Changing Grading, part two

I often think about grading. I used to feel good about the fact that I not only graded students’ English skills, but I also graded them on “citizenship” things like responsibility, honesty, etc… (I’ll continue to use citizenship here to describe all of those non-academic qualitites…it’s just easier) I would laugh at people who would bemoan the fact that educators were trying to teach morals instead of sticking to their disciplines. It’s impossible, I would say. If I take away points for an assignment because it’s turned in late, I’m teaching citizenship, not English. If I give a student a zero for cheating, I’m teaching morals.

This is all still true.

However, I’ve realized that most of my students who fail do so because of citizenship, not ability. That seems to be a fundamental problem. One the one hand, I cannot discount citizenship qualities entirely or I run into all kinds of problems. Students can turn in work whenever they want, aren’t held responsible for cheating, and teaching fails all around. On the other hand, if citizenship is weighing out over education of my discipline, that seems to be a problem, too. Right now, a student could fail my class despite actually learning the material.

Perhaps what I need to do is change my assessment practices: If I can figure out a way to make my assignments tiered, it would be a start. If I can create a “no homework” version of all of my assessment practices and make that worth a D grade, but on the other side of the scale, make A work more challenging and require both homework and thought. In this way, simply not turning in homework would not be the end all of grading. If I can make D assessments that can be completed in class and still reflect understanding of the material, then I can cut down on the number of students failing my classes. So far, that seems to be the number one ultimatum from administration.

I think this would be a lot of prep work…but maybe it would be worth it. I’m not sure, but I think it’s worth pursuing. Our current system of grading is not working. There’s really no point in assigning blame, just as there’s not any point in standing back and saying “I’m not doing anything different than I was doing before. It was good enough then and it’s good enough now.” No, we have to change with the times and meet our students’ needs, no matter what they may be.

We have certain dilemmas before us. Right now, a number of students are not succeeding. They have made choices to not complete homework and that causes them to fail. In order to try and find ways for these students to succeed, administrators are making the decision to move students from “regular” classes into fundamental classes in the hopes that they will be able to achieve when there is less required of them. This is both frustrating to the teachers and detrimental to the students who truly need to be in the fundamentals classes. Teachers feel that the only option being left to them is to “dumb down” the education to make it easier for all students to succeed. When discussion of alternative grading methods comes up, most teachers scoff.

However, we cannot ignore the problem. Regardless of whether or not we believe that students might need to fail or that there is nothing we can do, we have to try. Trying does not mean that we have to lower our standards, but it might mean that we have to try new things.

The question becomes how can we create a way for students to pass that solves the problems of not completing homework, but doesn’t make the educational standards drop. When I started looking at the solution to this problem, I started to think about two areas that are affecting grades: citizenship and point totals. By citizenship, I am referring to things like responsibility and honesty. These things can often affect the grades of students much more than ability or aptitude. Despite arguments about the importance of teaching responsibility and holding students accountable, our primary focus is educating. How can we shift the emphasis of our grading to actual education rather than citizenship? Point totals is the other question that I look at. Does everything have to be reflected in a total number wrong? Rather than looking at a 70% as getting that many right, some students look at getting 30% wrong and are crushed by that idea. In addition, teachers tend to set up assessments by asking more questions than are necessary to establish what the teacher wants to know. We want students to show that they are really prepared for the assessment by asking many questions to see if they can consistently get the answers right.

To be honest, I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. I will often make mistakes on material that I know quite well if I have to answer a number of questions about the subject. If I only have to answer a few questions well, I don’t have that same problem.

My suggestion, though, is to make the assessment more tiered, than simply long.  More on this later…

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.

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1 Comment

  1. Scott Erb said,

    March 29, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Interesting. For what I teach (poli-sci at the college level) the homework is usually reading assignments which are not assessed. I know students often do not read it, though given we have class discussions, I know some do so diligently. I give some of the grade to class attendance and participation. A few things I do:

    1. I grade on a 40-100 scale, so that if someone bombs an assignment they do not hurl themselves off a mathematical cliff. Total failure is a 40, which is a lot better than a 0.

    2. In my classes I gave alternates for many units: either keep an academic journal where you respond to each day’s class and readings, showing you did and understood the reading (critical thinking, not mere summary), or you do the Mid-term exams. I warn students in advance that those who choose the journal (usually about 30% of the class) have to work harder, but average over a full letter grade higher in their grades. In fact, most get A’s because they are doing their work, and they have control of how to turn effort into results. I also give them feedback as often as they want, even every day. Those people do much better than those who try to do a journal, but wait until the end of the unit to turn it in (often trying to catch up).

    3. Promise them that improvement matters. I tell the true story of my first two college exams — a D- in Bio, and an F in philosophy. I noted on how I worked hard to get those grades up, as I suddenly realized that college mattered. In Bio I got into the B range, but in Philosophy I found out that a 0 or a 100 would keep me at a C. I had studied all night and knew the stuff, but wrote only 15 minutes on a final because what’s the point — the professor explicitly said it was completely by points. By not allowing people to fall too far behind, and by allowing improvement to count (sometimes someone who averages 88 might get an “A” while someone who averages 90 might get a “A-“). That means grades are not just evaluative, but a motivating factor — you can still get a good grade, try your best! Don’t just assume it’s a C or D and decide to be happy with that. I find that works wonders with some students, and really, the ones who want to find a way to succeed are the ones we should help the most.


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