October 28th, 2015

What’s a Good Faith Effort?


student studying

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.

  • C Presson

    This is why rubrics can be so helpful!

  • Perry Shaw

    Another very thought-provoking reflection, Maryellen. Thank you.
    Your thoughts again reinforce my conviction that grades are too often a barrier to genuine learning rather than the facilitating bridge we hope they will be. By their very nature grades tend to focus on product rather than process, and students see their learning complete once they attain the grade, rather than seeing the work they have completed as the first step on their learning journey.
    Contrast with the process that often happens when doctoral work is overseen in a healthy way: the student discusses with the supervisor then writes, then the supervisor(s) make comments, rewrite, more comments, back and forth as the learning grows.
    I am convinced that anything we can do to de-emphasise grades is helpful – shifting to simple ABC (without pluses and minuses), use of rubrics, avoiding placing grades on papers, etc.

  • Jeffery P. Barbour

    Thanks for your reflection upon "good faith effort." Many students seem to become more concerned with the grade and final product than the process of learning throughout an assignment. This article may also serve as a reminder of the "pre-" "post-" and summative forms of assessment that educators may consider within lessons.

  • Jack Macfarlane

    I suppose the value of ‘good faith effort’ varies greatly depending on the purpose and expected outcomes of the learning process. I run an FAA-approved aircraft maintenance campus where effort (in the form of good attendance, class participation, and general good attitude) only counts during the skill acquisition process itself, but students will not pass a single course on effort alone. Specific skills must be mastered and demonstrated fully—and individually—before we can recommend that the FAA award the appropriate aircraft mechanic licensure upon completion of our 16-month program. Would you feel comfortable boarding a plane which was repaired by very hardworking yet unskilled mechanics who still have trouble connecting those pesky hydraulic lines properly? Think about this next time you fly…

    • Colleen

      It seems as though you are conflating skill acquisition with deep learning, a process that involves critical thinking, reflection, and communication abilities, among other things. No, I would not want an unskilled mechanic fixing a plane I was on. But I would also not want a society filled with individuals who were not able to critically analyze the facets of modern life because all members were focused solely on specific technical skills.

  • Laura S

    I always tell my students that "effort counts" and I give them half credit (50% = the "Fair F") just for doing an assignment (vs a zero for not doing it at all). But your distinction between "process" vs "product" really helps me to refocus what I mean by "effort" on the various assignments that I see as part of the "learning process" that should be done not simply as "busy work" at the last minute but all along the way (work like discussion posts and weekly journal reflections where it is timing and sincerity that count more than "correctness"). Thank you for giving me something to think about as I re-evaluate how to communicate expectations to students.

  • Steve Frye

    In mathematics there is a lot of discussion lately about "productive struggle", which basically is about the process of doing math (solving problems for which the answer is as yet unknown).

    As I read this blog post, I realized that by asking students to turn in neatly solved problems, we are emphasizing the ends and not the means, the results and not the process. We should ask our students to submit ALL of their work, including false starts, and the (perhaps) roundabout path they took to the initial solution that led them to realize that there was an easier way.

    By asking students to submit only the polished version, we make them think that the messy work is a failing and that they should have produced the polished version on their first attempt.

    I'm going to create some assignments that involve a problem that is a bit challenging. I will define the work product as the documentation of their thought process(es) as students try to find their way to a solution. I will want them to tell me what they thought about doing (or did) and more importantly, why (or why not, if they rejected an idea).

    They will learn that messiness and confusion are almost always part of solving a hard problem, and it is OK, normal. In fact, sometimes the messiness and confusion lead to other very interesting problems to work on.

  • Miren

    I agree w some of the comments. I use participation grade in order to address the effort. Back in my days, many faculty asked us to show all of the work and did give us partial credit for it,even when the result was incorrect. Today, with technology, work is done on the site and only results are graded. I should perhaps ask for "scratch" paper as well.