A Note About Grading

Grading is the most unfortunate part of education. And it’s the only part about being an instructor that I really dislike.

Yes, grades are necessary in that they measure student performance. Grades can provide you with an indication of how well you might be doing compared to others in your class, or how you might improve. And grades are used as a quick guide for others to judge you – e.g., in future applications (for either education or employment) or for awards like scholarships. Grades also matter for your own sense of self-worth and accomplishment. Yes, grades matter.

But grades are unfortunate because they don’t matter for what really matters. Think about some form of self-education that you take on because you are interested in it – like a new sport or hobby. You learn how to do it, and practice it. You get value from mastering a new skill, and feel good when you determine that you have accomplished a goal. Usually (hopefully) you don’t have someone looking at your work and saying “well, that’s about 75% good”. You know when you have improved, and when you can improve more. You know when you’re at 75% of someone else, and when you’re at 90% compared to where you were 2 months ago. But you don’t give yourself a number, do you? You instead note how you’ve improved and how you would like to improve more. Sports like golf are great for this, because (if you’re like me and don’t keep score) you have a purely personal measure of your performance.

Can we use this approach in class? This is why I have a 10% self-assessment grade in my classes: to let students decide how they did during this course, subject to their own metrics. We start with a handwritten note (yes, using like a pen, on like paper) to the student’s “future self” addressing questions such as: what do you want to accomplish taking this course? what would successful completion of this course look like? what do you think you’ll know after taking this course? what personal skills do you want to improve? (See this article for the concept behind this practice). These notes are then collected and remain unread by anyone (including me) until they are returned to students in the final class. The notes are then used by the students to compare their expectations with their experience (in addition to the final session readings on self-reflection) when completing their self-assessment after the last class. They assign themselves a grade out of 10%, articulating why they think they deserve that grade, considering questions such as: did you accomplish what you set out to? have you changed as a result of taking this course? how much of that change is due to the effort you brought to the course? what grade would you give yourself compared to your colleagues? if you were grading the course, what grade would you give a student that performed as you did? The grade they assign themselves is transferred to the gradebook without question or comment by me.

Yet the University restricts the amount that can be used in this category to 10% of the total grade (whether it’s my own evaluation called something like “participation”, or the students’ own score as we do here). If it were up to me, I would conduct the class exactly as I currently do and change only one big thing: the entire grade would be based on the student’s own self-evaluation of their performance and progress. I say this in seriousness, despite my experience that the self-assessment grade overestimates my estimate of student performance by about 10%. (What I mean is that self-evaluations usually come in around 90% (9 out of 10%) on average, where my class average usually comes in around 80%. Also, there’s a curious bit of self-awareness that goes on (or is it lack of self-awareness?) where students who score well on the rest of the class tend to give themselves lower self-assessment scores, and low-performing students often score themselves as a perfect 10. Where this exercise is most disappointing is when students simply grab 10 points because they’re available and “needed”).

So we are forced in this class to use a set of criteria to give such a number to your performance. And much of the assessment that I use is subjective, rather than a set of objective “facts” that can be assessed as right or wrong. This is where we get into my discomfort with our current grading systems, and where we need to come to an agreement about how that is done and what to do when we disagree.

I strive to make the syllabus as clear as possible and to provide a rubric that is as transparent as possible without being totally prescriptive. Rubrics are great, but they can be so rigid that there is no room for you as an adult, graduate student in a professional program to shape your educational experience to your own interests. Let’s call the syllabus the rule book: if I make a mistake in applying the rules, I would expect you to bring that to my attention (e.g., if I added things up incorrectly).

However, within that rule book is the matter of judgement and interpretation. For example, 2.5% of your total grade is for “audience engagement” during your article presentation. Since we don’t (yet) have objective ways of measuring student engagement, we have to rely on my subjective interpretation of this. There are some standards that I apply (e.g., did you read your presentation, or did you actually speak TO the group? did you give the group some reason to be interested in the topic, or was it more “we had to read this for some reason, so here goes”), but really – this category is the essence of subjectivity.

[While I’m on the subject of subjective evaluation, I need to say something about the most common complaint I get when a student gets a lower grade than they expected: “but I worked really hard on this!”. First, can we agree that grades are about evaluating performance, not effort? Second, it’s possible to spend a lot of time on something without either working efficiently (Facebook distraction, anyone?), or effectively conveying the information learned in the course. And (perhaps unkindly), some of the work I’ve given low grades to could be excused if the student hadn’t put any effort into it; to have the student claim they exerted great effort to produce a mediocre product should perhaps have been cause for embarrassment, not dismay.]

This mix of rule book and judgement leads me to my proposed solution, that by analogy relates to my avocation as a baseball umpire. Baseball, as with other sports that rely on officials to make subjective interpretations of the actions and performance of athletes, has a very simple “rule” when it comes to officiating: you can talk to the umpire about a rule interpretation (and any good umpire should admit they were wrong if they got a rule interpretation wrong – though most rarely will); but you can’t argue about judgement (though this is the essence of most arguments that baseball managers have with umpires). Sure, every game is full of players and coaches chirping about judgement calls (usually, about whether a pitch was a ball or strike). But you can’t change a judgement call by arguing (though Major League Baseball has changed this by introducing a video review process that allows managers to challenge some judgement calls, but specifically not pitches called a ball or strike). By the way, my experience from being a baseball umpire has also revealed the following truth: winning teams rarely argue judgement calls, though the other team finds a way to complain about everything.

So can we agree to this: that the syllabus provides the rule book, and my task is to apply that rule book using my judgement? Our understanding includes your agreement that an incorrect application of the rules can be raised by you. But disagreements about my judgement will have to remain with you. I really do strive to be as fair as possible when grading assignments. I use little tricks like, whenever possible, to take an anonymization approach to grading (e.g., by grading papers without knowing whose paper I’m looking at), though this isn’t easy in the type of work my students do and the relative small class sizes. But the only way this arrangement (me as instructor, you as student, both of us trapped in a fundamentally flawed, sub-optimal education system) is going to work is if we understand that we’re all working to make a bad system tolerable.


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