Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Well, since you asked.....'s one thing that I've been thinking about/tossed out into the world.  I'm thinking about following the example of a couple folks I know and grading next semester based primarily/only on effort.  Using language like

Your grade in this class will reflect my assessment of your engagement with the material in the class, the quality of your contribution to class discussion and the learning of your classmates, the depth of your understanding of the material and your ability to move beyond the material to develop your own ideas that take seriously the material but are not simply a repetition of what is in the reading or what others have said in class.  I will also be assessing your development of certain dispositions the acquisition of which are crucial to continued success in all areas of life.  As I develop my assessment throughout the semester I will rely extensively on your assessment of your development both with regard to understanding of the particulars of this course and your progress in the different skills and dispositions that you should be working on.  Thus, your thoughtful effort on your self-assessment is very important.

If you put in 100% work (and I’ll detail what I take to be indicative of 100% work) then you’ll get an A in this class.  Less the 100% and you won’t.  You’ll be given multiple opportunities to make the case to me that you have put in 100% effort into your work.

At any point in the semester, if you would like to check in about anything (including how to improve in the class or your grade at the moment) please do not hesitate to come and speak with me.

Individual assignments will be commented on, but not graded, and you are encouraged to rework all of your assignments in response to the comments.

Your grade in this class is a guaranteed A if and only if I am convinced that you are putting 100% effort into the course. Your behavior throughout the  semester will provide evidence to me of the level of effort you are putting into this course.

Yes, that's "if and only if" which means only those who put in 100% effort will get As and everyone who puts in 100% effort will get As.  Oh, and the self-assessments are guided and due once every 3 weeks.

In case you didn't head over via the link to In Socrates' Wake, here's my reasoning.

(1) I know one person who has done this and have heard of another.  In both cases, the result has been that students work harder and do better than under other grading systems.  Further, the grade distribution ends up being about the same.

(2) Research shows that by rewarding performance people, predictably, focus on performing well (crazy, isn't it?).  BUT, in an effort to achieve the best performance, people tend to minimize risk and attempt that which they are more certain they'll perform well at.

(3) Research also suggests that by rewarding that which is produced we are communicating that competence either exists or doesn't exist.  If we instead reward effort we communicate that competence can always be increased.  In fact, some have suggested that students' (our?) tendency (when such a tendency exists) to put things off at to the last minute is a defense mechanism.  By not putting in full effort, one can preserve one's sense of ability in the face of a poor grade by noting that one didn't really do all they could   The logic here is that if one put in one's full effort and still didn't do well, well, then there's no explanation beyond inability.  A fun fact: many people think that being good at something means not having to work hard at it, thus, having to work hard (even with success) is evidence of not being very good.  Warped, eh?  Not that I don't fully believe it myself.

(4) What I'm thinking is that I want all students to work really hard — and I think that with maximum effort students will do really well.  If they don't, then I need to work with them to make their effort more effective.  I think this is part of my job as a teacher.  Vygotsky (Educational theorist extaordinaire) posits that students learn best when what they're being asked to do is just slightly beyond what they are currently able to do.  If they're asked to do that which is vastly beyond what they are able to do they quit (not an unreasonable response) and if it's too easy, they just sit back and do nothing (again, not unreasonable).  Assuming that I've got students at a variety of levels (sidenote: the variation of ability in any high school classroom is about 6 grades.  Shockingly depressing, isn't it?), then having each student at a point where they are going to learn is at best a crap shoot.  That any students learn is simply a matter of me accurately pitching things.  If I, instead, focus on effort, then it seems plausible that all students will work within their 'proximal zone.'  Without focussing the grade on effort, I don't know how else to accomplish this. 

Of course, one of the big problems here is how to assess effort.  I grant this is a problem but not one so large as to undermine the entire project.  

One of my interest is whether there are problems with this plan independent of practical difficulties.  

I think that the biggest problem comes from disagreement or, rather, mystery about what a grade is supposed to indicate.  That is, what does it tell people who aren't in the class.  I asked some colleagues (via FaceBook) what grade a student should be able to get in a class (a class graded based on the quality of that produced) if they are putting in maximal effort (assuming that the teacher is doing their job and that the student isn't taking a class that is beyond that which they should be taking).  This of course brings up problems with introductory level classes that function as 'weed out' classes.  One of my colleagues said that for the intro level course in his department even getting a C with maximal effort is not guaranteed.  My thinking is that this kind of class can only serve to make those who put in massive effort and still don't do well (say, a B) are going to run screaming from the discipline.  And, doesn't this sort of system just reinforce the idea that being good at something is equivalent to not having to work all that hard at it?  Or not having to spend a huge amount of time to absorb it?

Someone on the blog where my thoughts were posted said that he thought getting an A in an Intro to Phil class should be indicative of having 'philosophical ability' but I think this is where I'm going to strongly disagree insofar as I don't think there is anything like 'philosophical ability' that folks' either have or don't have.  I think it's the sort of thing that is cultivated and some may take longer to cultivate than others.  I can't imagine that one semester is long enough to determine whether someone is going to be a 'successful' philosopher.  Geez, Kant didn't begin to really hit his stride until fairly late in life.  

I think I'm done for now.  

Any thoughts on this? Anyone?  Be gentle.

ps.  If you think this is worth maybe writing up and submitting to a journal, please feel free to share. thanks.

1 comment:

GTChristie said...

First reading, first impression...

It was devilishly hard for any professor to convince me to think like a scholar or act like a student. I think your observations (and citations) about what gets the best effort from people are spot on. The best professors were those who communicated somehow that we were exploring a discipline, not "learning" it -- ie, that we were engaged in a process.

And that's why I think you're onto something here. Emphasis on "working hard" is one thing, and "working on developing" is another. Taking people just beyond their comfort zones is good. Knowledge might be a commodity if it just consists in facts, but an effort-based point of view says knowledge is a product of discovery -- a process, not a product. And I think you're close to saying (at least in part) "I will assess your engagement with the process." That might wake up a few people who can/should do well, and can penalize only the lazy. Seems to me. LOL. I was always lazy until I got "interested."

Yes, after you've tried this approach, you should definitely write it up. Might even watch a few students you've taught before, to see if there's any difference in how they did in a class taught from this perspective.

Great post.