Saturday, December 18, 2010

Grading experimenting

Well, the semester is over and I'm not done grading (obviously) but I thought I'd do a quick update of the approach I've taken to grading and what I'm seeing so far.

At the beginning of the semester, I told students that none of their work would receive grades but that all would receive comments.  They did receive my 'paper grading standards' which would enable them, very easily, to translate the comments into grades should they have cared to do so.  I told them that their final grade in the class would be determined by how much they learned as demonstrated through the various means they were given throughout the semester.  They had to consistently maintain on-line journal on the reading & their thoughts on the reading, participate, submit self-assessments every three weeks (detailing how they thought they were doing and how they could improve and how the class could improve) and then depending on the class a combination of exams, papers and/or projects.

Part way through the semester I decided to give students the ability to 'make a case' for their grade and so told them to also submit a portfolio in which they argued for what grade they deserved according to criteria that I laid out for them (the criteria for the semester grade mirrored, closely, the grading standards for the papers).

Oh, I also said that if they were putting in 100% effort into the class, they ought to be doing A quality work and getting comments on their work indicative of this and if they weren't, that this meant they should come and talk to me so we could figure out how they could expend their energy more effectively.

Again, the theory behind all of this is Carol Dweck's (and I assume other folks') work that when students focus on grades they, shockingly, focus less on learning.  And when emphasis is put on effort and learning, well, weirdly, students seem to learn more.  Go figure.  And, there much, much literature on the importance of metacognition (thinking about thinking) and writing something that involves reflection over a semester of work to assess one's learning is a fairly good example of this.

So, jump forward to the week or so before the end of classes and I share this idea with two colleague who are each in different colleges than mine and each other.  They did not react as I needed them to react (what I needed, of course, was to be showered with affirmation of the brilliance of this method and how could this not be the best, most effective way ever to do thing).  Thus, I freaked out a bit.  HOWEVER the freaking out was a good thing because it forced me to think through some things that I hadn't previously thought through.

Some ever so quick background: one of the insights I had a few years ago is that the most important moral question is what kind of mistakes are better to make.  That is, given that we are going to make mistakes, presumably, we should err on the side of caution, but then the moral question becomes which side is the side of caution.

Back to grading and my realization prompted by freaking out.

My true fear in all of this is that some student is going to make the case that an A is deserved, that the work done for the semester will not support such a claim, that I'll given the grade actually deserved and then (and here's the to-be-avoided aspect) student will challenge the grade, I'll have to go through some sort of bureaucratic something or another, will share with colleagues who aren't friends of mine what I'm doing and I will be publicly chastised, and thus humiliated, for this approach to grading.  This fear is, of course, fostered by rhetoric about syllabi being 'contracts' and colleagues who grade based on point systems, etc.

Yes, I have theory on my side, but fear of exposure as incompetent is powerful.

Whoops, still haven't gotten to the realization.

I realized that adopting this approach to grading was one that, in fact, increase the likelihood that some student will challenge the grade and this will, more likely than not, be the student who is focused on grades and not learning.  And, I could avoid this outcome by adopting a method of grading focused on points and grades that is essentially geared towards avoiding the challenges of grades from students who are going to take advantage of a system where one 'makes the case' for one's grade as evidenced by learning.  BUT doing this would, as far as I'm concerned, not be in the best interest of other students who actually are interested in learning or could be shifted from a focus on grades to a focus on learning.  So, this was, I realized, a case of choosing which side would be erring on the side of caution.  Do I want to have a grading system that is designed, to at least some extent, to prevent students who are focused on grades from trying to 'game' my approach and might end up challenging grades? And in so doing, not achieve what could be much more beneficial outcomes for other students?  OR do I want a grading system that emphasizes and, hopefully, fosters learning at the risk of those grade-focused students who will game and, possibly, challenge. 

When I put it this way to myself, I realized that I'd rather err on the side of creating a grading system that really encourages learning but opens the possibility of students being general pains in the butt.  I would rather focus on helping the students who really care than focus on eliminating possible loopholes for the students who don't care.

Back to the present.  First, I've discovered that of the two colleagues whose reactions (that is, lack of absolute affirmation of my brilliance and teaching acumen) freaked me out, at least one of them is considering a method similar to this.  Second, I've since found out that at least some English professors and some Theatre professors use this same grading method (so less cutting edge, but also less alone).  Third, and this is really most exciting, the students are not hating this.  Most are taking it seriously and my First Year Seminar students are really taking it seriously and are thinking about their learning and their progress over the semester in ways that are very exciting.   In fact, it's the first year students generally who are taking to this much more than the upper level students.  And, I've had students who are at other levels who have said that they really appreciate being able to make a case for their grade and, more importantly, their learning because they believe that many times their grades in classes don't really reflect their learning.

But, yes, I'm also learning that students appear to believe that a B means what I think a C means.  That is, many students, disregarding the grading criteria that I handed out both at the beginning of the semester and closer to the end, are arguing that because they are basically aware of the material and know more now than they did at the beginning of the semester that they deserve a B in the course.  What's weird is despite my repeated insistence that they provide evidence of their learning, documented evidence of learning, many are reported what they are thinking or talking about outside of class as evidence.

And, yes, I've already run across one student who is arguing for an A who is, based on the way the case for the A has been presented, I'm pretty sure setting up a challenge to the grade I pretty much told, when asked, they were likely to get.  The student's case for the grade references none of the criteria noted as relevant to grades and, well, reference other things.

Oh, one last thing that's sort of related.  I've come up with a really good way to translate grades into something that's easier to conceptualize (at least it's easier for me and I imagine it's easier for students).

One way to think about what a grade means is in terms of any future career you may have.

A: You are working in a way that makes you an obvious person to promote to a position that has more responsibilities and requires more. You could, with confidence, go an in talk to your boss about this and know that your boss would be on board.

B: You are working in a way that make obvious that you are someone for the boss to watch as someone who has potential to be promoted at some point in the future. You could go in and speak to your boss about the long term goal of being promoted and your boss would take you seriously

C: You are a good worker. You do your job, but do nothing that makes you a candidate for moving upward (or downward)

D: Your boss is likely to take you aside and tell you that if things don’t improve, you are not long for this particular job

F: Firing is in your immediate future and will surprise no one when it happens.
I'm finding this really helpful.

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