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So You Think You Can Learn

I'm not a big television watcher, have almost no interest in most reality shows, but am addicted to "So You Think You Can Dance."   It's not only because I love dance (although that helps), but also because it is a rare example of how excellent, rigorous feedback can contribute towards a goal of excellence, not only for the individual involved but for a larger community.   It is also a rare example of people with extraordinary talents in one area learning to adapt those talents to parallel (but quite different) areas.  In other words, it is a fantastic counter-model of teaching and learning, expertise and specialization, than one finds in traditional learning models, many of which I find, frankly, impoverished, enervating, uninspiring, and unproductive.  There.  I've said it.


I've gotten a lot of attention lately for my "This Is Your Brain on the Internet" course where, in the first year, I made peer-to-peer learning the pedagogical model.  I constructed a syllabus but, each week, two students would read my assignments and then decide whether they wanted to stick with those, augment them, or substitute something else.  They would then lead the class discussion.  In the second year, and because of pointed questions raised by my best students, I researched different grading systems and came up with a peer-to-peer model of evaluation, with the students responsible for the weekly discussion sessions also determining whether all the blogs produced for the weekly assignments were satisfactory enough to meet the "contract grading" standards set for the course.   If not, they had to give feedback so the blogs could be rewritten and improved to be satisfactory.   Next time I teach the course, I want to extend that so, the last part of each peer-led class, will include comments from all of the students about ways the peer-teaching could have been improved.  Since with peer-teaching, one is a teacher in one class but a student in another, by adding public oral feedback, each person becomes far more responsive and responsible at the moment, in situ, and feedback is not a source of shame but a path to excellence.


That's the tie in to "So You Think You Can Dance."  This season, there are ten finalists who have been chosen in competitions from all over the country.  Ten chosen from hundreds to be on the show.   Each week, one of these finalists teams up with an All Star from past seasons.  They pick a name out of a hat and also a style.  So Alex, the brilliant ballet dancer, might be doing hip hop or Broadway one week and contemporary the next.  At the end of the dance, the All Star walks off set and a panel of three judges, all former dancers and choreographers, offers pointed, tough feedback.  Even when a dance is stunning--such as when Alex received a rare standing ovation from the judges for a powerful, emotional contemporary dance--there is pointed critique as well.   This is not like "American Idol" where Simon shows off his own macho by being as harsh as possible.   This is dance criticism by now-famous dancers and producers but who know both the rigor of professional dance and who want dance, as a form of expression, to be better supported and have more influence and power in the world.   They are evangels.  "So You Think You Can Dance" is their platform.  


They do not, like other such shows, reduce their critique to a verdict. They might tell Alex, after his Broadway routine, something big and profound:  ballet moves are open and big; Fosse's moves are closed in, tight, centered, simmeringly big from the inside out, like a cauldron.   Or they might scold another dancer for smiling too much at the audience during a romantic moment (Hey! Look at how cute I am!) instead of connecting with his partner and allowing the audience to connect through the public intimacy of that partnership.  Or there might be a technical demonstration of a foot pointed instead of flat or a back too swayed or a line marred by a hand that flops when it should extend. The critique is offered not by one expert but by three who are strong-minded and feel free to discuss their own disagreements. Their judgment is not always unanimous.  And it is not final.   In the end, who actually wins or loses that week is not decided by judges but by the general public.  The actual vote is crowdsourced to you and me, the Audience, and it is an audience that, one hopes, becomes an intelligent participant in the process, schooled by the clear, concise, pointed critique of these experts.   Not only do the dancers learn.  So do we.   And, if we choose badly, the judges turn their acute eye on us and tell us where and how we got it wrong and express disappointment in us when we're being frivolous and not taking our dance seriously enough.  


Of course, "So You Think You Can Dance" is also television so there are cheesy elements.  Of course.   But what inspires me, as a teacher, is the idea that feedback that is tough is the greatest gift of all.   That, in the end, is why I have promised myself to always experiment with new forms of grading.  Our present grading system was adopted in the early twentieth century both as an efficiency (largely to cope with the hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding into the newly required American primary and secondary educational system).   Everyone knew it was an impoverished form of evaluation, far less constructive than actual feedback on essays (the Oxbridge model) or apprenticeship models of correction.  But,well, it was a way to cope.  Now we have elevated it to the only way to evaluate, even at an elite school such as Duke in fortunate situations such as a seminar.  As I've said elsewhere, grading has become a religion.  The term paper, midterm, and final have become "requirements."   That's all fine.  But it isn't the highest form of learning and it isn't one particularly suited to the new ways of learning and working collaboratively in a digital age.


So you think you can learn?   That's the challenge.  I think you can.  But you--all of you, all of us--deserve a better system for the twenty-first century.   "So You Think You Can Dance" is one model of feedback and expertise, both crowdsourced to a general audience that both learns and decides.


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Scholar takes grades to task

Duke professor Cathy Davidson has turned over some grading to students.
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DURHAM -- You'd think Cathy Davidson would like grades. She got great ones herself in college, all A's aside from one pesky C in introductory German.

But after more than three decades teaching everything from traditional American literature to a free-wheeling, futuristic course about the Internet, the Duke scholar is trying to get as far from the grade book as possible.

To do so, she has turnedover grading in one course to her students, a move that brought her headlines and some criticism from those who see it as an irresponsible challenge to a long-held academic practice.

To Davidson it makes perfect sense. Academia, she argues, has long been stuck in a rut, grading today's students with standards developed for the Industrial Age. It bugs her.

"We're doing a great job of training people for the 20th century," she says.

Davidson is an English professor, but lately she has focused on the interdisciplinary course "This is Your Brain on the Internet."

The first version of the class, which analyzes technology, communication and the Internet, stretched educational convention. It demanded heavy student participation. Two students taught each class, and all class members wrote long critiques on a blog they all could view and comment on.

But at the end, two students pointed out that, though the structure of the class was unusual, Davidson still graded in the customary way. It didn't seem right, they said.

So Davidson let students grade themselves. And the next time she offered the course, each student got an A.

To the skeptic, that proves a flaw in Davidson's grading model. Are students really equipped to evaluate each other? And in turning over the power to grade, is Davidson assuring an easy class?

Just the opposite, she argues. She contends that her students worked far harder knowing they were being judged by their peers.

In part, Davidson employed what is known as "Contract Grading," a method used for decades in which the instructor clearly spells out what work students must do to get an A, B, C, or worse.

But in this course, students decided whether those benchmarks were met. Students wrote 1,000 words a week in blog posts discussing the classes, more than is required for Duke courses that actually offer a writing credit, which Davidson's does not. They all had to lead a class section, go on two field trips, and do a team research project.

'Lower-order thinking'

Davidson didn't make her grading change lightly. She first researched the history of evaluation and found that universities didn't give letter grades until about the 1880s, when Mount Holyoke College began doing so. Until then, professors had commented on student work.

"Letter grades were considered lower-order thinking at the time," Davidson said.

She announced her grading plans on her blog last year, and buzz grew quickly. Higher education trade publications and mainstream media, including The News & Observer, wrote about her intentions. She was floored by the reaction, much of which was negative and, thanks to the anonymity of online commenting, faceless.

Others, though, felt she was really on to something.

"There's a world of people who love it and a world of people who think I'm the worst person on the planet," she said. "Grading: People hold it like a religion."

At Duke, officials like what Davidson is doing, said Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs with Trinity College, the undergraduate home of arts and sciences.

"So much of higher education now is taking students outside the classroom, like study abroad," Baker said. "But she has rethought what it looks like inside the traditional classroom."

Davidson grew up in Chicago, an avid reader drawn to math and science. She was always "the only girl at math camp" and hoped at one point for a career exploring artificial intelligence.

She got great grades and scored well on intelligence tests. But she struggled with some simple things, like reading aloud from a sheet of paper. It wasn't until she became an adult that she was diagnosed with dyslexia.

"Learning disabilities didn't exist when I was a kid," she said. "I was the obstinate kid."

To this day, the woman who has written 20 books and hundreds of scholarly articles struggles to write a check and can barely remember the lyrics to "Happy Birthday." Dyslexia forced Davidson, from an early age, to work around problems and may help explain her interest in stretching boundaries in the classroom, she said.

And it allows her to see things differently than most, says Ken Wissoker, Davidson's husband of nine years.

"It gives her clarity," said Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke University Press. "She can look at a manuscript, and the key sentences just jump off the page."

Davidson attended Elmhurst College, outside Chicago, and majored in English in part because a mentor told her that's what women studied at the time. She graduated in 1970.

She has taught American literature courses for decades, occasionally pushing the envelope.

As a visiting professor, she shook up somewhat-stodgy Princeton in 1988 by enlisting two junior faculty members to argue points of view from readings in front of a class. This was unusual then at Princeton, where junior faculty were treated as glorified grad students - expected to grade papers but do little else.

Intellectual dialogue ensued.

"It got written up in the student newspaper as an educational experiment," Davidson recalled. "Which I thought was funny."

Davidson came to Duke in 1989, and in 1998 became vice provost for interdisciplinary studies. In that role, she tried to create new courses and programs by meshing seemingly disparate academic disciplines.

She now directs the Duke-based Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, or HASTAC for short. Pronounced "Haystack," it is a consortium of scholars from across the academic spectrum who look for ways to mesh their expertise using new technology.

Freedom to rant

For Lacey Kim, Davidson's "Your Brain on the Internet" course was liberating . An economics major, Kim was accustomed to the constant stress that goes with a semester of traditional class work and the end-of-semester scramble for a good grade. In Davidson's course, Kim swapped those stresses for the adrenaline rush of self-expression.

Kim, who took the course in the spring as a senior, found a more liberal, livelier inner voice when critiquing each class. She wrote differently, knowing she'd be evaluated by her peers and not by her professor.

"People said I ranted a lot and was very passionate," Kim said. "I don't think I could have done that in a more traditional class. It really made a power shift in the classroom."

That added freedom is one benefit cited by proponents of Davidson's technique. Baker, the Duke dean, said that in posting student work to a blog, Davidson forces students into a higher level of scholarly responsibility.

"It makes students authors of their own ideas, which is different from just having a teacher critique it," Baker said.

The blog was an internal site, so students could view it but it wasn't public.

Gill Bosonetto, who teaches public speaking at Mars Hill College in Western North Carolina, read about Davidson's course in a higher education trade publication. She has long had students grade themselves, though she balances theirs with her own grades as well. She has often found students to be tough on each other.

"I find it's usually very close to what I score them at, and interestingly enough, they can be harsher," Bosonetto said in an interview. "They take it seriously."

Leonard Cassuto an English professor at Fordham University, credits Davidson with creating a dynamic "learning community" but believes she is shirking her responsibility in not giving grades herself. He likens the student grading to peer review, in which academic experts vet each other's work prior to publication in scholarly journals.

"But in the academy, peer review is done by experts," Cassuto said. "If a journal receives an article on medieval ceramics, they send it to experts on medieval ceramics. My concern is that she is letting these apprentice peer-reviewers make final judgment."

And is there a problem if every student gets an A?

"If the students have done amazing, high-level work, there may not be anything wrong," said Todd Zakrajsek, executive director of the UNC-Chapel Hill Center for Faculty Excellence, which trains professors to teach better. "[But] you go off to college to get an education. There has to be a way to convey to people what you've learned."

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