Solve Problems with Pedagogy, Not Rules

Lately, I’ve noticed some hardline email policies on syllabi. Students send emails to instructors at all times of day or night or weekends. It can feel endless and overwhelming and, depending on the nature of the questions, disheartening. To help address the issue, some teachers set a strict policy to not answer emails on the weekend. 

What is the instructor’s obligation to this open-ended inbox? We should set limits and define expectations about emails, so that we are not expected to answer emails all hours of the day and night. This is a job, with other responsibilities, and with limited compensation. Most people (students included) don’t realize just how busy we are with long lists of professional must-dos that reach well beyond teaching. And, we already struggle to acknowledge, let alone embrace, our right to a life and some downtime.  

I am writing a book called Teaching with Time in Mind, and passionately endorse the idea that we can teach well and efficiently. But I don’t think that those sorts of hardline rules are the best path. Case in point: hardline no-weekend email rules.

We ask students to work outside of class, and they often do that work on the weekend. Most meaningful out-of-class assignments are about more than following marching orders as directed on a document. Out-of-class assignments are asking students to make sense of things, to figure out what to do next, how to get unstuck, and how to make progress. In the midst of this work, students often confront questions that can’t be answered by “reading the syllabus.” If we can help them to make those out-of-class learning experiences meaningful, if we can help them to solve problems in the midst of process, why not do so? Isn’t that exactly what we want them to do?

Students–which is to say, people–will encounter questions, uncertainty, and problems in the midst of any meaningful inquiry. It’s our job to help them, and part of helping them is to teach them how to handle those roadblocks. To do so, we need to teach them strategies to solve problems and seek support while at the same time keep them from deluging our inbox and overwhelming us.

To start, we cannot assume that every weekend question is the product of whining, laziness, or disrespect for our time. Rather, I think that students are just not very adept at asking questions, and TOO focused on rules rather than thinking. If so, will this get solved with more rules, or by better teaching? 

There are better ways to deal with the problem—if you redefine the problem. It all comes down to TEACHING students how to ask _good_ questions to mentors at appropriate times with appropriate expectations. The bottom line for me is that I see the act of asking questions as an opportunity for learning: learning about how to engage with mentors; about how to figure out what you need and ask for it; about when and when not to rely on others to solve problems. So if you want fewer emails on the weekend, focus on helping students about the art of getting help. 

There are essential three issues here.

  1. Unrealistic expectations about when and how quickly I respond to email.

Yes, it’s helpful to communicate your turnaround times. But why proscribe contact so sharply that you can’t help them learn while they are doing the things you asked them to do in the first place? Establish expectations about when you can reply. But don’t focus too much effort–or pin too much hope–on hardline rules. Instead, redirect your effort into helping students to use their resources (i.e., you)  in a realistic and responsible way.

  1. “Dumb” questions.

Do you get questions that are already clearly answered on your documents? This isn’t solved by not answering email on the weekend. It’s about taking the time to help students to understand that it’s their responsibility to review the material that you’ve given them. Clearly, this is something that they need to learn. Leave a little time at the end of classes to have students write down one question about their out-of-class assignments and answer them. Oh, and require them to come to class—have an attendance policy. They will see you every week that way, and if you leave time for questions, they will ask them when they actually see you.

And, if you’re getting a lot of dumb questions, maybe, just maybe, there’s an issue with your assignments, and how you communicate about them with your students. 

  1. Offloading responsibility by writing an email.

The answer is simple: I try not to play hot potato. If students toss responsibility to me, I metaphorically put my hands by my side and let the potato drop on the ground. I tell them this outright, in a nice and funny way. They know exactly what I’m talking about. Help them stop playing that game by calling attention to the fact that it is a game. But do it in a nice way, that lets everyone feel good about clearing that air and finding a better way.

The trouble with instituting a new rule is that it just turns into another game. Stop playing games. 

More specifically, I have two explicit policies that have essentially solved the “offloading” problem:

– I don’t typically write an email longer than the one that I was sent. This is remarkably effective.

– In emails, students must ask me a specific question that defines the problem that they are trying to solve, and they must tell me what they did to try to answer that question on their own. It can’t be, “what should I write about?” or “when is the paper due?” Because I teach and encourage this technique, students learn to write me very interesting questions, and in the process of doing so, they are forced to figure out what they need in order to move forward. In fact, students often tell me in class that they were writing me an email, but they didn’t send it, because in the process they solved their own problem, because they had to figure out what their problem was on their own. 

I have at least 80 students most semesters (and often more), and I don’t have a rampant email problem. Most students treat me and my time with respect and they treat my assignments in the spirit that they are given: as opportunities to think, learn, and express that learning to others. To create this environment and relationships, rules are my weakest tools.

Thanks to Ashley Shew Heflin for feedback about this post. 

The More You Talk about Grades, the More You Talk about Grades

Entry Two in Maxims for Teachers

Students should feel like they can talk with their teachers about their grades. If I’ve made a mistake or if I was unclear or unfair, I need to know so that I can make it right. If students don’t understand the standards or how to improve, I can help to clarify, encourage, and instruct. What starts as a conversation about grades can, ideally, become an opportunity to understand a student, to improve communication, and to shift the focus to ideas and learning.

Unfortunately, though, the bulk of conversations about grades are negotiations, complaints, and debates. They’re frustrating and disheartening, because we’ve already expended a lot of effort making things clear, and because the conservations focus myopically on the grades themselves, not what those grades represent. Most of us have compassion for the fact that students know that grades matter, and that they urgently want to get good ones. But it also seems that the more important grades have become, the less effective they are as a mode of communication that promotes learning and growth.

So the grade-talk drones on: an email during finals week from the student with a “C” announcing that “I really need to get an A in your class.” The office hour with the student complaining about the way that you scored the rubric, but who has never actually read the rubric, and never will, and will ignore you even if you try to read it aloud to him. The protests that “I worked very hard on this” or that “everyone in the other section got at least a 90.” A 30- MINUTE conversation about whether a discussion post deserved a ✓ or ✓-.

In an attempt to curtail these grievances, many teachers resolve to make their instructions, standards, and rules as clear as possible. They explain criteria and they finely delineate levels of achievement. They design reliable and valid rubrics for every type of activity. They construct detailed gradebooks on their course management systems that reflect their elaborate 1000-point system, so that students know just how many points have been earned at any given moment in the semester. They explain, at length, the difference between a ✓+, a ✓, and a ✓-, and calculate how each is worth .3% of the final grade.

Then, at the start of the next semester, these same teachers revise their instructions, standards, and rules to address how students misunderstood or ignored their previous instructions, standards, and rules.

Alas, it’s a trap, because THE MORE YOU TALK ABOUT GRADES, THE MORE YOU TALK ABOUT GRADES. You will not stop students from talking about grades by talking at greater length about grades. By making your grading scheme more complicated. By giving more grades. By allowing grade-talk and grade-standards and grade-rules to take up ever more air and real estate in your teaching materials and course sites and class meetings.

I’m not here to ask you to relinquish your standards. Of course, if we give grades, we ought to make an effort to be fair and clear, and to explain and apply meaningful norms. And we shouldn’t give up trying to redirect trivial conversations to meaningful ones.

At the same time, we ought to acknowledge that grades have become a rather debased form of communication. In our educational system and culture, grades are markers of identity and types of currency. They matter, but often not in the ways that we want them to.

Our problems with grades and grading are symptoms of deeper problems with teaching and learning. Why do we do so much grading instead of reading and responding? Are we even allowed to have high standards and evaluate work honestly? Are grades the best way to promote and judge the learning that we think matters most?

When we get caught in the cycle of refining and clarifying grading systems ad infinitum, we avoid dealing with the deeper problems that perpetuate all the chatter and cant about letters and numbers.

And we also amplify the noise.




Teaching is Imperfectible

Entry One in Maxims for Teachers.

At the end of every semester, most college teachers I know immediately launch into planning what they will do next semester to fix this semester’s problems and letdowns. There are the “I’m Putting My Foot Down” solutions: strict no-cell-phone policies, reading quizzes, and required attendance, all sure to eradicate irritating and counterproductive behaviors. Others vow to “Let Me Make This Absolutely Clear”—next time, they will explain, delineate, and elaborate upon every policy, assignment, and procedure to counter misunderstandings, both willful and accidental. Teachers who declare “Never Again” (again and again) engage in ritual creative destruction, burning their course designs to the ground to rebuild the better beautiful thing, often by “Adopting the New Tool.” Whatever the resolution, we set out to fix vexing problems, believing that if we set up the correct rules, explain what we mean and what we want in sufficient detail, deploy the latest pedagogical practice, or anticipate and curtail students’ wily tricks, self-destructive behaviors, and indifference, that “Next Time Will Be Different.”

When I hear these perennial conversations, I’m reminded that teaching is a fundamentally hopeful activity. Education is based on the belief that people can learn, which means that people can change. Students can finish a class knowing more than when they started, they can have new skills and outlooks, they might even know what they still don’t know, and leave with new questions that they are excited to explore. Recent pedagogical advances reinforce this optimism with science-based knowledge, technological innovations, and evidence-based practices. We know What the Best College Teachers Do and How Learning Works and how to Make It Stick. We practice just-in-time instruction, and scaffold a student’s learning, and craft learning objectives that are SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Most of all, we are expected to “align” learning: to close the loop between what we want students to learn, how we will help them learn it, and to determine to what extent that learning actually happened.

With all these tools and expectations at our disposal, however, I’ve noticed a troublesome trend: the expectation that great teaching doesn’t just optimize learning experiences, but perfects them. These days, many of the best college teachers seem to believe that any difficulties that arise are instructional problems that can ultimately be designed away. This attitude goes well beyond the usual blend of optimism, skill, and fortitude that good teachers bring to their work, semester after semester. Contemporary pedagogy, for all its considerable advantages, has also created the impression that design solutions exist to every conceivable problem, especially if that problem is ensuring that problems do not arise.

It’s a good time to remember that teaching is imperfectible. If this seems like yet another rebuke against perfectionism or a reminder that learning is messy, that’s okay, if it helps. You may find it a relief. (I do.) You might let go of the compulsion to fine-tune every policy to adapt to every fresh or intractable transgression—students will still sometimes arrive late, or multitask, or fail to read. You might even notice that the class you’re trying to fix yet again has actually been good, if not downright excellent. I hope that the idea makes it clear that you are likely a fine teacher doing good work under hard conditions with the best possible tools.

But I also think we need to let go of the idea that teaching is perfectible because it has pernicious and unethical implications. Guided by motivational theories, we may create learning experiences that students are willing to participate in. But great assignments are not incantations that enchant the most recalcitrant student to optimal learning, and motivation can too easily skid into coercion. With the most up-to-date digital tools, students may create presentations that dazzle parents, administrators and the public. But slick products don’t necessarily translate into lasting learning well after the product is complete. SMART goals might make the ends of education clear and achievable, if observable and measurable ends are the only ones that matter.

How we define problems in our teaching reveals fundamental beliefs about education. Over the course of this project, I’ll often explore what’s at stake in problem definition and problem solution. But for now, I want to invite you to consider just what—and who—you are trying to fix, and whether those problems are really problems at all, or just what arises when real people show up to think and learn. What might teaching and learning look if it were neither necessary nor desirable to “perfect” your teaching?

Creative Commons License