Grading? Who needs it?

This article was posted on the Stanford University “Tomorrow’s Professor” email list. It can be found here on the web.

What has your experience been with grading? Have you tried other ways of assessing student performance beyond the traditional grading instruments? Is there value in changing the way we grade? Should it stay the same? Should students have a say in grades if the effort of the class is collaborative? Leave some comments and we can discuss.


5 Responses to Grading? Who needs it?

  1. Bob Trader says:

    Very interesting read. I am not quite sure where I stand on this issue. On the one hand, I think it is necessary for students to acquire the ability to recognize quality, to evaluate performance (their own as well as others), and to be vested in the learning process. On the other hand, it seemed like the writer was implying that the PHD wielding instructor in the higher education classroom just sat back and did nothing. Here are the assignments. Go do them. Grade each other. You get a grade based on the amount of work you complete based on what your peers decide you have completed successfully. What did the instructor do other than set up the structure of the course (which would only really need to be done once)? I’d like to believe that instructors do more than this. If the idea was that instructor time is better spent on something more mundane than mere grading, I’d like to have read what those other uber important activities might have been.

    I’ve always considered assessment a form of feedback of mutual benefit to both sides of the assessment equation. It lets the student know what they have missed (gaps in knowledge) and need to improve upon. It lets the instructor know what students struggle with, and what should perhaps be taught again (reinforcement).

    In many of the classes I teach, students have basically zero background knowledge. While math and English are taught throughout K-12 (and yet people still haven’t mastered, for the most part, these topics by the time they graduate), there are no classes in Communication taught in K-12 (with the possible exception of public speaking which actually has little relation to Communication as a social science). Having students grade other students’ performances under these conditions seems like an unrealistic expectation. Perhaps, the strategies suggested in the article for structuring the course and grading performance would work for routine assignments that students already have some competence in performing. I do have students evaluate other student work in relation to collaborative efforts (group projects). However, I grade the products and the students grade the process.

  2. gretchenmckay says:

    I am not sure how I feel about this, either. It seems that grading is very much my responsibility. And I worry often about “fairness.” Can students really know what goes into putting a topic together?

    On the other hand, if I’m trying to make my classroom very different, is keeping an old model of how to grade hurting or helping? I really have mixed feelings on this. I am not trying to “get out” doing my job. But I also want to be sure that my assessments of the classroom performance are in sync with the kinds of things I am asking them to do.

    Thanks, Bob, for your thoughts. I hope others will weigh in.

    Is there another way?

  3. This is an issue I am passionate about, having gone to a undergraduate college without letter grades. It is also parallel to a conversation that Stephanie and I are having about Great Works, so I’ll share my views on grading here as well:
    The question of grading is often confused with the question of evaluating students. It shouldn’t be. No one thinks that we should not evaluate students – the question is whether the system of evaluation through letter grades and GPA averages helps or harms the quality of the educational experience. Grading in these terms is like any other coding system: it seeks to substitute a quantitative value for some large body of qualitative information. It seems to me that we should evaluate its efficacy in the same way as any other coding system: with regards to inter- and intra-observer reliability (i.e. does the same paper get the same score by two professors, and does the same professor score the same errors the same way over time?) and utility of the scale (i.e. is the difference between a 3.5 and a 4.0 equivalent to the difference between a 1.5 and a 2.0?).
    Quantitative values are interesting and useful for making comparisons between individuals and groups scored according to the same coding system. Wide drift in the coding system, and the comparisons are *at best* meaningless and *at worst* harmful. Quantitative values are harmful when they are seen as substitutes for, rather than summaries of, the qualitative data they seek of encapsulate. The question becomes: what is the purpose of student evaluation? If it is to provide a heuristic comparison between our students for internal and external usage, then we must evaluate its efficacy in terms of the conditions specified in the 1st paragraph. But if the purpose of evaluating students is to help them improve their education, quantitative evaluations at best are irrelevant, and at worst, distracting.
    My view is that the current system of grading fails on all of these measures: it is not reliable inter-observer (although it may be intra-observer), esp. when we make comparisons between schools. The scale is inappropriate, esp. since the 0.0-2.0 values are rarely used. The lack of reliability means that the quality of the information available is exceedingly poor, yet it is widely considered good – hence, the system is strikingly dangerous. And finally, that grades have been ‘reified’ by both our students and our culture, as we have forgotten that they are merely summaries of qualitative information and believe them to be the information itself.
    Long-form qualitative evaluations will always surpass quantitative evaluations in terms of informational content. We need to consider if reducing that information for the sake of heuristic comparison is helping the education of our students or harming it. I believe (but have no data beyond anecdotal) that it is the latter.

    • gretchenmckay says:

      Without dismantling the entire GPA process (though I recognize you provide ideas for why one might consider such), what can you do in an individual class? What is your main means of evaluating students?

  4. Robin Armstrong says:

    This is a timely read for me, too. I just changed the format of the homework from paper to blog, which a change from few longer papers to almost daily short postings. I am finding that because of the format change I am not comfortable grading on the same criteria in the same way, because some of the students are doing the work differently.

    The biggest differences are in their use of other internet media as part of their discussion. they’ve been pulling in other musical examples and pictures to help them explain what they want to say. Some cases I’m faced with WONDERFUL entries that are not really on the topics i asked for, but are rich and engaged work. I want very much to reward the level of engagement more than i want to ‘evaluate’ whether or not they answered the precise question that i asked (as long as i can follow the writing and understand the relevance). As I read the article it seemed that i was doing what the teacher was asking her students to do – check off that they did it without critically evaluating the content. For the reflective work I’m seeing on the blogs I’m actually ok with that.

    While I don’t think we should or can dismantle the entire GPA but i do wonder if, as we shift how we are teaching, as we shift the types of pedogical styles, classroom activities, technologies – all of the stuff we are being asked to think about, we should think about how we grade and if that needs to be changed as we change these others areas.

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