Thinking about grading

2158796487_8133cf75dd_zAfter reading about specifications grading in this article and then interviewing Linda Nilson about her book on the subject, I read Linda’s book over the holiday break. It’s causing a chain reaction in my mind about how I view and assess student work that expands outward into how I think about teaching and learning on a fundamental level.

Whether or not you’re on board with the idea of specifications grading, Linda’s book is a challenge to re-think the fundamental assumptions we in academia often make about assessment and grading. For me, there were four things that were very clear to me after reading the book that were only partially clear before.

1. Traditional grading systems work against my goals as a teacher. At the beginning of this semester, I publicly stated that I was organizing my work around the principles of relationships, balance, simplicity, and kindness. Unfortunately I wasn’t consistently successful at sticking to those principles this semester. And while that’s on me as the professor, when I started really examining my grading and assessment systems, I was surprised to discover the extent to which I had to work — hard! — against those systems to create the classroom environment I wanted.

I think it’s all because of points. I think that a large number of the problems that higher education is having is due to the concept of the “point”. We make student success contingent on the accumulation and manipulation of points, so guess what? Everybody focuses on points, and the things that accumulate and analyze them. I have been seeing this for 20 years as a teacher without really realizing it. How many times have I heard a student say, “I don’t care what I learn in this class as long as I get a C“? Or students who start the semester excited and curious, fall behind on their points, and become hardened grade-grubbers? Too many.

I don’t think it’s going to be possible for me to give students the kind of education I want them to have when points are at work like a destructive microbe, always there, unseen, eating away at everything.

2. Traditional grading systems perpetuate a “game-playing” approach to education. To keep thinking about points, a system based on point accumulation cannot really do anything but promote the idea that the course is a game, the goal of which is to accumulate enough points to win. And to win, you have to play the game. Students ask for more points through “extra credit”. They argue with me over ridiculous minutiae in order to get more points. They do tests and assignments strategically in order minimize point loss in one place in order to gain more points elsewhere. And this points-obsessed, game-playing mentality feeds back into my relationships with students. I’m no longer the consultant to their client, but a Dungeon Master who rolls ths dice and deals out the points — and I’m an obstacle to be overcome rather than a resource to be tapped. Tell me whether that’s a productive, healthy working relationship.

3. Traditional grading systems convey precious little information about student learning. If it weren’t already bad enough, point accumulation isn’t really even a valid form of measurement many times. Suppose a student in my calculus class accumulates enough points on assignments to earn a B- in the class. What exactly does that tell me about the student? Precisely nothing. Without drilling into the student’s actual body of work, I cannot conclude anything about what this student knows or does not know about calculus. Is the student ready for Calculus 2? Can he even take a simple derivative without screwing up? I have no idea. Eventually working with points to determine grades is like averaging zip codes. They’re numbers, but they don’t measure anything.

4. Traditional grading systems screw over a signficantly large group of students. Along with false positives, point-based systems produce far too many false negatives. I can vividly remember many of these I’ve seen. The student who consistenly figures out the material but 2 weeks later than the rest of the class, so she knows the material better than many classmates but gets destroyed on timed tests. The student who comes to the office to talk about math just because she enjoys it, but has anxiety issues on tests. The student who shows a lot of intellectual strength, but he’s a single dad with a difficult family situation and sleep issues on top of it, and so focusing on timed assessments is problematic. You don’t know these students, and the more cynical of you out there are starting to blame them. But I know them, and I am telling you they are getting left behind by traditional grading.

So what do I do about this?

I’ve been thinking about standards-based grading for some time. Some of my colleagues use SBG and I know many more SBG people on Twitter. But when I look at the complexity of many SBG systems, I shy away. I want simplicity and SBG doesn’t offer obvious simplicity. I’ve sat down many times to draft out how SBG would work in my courses, and I’ve never come up with an implementation that would not cause an exponential scale-up in my grading workload.

So when I finally got to Linda’s work with specs grading, I got very excited. It seems to offer all that’s good about SBG — especially the focus on student competency measured by actual attainment of learning outcomes rather than point accumulation — and yet it’s simple, flexible, and doable. It’s the first SBG-type system I’ve seen that feels like something that would work for me.

Therefore I’m making a commitment to dropping traditional grading systems cold-turkey and adopting specs grading in both my classes next semester. Those classes are well-suited for this system: a second-semester abstract algebra course, and the second semester of Discrete Structures for Computer Science. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to look yet or how it’s going to work. But I think I need to do this, if I want to have the kind of classes to which I aspire and which I want to provide for my students.

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