Research Seminar: Part III Grading – Square Pegs & Round Holes

My first encounter with true discomfort about this course came with the attempt to report out mid-quarter grades on the students in my seminar class. I had been convinced that I could give my students a different experience than they had in other classes, but now I am not so sure how different it can be.

At first I worried that I could not report grades yet because students had chosen to do quarter long projects, which would not be completed until the end of the quarter. Whatever the students have done to this point may or may not be indicative of what they produce by the end of the project. I wanted students to have time to try and fail, iterate and redesign, before I assigned grades.

If only it were that simple. It occurred to me today that grading projects is not very different from traditional courses at all. Students helped create a rubric, which I thought was impressive. It included a section on sources, including quality, variety and quantity of sources. They also decided that depth and accuracy of information should be assessed. Finally, presentations should be engaging, organized and include visuals. I was very happy with them for creating this – I felt we trained them well. Then came the conversations about grading with my colleagues.

We have been having ongoing conversations about deemphasizing grades and training students to be more concerned about the learning. We have talked about shifting to standards based grading and away from averaging grades. Today I was talking with a teacher who is having the same discomfort in generating grades for her senior elective. She purposely challenges the kids with extremely difficult problems. A few kids have some success, but does that mean that others deserve lower grades, even if they achieve quite a bit. We both have concerns about encouraging kids to take risks but only rewarding them for success. Of course, what is an academic risk is highly personalized. One student may be taking a risk by trying to make a movie while another who is technologically adept may be taking a risk by speaking in front of an audience. Do I have students create individualized goals? But how do I know they aren’t playing it safe given the place that grades have in their college process? Even if they are all honest and really stretch, how do I determine a grade? Effort is impossible to measure. Success is the default measure but then how can students feel like it is okay to fail?

The hardest part of this course is trying to provide a genuinely different, authentic learning experience within a system where at the end of the semester, I am still required to reduce my students’ work to a number between 1-100.

Advice is most welcome.

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