Learning to learn – without any A, B, Cs

By Jeff Shelman

It isn’t quite a chicken or egg kind of question, but it is an academic conundrum along the same line.

Just how important are grades on a college campus when it comes to actual learning? Do grades really reflect how much a student has learned? Or do students do just enough to get the grade they want? And what happens if you take letter grades and numerical marks completely out of the equation?

That’s what 50 Augsburg first-year students, five professors, and several staff members tried to find out this past fall. The Integrated Term, Fate of the Earth 101: Consumption of Food, Fuel, and Media in Contemporary Culture, was more than just a different way to package and deliver several general education courses; it was a semester that challenged many of the standard conventions about what a college education is or should be.

There were no traditional letter grades for this learning community nor was there a static syllabus passed out on the first day. This was a term that focused on doing, on students having a say in what they would be evaluated on, and on professors writing detailed evaluations about both what students had accomplished and where they needed to continue to work. Sitting lifeless in the back row and regurgitating enough facts to pass wasn’t an option this term.

“This was much more work than grading,” English professor Robert Cowgill said. “But I thought it was a major success.”

Most of the students—many of whom were drawn to the I-Term because of the environmental focus or the alternative evaluation method—agreed. Daley Konchar Farr called the semester-long experiment empowering. Veronica Berg said she was pushed to do things she wasn’t sure were possible just one semester into her college career. Katelin Grote called the whole thing life changing.

Some of that was because the I-Term, which showed just how parts of a liberal arts education are interconnected, was their entire load for the semester. I-Term students who successfully completed the course received credit for English 101 or 111 (writing), Religion 100 (Christian Vocation and the Search for Meaning I), History 101 (Western Civilization), Sociology 101 (Introduction to Human Society) and AugSem (first-year seminar). They also completed their Engaging Minneapolis requirement.

REASONS FOR NOT GRADING

When a group of professors returned from a conference at The Evergreen State College in Washington in 2007, the goal was to find a way for Augsburg to experiment with a learning community model of teaching as well as non-traditional evaluation methods.

Over the next two years, the professors worked with the dean’s office to make this a reality. How was this term going to be structured? Were groups such as Faculty Senate supportive? How would students receive credit? How would the narrative evaluations fit into the very traditional transcript?

Once hurdles were cleared, plans were set for a three-year pilot program of the nongraded Integrated Term. The faculty designers of the I-Term hope that the students who spend a semester focused on learning instead of simply making a grade will have higher retention and graduation rates. The longer-term outcomes of the experiment won’t be clear for several years, but this group and subsequent groups of I-Term students will be tracked by the College.

While the word “experiment” is often tossed around rather loosely on college campuses, the I-Term is certainly unique. Sociology professor Lars Christiansen, an I-Term faculty member who has studied alternative evaluation methods, said that about 15 colleges and universities across the country have experimented with non-graded courses. Some are completely nongraded while others are partially graded or have reverted back to traditional grading. Alverno College in Milwaukee is one of the only schools in the Midwest that is grade free.

No grades, however, doesn’t equal no evaluation. In almost every case, I-Term students had a greater grasp of where they stood. They worked very closely with the two English professors on their writing, and received regular written feedback from the other faculty members.

“It was kind of like tough love,” Maryam Ayir said. “You knew exactly what you had to work on.”

Konchar Farr signed up for the ITerm both because of the subject matter, and also because of lack of traditional grades.

“Grades are false motivation,” she said. “In high school, I didn’t get anything out of getting As if I didn’t learn. [Here], I really appreciated that things were so discussionbased and how involved the professors were. They were so dedicated to our work.”

For Christiansen, the best thing from the semester is that Augsburg now has the framework in place to continue experimenting with alternative evaluation methods. There is now the ability for the narrative evaluations to accompany a student’s transcript. And there is also at least some appetite from students to not have a semester of work boiled down to simply a number.

“The majority of students said it was a good experience to not have grades and they liked the ongoing evaluation,” he said. “It shows me that if you provide it, people will try it, and many will like it. Why don’t we make it an option generally? It’s not dissimilar to our transportation system. Until the last few years, many didn’t believe they had options other than driving. The I-Term is akin to the Hiawatha (light rail) Line: Once a viable alternative is provided, people may see it as useful and desirable.”

LEARNING BY DOING

Unchained from the burden of grades, students could concentrate on really learning and figuring out what truly motivates them. And without traditional exercises like exams, students in Fate of the Earth 101 demonstrated their advancement through semester- long projects that incorporated something under the broad umbrella of food, fuel, or media.

One group of students met with staff members from Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office about how the bodies of women are portrayed in advertisements. Pushing Best Buy to be more environmentally friendly in its stores was what another group sought. Others looked into the feasibility of Augsburg capturing solar energy and purchasing more locally grown food.

“Those are the kinds of things we were hoping would happen,” Christiansen said. “We were hoping through the experiences of the I-Term that [students] were here to learn and that they were here to understand themselves as possible change agents—and that collaboration is an essential component.”

And while most courses end as soon as that final exam is completed, a number of the I-Term students are continuing with the ongoing work of their projects. For example, Berg was part of a group that created the website www.mnhomelessyouth.org. Those students met both with representatives from Minneapolis Public Schools and a group working on homeless issues, before and during the spring semester.

“It didn’t just end at the end of the course,” history professor Phil Adamo said. “They continue to be engaged.”

Because of what they were asked to do, many of the I-Term students accomplished more than they thought possible just months removed from high school graduation.

“We were learning at a different level, we were getting to project ourselves at a bigger level,” Berg said. “To sit at the table as a contributor with some of these agencies was something I didn’t think I’d be able to do for many years.”

That theme was a common one. “One thing we repeatedly heard was the notion that they were empowered with what they were able to accomplish by the end of their first semester in college,” religion professor Lori Brandt Hale said. “They were surprised and excited about how they will be able to leverage that moving forward.”

CHANGING TEACHING METHODS

Like the other I-Term professors, Colin Irvine is back teaching more traditional courses this semester. An English faculty member, Irvine has a collection of writing and literature classes this spring.

But Irvine acknowledges that he is teaching differently this semester. And the I-Term had much to do with that.

“It made me complicate my classes,” he said. “I’m not content with the way I was teaching before. I’m not content with the assignments I was giving. I’m making them more fun, more relevant, and harder to assess. I can’t allow myself to teach the way I’ve always taught.”

Irvine talked about a conversation with a biology major who is taking his environmental literature course this season. The student said he’s been doing the reading, working hard, and attending writing lab sessions.

“But he said, ‘I don’t know how I’m doing,’” Irvine said. “I told him, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s exactly what I want you to do, you’re figuring it out, you’re doing great.’”

Because just like the I-Term students who have adjusted to courses with traditional grading, almost everyone involved in the experiment has a better idea of what motivates them and just how important learning is.

I-TERM CREATORS/DESIGNERS

Phil Adamo, History, Medieval Studies

Lars Christiansen, Sociology, Metro-Urban Studies

Robert Cowgill, English, Film Studies

Stacy Cutinella, Lindell Library

Lori Brandt Hale, Religion

Colin Irvine, English, Environmental Studies

Nathan Lind, Information Technology

Alyson Olson, TRIO Student Services

Beverly Stratton, Religion

PROJECTS THE STUDENTS WORKED ON

  • Addressing women’s body representations in advertising by creating a legislative bill requiring advertisers to indicate the presence of airbrushing and similar touch-ups
  • Website that centralizes resources for homeless youth in the Twin Cities
  • Energy-producing exercise bicycles at Augsburg’s Kennedy Center
  • Reducing water waste at Augsburg
  • Increasing local food sourcing at Augsburg, particularly meat and cheese
  • Assisting in developing curbside composting in Minneapolis
  • Reducing paper waste at Augsburg bookstore
  • Improving environmental practices at Best Buy
  • Composting at Maple Grove High School
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