A Letter on Pedagogy, Course Design, & Assessment

Version 2022–23, dated September 28, 2022

David P. Carter
Inquiry of the Public Sort
7 min readAug 3, 2021


Every course has an underlying pedagogy, just as every instructor is guided by one.¹ I have come to believe it’s an instructor’s duty to examine — and a student’s right to know — the pedagogical assumptions that shape their educational practices. This letter is my attempt to explain the pedagogical underpinnings of the course you are enrolled in and how they guide my facilitation of it.² It is also an invitation to dialogue on how these can be improved.

To understand my approach to this class (and public service education, generally), it may be helpful to know a bit about my pedagogical development. When I began teaching, I thought that high expectations reflected in stringent grading were the hallmarks of a rigorous and worthwhile graduate education. My viewpoint has changed a lot since then. I still believe in high expectations and in students’ inherent ability to meet them; however, my experiences in the classroom and the empirical literature suggest that rigid grading does more harm than good. Questioning the purpose and impact of grades caused me to interrogate, for the first time, my unarticulated pedagogy. I found that many of my instructional practices did not align with my beliefs regarding the purpose of education, what motivates students, or my role as an instructor.

Reflecting my early pedagogical interrogation, the first version of this letter (penned in 2019) used the following excerpt from Jesse Stommel and Sean Morris’s An Urgency of Teachers to describe the dissatisfaction I felt with many practices common to college classrooms, including my own:

…the project of education has been misdirected…educators and students alike have found themselves more and more flummoxed by a system that values assessment over engagement, learning management over discovery, content over community, outcomes over epiphanies.

The passage still resonates, but subsequent study has both expanded and deepened my vision for what a public affairs classroom (physical or virtual) might achieve. I am inspired by the work of scholars who see the transformational potential of education for individuals and societies, alike. It seems few academic or professional fields are better situated than public policy and administration to undertake the intensely civic and democratic project at the heart of critical education. Accordingly, I increasingly attempt to mold my instructional practices in pursuit of bell hook’s vision of education as a transgressive, liberatory process — even as I feel profoundly unprepared to realize that vision.

Looking down a glaciated mountain. The foreground is a ridge with a trail from footprints in the snow, while three figures walking on the glacier in a line are visible in the background.
Photo by Simon Fitall, who describes it as “the famous arrete at the Aiguille du Midi, Chamoni”

The most concrete results of my pedagogical study to date are a collection of core insights into the nature of education and learning that I continue to investigate, articulate, and refine, and around which I attempt to structure all of my courses (including yours):

(1) Learning cannot be incentivized by grades alone. Many instructors use grades as incentives and motivational tools. As noted above, until a year ago, so did I. But grades don’t do what many seem to think they do. Grades have been tools of oppression since their inception, and although they can effectively incentivize efficient task completion, they don’t motivate learning. Instead, as articulated by Alfie Kohn: “[r]esearch shows three reliable effects when students are graded: They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself.” Our class uses self reflection, peer review, and qualitative feedback in lieu of assignment grades, with the goal of fostering intrinsically-motivated learning.

(2) “Failure” is productiveso much so that researchers have referred to it as “the essential prerequisite for success.” Yet, the fact that we learn little from containing our ambitions to only those tasks and goals in which we will not falter is too often overlooked in educational settings. I hope this class encourages you to take risks, fail repeatedly, and learn volumes in the process.

(3) The most effective instruction takes the form of a shared process of co-creation. In his classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire critiques the “banking model” of education wherein instructors make knowledge deposits to largely passive, ignorant students. Much contemporary education still follows the model, albeit (sometimes) with slicker delivery methods. Following the more promising example set forth by critical pedagogical approaches, only a portion of what makes up our course’s substance comes from assigned content (readings, lectures, recordings, etc.). Instead, the course is structured such that the lessons it offers are the product of combining the ideas communicated in course content (in the form of academic theories, methods, etc.) and empirical observations (data, narratives, and experiences) to understand, critique, and engage the world around us. I look forward to learning alongside you.

(4) More often than not, classroom walls are obstacles to learning. And the same is true for online classes, where the virtual “walls” of Canvas arbitrarily confine course activity from the rich learning potential that the rest of the internet — not to mention analogue reality — offer. I think the most organic and impactful learning comes when course ideas are tested and applied in empirical settings — either digital or analog. My classes still meet in physical classrooms or via Canvas (although they might not always), but I’m committed that they only do so insofar as it is useful.

(5) Inaccessibility is a choice — and choosing accessibility benefits all. As the coronavirus pandemic illustrated, accessibility is both more important and easier than acknowledged. And, as the case of curb cuts famously demonstrates, anything that delivers greater accessibility tends to benefit everyone. Moreover, digital tools and contexts offer the promise of flexible inclusion in the form of customizable, one-size-fits-one experiences. I realize, however, that my courses currently fall short of even modest accessibility goals (as of this writing I am working to address imagery and written content that are inaccessible to those with vision impairments and/or blindness). With apologies for the extra time and energy it demands, I ask you to let me know as soon as you encounter any part of this course that impedes your participation, so that I can prioritize its immediate correction.

(6) Social justice is both a vital and neglected social project. Many educational institutions and practices perpetuate the discrimination of our wider society, further marginalizing Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, people of differing abilities, and people of genders or gender identities other than those reflecting “conventional” notions of male masculinity. I am committed to celebrating diversity (social/demographic differences such as race, ethnicity, gender, sex, sexual orientation, ability, and language) and the pursuit of equity (the fair distribution of resources and opportunities, accounting for past and present events, conditions, and contexts) as a vital project in and outside of the classroom. I am also acutely aware that I will fall short of these ideals — as will my teaching. I invite you to hold me and this course to them, and to help me learn.

(7) Human wellbeing comes first. I am convinced that learning is gravely undermined by contexts that ignore (or only pay lip service to) the inevitable conditions of life. Physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual trauma are real and have real impacts on one’s ability to engage in learning. Jobs are lost, loved ones become ill and die, and sometimes the world around us falls apart. I am committed to your academic journey, but you and your wellbeing come first.

You may wonder how these principles manifest in our class. There are a myriad of ways, from subtle to obvious. A few illustrative examples include:

  • Learning will require self motivation, direction, and accountability. Our class features no participation requirements, no assignments designed to track reading completion, and no quizzes to assess content comprehension. I trust you to engage the course in the manner and to the extent that best allows you to attain your learning goals — and to request assistance should you need it to realize them.
  • I will not assign grades for activities or assignments. Assessment will instead take the form of qualitative feedback, peer review, and/or self-reflection. At the end of class I will ask you to report and justify the grade you believe you earned in the class, accounting for your efforts, circumstances, and relevant events.
  • Our course is a “no busy work” space. If you find an assignment unproductive, feel free to propose an alternate activity that achieves the same/similar aims.

As I hope is clear in this letter, my pedagogy is an ongoing project. And (as I hope is also clear) I intend to recruit you as a collaborator. I invite your critical engagement with our course’s design, policies, activities, and delivery — and want your constructive feedback on how these can be improved. I genuinely believe that the best vehicle for improvement is an open, critical, and constructive dialogue around your expectations for this class, your experiences in it, and your vision for what it could be.


Prof. David P. Carter

[1] By “pedagogy,” I mean the combined theory and practice of teaching, built on an educator’s assumptions about how learning occurs and their role in that process. Some will point out that the term “andragogy’’ is arguably more pertinent and appropriate in the context of college (and especially graduate) level education. I use the term pedagogy here because it’s likely more recognizable to most readers.

[2] This letter is meant to be read alongside its companion “On Developing a Critical Public Service Perspective.”



David P. Carter
Inquiry of the Public Sort

Assoc. prof of public policy and administration at the University of Utah’s Programs of Public Affairs; www.policyandadmin.org