Producing Problem Solvers, Not Parrots’
Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering Emma Dosmar
Photo courtesy of Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Producing Problem Solvers,
Not Parrots

By Casey Halas

As a student of a Waldorf School, Emma Dosmar (Ph.D. BME ’17) didn’t receive a letter grade until she reached high school.

Her academic experience from kindergarten through eighth grade was based entirely on experiential and developmental learning—omitting the typical grading scale used in the United States education system. It was as a young child that Dosmar was able to see how this unique learning approach benefitted students and created problem solvers.

Now as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, Dosmar has pulled from her academic experiences and applied the technique of “ungrading” to her courses.

“The definition of ungrading that I use is anything you do that decentralizes the authority of the professor or the teacher in a classroom,” says Dosmar.

In spring 2022 Dosmar received a teaching grant from Course-Hero for her research on ungrading, which she applied toward a professional incentive for her Matlab course for first year students.

Rather than having students rely on her to tell them how they’re doing in a course, she makes it a group effort, meaning that every student is involved in the grading process. Dosmar sees her feedback as a concrete way for them to conduct self-assessment and revisit their work.

It’s all about students having agency over what they’re learning, how they’re learning, and how they’re assessed. When students are involved in the process, it makes them more trusting of that process, Dosmar adds.

With students engaging in feedback and revisiting their previous work, Dosmar is also able to see who clearly knows the content and who doesn’t—making it almost impossible to simply coast through a class. Regurgitating information is not enough.

“I want to make my students feel safe to fail,” she says. “Not that I want them failing courses, but I see students who are so hung up on what grade they’re going to get that they are unwilling to take risks or take on challenges. I want them to try things that might not work and learn from that process without worrying that it could cost them their A.”

Dosmar wanted to emphasize that, rather than working for grades, students work just as hard toward goals or incentives that are beneficial to them academically and professionally.

One professional incentive that had exceptional results was taking seven of her top Matlab students to the Rocky Mountain Bioengineering Symposium conference, where they could present research and hear from academic and industry professionals.

“My goal as an educator is to produce problem solvers, not parrots, and ungrading allows me to do that,” Dosmar says. “I want them to feel safe to learn something new and try.”