Dylan Poulsen: 2023 Cromwell Award for Innovation in Teaching

Dylan Poulsen, Associate Professor of Mathematics and Chair of Mathematics and Computer Science, is the 2023 recipient of the Cromwell Award for Innovation in Teaching.

The award honors an instructor for exceptional accomplishments during the previous two academic years. Dr. Poulsen has been researching and implementing an alternative assessment approach known as specifications-based grading, which aims to create a more supportive, inclusive, and collaborative space for students to pursue mathematical inquiry.

Dylan Poulsen has written the following post about specifications-based grading.

First, I would like to thank the Cromwell Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), the Advisory Board, and its co-directors Dr. Emily Steinmetz and Dr. Sean Meehan for their support of my development as a teacher-scholar. The teaching-focused communities and discussions at CTL events have been some of the best aspects of my career at Washington College. I am deeply honored to receive the Cromwell Award for Innovation in Teaching.

I am also excited to share with you my journey with the movement to rethink how faculty assess student work, a movement probably best captured by the name “alternative grading.” This broad term aims to dintinguish from the common assessment method with three to four timed tests throughout the semester counting for a large part of a student’s final grade. I have implemented this grading scheme during most of my career, and have seen the unfortunate side effects. Office hours swell in the days just prior to these major assessments as panic grows. Stress builds. People cry. Worst of all, results of these high-stakes test serve as a proxy measure to a students’ socioeconomic status, widening existing gaps (Sackett et al.). This monthly horror feels antithetical to the classroom culture of trust and support I try to build, and undermines my commitment to equity and inclusion. Moreover, successful learning depends on a cycle of trying, getting some things wrong, getting helpful feedback, and trying again. These high-stakes assessments do not allow for this process to take place. This was, however, how I was taught and how my mentors assessed their classes, and so I perpetuated the system.

Through my interactions in the mathematical community, I found a group of scholars who felt uneasy about the classical assessment methods as well and chose to do something different. Although every alternative grading system is different and goes by a different name (you may have heard specifications grading, mastery grading, or standards-based grading), they are unified by common themes. In these systems the learning objectives of the course are clearly listed for the student. Student work is evaluated by whether it demonstrates strong knowledge of the learning objective. If it does, students get credit for understanding the learning objective. If it does not, students get useful, actionable feedback and some additional attempts on a similar problem later. Grades are determined not by percentage of points accumulated, as in the usual grading scheme, but by how many learning objectives the student successfully understands. Focus shifts from chasing points to seeking deep understanding of the course material, which creates a positive, inclusive, learning environment. The evidence of the effectiveness is arriving.Practitioners of alternative grading have been designing and redesigning their courses over the years, finding what works, and collecting data to show the effectiveness of alternative grading schemes on student learning, outcomes in future courses, and student well-being (Elsinger et. al, Linhart).

My first attempt implementing an alternative grading method was in Fall 2020. Washington College faculty faced with the prospect of teaching online again, but this time not in an emergency. I did what so many of my colleagues did by innovating and adapting to those circumstances. The disruption to normality gave me the courage to disrupt the normal grading scheme as well. Had I continued with a normal grading scheme, I would have had to use lockdown browsers and/or had to record students in their own home as an anti-cheating measure (after all, the make-or-break nature of high stakes exams incentivize academic dishonesty). I refused to police students in their own place of residence. Instead, I realized I could greatly reduce the incentive to commit academic dishonesty by allowing students to attempt to show their understanding of a learning objective multiple times, without penalty for being wrong along the way. Instead of committing academic dishonesty, students could attempt the problem as best they could, receive feedback on any misunderstandings, talk about the problem in office hours, and attempt a different problem over the learning objective in two weeks.

The major innovation is in the implementation I used in both lower and upper-level courses during an academic year teaching online. Many alternative grading schemes from pre-pandemic times required students to take timed quizzes in class. In a pandemic, with way too many pressures, I wanted to eliminate the time pressure on the students. I decided to give the questions for the assessment out on a Wednesday, and collected solutions the next Wednesday. I told students to limit their time answering questions to one hour on an honor system, but allowed them to determine for themselves the best way to manage their time. I really did not know if this was foolhardy or brilliant (would everyone get everything right by using online resources?), but I proceeded with trust in my students that they were here to learn. To my delight, solutions came back in with many of wrong answers – and every wrong answer was wrong in its unique way! This showed me that students were embracing the assessment method. I must also add here that it was wonderful to watch students advance in their understanding from assessment to assessment as they incorporated the feedback – the learning feedback loop was happening!

Implementing an alternative grading scheme gave tangible benefits. Creating the list of learning objectives helps me plan my activities and homework more effectively. I jettison activities that do not serve a learning objective. Moreover, students exit a course with a list of learning objectives that they know they understand at a high level, which can help them with marketability after graduation. The benefits of having stated learning objectives are so great that I will never run a course without them ever again.

One worry I have heard from colleagues is that breaking a course into discrete learning objectives is antithetical to the synthesis of ideas we want them to achieve. I understand this worry, which is why I try to add learning objectives to the course that focus on systhesis and clear communication of ideas. In differential equations and integral calculus, for example, I have learning objectives focused on mathematical modeling. Students are given a realistic prompt, and asked to make and state simplifying assumptions, develop a mathematical model, analyze the model using tools from the class, and communicate the results and meaning of their analysis in a report. When it comes down to it, anything we value as educators can be a learning objective in our courses.

If you want to begin exploring alternative grading yourself, allow me to point you to my favorite resources. Great online communities of teacher-scholars exploring alternative grading have popped up on Twitter and Mastodon. For a more focused discussion, I recommend the Alternative Grading Slack workspace.

I will close with one student comment that shows the best of what alternative grading can achieve. For reference, I call the assessment opportunities “Celebrations of Knowledge” (thanks to Dr. Peter Hodum, my undergraduate biology professor, for this naming convention). I also allow students to use online tools like WolframAlpha with proper citation (which requires better question writing on my part).

“One type of problem that I particularly struggled with in this class was related rates. Even though I paid close attention in class and took careful notes, I felt overwhelmed and intimidated by the complicated and lengthy nature of the problems. During previous assessments on this topic, I came to your office hours before turning in my assignment as I felt very overwhelmed and confused. When I discovered that to get an A in this class you only needed 13 masteries and 4 proficient, I thought to myself, ‘well I definitely will not be getting a related rates question right’ and that it would be one of the two that I just simply couldn’t get. On my first attempt at this type of question on the celebration of knowledge 5, I had predicted my own outcome and got a ‘growing’ on this question. I met with you after to go over what I had done wrong but still didn’t feel 100% sure that I would be able to tackle this on the next celebration of knowledge.

“When the celebration of knowledge 6 came around, I considered not even trying the question on related rates and instead focusing my energy on other questions as I was very busy preparing for finals. At the end of the day, I decided that it was worth it to give it my best shot anyway. I worked through this problem the best that I could, following previous class examples, and working in a slow and methodical manner, so as to not overwhelm myself, and met with you to clarify a few things surrounding the problem, as Wolfram Alpha was not working to help me find my derivatives in this example. You suggested that I try to derive these by hand as Wolfram Alpha is not always the most reliable in these types of complicated, multifaceted problems that rely on context. I followed your advice and at the end of the problem felt more confident than I had ever felt on a related rate question and turned in the celebration of knowledge, hoping for the best.

“Even though I had put in a big effort to solve this problem, I was still shocked when I got my celebration of knowledge back and discovered that my related rates question was marked as a success! I had just figured that I would never understand these problems, and not only had I solved the problem correctly, but I had also done so without even the help of Wolfram Alpha! All it took was careful attention, hard work, and some extra advice from you. I think this was so important to me to get right because it really assured me that I had been able to synthesize everything I had learned in this class and apply it. As someone who is not a math major and someone who math has not always come super easy to, I was so ecstatic to finally understand how to do this type of problem, as these applied examples of calculus are what would be most helpful for me in my future career.

I think ultimately succeeding on this learning objective was a great way to finish this class and leave me with a sense of increased self-confidence and competency regarding the subject as I progress in my education and life.”


Elsinger, Jason et al. and Drew Lewis “Applying a Standards-Based Grading Framework Across Lower Level Mathematics Courses.” PRIMUS, vol. 30, no. 8-10, 2020, pp. 885-907.     https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10511970.2019.1674430 Accessed 6 Sept. 2021

Sackett, Paul R., et al. “The Role of Socioeconomic Status in SAT-Grade Relationships and in College Admissions Decisions.” Psychological Science, vol. 23, no. 9, 2012, pp. 1000–1007. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23260359 Accessed 6 Sept. 2021.

Linhart, Jean M. “Mastery-Based Testing to Promote Learning: Experiences with Discrete Mathematics” PRIMUS, vol. 30, no 8-10, 2020, pp. 1087-1109. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10511970.2019.1674430 Accessed 6 Sept. 2021

Web Resources on Alternative Grading and Specifications Grading

Grading for Growth. Blog and Archive of Alternative Grading practices by David Clark and Robert Talbert.

Noyce and Largent, “Using the Canvas Gradebook with Specifications Grading.” Grading for Growth. March 2023.

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