I’ve always felt uncomfortable with traditional approaches to grading. I can understand why some approaches to grading make sense for other disciplines, other courses, other teaching philosophies, but they often don’t resonate with me. For the most part, I feel that with low stakes assignments, students either don’t do them, or do them badly, or do them well :) The difference between a 7.5/10 and an 8/10 was a mystery to me. I also always wondered what students learn when we “grade” them. Last semester, inspired by a post by Jesse Stommel and reminded of an article on minimal grading of writing assignments by Peter Elbow. Briefly, Jesse asks students to grade themselves, and Peter Elbow suggests grading low-stakes assignments on 3 scales and high-stakes assignments on pass/no-pass dual scale. The final grade that goes on the system is a collection of all of this.
My classes usually involve a lot of individual blogging and somewhere between 1-3 group, pair or individual projects, depending on the course and the semester. Last semester, in the middle of the semester, I asked students to grade themselves based on how well they thought they were doing in the class. Unlike Jesse, who reports that students were often too harsh on themselves, most of my students gave themselves As. The really good and conscientious students gave themselves an A-, but for the most part, very few students admitted to not doing well. So I had to tell them that, no, I was not convinced they deserved an A. Which kind of wasn’t how I had wanted things to go. I realized later that I had not scaffolded the activity well enough. I had discussed with them the meaning of “grade” and after collecting their own understanding of what a grade is, we talked about the difference between getting a grade based on meeting a standard/benchmark, versus being compared to others on a curve, versus self-improvement. Near the end of the semester, instead of giving students a grade on every single thing, I’d been giving feedback throughout the semester with some numerical grades... I gave students a holistic expression of what kind of grade they were headed towards, and what they needed to do the last couple of assignments if they wanted to do better. This latter seemed to work really well. But I needed to improve my mid-semester process.
This semester I tried something different. I started the class by writing these two questions on the front and side boards:
How to do well in CORE 2096 [the code number of my class]
What’s a good blogpost?
As students trickled into class (Egyptian time means students keep arriving until about 10-15 minutes into class, and sometimes later, and a few come earlier to chat with me about something) I asked them to pick up a marker and contribute a bullet point (or more) to the board, or add to or +1 another student’s bullet point. After a while, I started teaching the content for the class, which, ironically (?) was showing and discussing a video about bias... I actually think this topic fits well with a discussion of grades because I believe people tend to think numerical grading is more objective, when I don’t really believe it is at all.
And then I paused the discussion and explained to students we would spend a half hour talking about grades, and that even though it seems like it’s unrelated to the course to spend time on this, part of the purpose of the course was to nurture their citizenship, and I felt that they would benefit from having more agency over their own learning, and metacognition about what helps them learn, and also that I wanted to listen to them about what would help them learn better for the rest of the semester. I also had that discussion about what a grade means, and their answers fell into one of the known categories of against standards/peers/self.
I started discussing what was on the board with students. Some of the really cool things they posted that are pretty intuitive but some students don’t do, included “read the assignment instructions” (really, students don’t always read them!) and “do your best” (which I take to be a reflection on my recognition of effort and differences between students, but I didn’t probe further) and “time management” (which I would never have thought of, but it helps THEM do well, so they should work on their time management!). Interestingly, regarding what they consider to be a good blogpost, many of the things they mentioned were things very few of them did well, including using visuals (perhaps they were afraid of copyright violation so didn’t use images at all?) and linking to other work, and making sure the blog post involved reflection not just summarizing.
I then asked students to fill in a Google form self-assessment. I started by asking them to rate the frequency with which they attended class on time, participated, submitted blogposts on time (almost all assignments end up as blogposts) and submitted good quality blogposts. I then asked them questions about what they enjoyed in class, what may be hindering their learning, what they would like to do for the rest of the semester, what they feel they could do for the rest of the semester in order to get a better grade... and then I asked them to say what their intended grade for the course is, and what they think their performance has been so far... and to justify the grade they gave themselves.
This time around, I got students rating their own performance across the alphabet :) And I had quite a few students who were too harsh on themselves, and a few who were really not doing well at all but still over-inflated their grades. But the majority of students gave themselves something in the vicinity of the grade I would have given them. I sent students individual emails letting them know what their mid-semester grade was and how they could work for the rest of the semester in order to get the grade they were aiming for.
Like last semester, students’ comments on what they’d like to do for the rest of the semester and what they were struggling with so far will help me make modifications for the rest of the semester. And I know I will struggle to maintain the democratic atmosphere and continue to walk the talk...
Have you tried alternative approaches to grading? Tell us in the comments
[Feature image: a photo from the whiteboard at the end of my class last week.]