Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Professorial Guidance and Student Autonomy

One of the big-pictures questions I often struggle with when designing my courses is about how much specific guidance I should coerce in my students' study. In favour of a broad exercise of professorial power (i.e., using grading incentives to require attendance, regular homework, etc) is the undeniable fact that students will learn better if they do that work, and that most students are much likelier to do the work if I penalize them for not doing it on a particular schedule. On the other hand, I am also moved by the argument that university students are adults who should be allowed, even encouraged, to make their own decisions about how best to learn. They also often have many more competing obligations than I did when I was an undergraduate, such that requiring a lot of homework, or penalizing missing class, is a significant hardship.

When discussing this issue with colleagues, I find that opinions and practices vary dramatically. Some offer a maximally flexible approach, always accepting work that is completed well after the deadlines (even after the course is complete); others have strict syllabus requirements—treated like laws of nature—that mandate exactly what must be done when.

Here's an example. In my introduction to formal logic, I set weekly homework exercises. I also use some classroom technology for in-class responses to questions, so that I can gauge comprehension along the way. (The product I use is Learning Catalytics; it is similar in various ways to iClickers and Top Hat.) In both cases, I face a choice about whether to require students to use those elements, or whether to make them optional. One semester I made the homework optional, simply putting the questions up as practice exercises, and telling students that I recommend that they do them. But as you might predict, very few students did them regularly—some crammed at exam time, and some didn't do them at all—and performance suffered as a result. But when I turned around the next year and made it required, some students complained that they shouldn't be forced to do practice work that they may or may not need, or that the particular schedule on which my homework was assigned was too onerous, given their particular circumstances. I don't necessarily conclude that student complains mean the system isn't a good one, but some of the critiques rang true to me. And very similar issues apply for required attendance. (In the latter case I have an additional incentive to require Learning Catalytics use — I need to see how the class as a whole is doing during lectures, so I know which ideas do and don't need further explanation and illustration.)

My strategy in this instance, for the past few years, has been to let students decide for themselves. I don't mean that I just make homework and participation optional — that's the system I tried once that I know to lead to worse learning outcomes — I mean, I let students decide themselves whether homework and participation are optional. I show them my default system, which requires weekly homework and gives credit for participation in a way that requires attendance, and then I tell them that they can opt out of either or both requirements if they wish. I explain that I don't recommend this for most students, and that most students do better when required in this way to do the work, but that, since they know themselves individually better than I do, if they want to be excused from those requirements, they may; the other course elements will be weighted proportionally higher. This is a decision they have to make at the beginning of the term; once they sign up for the requirement, it is a requirement. (If you'd like to see the details, see my PHIL 220 syllabus here.)

On the whole I am happy with this compromise stance. Most students follow my advice and sign up for weekly homework and assessed participation. (Last semester, 103 of my 133 students had assessed homework, and 122 of them had assessed participation.) It's not perfect — I sometimes hear from students late in the term who opted out of homework and are struggling because they haven't been working through the exercises. But I have found it to be a good way to balance psychologically-informed pedagogical aims with respect for student individualism and responsibility.

I'd be interested to hear how other professors handle these kinds of questions, especially others' experiences giving students individual choices about how they will be assessed.


  1. Something I've come to believe: penalizing non-completion of/non-participation in an activity isn't just an incentive, it communicates to students that the activity is important. I find that (my) students don't always believe the things I tell them about my classes, but they sure believe the part that says "this is worth marks".

    (My communicative problem might partly have to do with my institutional context: as I think is standard for UK universities, and is certainly standard for QUB, my module guides are necessarily over a dozen pages long, mostly filled with boilerplate. So it effectively turns into a terms & conditions statement--nobody seems to notice if there's something non-standard there. Where you have more control over your course guide, and where course guides/syllabi are less standardized in form, you might have less trouble getting students to hear what you tell them.)

    1. Yes, I remember being frustrated by how centralized these decisions are in UK departments. It's a lot easier to be able to make these decisions oneself.

  2. Jonathan, how do you do things (say for attendance/participation) for a similarly enrolled non-logic philosophy course?

    1. I've done it in a similar way—measuring participation via classroom response technology, and having that be part of assessment as a default, but allowing an opt-out at students' discretion. The most recent time I had such a course I had a two big lectures plus one small seminar per week format; for that course I didn't use that technology or this scheme, instead requiring participation in tutorials and asking TAs to give a grade for it, and not doing anything in particular to enforce attendance in the lectures. (This was in part because I found I had fewer things I wanted to ask my epistemology students mid-lecture than I do my logic students, so there was less value to asking them to sign up for the classroom system.) I don't have a firm opinion as to what's best in these cases, and will probably experiment a little more.