GTC Graduate Teaching Community Reflections

Spring 2022

Members of the Graduate Teaching Community reflected on the following prompt at the conclusion of the Spring 2022 quarter: How has participating in the Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) this quarter shaped your thinking about teaching?

Eli Moore, Applied Mathematics
Image: Eli Moore

This quarter in the GTC, we tackled three central topics: grading & assessment, student mental health, and equity & inclusion.

Our discussions on grading were illuminating, particularly because I have been indoctrinated into a system where curve-based grading is the status quo, and I have also seen a mountain of evidence against traditional grading (including fostering competition over collaboration, destroying teacher-student relationships, de-emphasizing learning, etc.). These two contradictory observations left me with the following question: what are some actionable ways I can change grading in my classroom to facilitate student learning and success? Ungrading is something I have spent many hours thinking about, but have decided to hold off implementing because it is a radical shift away from my comfort zone. Fortunately, the GTC gave me alternative grading options that seem to fit somewhere between traditional grading and the diametrically opposed practice of ungrading. Specifications grading and contract grading are both assessment styles that I’d like to include in future classes that I teach. While these grading schemes appear, at first glance, to be more subjective than traditional grading, our discussions revealed the subjectivity of traditional grading to me by highlighting aspects such as instructor material emphasis. As a result, I am much more comfortable implementing these alternative grading strategies in my classroom.

Student mental health is becoming increasingly more salient in my mind these days, especially thanks to the pandemic. In my own experience as a college student, I was quite fortunate to succeed in my learning; in hindsight, I attribute this largely to having my emotional and mental needs met. I had a stable living situation, my loved ones and I were healthy, and I had a strong community and outlook for the future. During the pandemic, each of these components were either compromised or felt like they were at risk of being taken away, and I will be the first to admit that my learning suffered. Learning absolutely does not happen in a vacuum; our students’ needs must be met for them to succeed in their education. As an instructor, I am now much more eager to help students find ways to make-up late material and cope with their life struggles. This humanizing shift in my teaching is well-supported by our discussions in the GTC this quarter. In addition to a fundamental change in my perspective as an empathetic leader, I now feel better equipped to recommend resources and direction to my struggling students.

While equity and inclusion were made distinct from the above two topics this quarter, I find the subject to bleed into all aspects of my teaching. When I think about changing my grading practices, I do so with a mindset geared toward making assessment more equitable for my diverse student body. When I think about my responses to student mental health, I find that I am focused on creating an inclusive environment where students are comfortable sharing their struggles. Much like how a mathematician tries to consider fringe edge-cases and counterexamples to build up their overall intuition, I believe a strong educator should consider marginalized and non-traditional students to increase the overall effectiveness of their teaching. For the rest of my career, I’ll be trying to find analogs to closed captions and curb ramps in my own classroom, and I know that making the space a better place for all of my students will continue to put a smile on my face.

Emma Forester, Geography
Image: Emma Forester

Before graduate school, I never thought that I would enjoy teaching. Past me worried about public speaking (still scary!), having to know everything (a la imposter syndrome) and most of all, having to give students bad grades. I once got a less than ideal grade on a term paper that I had poured my heart into, and it destroyed my confidence in writing for years. I couldn't (and still can't) fathom being responsible for the same feelings in one of my students.

The Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) raised my awareness to a growing movement towards non-traditional ways of teaching - spearheaded by people, like me, who feel that the traditional classroom has become adversarial, in which students are pitted against each other and their professors for a good grade, rather than a place to make and learn from mistakes.

This quarter, we discussed three interconnected aspects of teaching: Grading, mental health, and equity and inclusion. In each of these aspects, the take home message was the same. Every class we have and will teach is different from the next, and is made up of unique individuals who learn in very different ways. All we can do, as Teaching Assistants or as future tenured professors, is to offer our students empathy and to do our best to listen to and adjust to their needs, whether that is through offering varied opportunities to learn class material (such as through specifications grading) or by implementing accessibility into the classroom (by way of Universal Learning Design). The GTC showed me that there are ways to foster safe learning spaces that don't come at the expense of a student's future.

Ian Lim, Physics
Image: Ian Lim

This quarter in GTC, we discussed the theme of structures that support student learning. I believe classroom design begins with values, so here are some of mine. My responsibility to students is to create a space where authentic learning and growth are centered. My classroom should offer every student a fair opportunity to learn the material, and it should provide meaningful feedback on how they can continue to learn and improve.

As a TA, I'm not often in a place to implement many of the more radical grading reforms under the ungrading umbrella, nor do I necessarily think these approaches are best for all students at scale. But I also think traditional grading systems often incentivize students to fixate on point values over learning and feedback. Providing meaningful and timely feedback that students can actually use at scale is a major challenge for me, and one I'm still thinking how to design for. Mastery grading schemes can also provide a useful approach to recentering learning and growth, though they take a significant amount of assessment support to successfully execute. Maybe the best approach is to take elements of these schemes and work them in gradually, e.g. having a handful of assignments be redesigned for ungrading as a pilot.

On a related note, it's hard to talk about student mental health without also thinking about the classroom structures that influence it. How do we create healthy stress for students without overwhelming them? In the pursuit of rigor, some instructors take the approach of keeping the pressure on at all times, leaving students with little time to reflect on their progress or internalize what they have learned, and this is likely exacerbated by the pace of the quarter system. I think changes like two-stage exams and grading scheme redesigns can help with student stress, but in the long term, it's necessary to revisit content coverage goals and ensure that our demands of students are reasonable for the time frame given.

I also believe inclusive practice is at the heart of all of this thinking. In each class, we have a choice as to who we teach for, who we design for. Universal design is a good and important start, but especially in larger classrooms, I’ve come to believe there is no fully universal design—there is only design consistent with our values as instructors and design inconsistent with it. Ultimately, we get to choose whether to remain content with classroom structures that tend to reinforce existing inequities and disincentivize authentic learning, or whether to take steps (however small) towards the idea of a pedagogy that is better, brighter, and kinder. I know which I want to choose, and I’m fortunate to have friends and colleagues equally committed to imagining a better way forward for teaching and learning.

Santosh Kandel, Statistics
Image: Santosh Kandel

I enjoy teaching as much as I enjoy research. I always look for ways to improve my teaching skills which motivated me to join the Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) this Spring quarter. The GTC experience has been invaluable to me. I learned a lot through interaction with graduate students from different academic disciplines who deeply care about student-centered teaching practices and student well-being. This quarter, the GTC discussions focused on Grading and Assessment, Student Mental Health, and Equity and Inclusion.

My experience with traditional grading is that it is very stressful. In GTC, we discussed shortcomings of traditional grading, such as underserving non-traditional students, underserving students with test anxiety, and underserving students with responsibilities outside of school. We also discussed Specification Grading, a variation of a two-level rubric, designed to assess students based on what they can eventually learn by providing opportunities to learn from failures. I appreciated the aspect of this grading, giving students opportunities to learn from their mistakes by providing constructive feedback and allowing students to resubmissions. I plan to experiment with a modified version of Specification Grading in future teachings.

In GTC, we also discussed various aspects of Student Mental Health. We talked about what factors negatively affect students' mental health, what are indicators of mental health issues, and how instructors can support students. The rise of social media culture, academic pressure, and financial pressures can negatively impact students' mental health. We discussed ways to promote wellness awareness to ensure students are taking care of themselves, by providing information on wellness and wellness resources on the syllabus, as well as regularly providing information on habits of mind, the importance of sleep, mental health, stress, and various campus wellness activities. I learned about the potential benefits of incorporating music, poetry, humor, and storytelling to help students. Additionally, I learned about using trauma-informed teaching practices, such as offering choices in learning and assessment, providing clear expectations and instructions, using low stake formative assessments, and offering flexible due dates to support students.

An inclusive and equitable learning environment is equally beneficial for students and instructors. It is challenging to develop such an environment. In GTC, we discussed practical ways to improve an inclusive and equitable learning environment. I also gained some insight from hearing about different perspectives on Universal Design for Learning. Additionally, I learned about historical facts related to the curb and cut effect and how it started a movement for inclusivity. It was rewarding to learn about a pedagogy, called adaptive equity-oriented pedagogy, developed by Andrew Estrada Phuong and co-authors to boost student achievements. The authors propose to understand student needs and develop a pedagogy by modeling expert thinking, providing opportunities to practice expert thinking, promoting a growth mindset, and being supportive when students experience contextual challenges.

Overall, I learned a lot from this quarter’s GTC discussions. I am very excited to use some of these ideas in my future teaching.

Siuoneh Didarloo, Psychology
Image: Siuoneh Didarloo

“The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited to our own perspective” -Robert John Meehan

As a first year PhD student and a TA, I joined the Graduate Teaching Community (GTC) in hopes of improving my teaching skills and making sure that I have the necessary tools and the knowledge to create an environment that not only fosters student learning, but it also serves a safe sanctuary for my students to express their ideas and academic needs. GTC is a collaborative interdisciplinary group of graduate students who come together and explore relevant issues around learning and teaching in a supportive environment. By joining GTC, not only did I gain access to resources and evidence-based practices and training, but I also became a part of a community that truly cares about improving the educational experiences of the students. More importantly, GTC allowed a space for graduate students from diverse disciplines, backgrounds, and perspectives to connect and share their ideas and experiences in how to be effective, inclusive, and efficient in classroom settings.

Some of the topics that were discussed in this quarter’s weekly GTC meetings consisted of effective grading and assessment techniques, student mental health, and equity and inclusion in the classroom. With the pandemic bringing forth many challenges, students’ mental health has become a major topic of discussion in the U.S. While faculty and instructors should not replace professional mental health services, it is important that instructors and staff familiarize themselves with campus resources and events so that they can be a source of information for their own students. By participating in the GTC this quarter, I learned ways in which I can promote students’ mental health and wellbeing. For instance, moving forward, I will explicitly prioritize student well-being by adding to my syllabus a statement about mental health and that I will prioritize my students’ well-being. Additionally, I will be more flexible with my deadlines and allow for full credit retakes. I learned the importance of creating an environment where students do not feel overwhelmed with assignments and spend their time learning the material instead of jeopardizing their mental health for a grade letter in my class. One of the ways that I will consider my students’ mental health is by doing weekly check-ins with them and reaching out to students who miss class frequently to ask how they are doing.

Additionally, I acquired new knowledge regarding grading and assessment that was very useful for me. For instance, before taking part in GTC, I had zero knowledge regarding specification grading or contract grading as a way of replacing the traditional grading methods. I now know that traditional grading may not really measure students’ competency or their academic progress and that there are better ways of assessing these skills. I will be implementing specification grading in my teaching practices so that students’ work is graded on a two-level rubric [pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory]. Furthermore, I will allow revision/resubmission for assignments in my class. Overall, GTC gave me a new and improved perspective on teaching, which I am very grateful for.