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”).
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