Grading is a necessary evil.
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.
Let me tell two anecdotes to put the Dead Grandmother Syndrome in perspective.
I remember when I was a student in Evolutionary Biology in my junior year of college. Right before the midterm, I got really sick with the flu. I felt like hell and doing normal things seemed like a physical impossibility. If I took the miderm, I would have gotten a horrible score, only because I was so darn sick.
In the United States, PhD students defend their thesis with a public presentation. After this presentation (or sometimes, on another day), the student has a private session with the dissertation committee to evaluate whether the student earned a doctorate.
This practice is legal.
In some other countries — and in some departments in the United States as well — the doctoral students are evaluated by their committees publicly after their thesis defense talk. I’m not naming departments in this post, though several have been brought to my attention in recent days.
In the US, this practice is illegal.
Public oral examinations violate FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. Just as it is illegal to post the grades of students with personally identifying information (without prior consent), it’s illegal to administer an oral exam with spectators. I’m not a lawyer, but my reading of the plain-language summary of the bill is mighty unambiguous.
For a thesis defense to be legal, everybody needs to be directed to leave once the public presentation is finished. Alternatively, the student and the committee retreat to a private area for the evaluation.
As long as the defense is genuine, in which student performance is being evaluated, and there a nonzero (though infinitesimal) probability of failure, then it cannot be public unless the student has specifically waived privacy.
I understand that the public grilling of doctoral candidates may be a time-honored tradition. If a student isn’t prepared to have their thesis publicly grilled, then the student shouldn’t be allowed to advance to this stage of the process. However, the public evaluation of the candidate’s performance for work towards the degree is simply straight-up illegal. There are a variety of legitimate reasons that a student may have for wanting to keep the evaluation process private.
When rights protected by FERPA have been violated, students may not sue the institution for damages. However, the overt violation of FERPA can threaten federal funding. Departments that publicly evaluate the performance of doctoral candidates in public are, at least in theory, putting the university at risk.
My have my own misgivings about public defenses as a faculty member, though it’s not about privacy. It has to do with the rigor of the process. While having a public defense might be seen as transparent and a sign of rigor, on the other hand it also can inhibit the members of the committee from providing an adequate evaluation. While there is a stereotype that professors can be vicious with arrogant questions and out to take students down a notch to inflate their own egos, these individuals aren’t that common. More often, committee members may be concerned about the appearance of collegiality and don’t want to be seen as unfairly attacking an unprepared student. If a student hasn’t truly done the work meeting the standard for the doctorate, the levy of that assessment would be unnecessarily cruel in public. Inadequate theses shouldn’t ever come to the defense stage. But by a product of flawed personalities and bad politics, this happens at times. A private defense might be the best way to deal with these occasions. Of course, a private defense also can cause an overstuffed committee member to unfairly sabotage a candidate. That is a flaw in the prevailing model in the US.
I don’t know which one is better. But I do know which one is legal.
Grades are a necessary evil. I record grades because it’s a required part of my job, even though the existence of grades makes my job harder.
Grades are primarily a measure of how good students are at getting good grades, not a measure of how much they learned.
My job is to foster curiosity and independent learning. I want students to grow by fulfilling a personally motivated need to understand. Grades inhibit that process. Grades make students focus on doing what it takes to get a good grade. That’s not a good thing.
People learn far more deeply when the information is discovered through a self-directed process of inquiry. When students are studying for an exam, what they are doing is the exact opposite of self-directed inquiry. They’re working to anticipate what others might expect of them and they’re working to fulfill the external expectations. When I have to give an exam to students, the last thing I would ever want is for them to study by trying to anticipate what is going to be on the exam. Because then they’ll be studying to just cover their bases.
In other words, when we make students jump through hoops, we get in the way of genuine learning. Students working towards a grade are not looking past the final exam. If none of my students are interested in the material after the exam is over, then I have earned an F for the semester.
Students can be prepared to answer a ton of questions, on a variety of topics. They then can do what it takes to get a good grade. And then, it’s possible to not really know a damn thing about the topic months later, after the exam, when the grade is in their transcript. That’s because their relationship with the curriculum was about learning stuff to get a grade. It might have been interesting or fascinating at the time, but if the motivator is the grade, then the motivation isn’t the pressing need to understand anything.
So, when we assign grades to students, what are we really measuring? Are we measuring effort? Are we measuring the ability to memorize stuff? Are we measuring the ability to explain things eloquently? Are we measuring the ability to anticipate what will be on an exam?
I don’t like any of the preceding options. What I’d like my grades to measure is how well the students have mastered the central concepts in the course. The problem, however, is that all of the ways of measuring that – the mastery of the central concepts – get biased by the ability of students to do all of that other stuff in the preceding paragraph. When students are assigned grades, the outcome is determined more by their academic gamesmanship than how much they actually learned.
Academic gamesmanship, caused by grades, gets in the way of genuine curiosity. Far too often, students get good grades only because they know how to earn good grades in the system; just as often, students who learn earn poor grades because of poor gamesmanship. The last thing I want is for the grades in my course to reflect a student’s savvy rather than learning.
I don’t know how universal this is, but my university requires that all syllabi have clearly stated “Expected Learning Outcomes.” Grades need to reflect how well students fulfill the expected outcomes. If designed right, these outcomes can allow students the intellectual breathing room to develop their own critical thinking process about a course.
In my opinion, the best way to liberate students from academic gamesmanship is to remove every bit of mystery from the grading process. Nothing on an exam should ever come as a surprise, nor should students be in a position in which they feel like they need to interpret what you think is important about the subject. Nor should students have to worry about cramming for a laundry list of concepts.
Our grades can’t really measure genuine learning. But the less our grades reflect gamesmanship, the greater the chance our students will be genuinely engaged in the content.
I’ve often emphasized the importance of transparency and fairness in teaching. The evaluation of written assignments is an inherently subjective activity, at least from the perspective of students. The grading of written assignments is most prone to the appearance of unfairness. When students think they’re being treated unfairly, they are not inclined to focus on learning.
Moreover, in the grading of written assignments we are most likely to be inadequately transparent and unfair. By using rubrics to grade writing, we can mitigate, or perhaps even eliminate, this problem.
Some folks don’t like using rubrics because they think that written assignments should be evaluated holistically or by gestalt. As experts in our field, we can tell apart a B paper from a C paper based on reading without the use of a rubric, and we can explain to students in our evaluation how this distinction is made without resorting to over-simplified categories. We can reward deep insight without being captive to a point-making system.
Even if the concepts in the preceding paragraph were factually correct, the choice to formulate is such an argument indicates a lack of focus on student learning. Rubrics should be used to grade written assignments not only because they lend themselves to the appearance of fairness in the eyes of students, they actually result in more fairness.
Grading written assignments without a rubric is unfair. Why is that? It’s very simple: when an assignment is graded without a rubric, students do not know the basis upon which their writing is to be evaluated. Fairness requires that students know in advance the basis upon which their grade is being assigned.
There are many different components to good writing, and presumably someone who grades holistically takes all of these into account in an integrated fashion and then assigns a grade. However, if the purpose of the assignment is to learn about writing, then the student needs to which components are important constituents of good writing. And then the student needs to receive credit for including these components, and not receive credit if not including these components.
If a professor wishes to reward students for making “deep insights,” then these deep insights can be placed as a category on the rubric. And, when handing out the rubric when assigning work to students, the professor can then explain in writing on the rubric what constitutes deep insights that are worthy of receiving points in the rubric.
Rubrics don’t rob professors of flexibility in grading written assignments; they only prevent professors from ambushing students with criticisms that the students would not have been able to anticipate. They also prevent professors from unfairly rewarding students who are able to perform feats that satisfy the professor’s personal tastes even though these feats are not a required part of the assignment.
Is bad grammar something that deserves points off? Put it on the rubric.
Should it be impossible to get an A without a clearly articulated thesis and well supported arguments? Build that into the rubric.
Does citation format matter to you? Put it on the rubric? Don’t care about citation format? Then don’t put it on the rubric.
When you’re grading, you should know what you are looking for. So, just put all of those things on the rubric, and assign the appropriate amount of points to them as necessary. Of course any evaluation of “clear thesis” and “well supported argument” is to some degree subjective. However, when students know that the clarity of their theses and the quality of their arguments are a big part of their grade, then they will be aware that they need to emphasize that up front, and focus on writing well. This point might be obvious to faculty, but it’s not necessarily obvious to all of the students. To be fair, every student needs to know these kinds of things up front and in an unbiased fashion.
There are several other reasons to use rubrics:
Rubrics help reduce the unconscious effects of cultural biases. Students who write like we do are more likely to come from similar cultural backgrounds as ourselves, and students who write well, but differently than we do, are likely to come from a different cultural background. If grading is holistic, then it is likely that professors will favor writing that reflects their own practices. Without the use of a rubric, professors are more likely to assign higher grades to students from cultural backgrounds similar to their own.
Rubrics save your time before grading. Students often are demanding about their professors’ time when they are anxious about whether they are doing the right thing. The more specific information students receive about what is expected of them, the more comfortable they are with fairness and transparency in grading, the less often instructors are bothered with annoying queries about the course, and the more often they’ll contact instructors about substantial matters pertaining to the course material.
Rubrics save your time while grading. If you grade holistically without using a rubric, and it takes you appreciably less time than it takes with a rubric, I humbly suggest that you’re not performing an adequate evaluation. The worse case scenario, with respect to time management while grading, is that a complete evaluation happens without a rubric, and then it takes only a few moments for the professor to then assign numbers on a rubric after being done with a holistic evaluation.
Rubrics save your time after grading. If students are unpleased with a grade on a written assignment, and all they have to go on is a holistic assessment and written comments – regardless of verbosity – they are far more likely to bother you to ask for clarification or more points. If they see exactly where on the rubric they lost points, they are far more likely to use their own time to figure out what they need to do to improve their performance rather than hassle you about it.
Most importantly, rubrics result in better writing practices from your students. It is a rare student who relishes receiving a draft of an assignment with massive annotations and verbose remarks about what can be done better. Those remarks are, of course, very useful, and students should get detailed remarks from us. When fixing the assignment, students will be focused on getting a higher grade than they received on their draft. The way to do promote success by students is to provide them specific categories on which they lost points. This kind of diagnosis, along with any written comments that professors wish to share, is more likely to result in a more constructive response and is less likely to terrify students who are unclear how to meet the expectations of a professor who gave a bad grade without providing a specific breakdown about how that bad grade was assigned. If a student wonders, “what can I do to produce excellent writing?” all they’ll need to do is look at where they lost points on the rubric. That’s a powerful diagnostic tool. If you think the use of a rubric in your course cannot be a great diagnostic tool, then you haven’t yet designed an adequate rubric.
Of course, it’s okay to disagree with me about writing rubrics. If you do, I’d be really curious about what your students think. The last time I graded a written assignment (a take-home exam), I asked my students if they wanted to receive a copy of a grading rubric before I handed out the exam. They all wanted it, and they all used it. By choosing carefully what I put on the rubric, I was sure that their efforts were allocated in the best way possible.
What is a grading scheme for our classes that promotes the best learning with minimal agony for all?
Everybody who has been teaching for a while has come upon a set of practices that works. I still don’t have a pat format, and I continue to tweak grading schemes as I gain experience, and as the content and level of the courses I teach vary. Though I don’t always do the same thing, I design my grading scheme to avoid particularly annoying or time-consuming parts of teaching, and I also make sure to include elements that are designed to improve learning. Here are key concepts that I take into account when building my grading scheme for a course:
- Students that are overly stressed about the grades on their assignments are less likely to genuinely engage with the course material and will not learn deeply.
- Students who are concerned that grading might be unfair will not be as interested in engaging with the course material.
- Some of the students in the class might have valid reasons for needing to miss a class session. If students have worries about missing class or an assignment, regardless of the cause of these concerns, it takes a boatload of time of the instructor to deal with these concerns.
- No instructor can be in a position to accurately and fairly judge the legitimacy of any excuse that a student might choose to provide.
- Students learn most effectively when assessments (tests, quizzes, returned assignments) are frequent.
- Students need to be able to calculate their grade in a class, and how many points remain in the semester, at any point during the semester. This requires a transparent grading scheme.
What does my grading scheme look like to deal with these principles? Here are some elements that I almost always include in my courses:
- I do not take attendance, so that students don’t get overly worried if they have to miss a class.
- I structure the course so that a person who chronically misses class will take a massive hit to their grade, by not having completed a number of in-class activities tied to a grade. A person who aces all of the exams, and assignment, but doesn’t do in-class assignments and quizzes, will earn a C. So, these in-class activities should constitute 20-30% of the grade.
- I include some kind of frequent assessment (quizzes, homework, in-class assignments), to let students know how they’re doing. These may be graded or ungraded. Ideally every class has a very short exercise for students to size up if they’re up on the latest material.
- I accept late assignments, but the moment they are late they lose 50% of their value, and it then declines by an additional 10% each week. This encourages completion on time, but still provides value to students doing the assignment later; if I did not accept late assignments then these high stakes would lead to extreme stress for some students and this would get in the way of learning. If I accepted late assignments with a minimal penalty, then too many students wouldn’t be doing their work on time and would get behind in the class.
- I drop one or two of the quizzes/assignments; this can include ones not completed because a student is absent. This way, I don’t ever have to be in a position to judge whether one absence is more legitimate than another absence.
- I make sure that non-exam assignments make up at least 40% of the total grade, to make sure that the exams are not high stakes.
- I don’t make the final exam worth more than 35% of the total grade.
- I place the first midterm exam relatively early; even with quizzes, the first exam tends to be a jolt into reality to let the students that they need to buckle down. The sooner this happens, the better.
- I don’t post grades on the course management system; this keeps some students from getting any information about their grades outside the classroom, which lets them only access course content, rather than performance, when they’re not in class.
- I require students to formally identify one or two partners in the course, which they may contact for a variety of questions. Students should not be asking me what they missed in a class; it’s their responsibility to find that out.
- I use straight scale, such that > 90% = A; >80% = B, and so on. I only occasionally use pluses and minuses, at my discretion, and only to boost a student’s grade. I tell my students that I’d be over the moon everybody got an A, but also that that has yet to happen. This overtly encourages cooperation and group work in the course.
- Grades are assigned using final scores blind with respect to the identity of the student. I sort grades from highest to lowest and evaluate the distribution. Typically, the distribution is multimodal and the grades fall out easily, and the ones on the boundaries get pluses or minuses to boost them up. I make sure that the grade a student receives is at least the minimum that they would earn under the straight scale; typically results are no different than the straight scale.
- I never assign a single grade to a group assignment; I can’t see how this could not be unfair.
Once I abandoned the midterm altogether. In that class, very two weeks, we would have a short exam that took the first half of a class period. There were six or seven of these throughout the semester, and I’d drop the lowest one. The stress of midterms is gone, and students don’t stress about cramming material from long ago. There are two reasons I haven’t done this again. The first is that the one time I did it, some members of my department freaked out because it broke the mold in the department, and students in my section were happier than in other sections. (That was at a different university; now I am sure that everyone would be totally fine with it.) The second is that I haven’t had the time management skills to pull this off in future semesters. I tend to grade in big batches, and having a batch of exams every two weeks is a bit too much. I recognize that it’s better pedagogically, but I’m not sure the improvement is balanced out by the time I have to put into it.
Last semester, I offered my graduate biostatistics students the option of of a cumulative oral exam instead of a written take-home exam. Nobody took me up on that offer.
I don’t do extra credit. There’s a whole separate post about that for some point in the future. I also don’t hold out-of-class review sessions or host in-office-hour reviews with gaggles of students. And that’s also a whole ‘nother post. Students in my classes never be surprised about any exam question. That’s a third post.
What is always in your grading scheme? Do you do something overly different than me, and how do you think it affects the way that students study and learn in the long term?