Faculty Focus


Teaching and Learning Without Grading

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Imagine if faculty did not design courses, select course materials, or grade student work.  What role would faculty play in teaching and learning? We serve as instructors at Western Governors University (WGU). At WGU the traditional roles of faculty – course design, instruction, advising, and assessment – are broken apart and distributed across different units and roles at the university. Instructors do not design courses or formally assess student learning. Rather, we work closely with students as subject-matter experts to help develop understanding of course content on their path to demonstrate competency through an end-of-course assessment. The constraints on our autonomy in this disaggregated faculty model, at least compared to our experiences serving in traditional faculty roles, have broadened our perspectives on the tasks of teaching and learning. These constraints have generated desirable difficulties for us, exposed expert blind spots, and engendered greater empathy for students as learners.

Desirable difficulties

To improve our instructional practices, we incorporated recommendations from learning science into our work with students. The texts that we read as a faculty group (Distracted, How Humans Learn, and Powerful Teaching) were written from the perspective of traditional faculty working with a cohort of students in a course designed for themselves. Without the creative control to promote student learning through the design of the learning environment, to create instructor presence over time, and to use multiple assessment strategies, we struggled to make connections. Specific recommendations in the literature – frequent, low-stakes assessments; spaced practice; retrieval practice; interleaving; authentic assessments; and teaching like a poet or playwright – initially appeared to us as appealing but unavailable strategies.

Seeing this challenge as a desirable difficulty provided a path forward in our exploration. Like our students, we faced the task of taking the known and applying it to the unknown (i.e., reconsider how to use these instructional strategies in the distinct context of our work with students). We needed to think like students again and accept that this work, like learning, would be difficult, require practice, and advance through reflection.

Expert blind spots

Without the traditional classroom context for orientation, we did not have a clear model of making these connections. James Lang’s recommendation to think about attention as an achievement and not the normal condition for learning served as a challenge and inspiration for us (Lang, 46). Competition for students’ attention, particularly challenging given the remote and episodic character of our teaching, required us to reimagine how to cultivate attention to prepare students for the “hard work of learning” (Lang, 15). That hard work begins by framing faculty-student collaboration in terms of practice instead of evaluation. We work one-on-one with students in 30–45-minute sessions by phone or video meeting and in small groups for 60-minute webinars. Pre-appointment emails help set expectations for meetings. Our sessions with students use language focused on collaboration, practice, and feedback instead of grading, assessment, and evaluation to support student metacognition. We try to be attentive to the difference between lack of attention and frustrated attempt, as well as how expert blind spots might fuel student frustration.

In cases where faculty tend to emphasize content over students’ learning needs, consider that they may be operating with expert blind spots. We understand expert blind spots as taken-for-granted instructional practices that frustrate student learning. As subject-matter experts, we often forget the “hard work of learning.” Backward design course development that starts with learning objectives instead of selecting course content alerts us to this difficulty (Bowen 2017). It has the added benefit of assisting faculty in addressing expert blind spots (Ambrose et al., 99). However, backward design still leaves faculty in charge of course development, the design of learning experiences, and the assessment of student learning. This control could impede student learning through an inadvertent reversal of this design principle when content choices push back on the design (Darby 2021). If we want to address frequently unidentified expert blind spots, then faculty may need to relinquish some control over content coverage.

When we stop thinking about our primary duty as content delivery, what then should drive interactions with students? This question encouraged us to think about the temptation to treat content coverage as learning as an example of an expert blind spot in our work with students. The challenge of getting students more actively involved in their own learning, as opposed to waiting for content to be delivered, is common across educational roles and institutions.

This shift echoes Joshua Eyler’s call to “see and value our students as fellow travelers on this educational journey” (Eyler, 147). The travel-companion model pushes us to focus on how we can assist the development of student metacognition and scaffold appropriate learning experiences within the limited time available to us. The model supports students becoming more confident and self-aware learners by providing them with opportunities to apply and reflect on course content.

Practice for failure

Our sessions with students aim to create the conditions for students to practice failure (Zakrajsek 2020). Getting students to generate knowledge, even if incorrectly or incompletely, is key to this work. When students uncover steps in reasoning, reflect on feedback, and develop confidence by “getting out of their heads,” then practice for failure propels the learning. Because instructors do not grade student work, the uncoupling of instructors from this traditional faculty role pushes us to be advocates for learning. It encourages, hopefully, students to look for feedback instead of evaluation and make the most of this practice. Although grading practices do not structure our work with students, the high-stakes, single assessment for our courses creates its own set of challenges for learning. One recommendation from the science of learning literature speaks directly to our experience with students – “Even though we can’t change the stakes of final exams, we can change how students prepare beforehand” (Agarwal & Bain, 218). Focus on what is within your reach rather than fretting about what is beyond your control. It also inspires us to think about student encounters as opportunities to demonstrate care for a learner by preparing faculty and student for the hard work of learning.

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about constraints on instruction (e.g., limited control over the selection of course materials or course pace set by students). How might they bring a helpful perspective to the teaching and learning process?
  2. Everyone has some level of expert blind spots.  What do you see as your primary expert blind spot most likely to interfere with student learning?
  3. What can we do as faculty to think like students again to help bring expert blind spots to light and engender more empathy for students?

Barry Sharpe is a senior instructor (general education/political science) at Western Governors University. He has also served as a faculty member and administrator at several public universities and liberal arts colleges. Barry is the author of Modesty and Arrogance in Judgment: Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, as well as articles on political theory, applied ethics, and pedagogy. He has a PhD in political science from the University of South Carolina and a JD from the University of Texas-Austin.

Erinn Nicley is a senior instructor (general education/political science) at Western Governors University. He has served in both administration and instructional faculty roles for nearly eight years at WGU, as well as various part-time faculty positions in history, geography, environmental studies, and sociology both at WGU and several public and private liberal arts universities, including Ohio State University, University of Illinois, Florida State University, Miami University, Ohio Wesleyan University, and Columbus State Community College. He is the recipient of a teaching-focused 2017 WGU Leadership Award and the 2008 University of Illinois Fred W. Foster Award for Teaching Excellence. Prior to his higher education career, Nicley served as a US Foreign Service Officer with the US Department of State. He has a PhD in geography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.


Agarwal, P.K., Bain, P.B. (2019). Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M.W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. Norman, M.K. (2010) How learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved 2/18/2021 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/.

Darby, F. (2021, January 11). Planning a Great Online Course Through Roundabout Design. Faculty Focus. Retrieved 03/05/2021 from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/online-education/online-course-design-and-preparation/planning-a-great-online-class-through-roundabout-design/.

Eyler, J.R. (2018). How Humans Learn: The Science and Stories Behind Effective College Teaching. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press.

Lang, J.M. (2020). Distracted: Why Students Can’t Focus and What You Can Do About It. New York: Basic Books.

Zakrajsek, T. (2020, June 11). If At First You Don’t Fail, Try, Try Again. The Scholarly Teacher. Retrieved 3/04/2021 from https://www.scholarlyteacher.com/post/if-at-first-you-don-t-fail-try-try-again.