Masterclass in Political Oration – Jon Stewart

There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen.  We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show.  He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously.  I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling.  At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.

Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words.  Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.

Give it a watch.  It made me feel choked up.

 

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

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Grading Drift

I’ve been reflecting on the concept of grade drift recently. My brain usually turns to grade drifting at the end of each semester as I evaluate how objectively I have scored the students. If you’ve never taught before, what I call “grade drift” is the tendency for an instructor to allow their grading standards to drift as they grade an assignment. I’m not sure how prevalent this is for assessments that are concerned with exact answers, such as math, science, engineering, programming, etc. But in assessments that deal with qualitative or creative responses, it’s common for you as an instructor to change your evaluation thresholds as you make your way through the pile of papers.

There are a few reasons why this happens. In my first courses, my grades would drift if I didn’t have a sufficiently robust marking guide to help me narrow down the kinds of answers I was looking for in a student’s response. Now that I’ve taught the course a few times, I know generally what I’m looking for and can go through the assignments with a checklist of items. This form of grade drift is usually related to lacking experience in teaching and grading, especially if your course delivery isn’t tied to your course learning outcomes.

However, there is another reason why your grades might drift. On the one hand, you want to approach your evaluations as if they are objective – that there are clear right and wrong answers. After all, your grading should be defensible, and one way to defend the grade you grant is by pointing to an objective standard. However, on the other hand, you want your evaluations of your student’s work to allow for imagination, creativity, and novel connections between ideas. You also want your evaluations to acknowledge that your classes have unique compositions of people, with their own experiences and their own progressions through your course. Just because you teach the same material each semester doesn’t mean your students progress through it at the same rate. Different students will take the material differently, which means the average response you read through will be different for each cohort of students.

This means that some groups will be “better” than others in how they perform. You can choose to penalize the students for not meeting an abstract standard that you’ve set, or you can meet the students where they are and make it your goal in the course to improve their performance as you go.

I know that some instructors will take the first approach. They will believe their teaching, evaluations, and courses are reflective of an external, eternal, objective standard; they don’t think they are being arbitrary. I’m willing to bet that these are also instructors who believe that a 70% in their course is “like a 50% in other courses” (a literal thing I’ve heard said by a peer). I think this approach is wrong and it reflects a misunderstanding of what it means to pass a course. When a student passes a course, it means they have met the minimum requirements of the course learning objectives. Anything above that should reflect varying degrees of competence and mastery. If your course is designed so that a student is only “just” meeting the standards with anything above a 70%, you haven’t calibrated the course or your expectations very well. At an undergraduate level, your job is to elevate your students, and improve their abilities while meeting the program learning outcome objectives.

I find myself on the other side of this issue. I understand what the goals are of the course I teach, and my aim is less concerned with ensuring my students can adequately explain all the theory they are exposed to in the course. Instead, my goals is to make my students better thinkers and writers from where they enter my course to their exit. If they can explain Aristotle’s ideas of tragedy by the end, great! But I won’t lose sleep if they can’t. My course is a general elective, and that means I’m supposed to round them out as students and people. I care less about them absorbing my esoteric knowledge and instead I care more about them learning how to think, reason, and communicate their ideas clearly.

And that’s why sometimes my grades drift as I score the student’s rubrics. I start off with some ideas of where they could be, then I calibrate my grading to meet them at their level. It’s a little more work for me, but I think it better captures the student’s performance.

As indicated above, there are a few strategies for overcoming this, such as having a clear rubric and clear notes on what you are looking for.  Also, marking all the students on one question, one at a time, rather than marking an entire submission will make it easy to compare student fairly.

While this is an unfortunate thing (the students like to think they are being objectively evaluated) this will happen as you come to understand the natural curve of your class.  You can either grade your students to one standard, or you can reflexively respond to your class’s own knowledge and aptitudes.  If your course objectives are clear, then you can feel free to adapt your grading to match the student’s progress.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

“Kids These Days” Part 2

Last week, I reflected on the grading process and the tendency for us as faculty to sometimes judge that a student’s performance is more tied to internal motivation issues rather than external issues and a lack of experience.  When you think of a cohort of students, you can group them into three categories – the group that “gets it” and performs well, the group that is motivated but has knowledge gaps, and the group that lacks the motivation to want to meet the course outcomes.  Of course, these are simplistic categories, but I think it’s a useful illustration of how faculty approach their class, because how we choose to define the middle category impacts how we think about students and their performance.  If you frame the discussion around a group of students who want to be helped (are motivated to succeed), then you are more likely to want to extend yourself to help the student.  However, if you frame the conversation around whether the student should bootstrap themselves to catch up, you might be less willing to take extenuating circumstances into account.

When we assume that students are the sole reason for their failure, it’s possible for us to close off other considerations that questions whether we are dealing with a level playing field.  I don’t mean to say that students should not be responsible for their performance (and by extension, failure).  We as teachers must hold students accountable to their performance.  Yet, when a student fails to meet an objective, we should ask ourselves a number of questions:

  • Was the assessment fair?
  • Was the assessment clearly communicated?
  • Should the student have worked “harder” or “smarter”?
  • Is there something I could have done to better prepare the student?
  • Was there factors that influenced the student’s performance?

It is this last bullet point I’d like to discuss, because I think there is something really interesting going on that we often miss.

Engineering programs share a common trait – the problems are hard and the only way you will get the material is by slogging through the practice problems.  Many of the concepts are difficult to master, and the only way you can see the internal logic is to grind through problems, get feedback, and understand where you go wrong so that you can fix your methodology.  Some students appear gifted and grasp concepts easier, but most engineers will tell you stories of how they spent huge chunks of their time on manual computation.

Setting aside discussions about learning styles, this way of learning how to be an engineer is a good reflection of how the brain works.  The brain really hasn’t changed much in the last few thousand years, and we haven’t found genuine shortcuts to get around this limitation.  Structured education, being the only systematic way that allows you to efficiently teach advanced concepts, is the best approach to bringing someone to proficiency.

BUT

Students aren’t just students.  They are also members of this cultural and historical epoch.  Outside of the classroom, their lives are informed by culture, technology, and social norms, and increasingly over the last several decades, culture and technology has prioritized reducing friction.  Technology and corporations are incentivized to innovate ways of reducing barriers in our lives.  The technologies and corporations that achieve this end up shaping culture.  We spend less time focusing on basic survival, sustenance, communication, and transportation, because technology, innovation, and scale has reduced the time and resources we need to devote to these tasks.

As an experiment, consider this: when was the last time you had to carry cash?  For the average person, you can go weeks without needing to go to a bank.  Almost everything in your life can be handled through banking cards, e-transfers, direct deposits, and apps that instantaneously resolve payment upon the completion of service.  These services are available to us because they make things frictionless (and this is good for corporations because it helps us spend more).

If you want to buy stuff, you order it online.  If you want entertainment, you can find it on-demand.  If you don’t know something, a search algorithm will sort and rank answers for you.  If you don’t know how to do something, video tutorials are freely available with a few keystrokes and clicks to walk you through it.

Life outside of the classroom is frictionless, and yet we are insulted when students expect their experience in the classroom to conform to every other experience they live through in their daily lives.  Students ask for shortcuts to mastering hard concepts because literally everything else in their life operates this way.  The surface level encounters they experience have been refined through intentionally designing the user-interface (UI) and user-experience (UX).  Students have little grasp of the underlying mechanisms that hold this up because they’ve never had to worry about it.  If something breaks, it is either repaired as a service, or we cast away the broken and move on with purchasing new.

I was an undergrad student in the mid-aughts, and when I look at what life is like for students now compared to when I was a freshman in the dorm, I am startled at how easy it was for me to be a student.  I didn’t have the distractions that students experience today.  My life was less guided by algorithms and the whims of corporations and technology.  You may argue that technology has put the world at student’s fingertips today, but I think that the signal-to-noise ratio has shifted from my time.  Yes, I had to work harder to get answers, but that’s because there was less distraction clogging my search.  And don’t get me started on the attention economy and designing to maximize user engagement…

When we dismiss performance as being the result of “kids these days” not valuing hard work, we miss the fact that there is no incentive for the kids to work hard when life has grown frictionless.  I personally now value friction, because I understand what friction does for the learning process.  Much in the same way that you have to introduce low level stress to the body (exercise) in order to promote health, the introduction of friction can be a good thing.  But without understanding the motivations and lived experiences of your students, your demand for frictioned lives reduces you down to an old person yelling at the clouds.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

Values-based Decision Making

In a recent accreditation visit at work, a comment was made in the visiting team’s report that the college and engineering program need to better demonstrate the rationale behind program changes that are tied to something called “graduate attributes.”  I won’t bore you here with the details of how an engineering degree gets accredited since it’s a bit more complex than a short blog post would allow.  The main point is that the visiting team wanted to understand the motives we had when making updates to the courses in our continuous improvement process.

This reminded me of my KWCF experiences, specifically the Engage!KW program.  One of the activities we did was to reflect critically on our values.  We were asked to come up with a list of our values, and compare our espoused values with how we choose to spend our time in a week.  The point of the exercise is to a.) see whether you are living according to your values, and b.) to reinforce that you should make decisions based on your values – and if a decision does not align with your core values, it’s probably not something worth pursuing.

The visiting team’s comment didn’t sit well with the faculty and administration, largely because we felt that all of our decisions were made in the spirit of making graduates from the program better prepared for their careers.  The idea that we need to somehow demonstrate or explain better what we are already doing was hard to understand.

My best explanation for how this would work goes like this:

Suppose you receive feedback from your industry partners that in order for graduates to  be successful, the college needs to buy every student a pink hat.  The students must wear the pink hats at all times, and they must bring them with them into their careers after graduation.

Now, it might be the case that these pink hats are a good idea.  The idea originated from our industry partners, whom will be the very people hiring our grads.  However, buying the pink hats is an expensive endeavor.  The money we spend on pink hats means we can’t allocate those resources elsewhere to improve the program.

When the team evaluates the idea, they should look to the core values of the program and see whether the pink hats falls in line with those values.  In our engineering programs, we have twelve graduate attributes that we seek to instill in our students.  Every student who graduates from an engineering program will possess these attributes if the program is designed well.  If we look at the attributes (our values) we won’t see a connection of how pink hats are essential to making a better graduate or a better engineer, even though industry is telling us this is the case.  And so, we would make a decision to ignore industry’s suggestion, and instead allocate our money elsewhere.

Pinks hats might seem like a silly example, but the situation is the same for any piece of technology that industry wants us to teach, such as 3D printers and proprietary programming languages for manufacturing robots.  It costs a lot of money to adopt these technologies, and it takes a lot of time to teach and reinforce the skills in our students.  At each point, we have to ask ourselves whether this investment materially improves the students, or whether there is a better way we can allocate our time (such as teaching good computer modelling for 3D printers, or teaching good programming foundations so that our students can easily teach themselves any programming language used in industry).

The key lesson is that these decisions should not be made on a whim, but nor should they be made because a stakeholder tells you they are important.  Input from industry is only one point of data in a sea of information.  In order to tease out the signal from the noise, it’s important to use your values to help determine what’s worth pursuing, and what’s worth leaving behind.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan