This blog post is worth 7 points

I had a conversation with a student the other day that continues to bother me.  I think for what are obvious reasons, I am not going to go into specific detail, but in summary, this person was unhappy with the earned grade on a project.  Very unhappy. So I of course scheduled a meeting with this person, assuming/hoping we were going to mostly discuss strategies for a revision.  Instead, this student essentially yelled at me.  I was told the assignment was not clear and that the student (in this person’s opinion, of course) had indeed fulfilled the assignment, regardless of my judgment and grade.

Furthermore, I as admonished for not being able to describe how many points certain portions of the assignment were worth and for not having (what this student had in mind as) a clear grading rubric.  How, this student wondered aloud and angrily, how could I possibly hope to teach anything absent a rubric that clearly describes what parts of the assignment are worth what points?

A few thoughts:

  • This student was not without a point– that is, this person did suggest valid ways in which the assignment description was lacking.  My main problem is that this assignment is relatively new and some of the problems I am experiencing this term– this is not the only student who missed part of the point of the project– were things I had not anticipated and which were not a problem previously.  I know, kind of vague.  Let’s just say I will have to add some language to the project that I thought was somewhat obvious, but you know what they say when you assume. Of course, there was a vigorous discussion on the class site (it’s an online class) about what exactly the assignment was about and I gave numerous examples of possibilities, and there was nothing to stop this student from asking for clarification or from running an idea past me.  Students– particularly college students, particularly college students who are juniors and seniors– have a certain obligation and responsibility to ask questions about assignments they are unclear about.  But that is perhaps beside the point.
  • Another point this student had that I think is valid and that I see all the time is a discrepancy between peer review comments and my comments– in other words, in the peer review process, students say the draft is great, but my comments and grade disagree with that.  This is because too often student comments are not detailed and not constructively critical (e.g. “Great job!  I learned a lot from your essay!  This is perfect in every way!”), and this is generally because students often don’t spend enough time in peer review, and/or also because students are way WAY too nice to each other, even in comparably anonymous online environments.  I think I need to do more to get students to question these overly rosy comments (Derek had some good points about this, btw), but I am completely convinced that the main reason students are not as constructively critical as they could be is because they don’t want to offend anyone or make anyone sad.  I think that if the peer review process was anonymous, then students would give more critical advice.  But that’s an experiment/change for next term.
  • Several years ago, a student who came into my office itchin’ for an argument from me would have gotten it.  Just a few years ago, a student coming into my office to bully me into changing a grade (and I am not accusing this student of that–not exactly– and I am quite sure this student has a very different interpretation of things) probably would have been successful simply because I would have decided it was not worth it.  Nowadays, when students come into my office and yell at me (not that this happens that often), I realize that the problem here is probably not mine.
  • What I object to most is the appeal to grading rubrics and points, a strategy I have quite frankly seen from a number of students who are studying to be K-12 teachers who have had just enough exposure to an undergraduate methods course to be vaguely familiar with the terms “rubric” and “assessment.”  As I told this student the other day, the use of rubrics is complex and debatable, the assignment and peer review process constitute a “rubric” of sorts,  and I would be happy to debate the use of rubrics in writing courses– particularly formal rubrics, and particularly in advanced writing courses– with any one of my colleagues in Education and/or assessment.  The same goes for points.  Assigning points (or percentages, of course) to projects or parts of projects in a class focused on something as leaky, fluid and non-discrete as the writing class is a convenient fiction at best.  Or at least they are convenient fictions when the points/rubrics are not forced upon educators from some sort of outside assessment force.  The kinds of institutional/external assessments that happen in higher education (accreditation, for example) and the sort of fetishized testing and rubrics and assessments forced upon folks in elementary and secondary education are  entirely different kind of convenient fictions.
  • On the other hand, it never ceases to amaze me how magically powerful assigned points and rubrics and the like are.  If I had only accompanied my grade and comments on the final project with a chart listing discreet elements worth a certain number of points, no matter how “made up” and dubious that chart might be, I am quite sure I would not have had the unpleasant conversation I had today.  After all, how could rubrics and points possibly lie?
  • I do have a simple point system that helps me keep track of grades and that helps students to see where they’re at in a course.  The class as a whole is worth 1000 points, participation is worth 200 points, each major project is worth 150 points, etc.  The number doesn’t matter, of course because fundamentally, it’s just a percentage system, and in my view, what really matters is the dialog I usually have with students about their grades, about revising, about improvement, etc..  I have literally taught courses in the past worth 1,000,000 points, and if I were better with numbers, I’d teach a course worth one point.  The points don’t matter because the process (and the percentages, for that matter) doesn’t change.
  • And yet, the power of the point in even my simplistic system is indisputable.  I have conversations with students who are seven points away from a “B” for the term, and when I say to a student in a conference “see, the problem is you are seven points short, so there’s really nothing I can do here, you’re going to get a ‘C+,'” that student inevitably nods and says “yeah, I see you’re point.”  Never once have I had a student stop to think a moment and speak the truth to me:  “Yeah, but you can pretty much give me whatever grade you think you can justify, right?”
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