Blog Post

What If You Had To Earn Your Grade BEFORE You Took The Class: Or, Heads Up, Yet Again, Dean Baker!

Last night, at the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library, I gave the first lecture of my forty-stop tour for Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.   It was a marvelous, generous standing room only audience, and our Dean of Academic Affairs, Lee Baker, made a most complimentary introduction.   When I took the lectern, though, I turned it:  I said he must have a migraine once a semester when we wakes up, turns on his computer, and has an email from me with the subject line:  "HEAD'S UP!"   I am a very early riser, I blog before dawn, and, more than once, I've had some radical idea for how to turn the classroom upside down, blogged about it, and had the call from Inside Higher Ed or the Duke Chronicle or some other newspaper even before our lovely Dean has had his morning cup of coffee.   Soon he's having to reassure some reporter in those measured words he's gotten very good at:  "Yes, this is a radical way of teaching but Professor Davidson is one of our best and most responsible teachers and she wouldn't be undertaking this . . . "   You know the rest of that administrative  sound bite!  It's not easy being @catinstack's dean!


Well, the conversation was so good last night, and the interactive exercise with the audience so energetic that, alas, I woke up this morning with yet another experiment that will probably get our good dean out of bed again.  I'm on leave this year for the book tour so I have a year to hone and polish this.   The one thing I didn't like about my crowdsourced, peer-evaluated grading last year was the paperwork.   The software for collaborative, peer-evaluative work is so clumsy that the RA in the class had to be a human tabulating machine, spending most of her time collecting information on the feedback each student gave each week to every other student--and to the students teaching the unit that week.  The pedagogy worked brilliantly.   We learned about learning and teaching and the fruitfulness of evaluation in a profound way.  But the evaluating itself was, quite frankly, a pain in the butt.  


So what if we adapted the lessons of "endeavor-based work" (IBM, of all places, uses this: to the "innovation challenge" of Mozilla that I used last year as my midterm exam (the toughest exercise I have given in my entire career and unforgettable:  But here's the kicker:  what if this happened before the class began.   I'm sure there are rules against this so, with all due respect Dean Baker, you will probably be apologizing for me again.  But I think this would be an amazing experiment, worth the effort and the controversy.


 Here's what I'm thinking.   Next year, I want my class itself to produce a fantastically interactive online course called "21st Century Literacies."  I want us to produce an episode per week and the students producing each episode will be responsible for beta testing it to the general public, so that the public's interactions are actually the feedback the students are receiving as they both offer a "lesson" to the public and receive lessons from the public to make the online course--free, and open to anyone--even better.  Their final project is to deliver a finished version of their interactive lesson unit.   It will be a phenomenal experience, I know that.  (As Dean Baker will tell you, I'm a serious and responsible teacher with a lot of experience.  This is a winner, for everyone.)   But I don't want to trivialize this kind of creative interactive learning with grades.   I don't want to trust this kind of content to anyone but a superlative student.   I don't mean superlative in a predictable sense, but meaning creative, smart, determined, risk-taking, innovative, collaborative.  My kinda student, my kinda person.


So what if I said students had to earn their A before they came in the class?   What if I posted a tentative list of "21st Century Literacies" and invited any team--they would have to have selected team members who compliment their skills, a group of two or three per "literacy"--to create a beta-beta version of their unit before the class began, as their application to the class.   If it was A material, they would be in.   If not, they would have learned something from doing the project that would serve them well in the rest of their lives--but no admission.   To earn the A in the class itself, all the students would have to do is turn their beta version, and then into their final version, improving their presentation, their content, their ideas, their functionality, all of that in the course of the course.   If they didn't deliver a completed project?  If they didn't post their beta version?  If they didn't do everything to draw peer-students from the general public to their course?  If they didn't respond seriously to every inquiry?   What grade would they get?  Failure.  Of course.   Pass/fail.   A or F.  Earned in advance.  Delivered at the end.  No grade book in between.   Done. 


I don't know if this will work.   But I know we will all learn from the experiment.   To my mind, that is what great inspired teaching/learning--what Howard Rheingold calls "co-learning" is all about.




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).  below.

A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come." PW named it one of the "top 10 science books" of the Fall 2011 season.

In the August 9 New York Times, columnist Virginia Heffernan calls the book "galvanic. . .  One of the nation’s great digital minds, she has written an immensely enjoyable omni-manifesto that’s officially about the brain science of attention. But the book also challenges nearly every assumption about American education. . . . As scholarly as “Now You See It” is — as rooted in field experience, as well as rigorous history, philosophy and science — this book about education happens to double as an optimistic, even thrilling, summer read. It supplies reasons for hope about the future. Take it to the beach. That much hope, plus that much scholarship, amounts to a distinctly unguilty pleasure."

For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.

  [NYSI cover]



Dearest Joe, Thank you for taking the time to explain your meaning in depth.  I understand completely.

Indeed, the system you describe is the reason I am not embedded in a college or university now, and is why I have been working as an independent language teacher for 20 years.

After graduating from college, I left my first job (at what I will call Monolith Media Corp) seven years into my tenure there: The work world wasn't showing me a collaborative experience where good work brought greater rewards or happiness. Quite the contrary: The chaff with political skills seemed to rise to the top, and good, creative workers got no rewards (either monetary or personal) but only more work and the experience of being disliked by those who were not capable or willing to go outside the box. When I quit that job in disgust, my sister, then a young college professor, warned me off the politics of graduate school where I thought I ought to go to become an "official" teacher, so instead I formed a language school with my partner. There, in the company of our students and other teachers, I learned to teach my subject and the rewards were enormous. I now teach privately, and learn from my students as they learn from me, and the rewards for me are freedom to teach as I choose, to use materials I make and/or choose myself, to see my students really learn and grow...with no grades added. The only evaluation is made in the ability of the student to speak and use his language in his chosen field in the real world.

Of course, the problem with being an independent educator is that there is no safety net, no tenure, and no benefits. One is not eligible for academic grants, nor is one officially part of the academic community.  Only through HASTAC can I peer into the community that you inhabit officially, and even so I could not be a HASTAC scholar because I do not qualify.  I am sin papeles, inmigrante ilegal.

But the reward is that I get to teach the way I want to without the burden of bureaucracy. And I get to absorb the strugglers, the rejected ones, the students that high schools and colleges have failed with outdated curricula, and I make them speak Spanish. I get to work with adults who were failed years ago in school and make help speak Spanish. My student body is of all ages, from all classes, of many cultures. I constantly look for new ways to teach, and I allow myself to experiment as I choose! I like taking risks in my classes and involving my students consciously in the process of their own learning.

That is why I have drawn close to the HASTAC community: To seek out like-minded souls who took a different path than I did. I hope that I can find a creative, active way to participate here, though I am still on the outside peeking in.


What a neat idea.  Have A-students apply to do real work and get real feedback so that they make a product that makes the world a better place.

Here's a starting point that the National Council for Teachers of English came up with in 2008:

Twenty-first century readers and writers need to

  • Develop proficiency with the tools of technology
  • Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes
  • Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments


I recently attended a professional development session by Will Richardson ( where he pointed out that by those standards, the vast majority of our students -- and many of our teachers -- are illiterate.  We're not teaching students how to do those things.  Will focused on "Manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information," but we could probably improve in all of those areas.

Your class could help change the status quo by showing examples of each of those literacies (plus the other categories you and your A-team come up with).

But what could be even cooler, and what could make this course a valuable bridge between Duke and Durham, would be to have the student A-teams visit various local schools (Jordan High School, Durham Academy, Hillside High School, Brogden Middle School, Central Park School for Children, etc.) to conduct focus groups with a few teachers and students at each school to ask them how *they* think their school is measuring up and how it could be even better.

So that these sessions do not turn into criticism festivals, you could tailor the sessions to ask: "where is your school doing a good job with some (or all) of these literacies?" Then you could showcase some of the great things going on in Durham and perhaps inspire others to make it so that our students are ready for the 21st century.  Duke students could also draw upon the excellent teachers from their "home" schools and do research over break (or even during the year via Skype).



Thanks for writing.  Hope more people add their ideas too.  This is a good one.


I had a visceral reaction to this idea, and it wasn't a good one.  While I appreciate the desire to not be encumbered by a complex grading system, I can't escape the sense that you are in essence saying, "Only those who already 'get it' are invited."  Many would make a similar criticism of an entire tier of U.S. universities (probably placing your employer among them)

Even if you embrace the notion that education is a sorting mechanism,  at least have a second course  for those who didn't 'make the cut' and are actually hoping someone will help them learn about these things.


Disclaimer:  I work and teach at an open admission community college.


Your point is well taken.   That definitely would be the drawback. . . but only if the metric was some standard of success achieved rather than a standard of creativity, contribution, effort, and desire to be in the course.   In other words, the whole point of the "beta beta" version being the "entrance exam," is that you would work on the project during the course of the course.   One certainly would not teach every course this way!   Also, because of the HASTAC method of "collaboration by difference," it would be assumed that the person who might have artistry to contribute might learn code in the class--or vice versa.   But that each and every student would have something to contribute that was unique and special . . . and then a lot, lot more to learn.


But, unquestionably, this would only scale in certain situations.   Thanks for writing.  This was one of those "off the top of my head" ideas and your reservation is a good one, although the issue to me has very little to do with open admission.   In fact, I think in an open admission situaiton, this might work even better, since it would allow students to show off a range of talents that probably can often remain hidden.   In this kind of a course, I'm not at all sure a standard-issue, well trained, straight A student is the one who would shine.  The projects I've worked with that involve kids coming out of daunting economic situations often showcase the most originality in this kind of thinking-as-doing situation.   Again, I totally see the point of your comment.   Thanks for offering it.  I'll think about that, although I'm not entirely convinced it is an objection in this case.  


. . . having thought about this for several hours and discussed it with several students and colleagues at a beginning of the year party, I now think it would be worth a try.  I certainly woudln't want this in EVERY class, but was proposing it for one advanced  class.   There are all kinds of pre-requisites for courses, and what I'm suggesting is rewarding students for the pre-requisites (a beta- beta- project) by making the level of entry be their A for their course and the "rough draft" of the work they accomplish.   I don't know if it will work or if I will actually do it, but the point is you could do such a thing in any course that would require pre-requisites at any school, and certainly not just at an elite one.  I spent time with someone who studies self-help in very under-funded communities and he said all kinds of community-based learning programs have similar portfolio pre-requisites.   The difference is doing this in a graded college course.  In any case, I loved having this candid feedback because it spurred an evening of great conversation--and that's what pedagogical experiment is all about. 


We're talking at cross purposes.  I am talking about what I want to do in one advanced course at Duke. An issue here is students' grade-grabbing in order to get an A to get into medical school or law school.  I improvised a complex peer-grading and contract grading solution that I've written about at length but keeping track of it all, given the rotten collaborative tools at our disposal in higher ed, was a nightmare.  The RA for the course spent much of her time book keeping.  This is proposed as a workaround for that specific situation.  Nothing more, nothing less.   It will be a peer-driven course, as always, with an improvised grading system--if I decide to do this--where the outcome is a free onliine course that will have aspects that anyoen from any background can access in free, with the student developers also acting as peer-teachers and peer-learners in the course.   That is a fantastic idea open to all.  It will ONLY work if I can figure out a way to minimize the grading component and we don't have a P/F option for this course at my university.  So this is a workaround to achieve a greater good?  Why does solving one small problem to fulfill a worthy objective have to sadden you or any other educators addressing entirely other problems?  I don't get it.   I despise "one size fits all" standardized solutions to anything.


  I and HASTAC do tons of other projects for which I would never recommend this solution.  I teach at Duke but HASTAC has so many components, from K-12 to lifelong, in all kinds of communities and educational organizations around the world.   I'm baffled by this.   The upside is you wrote about this tremendous program.  It's great.  But it's not the same one Duke-specific, and advanced-course at Duke for the major requirement problem I was trying to solve in order to have Duke student engage in creation of open courseware and peer-learning with anyone in the world.      


Enough said!  This feels like we're going around in circles so either I'm missing your point or you are missing mine because clearly we share bedroock values and aspirations for learning together.   I appreciate that.   Thanks for your contribution. 


A year ago, for a very small piece of a modest Kellogg grant (, I had two teams of summer youth employees assess their own skills against the classic "Soft skills" of the 1992 SCANS report - it was a model derived by Arnold Packer from the report he coached almost two decades ago, which he now calls the Verified Resume. The skills - responsibility, teamwork, creativity, inquiry, work across cultures, listening, using new knowledge and the like - are open ended, unstructured, and rather fun to say how well one does and - and this is critical - safe to admit weakness. They had a fine time for an hour bragging and justifying themselves, and all but one had extremely varied scores (the one gave himself high scores in everything to which his fellows just laughed, and then suggested he really did have some strengths which required some weaknesses to look relatively strong!).

The classes then formed teams to produce media - which was the focus of the summer program - and built their teams from those assessments, making sure they had someone who could keep them on time, someone to lead their inquiry, etc., etc.

These were high school kids. "At risk" high school kids. They weren't your superqualified grad students. And they were quite splendid in both their self-assessments and their team building. And, by the end of the summer, they could - and did - all note how they'd improved, and who improved most, and who helped who improve most.

Isn't that really what you're talking about? And it was really, really simple. It didn't conflict with any tests or grades, nor did it undermine a teacher or a curriculum. It...just...gave...them...all...some meaning. I'll be happy to share their comments, and our report, but the kids, the teachers, as well as Kellogg and Packer were happy.


@Joe Beckmann, I have read your comment three times and I still don't get what you're sad about.  Is it simply that the collaborative effort in which you participated involved high school students and Cathy's proposition involves advanced undergrads? And if so, why would you think that the collaborative principle is not applicable at all levels, including graduate school? I admit it: I am baffled. If it doesn't irk CD, I'd love to understand better what irks you.



What saddens me is how elaborate the documentation must be to meet "academic standards" where she's got to meet them. Schools and colleges ought to be laboratories, where students and teachers try on different behaviors and skills, apply and explore different kinds of knowledge and its applications, and not factories producing grades and abstract outcome units (or, given the institutional millieu, AOU's or some such thing). As laboratories it is fairly easy and very straightforward to test whether students, classes, and faculty actually produce: is there a difference, and how do the participants identify, quantify and qualify that difference from entry to exit in a course, a project, a lesson, an event? Instead of integrating assessment with all the other components of a learning opportunity, and building into that assessment peer review, support, critiques, and changes, too many institutions externalize and over-simplify their metrics. Great teachers are bent to accommodate the institutional measures of what goes into an "A" for admission, and then back into those standards as Cathy describes. In fact, admissions into any competitive program already does award an "A" - when they get in, and particularly when they get money by getting in, they start with that "A." The nuances of grades are therefore only really important to admissions to the next cycle - in her case medical schools - and not particularly relevant or revealing to students undergoing the institutional compromise. One might think that a good medical school could accommodate pass-fail metrics once those metrics are amplified by recommendations and portfolios. But that imputes more interest in actually educating new doctors than in producing metrics for competitive measures of ... medical schools.

I think that's a great reason to be sad that a technique like hers which is, in itself, humane, creative and optimistic, is forced into a mold and metric by something which is inhuman, mechanical, derivative, and naive.


For those on the "inside" - like Cathy's lovely example - there really isn't any "there" there. I thoroughly enjoy teaching a "recovery" course for kids who hated history and either flunked or put it off forever. And I really enjoy substitute teaching, since substitutes are really not accountable for anything but creatively conspiring with students on their own intellectual behalf. Smart schools would organize to exploit brilliant teachers to do just that, or, perhaps, I've found a smart school where that exploitation is shared by all. I wander into almost any subject - from calculus to gym to health to history and welding - and they teach me what they've learned and what they want to know more about. Can't beat it, and, semi-retired, the money is thin icing on an unimaginably rich cake.


For those on the "inside" - like Cathy's lovely example - there really isn't any "there" there. I thoroughly enjoy teaching a "recovery" course for kids who hated history and either flunked or put it off forever. And I really enjoy substitute teaching, since substitutes are really not accountable for anything but creatively conspiring with students on their own intellectual behalf. Smart schools would organize to exploit brilliant teachers to do just that, or, perhaps, I've found a smart school where that exploitation is shared by all. I wander into almost any subject - from calculus to gym to health to history and welding - and they teach me what they've learned and what they want to know more about. Can't beat it, and, semi-retired, the money is thin icing on an unimaginably rich cake.