Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.

[Posted for the Virtual Conference on Core Values]

The center of my classroom is the same as the center of any relationship I have: respect (here is the obligatory link to the song). The healthiest relationships are built around the notion that every person comes with his or her own set of priorities, likes, dislikes, fears, and loves. Nobody likes to be told what to do; everybody likes to be autonomous. Since teaching is a relationship, I try to honor the students’ autonomies as much as possible.

Although there must be some huge educational gains from showing your students this sort of respect, this is less of an educational goal than a moral one: first and foremost, I have a class of actual human beings, and they should be treated as such.

To be sure, this is an aspirational goal for me. I find that much of our education system is disrespectful of students, and this is a bit of an uphill climb. At the very least, most of the choices made in most classrooms are made by the teacher, not the students, making the students feel like they do not have much agency over this portion of their lives. I am of this system, so it is easy for me to make choices for my students and difficult for me to recognize when I do so. But being aware of this is my first step toward improving.

I am certain that I fail more often than I would like, and I am certain that other people are better at respecting their students. But here are several small examples of ways that I work to respect my students

  1. I am working to minimize grading in my classroom. My assumption is that all of my students want to do well, want to learn, and want to succeed. Because of this, I feel there is no need to bribe students with points to do what is good for them.
  2. I am working to maximize the amount of choice students have on homework assignments. I try to give them choice both on which problems they do and how many problems they do. This is made easier when you follow the SBG tenet of not grading homework.
  3. Similarly, I try to give my students a choice on exams. I might give them seven problems, but only ask that they do four of them. This requires some engineering of the exam to make sure you are testing everything that you want to test, but it is not too difficult.
  4. Every student gets to decide (within a fixed range) how their final grade will be determined. Instead of saying “The final exam will be worth 15% of your final grade,” the student can choose the final exam to be worth anywhere from, say, 10% to 25% of his or her final grade. Each student gets to customize his or her grade in this way. Best of all, this only requires 30 extra seconds for each student at the beginning of the semester to change the formula in Excel.
  5. The students (as a class) choose the number of midterms. Again, I give them a range from which to choose (usually 1-4 midterms), but the students get the final decision.
  6. Students (as a class) choose the dates of their exams (except for the final, which the registrar decides). That way, they can make sure that they have no weeks where they have midterms in all of their classes.
  7. Students choose the due dates for their assignments. If we expect students to do quality work, we should give them enough time to do it. They know what “enough time” is better than we do. I will sometimes even not give a deadline—students just hand in the assignment when they are done.
  8. I ask for midsemester feedback, but I then report on the results and act on it whenever I can. Not all of the students’ requests should be done (as a professional, I still need to make sure I am doing what is best for them, me, and the college), but they always give me at least a couple of ideas that are genuine improvements. Even if the class suggests something that is only a lateral move, I try to do it.

This is all in addition to showing them respect in the usual ways (e.g. “Don’t talk down to students,” “Don’t be unfair,” etc). My goal is to treat my students as I would a colleague who is less experienced than I am in the field.

If I were reading this post ten years ago, I would have been skeptical. I teach college students, and they sometimes make bad choices (so do I, but that is not the issue right now). I have two things to say to my younger self:

  1. These bad decisions still happen, but they happen a lot less frequently than you think. Plus, students make bad decisions when I don’t give them the freedom to make the decisions, so it is not like this is an alternative to an existing utopia.
  2. Part of my job is to help them learn to make responsible decisions. This is impossible to do unless the students are given the opportunity to make actual decisions.

Please comment if you have ideas—big or small—on how to better show students respect.

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22 Responses to “Comes a day you’re gonna have to decide whether it’s about you or about the work.”

  1. Andy "SuperFly" Rundquist Says:

    I know I’m reading a great blog post when I feel squirmish (about my own policies and actions) when I read it. Thanks, Bret!

    I’m embarrassed to admit how similar I am to your former self. SBG has been a lot of fun for me in my one class that I’ve done it (and I certainly plan to keep doing it), but I know my first approach to things is “how can I use assessment to get students to do things?” I love how you’ve found a way to trust your students and I’m already thinking of ways I can do the same in my next class.


    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Andy,

      Thanks for the comment. I want to direct your attention to the following bits from my post: “To be sure, this is an aspirational goal for me . . . I am certain that I fail more often than I would like, and I am certain that other people are better at respecting their students.”

      At times, my former self is remarkably similar to my current self, too.

      Also, I am in the middle of a blog post that is making ME squirmish. I’ll post it if I can ever get my thoughts in order. Bret

  2. abrandnewline Says:

    I like everything about this. You may have just made my goal for next year choice.

    • bretbenesh Says:


      Thanks for the comment. I think that you will find this to be fun, and I am sure that you will come up with new ways of giving students choice. I hope that you will blog about your new ideas at the end of the school year.

      Thanks again!

  3. Running courses in a way similar to how a research group functions « Science Learnification Says:

    […] Benesh recently posted a wonderful post about setting up your courses/policies/actions to maximally respect students. I […]

  4. Joss Ives Says:

    Hi Bret,

    Wonderful post! I’m in the same boat as Andy and feel that lots of what you talk about makes me look at my own policies and actions as being less mature than I might ultimately strive for. I started typing what is below and started fleshing out some stuff in my own mind (ah writing is so good for that). I made my own post of it, but turned off the comments and included a link so people can come over here to chat about it.

    I have yet to move past bribing students to do what is good for them. I am trying to move past this starting with my upper-year courses and slowly bringing my most successful policies into my first-year courses. I love it when Brett says “Part of my job is to help them learn to make responsible decisions. This is impossible to do unless the students are given the opportunity to make actual decisions.” My bribery-type policies are mostly in place to help that bottom quartile of students because many of those students are the ones that in my experience have the most trouble making responsible decisions. They are the ones that, when given very flexible due dates, will simply put things off until the bitter end and then scramble (and usually fail) to get everything in at the last minute. Of course when I use rigid due dates they often don’t bother to turn stuff in at all, so the net effect is probably the same, but I feel much more guilty when I feel like I have put them in a position to fail because it feels to me like I set them up to have the mad scramble at the end.

    My new ultimate goal (as of today) is to have my courses feel like a well-functioning research group where I am the supervisor and the students are in the role of grad/co-op/summer student. I am there to support them as little or as much as needed and as a “good” supervisor part of my job is to quickly figure out what level of support they will need to be successful. In this model the students would feel responsible to the entire group to be productive on a regular basis and that other people (not just me) depended on them in different ways so that they could do their own work as well. If, on occasion, a grad student hasn’t done enough work in the past week to present something worthwhile at a research group meeting, the group moves on and the supervisor says something along the lines of “ok, we’ll look at that piece next week instead.” I would like my classes to look like that as well. It’s OK to miss arbitrary deadlines now and then, but the sense of responsibility to the greater group results in most students staying on top of things.

    To do this requires some specific structuring of courses in a way such that the student is in fact responsible to the greater group with their weekly work instead of just to me. Some thought on how to do this include:

    Students taking turns presenting or even better running some sort of learning activity on topics that I would normally be in charge of. One thing I have never tried, but just occurred to me, is to have a student be in charge of running the show for a sequence of clicker questions. Hmm…
    Having in-class small-group activities where each student in the group is responsible for doing some different piece of pre-class preparation so that each student comes into the activity with much different types of expertise and thus each student’s level of preparation is important to their small group. If a student knows that they won’t be able to adequately prepare for their piece they can negotiate to take more responsibility for a future activity in exchange for the group covering for them on the current one.

    This idea of running a course like a research group is not something new that came to me today. It is how I plan to run my Advanced Lab course (the name commonly given to the standalone upper-year physics laboratory courses) in January and I have a blog post on it simmering in the background. But there the students are engaged in a much more research-like experience so it only occurred to me today that you could take some of those elements and bring them over to a regular course.

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Joss,

      As usual, you generate more ideas that I can process in a single sitting. I love it.

      First, I adore your “class as a research group” simile. This is a nice generalization to student-as-colleague that I had never thought of (but I wish I had). I would love to aim for this, but I am pretty far off right now. Fortunately, I think that IBL might be close, and I am hoping to try this in the spring.

      “Having in-class small-group activities where each student in the group is responsible for doing some different piece of pre-class preparation”

      The above idea is known as “jig-sawing.” It is a great idea and it is commonly used in Cooperative Learning classrooms, which have a lot of research supporting its effectiveness. Jig-sawing is a great idea that I have not looked into—let me know how you set it up and how it goes.

      Thanks, Joss!

      • Joss Ives Says:

        Hi Bret,

        I have encountered jig-sawing at workshops but for some reason never made the connection of actually using it in class.

        As I mentioned I am planning on using the research group model for my Advanced Lab course in January and will make sure to share my experiences. Since the lab course is entirely project-based this model is in no way a stretch, but will probably provide lots of insight into how to try to implement this model in a “lecture”-based class.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Hi Joss,

        Can I expect a detailed blog post about the Advanced Lab course? I’d love to see the syllabus, problems, etc. that you come up with. PBL intrigues me, but I don’t know enough to figure out how to make it work. Bret

  5. gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

    Turning over a lot of decisions to the students doesn’t always help. Although students want to learn the material, they have many things they want to do and many demands on their time. Giving them specific deadlines for assignments often helps them manage their time more easily—the “turn-it-in-whenever” approach is generally not a good one, though some flexibility in deadlines can be helpful.

    I generally set deadlines, but am amenable to changing them (for the whole class) if an assignment turns out to take longer than I expected (or a power failure wipes out the computers on the critical weekend).

    I don’t give exams any more because the skills I want students to develop are not testable in short bursts, so the projects and assignments are the main assessment of student work—the very opposite of the “not grading homework” approach.

    • bretbenesh Says:


      Thanks for the comment.

      I agree that there is a risk that we could give students too many decisions, but—having observed a lot of college and high school classrooms—I am certain very few teachers come close to giving the students too much choice.

      Is there a reason why you usually choose to set the deadlines instead of the students?

      I agree that “turn-it-in-whenever” is generally bad without targeted interventions. I have only started toying around with this plan, and I found that one of my sophomore-level classes mostly did well. I had 24 students, and roughly 20 did an excellent job with the “turn-it-in-whenever” approach. The other four did not, although other teachers said that these students struggled in non-“turn-it-in-whenever” situations, too. It seems like targeted interventions for these four students would have been extremely valuable for these four students’ educations—they clearly needed some sort of help with time management skills. (Note: I did not give those four students an appropriate amount of intervention. This is definitely a work in progress).

      Do you have experience with this “turn-it-in-whenever” that would provide more data points for us to consider?

      Finally, I like your idea of focusing on assignments and projects. My post did not convey this at all, but I think of “homework” as smaller, exercised-based activities. In fact, I am working toward developing a policy that is closer to yours. I would still plan on having exams, although they would mostly be of the take-home variety.

      Thanks again for the ideas.

      • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

        Several of my classes have had 10-week (full-quarter) projects as the main output of the course. I’ve found I get much better results if I demand a draft of the final project report every 2 weeks and provide detailed feedback on the drafts than if I just let the students turn in drafts when they feel like it. They get earlier correction on problems that they may not be aware of, they write throughout the project instead of putting off the writing until the end, when they’ve forgotten a lot of the details, and they take the written part of the engineering more seriously.

        For the class in which I have one paper or program due each week, there are two reasons for my setting the deadlines. First, it is to make the feedback fairer and more efficient. I don’t generally have a TA and reading 20 programs or papers carefully takes up my entire weekend. I have to have all the programs at once, in order to check for collaboration (permitted) and cheating (unreported collaboration). I need to have assignments due on Friday if I’m to get them the feedback by Monday, as I usually don’t have enough spare time or energy during the week to do a grading stint.

        Also, the class that has the homework every week is a very intense class—students have told me that it is the most work of any course they had in grad school, but that they found it extremely valuable. I tweak the due dates and assignments each year to try to pack everything in with (just) enough time for each assignment. If I let the students do the scheduling, they would undoubtedly give themselves too much time at the beginning (matching the pace of other courses they’ve taken) and not have enough time at the end to finish.

        In several of my courses I try to front-load the course, so that the work load is lighter in the last 2 weeks when the students are overloaded in other courses (either due to their own or the instructor’s mismanagement of time).

      • bretbenesh Says:


        I think your example of needing a weekend to comment on assignments and programs is a perfect reason for not giving the class a choice. There are definitely valid reasons for a teacher to make that decision, although I would argue that there often (usually?) is no such reason.

        Second, I am wondering if I was unclear in my post. I did not mean to suggest that “hand it in whenever you feel like it” is the only (or best) way to give students back some autonomy; I definitely was not arguing that it should be used with every class (I certainly don’t always use it). Rather, that was one example that could be helpful. Choosing due dates is different from hand-it-in-whenever; there is still a due date involved.

        Also, I am not suggesting that the only way to do this is have each student customize his or her own deadline. Simply asking the class when the single due date for the entire class is another way of doing this. This last example has the advantage that you would still have all of the assignments to grade at the same time.

        It sounds like this does not match up with your goals for the course, which is fine. This whole thing is a bit of a balancing act. I can definitely see that providing more structure provides for better results, although the best results would be that you do all of the work for them. This would be ridiculous of course, but it points out that there is a tension between “best results” and “student autonomy” (writing their projects for them would not be granting them much autonomy). The opposite (ridiculous) extreme would be to let the students do whatever they like, whenever they like. A lot of being a good teacher is figuring out how to get them going in a useful direction without doing too much for them. I trust that you are already doing that in your classroom.

        Thanks for the comment! Bret

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      I do try to give students as much autonomy as is feasible. In the senior design projects for example, I have any every-two-week draft due, but all the project milestones they schedule themselves. (In the first quarter we teach them how to make Gantt charts and require them to schedule their whole project. In the second quarter, they need to report on how well they re sticking to their schedule and what they plan to do make deadline.

      Note the mixture of autonomy (students decide what their project goals are, who does what, and what they will do meet their goals) and authoritarian scheduling (progress report in the form of a draft of the final design document is due every two weeks at a fixed time).

      A lot of my courses have projects that are managed in similar ways: students selecting what they will do and when, but having rigid reporting requirements.

  6. Joss Ives Says:

    Arghh. WordPress really wants to make me edit my previous comment instead of letting me add a new one. Here goes anyway.

    I will certainly be posting about my Advanced Lab course. It takes up a ton of my time and mental energy which makes it a prime topic for discussing. The “problems” are 4-6 week experiments and part of my challenge is to make each experiment authentic such that the students aren’t just using known equipment to measure known quantities.

    The first post coming for this course will be about the writing assignments I will use (journal articles stripped of intro and theory sections, and wiki entries for the theory).

    I will post the syllabus and the umpteen rubrics involved.

  7. Michal Says:

    Hi Bret! Thanks for leaving the comment on my post directing me to this discussion – the ideas are really similar. I will be really interested to hear how this all plays out in your class next year (and you too Joss).
    Joss, I’d be interested to hear your ideas –

    • bretbenesh Says:

      Hi Michal,

      I was actually not trying to re-direct you to my page, since I think that it is less related to your ideas than Joss’s (I don’t think that my post is terribly related to yours, although I wish it were. Joss’s post is the missing link). I simply forgot that his comments were re-directed to my site.

      So this was unintentional self-promotion.

  8. Michal Says:

    I know you weren’t trying to promote yourself – but I’m glad that Joss thought to put all the comments in the same place. It makes it easier.
    And, your post and mine aren’t that different in spirit – it’s all about how to facilitate deep, authentic learning and the ways we frame it in our minds to make it so.

    : )

  9. Michal Says:

    yeah, now look who’s being the self-promoter – this gal

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