. So that’s not something we can just do away with. And truly for a course like A&P, we can’t do away with that either because those next steps for the students are going to ask them what grade they got on their applications, so they need a grade. But I feel better about this grade because if I say that the student has earned an A or an A-, I can really confidently say that they’ve learned the material and the course and that they don’t have weak spots. So that was overall my goal, was for the grade to better correlate with what students had learned in the course.
Kevin Patton (23:59):
Right. We’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be right back.
Sponsored by HAPI
Kevin Patton (24:06):
The free distribution of this podcast is sponsored by the Master of Science in Human Anatomy and Physiology Instruction, the HAPI degree. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on the faculty of this program at Northeastern College of Health Sciences from the beginning, just over 10 years ago. And yeah, I’m still excited about all the evidence-based teaching strategies that our learners apply directly to all the major topics in the typical anatomy and physiology course. Check out this online graduate program at northeastcollege.edu/hapi, that’s H-A-P-I or click the link in the show notes or episode page.
Kevin Patton (24:55):
I’ve been talking with Dr. Staci Johnson about her experience. With ungrading and standards-based grading and she had just mentioned some tings that she had learned from Susan Blum’s book about ungrading. I’m reading Susan Blum’s book right now because I became intrigued with this whole idea. I was listening to a podcast of Bonni Stachowiak, has an excellent podcast called Teaching in Higher Education or Teaching in Higher Ed is the name of it. And I also have a hard time keeping up with my podcasts and so I haven’t heard all the episodes, but I just happen to drop in on one where she was interviewing Susan Blum, talking about …
Kevin Patton (25:41):
I was actually focusing on a different part of the conversation. And if I recall correctly, the episode wasn’t even primarily about ungrading. I think it might have been like that is an example of something else. I don’t remember, but I heard that she’s got a book called Ungrading What is this ungrading thing? And so I was picturing that grades are not involved in any way, shape or form when we think of as traditional grades. You’re talking about 85 or 90 or whatever it is as well as A, B, C or D. And the more I learned about grading, the more I realized that was a mistake on my part that that’s not ungrading means. It’s really just a different approach to grading and that it can include those things sometimes because we’re in a box of we have to do it that way, but I guess there are other ways to do that.
Kevin Patton (26:35):
And the more I read the book that you mentioned, the more questions I have, but also the more I realized there’s lots of different ways to do this. I think it’s like a lot of teaching strategies. We can get some ideas from it and take the basic idea of it and apply it to what works best in our course and tweak it over time. And you mentioned already tweaking at the beginning, but probably that’ll go on for years, decades maybe.
Staci Johnson (27:05):
I’ve made the comment to colleagues before that when you stop having improvements for tweaks to your class, it’s like a house. When you’ve decided that your house needs nothing else done to it, you maybe don’t love it very much anymore. So I feel that way about my courses and I think that that’s appropriate too because I mentioned as an education researcher, I think that students are not stable over time. The different experiences that people have as they get to us as college students, certainly our students that are sitting in our classrooms right now are very different than the ones that were there five years ago because these students are living through a pandemic that has greatly altered their educational processes over the past couple of years and that has changed how they approached material and it has changed how they deal with school and education as a whole.
Staci Johnson (28:09):
So I think it’s really appropriate for us to be constantly looking at and revising how we teach our courses, one, because the content is constantly evolving and changing as we learn more, but also because of just the differences in the students. Students are not the same and no two groups of students are identical either. So you have all of those components at work which requires, in my mind, diligence in trying to meet them where they are, make their particular needs. I will say the other thing that is interesting and as we are getting deep into the semester, some things have stayed the same in terms of a normal A&P course and some things are different.
Staci Johnson (29:01):
In my research and in my previous experience teaching A&P, a sense of being overwhelmed is a pretty common sense of students in an A&P course, and unfortunately, this grading scheme has not done away with students being overwhelmed. Students are still overwhelmed unfortunately. I’m not happy about that. I would really like to figure out how to deal with the overwhelming portion, but at the same time I can tell students who were overwhelmed, I pull out our book, which is gigantic and say, “There’s a lot of material here.” It’s sadly a little bit of the nature of the discipline I think that is causing them to feel overwhelmed because they can see how much there is to that.
Staci Johnson (29:54):
But at the same time, I see less frustration on their part which has also been a theme that I’ve seen in various contexts because they can still, again, have that hope of, “Yes, I’m overwhelmed and this is going to require a lot of work on my part, but I still am in control of my own destiny. I’m in control of my grade. And so that has had some positive impacts on student affect in the course.
Kevin Patton (30:32):
Yeah, I would think it would, just myself as a learner, but I think a lot of us would see that in a situation like that, if they feel that they have some level of control over things, then it’s still as overwhelming, it’s still as difficult, but because they have that level of control, it looks more doable and there’s probably less of the bad kind of stress that could happen when they’re totally lacking control and they could crash and burn in any moment.
Kevin Patton (31:04):
And that’s something that I’m hearing in the way you do it is that there aren’t very many, maybe no opportunities for them to crash and burn in the way that they would do in traditional grading that there’s obviously up to a certain point, but there seems to be a lot of leeway in terms of, “Okay, I messed that up. Let me attack that again. Let me try again and do that.” Do you find that your workload has increased a lot in terms of having to deal with like retakes and those sessions you were talking about where you talked with the student?
Staci Johnson (31:42):
I would say a bit. So the way that I do right now in constructing tests is I don’t know that I always want to have to do it this way, but again on the practical side, I’m using the publishers test bank. And so here’s what I do, I download the publishers test bank for all the chapters that are included on a test and then I use a random number generator to pull out 10 or 15 items out of the test bank. And I usually do 15 numbers because there are some of the items on the test bank because I always have my module learning objectives open as well. There are some of those questions that don’t touch any of those objectives, so I don’t put that question on the test. So I have those … So it doesn’t take a long time to generate a test. It still takes time, but it doesn’t take a long time to generate a test.
Kevin Patton (32:46):
Staci Johnson (32:47):
The same thing for identification, I will have a list of, “Here are the structures that you’re responsible to know and they’re on a numbered list.” Again I say, “I want 30 items,” I generate 30 random numbers and those are the ones that get pulled for the test. Grading, depending on the test. So most of my nonidentification tests are multiple choice, so we use Scantrons and that’s pretty easy to grade. I find what is taking more time is the meetings with the students, but I have decided I’m normally … My time is normally filled up anyway, but instead of doing many of the tasks that I don’t like, which may be grading, it’s not necessarily that I hate grading, but I would rather interact with the students.
Staci Johnson (33:36):
So I feel like I’ve switched my time from doing some of those other kinds of tasks that my time is spent more interacting with students and talking with them and having one-on-one interactions and teaching. I consider them mini-tutoring or teaching sessions with those students as they come into my office. I would say that there is a somewhat of an increased workload, but I’ve traded tasks, is probably the easy way to describe it.
Kevin Patton (34:09):
That makes a lot of sense. Before I did some things in my class that triggered more of those interactions. I found that when I had office hours for students that I didn’t get very many students coming in. And so I would find other things to do. I would fill it in with things not even having to do at that course and start doing other stuff. And I found that when I started to get those students coming in and asking those questions and having those conversations, now I didn’t have to find those other things. So yeah, it took more time for that course, but I was already not using all the time I should have been dedicating to that course. So I think it came out in the wash, but-
Staci Johnson (34:51):
I think also for me this is the first time I’ve taught this course. So this is a brand new prep.
Kevin Patton (34:57):
Staci Johnson (34:58):
Kevin Patton (35:01):
Oh, man, you’re just taking off. What can I say?
Staci Johnson (35:02):
So when I think about what it will be like next year when I repeat this course, I’ll have a lot of materials prepared. I’ll even have some of the tests written. I may make some changes to those tests, but my time will open up more, because as we all know, a new prep is a lot of work no matter what you’re doing.
Kevin Patton (35:23):
Staci Johnson (35:28):
I will say this. I mentioned I think earlier that I’ve used this grading approach in a different course that I teach. I teach a bioethics course and I implemented that last spring and I had been teaching that course for a while. It was not an increase in work. Actually it just spread out my work the way I did it before. Instead of having tests that I was covered up for a week and I could do nothing else but grade those tests, I had a little bit of grading all the time which was a lot more manageable. So I expect maybe some similarities to that. I get to repeat this course when I’m not doing it as a new prep, but I still think that there’s going to be a shift in what my tasks that I’m assigning to the course are, that it will be more focused on interacting with students than it is interacting with paper or something that is less connected to the students.
Kevin Patton (36:29):
Sure, now we’re recording this conversation in the afternoon and this morning, I opened up Twitter and I saw a comment from a student about this whole ungrading thing. Would you care to share that with us?
Staci Johnson (36:46):
So yes, yesterday during a meeting with a student, they had a question for me about whether this grading scheme was actually preparing them for professional or graduate school. This was a new way of doing things for them. And so it was during one of our mid one of the meetings that are required for the course. My first response was, “Well, I not only teach this. I’m a researcher of how students learn in A&P. So I really would not choose to do something in a way that I thought would be detrimental to you, but at the same time, I really want to go dig a little bit more into the literature to see if anyone’s actually answered that question. I don’t think in any of the books I’ve read, it specifically addresses that specific area.
Staci Johnson (37:41):
But since that post came out, someone mentioned, commented on my post that some medical schools have a similar type of grading scheme and they said, “Please check me on this, but their recollection was that some medical schools will say almost grade on a pass fail scale and it’s a 75 that you must make to move forward. That’s a pretty similar way of what I’m doing here, but my first reaction when the student told me that was I actually think the students are being more prepared from a content standpoint and the reason I say that is again my previous interactions with students who were enrolled in one or two semester anatomy and physiology courses is that I mean, most classes have some level of … We definitely have … There are things to memorize like, “Where is this muscle? Where is the bone?”
Staci Johnson (38:41):
And my experience has been that students cram that into their brain. They take the test. They get the grade that they get and they move on and they think that they don’t need to think about that anymore. And that doesn’t describe all students by any stretch of the imagination, but I think the majority of students have that approach. Even students headed to medical school because in their mind, “Okay, I put it in my head. It will come back when I need it. I don’t need to hang on to it. I don’t need to be able to use it,” but what I’m seeing is that fewer students make the grade they want on that first attempt of the test. So fewer of them have a complete and they want to get a complete. They know that it’s an option for them.
Staci Johnson (39:25):
And so instead of cramming all of the bones and the bone markings in their brain for October 31st, they’re still studying it the first week of November because they need to retake that test. So it’s actually a form of space retrieval practice that I feel and I’ve seen that event. So our very first identification test was histology. And some students needed to two attempts, a couple of needed three attempts to complete that successfully. Those students that needed more than one attempt as we’re moving through the material when we get back to talking about tissue types within organs, I can see their eyes light up like, “Oh, yeah.” They are remembering those things better because they didn’t just speed through it, take one test and move on.
Staci Johnson (40:16):
Now, there is more to professional and graduate schools than just the content side of things. I’ve used team based learning before and students have come back and said, “Oh, we’re using team-based learning in my medical school and so I’m more prepared for that.” But at the same time, we cannot prepare students for every aspect of professional school in every class. So from my perspective in anatomy and physiology, I’m preparing you from a content standpoint, so when you get to this next step in materials moving faster, you have a basis to learn that. Yes, there are other skills that we could perhaps cover like testing type and those kinds of things, but that’s just going to have to be left to another course because I am not capable of covering it all in one single course.
Kevin Patton (41:09):
Well, I think that’s a trap that we all fall into as A&P instructors because we’re providing basic science that is going to be built upon in later courses, but even when they get out of those courses and get into their practicum or clinical experience and even after they graduate and they’re beginning their career, they’re still learning. They’re still building on that. So I think that I have to pull myself back and just get over myself that I don’t have to teach them every single thing about the human body. Because number one, it’s impossible for me to do that. It’s impossible for them to learn that in my course no matter what I do.
Kevin Patton (41:50):
And so why put that on myself? Why put that on them? Move on, but that reaction with that student or the question I should say that the student had and that’s a fair question because students are worried about what’s going to happen at their next thing and they don’t know necessarily how learning works the way those of us who studied learning and pay attention to learning strategies do. So they maybe need some reassurance because, “This is different than what I’m used to, so maybe it’s bad. Maybe I need to worry about that. Do I need to worry about that?” So maybe that’s partly where that question was coming from.
Kevin Patton (42:31):
But getting back to that same episode and this is why I really wanted to listen to that episode of Teaching in Higher Ed where Bonni Stachowiak talking to Susan Blum and that is that somewhere in there they talked about this phenomenon. And again, I don’t remember whether it had to do with ungrading specifically or just off the mainstream-type teaching and learning strategies. And they brought up this idea that they often hear feedback from science professors that, “Oh, wait a minute. We have these board exams that students are ultimately going to have to take. They have these other hard courses or hard programs or maybe even an entrance exam into or some kind of hoop they have to jump through to get into some next part of their studies. And so if we do this, then they’re not going to be prepared for that.”
Kevin Patton (43:28):
And they both talked about the fact that they’ve wrestled with that question before. And for both of them, at least this is the way I remembered it, it keeps coming back to this idea that what they need later on is to know the stuff they needed to know at that point. It’s not that they need to have learned it in a certain way or been graded in a certain way. It’s that they need to be prepared. So if what we’re doing is preparing them, then that question is answered. It’s like, “Okay.”
Staci Johnson (44:03):
Kevin Patton (44:05):
And like you said, a lot of times the pass/fail courses they get later on are 75% or better and you’re doing 85% or better, I think that probably should be part of the answer too, but anyway, well, golly, I could talk about this for a week. And maybe some time you can come back and answer some more questions about this. We’re probably going to get some questions. You, the listener, please, call me on the podcast hotline, email me, hit me up on Twitter, whatever and ask some questions and we’ll come back and revisit this at a later date. But in the meantime, Dr. Staci Johnson, I appreciate you so much for spending the time with us and telling us what your experience has been and getting us thinking outside the Box. Even though we’re partly in a box, there’s a lot of wiggle room inside that box as you’ve just shown us, so thank you once again.
Staci Johnson (45:03):
Yeah, thanks so much for having me on and I appreciate the opportunity to have this conversation.
Sponsored by HAPS
Kevin Patton (45:12):
Marketing support for this podcast is provided by HAPs, the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society, which has been promoting excellence in the teaching of Human Anatomy & Physiology for over three decades. I was just looking over the list of upcoming online townhall meetings, and wow, there’s a lot of interesting stuff coming up. You need to check out the HAPS calendar. It’s available online at theAPprofessor.org/haps. That’s H-A-P-S.
Long Winter’s Nap
Kevin Patton (45:52):
Before we get to our book club segment, I want to give you a heads up on something and that is this episode that you’re listening to right now will be the last episode of 2021. The plan is for a short break and then release the next episode in its regular slot on the third Tuesday of January.
Kevin Patton (46:16):
That’s going to give me enough time to get in a long winter’s nap, which I really need and get all refreshed for another exciting explosive year of wacky episodes. The third week of January is also the usual time that we do our annual look back at the previous year on this podcast and look ahead at the next year on this podcast, not just on the podcast, but also the wider world of teaching A&P. And if you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you may remember that in Episode 86 released last January I made some predictions for 2021. So in the upcoming mid-January episode, I’ll revisit those predictions and we’ll see how I did and I’ll be making some new predictions, but not the one that I just scratched off my list. And that one was that there’s going to be yet another SARS-CoV-2 variant that rocks the boat, but that’s happening right now.
Kevin Patton (47:36):
I should have predicted that a little bit earlier. Well, I did last year, but this year, I was going to say, “Yeah, there’s going to be more of that,” and sure enough, it’s happening right now before I could even make that prediction. So you know what? I think you probably have some prediction for how things are going to go in 2022 in terms of things that affect us as A&P teachers. Why not share your prediction? Just call it into the podcast hotline or email an audio file or a written message. And you know what? I’m also going to be listing a few habits that I want to develop or reinforce for the New Year and some new things to try out. So now would be a good time to share your plans for new habits or new things to try as well.
Kevin Patton (48:32):
Dr. Staci Johnson just mentioned Susan D. Blum’s book called Ungrading. So you guessed it, I’m adding it to The A&P Professor Book Club. And well, I thought I’d stop by the local bookshop to make sure they have plenty of copies on the shelf because I know a lot of you are going to want to read it. The full title of the book is Ungrading: Why Rating Students Undermines Learning And What To Do Instead. And yeah, it’s by Susan D. Blum, but she’s the editor. There’s actually 15 educators who have written different contributions, different parts of the book and Susan Blum put it all together. There’s even a foreword by Alfie Kohn, so what is that? 17 people at least put their heart and soul into their experiences and there’s a diversity of experiences because there’s a diversity of people contributing here. They put down their experiences with going gradeless.
Kevin Patton (49:42):
And what they did is based on research that was done in a rigorous manner, and yes, it was replicated. And this is a groundbreaking book that pulls all of that together to really get us thinking about, deeply thinking about how to go gradeless or at least some variation of that. That is getting away from sorting students or judging students but really getting to the heart of learning. And in this book and I’m not all the way finished with it, as I mentioned in the episode, but as I dive into it, I’m seeing that these authors are being pretty honest about what they like and what they don’t like and what works well and what doesn’t work so well.
Kevin Patton (50:32):
So it’s not a sales pitch at all. It’s just an explanation. And I shouldn’t say just an explanation because it’s a good explanation. And one of the things I really appreciate about it is that diversity of voices in here because any one person is going to have their version of ungrading and then the next person is going to have their version of ungrading. And the more of those stories we hear, the better an idea that forms in our own head and the more I think we can realize how we can apply some of those principles maybe to our own course or maybe we’re going to see why they don’t work. But I strongly suggest if you have any interest at all in stepping outside that box of traditional grading, you might want to check out this book. So just go to theAPprofessor.org/bookclub to get the link and also to get your digital credential if you’ve already read the book or just click the link in the show notes or episode page.
Kevin Patton (51:43):
I know you want to talk with your colleagues about ungrading. The easiest way to share this podcast with a peer to get that conversation about ungrading started and also earn yourself a bit of cash is to go to theAPprofessor.org/refer to get a personalized share link that will get your friend all set up with this episode. If you don’t see notes and links to resources in your podcast player, go to the show notes at the episode page at theAPprofessor.org/106 where you can explore any ideas mentioned in this podcast. And while you’re there, you can claim your digital credential for listening to this episode.
Kevin Patton (52:35):
And don’t forget that this is the last episode of the year with a new episode and a new season dropping the third week of January. And while I’m taking my long winter’s nap, you might want to take a moment to share your predictions or your commitment to developing or reinforcing a helpful habit for the New Year. And you can do that at the podcast hotline. That’s 1-833-LIONDEN or 1-833-546-6336 or send a recording or written message to podcast@theAPprofessor.org. And you’re always invited to join my private A&P teaching community way off the social platforms at theAPprofessor.org/community. I’ll see you down the road
The A&P professor is hosted by Dr. Kevin Patton, an award-winning professor and textbook author in Human Anatomy & Physiology.
Kevin Patton (53:53):
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