As we start up the new semester, this is an apt time to evaluate, and update or change, our grading schemes.
I don’t like giving grades. I wouldn’t assign grades if I didn’t have to, because grades typically are not a good measure of actual learning.
Over the least year, I’ve heard more about a new approach to assigning grades, that has a lot of appeal: “standards based grading,” in which students get grades based on how well they meet a detailed set of very clearly defined expectations. This is apparently a thing in K-12 education and now some university instructors are following suit.
I haven’t taught a course using standards-based grading – yet – but I’m really intrigued. I think there is the potential to remove a lot of the gamesmanship in college courses and increase the focus on learning actual knowledge and skills. It would make things more fair, more transparent, and provide students with motivation to accomplish rather than a motivation to survive.
At my university, we are expected to include our “Expected Learning Outcomes” prominently on our syllabi. And then our syllabi tell the students how they are graded. But in nearly all courses, including my own, the connection between expected learning outcomes and earned grade is, well, indirect.
Student get good grades by performing well on assignments and exams. Of course, we design these assignments and exams because they articulate with the information that we want students to learn.
But what if we gave our students As because they met a very detailed set of criteria that we set out in advance, then wouldn’t that be a win-win, as long as we can control what those criteria are?
How about we give a piece of paper to our students that tells them exactly what they need to get an A, B, C. D or F? And it can’t be just “answer exam questions well,” it needs to be far more specific than that. We can still administer exams, of course, but the items on the exams are specifically connected to the standards that are communicated in advance, so that the students know precisely what is expected of them before they take the exam.
This would clearly change not just how we assess performance but also how we design and teach our classes. What do you think?
(As it turns out, I’m not teaching any regular classes this semester, with time reassigned to research, mentorship and other projects. So I have several months to think about how I’m going to run my class next time. But I’m not planning to waste tenure, and I don’t mind experimenting.)
Here is related reading:
Beatty, Ian D. 2013. Standards-based grading in introductory university physics. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 13: 1-22.