Better Than Expected aka Why Didn’t I Start this 14 Years Ago?

We had our first Self Assessment Reflection Meetings and I can already exclaim, “Success!” Wow! Remember the enthusiasm you felt after your first great class? The excitement you felt the first time you saw your students’ eyes shine with understanding? The joy you felt the first time your students’ knowledge increased because of a class you taught? All of those wonders and more have been bouncing inside me all day!

Even before meeting with the students, reading their self assessments gave me some insight to what was going on with them and their work, but not just in a “How do you think things are going?” kind of way. The reflective questions helped the students really hunker down and take a deeper look as to what they were creating and what they wanted to accomplish in the class. They were able to identify their strengths, their challenges, their questions, and so much more because they had the opportunity to consider these things instead of relying on a grade from their professor. 

Reading the self-assessments before the meetings gave me the opportunity to begin thinking of ways to improve my classes. I went into this ungrading system expecting the result to be most impactful for my students assignments and projects, but am quickly discovering it will improve their AND my class experiences. I learned several students were missing underlying foundational skills I expected them to already have learned. Now I know to dive deeper in these topics so that they can brush up on those important missing pieces of their education.  In one of my classes, I learned that every week several students felt they were missing out on extra time to work on their assignments because the in-class critiques didn’t happen on the same day for the entire class. However, even though I informed the class in the beginning of the semester that the current schedule may create inequity, it was a new critique schedule but we could re-work it if it felt unfair. Not a single student had raised the subject until they wrote their self-assessment. And what an easy fix this is and one I will begin implementing this coming week! 

Now, on to the meetings! But first, can we pause to reflect on the success of ungrading already? 

One of my students has been struggling in class because of a sensory need. I had observed this student’s seeming lack of interest in the material and lack of participation and had the impression they didn’t want to be in the class or simply did not enjoy it. During our discussion today we were able to openly talk about their struggles and how I could make the class better for them and what we could do to make their experience more positive. We not only created a connection, but I now have a better understanding of this student and their needs. They really do enjoy the class and now they will experience it “in full color” because of their self-assessment and my new knowledge of how I can embrace their learning style and needs.

I have always had an open door policy with my students, but find that many do not come to office hours or come to me before there is a problem. I am excited that these regular meetings (which admittedly will require a significant portion of my week) will ensure that my open door policy is now actively used and embraced by students.

During our meetings, I discovered a common theme in one of my classes: giving their fellow students critiques is hard for them. This makes sense as for many of them this is their first experience providing critique to others and they are just at the beginning of their artistic career. The consensus was they appreciate and like the critique they receive from their peers, but feel the critique they provide does not have much value. This was a sad realization to me because critique is a time to receive and share information. Students who gave lots of critique let me know they felt they were giving too much and that they questioned if they were adding value to the class, students who gave little to none reported not offering much because they felt their insights also lacked value. 

I explained to each student how giving critique can be as valuable as receiving it and that even when a student may not use the critique they receive immediately, it does not mean it is wasted or even forgotten. Often as production continues, students reflect on the critique they heard and “suddenly see” what was meant, even if it is much later in the process and then are able to implement the suggestions. In other words, when a peer offers critique it is useful even if it takes time before the original recipient or another member of the class puts it to use. I shared with my students a story from another student who had told me that critique from a fellow student had opened their eyes to a whole new way of seeing their film and helped them to create a much better film! Sharing that story helped many of them see the value in their own words and what they share in class. From these discussions I learned that my students were finding a key component of being an artist to be a high stress situation. Discussing it in one to one setting where the floor was theirs created an opportunity for their personal growth and provided me with an opportunity to validate their concerns, and allowed me to help each student create a unique plan to offer critique to their peers that feels worthy of voicing and comfortable to them. 

The overall feedback from my students after two days of meetings was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. They expressed a feeling of now being in these classes to make a good film rather than being in the class to get a good grade. They felt the quality of the questions helped them dive deeper into their motivations for their films and the work they are creating. They reported feeling a sense of investment in their work and a feeling of freedom to truly focus on their own individual progress versus their work’s value hinging on a grade from me. 

Even if you don’t feel like you can alter your teaching path to one of ungrading, you can begin with something as simple as asking your students to answer a few self reflection questions after each assignment. Just reading them, if you cannot also meet with your students, may provide significant insights that you may not otherwise be able to obtain. They have opened the world for me in connecting so much more deeply with my students! Give it a try even if it is just for one class for one semester! You will not regret it! If you do, please contact me because I would be extremely interested in your experience. 

It feels like the wind is at our back and we are sailing towards clear waters and sunny skies! Stick around to see if this is simply a honeymoon phase or if this is truly a game changer for us! 

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