Retreating on the Grades

Heading into a new semester and assembling the syllabi (well, one–the other, once again this term, is in the hands of the students), I’ve decided to give up on my short-lived “no grades” policy. At least nominally.

What happened? Well, at least pedagogically, I was fine with it. To recap, I was concerned that students were more interested in grades than they were in the actual material. I speculated that replacing the grades with badges would at least move them from focusing on entirely arbitrary markers (letters) to markers that were more explicitly tied to learning objectives.

I still think grades suck, of course. Grades are grand for beef, and actually pretty handy for deciding what restaurants to avoid, but as a tool for learning I think they take away more than they add. Realistically, though, I can’t get away from grading on my own. Unless I can convince all my colleagues to move in that direction, my experiment threatens to be merely a distraction for students, or in the worst case, a good way for them to ignore my course. Purely in terms of learning outcomes, I think being able to get totally away from grades would be great. But that wasn’t the case here.

Not learning, but ranking

The main problem is that more than just the students see the grade. It acts–in fairly limited ways–as a reflection on their skill. Now, to my mind, we simply shouldn’t graduate students we can’t stand behind. I frankly would have no problem “advising out” those students who are not performing at an elite level. I think it would better serve both those who left and those who stayed. But that’s not a realistic option (at least not in that extreme a degree).

Without getting into details, since I can’t simply unilaterally make a course pass/not pass–which is at least closer to ungraded–I ended up saying you get either an A or an F. Really, I intended to give As to everyone, short of really utter non-completion. I think I can say, without naming names, that people got As who really weren’t doing graduate-level work. I was clear in my narrative summaries of their work that this was the case, but they still ended up with As. At least one of my fellow faculty members found this contrast to be wrong, and I can understand why.

Pass and Forget

Many of the courses in our online programs are taken serially, and so I don’t have to compete for attention with other courses. That wasn’t the case this summer, and I suspect that students paid more attention to the courses where they were still “fighting for a grade.”

A lot of the work on pass/not pass grading going back several decades looks at courses in similar contexts. Being the P/NP course in a world of graded courses means that for some students (generally those who are not already high-achievers) the time and effort will be put to the graded courses, as they are afforded a certain degree of prestige as well as attention from students simply because of their grades.

Don’t Picture an Elephant

My intention was to make students think less about grading, but because they needed to keep track of the number of points each badge was worth, and whether they had crossed a certain threshold, they ended up thinking more about it. For some, the idea that the grade would be either an A or an F, and nothing in-between, raised their anxiety level, even after I made clear that an “A” was granted for even minimal completion of work.

In the end, by doing something out of the ordinary, I ended up focusing students more on the grades and grading structures, not less.

The (Non) Solution

So, what’s a person who hates grades to do? I’ve always been considered a “hard grader.” Perhaps that’s why people have been so focused on grades in my classes. Clearly going the other way, and becoming the Oprah of As (You get an A! You get an A!) hasn’t worked out. Two possible alternatives:

Maybe the simple solution is to provide a grading rubric, but simply make it easy to get an A. That doesn’t seem like a good solution. It seems like it contributes to the “menace” of grade inflation. But if I don’t really care about grades, I’m not sure why I should care about their inflation. More importantly, although I don’t get the issue of people dwelling over an odd grading structure, I still have to contend with pulling attention away from courses with a stiffer climb up the grading ladder.

The other alternative is to go old-school. The course is graded on a curve. The top 20% of points-earners get an A, the next 40% get a B, the next 20% get a C, and the next 20% get a D or F. (Come on, you don’t really expect me to curve around a C, do you? I’m not that old.) Of course, this means that students are going head-to-head Paper Chase style, rather than cooperating and collaborating nicely. That sucks, but maybe it is what is needed to get folks to step up their game.

So, for next semester, I’m back to grading meany. A curve (and not a saving one) it is, at least in the course where I’m dictating the policy. That will be more familiar ground for me, and probably also for the students.

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  1. Posted 8/21/2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    Retreating on the Grades | A Thaumaturgical Compendium

  2. Posted 8/21/2011 at 9:19 am | Permalink

    Grading contracts are another option. In the writing-intensive courses I typically teach, a significant goal is just doing the work (i.e. writing a lot). So in a composition course, for example, one might say that if a student completes all the assignments according to some fairly objective criteria (e.g. meets due dates, length requirements, etc.), she earns a B. The question then is how to get an A. Here one might introduce quality as in submit a portfolio of your best work. Or one might require students to do an additional assignment, perhaps one they propose. I did something like this for my Journalism course over the summer with decent results (though it was a small class).

  3. alex
    Posted 8/21/2011 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    That’s an interesting option. I guess my only concern is that I’m teaching the first course of a professional graduate program, and students often don’t have a realistic view of their abilities. To stereotype broadly, the small number who are right out of undergrad tend to overestimate their abilities, and many who are returning to school after some years in a career underestimate the degree to which their “real world” skills will, in fact, translate back into the classroom. (Of course, that is a broad overgeneralization, and there are many exceptions on both sides.) So, I’d hate for someone more modest to aim for a B, or someone less able to feel overwhelmed by going for the A.

    I’m still working out what I’ll do in terms of the grade for that course. My educational sense says to make it mastery-based, and arrange the grade accordingly. But my sense of fairness, and responsiveness to the sort of administrative constrictions of the program, says to grade it on a straight curve: anything a half standard deviation or above falls into an A, anything a half-standard deviation or below is a C, and anything between is a B. (I suspect this will actually work out fine, since it’s not really a normal distribution, but tends to be skewed heavily.)

  4. Posted 8/21/2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    A couple of random thoughts, Alex:
    I’m not a big fan of grades, either, although I find using a detailed rubric helps in assigning them. But rather than seeing grades as some sort of reward or punishment, I like to see them as a form of communication, first and foremost to the students about how their work measured up to my expectations for what constitutes excellent performance, pretty good performance, barely adequate performance, unacceptable performance, or utter failure to perform. (Remember, I teach only undergrads and mostly teach journalistic skills courses. So they get not only the summative feedback of a grade but a lot of formative feedback in the comments and critiques I place on their work )
    And, as you point out, that communication also has an external audience, in terms of the letter grade showing up on a transcript and contributing to a GPA that also is seen as a summative measure of student performance. I think that’s a big part of the problem with students obsessing about what they get, because all that many of them really see is that external reporting component.
    Maybe what would be helpful for you is a form of contract grading, which a former colleague of mine at Fisher was a real enthusiast about but never really fit my style. I imagine you’re familiar with that concept, but in case you (or others who read this comment) don’t know much about it, the concept is pretty simple. (There’s a pretty good Wikipedia entry on it, too.)
    From what I understand about this grading method, the syllabus at the beginning of the semester has a detailed grade rubric that says: if you do all of the following things, you’ll get an A. If you do all of the following things (a shorter list), that’s worth a B; etc. Sometime before a deadline fairly early in the semester, students express a preference for their level of performance, and “contract” with the instructor to fulfill certain expectations to get that grade. And if they don’t fulfill the contract, that’s when they get an F. How far into the semester students have to make their choice, whether they are able to re-write the contract (change once they sign the initial version), etc. are up to the instructor.
    My colleague who used to do this, a (now retired)Fisher biology teacher, said he’d get a good grade spread because the standards for an A were set high enough that a lot of students, knowing their own minds and capacities, would opt for a lower level because they knew that’s what they were most capable of achieving. They didn’t want to gamble on contracting for an A knowing that they’d get an F if they didn’t meet the rigorous standards.
    This sounds like basically what you’re doing, although with the only contract levels being an A or an F. Maybe just a more expansive set of levels in between, with a tapering down of expectations, will give a grade spread in the classes (to avoid the grade inflation bogey) and still accomplish what you want.

  5. Posted 8/21/2011 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    PS: Alex Reid’s comment appeared in the interim while I was writing my comment. Sorry for the redundancy.

    • alex
      Posted 8/21/2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      No problem… It’s interesting you both recommended similar solutions…

  6. Posted 8/22/2011 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry to hear that this experiment has come to an end, Alex. I’m particularly not a fan of curving. What if everyone’s work is awful; are you still going to give 20 percent A’s? I think contracts are a good option. I had an intermediate school teacher who asked us in class to announce the grade we thought we deserved and present an argument defending why that should be our grade. If he accepted our reasoning, we got that grade. If we could not defend it, he would say why we were wrong and then tell us what our grade should be. This led to the unique phenomenon of grade inflation for those who were not afraid of public humiliation. It’s not a strategy that I would suggest without some serious tweaking, but it is interesting.

    Here are my standards, plagiarized from the Lewis and Clark College history department (where I taught for a while) and the Harvard Core:

    Guide to Effective Revision:
    Important Questions to Ask While Revising and Before Handing in a Paper:
    Before handing in your paper, you should ask yourself these questions:
    1. Thesis. What point am I trying to make about the topic? Is the argument clear and
    focused? How persuasive is the thesis? Is it original, provocative, exciting?
    2. Evidence. Do I use examples and quotations effectively? Do I have enough evidence
    to prove my main points? Do I sufficiently explain the connection between the evidence
    and those points?
    3. Organization. Is the paper logically consistent throughout? Does the essay have a
    clearly defined introduction, body, and conclusion? Does each paragraph have a topic
    sentence that summarizes its main idea? Does each paragraph flow logically from the
    previous one?
    4. Conclusion. Is the conclusion consistent with the evidence? Does it build on and
    move beyond the thesis statement? Does it suggest the larger significance of the paper?
    5. Mechanics. Have I thoroughly proofread the paper for mistakes in spelling,
    capitalization, and punctuation? Do I need to check once more for errors in grammar
    and sentence structure?
    6. Style. How smoothly does the paper flow? How lively and vivid is the prose? Have I
    carefully crafted every paragraph of this essay in order to clarify my ideas?
    7. Citation of Sources. Do I give full citations for every source that I use? Does this hold
    true not only for direct quotations, but also for paraphrased passages and examples
    from the texts? Have I provided enough information so that the reader can easily locate
    each source to which I reference?
    Grading Standards
    The following descriptions should give you some sense of how I will grade your papers:

    The A paper:
    The A paper successfully addresses all of the questions in the “Guide to Effective
    Revision.” It is lively, original, and thought-provoking. The paper is a joy to read and
    reveals a mind deeply engaged in the subject at hand. One is convinced that the writer
    cares for his or her ideas, as well as for the language and forms that convey these ideas.

    The B paper:
    The B paper, too, successfully addresses all of the questions in the “Guide to Effective
    Revision.” It is always mechanically correct. The spelling is good and the punctuation is
    accurate. Above all, the paper makes sense throughout. It has a thesis that is focused and
    worth arguing. It does not contain unexpected digressions and proves the argument
    established in the introduction. The reader of a B paper knows exactly what the author
    wants to say. The paper is well organized and presents a worthwhile and interesting
    idea. This idea is supported by sound evidence presented in a neat and orderly way in
    accordance with recognized conventions for citing evidence. Some of the sentences may
    be unwieldy now and then, but they are organized around one main idea. The reader
    does not have to read a paragraph two or three times to get the thought that the writer is
    trying to convey.

    The C paper:
    The C paper has a thesis, but it is vague or too broad, or else it is uninteresting and
    obvious. It does not advance an argument that anyone might care to debate: for
    example, “Thomas Jefferson wrote some interesting letters.” The thesis in the C paper
    frequently hangs on some personal opinion. Opinion is often the engine that drives an
    argument, but opinion by itself is never sufficient. The writer must defend an opinion in
    a persuasive fashion. This requires marshalling textual proof, but the C paper rarely uses
    evidence well; sometimes it does not use evidence at all. Even if it has a clear and
    interesting thesis, a paper with insufficient supporting evidence is a C paper. The C
    paper often has mechanical faults and errors in grammar and spelling. Please note that a
    paper without such faults may still be a C paper. A paper with such faults, however, will
    never be more than a C paper.

    The unsatisfactory paper:
    The D or F paper is filled with mechanical faults, errors in grammar, and spelling
    mistakes. The paragraphs do not hold together; ideas do not develop from sentence to
    sentence. This paper usually repeats the same thoughts again and again, perhaps in
    slightly different language but often in the same words. The D or F paper either has no
    thesis or else it has one that is strikingly vague, broad, or uninteresting. There is little
    indication that the writer understands the

    • alex
      Posted 8/22/2011 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

      Ha! I like the “stand and deliver” approach, though I suspect it would run very much afoul of FERPA :).

      I don’t like the competitive aspects of curving, but I also think the idea that most grades judged by a rubric are uncurved is a bit misleading. Take the rubric above. I presume that if it were applied to the average Harvard undergrad class you might have just as many As as for the average Quinnipiac undergrad class, and perhaps as many As in a grad class and in a middle school class. Does that mean that if you shuffled the QU papers and the Harvard papers they would describe roughly the same curve? I honestly hope not. I hold out hope that while writing standards have deteriorated generally, not everyone writes as poorly as our undergrads do.

      And really, I expect the paper that elicits joy in you is not automatically the same paper that brings a smile to my face. Pity the student who has to guess at my amusements. Or, since the antecedent is always true, just pity my students. I recognize that cynosures are not always shared, and that an A (or any other grade) requires expert judgment, but it’s important to note that the rubric does apply a curve; namely: things that make the instructor happy do better.

      But more broadly, if applying the same rubric to the same paper can result in an A in Miss Daisy’s sixth grade English class and a B- in a Harvard undergrad writing course (grade inflation runs rampant) then I think there is a curve, you’re just not making it explicit!

  7. Posted 8/23/2011 at 12:16 am | Permalink

    As one of your recent students, I thought I’d weigh in.

    I think your syllabi always set an extremely high standard, regardless of the grade.

    Standards are what counts.

    Yet I and my classmates I know have been fairly obsessed about grades. For me, I have always been that way. I remember, however, my first course with you, on your book Search Engine Society, and I believe you didn’t grade us until the end. That worked fine for me and I felt very engaged and looking to the interaction with you and other students to gauge and reveal whether I was meeting prescribed standards and learning new things.

    I will note that I was amazed that many of my classmates over the past two years seemed to find typos and poor sentence construction and weakly formed ideas acceptable. I don’t know their grades or care to know but I worry about the literacy of the latest and future generations. Grad school should require some minimum standards just for entry. Or so I thought.

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