Grading – to what end?

I’ve encountered two important views on grading in the last 24 hours.  The first was a comment from a colleague, Dr. Tom Zelman, in a presentation on “Getting Students to Write Papers You Want to Read.”  He said, “They pay me for grading the papers.”  On reflection, he finds much of the rest of the job of a professor to be fun and rewarding – he might want to do it anyway.  But grading the papers? “They have to pay me.”

Remaking the Grade
Remaking the Grade

While the workshop focused on techniques for helping students write better papers – easing our jobs as well – the inherent dynamic was grading-as-teaching.  The students would not only learn to write better papers, they would learn to tell what was strong or weak about the paper.

Then I read Douglas Reeves’ challenging article Remaking the Grade, From A to D in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  He aims his arrows at the the sacred cow of grading:  averaging the grades on assignments.  He has presented the same sequence of 10 grades to faculty in a variety of disciplines, asking them to calculate the final grade according to their policies. This hypothetical student has done some excellent work, some mediocre work, and failed to hand in some assignments at all.  According to Reeves, faculty have assigned every grade from A to F to this sequence of assignment grades.

“It turns out,” he writes, “that the difference between the student who earns A’s and B’s and the one who earns D’s and F’s is not necessarily a matter of work ethic, organization, high-school preparation, or class attendance. The difference is the professor’s grading policy.”

One could argue with Reeves’ research. Faculty state their grading policies in the syllabus, and they shape the behavior of the students. A student would be unlikely to completely omit two or three assignments under some policies, but would probably choose to do so under other policies.  Nonetheless, the variety of final grades that could result from the same sequence of assignment grades causes us to question the procedure of  grading.

Reeves points to other venues in which students receive feedback that is “immediate, specific, and brutal” – video games, with winners who continue and losers who die.  The outcome of any game is information about how they can improve on the next round – which they are certain to try.  Coaches in team sports and conductors of student orchestras provide similar feedback: correction of errors in order to improve future performance.   Reeves notes that students come back to their Nintendo games of their own volition, while the emphasis on averaging for a final grade does not produce those results.

Blooms Taxonomy of Learning Skills
Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning Skills

I had already reached something of the same conclusion: I decided to give nearly daily 5-question quizzes in my Family and Society class, made up primarily of first-year students.  Like a practice scrimmage, each quiz does not count for much.  But it does provide immediate feedback.

There are truths faculty are often reluctant to speak about with students – but we should.  In our curriculum meetings, we talk about Bloom’s taxonomy of learning tasks – usually to emphasize higher-level elements such as analysis or evaluation.  But we do not choose to tell the students about this.

Today, handing back the first quiz, on which some students couldn’t recall the 3 main elements of the first chapter, I decided to talk a bit about Bloom’s taxonomy.  I told them, “You can’t apply knowledge that you don’t recall or fully comprehend.  The higher levels of thinking have to build on the lower levels.”

I could see the lights go on, at least for some students, and realized that I had finally found a good answer to that dreadful question, “Do we have to know this for the exam?”  The answer is always “Yes” even if that particular concept or fact is not a central element of the exam: it’s probably part of a bigger picture.

My view of the classroom differs from Reeves’ athletic or orchestral analogy in one important way. Like Tom Zelman, I want the student to learn to tell better work from poor work, to be able to question themselves to determine how well they know the material.  My daily quizzes are feedback, but the rest of my teaching should be designed so that they will, gradually, learn to quiz themselves.

Reeves raises other issues about the way final grades are calculated; I’m still pondering those.  But I am convinced that the grade-as-feedback is a more fruitful perspective than the grade-as-indicator approach.

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