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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Trying something different with grading

As I gear up for teaching the writing class again this spring, I've been thinking a lot about how to make the grading more tolerable. In a Profhacker post last September, Brian Croxall summed up my own feeling about grading pretty well:
"The thing that I dislike most about teaching is grading... The reason I typically don’t like grading is because my grading sessions often leave me feeling conflicted about the final scores I give students. “Is this essay an 87 (AKA a B)? Or is it an 88? How does it compare to that 84 I just read?” For personal reasons, my internal fairness meter gets really worked up by this process, and I have found that grading papers produces a bathetic (and pathetic) amount of handwringing on my part that is not productive in any which way."
Croxall goes on to say that he planned to try using only straight letter grades on papers (i.e., A, B, etc. with no pluses or minuses):
"...while it might be hard to know the difference between an 87 and an 88, or sometimes even between the dreaded B+/A- split, I absolutely do know the difference between an A and a B paper. I expect to see a sharp drop in the amount of stress that I feel as I grade the four essays I’m assigning this semester."
According to his recent follow-up post, this approach did, indeed, make grading easier. In addition, instead of students fixating on the grades, there was more focus on how to actually improve their writing. In the comments on that post, Croxall mentions that he does use detailed rubrics so students have a good idea of where each letter grade comes from.

My two big problems with grading in the writing class are 1) deciding what numeric score to give on papers (the same issue Croxall was dealing with) and 2) how to grade 'participation' when there are numerous assignments that don't have a 'right' answer but that I want students to complete on time and take seriously (like peer reviews and reflections on their own writing). I have toyed with the idea of contract grading before but couldn't quite bring myself to go that far. Reading the comments on both of Croxall's posts, as well as another Profhacker post on Grading: Letters or Numbers, got me thinking and I finally decided to try the following set-up this spring: Papers will be graded on a straight letter-grade basis but everything else will be graded out of either one or two points. Homework and in-class assignments that I simply want students to make a good-faith effort to DO will be graded on a scale of one point (done) or zero (not done) for each item on the assignment (so a handout with six questions will be worth six points - this is so I don't have to deal with things like half-points if a student only does half the questions and the only way a student gets a complete zero is to not do the assignment at all). Pre-writing, peer review and evaluation assignments (where students must answer some questions reflecting on their papers as well as evaluating the peer reviews they received) will be graded out of two possible points (again for each item) where a two is 'fulfills assignment with exceptional skill or effort', a one is 'meets basic requirements' and zero is 'not completed'. Then at the end of the semester, the criteria for final grades will be based on 1) grades on papers (on a traditional GPA-like 4-point scale), 2) total points, and 3) number of completed assignments according to the cut-offs in the table:

I haven't completely solidified all of the questions for all of the assignments for the whole semester yet so to leave myself some room for tweaking, I didn't try to figure out the exact number of points that correspond to each grade. But if a student does the bare minimum, i.e., doing everything but only getting 1s on every possible item on every assignment, and they are only writing at a C level, then they get a C. To get a B, students must be writing at a B level, AND have completed at least a third of the assignments at a level above 'meets basic requirements', etc. Pluses and minuses will depend on where students fall in each of the categories (I'm still trying to figure out exactly what those rules will look like).

I expect this will reduce at least some of my stress about actually grading - as Croxall put it, I can generally tell the difference between an A paper and a B paper (or a thoughtful review versus one that is just 'fine'). But I have no idea how this is going to go over with students. In some ways, I think it will be fine, since students seem to like when they can count up points and map that directly to a particular grade. But this mapping isn't your standard "90% is an A, 80% for a B, etc." so I anticipate some confusion about that.

Has anyone out there done anything similar? Would love to hear about your experience in the comments!