You grade you, I grade me….

Grading is one of the last things I should have on my mind right now since I am not teaching this term.  And not teaching right now has made this last week– which is the one between winter and spring terms, a time when I normally would be busy trying to get too much stuff done around the house (getting the garden in, for example, or, like last year, completely moving my home office space) while simultaneously getting ready for the too quickly arriving spring term– quiet.  Too quiet, in some ways. I don’t think I received as many email messages all week as I was getting toward the end of winter term every day.

Anyway, today in Inside Higher Ed, I read “No Grading, More Learning,” which is about a “non-grading” scheme Duke University professor Cathy Davidson had as she returned to the classroom after being out of it for a number of years in administration.  To quote from the article:

Her plan? Turn over grading to the students in the course, and get out of the grading business herself.

Yeah, I don’t really understand what that means either….

Just to be clear:  I’m not saying that Davidson was doing anything bad.  I’ve done all kinds of different things to experiment with grading in my classes.  For example, I have students at all levels do a self-assessment for their participation grade, mainly because I want students to be “self-aware” that what they do (or don’t do) and how that leads to a particular grade.  People have done various kinds of contract grading in writing classes for years, and I think Peter Elbow and one of his colleagues had an article in College Composition and Communication a while ago about the “B” contract grade, something that I’m toying with laying out to students the next time I teach 328 in the summer term.

That said, this article and some of the responses to it does raise a few issues for me.

  • Whenever I hear a teacher/professor say something like “students just did ‘x’ all on their own, just because they could, I had nothing to do with it,” my bullshit detector goes off.  I was at an academic conference recently where a presenter spoke about how his/her students “just did stuff” magically spontaneously in the course this person was teaching. I almost said “yeah, right…” out loud. Like I said, I don’t quite think this is what Davidson is saying here, but when she does make the claim that she didn’t grade at all, that it was all based on “crowdsourcing,” that the students had control, etc., etc, when she says stuff like that, well, the bullshit detector doesn’t go off, but it does rattle quite a bit.
  • Note that she is teaching at Duke University, which is the kind of place where, if nothing else, students have an acute understanding of what it takes to get certain kinds of grades and to succeed academically. And this is not a class of first year students either, meaning that they were probably already far enough along to understand the “game” method that Davidson was “playing” employing. And note also that this was a class of less than 20 students, a size that makes this sort of alternative “non” grading a manageable task.  Try this in a lecture hall of 250 first year students at a place like EMU and see how it turns out.
  • I think it’s interesting that this approach to grading turned out “perfect.” Davidson even gave herself an “A+.” I suppose I have already covered reasons why it might have turned out as great as it did– fantastic students at a fantastic institution in a small class, and perhaps they were prodded along a little more than Davidson suggests to make the “magic” happen.  And let’s give Davidson credit– I’m sure she’s a good teacher. Still, there weren’t any students who weren’t a little freaked out or bothered by the whole thing? I don’t know….

    Whenever I ask students to self-assess themselves for participation, I always get at least one or two who avoid the process, usually because they say they “don’t feel comfortable” giving themselves grades.  Then there are students who, as part of the self-assessment process, ask how many “points” some sort of activity is worth; when I tell them I don’t keep points like that, they look at me sort of confused, as if I had said “I don’t believe in gravity.”

    And then there are of course the grade-grubbers (“I have to get the highest grade you have ever awarded to anyone or I simply will not be able to live with myself and you will have my death on your mind forever and ever”), the slackers (“Dude, can I still pass this class if I don’t turn in the last three assignments?  No?  How about if I handed in one of them?”), etc., etc., etc.  We’ve all been there.

    Davidson tries this once and it works out perfect?  Really.  Really?

  • Finally, it is at times like these, times when I really don’t need to be thinking about grades at all, where I contemplate once again designing the course so that it is worth 1,000,000 points.  Basically, this just adds some zeros to the percentages (I suppose I could make the whole course worth just one point, too), but when I did this years and years ago, it did spark some interesting conversations with my students, conversations like “I think you’re going to need to pick up 50,000 points on these last two assignments to get a B-.”
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