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An Experiment in Grading

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Jul 20 2021
Chong-Ming Lim

Chong-Ming Lim is an outgoing postdoc at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. In this article, Lim explains a non-traditional grading structure he tested in Spring Quarter 2021. This Fall, Lim will join Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy. His research interests center on various topics in moral and political philosophy.

 

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many universities allowed students to take their courses on a pass/fail grading basis. The aim was to accommodate the various difficulties that students (and their loved ones) were facing during the pandemic – of learning remotely, of anxiety, isolation, illness or even bereavement. In some ways, switching to pass/fail grading also reduced the pressures on faculty members.

There is a question of whether universities will return to “traditional” models of grading, given that the pandemic is somewhat (and increasingly) under control. I suggest that universities should extend the compassion and consideration that they showed their members during the pandemic. Moreover, many of the innovations in teaching and assessment during this period have strong pedagogical merits – they are not merely be “makeshift” plans, and could potentially improve the ways that we teach and grade.

I wish to share a grading structure that I tested in the recently concluded Spring Quarter 2021 with the course Philosophy of Disability (ETHICSOC 105 / PHIL 75E), and which received generally enthusiastic feedback from my students. This grading structure is inspired by, and based on, the ideas of “contract” and “specifications” grading, and anti-racist writing pedagogy. The basic idea is that students’ final grades are primarily based on the quantity of work that they complete at a satisfactory level. This stands in contrast with a “traditional” mode of assessment, according to which students’ final grades are primarily based on the quality of their work across. I will detail the grading structure, before sharing some general reflections on it.

Grading Structure

Students were given a large number of tasks to choose from. None of these tasks are, strictly speaking, compulsory. The tasks were broken down into two categories – (i) participation and (ii) writing.

Class participation constitutes 15% of students’ total grade. Traditionally, students receive participation units only, or mainly, by speaking in class. By contrast on this grading structure, students can secure participation units by:

  • Speaking in class; or
  • Submitting a critical question about the assigned reading 24 hours before class; or
  • Submitting a critical comment on something that was discussed in class, within 24 hours after class.

More details about participation:

  • There are 20 class sessions over the term. (2 sessions per week for 10 weeks) 
  • Students count as having satisfied the participation requirement for any given class, if they complete any one of these tasks

Writing assignments makes up 85% of students’ total grade. There are four types of assignments:

  • Summary: Summarize a key argument of one assigned reading, in around 300 words.
  • Analysis: Provide a critical analysis of an idea or argument present within an assigned reading, in around 500 words. Analysis assignments must include a satisfactory understanding of the argument being discussed. Examples: explaining whether an argument is successful; showing that a distinction is unstable; providing a counterargument; applying the idea to a contemporary practical issue, etc.
  • Essay: Construct and defend an extended argument of a particular position on a philosophical issue related to at least one of the assigned readings, in around 1000 words. Students set their own essay topic.
  • Extra Credit: Critically engage with some contemporary issue, using the ideas encountered in the course. This assignment does not need to be in the form of an academic paper. Examples include writing a letter to a representative to comment on an existing policy; writing a letter to an ableist friend or family member; creating a disability awareness poster; a short video on some issue related to disability; artwork; etc.

More details about assignments:

  • Summaries and analyses assignments are due 24 hours before class – that is, before we discuss the readings in class.
  • Essays and extra credit assignments may be submitted at any point during the term.
  • Students can submit a summary, analysis and essay on the same assigned reading.
  • All assignments are graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis. Assignments are satisfactory when they are around a B grade standard. Students are given an opportunity to revise each of the essays they submit, if the essays turn out to be unsatisfactory.
  • There are 20 assigned readings across the quarter. Excluding the extra credit assignment, there are 60 possible assignments that students can choose from – 20 summaries, 20 analyses, and 20 essays.

Students’ final grades are determined by their levels of participation, and the number of assignments they satisfactorily complete. The following table is an example of how students’ grades may be determined*:

(*. I used an overly complicated variant of the table above to determine students’ grades. I now think that the table above is a much better way of doing things.) (#. C and C- grades may be differentiated by the number of participation tasks completed.)

As we can see, students can set their own targets for the grades they want to achieve, based on how much work they think they can complete.

On a day-to-day level, students have a fair amount of leeway in deciding which assignments they want to complete. The following table illustrates the possible assignments that students can complete, for any assigned reading:

Given that our class meets twice a week, here is what a student’s week looks like, in terms of the possible assignments they can complete: 


Bear in mind that students do not need to do all of these assignments. All that they need is to ensure that they complete enough tasks by the end of term to secure the grade that they want.

Students can track their progress in the class with the following table:

Examples

Consider a student, Abe, who is taking a course on a credit/no credit basis. In addition to participating in class from time to time, Abe needs to complete 2 summaries, 2 analyses, and 1 essay. In practical terms, this means that Abe needs to 5 assignments over 10 weeks, or, one assignment every other week.

Consider another student, Betty, who is aiming for an A grade. She needs to secure her participation grades twice a week – either by sending a critical question before class, speaking in class, or sending a critical comment after class. She also needs to complete 10 assignments over 10 weeks, or, one assignment every week.

Reflections

Let’s compare this grading structure to a more “traditional” one – which requires students to submit 2 long essays (~2000 words) at fixed points during the term (typically, mid-term and end-of-term). This comparison will help us to see where this grading structure excels, and where it could do better.

Let’s begin with the benefits of this grading structure.

First, and in virtue of having to submit more assignments (5 to pass the course, 10 to receive an A- grade), students receive more feedback from the instructor. This means that they have more opportunities to learn – both substantively, and in terms of their writing skills. Additionally, recall that students can submit a summary, analysis, and essay for the same assigned reading. This means that students can incorporate the instructor’s feedback that they’ve received for their summary and/or analysis assignments, into their essay. This results in essays that were generally of a much higher quality.

Second, given that assignments are graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, we sever the connection between the feedback and the grades that students receive. That is, the comments that students receive are no longer presented (or regarded) as justifications for the fine-grained grades that they receive. This allows students to focus on the content on the feedback, and how they can improve their work, rather than trying to argue with the instructor for better grades.

Third, and relatedly, the fact that assignments are graded on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, helps instructors to eliminate (or at least mitigate) the distorting influences of classism, sexism and racism when it comes to grading essays. This is because assignments that have grammatical or spelling mistakes, or which do not read like “A” quality material, may nonetheless be securely judged as satisfactory.

Fourth, students have one opportunity to revise their essays, and thus do not need to worry about getting things right the first time. This greatly reduces the amount of stress and anxiety that is typically associated with writing essays.

Fifth, students have a lot more leeway in determining when to complete their assignments. They do not need to go through the whole process of seeking exemptions or extensions from the instructor. If they are facing some difficulties beyond the classroom, they can simply take a break, and submit work on another week. This also cuts down on the administrative work that an instructor has to do, in terms of evaluating and granting requests for extensions.

Sixth, we reduce the amount of work that instructors have to put in. It is much easier to grade a 300-word summary, a 500-word analysis, and a 1000-word short essay, compared to grading a 2000-word essay. In fact, I ended up spending about 30% less time grading essays this quarter, compared to other courses with more “traditional” grading structures.

There are, however, some places where this grading structure fares less well.  

First, this grading structure is much more complicated than a “traditional” grading structure. It took a fair amount of time to explain it to students, many of whom were understandably confused by this newfangled system. There were also multiple times across the quarter where I had to clarify aspects of the grading structure in response to questions. This prompted me to send, in Week 5, a brief mid-term report to students, summarizing the assignments that they had completed till then. This report also contained information about which additional assignments students needed to complete, if they wanted to secure a higher grade. A potentially more effective way of getting students to attend to (and think about) the grading structure, would be to require them to submit a mid-term report to me, which details what they have done, and indicates what grade they are aiming for.

Second, and relatedly, there is somewhat more administrative work for the instructor to do on this grading structure. It is much less easy to keep track of all the different tasks that students can complete, and the many, many different deadlines of these tasks. I experienced some anxiety about whether I was accurately keeping track of what every student was doing. On this issue, my job was made a little easier by requiring that students submit their assignment on Canvas – which allows me to set deadlines to automatically “close” the submissions. Requiring students to submit a mid-term report (see above) would have helped too.  In any case, the amount of time I spent doing this additional administrative work did not exceed the amount of time that I saved with using this grading structure.

Third, some students complete less work than what is required by “traditional” grading structures (two 2,000 word essays) to pass a course. Students who aim only to pass the course (2 summaries, 2 analyses and 1 essay) end up writing only 2,600 words. This may be problematic, if we want to ensure that students complete roughly the same amount of work to pass a given course. I don’t think this is an in-principle problem – it seems that the requirements may be tweaked such that the amount of work required to pass the course is roughly the same. In making these modifications, however, we must be mindful that students aiming for higher grades may end up doing much more work than is required by “traditional” grading structures. For instance, students who aim for at least a B grade already end up doing more work (4 summaries, 2 analyses and 2 essays for a total of 4,200 words). Further tweaks would have to be made on this issue.

Finally, there may be worries that students’ learning is compromised by this grading structure, which permits them to complete a lot of tasks at a satisfactory, but not exemplary level. This is, at root, a worry that has to supported or refuted by empirical work. Many of the texts I recommend in the Further Reading section address this worry.

There is much more to be said about this grading structure. But I hope that we have enough to begin a conversation about whether and how we can adopt it (or variants of it) in our future courses.

Further Reading

Books

  • Boak, George. 1998. A Complete Guide to Learning Contracts. VT: Gower.
  • Inoue, Asao B. 2015. Antiracist Writing Assessment Ecologies: Teaching and Assessing Writing For A Socially Just Future. SC: Parlor Press.
  • Knowles, Malcolm. 1986. Using Learning Contracts: Practical Approaches to Individualizing and Structuring Learning. CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Nilson, Linda. 2014. Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time. VA: Stylus Publishing.

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