What’s a Good Faith Effort?

In some types of assignments, it’s the process that’s more important than the product. Journals and online discussion exchanges, even homework problems, are good examples. Students are thinking and learning as they work to sort through ideas, apply content, or figure out how to solve problems. So what the student needs to get credit for is not the product, but the process. And the way most faculty make that determination is by deciding whether the student has made a good faith effort.

Teaching Professor Blog Those of us who’ve taught for a while have confronted multiple examples of student work, and we know what effort looks like. It’s an essay or set of discussion board comments in which the student engages with the material—pondering the meaning, suggesting examples, referring to the text or class notes, and raising his or her own questions. Usually the writing isn’t beautiful, but it shows evidence of a mind at work. It’s Peter Elbow’s now classic idea of using writing to learn. With problems, there are attempts; some, maybe all, don’t pan out, but they show the student pursuing different avenues in search of a solution.

I don’t have any problem with the validity of our expertise. Elliot Eisner has written at length about educational connoisseurship—the wisdom and insight that grows out of reflective practice. Much as a sommelier can tell you a lot about a wine based on how it smells and tastes, so too have teachers acquired the ability to look at student work and assess whether the process involved much effort.

Students are fine with effort counting. Most would like it to count more, as evidenced by those plaintive moans, “I worked so hard on that paper. It’s got to be worth more than a C+.” The problem is their (and maybe our) failure to understand that the paper’s grade is an evaluation of the product, not the process. Students (and maybe their teachers) need a clearer understanding of when it’s a product grade and when it’s a process grade.

If it’s a process assessment, I wonder if students understand what kind of effort qualifies as a good faith one. One of my colleagues recently chatted about homework and how, when students are doing it for credit, their focus is almost entirely on getting it right. They don’t see any value in effort that doesn’t result in right answers. One of the reasons I wanted to post on this topic was that my thinking about the grading process has been fuzzy, and I knew that the effort required to get a post together would help clarify my thinking. Students, on the other hand, see learning as good when it happens easily, without any struggle.

Are there activities we could use to clarify the product-process distinction for students, and perhaps at the same time show the value of effortful processes? Examples might help. Three journal entries, each at different levels of insight, with students tasked to pick the “best” entry and justify their choice with reasons. Maybe we could engage the whole class in a “good faith effort” in which, collectively, the group generates a set of potential answers/solutions to a really tough question or problem, followed by a debrief—not of the answers, but of their process. I also like the idea of students reviewing a collection of their writings or papers (about assigned readings, responses to scenarios, applications of content to current issues, etc.) and coming to some conclusions about the process. They can’t be thinking they’ve got to say they’ve learned a lot and that the assignment was great in order to get the good grade. This writing review is definitely a grade-the-process-assignment.

Good faith efforts are about trying—making an effort—not just because that’s noble and good but because it’s inherently a part of learning, especially the kind of deep and lasting learning we want students to experience. It’s fall and I’m back to knitting socks, another complicated Cookie A (strange pen name, I know) pattern. Having conquered one, I blithely assumed I was ready to move on to one that’s not considered so simple. For two nights now I’ve been trying, making a good faith effort, and learning. At this point I should be getting high marks for the process, but low ones on the product.