Take My Gradebook. Please.

It’s time to turn in grades. Thus begins the all too familiar struggle– at least, all too familiar for me. I’m always amazed at the certainty some teachers have about grading. They’re the teacher, they grade. Period. Me, I agonize.

Do I grade each student according to his/her progress from the start of the semester the end, or do I compare student to student, lining them up along a continuum from strongest to weakest?

What if a student has made huge progress in skills like writing or analytic thinking but is still not as skilled as someone who came into class already highly competent?

What if a student is highly skilled but unwilling to really engage with the material, make it their own?

It seems as though the student who is already articulate, skilled as a writer and thinker, maybe naturally brighter than other students will always have an advantage. Is that fair?

Here’s how I presented my views on grading in last semester’s syllabus.

I am not a fan of traditional systems of evaluation or assessment, more commonly known as grades.

Grades come with assumptions that can undermine the creation of a community of learners. These include the beliefs that

  • teachers decide the value of student work,
  • grades are objective assessments of student performance,
  • grades are indicators of student potential.

There are practices around grading that foster negativity, such as when grades are used as a way to control behavior, show who’s boss, punish a student or class.

There are negative effects of grading: a student can work for a grade and  never engage emotionally or cognitively with the subject, never learn to work persistently at understanding and/or creating knowledge for him/herself, never learn how to be genuinely curious or how to seek to know.

Ultimately, there are subtle beliefs that can evolve and become deeply rooted. I get C’s so I must not be as good as a person who gets B’s.

In short, I think grades can be impediments to student ownership of the process and products of their own learning. That’s on a good day. All too often, though, grades & grading seem to have the same effect as the Dementors of Azkiban.

My editorial continues with a description of what I think makes for responsible class membership, and includes a specific list of characteristics or qualities about each category of assignment.

This semester’s self-evaluations have started to trickle in via Google forms. (I embed a form onto our class wiki and it aggregates results onto a Google spreadsheet. ) Already my tensions around grading emerge.

At our institution, a B+ is the expected quality of work. (I had to hunt through the College official material to find that information.) What do I do if one student rates work as “Expected” and another student awards him/herself A in every category? No big deal, right? But what if these students are naturally very different in terms of skills, intellectual curiosity and risk-taking, and in other ways that manifest in class activities? What if the age of one student makes his/her work richer than another’s, simply by virtue of having more personal or professional experience?

On the computer screen where only the grades show up, an A is “better” than a B+.  Is that how it appeared in the classroom?

And here’s the other sticky wicket: Did my feedback to students throughout the semester specifically address the outcomes I articulated at the start of the semester?

I think grade inflation may be one way teachers deal with these dilemmas. If everyone gets an A, then the teacher doesn’t have to put him or herself on the line. So, if I am a teacher who wants grades to represent the quality of a student’s work throughout a semester, what happens if my excellent students get a B+ while everyone else’s possibly less excellent students all get As?

Aren’t I, ultimately, accountable to the larger system? After all, I’m employed by this institution; I must have some responsibility to reflect its practices and policies. Right?

But that doesn’t resolve my quandaries:

  1. How do I build a grading system that accounts for two dimensions of assessment: student at the start of the term vs. student at the end; work of one student compared to work of another?
  2. What am I entering on the computer forms that are due today?

3 responses to “Take My Gradebook. Please.”

  1. Kim McCollum-Clark says:

    I feel you, Karen. It’s the worst part of the job, without fail. After 15 years I still feel completely wretched about it.


    • Karen says:

      @Kim McCollum-Clark,

      It’s like we are all out there in our little silos, agonizing alone. Kind of like solitary confinement in the privacy of our own heads. I just got student self-evals back & two things were instructive for me in the same ways they usually are. One, the students are tough on themselves, sometimes unreasonably so. Two, I have to watch that my own biases don’t influence my grading. No news flashes here. We need a grading group or something– design syllabi & grading stuff, give each other feedback, etc.

  2. Oh my….I struggle with this constantly, as I wrote about here http://www.scmorgan.net/2009/12/05/sorting-and-ranking/ and here http://www.scmorgan.net/2009/09/28/just-thinking/.
    Your questions are good ones, and I don’t have any easy answers. But I’m working on it.

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