End of Semester Grading Blues

You have probably heard them all before:

“Isn’t there some way I can pass the class?”

“Maybe you could give me an incomplete?”

“I’ll lose my financial aid if you fail me.”

“But, I worked real hard.”

Toward the end of the semester, faculty receive frenzied emails about grades from students looking for a loophole or special treatment. These can be difficult conversations to have with students who are emotional, angry and hurt. They might have the mistaken belief they are being “picked on” or that we do not like them. Instructors can feel pressure to provide extra credit work, allow students to re-do assignments or accept late work. It can be hard to say no, especially when tears are involved. Here are some pointers on that difficult conversation and importance of having it from Faculty Focus: The ‘I deserve a Better Grade on This’ Conversation.

There is a disconnect in the student’s mind between the work delivered and the grade earned.  This is where the syllabus can be your best friend. If your late policy or grading scheme is clearly articulated, you can use that to help the student understand that rules apply equally. Establish these rules early and tell students that they have the power to control their own destiny and EARN the grade they desire. Encurage students to speak with you early and not at the end of the semester. In his piece for Inside Higher Education by John Warner provides suggestions for work with students throughout the course.

Earning a C or even failing a class can have a silver lining for students. For some, the low grade signals that they did not master the course and repeating it will be helpful. For others, it can be the wake-up call they need to learn the skills that will enable them to do better in the future. Read Shawna Shames’ piece entitled Learning from the “C”. Ofter students an opportunity to reflect on their grade and learn from their experience in ways that are meaningful. This approach can help you move the conversation in a forward direction and away from failure.

There are times when a grade review is warranted. Instructors make grading mistakes. We want students to ask for explanations in appropriate ways. This is a link that you might provide to your students to help them assess when and how to approach you for clarification. See How to Get Your Professor to Change Your Grade.

And, now for something completely different…a lighthearted, end of the semester laugh, read Dear Student: No, I Won’t Change the Grade You Deserve.


Making your classroom LGBTQ-friendly

Bruce Jenner’s recent interview with Diane Sawyer has brought the issue of LGBTQ people around the country and world into the spotlight in a new way. Perhaps it has prompted you to think about how to create an atmosphere of trust, respect, tolerance and comfort for all students in your classes and the wider GCC community.

To some extent all the things we already to do be inclusive are appropriate, but we can take that a step further and be more proactive when discussing sensitive social issues and gender politics.

The Twelve Keys to Building an Inclusive Classroom Community: Supporting Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Students from Arizona State University:

1. Use inclusive language

  • Use precise terms like Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) rather than homosexual or gay as an umbrella term.
  • Use terms like partner instead of boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife.

2. Never tolerate abusive language in your classroom or on campus.

  • Language like, “That’s so gay” or “You’re such a fag” is common in schools, and it actively creates an unsafe environment for LGBTQ students and LGBTQ Allies. We must respond to (and be sure not to ignore such language).
  • Don’t simply be punitive with hurtful language. Instead, explain why it is not welcome and is hurtful. This helps students understand why they shouldn’t use the language rather than just making them avoid using it around you.

3. Never assume heterosexuality

  • Building relationships with students is wonderful! Ask about students’ lives, but don’t assume heterosexuality in your language. A question like, “Are you seeing anybody these days?” goes a lot further than, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?”

4. Maintain confidentiality within the confines of your professional responsibilities

  • There are certain things like abuse that we cannot keep confidential, but outside of that, make sure students feel safe by always keeping what they share confidential.
  • Create a space in which students can talk to you about their struggles, helping all students to understand that you are someone they can talk to during free time.
  • Be careful never to “out” an LGBTQ student, meaning that if a student is not open in their sexual orientation and they share that with you, be careful not to share that information with others. Sometimes being out can be more dangerous than being closeted.

5. Keep an eye out for bullying and act to stop it

  • It’s tough to know the best way to respond to bullying. Sometimes it means interrupting bullying as it happens. Sometimes it means talking to the bullies or the bullied afterward.
  • In responding to bullying, be careful to not make the target out to be the weak one in the situation, as that can make bullying worse in the long run.

6. Respect the needs and wishes of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual students

  • Support them in their decisions and their needs, helping them to make safe choices that will help them be happy and fully realized as a young person.
  • Questions like, “Are you sure?” “Could this be a phase?” are not helpful.

7. Respect the needs and wishes of Transgender students

  • Respect the names students wish to be called and the pronouns they prefer. When unsure, ask the individual one on one with empathy and respect.
  • Respect the clothing choices students make, supporting them as they figure out how they want to perform their gender.
  • Be aware of the usage of a class roster system for attendance purposes or visibly displayed to the class, the name listed on the roster may not be the student’s preferred name and could out the student to classmates. Transgender students often do not have the money to legally change their name.

8. Encourage respectful disagreement on issues of sexual identity

  • Dialogue and discussion inside and outside the classroom are helpful and healthy so long as respectful. Don’t shut down conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity, but make sure to facilitate the conversation down inclusive roads and correct misconceptions.

9. Don’t ask people to speak for an entire group

  • Minority students often report either feeling invisible in class, or sticking out like a sore thumb as the token minority. This experience is heightened when they are addressed as spokespeople for their whole group, and can have implications on performance (Lord & Saenz, 1985).

10. Examine your curriculum

  • Are certain perspectives systematically not represented in your course materials (e.g., a course on family focusing only on traditional families, or a course on public policy ignoring race issues)? Neglecting some issues implies a value judgment (hooks 1994), which can alienate certain groups of students.

11. Recognize that you’re not an expert. You will make mistakes and occasionally be insensitive

  • Humble yourself and apologize where necessary; learn from your mistakes, and always try to broaden your understanding of LGBTQ issues so you can best support all of your students.

12. Acknowledge that building an inclusive community is better for everyone, and fight to make it a school-wide priority

  • Inclusive communities experience less bullying and violence
  • Inclusive communities are likely to boast higher achievement and stronger school spirit.

Learning and teaching resources exist to help educators with LGBTQ issues:






The Teaching Marathon: Training and Re-Training

Teaching is like training for a marathon. Just as the runner is trying to get stronger and faster, the teacher is looking to communicate better and increase what students learn. There are the hours of practice and preparation, trying new techniques and tools and figuring out what to do when things go wrong. And, things will go wrong–that is the nature of the marathon and the nature of teaching.  We need to recognize and admit it problems come up and…take the initiative to look for solutions.

The key is to identify those moments when teaching is a struggle. Sometimes this can be relatively easy; maybe the students are not participating in class as much as we would like or assignments are getting submitted late. Other times, it is more difficult to find avenues for improvement that make sense. The end-of-the-course evaluations may provide ideas.  From there, the hard work of understanding what changes to make and how to make them surfaces. For many instructors, the challenge is in finding the remedy that works for their students, their content and most importantly, for their teaching style.

It is because we are teachers who love learning that we are compelled to expand our knowledge and skills in the classroom. The passion that we feel for our subject needs to be equal to our passion to teach that subject. A love of earth science, poetry or math is not enough; we must also be able to share our knowledge to increase students’ understanding, knowledge and skills.

For a sobering examination of teaching self-assessment, read Paul Price’s NEA article, Are you as Good a Teacher as You Think?

Colorado State University has identified 10 Requirements of Good Teaching. Your own list might vary, but this is a strong beginning for the practices that can help you meet your students’ needs.

If something on the list has struck a chord with you, think about your own practice. Is there something you can change to be better?…to engage students more?….to communicate more clearly?

Solutions to many common teaching problems are available at the Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching.

Take time before the end of the semester for a self-diagnostic. Think about what is working in your classroom and how you can keep that going. At the same time, think about what is not working—not just from your own perspective, but also your students’. This is how you get better and stronger.

I have a Dream: Graduating more Men of Color

There is an oft repeated statement that there are more black men in prison than in college. While this claim has been debunked, it highlights a fundamental problem in the education of young American men of color (MOC). Not enough men of color start or finish college—the statistics make the scope of the problem clear  We lose them because they don’t start and fail to keep them enrolled.

Unfortunately, the trends we see at the national level are echoed here at GCC. The men of color on our campus may be facing some unique challenges that are not seen in the rest of the student population. Perhaps the larger concern is being able to provide culturally responsive educational opportunities to all students.

The axiom that we need to think globally and act locally could not be more apt. We need to be the change we want to see in our community—it start here…in our classrooms, in our offices and in our outreach to men of color and students who do not identify with the predominant culture. Look at the resources available on Culturally Responsive Teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching methods can help us create:

The classroom is not the only place to make changes. GCC staff are in a prime position to make students feel welcome and part of our college community in our work in every office on campus. In office such as admissions, advising and financial aid, the first impression we give students tends to be lasting. We must encourage all students, show them they belong here and that they will be supported on their educational path. The library, cafeteria and bookstore are also areas where we work closely with students to ensure their educational success.

Nationally, we are making progress on issues of diversity on our campuses but there are still miles to go.



Great Student Expectations: A Guide for Faculty

Students come to courses with certain baseline expectations of faculty. Chief among these according to Blue Ridge Community College are:

  • Providing opportunities to learn
  • Acting with professionalism
  • Grading fairly and returning work promptly
  • Being accessible to students
  • Communicating in a timely and professional manner

At the community college level, we must also be respectful of students’ time, resources and life outside of the college. This balancing act is a challenge for many instructors who struggle to cover material and meet course competencies while keeping workload and time commitment manageable for students. This is a lot to juggle!

Student expectations are expanding in ways that go beyond traditional teaching, advising and college staff roles. Faculty are expected to be classroom referees, counselors and hand-holders. Advisors are expected to solve problems that reside outside the college environment.

Students may expect special treatment around due dates, grading, attendance, etc. What was once termed “timely communication” may now mean an immediate response regarding grading, emails and phone conversations. Students may make appointments to meet outside of office hours and then not show up. These annoyances may be par for the course, but they can absorb instructor time, erode enthusiasm and create a student culture that distracts from teaching.

While we forced to navigate complex issues when they arise, part of the solution may be in prevention. This starts on day one of the course with a carefully written syllabus and an explanation of what students can expect of the instructor.

The syllabus should include information about:

  • Course policies reading class work, attendance and late submissions
  • The instructor’s expectations of students
  • What the student can expect of the faculty, such as fairness in grading, office hours, communication preferences

When situations arise, it is much easier to go back to the syllabus and remind students of the rules of the class and the role of faculty and students. To be most effective:

  1. Be consistent in enforcement of rules
  2. Include class policies in the explain policies to students if they are uncertain what you intend
  3. Grade blindly
  4. Include communication preferences and guidelines in the syllabus and your general response time
  5. Communicate clearly and keep copies of emails
  6. Never react in anger and frustration

Sandy Chapman at Colorado State University recognizes that each semester there is often a student who crosses the invisible boundary in ways that can hinder learning, monopolize faculty time and energy, and create drama. Look at her helpful advice for staying on point and sane.  Strategies for Setting Student/Instructor Boundaries

Learn more about Email Boundaries and expectations from Nate Kreuter.

The article Connecting with Students While Maintaining Ethical Boundaries unpacks “professionalism” in a world of social media, power dynamics and much more.

The article Faculty Focus, Students Place a Premium on Faculty Who Show They Care, discusses the value of limits and carefully set boundaries.

Resources at the T & L site for:






Embrace Civility in the Classroom

Teaching is a demanding task. Challenges arise at every turn, which makes it an engaging and dynamic occupation. In addition to worrying about content and learning in our classrooms, we also need to be concerned with classroom dynamics and the erosion of civility. When it comes to promoting classroom etiquette and respect, instructors need to lead by example, set expectations and take action when needed. It starts with us and ends with us–so let’s see how to make a difference.

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. ~Dalai Lama

More and more instructors are being called on to promote civility and classroom etiquette. Schroeder and Robertson’s article, Civility in the College Classroom, provides a glimpse into the problem of hostility, disrespect and aggression that is occurring in classrooms across the nation.  It is not a reflection of the instructor, the course or students in general. Remember this problem is coming into our classrooms and college campuses from the outside world. Without interventions, the problem can easily get out of hand. While there are often college-level policies and procedures to help, the role of the instructor cannot be understated. Here are some steps that can communicate expectations for student conduct:

Promoting Respect and Civility in the Classroom from the Academy of Art University

  1. Lead by example and model the behaviors you want to see by responding to students in appropriate ways. This means acknowledging really good work and comments from students, encouraging and modeling honest and tactful communication, and letting students know when they have been inappropriate. If a teacher ignores inappropriate comments, students may think the teacher is condoning them, or doesn’t care about students.
  2. Plan, in advance, ways you will address issues of incivility. A timely response is important, and if you have thought the situation and response through, you will be able to respond more effectively. It is often helpful to come up with a hierarchy of responses to potential situations. For example, if a student is talking over you, first make eye contact, and then move near the student and pause, before speaking to him or her in private.
  3. Keep communication open. Make a point to greet your students by name as they come into class. Try to seize on other opportunities to personally connect with all of your students, giving each student equal attention and a sense of value.
  4. Foster unity and inclusion through pair work, group work, and “roundtable” discussion that promotes the mutually respectful sharing of ideas and responsibilities.
  5. Respect students’ privacy and dignity. Never post grades that display the students’ names—only ID numbers. Even when using ID numbers, rearrange the order in which students are listed so that it’s not easily recognizable to others.
  6. Respect students as individuals, taking into account a student’s learning style, strengths, back-ground, and demands on time. This can be done without compromising the high performance standards you have set.

Discussions in online classes require ground rules and clear expectations—make it part of your class in ways that are positive and unambiguous. In the article, Netiquette: Make it Part of Your Syllabus, Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek and Lozada provide suggestions for the syllabus and wording of rules of engagement in online classes.

Netiquette – Often-Overlooked Policy from Rutger’s may help you craft your own netiquette policy to help prevent issues in online classes

How to communicate and participate in online classes 

University of Missouri: Show me Respect, The Civility Toolkit is chock-full of resources, ideas and commentary on the need for campus and classroom interventions. This clearinghouse of resources has something for every instructor.

Putting the Community in Community College

Learning and development is a social, collaborative activity.”Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Many of us would agree that students learn best when they interact with others in a supportive environment. This is true for traditional classrooms and virtual classrooms, in offices and in casual settings. We can influence these interactions in how we craft the learning environment, how we talk and how we work with students. The way in which we, as instructors, structure the classroom community can help to stimulate social interactions and create a safe place for students to learn. There is a critical need to support students through interactions that are accepting, nurturing and encouraging.

Here is a quick read about supportive classrooms to whet your appetite: Building a Nurturing and Supportive Environment for All Students by Matthew Lynch.

Spend some time at the site, Getting Results: A Professional Development Course for Community College Educators. This free-online course contains six modules covering topics such classroom community, adult learners in the classroom and student diversity. There are videos and ideas to try in your classroom.

The choices we make in the classroom have the potential to deeply impact students and their choices. Charles Blow talks about how his life was changed by one thoughtful professor in his New York Times piece entitled, In College, Nurturing Matters.

Some things you can do to set the mood in the first couple of weeks:

  • Play fun name games and ways to introduce students.
  • Notice and encourage groups or individual students who are contributing to class, taking risks, supporting one another, and demonstrating effort.
  • Survey students about their goals for the class, then share these goals anonymously with the class.
  • Create team-based activities or group activities that allow each student to have a vital role.
  • Use small groups or pairs learning so students can learn to work with each other and see the value in different perspectives and experiences.
  • Assign students to teach material throughout the semester.
  • Give students the opportunity to make choices on assignments and projects.
  • Include lecture notes or other materials on your Moodle course site each week.
  • Create practice quizzes that increase confidence in text taking and increase preparation.
  • Welcome students to class each day and ask about their lives!

The New Semester nearly here!

The beginning of the semester can be a busy time and questions often arise about teaching and college resources. This list of links and reminders is a starting point for your semester at GCC, but can also help you plan for important activities and deadlines.

♦ Prepare your syllabus.

♦ Print the GCC Academic Calendar with holidays, professional dates and student deadlines:  Consult the activities calendar for faculty and staff http://www.gcc.mass.edu/staff/#

♦ Check course materials with the bookstore to make sure they are correct.

♦ Use your GCC email for all correspondence to students and colleagues. Mobile access instructions.

♦ Verify the days and times of the class you are teaching along with the classroom using at MyGCC.

♦ Download your class roster for the first day of that class from MyGCC. Check back for roster updates until the end of add/drop. Contact any wait list students if there will be room in the class.

♦ Take student contact information such as daytime & evening phone and GCC & personal email can help you reach students outside of class. If you need to cancel class for any reason, use MyGCC to alert students.

♦ Confirm your roster within the first weeks of class through MyGCC. This is critical for financial aid.

♦ Get to know student resources at GCC:

♦ The Testing Center is available for make-up exams as well as testing needs for students with accommodations. More information.

♦ Complete Early Progress Reports for any students who are having difficulty in your class. This can be related to behavioral issues, low grades or attendance problems. More information about EPRs available here.

♦ Have students complete the course evaluations on or before the last day of class. It can be helpful to get evaluations finished before the last class to avoid stress and missed evaluations due to weather cancellations. Choose a student volunteer to help administer the evaluations and return them to the division office. For more about evaluations see the faculty handbook.

♦ Submit Final Grades. Please get your grades submitted on time using MyGCC.

Helpful links:

Please let us know what additional links and resources need to be added to the list. Email suggestions to sheldonl@gcc.mass.edu






In Praise of Encouragement

There is a fundamental difference between praise and encouragement. This is a distinction to keep in mind as we wrap up the semester and provide students with feedback on their learning. We want our students to reflect on their learning in ways that move them toward their next goal—we need to do that, too.

We live in a “great job” world where students have become accustomed to hearing praise. It is, to some people’s thinking, cheap and easy to handout. Encouragement, on the other hand, takes more time and effort to dole out. The results of praise and those of encouragement differ greatly. Praise can signal that the job is over and we can sit back and admire the results. Encouragement lets us know that we are still working and that the job is not finished.

Think about your student as a runner. If you yell out “Well done” before the end of the race, the runner might get the idea that s/he is done and can rest. But, if you yell “Keep it up—your getting there”, the runner is bolstered by the support and keeps moving.

Encouragement can have the effect of keeping a desired behavior going. That can be attending class, being active in discussions or submitting work on time. It also communicates expectations, standards and models behavior for others.

Here are some resources to get you started:




Stimulating Discussions

Let’s Discuss Class Discussions

Whether we teach online or in-person, we know the value that stimulating classroom discussions can have on student learning. It is an opportunity for students to practice concepts, get clarification and apply new ideas. Getting discussions started and maintaining momentum can be a challenge. We might also have a core group of students who are vocal and others who sit back and watch. Leading classroom discussions is a dynamic art–the challenges, tools and students are always changing.

Here are some common challenges faculty face in discussions with some helpful resources:

♦ Getting students off the stage:

We have to work constructively with these eager students who may intimidate others with their ideas and enthusiasm. We don’t want to shut he student down, but instead help channel their participation.

♦ Get students off the sidelines:

Students may be quiet in class for a variety of reasons–fear, lack of preparation, etc. Understanding the reason may help find an appropriate solution for moving the student forward.

♦ Writing useful and engaging discussion questions:

We might be able to have spontaneous discussions in class–especially for topics that engender passion. But, discussion questions which help students achieve course competencies can also be prepared in advance.

♦ A special note about online classes and the value of discussions:

Discussions take on a heightened level of importance in many online classes. Discussion activities can help students feel connected to their classmates and instructor. Students often report higher levels of engagement with the material and the course itself. Ultimately, these feelings may lead to greater motivation and course success. This short article from Jennifer Freeman at UT TeleCampus, Using Discussions in Online Courses: The Importance of Interactivity, gives online discussions their due and provides practical ideas instructors.