December 11th, 2013

The Trouble with Consistency in Instructional Practices and Policies


I’ve started to notice a couple of consistencies in our instructional practice that concern me. First, there’s the consistency in practices across courses, regardless of level. I mentioned in a previous post that I didn’t think capstone and other upper division courses should have the same policies as first year courses. It seems to me that if we still have to hammer students about deadlines, use points to get them participating, and offer detailed descriptions of civil discourse, students have not learned some very important lessons in their earlier courses.

Yes, it could be the students’ fault. I have had students who, given their actions in my courses, appear to be very slow learners. But is that a plausible assumption to make about all students? It seems more reasonable to question the methods we are using to teach students about what it means to be responsible learners and about how professionals are expected to act.

I think we need to design courses and learning experiences with the awareness that they should be part of a developmental trajectory. I’m not sure we’ve done a lot of thinking about the progression of a set of policies, say on attendance, deadlines, or class preparation. Where do you start, what changes do you make, and in what order? Does anyone know of literature on the topic that might be helpful? We can be consistent about having policies—they help us define the kind of classroom environment we hope to create—but I don’t think that consistency should mean using the same set of polices across all course levels.

There’s a second aspect of our instructional consistency that’s also troubling me. We are doing too many things because that’s the way everybody else does them. Yes, it would be very difficult for students if everything that happened in every course was different. For the sake of sanity (theirs and ours), some things do need to be the same. My concern is more about using the practice of others as the benchmark for what we do, and so we pepper our colleagues with questions. How many excused absences do you have in your course? How much does participation count? Do you let students drop the lowest quiz score? What’s your policy on extra credit? Do you take points off for spelling?

The question here isn’t about whether the policies are right or good. Most of them are probably fine. I’m also not recommending that we avoid conversations with colleagues about what they do. We will make better decisions if we have discussed and considered a range of options. But I don’t think that’s why most of us inquire about each other’s policies and practices. It’s more a case of, “Tell me what you’re doing so I can see if it’s like what I’m doing (or considering doing), and if we’re both doing it, then I can feel more comfortable about my policy.”

I’ve been here before in the blog (you’re getting to know all my ideas), but for sometime now I’ve been asking faculty how much participation counts (if they grade it). Almost across the board, the answer is the same—somewhere between 5 and 10 percent. When I ask, “How did you decide on that amount?” or “What’s the rationale behind that amount?” there’s usually a moment of silence, followed by something like, “Oh, I don’t know. I think that’s pretty much what everybody else does.” Those with small tendencies toward paranoia then ask, “Why? Do you think that’s wrong?”

I’d say the correctness of your participation percentage (policy on make-up exams, credit for homework, penalties for missed deadlines, the list could go on and on) is determined by the rationale behind the policy. What learning objectives is the policy being used to promote? How well is it accomplishing those objectives? (And here I’m asking for something in addition to your wise opinion.) We can select to use policies that others are using, but we need a better reason than feeling justified because we’re in the company of others. Large companies of others have been known to make grievous mistakes. And this is the consistency that becomes “the hobgoblin of little minds” (thank you, Mr. Emerson).

  • Amy Haddad, Ph.D.

    I was very interested in the line of reasoning given for course policies since it is very close to the reasoning often given for teaching/learning methods, i.e., "this is the way we have always done it" or "this is the way I was taught." Neither of these reasons is sufficient. Why don't we take a page from the scholarship of teaching and learning and explore what impact certain policies have on behavior and possibly learning as well? So the better reason for adopting any teaching strategy or course or program policy is that is achieves the goals we are trying to reach. By the way, I don't offer any points for participation in any of the online graduate courses I teach. I see evidence of the students' participation in the timeliness and quality of their initial discussion posts and replies, peer review of each others' work and all of the rest of the assignments that are part of the design of the course.

  • Shamini Dias, PhD

    I agree with Amy Haddad about participation points. To some extent, that's really on the instructor – if we design teaching-learning processes that involve students, there will be participation. For example, if I use think-download-share, or a one minute paper, I know I have everyone thinking AND participating. If I scaffold group work with clear roles it evens the playing field for participation. Also – "participation" in what precisely? I find colleagues might have a vague sense of participation being discussion participation. But is participation also about contributing to the construction of knowledge in class? If this is done non-verbally, through adding information to a shared depository, should that not count as participation.

    In increasingly diverse classrooms we have students who are shy, lack the social capital to understand class dynamics, for whom English is a second or foreign language, for whom the social dynamics of the class make it an unsafe space, or simply who are from a culture where silent contemplation of what is being taught is a mark of a good student and of respect. These students might hang back, or be unable to effectively participate. Do we, as educators, differentiate and scaffold our teaching sufficiently so they are included and can participate? Do we design multiple ways of participating so students are prepared for their futures not just with content knowledge, but with capacities to work collaboratively with others? If not, is it fair to dock points from their grade? For example, in group work, some students will dominate (and get great participation grades), while others might feel intimidated and not speak up (and lose points). Instead, what if group work was scaffolded – roles and times for each person in role to do something or contribute, if participation included the quality and timeliness of gathering resources and sharing them?

    I've often used a participation rubric with students to help them understand what we're aiming for in terms of group interaction so there is a "participation assessment" that helps them work toward a skills set, but it is not part of the course grade.