26 January 2014
Sure, My Grades are Inflated. Got a Problem with That?
The first assignment of the semester always generates cries of dismay. I use the full range of numbers available to me in my grading rubric and most students earn scores that, if they were correlated to a conventional letter grading scale, would end up being a high D or low C. "Pay no attention to what the letter grade would be!" I exhort them. "The grading rubric is a guide to help you build on your strengths and recognize your weaknesses--it's a tool, not a label of your worth as a student and human being. Let the numbers guide you as you rewrite the paper, and you'll do much better on the next version."
And then I reassure them, "the way the grading usually works in my classes is, you do everything you need to do and show up to class regularly, you'll get some kind of B. Put some muscle into and get interested and you'll get some kind of A. People usually only get C's or lower if they miss a lot of classes, hand in papers later, and pass up opportunities to revise their work." I mean it because it's true: that's how my grades usually work out. Students rewrite a lot of papers, they do a lot of talking and interacting in class, they become better thinkers and writers, and I end up giving out a lot of A's when the final grades come out.
If I could come up with a good reason why the world would be a better place if I gave out more C's and D's, I would do so. But I can't.
The gatekeeping function of higher education? If students aren't grad school material, a GPA boosted by an A in my class isn't going to get them in the door independent of their personal statement and recommendations.
Standards? A student who does all the work in my class, pays attention to my feedback on papers, and actively engages with the material in class discussions and exercises will know more and write better at the end of the semester, and I'm happy to reward improvement independent of the students' starting point. Every effort I've ever made to make more fine-grained distinctions between students has ended up rewarding the students who came to the class already well-versed in literary study and highly practiced in standard written English, and it penalized those for whom the material was more of a stretch. In upper-level classes for the major, that may be a distinction worth preserving, but in general education classes designed to make the study of the humanities available to the full range of students, it seems more desirable to encourage improvement than to rank students.
Incentives for learning? Students are more willing to take risks and try new ideas if they know there's a net. High stakes assignments scare them into relying on the techniques that got them through high school. They try to game out a right answer that they assume must be out there somewhere rather than pushing themselves to understand the material.
The common theme here is feedback--lots of it, throughout the semester, on papers, on exams, in small assignments, in class discussion, in office hours. When students feel like a real human being is paying attention, catching their mistakes, encouraging them to think more deeply, they step up and respond.
I've also been surprised about how non-strategic students can be about their grades. For several years, I made participation on a course blog a central requirement of my courses. Students had to post a certain amount in order to meet the basic requirements for the course, but there was always an ample "extra credit" provision that allowed them to count posts in excess of the requirements towards their final grades. My extra credit policy and my blog grading was so generous that students could have easily compensated for lackluster grades on difficult papers and exams by posting a lot on the much easier blog. I only recall two students who figured that out and exploited it as a workaround for their mediocre formal writing skills. For the most part, students who exceeded requirements on the blog also performed well on papers and exams, and students who didn't do well on papers and exams tended to post at or below the minimum on the blog.
The difficulty students have in strategizing makes me skeptical about the usefulness of contract grading, where students decide in advance what grade they want, and then they agree do that much work. There's a lot to be said for any approach that encourages students to reflect on their choices and take responsibility for them. As Brooke Lester points out, if a "mature, typically-responsible student can eyeball my syllabus and opt out of some assignments (maybe planning around commitments in other classes or at work or at home), and is willing to accept, eyes-open, the consequences for her grade, then I’ve got no problem with that at all." Are students that good at figuring out in advance what will best work with their other commitments? And should helping them do that be our priority? It's a necessary life skill--I'm just not sure that college classes are the best place to emphasize it.
My two problems with contract grading:
1. It reinforces the idea of education-as-vocational-training. It encourages students to think about the credential, rather than the learning that the credential represents, and it rewards a "just-this-much-and-no-more" parsimoniousness.
2. It undermines the transformative potential of the subject matter. Students start out believing that they don't know enough to excel with unfamiliar subject matter, that they're "numbers people" destined to struggle with the mushy subjects like literature, that they're bad writers, that they just aren't that good at the courses they take because they have to. Some of them may be right, but a number of them can discover that they know more than they think they do, that habits of skepticism that serve them well in the sciences can be adapted to the study of the humanities, that academic writing on non-STEM subjects can still involve rigorous standards of argumentation, that cultural artifacts are interesting objects of study, that making sense of how imaginative works do what they do is fun and rewarding. Contract grading doesn't necessarily reduce that realm of possibility to a tedious "Do X for outcome Y" kind of equation, but it seems to encourage students to think in self-limiting ways from the outset.
Note: I'm taking a break here from the adjunct-roll I've been on--but the question of grading is not unrelated to the precarity of adjunct faculty. It's a mistake for anyone without job security to grade more harshly than their colleagues. Nonmajors can vote with their feet and take other classes (including classes in other departments) to fill their requirements.